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Game of Clones

By Tim Hayes

Well, I hear tonight’s the big night.  “Game of Thrones” begins its final season on HBO, and we’re all expected to go completely ga-ga at the news, I guess.

In the seven-year history of the program, it only caught my eye when the dragons appeared.  Otherwise, the appeal somehow never struck a chord with me.  It offered anachronisms too jarring to get past, like a bunch of bedraggled warriors, dressed head to toe in leather and metal armor, but using language one would expect to hear at a laundromat or corner bar in 2019.  My brain could never acclimate to worlds and cultures constantly colliding this way.

But those dragons, boy – they made it worth the price of the HBO package on the monthly cable bill.  Awesome.  Flying around, scaring the bejeepers out of people on the ground, turning enemy troops into Kentucky Fried Platoons, all under the direction of some girl dressed in white with braids in her hair.  What a gig.

And I’m supposed to be impressed by you teaching your dog to shake hands?  Not a chance, pal.  Get that dog airborne, shooting fire out of its mouth, and maybe we can talk.  Otherwise, take a seat and please be quiet.

As usual in the entertainment business – and it is, first and foremost, a for-profit business – the success of “Game of Thrones” has sparked imitators.  Pretenders to the Throne, to put it another way.  One article* cites no fewer than 20 other TV shows and series using the same “swords-and-sandals” format.

Like vampires and zombies, like teenage wizards and outer space operas, Hollywood producers know that once a phenomenon grabs hold of the popular zeitgeist, lots more money can be made by whipping that horse until it drops.  So we’re treated to lots of medieval-flavored epic spectacles, some of the Viking or pirate stripe, others focused more on palace intrigue perhaps.  But none venturing too far from the formula that set the tone in the first place.

It’s a Game of Clones, you might say.  There’s gold in them thar hills.

And the final roundup of the original starts tonight.  With it, however, comes the realization that – no matter how spectacular the story, how sweeping the vistas, how shocking the deaths to come – there is absolutely no way this finale can ever live up to the hype or the expectations of diehard devotees.

The same fate awaits the next Marvel movie, “Avengers: Endgame,” which wraps up the stories of some of the most popular cinematic superheroes.  Fanboys and fangirls who live and die with these monstrous pieces of popular art have certain expectations about plot, character development and fates, even how the movies should be shot and edited.  And any actual result that contradicts those preset expectations can count on a vivid, livid, full-throated counterattack online.

“The Last Jedi,” the most recent entry in the “Star Wars” series, is still taking avalanches of crap from vocal fans who feel betrayed, a year and a half after its release, in fact.  Why was Luke such a jerk?  Why didn’t Rey’s parents have more significant roles?  Who said Leia could fly?

Here’s another question: Who cares?

Good grief, people, it’s a movie.  It’s all make-believe.  None of this stuff really happened.  Grow up, eat your popcorn, and enjoy the show, for crying out loud.

But for now, it’s nearly time to turn on HBO.  Bring on the dragons, baby.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes


The Tree and She

By Tim Hayes

The woman stepped cautiously into the oncologist’s office, accompanied by her daughter.

The elderly patient, lightweight and frail, knew this was going to be an important discussion.  She also knew she might not remember all of the details accurately later, so thank God her daughter – her advocate and protector – would be there to take notes, ask questions, and explain things to her over the next few days.

= = = = =

Across town, the homeowner stood beside the massive tree in his backyard, waiting for the tree-service guy to arrive.

The towering maple, dubbed “Zeus” by the homeowner’s kids many years before, looked bad.  Some strange black coloring had seeped into the tree, all but covering the full circumference of the trunk.

Countless Frisbees, Nerf footballs, and even a kite or two had been swallowed by Zeus’ upper branches in the nearly two decades the family had lived there.  Each time, though, one of the kids climbed up into the spreading limbs and got the plaything back down safely.

But now all the kids were grown, well past their tree-climbing days, and Zeus somehow had become sick.  And the father feared the solution, to be reckoned that day.

= = = = =

“The results of the CAT scan show that the tumors not only have not been reduced, but that a few more small ones have appeared,” said the oncologist, in her direct-but-caring manner.  “But after consulting with my colleagues and doing some additional outreach, we have a few options to consider.”

The patient heard the words and felt a chill.  What “options” can possibly help now?

Her daughter immediately began formulating questions and eagerly awaited the oncologist’s next statement.  To her mind, “options” meant hope.

= = = = =

“My God, did this tree get hit by lightning?”

“Nope.  I don’t know why it’s black around the trunk like that.”

