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Asking For It

By Tim Hayes

Watching the Grammy Awards back in 1983, something happened that stuck in my head all these years since.

The Australian band Men At Work won the award for Best New Artist, having scored No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Living In a Land Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now.”  All well and good.

But as the band mates took the stage to accept their Grammys, one of them leaned into the microphone and in a sneering, condescending, arrogant voice proclaimed, “We are the Men… you will see us again.”

Why this moment clings to my memory 35 years after the fact, I have no explanation.  But seeing that guy’s superior attitude cranked to full boorishness and preening self-confidence on national television caused me to reply, from the comfort of my living room recliner, “Wow, buddy.  You’re really asking for it.”

Turns out my guts hit the mark.  Men At Work never reached No. 1 again on the Billboard 100, and never received another Grammy nomination.  In fact, they broke up for good two years later.

Scripture, as found in Proverbs, issues the warning, stating, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom,” and later, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

They used to call it getting too big for your britches, the all-too-common failing of human beings to turn into obnoxious blowhards when things get to going really good – only to have it all come crashing down in due time.  I call it karma.  And karma always – always – wins.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have fallen into this trap.  I certainly have a time or two.  Or three.  Or twenty, along the way.

Singer Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote about this in her crowd-pleasing anthem, “The Bug,” with these lyrics: “When you’re a-rippin’ and a-ridin’ and a-comin’ on strong, you start a-slippin’ and a-slidin’ and it all goes wrong.”

Somebody far back in the early reaches of my career told me to be nice to people on my way up the ladder, because I was going to see them again on my way back down.  Ain’t it the truth.  It’s easier fighting your way to the top the mountain than it is to stay there.  Ask any athlete, politician, actor, or just about anybody striving to achieve greatness.

And part of why it proves so hard to stay at the top, once you’ve made it, is the lure of hubris.  Of puffed-up self-importance. Of expanding vanity and issuing pulsating waves of superiority.  Because all that does is give the recipients of your guff more motivation to see you get knocked down a peg or two.  Or three.  Or twenty.

There’s an old song by Mac David that pops the balloon of people whose opinion of themselves has become tiresome.  Part of it goes like this: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble / When you’re perfect in every way / I can’t wait to look in the mirror / Cause I get better lookin’ each day / To know me is to love me / I must be a hell of a man / Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble / But I’m doin’ the best that I can!”

Crazy stuff, until you run into someone who would agree with every word.

In mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the waters of a spring and pined away until he died.  In Freudian psychoanalysis, a narcissist displays an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement, a condition that is usually a form of emotional immaturity.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, a narcissist is a person who can’t change his mind about his own wonderfulness, and won’t change the subject.  Someone who might stand before a crowd of people, lamenting everything that’s wrong with the world, and then having the spectacular hubris to declare, “And I alone can fix it.”

If pride truly goeth before the fall, then such a person would be wise to buckle up and strap on a helmet.  Or, better yet, wouldn’t we all have a better time in this world by hanging on to our humility, even as we work to better ourselves and our fellow travelers on life’s journey?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

The Intersection of Artistry and Pragmatism

By Tim Hayes

The theory goes like this.  The left hemisphere of the human brain controls logical, linear, sequential thinking, while the right controls the more creative, artistic, and expressive.

Some blending of these two counterbalancing poles of thought, impulse, and action goes on constantly, of course.  But for most people, one type of thinking and behavior has an edge over the other.

And for some, that blending, the place where artistry and pragmatism intersect, emerges so powerfully as to produce creations that shake the world.

Steve Jobs had this unique capability.  A tsunami of radical ideas in a black turtleneck and blue jeans, his insistence on elegance of design and breakthrough technological applications made all the difference in what Forrest Gump called “some kind of fruit company” – Apple Computer.

Jobs described his left/right brain obsession to Business Week this way in 1998: “That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Walter Isaacson, in his fascinating biography of Jobs, quoted him as stating, “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Anyone who has purchased an iPhone, iPad, iPod, or any other i-Whatever knows this to be true.  The packaging itself is beautiful.  I feel bad throwing it out after I get my latest gadget extracted from the box, the molded plastic shell.  For cripe’s sake, even the bag they put it in is gorgeous.

Then you start to use the device, and the insistence on ease of operation, the smooth bevel of the casing, and a hundred other details that just feel right, start to become apparent.  In the Isaacson book, a story is told of Jobs insisting that the then-new “apps” function displays be rounded on the corners, to make them more appealing and friendly to the eye.  Amazing stuff.

But this phenomenon of art and technical skill, while rare, did not begin with Steve Jobs or his team of magicians at Apple.  If you have ever been to New York City, or seen it in the movies or TV, you’ve witnessed a similar – perhaps even more impressive – example of this at work.  An example that has stood for more than a century.  The Brooklyn Bridge.

The unmistakable iconic span over the East River connecting lower Manhattan to Brooklyn had its beginnings under the direction of master engineer and architect John Roebling.  But after his untimely death, his son Washington Roebling rose to lead the massive undertaking.

The young Roebling, over the 15 years of the historic project, created by hand more than 500 highly detailed drawings covering every conceivable aspect of the bridge.  In his day, naturally, these drawings provided the visual instructions that enabled contractors and workers to move forward with construction.  But the artistic quality of the drawings – discovered in a ramshackle shop in Brooklyn many decades later, and now on permanent display in a museum – remain breathtaking.

Historian David McCullough, in his essay, “The Treasure from the Carpentry Shop,” offered tribute to the genius of Washington Roebling as follows: “In the last analysis, one comes to something in these drawings impossible to catalog, that has little or nothing to do with however much biographical or technical background one might compile.  It is the incredible care and concentration you feel in even the least of the drawings, the pride, the obvious love – love for materials, love for elegance in design, love of mathematics, of line, of light and shadow, of majestic scale, and, yes, love of drawing – this passion in combination with an overriding insistence on order, on quality, that we of this very different century must inevitably stand in awe before.”

It may be true that most people favor either the logic and line of the left brain, or the creativity and art of the right.  But wouldn’t it be something if more people made more of an effort to bring both sides together?  What a different, more interesting, more challenging and delightful life it would be.

A life like that of Steve Jobs, who, again described by Isaacson, “made products that were completely innovative, combining the power of poetry and processors. With a ferocity that could make working with him as unsettling as it was inspiring, he also built the world’s most creative company. And he was able to infuse into its DNA the design sensibilities, perfectionism, and imagination that make it likely to be, even decades from now, the company that thrives best at the intersection of artistry and technology.”

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Blank Canvass

By Tim Hayes

Having driven past this little enclave a million times – and that’s an exaggeration, but not that far from reality, actually – I found myself there at last, standing next to a friend, who rapped on the faded, splintered screen door of the rusted trailer home, perched along a muddy bank of the Allegheny River.

Emerging from the dark center of the living room and into the light of the outer porch strode what could only be described as one of the largest, toughest, meanest looking dudes I had ever seen.  Clad in the classic muscle T-shirt, bulging chest and arms in full view, with close-cropped hair and a set of eyes permanently dialed to “pissed off,” he looked at the two of us and said, “What?”

In my mind, the overriding thought was, Back away slowly, and get back to the car before this guy lifts a shotgun, blasts us to pieces, and tosses our bloody chunks in the river.  The perfect crime.

But instead, my friend launched into his well-rehearsed patter.

“Hi, we’re here canvassing for our candidate for Congress…blah, blah, blah…can he count on your vote this November?”

To which this mountain-with-eyeballs simply snorted, “No.”

Okaaaaay, the voice in my head whispered.  This is the part where we cut our losses and skedaddle out of here, right?

“We understand,” my friend said.  “Could we leave you this flyer anyway?  You might like to learn more about our candidate.”

The supremely ripped trailer-dweller opened the screen door, took the brochure, and said, “Yeah, okay.  Thanks.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with a hanging chad.  Welcome to my baptism into the wild, wacky, wonderful world of political canvassing.  A sociologist’s bonanza of unexpected reactions, unanticipated rewards, and unbelievable exhaustion.

The day began in a local resident’s basement game room, converted to command central, where about a dozen seasoned veterans of the canvassing wars – and the lone rookie, yours truly – gathered.  Each person received a manila folder containing his or her “turf” to be covered that afternoon, a carefully compiled listing of individuals by street clusters.

As a newbie to this process, I got paired with my friend and neighbor, who had been canvassing for various candidates for more than 30 years.  A real pro.

The sophistication and specificity of the information disseminated at the launch meeting impressed me greatly.  The turf listings contained names of identified individuals, by gender, age, and party affiliation.  I learned as we walked our turf over the next three hours that at this point in the campaign, the goal was to plumb these particular voters because they were still in the “attainable” category.  As things get closer to Election Day, the targets would sharpen to those voters with the greatest likelihood of supporting the candidate, to guarantee that they actually get to the polls and cast their ballots.

But while all of that strategic stuff sounds great, the tough tactical work still had to be done, moving door-to-door, pamphlets in hand, riding the Shoe Leather Express.

Our turf listing offered a striking dichotomy of income levels and housing options.  We had the riverbank trailer park mentioned earlier, along with a set of century-old brick row houses also in the river valley.  Conversely, we also had a high-income gated community perched on a clifftop high above the river that looked directly down at the valley below.  A Tale of Two Turfs, as it were.

As my friend and I rode from one section of the turf to the next, I asked whether he could anticipate the reactions of people based on where they lived or what their standard of living might be.  He said, “Watch and learn.”

By the end of the afternoon, I had done plenty of both.  And the answer came through loud and clear – there is precious little way to safely predict for whom a person might vote.  There may be hints and educated guesses.  There may be clear declarations for or against, when you’re standing face-to-face.  But in the end it’s still up to the crazy, fickle, occasionally illogical human mind.

My friend explained it like this.  We had information about our candidate.  We were working to convey highlights about him within the 60 seconds somebody answering the door would give us.  Each person could accept that information or not, could engage us in conversation or not, slam the door in our face or not.  But that’s not the end of the engagement.

In politics, there’s always that intangible spark, that unexplainable element.  A candidate or an incumbent either catches the zeitgeist, riding a wave of impressions, perceptions, and assumptions, or not.  It’s more of an art than a science, although to ignore the science would be folly.

Over our three hours together, we walked right into tiny front yards guarded by pit bulls, climbed innumerable stairs to reach doorbells, handed out lots of literature, had some friendly conversations and few clipped ones, and covered quite a lot of ground, literally.  Sixty houses in all.

I made the comment to my friend that we got just as much exercise and spent as much time canvassing together, as we would have done playing a round of golf – and saved ourselves a ton of money in the process.  If Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled,” then canvassing would certainly be “a good walk rewarded.”

In these unique political times, regardless of your stance or which candidates you might support, I encourage you to get personally involved at the local level.  That’s where you can help to create energy, excitement, and change.  After my initiation into door-to-door canvassing, I came home, had something to eat, and promptly crashed, falling dead asleep for two hours.

But exhaustion never felt so good.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Faith of Our Fathers

By Tim Hayes

I am a lapsed Catholic.

That statement gives me no satisfaction, no pride.  But it does give me some hope.  At least I’m not a former Catholic.  Not yet.  But that line is a lot closer to being crossed today than at any other time in my life.

My sisters and I were raised in wonderful fashion by two amazing people.  My parents gave us eight years of elementary education at a Catholic parochial school, where we received superior academic training and faith formation.

The girl I met the first week of college, also a Catholic, remained instrumental in maintaining my faith through those four years of intellectual and emotional growth and exploration.  The moment I first expressed my love for her came during Mass at the campus church, in fact – the same church in which we were married a month after graduation four years later.

We brought our children up in the faith, as well.  While they didn’t attend parochial school, we remained very active in our parish.  My wife taught CCD classes for more than a decade, each of the kids sang in the weekly choir at Mass, and I even served a term as president of Parish Council along the way.

As the kids each left for college and struck out on their own career and life paths, and as a succession of increasingly disappointing and sub-par preachers shuttled through our parish, my dedication to Mass attendance began to wane.  My wife and I even went on a “summer of churches” tour, sampling services at other parishes.  But no such luck.  My dedication to the church began dying on the vine.

Then, this past week, the Pennsylvania Attorney General issued a devastating Grand Jury report, citing evidence of some 300 priests – a third of them operating in the Diocese of Pittsburgh alone – sexually abusing more than 1,000 children over the past 70 years.  The report only began to scratch the surface, though.  It excluded the enormous Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and covered only those cases that had been documented – and only those in Pennsylvania.  Think of the thousands of priests across the country, and hundreds of thousands of victims they abused, and the picture becomes even more revolting.

But back to the PA report.  In reading newspaper reports delving into the details, one name leaped out at me.  A priest from our church who had come to bless our home after we joined the parish nearly 30 years ago.  This monster turned out to be part of a ring of abusers who “marked” children for attacks and shared those children with other priests in the group.  Thank God we only had a one-year-old and a newborn infant at the time.  To think that this sick, twisted deviant had been in our home, and that we took Communion from him at Mass, now makes my blood boil and my spine shiver.

As much as it pains me as a lifelong member of this faith community to say, I’m not sure I believe the Catholic Church in its present configuration is the true Body of Christ any longer.  I believe Christ is present in the Eucharist.  I believe that his word in the Gospels, his death on the cross, and his resurrection offer the path to salvation of souls.

But I do not believe that the people entrusted with the administration, formation, and demonstration of those eternal truths can be trusted.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tears into the high priests of his day, shouting, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Whitewashed tombs, pristine and perfect on the outside, but rotten to the core.

This certainly is not meant as a condemnation of all priests, the majority of whom take their vows and their calling seriously, and who must be as ashamed and angry at the sins of their counterparts as the rest of us.  No, this disaster falls at the feet of those in charge.  Those who knew and said nothing.  Those who coerced victims into silence with threats and payoffs.  Those who shuffled these reprobates around, thinking it would solve the problem, but instead only giving predators fresh pools of victims.

Would opening up the priesthood to women, or permitting priests to marry, solve the issue?  Perhaps.  I think those are great ideas, and long overdue anyway.  I mean, for Heaven’s sake, Saint Peter was married!  The first pope!  Why can none of his descendants live the same way?  Mary Magdelene was one of Jesus’ closest, most trusted disciples!  She was the first person to witness the resurrection!  Why can’t her gender help lead the faith today?

The deeper, more difficult fact to face, though, in my opinion, is that a pedophile is a pedophile – regardless of gender, marital status, income level, religion, or any other qualifier.  Jerry Sandusky at Penn State was married with children, and we all know what he did.

No, the real solution to the cold callousness at the center of the Catholic Church today may require a complete restart.  Clean house, from the Vatican on down to the diocesan and parish levels.  Appoint an independent commission – with a majority membership from outside the church – to achieve this goal impartially and fairly.  Settle all lawsuits, compensating victims at terms to which they agree.

Then, once free of this dreadful stain and any lingering personnel-related, emotional, financial, or legal obligations, work like we’ve never worked before to welcome the faithful back into the fold.  I promise, I’ll be first in line to help out.

The world, our nation, our parishes and neighborhoods are filled with lapsed Catholics, like me.  But unless the church makes dramatic, positive changes, we may have no other choice than become former Catholics.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Then They Came For Me

By Tim Hayes

TV host Lou Dobbs this week said he supported the White House’s decision to ban a CNN reporter from a press event for asking President Trump questions earlier that day.  “My question is, who the hell are you?” Dobbs said after reading CNN’s statement about the ban. “The president does insist on respect.  It’s about time there were consequences for disrespectful behavior in the White House.”

Well, Lou, thanks for that interesting perspective.  A rebuttal, if I may?

“Who the hell are you?” you ask.  CNN and its reporter are properly, legally accredited members of the White House Press Corps, that’s who.  A press corps with a specific job to perform – namely, pressing the administration for answers regarding issues and policies of interest to the American people.  This arrangement has been around for a few years, now.  You may have heard about it, oh, maybe on…the news?

“Just because the White House is uncomfortable with a question regarding the news of day doesn’t mean the question isn’t relevant and shouldn’t be asked,” the CNN statement read. “This decision to bar a member of the press is retaliatory in nature and not indicative of an open and free press. We demand better.”

Bret Baier reiterated Fox News’ support for CNN following the ban. “As a member of the White House press pool, Fox stands firmly with CNN on this issue of access,” Baier said on air.  When this administration gets criticized by Fox News, you know it’s bad.

But, hey, let’s be realistic about it.  Every president gets fed up dealing with the media.  From John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and George Bush and Barack Obama.  Nothing new there.

Every president finds a way to handle the press, as well.  JFK used charm.  LBJ used a blending of finesse and pressure.  Most let their press secretaries take the arrows.  Again, nothing new.

But you might be hard-pressed to find any record of an administration actively isolating and barring individual reporters, and intentionally and aggressively working daily to delegitimize journalists as a group.  This, sadly, is new.  And it’s dangerous.

When freedom of the press is threatened – even in small doses, like this week’s instance might appear – voices need to rise up and hold fast in opposition.  Being posed uncomfortable questions may not be very enjoyable, but this is what office holders signed up for when they took the job.  Elected leaders at every level still work for the people, whether they would rather forget or disregard that truth or not.

A free and unfettered press is the vanguard of democracy.  I will never, ever step down from my soapbox on this point.  Journalists covering government – and especially the White House, regardless of who the current occupant may be at any given time – must be permitted to do their jobs.  No exceptions, no exclusions.

Dobbs’ statement that “The president does insist on respect” also gives me pause.  I agree that all Americans should respect the office of president.  Yet can respect for any individual be insisted upon?

Respect is earned through demonstrating maturity, responsibility, accountability, civility, and integrity.  As respect is earned, it becomes mutual – due to the other person, and owed to oneself.  Respect can’t be demanded or commanded.  Unquestioning obedience and loyalty, or operating under an environment of fear or intimidation, doesn’t produce respect.  Grudging accommodation, maybe.  But not true respect.

A president has every right to expect his staff to carry out his vision.  They are part of his team, of course.  But a critical media has no similar obligation.  They are charged with supporting our nation by challenging leaders, asking the tough questions, discerning the truth.  As Jefferson noted time and again, a well-informed electorate is essential to our future.  The White House is public space, after all.

So, Lou, I disagree with your assessment of the situation.  I see something much more upsetting afoot.  Something to be challenged, opposed, spoken about.

While you enjoy your station in life, comfortable, well-fed, without worry about arbitrarily losing what you have, it might be wise to think of those whose freedom to travel has been curtailed because of their religion.  Or those whose freedom to love whomever they love faces discrimination.  Or those whose editorial stance is under fire by an administration with a stated goal of causing Americans to lose faith in their reporting entirely – leaving the field open to complete control of information by government.

Loss of freedom starts small, but builds power as it rolls along.  After V-E Day in 1945, Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, described the danger of not speaking out in the early years of Nazism as follows:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Excluding a member of the press may not seem very threatening on the surface.  But it’s the tip of a slippery slope into an expanding loss of freedom.

Any attempt at such coercion must be challenged.  The press must be free, so that we all can remain so.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Someplace Special

By Tim Hayes

Over the past week, clients and associates and friends – none of whom had ever known or been introduced to each other – crossed paths three times.  As George on “Seinfeld” would cry, “Worlds are colliding!” but it didn’t surprise me at all.  It’s absolutely a non-event, par for the course.

And why?  Because I live in Pittsburgh, PA, the biggest small town in the world.

For all of his faults – and they are many – film maker Woody Allen’s movies have been interpreted as love letters to his hometown of New York.  This is mine to Pittsburgh.

Folks who have been born here and never left may consider Pittsburgh a major East Coast metropolis.  Ummm, no.  Pittsburgh feels more like a Midwestern city – big enough to have the great sports teams, the cultural advantages, and the commerce to sustain itself, but small enough to remain more a collection of neighborhoods than a singular urban center.  More St. Louis than Boston, more Cincinnati than Chicago.  More Minneapolis than (perish the thought) Philadelphia.

And forget “six degrees of separation,” the notion that any one person is connected by no more than six direct relationships from anyone else.  Nah.  Around here it’s no more than three, usually two – as proven by the connections I witnessed just this past week.

I’ll tell you, this wonderful dynamic at work in my hometown makes marketing for an independent consultant like me so much easier.  Here’s the deal.  If you do a good job at a fair rate and don’t irritate people, word gets around and business so many times finds you from positive word of mouth.

On the other hand, if you’re ripping people off and being a jerk?  In this town, you’re done.  There’s nowhere to hide, no way people won’t find out.  We stick together and we stick up for each other here.

Honestly, it used to bother me that Pittsburgh felt so parochial.  But after living in other cities during the first few years of our marriage, I’m glad things are how they are here.  Living in a city of neighborhoods enables a stronger civic sense of pride, unity, and shared destiny.

A few days ago, an announcement came out that the local legendary amusement park, Kennywood, was joining with our local legendary football team, the Steelers, to create a new section of the park with a brand new, world-class roller coaster with a Steeler theme.  And I thought the whole town might spontaneously combust from a release of unabashed joy.  How much more of slam dunk could you ask for?  Kennywood AND the Steelers?  My hands tremble just typing this sentence.

We love our city and all of the great legacies it has given us.  Sometimes too much.  It’s like the old joke:

How many Pittsburghers does it take to change a light bulb?  Ten – one to actually change the light bulb, and nine to stand around and talk about how great the old light bulb was.

But hey, if that’s a fault, I’ll gladly accept it.  This isn’t to say that Pittsburgh doesn’t have issues and problems, like any other city.  Of course it does.  But should you ask visitors or people who come here from other cities whether Pittsburgh and its people have a different vibe, a more welcoming attitude, a more positive baseline stance about the place where they live and work, you’ll find that they do.

A local TV station years ago ran a promo jingle with the line, “From the warm and friendly city, where three rivers flow.”  The nation’s first flagship radio station, KDKA, used “Someplace Special” as its description of Pittsburgh for years.  They were both right.

This city and its people have an uncanny blend of blue-collar, hard-working, no-nonsense loyalty and friendliness, combined with a futuristic belief that the path to a better, safer, happier, healthier, more tech-driven life can spring from these three rivers.  The connecting tissue between those two distinct poles, however, is what makes this town so special.

We keep our heads about us and we never give up – on each other, on ourselves, or on our city.  We pulled ourselves up from the crash of the steel industry.  We have world-class health care and research facilities.  We have emerged as a vital center of innovative advances in technology and life sciences.  Yet even as our stature rises and our “secret” is revealed more and more, that comfortable, manageable, respectful, wonderful Midwestern vibe remains.

We’re steady.  We may not always boom, but we also rarely bust in this warm and friendly city.  This Someplace Special.  My hometown.  Pittsburgh, PA.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

H2Ouch!

By Tim Hayes

Poseidon in Greek mythology and Neptune in Roman.  Sumandra in Hindu, Tefnut in Egyptian, and Mazu in Chinese.  Heck, even Aquaman in the comic books.

All gods of water, the liquid source and sustenance of life.  Entire cultures worship water for its irreplaceable role in keeping the planet alive.  We twist a knob and this magical, mystical, miraculous substance flows clean and freely from the tap.

Yes, water is wonderfully awesome.  Then its awesomeness takes a hard left turn into “I can’t believe this” territory.

Shortly after dinner on July 2, the sky outside turned a strange blend of orange, pink, and black.  Bolts of lightning could be heard off in the distance, growing louder and closer.  Within seconds, sheets of pounding rain fell with alarming force, and without slowdown or easing.

So what, another thunderstorm at the end of a high-humidity, 95-degree summer day, right?  It would be over soon.  Just ride it out.  No biggie.  Maybe a trickle of water in the laundry basement room.  Happened a hundred times before over the 15 years we’ve lived in this house.

Our son sat in the family room – an addition put on to the house long before we bought it, which sat on a concrete slab foundation – and called to us, while we sat in the kitchen.  “I hear water!” he said.  “Well, sure, it’s raining like mad outside,” I replied.

“No, Dad – I hear water…in here!”

We raced into the family room and heard the unmistakable squish-squish with every step onto the carpet.  Water bubbled up from behind the baseboards, soaking the rug and spreading out into the center of the room.  All the while, the relentless rain continued its assault outside.  Later we learned that our section of town suffered 4 inches of rainfall in less than two hours.

Friends, that is a boatload of water.  That’s a battleship of water.  That’s the USS Enterprise of water.  Captain James T. Kirk would be on the bucket brigade trying to get rid of so much water.  Our back patio looked like the Raging Rapids ride at Kennywood Park.  The End Times had begun!

The municipal storm sewer system proved incapable of handling such a volume of water, so drains began backing up in homes all over the area, including ours.  Area streams quickly crested their banks and turned nearby houses into islands, surrounded on all sides, with up to three feet of water in their basements and family rooms.  For some poor victims, sanitary sewers clogged, sending a backwash of raw sewage rising into their abodes.  The worst fate of all – and one that we avoided, thankfully.

Yes, let’s worship water.  Good grief.

That night, at about 9 p.m., my wife called a restoration company, and was told someone would be there around 10. “They mean 10 tomorrow morning, right?” I asked her.  “No, he’s coming here tonight at 10!”  And damned if he didn’t, and damned if he didn’t stay and work, ripping out carpet and padding, setting up dehumidifiers and those big floor dryers, and stabilizing that family room until 2 a.m.  Amazing.  The fact that he’s been here nearly every day since for two weeks, as he keeps finding more issues with mold and moisture embedded in walls and long-ignored corners of the basement, is another story.  But the man is thorough, I’ll give him that.

To date, nine outside vendors have become involved in (what we thought was) this little leakage issue.  The restoration guy, the mold guy, the landscaper/French drain guy, the handyman to repair the outer siding where water found its way in, the asbestos remediation guy (YES! As an extra special treat, we found that a tile flooring beneath the carpeting contains asbestos!  Triple word score!), the PODS guy to set up a portable container for the furniture as the asbestos gets removed and the room cleaned, the electricians to keep that end of things safe and working properly, the carpeting guy to produce and install the new rugs, and the furniture guy to deliver a new sofa to replace the old one that got wet underneath.

I know what you’re thinking.  You think I missed somebody, right?  One of the first guys you’d call when something like this happens.  Oh, we called the insurance guy.  Three times, finally shaming someone there into actually visiting this policyholder of nearly 40 years.

The adjuster pulled up to the house with his clipboard and smartphone, taking notes and snapping pictures, and finally turned to us with his best sad and empathetic face, and said, “We appreciate having you as customers, but there is nothing we can do for you here.  If a pipe had burst and flooded the room, then we could.  But this is damage caused by rainwater, so unfortunately your policy doesn’t cover this.  I’ve had to tell most of your neighbors the same thing.  But we very much appreciate having you as customers.”

Yeah, I bet.  And I know why, too.  If I calculated how many thousands of dollars I’ve mailed away to that company over four decades, and then, when you at last think the insurance I’ve been paying for forever will help me out?  Bupkus.  Nothing.  Zero.  Like a good neighbor, my ass.

So, looking at a grand total for restoration and repairs fairly reaching into five figures – all of which we’ll need to cover out of pocket – we did the only logical thing.  We left town on a four-day vacation to celebrate our anniversary.

The place we went has an indoor pool that’s fed by a nearby natural mineral spring that feels like no other water in the world.  Silky smooth, with a distinct, very clean and pleasant scent.  “Healing waters” is what we call a swim in that pool.

And perhaps a love of – and ability to worship the value of – water was regained there.  Well, that, and laying out a small fortune to safeguard against such a deluge of H2O ever coming into the house again.

Hey, Poseidon, Sumandra, Aquaman, and all your waterlogged buddies – go soak somebody else next time, will ya?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Beware the Brain Fart

By Tim Hayes

Seated in a giant semi-circle of metal folding chairs, clad in a starched white dress shirt, black slacks, and clip-on necktie from Sears, I awaited my turn in the citywide spelling bee.

The bee took place in a cavernous auditorium within what had been known as the Buhl Planetarium on the North Side of Pittsburgh.  They could not possibly have chosen a more intimidating setting for a bunch of 12-year-old seventh graders – as if the spelling bee weren’t terrifying enough.

For months, my family had endured hours of drills, studying from the workbook, “Words of the Champions.”  After school, before leaving for school, after dinner, during dinner, before going to bed, even while in the shower (with the person holding the book just outside the bathroom door), I spelled and spelled and spelled.  To the point where I could ace crazy, really long, words like antepenult or staphylococcus or leitmotif.

A veritable spelling machine, I tell you.

So we make it to the actual event.  Spellers sat in that huge semi-circle, and looming over – and behind – us, at a raised platform, the host held his cards with words and their definitions.  His mellifluous baritone boomed across the tops of our heads, past the full-habit bound, Sound of Music Mother Superior, wire-rimmed glasses, iron-BB daggers for eyeballs nun, and her Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which must have weighed 30 pounds if it weighed an ounce, and into the seated audience of parents, siblings, and wiseacre classmates come to snicker and mock.

Piece of cake.  I got this.

My placement came about midway through the sequence of spellers, about 30 in all.  I surmised that this first round had been made intentionally easy for everybody.  Work the butterflies out.  All freebies to open things up.  Let everyone get a victory under his or her belt before the tougher words started in Round 2.

Looking into the seats, I spotted my parents, sisters, and one buddy from school.  As my turn to step up to the microphone neared, I adjusted the cardboard sign around my neck – “Timmy Hayes” – and steadied myself.  Hearing my name announced, I walked up to the mike, tried to ignore Sister Mary Dictionary, seated about 18 inches away.  I could smell that musty old Webster’s and feel her congested breathing wafting across my face.  What a picnic this was turning out to be.

Suddenly, the thunderous voice behind me rumbled, “Your word is: GOUT.”

“Oh, yeah!  Simple!  Ha!  Watch this!” I said to myself, all anxiety flowing from me in an instant.  And in that microscopic, hair-length snippet of time, all those hours of practicing and drilling, all that effort, all that anticipation – went right out the window.

“J-O-U-T!”  I declared, shoving my imaginary sword back into its sheath, having slayed the spelling bee dragon with a flourish.  Until…

Have you ever heard 300 people go, “Awwwwwwww…” at the same time?  I have.  Turning on my heel to return to my metal folding chair in the big old semi-circle, I saw the next kid up slowly shaking his head in my direction, as if to silently say, “Tough luck, Dumbbell.  How’s it feel to be the FIRST ONE to wipe out?”

After making the Walk of Shame back to my family in the audience, and waiting for 28 other kids to blow it, I had a LOT of time to think things over.  My theory is that I’d worked myself into a frothy mix of nerves and fear, so the relief of having such an easy word led to every guard being let down – including the one that knew how to spell GOUT.

Brain fart.

Everybody gets them.  On the old “Password” TV game show, occasionally the voiceover guy would whisper, “The Password is…CHICKEN.”  Then some stupid actor playing the game would look at the clue and say, “Chicken!”

Yep.  Brain fart.

There’s a great Twitter feed called “You Had One Job,” that’s built on nothing other than catching people who have succumbed to brain farts.  Like the Wal-Mart clerk that put up a sign advertising movies featuring “The Rock,” with a photo of Vin Diesel on it.  Or the janitor who placed a bar of soap in a public soap push-dispenser.  Or the headline writer at a newspaper who came up with, “China may be using the sea to hide its submarines.”

Brain farts, all.

Sadly, there remains no cure for this affliction.  It harbors no prejudices, it respects no borders, income classifications, races, creeds, colors, or national origins.  It is an equal opportunity embarrasser.  In Washington, DC, for goodness sake, it has reached epic proportions, and seems to get wider and deeper every year.  A virtual tsunami of perpetually napping synapses.

So how can we cling to hope?  Can this epidemic of cranial cramping, this vortex of the cortex, this dare-we-tell-‘em of the cerebellum, ever be eradicated?  Short answer: No.  Longer answer: No way.

All we can do, really, is let it happen and realize it for what it is – irrefutable proof that, when clear thinking is most needed, human beings can always be counted on to trip over their frontal lobes and pratfall their way into family and friends’ legend.

J-O-U-T.  Forty-five years ago, and I’m still not over it.  In the Brain Fart Derby, that moment remains my personal best.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

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.