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Flag Day Funk

By Tim Hayes

A couple of weeks ago, heavy rains and strong, gusty winds tore through our little corner of the world, blowing window screens into the driveway and snapping the cord that held up our American flag outside the front door.

This past Thursday, June 14, I finally got around to restringing the pole and raising Old Glory once again.  My rationale?  Why, it was Flag Day, of course.

As the grommets got reattached and the cord secured once again, the Stars and Stripes returned to their majestic height.  Normally, such a sight would stir pride and reassurance in my mind and heart about what our flag represents.

But this time, that sensation – while still stirring dimly in the recesses of my mind – had trouble rising much beyond that slow simmer.  And I have my guesses as to why.

Earlier that same day, our hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, fired its editorial cartoonist of the past 25 years, Rob Rogers.  Many surmised the firing stemmed from Rogers’ regular criticism of the current administration in Washington.

You might think, well, so what?  People get let go every day.  True enough.  But this person was fired for doing his job.  An editorial cartoonist is not an illustrator, merely there to create images to accompany ideas or thoughts generated by other people.  An editorial cartoonist’s sole purpose is to shine a critical, creative, occasionally humorous, but always bright light on issues and personalities affecting the public – no matter who is in office.

Had Rogers’ cartoons been withheld from publication in the past?  He told CNN yes, that had happened before.  Usually two or three submissions a year would be pulled for whatever objection or reason, Rogers said.  In 2018, from March through May, though, the newspaper prevented 19 of Rogers’ cartoons from publication.  It ran absolutely none in June before showing him the door.

To my mind, such a record so far and so egregiously surpasses any boundaries of taste or discretion, and instead races – careens, smashes, blasts – its way straight into censorship.  Post-Gazette leadership blames the decision on Rogers’ unwillingness to submit to edits reflecting changes in the organization’s editorial perspective.

If that’s the case, then I believe his position is even more justified.  His role is to present his political opinion through satire.  The editorial board of the newspaper runs two or three written editorials every day to state its opinions.  The cartoonist is allotted his space to do the same.

Over a 25-year span, Rogers had taken shots with his pen at Republican and Democratic administrations at the federal, state, and local levels, administering his unique visual style and insightful wit.  No one was immune, which again proves how well he did his job.  One of his regular targets, in fact, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, rose to Rogers’ defense once the news of his firing had spread.

“This is precisely the time when the constitutionally protected free press – including critics like Rob Rogers – should be celebrated and supported, and not fired for doing their jobs,” said the mayor.  “I’ve known Rob a long time. That has never stopped him from publishing cartoons that are critical of me, of my policy positions, or of my actions (or inactions) in office. He’s even made fun of my weight. But he is one of the best in the world at his time-honored craft, and I know people of all political persuasions stand with me in support of him, even if the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regrettably does not.”

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh issued a statement saying, in part, “It appears Rob’s only transgression was doing his job – providing satirical comment based on his political views of the world…The public should be assured that PG newsroom employees – 150 reporters, photographers, copy editors, artists, and others represented by the Guild – will continue to produce award-winning, unbiased journalism.  Democracy depends on it.  As we do so, we mourn the fact that the PG editorial pages apparently are no longer the free marketplace of ideas.”

And that is the point.  Every day the newspaper dedicates two full pages, with absolutely no advertising, to present what should be an open exchange of viewpoints and opinions.  Left wing, right wing, moderate – all should be welcome, all should be heard.  Whether you agree with another’s ideas or not, you have the opportunity to learn and discern for yourself.

Why would an editorial cartoonist’s view deserve to be banished from that open exchange?  It doesn’t.  It shouldn’t.  But here in Pittsburgh, it has been.

Anybody who knows me knows that I believe with all my heart that the First Amendment deserves to be protected and defended against any individual or organization that wants to weaken or alter its clear and definitive declaration safeguarding freedom of the press.  This week, to our community’s disservice, it happened here.  Shame on  you, Post-Gazette.  Shame on you – a newspaper, of all things! – for turning your back on press freedom.

I look up at the flag flying once more above my home, and I hang onto the hope that we will eventually find our way back from this darkness.  Maybe by next Flag Day.

And I hope that Rob Rogers makes a million dollars someplace else, where his amazing talent gets the respect it has earned.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Of Poetry and Pie

By Tim Hayes

My friend Tom and I sat at his mother’s dining room table, agonizing over this accursed high school English assignment – reading Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  And as though that weren’t tortuous enough, our teacher expected us to actually think about it and offer our own personal analysis of the various characters’ motivations.