The tree expert walked over, flicked off a piece of bark, and said, “This is a fungal infection.”  He stepped back a few paces, pointed up from the trunk, and said, “Look, that black coloring goes the whole way up through the branches.  This tree is very sick.”

“But it still blooms every year.  Look, you can still see leaves from last fall on the ground!”

“It’s not dead yet, but it’s dying.  And there’s really no way to reverse this decay.”

The man stared at poor Zeus then closed his eyes and shook his head.  The verdict seemed pretty clear.

= = = = =

The woman took a deep breath and waited to hear the options for her treatment moving forward.

“We have sent your blood sample to be tested, and if your profile fits the parameters, we would recommend starting a new regimen of immunotherapy, which has shown an ability to stop the growth of certain tumors,” explained the oncologist.

“If you don’t qualify for that, we would want to resume the at-home chemotherapy every two weeks, as we have been doing,” the doctor said.  “Think of it like a dam.  It’s better to have some small leaks than to have the dam burst altogether.”

The patient thought she grasped the metaphor.  Her daughter understood it perfectly and felt a weight start to lessen, if only a bit.

= = = = =

“Let me show you something else,” said the tree guy.  The homeowner followed him to the rear of the trunk, the part you didn’t see from inside the house, and gasped.  Zeus was rotting from within.

“And see these little holes?” the arborist asked, pointing out rows of small holes, almost as though the trunk had been perforated.  “Birds like to peck at this material, and they end up carrying it to other trees, infecting them.  If anything, the township would be happy to see us take this tree down, to stop that from happening.”

Resigned at last to the fact that Zeus’ long fight had ended, the homeowner whispered, “Could you please send me an estimate to remove the tree?”

= = = = =

Over the next week or so, when they had their nightly phone calls, the daughter explained again what the doctor had told them.  How it was encouraging news.  Not a cure, but a way to deal with a difficult reality.

A path of hope.  Of extending life.  The daughter knew that the chance to prolong her mother’s time – as long as she continued to bear the treatment well and not be subjected to pain – offered the best option of all.

And for now, that felt like a victory.

= = = = =

The homeowner texted his wife and kids, letting them know that their beloved Zeus would soon be gone.  That tree felt like a part of the family, even if he had become just a part of the landscaping in recent years.

Warmed by stories and shared memories, the loss of Zeus still stung.  But his suffering was at last over.

And plans were set in motion to plant a new tree in his place.  Another Zeus, for another family to climb, chasing after kites and Frisbees, someday far into the future.

There’s always hope.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

T-Shirt Tuxedo

By Tim Hayes

Of the three bands at my high school, Marching Band was the most fun, Concert Band the most challenging, and Stage Band by far the coolest.

Playing drums in Stage Band opened up all sorts of possibilities.  We played jazz charts, meaning that different performers got to take extended solos – including the drummers – and the feeling of being carried forward under a swing beat that you were laying down?  Musical nirvana.

Chicks liked the Stage Band guys the best, too.  Never a bad thing for a bespectacled nerdnik like me.

Led by Mr. B, our director, we got introduced to the music of Maynard Ferguson, one of the greatest trumpet players in the world.  We listened to his albums relentlessly and played a couple of his charts in the Stage Band repertoire.  Fantastic stuff.

But we had no idea how close our little group of jazz aficionados stood to Maynard’s awesomeness until one day Mr. B introduced us at an evening rehearsal to Randy – a graduate of our high school and a living, breathing, real-life member of the Maynard Ferguson band!  Talk about knocking the wind out of sixteen stunned teenagers at once.

Only seven years older than me at the time, Randy not only performed on trombone with Maynard, but he arranged and was spotlighted on one of our favorite album’s tracks, “The Way We Were.”

But Mr. B wasn’t finished shellacking our senses yet.  Randy would be playing with us at our spring concert…performing his arrangement of “The Way We Were” with us!

Well, you could have knocked us over with a guitar pick at that point.

But here’s the thing I remember most about our Stage Band experience with Randy.  Having such an accomplished professional musician in the band – and one who came from the same hallways, lockers, classrooms, and musical experiences as the rest of us – actually made each of us play better.  Not more confidently necessarily, although that happened eventually, as well.  But better.  Definitely better.

It’s the same credo that great leaders in business, politics, sports, music, or any other profession follow.  When you attract the best people to your organization, it lifts everyone’s level of performance.  Leaders who can’t get past their own egos, who insist that they have all the answers and feel threatened by people with more talent in certain areas, usually get the corresponding lackluster results.

But those who actively seek out the stars, and surround themselves with the best minds and the best talent, win on nearly every level.  Their organizations benefit from such a wealth of ideas, people feel proud and empowered when they have opportunities to contribute, and the leader can be confident in the organization’s progress and the positive attention it generates.

The night of the concert, all of us Stage Band performers wore the uniform of the group – a ruffled shirt, black bow tie, and black slacks.  We took the stage and did the first two or three numbers on our own, and played well.  Then Mr. B introduced Randy and the place went nuts.

I attribute the reaction to two things.  First, the fact that this recent graduate of our school had achieved so much in his musical career in such a short time.  And second, because of the outfit he chose to honor his alma mater.

Randy strode onto the stage in blue jeans and a black T-shirt with a silk-screened image of a tuxedo.  At a city high school in the late 1970s, you couldn’t get much cooler than that.

Mr. B counted us into the arrangement, I laid down the beat, Randy played that trombone like nobody’s business, and the Stage Band made high school history that night.

The Way We Were, indeed.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

Delete the Adjectives

By Tim Hayes

“He went through a brief Egyptian Period that baffled me – he tried to walk flat a great deal, sticking one arm in front of him and one in back of him, putting one foot behind the other.  He declared Egyptians walked that way; I said if they did I didn’t see how they got anything done, but Jem said they accomplished more than the Americans ever did, they invented toilet paper and perpetual embalming, and asked where would we be today if they hadn’t?  Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

So says Scout Finch, the young protagonist of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Smart kid, that Scout.  Her father, the heroic attorney Atticus Finch, even smarter.

Delete the adjectives, indeed.  What is it about human nature that compels us to – as one PR professional I knew early on in my career called it – “decorate the truth.”  We hear a story, or a piece of gossip dripping with as much pulpy juice as an overripe peach, and when we repeat it to the next person down the chain, some new wrinkle gets added.  You know, just to make the story a little better, is all.

And the adjectives continue to pile up, as details become more dramatic, more scandalous, more interesting.  But less accurate?  Less fair?  Less worthy of our time and attention, even?

Skirting the facts and shaving the rules came into the sharp, bright, unforgiving light of the law this week, with announcement of a systemic sickness in higher education.  Made a touch more tawdry with the involvement of some C-list celebrities (Aunt Becky?  Say it isn’t so!), the FBI’s massive sting operation exposed a culture among admissions officials, athletic departments, wealthy parents, and others allegedly to ensure that certain candidates got into elite universities with the help of illegal bribes and payoffs.

The ramifications and impact of this scandal have yet to be felt in their full force, but promise to be significant.  And that is as it should be.  You break the law, you pay the consequences.

My fear, however, comes with the realization that this college admissions disaster represents only one symptom of a larger, hopelessly chronic disease.  As law enforcement officials treat the symptom, the disease crashes along its deeply destructive path, immune to any true, lasting cure.  The disease is this – too much of our culture has lost its moral bearings.

Maybe it’s always been this way, but we just didn’t realize how wide and deep the lack of shame, the belief that greed trumps good, the resistance to accept responsibility and shift blame, actually went.  Twitter, Instagram, texting, and all of the other means of immediate communication – combined with an insatiable lust for consumption of titillating information – has ripped the lid off of every malady known to man.  The Seven Deadly Sins, on full display, in living color, 24/7, and all at your fingertips.

Hats off to celebrities who do what they can to resist this seeping, creeping compulsion to drag people into the sewer.  Ellen DeGeneres, for instance, closes her show each day by saying, “Be kind to each other.”

The great Fred Rogers once advised us, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind.  The second way is to be kind.  The third way is to be kind.”

Film director Kevin Smith said, “Remember: It costs nothing to encourage an artist, and the potential benefits are staggering. A pat on the back to an artist now could one day result in your favorite film, or the cartoon you love to get stoned watching, or the song that saves your life. Discourage an artist, you get absolutely nothing in return, ever.”

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” six-year-old Scout watches as Atticus goes to court in 1930s Alabama to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.  The jury convicts the man anyway.  In the course of the story unfolding, Scout learns about racism, brutality, and mob rule.  The ugly parts of life that can overtake people so easily, as their allure becomes enhanced and embellished with tempting adjectives.

But she also learns about courage, morality, and love.  The simple, shining parts of life that need no embellishment.  They stand proudly on their own merits.  Their own facts.

Wouldn’t this be a better, safer, happier society if we all followed Atticus’ advice?  Delete the adjectives.  Find the facts.  Live simply.  Be kind to each other.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

Just Point

By Tim Hayes

About a decade ago, give or take, my parents moved from a single-family home into an apartment.  In the process, they downsized considerably, ridding the house of extraneous stuff, whittling down their wardrobes, holding garage sales, and shuffling whatever they could to my two sisters and me.

Visits to their apartment – small, but bright…close, but sufficient for their needs and lifestyle – seemed to bear witness to their success in downsizing.  It felt like they had what life required, and just enough of it.

Alas, that perception, my siblings and I discovered over the past month, had been cataclysmically optimistic.

The time came for my folks to move to a very nice, brand new, wonderful retirement complex, where they would still have their own apartment but not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or chances to socialize.  My siblings and I thought this place would be perfect too, so plans began to make it happen.

In helping to pack their “small” apartment, the crushing reality became abundantly clear.  You can still stuff a ton of stuff into a small space – so much so that you will have forgotten half of it’s even there until you start packing boxes for a move.

In no way is this phenomenon unique to my parents.  Actually, I may be the worst offender I know in this regard.

We’re not talking “Hoarders”-level psychosis, lord knows, but if we ever had to clean our house out for a move?  Well, it could turn into a career, is all I’m saying.

Our multi-level house has no basement, just a garage.  So the garage has become an ad hoc basement, with the cars sentenced to a life outdoors.  A freestanding shed – actually more like a cabin-sized structure – sits at the far end of our large backyard and has served as an ersatz storage facility.  Moving company boxes from 15 years ago, dusty Barbie Dream Houses, bikes with rusty pedals and flat tires, dead lawn mowers, even an old molded plastic wading pool, all wait out there in drafty silence for deliverance that has yet to arrive.

We swear up and down every spring to clean out that shed.  Still untouched.  Still waiting.  No emancipation just yet.  Maybe this will be the year, though, after seeing the results of accumulation and clutter achieved even by a diligent, fastidious couple like my parents.  I’ve often said that my shed issues could be solved quickly and easily with only two items: a can of kerosene and a match.

(Side comment to my insurance agent: That is a joke.  We now resume our blog, already in progress…)

A dear aunt passed away a couple of months ago, and with no children and a late husband, her will named my Mom as an executor.  We went through the house and realized it would be a Herculean effort to empty it, dispose of its contents, get it prepared for sale, and shepherd it through the entire real estate sales process.  Then, like Superman bounding from the sky, we found a guy willing to buy the property – all contents included – for a non-negotiable price, so that he could fix it up and flip it at a profit.

Sold!  A godsend.  But it also served as a cautionary tale for my folks, my sisters, and me.

Occasionally while tooling around town in my car, a commercial for one of those junk removal services comes on the radio.  They make it sound so simple.  “Just point!” the jolly junkman says.  “And whatever you point to will disappear!”  We got an estimate from those guys once.  You can guess what else will disappear when they arrive.  Your wallet, mostly.

So here we are, older, sadder, wiser, and every bit as overwhelmed with accumulated items as ever.  Mom and Dad – we’re happy for you in your new home.  You’re more downsized and streamlined than ever.  You’ve set an impossible standard for the rest of us to meet, but that’s okay.  At least we have something to aspire to.

Maybe I’ll take a walk back to that shed this weekend.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

The Portrait of Many Bright Colors (A Fable)

By Tim Hayes

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a man and a woman were given a son.  This little boy had very unusual qualities.  He called himself a prince.  He asked for a new mirror every Christmas and birthday.  He liked to tell his brothers and sisters and the children in his school what to do.  He believed he had the best words, the best ideas, the best everything that anyone ever had.  Only one problem bothered the prince.

He hated bright colors.

No one knew why.  His mother and father took him to the eye doctor, but the eye doctor said he had perfect vision.  Bright colors would not hurt him at all.  But the prince got very angry any time he viewed a picture with vivid blue or candy-apple red or juicy orange or shimmering gold colors.  He would purse his lips, narrow his eyes, jut out his chin, and make his face quiver with rage.

“How DARE you make me look at those bright colors!” the prince would roar.  “That’s the one thing I don’t want anyone else to do, but you did it anyway!  You’re fired!”  Which was another unusual trait of the prince, since he was five years old at the time, and couldn’t really fire anybody from anything.  He said it would be good practice for later in life.  He truly was an unusual little boy.

His father made Lego statues and models and buildings, and became very famous.  So famous, that his fortune grew and grew, and he gave the prince a boatload of money when he grew up for doing absolutely nothing at all.  That was fine with the prince, though, because it only served to feed his gargantuan self-image to even greater heights.

“Now I’m the most wonderful person in the world AND one of the richest!” the prince shouted at people as he rode down his shiny gold staircase.  “Now everyone will know what I have known since I was born.  And so, I think I should be much more famous than my father ever was.  I should be seen by millions of people.  I should tell them I am a genius, and they will believe me.  And why shouldn’t they?  It’s all true!  Oh, the wonderfulness of me!”

And in fact the prince got to be seen by millions of people, once a week.  And he told them he was a genius.  And so many – so, so many – people believed him.  And so, he decided to have his portrait painted so that people could look at it for centuries to come and remember what a perfect and perfectly stable genius he was.

As the prince sat for his portrait, he kept asking the artist to let him see the painting as it took shape, but the artist refused.  “No, I need to follow my vision without any distractions,” said the artist.  “I’m looking for truth.  The message my portrait must tell has to be based on facts.  The truth lives forever, after all.”  This required the prince to control himself, something he hated to do and was very bad at doing.  That’s why he rarely tried.  But he succeeded this time, knowing that any portrait of him would naturally be perfect and amazing and the best portrait in the history of portraits.

Finally, the big day arrived.  The artist stood next to the portrait at a Special Portrait Unveiling Ceremony that the prince had arranged, no expense spared.  Everybody came to see the prince’s portrait.  He couldn’t wait to see himself, his glorious self, painted forever on that portrait.

The artist pulled the draping from the portrait, and there it was.  A stunningly accurate and realistic representation of the prince, painted on canvas.  It had the vivid blue of his suit, made somewhere overseas.  It had the candy-apple red of his very, very long necktie.  It had the juicy orange of the spray-tan on his face.  But most of all, it had the shimmering gold of his marvel-of-engineering-and-Aqua Net, spun-candy hairdo.

“Oooh, ahhh!” cooed the crowd to the artist.  “This is unbelievable!”  “You have captured his essence in total!”  “Bravo, Maestro!  Bravo!”  “We are looking at pure truth!”

And all the while, the prince became angrier and angrier.  His lips pursed, his eyes narrowed, his chin jutted, and his face quivered with rage.  Finally, he could take no more.

“This portrait is an outrage!” stormed the prince.  “How DARE this artist actually paint something like this!  Look at all those bright colors!  I HATE bright colors!”

“But this portrait looks exactly like you,” the artist replied.  “My work reflects precisely how you look, how you carry yourself.  The image I placed on this portrait is based on 100-percent verified facts about you.”

The prince had heard enough.  No one had ever talked to him this way, confronting him with actual facts instead of accepting his view of the world without question.

“You, sir, are…” the prince shouted at the artist, “The Enemy Of The People!  Listen to me, everyone!  This artist should not be believed!  He has created a portrait of many bright colors, which are terrible things!  I command all of you to reject anything this artist ever creates again!”

And some of the people believed the prince.  Some of them shouted at the artist, and one even tried to break his easel and steal his paintbrushes.  But most people did not believe the prince.  Most knew the truth when it was presented to them.  They were not afraid of the truth – in fact, they welcomed it.  It had been hidden away from them for so long.

Eventually, that prince lost everything.  His free fortune, his fancy house, his golden staircase, his chance once a week to tell millions of people what a genius he was.  But that wasn’t the worst part.

The Portrait of Many Bright Colors had become famous around the world.  It became a top-rated computer screen saver image.  The dictionary used it to illustrate the word “truth.”  It even became a postage stamp.  The prince couldn’t avoid it, no matter how hard he tried.  And you’d better believe he tried.  But The Portrait of Many Bright Colors had become unbreakable, unassailable, and unavoidable, as the truth always does.

And even when he closed his eyes at night, the prince still envisioned that beautiful, amazing, wretched portrait of truth in his mind during his final moments of conscious thought before sinking into another night of fitful sleep.

And that, thought the prince, was the worst thing of all.

So the moral of the story is:  When faced with the truth, don’t fight it or try to outrun it.  For the truth always wins in the end.

The End.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

My Battery Is Low and It’s Getting Dark

By Tim Hayes

“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

Such came the final message from Opportunity, the amazing little engine that could, after roaming around the surface of Mars for the past 15 years, sending images back to NASA all that time from the Red Planet.

A ferocious dust storm finally did Opportunity in, clogging its portals, choking away its lifeblood of sunlight, and sending it to its Martian reward.  NASA never expected its interplanetary shutterbug to last anywhere near 15 years, but you know what they say: When Opportunity knocks…

After reading about its moving and ominous farewell statement, it got me thinking.

“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

Opportunity knew its time had come.

While comprised of sheet metal, gears, electronics, glass, and rubber, the Mars rover had animation but not emotion.  That final transmission merely stated the facts at hand, coldly and directly.  It said nothing about fear or anticipation or “moving toward the light” or any of the rising, swelling tide of thoughts and expressions that one might assume comes before the journey ultimately ends.

No, Opportunity simply reported that its battery had been depleted from a lack of solar energy, and that the dust storm – reportedly the size of North America – made its surroundings unusually dark.

When my time comes, I don’t want even that much warning.  I want to drop like a bag of hammers.  I don’t even want to know it’s coming.  Surprise me, please.  No pain, no shock, no sir.  One second: All in.  Next second: Lights out.

No prolonged bedridden scenes for me, please.  Just flip the switch, and see-ya.

I know, I’m a real chickenshit.  But at least I admit it.

“My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”

Of course, a low energy level or a sense of darkness doesn’t have to mean impending doom.  Most folks experience these scenarios a few times in their lives, and it’s not always a negative thing.

Lousy breaks happen.  As a self-sustaining entrepreneur for nearly 20 years, I’ve had clients fall away or change their minds at the last second.  Every now and then my cash flow gets bottlenecked by late client payments, which can create some anxiety about meeting my bill-paying obligations.

You get sick or injured, there’s an emergency with your extended family, you lose your job, your house gets flooded – pick your poison, but nobody’s spared the occasional, unplanned vicissitudes of life.

But you know what?  It’s when life tries to knock the crap out of you, that you really learn what you’re made of.

Being let go from a corporate job led to the greatest professional years of my life as a consultant.  Being diagnosed with cancer a quarter-century ago led to a change in attitude and an increase in gratitude.  Sporadic financial challenges have led to a firm belief that, alongside my wife, we can overcome anything together.

Even the intrepid Opportunity – which must have had some mechanical glitches along the way before the final one this past week – kept on going, way past its expected shelf-life.

I suppose what I’m saying is that when things get sucky, one needs to be plucky.  Never, ever, ever give up.  Keep the faith.  It’s when things get worse that you must not quit.  Stay calm and carry on.  All of those sayings, worn threadbare from constant use, remain in our minds because they state the truth.

Now, it’s quite late in the evening as I finish this essay, so you will please forgive me if I sign off here.  Because, in fact…my battery is low and it’s getting dark.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

Bumbershoot Big Shot

By Tim Hayes

After finally finding a garage with open spaces in Downtown Pittsburgh the other day, I dodged raindrops for the four-block walk to my next client appointment.  Fold-up umbrella in my hand, the sporadic drizzle didn’t warrant opening the thing up and carrying it all that distance.

But it got me thinking about how my attitude toward protective raingear has changed.  Radically so.

Picture this.  A little kid.  The mid-1960s.  Heading off to parochial school, black dress slacks, white polyester shirt, penny loafers, mini-trench coat, carrying a fun-sized briefcase with a big buckle on the front.  And the piece de resistance?  A full-length, grown-up sized, standard-issue umbrella.

You know, the one about three feet long, with a big curved wooden handle and the steel point on the end.  The one your Dad used to bring Grandma into the family car, so her perm stayed dry.  Yeah, that model.  The big one.  In the hands of a six-year-old dipstick hoofing his way to school.

I carried that monster umbrella every day in first grade.  Every.  Blessed.  Day.

It wasn’t enough, I suppose, to look like some pint-sized accountant, fresh from the Harvard Business School.  No, I had to carry this ridiculous bumbershoot, to boot.

Nobody had to tell me to dress for success, baby.  No, sir.  I was knockin’ ‘em dead in Sister Dorothy’s class, let me tell you.  Of course, nobody at that moment in time and in that parochial school’s culture wore T-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes.  Perish the thought, thought the parish.  But between the trench coat and the full-scale black umbrella – carried diligently, even on the sunniest days – I was GQ before any of us little first-grade twits knew what GQ was.

But one grows older and perspectives change.  That, plus by second grade, peer pressure had sunk its talons into my brain so deeply that the mere suggestion of taking an umbrella to school yielded dripping disdain.  An insult to my blossoming manhood.  It could be pouring buckets as my buddies and I began our 15-minute trek to school, but we just machoed it out all the way, sloshy socks and flat-hair heads be damned.

Of course, we walked home for lunch, then back to school, then home again every day.  So if the rain never let up, well, let’s just say that if the average human body is 60% water, us city punks had that beat by a country mile.  We weighed 10 more pounds, too, just from the waterlogged clothes on our backs.

Maybe the obsession with that umbrella in first grade laid the foundation for a lifetime of preparation.  Of cautious wisdom.  Of measuring twice and cutting once.  Or, to hell with all of that forced justification BS.  Maybe I was just a weird little kid who didn’t want his shrinky-dink trench coat or Tinkertoy briefcase to get wet.

Whatever the reason, it remains a real head-scratcher a half-century later.  None of our kids got the “I-must-carry-an-umbrella-every-single-day” gene.  In fact, one of them somehow always managed to find the sloppiest puddle of mud and water and bugs and crap and dog poop with every outdoor excursion.

I still don’t like to get soaked.  At least that insufferable pre-teen bravado nonsense got smacked out of me somewhere along the way.  But even now, unless it is absolutely coming down in sheets, I’ll keep the Totes tucked safely away, nice and dry, inside my real, grown-up, big-boy briefcase.

Somehow, I still believe, Sister Dorothy thought I was one of the cool kids. That crazy first-grade briefcase, trench coat, and umbrella.  What an unforgettable combo.  Somewhere, she remembers.  And smiles.  Me, too.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

Watchdog Down

By Tim Hayes

It could have been a school board director, a township commissioner, or a borough council president yammering on.  Some weeks it was all three.  Regardless of the elected body, though, there I sat, notebook and printed agenda in hand, pen rapidly scratching notes as the debate wore on.

Living the life of a general assignment reporter for a local community’s newspaper.  And loving it.

I’d drive back to the newsroom after the school board or local municipality meeting, usually around 9:30 p.m. or later, read my notes again, and start banging out the story for the next day’s paper.  Big issues, like…

– Would taxes increase?  By what millage?

– Would the school district spend more this year on marching band uniforms, the football stadium, or teaching supplies?

– Which local roads would be resurfaced this summer?

– How’s that bond issue for the new sewer system going?

I know.  Sexy as hell, right?  Well it was, if you looked at it the right way.

The big shots in Washington and Harrisburg had their own dramas that usually captured the major headlines.  But most times those issues never had the same impact on local homeowners and parents of schoolkids as the decisions made by those homespun boards and councils.

Having a member of the press there to keep a record of those discussions and votes made a difference.  A subtle difference in the grand scheme of things, maybe, but a critical difference nonetheless.

Imagine if the local paper stopped covering school board, borough council, or township supervisor meetings.  Imagine if local taxpayers and residents had no idea of decisions made affecting their homes, their mortgage payments, their streets and parks and businesses, even their kids.  Imagine if those local elected officials suddenly had no outside party holding them accountable, reporting on their statements, opinions, disagreements, and votes.

No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson wisely stated, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He knew that for a democracy to succeed, its people had to know what their elected officials were doing.  Only armed with that knowledge could the people make informed, intelligent decisions about their government – even on a small scale like your hometown borough or school district.  Perhaps most of all at that level, in fact.

Well, guess what, TJ?  I’m afraid I have some bad news about the news these days.  We are rapidly sliding downward into a nation of government without newspapers – the very situation you said would be most dangerous.

According to a story* published by the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, “Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost more than 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers…this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.”

Columnist Megan McArdle** in The Washington Post describes it as follows:

“About 15 percent of the newsroom will be laid off at BuzzFeed; 7 percent at the media division of Verizon, which owns AOL, HuffPost and Yahoo. And newspaper chain Gannett swung the ax through several of its publications last week, including the Indianapolis Star, the Tennessean and the Arizona Republic. The brutal round of layoffs was hardly the first to hit the industry…we’re watching the destruction of most of the nation’s journalistic capacity.  Fifteen years have been spent in a fruitless search for a viable business model that will support the kind of journalism the country expects…informing the public about the everyday, noncontroversial stuff that makes up the bulk of media content.

“Journalism’s likely future is in a small number of media companies expanding and a large number collapsing,” McArdle continues. “That obviously means big changes ahead…large swaths of the free internet are going to be paywalled off, and readers and journalists alike will have to learn to think of news as their parents did: as something you pay for, or do without.”

And as if the savage economics of modern journalism weren’t bad enough, we have the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly lobbing verbal bombs at reporters – all in an effort, as he has admitted himself, to discredit journalists so that he can do what he wants without criticism.  Good God Almighty.  Where’s Jefferson when you need him?

Look, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, they’re not going anywhere. They have the national reputations and the financial scale to survive and grow.  But they’re not sending anybody to sit through the Sanitary Sewer Committee hearing in your township, are they?

Only local journalism would do that.  Whether they can or not is the question.

Back when I worked at the paper, as I came through the door to the newsroom at night to file my stories, at least four or five other reporters sat at their keyboards doing the very same thing.  That was about half of the full complement of full-time reporters we had working the entire county – plus around four copyeditors and page managers.

The last time I stuck my head in that newsroom, they only had one and a half reporters on staff, total.  That’s not going to cut it.

Support your local media.  Pay for a subscription.  If you’re a local business owner, purchase ads.  Insist that your local governmental bodies get covered.  They’re making decisions that impact you a lot more than the three-ring circus in DC ever will.

Think of it this way.  When no one’s minding the store, it’s easier to rob.  Make sure somebody’s always minding the store.  They’re called reporters.  And we need them.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes

Monday Monday

By Tim Hayes

While lazily flipping through the channels late one evening, I stumbled onto one of those half-hour pitches for music CDs, this batch featuring songs from the ‘60s.  Staring with mildly scandalized expressions at the hairstyles and fashions shown on grainy old Ed Sullivan clips, I saw tune after tune scroll up the screen.

A pretty harmless way to turn one’s brain off for 30 minutes or so.  Until, that is, the Mamas and the Papas suddenly burst forth with their classic, “Monday, Monday.”  And it all came flooding back.

On the block where I grew up, we had a back alley and an entire row of additional neighbors behind our house.  About halfway down that back street, a family had a son, an only child.  An anomaly in our predominantly Catholic neighborhood.

This kid was four or five years older than me, so we weren’t really friends.  But the homes on our street – including the back alley – stood practically on top of each other, so it was damn near impossible to not at least know everybody, even tangentially.

Anyway, since he was the only child, the talk among the guys running around the neighborhood seemed to always come back to the notion that he got special treatment.  He never had to share anything with brothers or sisters.  His parents gave him pretty nice stuff – at least according to the astronomically subjective judgment of our universe of urban knuckleheads.

A brand-new 10-speed bike.  A really good telescope.  The best tennies.

But the gift that blew everyone away, and set this poor guy up for the everlasting resentment of every guy within a three-block area?  A paved asphalt basketball half-court in his backyard, complete with a brand-new pole, hoop, net, and painted foul line.

This soared so far beyond the pale as to be downright criminal, said the judges, jury members, and executioners up and down the street.  Who did this kid think he was?  The older fellows on the block – the ones closer to his age – became determined to knock Mister Showoff down a peg or two.

They came up with the idea that each time a new gift got bestowed on him, it happened on a Monday.  Whether this conclusion actually had any truth behind it, I couldn’t say.  To be generous, it was doubtful.  It just happened to fit the juvenile justice the guys wanted to mete out, so they went with it.

From the day that half-court appeared, every time this kid emerged from his house, or walked down the sidewalk, or could be spotted anywhere in public, his tormentors would start sing-shouting, “MONDAY, MONDAAAAAYYYYY!!!”

At first, he looked at them like they had a few screws loose.  Not a bad diagnosis, actually.  But when it kept happening – and he couldn’t find anybody to play basketball on his half-court – the shunning had its desired effect.  He withdrew.  The half-court stood virtually unused.  The asphalt cracked after a couple of winters, grass growing through the openings.

Watching this happen as a kid, and recalling it all these decades later, even though I only saw it and never participated in it, still makes me angry, sad, ashamed.  Jealously and resentment are ugly things.

After all, his parents did what all of our parents tried to do – give their kid the best they could.  He had no reason to be ashamed of anything.  But when adolescents want to hurt a peer, their efforts can be absolutely peerless.

Truth be told, though, adults occasionally can be just as petty, shallow, and cruel.  The difference comes in expressing jealousy by belittling and criticizing the “offending” party through gossip and subterfuge.  The testosterone-soaked guys on my childhood street at least had the guts to do it face-to-face to their victim.

Good gravy, regardless of one’s age, what a waste of time, effort, and brain cells!  No one comes out a winner in these scenarios.  Why can’t people stay within their lanes, take care of improving themselves first, and celebrate when others enjoy success?

Actually, we can all take a page from John the Baptist, of all people.  In the scripture narration, when Jesus began preaching, he did some baptizing of his own.  John’s followers got ticked off, can you believe it?  Who was this new guy, crowding in our turf?  He’s stealing some of your shine, John!  What gives?  We don’t like this!  They wanted retribution, restitution, remuneration from this upstart preacher.

John put them back in line, telling his group that the story would continue – but that his chapter was ending.  Don’t begrudge this new player on the scene.  Let him do his thing.  Give him his due.  He’s not hurting anyone, so don’t sweat it.

Pretty solid advice.  On Monday, Monday or any other day of the week.  Worry about making your own life sweeter, and be cool about how other people build their story.

Whispered words of wisdom.  Or, from another great ‘60s-era song, let it be.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes