Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Gavones; Please!

My father was a very uncomplicated man. He was a janitor. He went no further than the fourth grade, but he could read, write, (meaning he didn’t print everything, the way today’s high school graduates do). He could do long division, multiplication, addition and subtraction, and yes, he did this without benefit of a calculator. (We couldn’t have afforded a calculator anyway.)

My dad liked to come home from work every day, have a beer and read the evening paper (Remember those—evening papers?) He did like his beer. But he hated going out on New Year’s Eve. Being Italian, he sometimes used words that I didn’t know, but understood nonetheless. He said he didn’t like to go out on New Year’s Eve because that’s when all the gavones were out.

You can find that word in the back of Lorraine Ranalli’s book, “Gravy Wars,” in the Italian-American glossary. She describes gavones as, “lacking in culture.” My dad would have been less kind, but then again, he wasn’t putting his definition in writing.

No, Dad and Mom weren’t party people. They just preferred staying at home. Of course, they had to, with four kids running around a household supported by a janitor’s salary.

So New Year’s Eve was more of a family night, with us watching Guy Lombardo on TV, then watching the ball descend at Times Square, after which, we kids would be given pots and pans, so we could go outside with all the other non-gavones and bang them as imitation noisemakers, bringing the row-house streets of Philadelphia to momentary life on a cold January morning. And by about 12:45 a.m., we all—kids and adults—would be out cold in bed.

Yeah, we could really party back in those “good, ole days.” Those good, ole, days for me were called the 1950s, and, since I majored in history, I always like to examine the past—My past on the streets of Philadelphia, My past during my years in Minot, North Dakota, My past as a cop, and yes, even my past as a writer. And I think Dad had a lot to do with molding that outlook.

We would always watch those old, black-and-white movies together—the ones that were being shown on early television in those days. He was especially instructive whenever we watched a war movie. You see, I was born while my dad was overseas with the Ninth Infantry Division in Normandy during World War Two, and he was always correcting those old war movies.

“No, that’s not the way it was at all,” he would often say. “We were a lot more scared than that!” So I sort of grew up looking at things “historically.” That’s what the narrator does in my New Year’s Eve story—One More Round, which is available at Untreed, or Amazon, Barns & Noble, or any other outlet for downloadable books. Or you could just visit my Web site,

And—what else—it’s a story about how one particular family rings in the New Year.

So let me give all of you a New Year’s greeting by saying that I hope 2012 is your best year ever, but may it pale in comparison to all those that follow.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Worst Christmas Ever

My latest story, entitled, My Worst Christmas Ever, is available from Untreed Reads dot com.

Now this is a true story, or as we say in the industry (doesn’t that sound at least mildly pretentious, in the industry?) Well, it’s a BOAT story. Not that it has anything to do with ships, mind you. BOAT is an acronym meaning based on a true… so it’s based on a true story.

The story as written is true, in that the events are accurate, and this did happen to me, and it happened as I explain it did. But, being a writer, I do take some literary license. But that does not weaken or taint the story’s intent, nor does it lie about the outcome. All the people in the story are real, and they did all react the way they did as the story unfolds.

You’ll see after reading the tale, just why I felt it was my worst holiday, and I think you’ll also agree with that evaluation. You’ll also see why, after many years, that event sticks in my mind, and you’ll understand why I changed my mind about it many years later.

The odd part is that I look back now and still believe I was right to feel the way I did at the time. I was miserable, and justifiably so. Today, I feel very pleased by what happened that night, and I’m every bit as justified in those feelings, even though they are one-hundred-eighty degrees from what I felt at the time.

In other words: I was right to feel the way I did then, and I’m right to feel the way I do now. Even though the two feelings—separated by forty years—are diametrically opposed to each other.

How can that be, you’re asking. You are asking that, aren’t you?

Well, I guess you’ll just have to go to

and find out. There’s a half-price sale today only, so the story costs just 75 cents to download. You’ll see why it was my worst Christmas ever.

Or was it?

You know, we writers can never really make up our minds.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Never Really Our Choice

I do a lot of thinking any time of the year—in fact, too much by most people’s estimation. But I think that balances out what I see as too little thinking—the curse of contemporary civilization.

At this time of the year especially, I like to think about asking. That’s what we’re encouraged to do as children—we ask Santa to fulfill our Christmas desires. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

You see, I’m a firm believer in reading the operator’s manuals that come with most implements. When you buy a new TV, new car, new blender, new iPhone—you’ve got to read the instructions before operating. And how many times have you heard it said that life doesn’t come with operating instructions?

Well I think it does. I think it’s all spelled out quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. If you just follow the Gospel of Matthew, chapters five through seven, you’ll have those operating instructions. It even tells us about asking.

In Matthew Chapter seven, Verse seven, Christ clearly states, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asks; receives.”

So we ask. We ask for Barbie dolls, baseball gloves, footballs, and toy trucks when we’re kids, but we never really stop asking as we age. The presents just get a little more…esoteric. I personally would forego all the toys, gadgets, electronics, and even Superbowl tickets if I could just have the one wish at the top of my list: my family’s health and well-being. I always think to myself, “Is that too much to ask?”

After all, Jesus did say, “Ask and you shall receive.” So why doesn’t he keep his word? That’s one of the questions that always puzzled me, until a few years ago when a friend opened my eyes.

“God does answer all prayers—all requests,” she told me. “And it’s always one of three answers.”

“Oh this I’ve got to hear,” I told her. “What are his three answers?”

“Simple,” she explained. “He says, ‘yes,’ or he says, ‘not now,’ or he says, ‘I have something better.’

It suddenly all made sense to me. Christ didn’t say, Demand and you shall receive. He said ask. That means it’s not our choice. It never really is.

So, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the author of the Sermon on the Mount, remember his operating instructions for life. Just don’t forget that they’re his instructions; not yours.

So ask away. It’s the season for asking. Your timetable may not be the same as his. And of course, he could always have something better in mind for you.

Just be patient. While you’re waiting, maybe you could log on to

It couldn’t hurt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Good Writers Always Come Through

I was a big fan of the Peanuts comic strip as a kid growing up. Who am I kidding…I remain a fan to this day.

That’s why I was so anxious to see the first Peanuts TV broadcast. I was in the Air Force and made sure I got myself in front of a television that night back in 1965. I could not imagine how the comic strip could possibly translate to TV. But it did. And beautifully, I thought.

I especially liked the part where Linus goes out onto the stage all-alone and recites the Christmas narrative from the Bible.

“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them ... and they were sore afraid ... Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy ... For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savoir, which is Christ the Lord ... Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Linus’s point is that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and what that birth meant. It’s not about toys, decorations, or days off.

Twenty-eight years later, I went looking for that Bible passage, because I wanted to write a Christmas story for the Cape May County Herald. I had difficulty finding the words Linus spoke in that TV show.

You see, Mark and John start their gospels when Jesus is a grown man, and Matthew’s story of the birth doesn’t even mention shepherds. Only Luke tells that story, and it certainly wasn’t the way Linus had told it.

When I read Luke, his gospel said, “…But the angel said, don’t be afraid. I’m here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David’s town your Savior was born...Suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased.’ And there were shepherds in the same district ... and they feared exceedingly.”

That just doesn’t have the “pizazz” of Linus’s interpretation. It took me a while to find out why. I’m Catholic, and the Catholic or the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible just doesn’t have the same verbal brilliance…if you will…as the King James version. In fact, a Catholic writer once advised me to “Read the Catholic Bible for its thoroughness; read the King James version for its literature.”

Well, I did write that Christmas column for the Herald, and then, several years later, I saw Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts, being interviewed on TV. Schultz explained to the interviewer that he had agreed to write the teleplay for the show only if those lines from Luke’s Gospel were included. Schultz had so much influence, that the network executives reluctantly agreed. Even back in the 1960s, TV moguls weren’t exactly pro-Christian.

I subsequently sent a copy of my story to Schultz. He wrote back and thanked me, saying that it was much more difficult to write the TV show than he had thought it would be. He also said that he could not comprehend the success of the show.

“I think it may have been the music,” Schultz wrote to me.

I think he was understating the influence of two writers: Himself and Luke.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Let's Get a Little Worldly

The airwaves are becoming saturated with the sounds of Christmas. We hear them piped throughout malls and department stores.
“Joy to the world.”
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”

Those lines are quite descriptive, and pack a certain emotional strength. There's something ... alive about them.

But how about:
“Joy to the planet?”
“Peace on the planet, good will to men?”
“Long lay the planet in sin and error pining?”

Those are …lifeless.
This Earth is a planet the way the house you live in is a platform. This Earth is a world the way the house you live in is a home. There's a move afoot—whether conscious or subconscious—to drain the life out of our world, and return it to the status of ... a rock. It's inherent in contemporary language.

“Biggest SUV on the planet,” touts one automotive ad.
“Highest crash rating of any vehicle on the planet,” shouts another.
Our species may be observing the heavens to find other planets, but we're listening to possible signals from space to find other worlds. We won't find vehicles on other planets, but we could very well find them on other worlds.

So is it just a trend—this penchant for identifying our human home by its basest nomenclature? By next year, will there be another catchphrase or catch-word replacing “planet” as the sound du jour? Remember when "millennium" was peppered into every commercial and every political revelation? At least we get a thousand-year break before that ear-bleeder reemerges.

“Planet” as a designation for our home is cold and austere. This world was once a chunk of earth, fire, wind, and water—that’s when it was only a planet. When it became a world is debatable, depending on your perspective and your belief system.

If you're a creationist, it happened on days five and six when God created the animal kingdom, from whales to humans.
If you're a Darwinian or a naturalist, well ... you haven't decided yet; it happened somewhere between three billion and three million years ago, depending on which theory you currently embrace. Darwin came out with his dissertation in 1859, hence we've waited 152 years for you nature-worshipers to make up your minds, so what the heck, we'll give you another 152. Let us know when you finally come to a decision.

Natural curiosity demands that I wonder about trends. (Wouldn't a naturalist do the same?) Is this merely another harmless, mindless segue in the evolution of our language? There once was 23-skidoo… Kilroy was here…Do your own thing… Get a life...oh, yeah, that one’s still around. Can’t wait for that to go the way of the dinosaur.

Or is language-modification a deliberate attempt to transform thinking and drain away personality? I mean, we no longer have a culture; we're multi-cultural. We don't have families in individual homes; we have communities. We don't live in a world; we exist on a planet.

Listen, beings live in a world. The reigning 100-meter sprint record-holder is usually referred to as the “World's Fastest Human.” If he were the only person on Earth, then it would make sense that he's the planet's fastest (and only) human. It would be no big deal.

But with imperfect people on that planet to train him, time him, live with him, care about him, dislike him, admire him, be indifferent to him…or mourn him when he's gone—that changes everything.

It makes a world of difference.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Remembering the Andys

The name "Andrew" has a lot of meaning in my family. My wife's brother Andrew was a Marine who was killed at Iwo Jima. My dad's father was Andrew. I have cousins named Andrew, and we recently welcomed our third great-grandchild: Andrew.

So it should be no surprise that during my November 15 “Writer’s Block” broadcast on Lorraine Ranalli’s Cucina Chatter show, I mentioned that I was new at this “Andy Rooney thing.” Ironically, Andy Rooney passed away at age 92 just before that broadcast aired, and fittingly, I have an Andy Rooney story that’s close to my heart.

Like Andy Rooney, my dad would have also been 92 at this time, but he died several years ago in 1996. And, like Andy, he also served in World War Two. Now here’s where the story gets a little more coincidental.

My father and mother married in 1943 while he was in the Army, still stationed stateside. By the time he got his orders to ship overseas, she was carrying his child—a child who was destined to become a hack writer making weekly commentary on Cucina Chatter. His name is not important.

No, wait a minute, his name is very important, because that’s the crux of this story. You see before my dad left for the European Theater of War, he left instructions with his brother to remind my mother that if the child was a boy, he was to be named Paul. If it were a girl, well…that would be my mother’s call.

Many months later, while trudging across Normandy with the Ninth Infantry Division, his ammunition bearer (he was a machine-gunner) handed him a copy of the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that kept the boys in combat informed of what was going on around them, and what was going on at home.

“You made the paper,” he told my father. As my dad looked at the article, he felt the blood drain from his arms. Whenever he told me this story, he always explained how angry it made him at the time.

You see, it was a simple little piece, headlined, “These Joes Owe Cigars.” It was a list of all “G.I. Joes” who had recently had children born to their wives back home—and there, in alphabetical order near the bottom of the list, was his name: PFC James Vanore from Philadelphia, and right next to it, the name of his son: James Vanore Jr. along with my birth date.

My mother, thinking it very possible that she might never see her young husband again, went against his wishes (and whatever prompting his brother provided) and named his son after him. So today, that hack writer is Jim Vanore, not Paul Vanore (although I do have a cousin Paul in Kennett Square, who does some writing).

My dad tore that section out of the Stars and Stripes, and I have it in front of me now, a little yellowed by age, but covered in plastic so it should at least outlive me. But for all the times I’ve held that piece of newsprint in my hands and looked at both our names and wondered how it must have felt to know that you had a son that you may never meet, I never bothered to turn the paper over—until about 10 years ago.

That’s when I noticed a bylined article about the fierce battle raging near the Siegfried Line as the U.S. army attempted to cross the Rhine. The article was simply headlined, “Flak City,” and it was written by a Stars and Stripes staff writer named Andy Rooney.

Ever since I discovered the other side of that paper, I’ve always felt that Andy Rooney, my dad, and I, have had this small ‘tether’ between us. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but now, every time I hear someone say, “What’s in a name,” I think of the two Jims and the two Andys.

Two Andys? Oh, I forget to mention—my father’s brother—the one that was to remind my mother that the boy was to be named Paul—he too shipped out before I was born.

You see, my Uncle Andy was an Army medic, and he was named after his father. Uncle Andy was a terrific guy who died when I was in high school. I don’t know if he ever saw the other side of that paper either.

Below are the photo scans of that remnant from the 1944 Stars and Stripes.

The second photo is (I believe) of my dad underlining that article while in the field in France, since he looks a little peeved.

The third has our names at the bottom of the second column. My father underlined them, so the ink bleeds through on the scan. It reads: Pfc James Vanore, Philadelphia—James Jr., Oct 16.

The first is the flip side of the Stars and Stripes, and has a second column article headlined “Flak City,” and the byline underneath that headline reads: By Andy Rooney, Stars and Stripes Staff Writer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Words as Bullets

PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—is now suing Sea World out in San Diego for violating the constitutional rights of whales. Apparently, Sea World is not honoring the 13th, or anti-slavery amendment.

Now most sane people—meaning people who are not members of PETA—realize this is a publicity stunt, plainly and simply. But let’s humor these “activists” while I reminisce.

Back in 1992, I was assigned to write a series of profiles on all the candidates running for freeholder in Cape May County, because—believe it or not—I was covering politics in those days. I considered that my time in purgatory here on earth…so I got that goin’ for me. It’s sort of a spiritual deposit to my existential bank account. (Those who know me personally are aware of how little I admire politics and politicians.)

Anyway, the first woman I interviewed was an animal rights activist, and during the course of the interview she railed on about people who left unwanted pets at the animal shelter where she was employed.

What she said was very succinct: “I’d like to be waiting for those people with a machine gun and mow them down as they walk away,” she said.

Well, as a reporter, I jumped right on that. “Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want to machine gun human beings who have decided that they can no longer care for a pet. Can I quote you on that?”

She then answered, “Hey, those animals can’t take care of themselves, so we have to do it for them, right?”

I neither agreed nor disagreed; I just went on to my next question. And I wrote a pretty interesting article after that interview, even if I do say so myself.

However… (you knew there was a “however” coming, didn’t you?)…that article never saw the light of day. It—and the entire series of articles on all candidates—was spiked by the editor. Killed! DOA! Do not resuscitate!

When I asked why, I was simply told that there was not enough time or resource to give equal space to every candidate. Well, my opinion was—this is a newspaper; we find the time, we create the resources necessary to get the story to our readers.

And I thought that the voters of Cape May County needed to know that one of the candidates standing for freeholder was advocating the use of automatic assault weapons as a means of giving FIDO a fair chance at finding a home.

But I wasn’t the editor in those days—merely a reporter. So I couldn’t tell the tale. And I’ve looked askance at animal activists ever since. And…I’ve always wondered why journalists, when faced with something as out of the ordinary as a lawyer suing for a whale’s constitutional rights, don’t ask some obvious follow-up questions. I would want to know if that attorney would also think it reasonable…and just…to sue for the rights of a child in the womb who was about to be aborted.

Machine guns and pampered sea creatures aside, if we fight for the safety and freedom of whales, puppy dogs, mosquitoes, sewer rats, house flies, polar bears…do we not also fight for the safety and freedom of a child?

If not; why not? Why is the baby whale more valuable than the baby human? And more basically, why can’t a reporter ask that simple question?

As a writer—whether through my novels and short stories, or through my newspaper columns—I always tried to shoot straight from the hip. But, unlike some I’ve spoken to, I’ve used rapid fire words, not a thirty caliber machine gun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Game Bored the Turkeys Too

Yes, we all know that Thanksgiving is about food, first and foremost.

Such traditions of course date back to the first Thanksgiving, when the Indians played the Pilgrims to a 14-14 tie, with time running out as the Indians took their football and went home, forever leaving the Pilgrims dissatisfied, since they—coming from Europe—naturally would have preferred to play soccer.

This is the reason why soccer has never really caught on in this country.

Consequently, food became the focus of ensuing Thanksgivings, and as you may know, footballs are made of pigskin (hence their nickname), and since so many pigs were used in those days to keep the tribes supplied with footballs, hogs became scarce in the fall.

But turkeys were plentiful, because these curious birds would instinctively gather to watch the Pilgrims play this crazy game of soccer that they had brought with them from England. And after the game, the Pilgrims could easily harvest the large number of turkeys that would still be standing confused along the sidelines. (Seems like turkeys were the first ones to be lulled into lethargy by watching men futilely kick a ball up and down a field for two hours without scoring a goal!)

This is why today, guys—whether Pilgrims, Indians, or even Italian—will eat until they have to unsnap the top button of their trousers, and then sit in front of an oblong plastic monitor while they watch a bunch of obese men pushing against another bunch of obese men for three or four hours.

Somehow, this evokes passion, especially so if one bunch of obese men have stars on their headpieces. (This, I believe, has something to do with astrology, and the moon being in the seventh house of Häagen-Dazs, or some such place.)

At any rate, my wife, Barbara will be cooking one of those turkeys this Thanksgiving. She doesn’t care for either football or soccer, so she can’t grab one of those languid birds from the sideline of a game—she has to actually go to the Williamstown Farmer’s Market and buy one. Can you imagine! Her Pilgrim forefathers—or foremoms, I guess—would be horrified.

And me? Well, if there are no good movies on TCM—The Maltese Falcon or El Dorado would be good—I’ll guess I’ll have to be content to sit with my sons-in-law and watch those fat guys on the monitor push against one another for three hours.

God, I hope TCM doesn't show Drums Along the Mohawk this Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Maybe You Should Wait for Spring

Like most people, writers like to get away—take a vacation now and again. But I’d like to take a “writer’s vacation,” one of those retreats that I always see writers taking in the movies. It’s usually to a mountain hideaway, a lonely beachfront cottage, or, someplace even more out of the way, like a deserted lighthouse.

I was this way long before I made my living by stringing words together. When I was a young cop back in the 60s, I worked the area around old Connie Mack Stadium—21st and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. I can recall a night in August of 1968. My partner and I were working car 399 on our last night of 4-to-12 shift.

It was Saturday night, the Phillies were at home, and the neighborhood was jumpin’. We were flying all over the place, and we were both looking forward to midnight, because we each started an 18-day vacation when the shift was over. He was getting on a plane and flying to Vegas; I was driving to North Dakota first thing in the morning.

He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to the Great Plains for my vacation, and I couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the bustling streets of North Philly for the hectic Las Vegas strip. Me…I just wanted peace and quiet. And the Badlands of North Dakota provided that in spades.

Several days after that shift ended, I awoke in a camper on the banks of the Little Missouri River near Medora, North Dakota. Medora is where Teddy Roosevelt used to like to take his vacations. I don’t imagine the place had changed much between Teddy’s visits and mine.

That cool, crisp August morning, I brewed myself a pot of coffee, filled a large Styrofoam cup, zipped up my windbreaker, and went for a stroll along the river. I was alone with my thoughts and didn’t see another living thing. (You see, now that’s a writer’s vacation!)

As I strolled along the Missouri I wondered how my partner was relaxing in Vegas. Somehow I believed I was in the more relaxing venue. As I said...just me and my dreams. Then, I saw someone coming toward me. I felt as though my land was being invaded. Coming around the bend of the river bank, another man walked toward me.

As he came closer, I noticed our similarities—he too wore a windbreaker, and he too carried a Styrofoam cup. When we met, we exchanged pleasantries, remarking to each other how beautiful and peaceful it was here, and how neither of us ever wanted to leave.

“My whole attitude changes when I’m out here,” I told him. “Me too,” he replied. “This is so different from back home.”

“Where’s that?” I asked. His answer caused my jaw to drop. “I come from a pretty hectic place,” he almost apologized. “Camden, New Jersey.” After I finished laughing, I told him I was a cop from Philadelphia, right across the bridge from his home town.

We walked for a while, talked for a while, shook hands, then wandered off—he back toward his camper and me back toward mine. But as I walked back through that fresh Dakota morning air, I reassured myself that I was correct; I took the right vacation.

A Vacation should calm you down; give you respite; allow you to breathe. And the Great Plains always did that for me. I went on vacation to the Midwest for the next several years: Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, Jackson Hole…

Admittedly, these are venues that might seem a tad frigid for anything but the spring and summer months, so if you’re planning a vacation over the coming holidays, the Dakota Badlands might be a tough call, although they are quite beautiful after a snowfall.

But if you haven’t visited these places, treat yourself—take a writer’s vacation, and learn how to be good company for yourself.

If you happen to be out in the Badlands some day, and you run into a guy from Camden, tell him I still remember him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

There's Got To Be an App for That

As most of America (and probably the world) is no doubt aware, a new Apple iPhone came out Oct. 14. I believe it’s the Apple IPhone 4-S, and people lined up to get one. Well, who are we kidding, from the news footage I saw, it was predominantly kids—looked like teens, adolescents, and some “grown-ups.”

Now this new iPhone is state-of-the-art—takes swell photos, has a Dual-Core A-5 Chip (if you want to say “whoopee,” get it out of your system now), it can do your wash, cook you a medium-rare steak, iron your trousers—oh, that’s right, who in the devil irons their clothes today.

My point here—and I do have one—is: Where do most of these kids get the 200 bucks to upgrade to one of these things? And why did so many of them have to stand in line to be there when the stores opened their doors? What would have been the difference if they got their new iPhone October 15 instead of 14?

I did a little research on this and came to the unofficial conclusion that they did it to honor our 34th president. You see, October 14 was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birthday. He would have been 111.

He was in large measure credited with the successful planning of the Normandy Invasion of 1944 which was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. So you can see why people wanted those phones on the 14th and not one day later. I imagine a lot of them immediately got busy texting birthday wishes to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

Why else would they have had to trade up to get the iPhone that first day? And the 200 bucks? Again, I think I have that answer. Their grandfathers probably remember their fathers returning from World War Two. And no doubt gave most of them the 200 rockets needed for a new iPhone. Of course, when my dad returned from World War Two, he barely had enough bread to buy me a new pair of sneakers at a buck-ninety-five.

Perhaps that’s why I grew up knowing the value of a dollar—let alone 200 of them. I also know the value of a pair of sneakers. And the value of a mobile phone. And what it’s best used for. And why it can be seen as necessary at times.

Despite all my cynicism, I realize that most of the soldiers that participated in World War Two—from General Eisenhower to Private First Class Vanore—knew what they were ultimately fighting for. It was a simple goal: They wanted to make sure that their children, and their children’s children, would have the freedom to make their own decisions. Even if what they decided seemed foolish to others.

Yes, even if they chose to wait all night to shell out 200 bucks for a new phone, when the phone they had was working perfectly. Three-hundred-thousand of our men died in World War Two, and many of them would never have guessed that they were giving up their lives so their descendants could get their hands on a Dual-Core A-5 Chip.

But, you could say it’s little things like that, that our ancestors have always fought for. Maybe a lot of young people can think about that this November 11. If they don’t know why that date’s special, I’m sure the new iPhone has an app that can explain it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

If a Little Is Good, Must More Be Better?

Have you ever heard one of those “hog-calling” contests where competitors give off those high-pitched shouts that are meant to call the pigs in from the field?  It’s how farmers let the animals know that their slop is set out, and it’s time to feed. I’d describe it as a combination scream and yodel, and it does take a certain amount of vocal ability.

You can get a taste of some hog calling techniques here:

Or you could just tune in to American Idol, since that program seems to spawn that type of singing performance. Talk about cookie-cutter presentations—some of these young people have great vocal range, but when did the imitation of hog-calling become trendy in pop music circles?

I can recall Eydie Gorme hitting some high notes back in the 60s (listen to her penetrate the ceiling on What Did I Have That I Don't Have and you’ll understand), but, like most accomplished pop singers, she did this only occasionally; and the Barbra Streisand/ Céline Dion ear-piercing scales can have their appeal on certain numbers, but too much of anything gets annoying.

I once told one of my students that I didn’t care for his favorite singer—Whitney Huston—because she “screamed” so many of her lyrics. “She has a great voice,” I admitted, “but why does she shriek everything?”

He disagreed with me, and was even crestfallen to hear that there was someone who didn’t think Houston was the greatest singer alive. I told him to listen carefully to her rendition of I Will Always Love You.

“She yodels it every bit as much as did Dolly Parton,” I said.  “Even more. She sounds like those people who enter hog-calling contests.” That exactly how I described it.

He came in the next day and sheepishly admitted that Houston did scream her way through I Will Always Love You.

“I never noticed it before,” he said.

I didn’t mean to burst his bubble. I told him that I felt she—like many other great voices—had abundant talent, and hitting the occasional elevated octave was a fine adornment to a suitable song.

But just because a little is good, more isn’t necessarily better. That’s kind of a…hoggish approach…to anything!

Eydie Gorme, Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Dolly Parton…these are people blessed with superior vocal chords, and just about every young hopeful today wants to emulate them.

The latest star in this line might be Jennifer Hudson. I love the song, Feelin’ Good, but I don’t need the over-the-top yodeling touch at the end of each bar. This woman has a powerful voice. She, like the others, is gifted.

I’d really enjoy hearing her resonance without a herd of hogs coming in from the north pasture.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don't You Just Hate When that Happens

This past September, California high school teacher Steve Cuckovich caused a stir when he banned the phrase “God bless you,” in his classroom. I caught a TV interview with Cuckovich and heard him explain that the phrase no longer had any meaning, since it was meant almost as an “incantation” against evil when it started back in the Middle Ages. He said he was using the ban as a “teaching opportunity” to make the students think.

Making people think. If you’ve logged on to my Web site: you know that making people think—especially young people—is right down my alley.

But shortly after I saw that interview, Cuckovich “modified” his story, saying that his ban was issued as a result of students being disruptive. It seems they got into the habit of broadcasting loud “God Bless Yous!” every time someone sneezed in class. It’s easy to see how this kind of puerile behavior could snowball, prompting bogus sneezing fits throughout the school day. Believe me; most adolescents walk into a classroom every day looking—not for knowledge—but for the latest method of getting over on the teacher.

When I quit teaching junior high grades, I was often asked why. I had a pat answer: “Imagine,” I used to tell people, “that just about every person you worked around, did everything they could, every day to prevent you from doing your job. That’s what it’s like teaching junior high.”

I have no doubt that Cuckovich had a behavior problem of some sort on his hands. But why did he at first say that he was banning the phrase “God Bless You” because it was archaic and superstitious? Why not just admit that his students were using the phrase as a tool to disrupt his class?  Anyone who has spent several hours locked in a room full of adolescents would have understood.

So I have my suspicions about this second explanation, and I wonder if Steve Cuckovich would  have reacted so forcefully if the students had used a phrase such as, “Allah be praised” to unsettle the classroom. Would he have “banned” that decidedly non-Christian exclamation?

That ban would surely have annoyed the Islamic community. In my experience, Americans are free to annoy Christians any time they please, and in any manner they please.  You might get a reaction, but I doubt it would be belligerent. Quarrelsome maybe; argumentative—most probably, but not much more.

But step over that imaginary fence of faith and start annoying other religious beliefs…  Does the phrase “hate crime” sound reasonable?

And if Mr. Cuckovich really wants to make his kids think, he can always have them log on to my Web site, or listen to Lorraine Ranalli’s Cucina Chatter radio program every Tuesday at for my vocal commentary.

But he’d probably think that I was just being archaic and superstitious, and I would hate that kind of reaction.

Or is there a crime against that kind of hate?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stop Making Crime Pay

I recently read how another drug company—I forget the name, but it doesn’t matter—has just been fined some outlandish-sounding sum, by the Justice Department. I think it was $46 million.  And of course, it was for some false claim or other that the company perpetrated upon the consumer.

That 46 million ought to teach them a lesson! You think so? Forty-six-million dollars is a tidy sum to you and me, but to a drug company? It may take years, or maybe only months, but I have a feeling that the fine will simply be factored back into their pricing structure, and the company—plus its stock holders—will eventually reclaim that money.

So the consumer gets it coming and going. Where’s the justice?

It’s not there. You see, as one of my instructors at the Police Academy used to say, “We don’t have a justice system; we have a legal system.” That’s why, whenever young college grads enter law school, we don’t say they’re going into the justice system; we say they’re going into the legal system.

And this all reminds me of something my publisher told me a few years back. It’s about Prohibition during the 1920s, and how most states that bordered on water—oceans, lakes, bays, gulfs—had continuing trouble with smugglers bringing contraband liquor into the state. But not so with Delaware. Delaware had less smuggling than any other state along the coast.

Delaware, he told me, still had flogging as a legitimate punishment back in the twenties. Smugglers didn’t mind spending a little time in prison with their professional colleagues, or paying a fine that they would just pass on to their customers, but they sure wanted no part of flogging.

So what am I saying here? That drug company execs should be flogged? As tempting as that may sound to some, I’m actually advocating a far less stringent penalty…but still something that cannot be passed on to the consumer.

Our legal system need only fix responsibility within the culpable company, and then deliver a prison sentence—not a fine! Deceitful company executives will do more than hesitate if they believe a possible six-month or one year term behind bars awaits them. And no de facto penalty is then passed on to the consumer in the form of a “company fine.”

If we administer regulations by enforcing penalties on those convicted of ignoring said regulations, then we force large companies to advertise legally…market legally…and price their products legally.

And by imposing those legalities on the responsible parties, we ironically start to change our legal system back into a justice system.

Folks, do yourself some justice by tuning in to “Cucina Chatter” every Tuesday between 1-2 p.m. on It’s great talk radio hosted by Lorraine Ranalli who still lets me do a weekly commentary.

And as long as there’s no law against it (yet), log on to, and consider my latest short story—Bread of Deceit.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh Baby You Know What I Like

As I waited in my doctor’s office last month for a flu shot, a young man—perhaps in his twenties—walked in wearing those baggy shorts. You know the kind: low-hanging, below-the-gut pantaloons that make a guy look like he just shoplifted a dozen corn muffins from Acme by shoving them down his pants.

To that he added matching gold hoop earrings, a ponytail (some of which stuck out of the little band he had tied around it) and of course, he was sporting the requisite rubber flip-flops on his big, bare, clown feet.

I’m sorry guys, but bare feet anywhere—outside of your home or a swimming pool—is NOT a good look for us. And when we were teens, we did like girls in ponytails; I remember it as a decidedly attractive feminine hairstyle.

It was so much more acceptable to us guys than say, a beehive, or pageboy cut: the former was a bit over the top, and the latter a bit too…well…masculine for a girl. Even though it didn’t look that good on Prince Valiant. He was a 1950s comic book hero whose escapades were set in the days of King Arthur. He had that pageboy style that always had me confused whenever I read his comic strip—Is that a guy?

Well, that young man in the doctor’s office reminded me, not of Prince Valiant, but of a time back in 1970 when we were on duty in front of a line of Viet Nam War protesters—mostly young men—who were attempting to hand all of us cops a flower. Flower children are what they called themselves. We of course, were in uniform. But so were they, in that just about every one of those guys wore a ponytail.

Later that day, my lieutenant waxed philosophically to us and declared that the Soviet Union was trying to turn the young men of this country into women. That, he announced, was their ultimate goal.

Hmmm…baggy shorts, earrings, flip-flops (worn by certain men even in the winter for some bizarre reason) and ponytails…could the Soviet Union, some 20 years after its demise, have actually accomplished their objective?

It was more than 50 years ago that the Big Bopper sang, “Chantilly lace and a pretty face, pony tail hangin’ down…”  I’m relatively sure when he wrote those lyrics, he didn’t mean us guys, because along with those big, bare, clown feet walking through a shopping mall in flip-flops, ponytails—and Chantilly lace for that matter—just don’t make it for a guy.

Much of this chic trendiness has infiltrated the National Football League, perhaps the most (at least previously) macho organization in our culture. Many NFL players like to sport diamond earrings, and some even do so under their helmets on game day (Freud would have a ball with that).

Few activities are more virile than a muscular man fiercely barreling his way past several hulking adversaries intent on tearing his head off. It’s quite exhilarating to watch this mano a mano exchange as a runner scores an NFL touchdown. It’s the essence of raw masculinity.

Why then must the runner immediately get in touch with his feminine side by segueing into ballet via a sweet little ‘pirouette’ (or is that an Arabesque move?) with some dainty ‘hip-shaking’ added for good measure? What the hell is he celebrating, his touchdown or his duality?

I hear more earrings are lost on the football field that way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Righting the Written

A While back when I was watching a program on the History Channel about the Civil War, I was surprised by the quality of some of the letters that were written home by the soldiers. The writing was downright inspirational—on both sides: Union and Confederate.

These were young men who were not particularly educated. Many were right off the farm. They would likely be considered “educationally challenged” by today’s politically correct standards, with most having never achieved the equivalent of a high school diploma.

But they nonetheless knew how to handle the written English language—properly…and beautifully. I have no choice but to believe they handled the spoken word just as well.

It may not be a strict scientific comparison, but I compared that 1860s dialogue to what I hear any morning from the young professionals on my local TV newscast…the newscasts that we can all listen to any morning as we have our coffee. I’ve decided that our early 21st century language and communication skills are dreadful. They’re unspeakable!

How could a mid-19th century American farm boy write with eloquence that outshines today’s professional?

Here’s one more quick comparison: In 1966, the Academy Award for the best screenplay was given to “A Man for all Seasons,” a beautifully written script about the condemnation and death of Sir Thomas Moore at the hands of King Henry the Eighth in 16th century England.

Jump forward 28 years. The 1994 award for best writing went to “Pulp Fiction,” two-and-a-half hours of profanity, depravity, and gratuitous violence.

In the space of one generation we went from lines such as this: “I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

To lines such as: “I hear they got some tasty burgers. I ain't never had one myself. How are they?”

We nose-dived from the heights of Sir Thomas Moore’s sophistication, to the netherworld of the glorification of the corrupt. We accomplished this in one genealogical generation.

Why did we take this plunge into the precipice of mediocrity? And did we take it willingly? Or is this the level that the entertainment industry wished upon us?

I’m not proposing an answer to these questions. Not at the moment. For now, it’s enough that we at least start asking ourselves why this happened. Anyone reading the first three sentences of the home page of my Web site can understand what I’m trying to do here.

It’s the same thing I try to do every week with my commentary—Tuesdays between 1-2 p.m. on “Cucina Chatter,” hosted by Lorraine Ranalli at

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Would Be Wise To Bring the Bats

I once wrote a column wherein I challenged readers to think about certain subjects that our culture (in general) refuses to put on the table for discussion. I referred to the latent denial of these topics as the “air of dare,” that seems to surround any suggested debate about them.

“How dare you even discuss such a thing!”

A subject need not be serious, life-threatening, or even life-altering to be considered. Baseball was one example that I mentioned, and surprisingly (or maybe not), it got the most response from readers. And all of them missed the point.

All I did was ask readers to consider—or reconsider—the presumption that good pitching will always overcome good hitting. Well, you would have thought I asked them to sacrifice their first-born.

In essence, all the responders said that I was wrong, that pitching was more important, and that it wasn’t even worth discussing.

Bingo! My argument exactly—you won’t even discuss it. The point of the column wasn’t that hitting was more important than pitching, but that some subjects were exempt from dispute. Now, with the Phillies a scant one game away from possible elimination from the post-season, I’m daring to once again introduce the subject.

Few will argue that they don’t have baseball’s best starting rotation. No one can argue that they didn’t have baseball’s best record. Their season was record-setting, in that for the first time in the club’s 128-year history, they won 102 games.

But during the times that they faltered this season, it was normally because they apparently left their bats in the dugout when they went up to the plate. You see, pitching cannot win ballgames; scoring runs wins ballgames.

The Phillies could have Roy Halladay pitch another perfect game tomorrow, but unless and until a Phillie picks up a bat, gets on base, and manages to come around and score, the best the team can do is come away with a nothing-nothing tie after nine innings.

Unlike football, defense cannot win you the game in baseball. It can only keep you in the game. Unlike football, the defense cannot score in baseball. It can only prevent the other team from scoring. Pitching—being part of the defense—cannot win you the game. A hitter has to do that.

Too often, self-proclaimed (what other kind is there; yours truly included) baseball aficionados look only at the defensive side of the score: “The Giants’ pitching staff shut down the Phillies in the 2010 NLCS.”

In fact, the Phillies’ bats had gone into the doldrums at the end of the regular season last year. They would have had trouble with even a mediocre pitching staff. So this self-proclaimed baseball expert said, “The Phillies almost refused to hit in the 2010 post-season.”

I’ve followed this team since 1957. I remember the day my dad told me the Philadelphia Athletics were leaving for Kansas City. As a kid, my idol was Phillies’ centerfielder Richie Ashburn. The first game I ever attended was not in Connie Mack Stadium, but Shibe Park.

True, as I’ve grown older I’ve realized that many other things rank ahead of baseball in importance—family, health, economics, morality, the transmission in the Chevy…

And I truly want the Phillies to beat the Cardinals in the decisive game five of their series. And it would be nice to see another parade. Hopefully, Chase can act a bit more maturely this time. (Hey, maybe we’re cursed—literally and figuratively—by the 2008 Utley Uh-Oh! But that’s a subject for another column.)

If the Phillies win tomorrow, it won’t be due to Roy Halladay. Unless, of course, he belts one out of the park and the final score is 1-0. The pitcher can help by keeping the Cardinal batters at bay, but the Phillies have to hit the ball.

Back in 1971, the Phillies ace was Rick Wise. Because he got so little hitting support from his teammates, he made the statement that…The only way you can win with this team is by hitting a homerun and pitching a no-hitter.

His prophesy came true in June of that year. Except he hit two home runs while pitching his no-hitter. And later that same season, he retired 32 batters in a row, and then drove in the winning run in extra innings. I watched both those games on TV. I could almost feel his determination every time Wise came to the plate.
Hopefully, the Phillies will take their bats to the plate tomorrow, and Halladay won’t have to duplicate Wise’s feat.
But it would be OK if he did. Think about it.