Gawwwwwd.  Take me now, Lord.  I’m ready. I mean, who talks like this?  To a couple of teenage city punks, this play might as well have been written in Mandarin.

Tom and I ended up exercising the lone alternative the teacher offered regarding that assignment.  We went to the movie version, which had been showing at a theater not far away.  Olivia Hussey and some dude you never heard of playing Romeo.  Just about every other male student in that class could be found there, as well.  We sat through two hours of popcorn-addled pain, showed our teacher the ripped ticket stub in class the next day, and were off the hook.

Sixteen is too young to be expected to appreciate Shakespeare, or the impact of good poetry.  “Romeo and Juliet” may not be a poem, per se, but with the post-high school accumulation of deeper wisdom, one can at least begin to appreciate the power, precision, and pace behind the selection and placement of each word.

Sure, it’s a lot easier to swim around the shallow end of the poetry pool with ditties like this:

Carnation Milk is the best in the land / Here I sit with a can in my hand / No udders to pull, no hay to pitch / You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch

Or how about those old roadside signs:

No lady likes / To dance or dine / Accompanied by / A porcupine – Burma Shave

If Honey shuns / Your fond embrace / Don’t shoot the milkman / Feel your face – Burma Shave

But as life slams you around like eggs in a blender a time or two, picking up a book of poetry somehow loses its intimidation factor.  In just a few phrases, suddenly your troubles find their soulmates.  Other people have been through the same shitstorm you’re enduring, and they made it – at least long enough to write this poem about it, anyway.  And you discover the courage and hope that seemed so distant, just minutes earlier.

Waiting for some small intimate reminder / A word, a tune, a known familiar scent / An echo from the past, when innocent / We looked upon the present with delight / And doubted not the future would be kinder / And never knew the loneliness of night 1

My guess is that even poets know their product can be a tough sell at times.  Check this one out:

I was going to write a poem, I made a pie instead / It took about the same amount of time / Of course the pie was a final draft / A poem would have had some distance to go / Everybody will like this pie / It will have apples and cranberries and dried apricots in it / Many friends will say why in the world did you make only one / This does not happen with poems 2

Poetry also can bring the reader beauty, peace, thoughtfulness, patience, an open heart.  And these days, what better gift?

Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me / A hand’s width and two generations away / In this still present I am fifty-three / You are not yet a full day / I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept / Awhile, to tell you what I would have said / When you were who knows what and I was dead / Which is, I stood and loved you while you slept 3

Which brings me back to “Romeo and Juliet.”  I’ve been to too many funerals over the years, and one passage from that play seems to find its way into most eulogies because it’s just too perfect.  Robert F. Kennedy also used it at the 1964 Democratic National Convention during a speech where he offered a tribute to his late brother, the president.

When he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun

That’s poetry.  Time to read some Shakespeare again.  Or a favorite book of poetry.  With a much more open mind than I had at 16.

I wonder what Olivia Hussey’s doing tonight?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

1 From: “Nothing Is Lost” by Noel Coward.

2 From: “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative” by Grace Paley.

3 From: “A Poem for Emily” by Miller Williams.

Turning Violet Around

By Tim Hayes

Everybody knew about Violet.

A longtime employee, Violet carried a pretty sizeable chip on her shoulder.  She enjoyed creating havoc.  She had a masterful way of pitting her peers against each other one day, then uniting them in vocal opposition to their shared manager the next.  She had perfected the art of swatting at a hornet’s nest until it shattered, then getting away cleanly, leaving others to feel the stings.

Violet was a seasoned rabble-rouser, a veteran cage-rattler, an accomplished troublemaker, in other words.

I had been hired by her company quite a few years ago as a consultant to help improve teamwork, communication, and the overall esprit de corps among its employees.  Small groups cycled through a day-long event at regular intervals until just about everyone had a chance to participate, so I knew it would only be a matter of time and the luck of the draw before I found Violet in the room.

When the fateful day arrived, I made my personal introductions to every participant as usual, thanking them for attending and saying how glad I was that they were there.  After a few minutes of coffee, donuts, and small talk, we reached the time to begin the day’s events.  I stood up and said, “Well, good morning again, everyone.  Welcome to today’s workshop.  As you know –“

“Excuse me!” the voice from the back table shouted.  Violet, naturally.  She was just getting warmed up.

“Why are we here, instead of doing our real jobs?  Who are you?  How much is the company paying you for this silliness, instead of giving us raises?”

We weren’t 10 seconds into this all-day event, and Violet had unloaded her arsenal, with the intent of blasting the whole thing completely off the rails and guarantee a difficult day for everyone.

Mentally, I faced a fork in the road.  I either could take her on directly, which virtually guaranteed a descent into argument, distraction, and chaos, or I could go another route.  I took a breath, gulped a bit for courage, and chose the latter.

“I understand those concerns, but I’m asking you to hang with me, at least until the first break.  This will not be a typical day on the job, by any means.  I think it will be a lot more fun, and you’re still going to get paid for a full day’s work!  If we get to the first break and you still want to go back to work at that point, you can.”

Silence.  Curious looks on many faces.  Somehow, I had their attention.  Maybe even the dawning of respect.  My monologue continued.

“I’d like to ask each of you a favor.  Stay open to the spirit of the day.  I guarantee it will all make sense, and relate to what you do every day on the job.  But I need to ask you to give it a chance, and stick with me for an hour or so, at least.  Can I count on all of you to do that?”

Then a miracle happened.

“All right,” said Violet.  And the rest of the room agreed.

Before the day ended, Violet had volunteered for two games, won one competition, asked to have her picture taken next to a “sculpture” she and her tablemates made during one activity, and contributed a number of tangible action items to be used back on the job to help build a stronger sense of teamwork.  She had been completely turned around, and I think I know why.

She had been treated with respect.  Her opinions were acknowledged.  She had been asked to do something, not told.  And she responded in ways that surprised even her peers.

Now, whether all that goodwill spilled over into the next day back at the jobsite, I honestly couldn’t tell you.  But at least for the day she and I spent together with the group, she had fully bought into the spirit of cooperation and participation.

It’s actually pretty simple.  People just want to know they’re respected and valued.  Even ones with the toughest reputations.  Is it a foolproof formula?  Maybe not.

But it’s what turned Violet around that morning, I have absolutely no doubt.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Sacred Space

By Tim Hayes

This would be a special day, so I wore my best suit and favorite tie.  On this day, I would be meeting a personal hero.  I didn’t want to let him down, after all he did for me and my family.

Standing amid a group of other professionals in a special section of the Pittsburgh International Airport, each of us shined up and looking our best, we waited for this man to arrive.  The air fairly crackled with electricity in anticipation.  I looked down one of the concourses, and saw him approach.

The creases of his khaki pants fluttering in the wake of his rapid stride, his small, neat black bow tie bobbing jauntily around his wrinkled neck, and his wire-rimmed glasses bouncing atop his nose, he presented quite the picture.  The picture of a man completely at home in his own skin.  And a man who could make you feel the same way about yourself.

He bounded directly toward the gaggle of grown-ups, flashed that familiar smile…and walked right past us.  The air went out of the room for a moment, until we realized what he had in mind all along.  He went straight for the kids, who had gathered there to see him, as well.

Immediately, he squatted down to speak with them at their level, and the hugs began.  Little one after little one lunged at this skinny 70-something, their eyes wide, not with fear or apprehension – but with a hearty feeling of friendship and love.

Fred Rogers – “Mister Rogers,” he of the famous PBS television “Neighborhood” – had come to visit.

These recollections came to me because 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of what would become a legendary career in television.  A PBS special commemorating Fred Rogers has been airing for the past couple of months, and a special feature film is slated to hit theaters this summer.  Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, and the world’s been a little sadder ever since.

I was at the airport that day many years ago as part of my company’s sponsorship of an interactive display for children based on his program, which was produced at Pittsburgh’s public television station.  We had organized an unveiling of the display at its permanent home within the airport, complete with corporate big-wigs, local political leaders, the works.

But none of those high-falutin’ executives and power brokers could hold a candle to Fred Rogers’ ability to command attention, respect, and admiration.  That gentle voice and manner he displayed on television was no act.  Fred Rogers, an ordained minister, once said that the area between a TV screen and a child was “sacred space,” and he worked his entire adult life to fill that space with holiness, comfort, and peace.  He shared that same grace in his personal interactions, as well.

As a special bonus to my work related to the airport display project, Fred invited me and my then-preschooler daughter to the local PBS studio to watch a taping of a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode.  We were one of a number of kids and parents there that day, as you could well imagine.

My little girl brought a small doll she carried with her everywhere.  Mister Rogers stooped down to meet her and asked what her doll’s name was.  “Boy,” she whispered, glancing up at me for a quick “just-making-sure-you’re-still-there-Dad” check.  “That’s a very nice name,” said Mister Rogers.  “I’ll bet Boy goes with you lots of places, doesn’t he?”  She nodded and started to smile.  “I’m glad you’re here today with Boy.”  Then he smiled at both of us and went on to make friends with the next little family down the line.

I had the chance to visit Fred Rogers in his office sometime later for another purpose, and in the space where he wrote innumerable personal notes of encouragement to his young viewers, and where he interacted with friends and visitors who wanted to learn from his unique brand of wisdom, after we had conducted our business he made a request that no one else had ever done, before or since.

He asked me to pray with him.

It’s tough to pinpoint people who you know, absolutely know, in your mind and heart and bones, are filled with grace and are headed straight to heaven when their time comes.  But I sure knew one, even if only for a short time.  Happy Anniversary, Fred.  Keep filling that sacred space.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Converting Nostalgia Into Action

By Tim Hayes

I grew up in a great place, in a great time.  Mt. Oliver Borough, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, to be precise.

The old-style corner store, run by the older couple, who’d extend your folks credit until payday, and who aired their family business all day in front of their loyal customers.  Every time you got sent up to the store for milk and bread, you got treated to another live episode of “The Secret Storm: Yinzer Edition.”

The municipal park, just through the neighbor’s yard and down a well-worn hillside dirt path, where we played pickup baseball, football, basketball, even shuffleboard.  The place where I learned to keep score in a baseball scorebook for the Little League teams, where I caught my first nasty batch of poison ivy, and where my friends and I kept a special playing card (with a sexy picture of a girl) hidden under a carefully chosen rock, for prying male pre-adolescent eyes only.

And the Catholic elementary school, the neighborhood movie theater, the local library, the record shop, the swimming pool, and a hundred other landmarks that created and cemented the landscape of my formative years.  Growing up in Mt. Oliver was truly something and someplace special.

Yet for all of those places I recall so well, it’s the faces that created the memories.  A store or a pool or a theater or a classroom?  They’re just structures, physical creations, bricks and glass and mortar without any life of their own.

But the old couple filling your bag with penny candy?  The thrill of jumping off a diving board for the first time, with your buddies cheering you on?  The friend from school who’d sneak you a bootleg bag of Nibs, your favorite licorice, before the movie started?  Or the nun who ran her fifth-grade classroom in a new way, who respected her students as emerging adults, and who injected the year with fun and enthusiasm?  These were the people who made the experience so great.

As a professional writer, I regularly send out weekly blog essays to a distribution list of about 400 people.  This has been done for the past six or seven years.  About a year and a half ago, I realized that a sizeable chunk of these essays dealt with the faces and places of my childhood in Mt. Oliver, so I put them together into a book titled, “Growing Up Giffin: Reflections on a Happy Steeltown Boyhood.”  (My house was on Giffin Avenue.)

A true labor of love, the book has performed very well on Amazon*.  But during the period when it was in development, a thought occurred to me – while it’s personally gratifying to share these stories in book form, wasn’t there something more that could be done?  Singing the praises of a community that has changed considerably in the intervening years might be nice, but why stop there?  The realization in that moment marked the point where I decided that all proceeds from the sale of “Growing Up Giffin” would be donated to local economic development efforts working to revitalize my old Mt. Oliver hometown.

Interestingly, when I first approached the leaders of the economic development groups, they sounded skeptical.  The unspoken message seemed to be, “How could we possibly believe that a person, completely out of the blue, would show up and offer to give away money, no strings attached?”  Well, more than $1,500 later, I’m pretty sure they believe it now.

And not only that, but they have been kind enough to ask me to become more directly involved.  That’s why today, I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors of the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation.  The energy, the devotion, the relentless spirit of reality-tempered optimism that this group, and that of the Economic Development South partner organization, bring to recovery and business generation efforts in Mt. Oliver continues to impress and inspire.

I know that this is a long-term play.  I understand that the path to building a healthy, vibrant business district and safe, healthy neighborhoods will be many years in the making.  All I have to do is take a walk or a short drive around to see the truth of this.  The corner store – gone, boarded up.  The pool – filled in and converted into asphalt basketball courts.  The theater – long closed, now a gathering place for worship.  The elementary school – a shell of its former self, abandoned and unused for decades.

But, as I said before, those were only structures.  The life of the community did not rely on those places.  People made the difference when I was a kid, and people will make the difference again today.

I would not have traded my experience “Growing Up Giffin” for anything in the world.  But my old hometown has seen some tough times in the years since I ran down the hill to the park, or chomped a bag of Nibs in the movies.  Nostalgia got me thinking about the old town, and that provided a good start, a solid launchpad.  Seeing so many good people working so hard to bring the place all the way back, though, converted that nostalgia into active involvement.  I’m just getting my feet wet, but I’m all in.

It’s worth the time, the effort, the disappointments and delays, the wins and the steps toward progress.

My message here is clear – you can do the same thing.  Is there a cause, or a community, or an organization that represents something special to you, your family, the history of your life?  I can guarantee that, once you identify that special mission, you’ll find they could use your help.  Jump in.  Do your research.  Reach out and offer your time, talent, and willingness to pitch in.

In my case, it was the chance to help revitalize the place where I got started.  The opportunity to return the favor to the neighborhood I loved so much as a kid.  Whatever “it” may be for you, get involved.  The best way to feel great about yourself is to get outside of yourself – and do something great for others.

* “Growing Up Giffin” is available in paperback and Kindle editions on amazon.com at: https://www.amazon.com/Growing-Up-Giffin-Reflections-Steeltown/dp/1544955987/ref=pd_ybh_a_5?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=DQ3T1ZNQ0AXY8SGJ15SZ.  All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the revitalization of Mt. Oliver Borough in Pittsburgh.

A Study In Trash

By Tim Hayes

Would you trust a bunch of 12-year-old boys, armed with brushes and stencils and buckets of oil-based paint, turned loose on the utility poles of your local municipality’s main business district?

Well, they did in 1973.  And pockets of proof can still be seen, barely, all these years later on a handful of those old metal standards.

As the U.S. of A. approached its Bicentennial in 1976, the borough thought it would be a nice idea to repaint the metal poles along the business corridor – red and white stripes on the lower three feet or so, and blue with white stars for the upper three feet.  And they let us kids do it.

You can bet I got onto that crew, pronto.  That’s because every other kid working that summer Saturday was engaged picking up trash and depositing it into red, white, and blue barrels with “Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean” stenciled onto them.  An image of one of those barrels, in fact, could be seen on the free T-shirts we all wore during this participatory exercise in civic pride.

Of course, “free” can be a relative term.  Officials from the borough did not charge us money when they handed out the T-shirts, true, but we worked for them nonetheless that blistering day.  Inhaling that oil-based paint in high-90s temperatures?  By dinner, we didn’t know our last names.

Then there’s the story of how the T-shirts even made it to Mt. Oliver for the big day at all.  I had never heard this until very recently – more than 40 years after the fact – but my Dad and another father had to drive, on extremely short notice, across state lines into the dark recesses of rural Ohio to pick up boxes of shirts that the silk-screener never shipped.

Not exactly “Smokey and the Bandit” smuggling Coors beer east across the Mississippi, but every bit as thrilling, no doubt.  What Dads don’t do, huh?

I remember “Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean” day quite vividly.  Not because painting iron telephone poles was such a jolly job, but because my friends and I felt pride in helping our hometown get spruced up.  We liked our town, we liked the fact that we lived there, and we liked the idea of pitching in to make it even better.

Years later, during my time working for the state Transportation Department as a district PR representative, I got assigned management of the annual “Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful” project for our six-county region in the Laurel Highlands.  This KPB job had been a moribund millstone around my boss’ neck for years, and he took great delight in sloughing it off on the new guy.  Me.

Whether I took it as a personal challenge to prove the boss wrong, or whether I felt compelled to conjure up positive vibes from the good old days in Mt. Oliver with my trash barrel T-shirt, but by the time the big KPB day rolled around two months later, our district had quintupled the number of Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, entire classrooms and school buildings, civic clubs, you name it, participating.

We had secured sponsorship by a regional convenience store, a bottling company, and a snack food producer, to provide a free lunch to all participants showing their KPB badge.  We had conducted nearly 30 school assemblies to generate awareness and interest.  Our little district, so often left in the dust, turned the project around so impressively that the Secretary of Transportation made a special trip to join some litter-pickup groups, and even got his free hot dog, Coke, and bag of chips at the convenience store.

Turns out that being a good citizen has multiple additional benefits.  At least it has for me along the way.

Today is Earth Day.  All over the nation this weekend, you can find local municipalities sponsoring events, including civic cleanup projects and other initiatives to take greater care of the resources entrusted to us.

If you are taking part in one of these activities, that’s great.  If you haven’t, then please try to do all you can to keep your little section of the world clean and green.  Or organize a cleanup day yourself.  Or make your elected and appointed representatives know that this subject deserves our ongoing attention and action.

Photos posted on Facebook last week show how cleanup efforts continue in my old hometown.  It’s great to know that, decades after we jumped in with our paint brushes and trash barrels, people still care enough to Help Keep Mt. Oliver Clean.

Hope it’s the same where you live, today and every day.  Happy Earth Day.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Mushrooms: A Love Story

By Tim Hayes

“Would you look at this kid?  He could be a brain surgeon.”

The chatter from my parents around the Formica-topped kitchen table became nothing more than background noise.  Important work lay before me.  Lengthy, precise, essential work.

Picking microscopic chunks of mushroom out of that evening’s tuna casserole dinner entrée, that is.

Made with cans of tuna fish, bread crumbs, and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup as a binder, I guess, tuna casserole occupied a regular spot in the starting supper menu rotation.  And on those evenings when it took the mound, I knew it was gonna be a long night.

The Campbell Soup Company – long before the days when anybody could even guess what “Chunky” soup meant – minced up mushrooms into teeny-tiny pieces to go into its canned product.  Not small enough to slip by unnoticed, but just big enough to stand out as miniature tastebud bombs, which needed to be extracted one by one from the dish served to me.  At least in my binary world of really good (hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs) and unspeakably terrible (liver, city chicken) food selections.

Using tines of a fork, the edge of a butter knife, or the tip of a spoon, each shrinky-dink piece of mushroom got moved to the outer rim of my plate.  A monument to grade school stubbornness from one perspective; a tribute to stick-to-it-iveness from another.

Either way, that gross, disgusting pile of mushroom flotsam would never make it past my gums.  No sir, no how, no way.

Fast-forward to high school, and a side booth at “Danny O’Doogle’s,” the pizza shop a half-block from our school building.  There with a bunch of my friends, scarfing down cheap, borderline-quality pizza and generally horsing around, my best buddy – before I knew it – flipped a big old hunk of something onto the slice I was lifting to my mouth.

I took a bite and immediately noticed something different.  A new texture, a new taste, a new mouthfeel, new vistas opening somewhere in my life.  After chewing and evaluating this unanticipated culinary delight, I swallowed and smiled.  The other kids around the table, by this time, were laughing, thinking they’d gotten the better of me.  But I really liked it, whatever “it” had been.

When told the source of my edible epiphany had been a mushroom, well, you could have knocked me over with an anchovy.

From that day forward, mushrooms became an obsession.  In salads, on pizzas, between layers of ham and cheese on sandwiches, I made room for the ‘shrooms.  As our children grew up, I understood what my parents were thinking about me as a kid.  They couldn’t bear to look at a mushroom, much less eat one.  “Okay, fine, good,” I’d say to myself.  “More mushrooms for me, then!”

Then, a couple of years ago, an allergist performed a “scratch test” to see if any foods or entities might have been causing a recurring rash.  The test came back with all kinds of wacky, off-the-wall allergens, and one absolute crusher.

Yeah.  You guessed it.  Mushrooms.

Our family knows all about how dangerous and serious food allergies can be, so the scratch-test news landed with soul-pulverizing reality, but also a clear dose of realism about the need to stay away from my moldy soulmate from that day onward.  No more fungi for this fun guy.

My love affair smited by modern medicine, mushroom mania soon gave way to an infatuation with black olives.  An infatuation that has only grown over time.  Salads, pizza, in between ham and cheese.  Old habits die hard.  Only the variables change, I suppose.

Every now and then, however, a cook at a restaurant will slip up and leave mushrooms in a dish that I had ordered de-shroomed.  And suddenly I’m six years old again, back at that Formica-topped kitchen table, carefully extricating bits of mushrooms from my dinner, stacking them onto a pile at the far rim of my plate.

You know, perhaps Mom was right.  Maybe I could have been a brain surgeon.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Archie and the Hose

By Tim Hayes

In my old neighborhood, green space remained at a premium.  We had a small backyard, a strip of grass beside the house, and a tiny patch in front.

To prove the point, we had a manual push-mower from Sears.  No gas engine, no extension cord, just you and any kinetic energy you could summon and transfer to the blades.

It wasn’t hard work, but you can imagine the stink I raised whenever it came time for me to cut the grass.  You’d have thought I’d been asked to mow the fairways at Augusta at 4 a.m., when in truth the acreage to be cut might have only been enough for a fair putting green.

So, the ability to sport a decent a lawn – even a Fun-Size one – meant something in my old neighborhood.  Because the grassy spaces had been so diminutive, everybody took a little extra care to keep them cut, trimmed, and maintained.

Everybody but Chick, that is.  Chick lived next door, one house higher than us on the slanted street.

Even though they lived literally 10 feet from my bedroom window, I never understood Chick and his family.  He lived there with a sister about the same age as him, late 20s or early 30s, and a younger brother, Archie.  I assume their parents lived there years earlier, but long before my memory kicked in.

My best guess says that Archie might have been a year or so older than me, but that never became clear.  I couldn’t tell you what grade he attended, because it seemed to get switched around a lot.  Archie was “a little different,” the grown-ups on the block would say.  Be careful around him.

But I never saw Archie do anything weird or dangerous or threatening.  He didn’t talk a lot and didn’t hang around with the guys on the street or down at the park, but so what?  We’d play Wiffle Ball in the alley right outside his back window, but he never came out to join the game.  I didn’t think much of it.  Yet, for some reason, we had been warned about getting too close to Archie.  And he lived next door to me, naturally.

One spring, Chick decided he’d had enough of all this extensive lawn care, and did the unthinkable – he had his entire backyard cemented into an off-street (off-back alley, actually) parking lot.  Just one more proof point that this family up the hill had at least one screw loose.  Probably more, but who wanted to be the one to take inventory?

But Chick didn’t stop there.  Next, he brings home a puppy.  A puppy, and no backyard to run around on, or to do his business in, so to speak.  I guess they took him over to the narrow strip of lawn beside their house for the first month, but a 25-by-5-foot patch of grass can only take so much fertilization.

So Chick shifted to Plan B.  Even more unthinkable than paving over the backyard.  They let the dog leave his doody on the cement – then Chick would turn on his hose and squirt the poop into the alley!  Past our garage, along the back fence of our house, and by all the downstream neighbors until it splashed into the sewer grate at the bottom!

This is how I came to understand the saying, “Shit rolls downhill,” long before entering the world of work as an adult.  I saw it happen!  In living color!  And we did more than see it, if you get where I’m drifting.  Who knew a puppy could produce such vapors?

My buddies and I all thought every Dad down the block – including mine – would march up to Chick’s house and string him up by his own garden hose.

Then, about two weeks after Chick’s Plan B had begun, I heard a tense, heated conversation over the side fence.  The puppy had produced another souvenir pile on the cement, but as Chick went for the hose again, a halting voice piped up, gaining confidence and courage the longer he spoke.

“Listen, Chick, you can’t keep doing that!  We should pick up that poop and put it in a garbage can or something!  That’s really bad, what you’re doing!  My friends don’t like it, and I want them to like me!  It’s hard for me, and you know that.  So stop doing that thing with the hose, right now!”

I stood there, immobilized, silent, stunned, wide-eyed, shocked.  The last thing I wanted was for Chick to know I’d been on the other side of the fence, listening to his little brother’s confrontational comeuppance.  I froze in place until hearing the sound of Chick going back into his house.

The hose never got used again for that purpose.  And Archie had two hits during the next Wiffle Ball game in the back alley.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Making God Laugh

By Tim Hayes

The fellow in the front seat of the car probably was thinking about dinner that night.  Would he go out?  Maybe just grill up some hot dogs, stay in, and rent a movie on pay-per-view?

The lady wanted to get her bicycle across the street.  Maybe to get back home, maybe to go have a nice long ride.  Just another day.

A moment later, however, disaster.

The woman lay, dead, struck by the driverless car cruising the streets in Tempe, Arizona.  She had been walking her bicycle when struck by the car.  Preliminary reports say she may have darted out in front of the vehicle.  Later news updates say the driver inside the car – there to take over operation in case of malfunction or emergency – may have been slow to respond.  The investigation continues.

Here’s the point.  Neither of the two people involved in this tragedy saw it coming.  Life changed – and ended, for one of them – in a second.

Life is completely unpredictable.  People can be completely unreliable.  Getting through any single day has no more assuredness than a crap shoot.  It’s a miracle we leave the house in the morning, travel around, interact with familiar faces and total strangers, transport ourselves back home, and get into bed again in one piece.

I knew a high school senior once, who seemed quite upset that her entire life’s trajectory could not be plotted out with any real sense of confidence.  That was years ago, and where she is and what she’s doing now has little, if any, resemblance to those carefully constructed plans back in high school.  She understands this concept now.

The longer you’ve been around, and the more you’ve experienced, proves this over and over.  I’ve been in the conference room when the grim-faced VPs from the New York City headquarters told us that the Pittsburgh office of their global PR agency would be closing in two weeks.  One day, walking out from my eighth-grade classroom to take my post on a street corner as a patrol boy, a Cadillac taking a short cut hit me and left the scene – fracturing my skull and sending me into a three-day coma.  You never know what’s coming around the bend.  Sometimes literally.

We’re heading into the Christian Holy Week today, and I sometimes think of poor old Thomas.  One of the 12 apostles, Thomas sounded all brave and full of spunk before Jesus led the group up to Jerusalem, where he told them he would be executed.  Thomas pipes up with, “Then let us go with him, to die with him there.”  Pretty bold stuff, right?

But then, when things start to get rough in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Temple Guards arrest Jesus and the saga begins, where was Thomas?  Running for his life, with the other apostles, into the night, as far and fast from the action as his feet could carry him.  Even after Christ rises from the dead and appears again to his flawed followers, Thomas misses the moment.  Worse, he later says he won’t believe it until he actually sees Jesus and touches his wounds personally.

But Thomas ultimately proves his devotion, even after all of these misguided declarations and letdowns, when he becomes one of the first Christian martyrs, accepting death before denying his faith in Christ’s mission and person.  This holy man’s whipsaw journey from valiant disciple to wanton coward to doubtful skeptic to fearless hero proves that nothing’s guaranteed.  Life changes in an instant, for good or for bad.  There’s an old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” meaning that you can’t assume too much in this world of random fate and unpredictable chance.

I guess the best plan is to know who you truly are, what you represent, which principles you believe in and hold fast, and trust that those will carry you through any curve ball the world throws at you.

As the fictional movie boxer Rocky Balboa tells his son, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.  But it ain’t about how hard you hit.  It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward – how much you can take, and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done.”

Keep your head down, your tail up, and your heart moving forward.  What else is there?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Aiming for Them

By Tim Hayes

The blue Buick Regal sped down the highway, its undercarriage rattling, its shock absorbers pleading for sweet mercy.  Spring in Pittsburgh, and the potholes had begun to bloom.

There I sat, feet on the pedals, hands on the wheel, mere days after passing my driver’s test and becoming a licensed operator of a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Unlike most of my friends in high school, I never went for my license at age 16.  After they got their licenses, I just had them pick me up if we wanted to go someplace.

A true late bloomer, I only got my license after starting college and falling spoons over teacups for this girl.  She lived in Pittsburgh too, but clear on the other side of town.  You had to cross two of the three rivers to get there, for Pete’s sake.  Here’s how parochial my worldview had been growing up – I had never even heard of her high school.  Thirty minutes away, and life had not given me cause to get within 10 miles of her house for my first 18 years on the planet.

But, boy, I tried to get there by any means possible whenever we came home from college that freshman year.  Bus rides took way too long, with transfers and various assorted weirdos and vagrants striking up incredibly uncomfortable conversations.  No, at age 18 the time to man up and learn to drive a car had definitely arrived.  I had to get to that girl’s house on my own terms.

(By the way, “that girl” is sitting at our dining room table as I write this, completing class assignments while working toward her second master’s degree.  She still amazes me, 36 years of marriage later.  But I digress…)

The blue Buick rumbled and rambled down the concrete toward the exit for my girlfriend’s house.  The highway looked like it had been cluster-bombed.  Shock and awe.  Or, shocks and ow.

The winter that year – just like the one we’re coming out of now – featured weather cycles where a few odd stretches of really warm days would be followed by frigid cold and lots of snow.  The repeated pattern of water seeping into seams in the roadbed, freezing and contracting, then melting and expanding, caused the pavement to crack and crumble into the war zone now being navigated.

Boom!  Crack!  Pow!  The blue Buick smacked into one vicious pothole after the next.  It sounded like one of those old Batman shows from the ‘60s.  Splat!  Crash!  Oomph!  Then came a voice from the passenger seat beside me.

“Good God, are you aiming for them?”

Dad, the owner of the car currently auditioning for the demolition derby under my slapdash piloting, feared for the suspension of his Buick, even as he feared for his life.  Looking back, can’t say that I blame him.

His question – clearly referring to my rookie driver’s inability to avoid potholes in the road – goes a lot deeper, if you think about it.

Are you aiming for them?

As a Type 2 diabetic, I’m supposed to watch my intake of carbohydrates.  But nothing tastes better on a Friday night after a busy week than hot pizza and cold beer.  They’re not great choices for my health.  So, am I misbehaving on purpose?  Am I thumbing my nose at my medical advisors, for the sake of a self-serving reward?  Questionable choices: Am I aiming for them?

We all do things we know better than to do.  Even St. Paul, that old sinner.  The New Living Translation of the Bible quotes him this way: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

Does that mean we’re aiming for those things?  Those shocks to our consciences?  Those potholes of the soul?  Heavy stuff.  That’s when I’m glad to be Catholic.  We get to go to confession and start over again!

In all the 40 years of driving since that rickety, rattling trek to see my girlfriend in my Dad’s blue Buick, potholes still have a way of sneaking up on me.  I try to skirt around them.  I try to straddle the tires over them.  But sometimes, you just gotta take the slams as part of the journey, whether it’s while enjoying a drive or living a life.  They can be unavoidable.  But not always.

The conundrum remains, regarding the choices we make, even when they’re questionable: Are we aiming for them?  I dare you to think about it.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes