LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: PARENTAL GUIDANCE NOT SUGGESTED

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“Hey dad…you wanna have a catch?”

My favorite line from my favorite baseball movie of all-time still manipulates my tear ducts every time. For me, the simplest, purest, American-dreamiest act of childhood is a baseball catch with the old man. Like leather bookends, a pair of game-weathered baseball gloves catches more than just a cowhide sphere tossed back and forth. They capture memories that span multiple generations of sons who become fathers and fathers who become little league coaches.

I was a son coached by his father. For the past seven years, a coach of my own two sons. From the beginning of my coaching days, it was hard not to wax nostalgic and think back to my own playing days. The idealist in me wanted to believe that little league baseball was nothing more than an organized version of The Sandlot. Every game would begin at the crack of dawn and end under a night sky lit by fireworks and accompanied by Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. Best of all, in this most wonderful of baseball worlds, parents were nothing more than glorified extras who sounded an awful lot like the adult actors from the Charlie Brown TV specials.

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After seven years of coaching little league baseball, however, the realist in me knows better than to get all misty-eyed when I hear Mr. Armstrong’s heartfelt, raspy-voiced lullaby. In this coach’s opinion, what happens between the little-league foul lines is still every bit as wonderful a world as promised. But outside the foul lines, a little league field of dreams can become a nightmare for some unsuspecting players and coaches.

“I always said that the only team that I would coach
would be a team of orphans, and now here we are.”

–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Mike Matheny’s letter to parents is a must-read for every coach. For little league parents, it sets the perfect tone for what a coach is trying to accomplish and what he expects from parents. “The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat.” Matheny continues: “…if you hand your child over to me to coach them, then let me do that job.” 

Without the benefit of Matheny’s words, I signed up to coach in Louie Armstrong’s version of little league baseball. My goals were simple: 1) Have fun and teach the game of baseball the same way my father taught me; 2) Try to be a positive influence on and off the field; 3) Play to win, but teach my players how to win and lose with class. In terms of setting expectations, I still preach a simple philosophy: Regardless of how far your future baseball career takes you, baseball is never more fun than when you’re a little-leaguer. Unless, of course, a “bad little league parent” stands in the way of the fun.

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables
or  taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing.
Can you  believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.”
–Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams

Yes Ray Kinsella, I can believe that an American boy would refuse to play catch with his father. Especially if each backyard catch comes with a time clock, and each punch of the time card raises expectation levels. It’s these expectation levels that can burden the child with an unspoken promise to repay dad with a stellar little league career. Call it little league baseball’s “Daddy IOU.” If you think that’s a stretch, visit a neighboring town and sit anonymously in the stands during a Williamsport All-Star game. If that’s not possible, read about the ongoing survey conducted by two former coaches, Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller. They asked hundreds of college athletes to think back to their worst memory of playing youth sports. The most common response: “The ride home from games with my parents.”

Based on this response, it’s not surprising that nearly 75% of kids who play organized sports quit by the age of 13. Sure, you can argue that some quit out of necessity…as they fail to keep pace with their bigger, faster, more athletic peers. Yet so many others quit for a simpler reason. Like Ray Kinsella before them, they start playing baseball for the love of the game…and wind up playing for the acceptance of their parents. What starts out as a game played for fun ends with anxiety-inducing memories that are stitched into a child’s psyche tighter than cowhide to string.

“I know that it is going to be very hard not to coach
from the stands… but I am confident that this works in
a negative way for their development and their enjoyment.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Before I started coaching, I used to love it when the ESPN cameras panned the stands during a Little League World Series game. “What were all those cheering parents feeling?” I’d ask myself. Joy for their children; pride for their hometown team’s accomplishments; gratitude for their coaches? I’m sure there’s plenty of all three. But I’m also willing to bet that for every “root, root, root for the home team” cheer, there’s an email being composed about playing time. There’s a whisper about how “my son” would have made that catch. And there’s at least one parent who feels that even the biggest victory is pyrrhic if “my son” doesn’t shine.

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It’s no different when you move back to the diamonds in the rough in your own home town. Every player is dissected, each inning is revisited, and statistics are obsessed over like hanging chads. Parents record at-bats and then analyze the swings frame-by-frame like the Zapruder film. Coaches are second-guessed about batting positioning, defensive positioning, and playing time. Worst of all, unsuspecting players are often evaluated through the rose-colored (“my kid is better”) lenses of parenthood.

“I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that
this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything
about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Now most baseball parents, to be fair, are well-intentioned. They simply love their children and want them to enjoy the same highs or avoid the same lows they experienced as children. Even Matheny admits: “A large part of how your child improves is your responsibility. As a parent, you can help out tremendously by playing catch, throwing batting practice, hitting ground balls, or finding an instructor who will do this in your place.” I couldn’t agree more. There’s no better way to help nurture your child’s love for the game than having that backyard catch every time he or she asks. The challenge comes when you move from the backyard to the ballpark.

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Let’s be honest. Who among us, present writer included, hasn’t been a “bad little league parent” from time to time. Have you ever argued a blown call made by a teenage umpire? Maybe. Have you ever second-guessed a coach about your child’s batting position or playing time? I’m sure you have. Heck, have I failed to show the same level of post-game enthusiasm after my son’s 0 for 4 as I have after his 4 for 4? You bet. But I’ve learned to stop myself. I’ve learned that the game should be played between the foul lines, and it should end when you step outside those lines. I’ve also learned a lot from Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller.

In the same survey from Brown and Miller, the same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great. What elevated their joy during and after the game? The overwhelming response: “I love to watch you play.”

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Before the Winter thaws into Spring training, drive through your hometown and slow to a crawl as you pass by your local little league field. Look passed the weathered advertising banners, the makeshift press box, and the broken-down bleachers. Just focus on the field. The field represents so much more than just the promise of next season. The field is a time capsule. It holds the memories and dreams–both fulfilled and unfulfilled–of every little leaguer who’s ever stepped inside the chalky-white foul lines.

“And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped
themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick
they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”
–Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

Allow yourself to think back to a moment when a little league field was “the most special place in the whole world” to you. Close your eyes, listen closely, and you just might re-hear the cheers or re-feel the goose bumps from your most enduring little league memory.

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And if we all listen to the words of Ray Kinsella, Brown and Miller, Mike Matheny, and Terence Mann…maybe we won’t hear all the screams, the whispers, the second-guessing, and the berating this coming season. Maybe during each game we’ll hear the raspy-voiced lullaby of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”.

And after the game, regardless of the outcome, maybe we’ll hear six simple words from a parent to their child:

“I love to watch you play.”

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Vanity Scare: George Costanza’s Guide to Male Pattern Baldness

you-are-a-young-george-costanza-1-30845-1366996589-9_big1I write about my age a lot. I’ve written about being a 14-year-old freshman in a 4-year-old’s khaki suspender pants. About turning 40, but still acting 14. And about spending the first 3 months of 41 glued to my toilet and breaking bad wind.

Age was still on my mind when I started my 4-week treatment for colitis in early January. I was feeling old and weary. I needed some light at the end of my ulcerated tunnel. So I threw caution to the wind and made it rain on StubHub. Since Super Bowl weekend would coincide with the end of my treatment, I marked that weekend as my coming out of the bathroom party: Keith Urban at The Garden followed by The Chilli Peppers at Barclays Center.

En route to the world’s most famous arena, my father and I stopped at Jersey’s most famous diner. Unbeknownst to me, Tops Diner would soon turn into Tom’s Restaurant.

I’m [41] years old. I haven’t outgrown the problems of puberty…I’m already facing the problems of old age. I completely skipped healthy adulthood.”

Like the show about nothing, I expected a meaningless conversation during our pre-concert meal. I ordered my colitis-friendly chicken blandwich. Dad ordered the hot open roast beef with French fries, extra gravy, and a side order of stent.

Then I made a colossal mistake. I asked my dad for pity. I whined about my colitis and how the doctor decided to extend my treatment indefinitely. I told my dad that I felt old. That’s when I started having dinner with George Costanza.

Dad:
“Old? How do you think I feel? I got moles on my face.
My skin’s startin’ to sag. My hair’s all wispy. And I have tits.”

 Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!”

Dad:
“Yeah, but you don’t get it Shane. Up until a few years ago, I still had it. I mean,
young women would still check me out. But nowadays…” 

As a young, mildly attractive waitress passes by without returning dad’s smile…

Dad:
“You see that shit! I get nothing!”

Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!!!”

 Dad:
“Shane, I have tits!!!”

“After seeing my father’s hooters, I threw up all night. It was like my own personal Crying Game.”

When we reached the Garden, I was still feeling old and I was surprised to see so many young Keith Urban fans. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I felt like a frat boy at Kenny Chesney’s Garden party? Flash forward a few years, and I couldn’t even drink beer. I had to trade in my “keg in the closet” for prune juice in a f**king sippy cup. 

“You should have seen her face. It was the exact same look my father gave me when I told him I wanted to be a ventriloquist.”

When dad failed to get so much as a “look at the cute old man” smile from a female fan, he turned sour for the rest of the night. Every wannabe Urban Cowboy was “a DOOF” in dad’s eyes. Every woman “built like a brick shit house” was a woman he could no longer woo. Sensing dad’s vulnerability, I shifted the focus back to me. I opened up to him about things that make me feel old. Most notably, the current state of my hair. 

“These are not scraps. These are the historic remains of a once great society of hair.”get-attachment.aspx

It’s no secret that the Smith men are hair guys. I’ve been obsessed with my hair ever since my wife cited it as THE reason she said yes. And while I’m sure my father was a lot balder than me at 41, I never considered him bald. I mean, nobody has ever done so much with so little. 

When we were kids, my brother and I would watch in awe as dad would wake up, enter the bathroom with 72 strands of disheveled hair, and exit the bathroom as Fonzy. “How does he do it?” we’d ask ourselves. Was it a magic comb? Did he buy the comb from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans? (see My Cousin Vinny).

Whatever the case, I’ve been trying to replicate dad’s magic hair trick ever since. My brother Brett came close to replicating it when he joined the Marine Corps. During infantry training, Brett mastered the art of camouflaging his bald spot by shaving his sparse ginger locks tighter than Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the magic beans strong enough to restore my windswept wisps to their Brandon “90210″ Walsh heyday. But you can’t say I haven’t tried.

“I was in the pool!!! I was in the pool!!!”

When I was 35, I tried Propecia. For those of you who aren’t medical writers, let me break down Propecia for you:

  • Merck boasts that Propecia regrows hair by blocking the formation of DHT. 
  • After several months, I could only boast that it blocked the formation of boners. 

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“Significant shrinkage!”

Funnily enough, my brother started taking Propecia around the same time I did. Of course, he was far too proud to share his “frightened little turtle” story with me. He called me one night and used his best Lieutenant Columbo act to break me before he did. Vague statements like “…well, uh, they say it’s not uncommon for, you know…” evolved into a cryptic confession: “I mean, uh, it’s not like I can’t…you know…it’s just, uh, kind of bendy.”

So we said goodbye to Proshrinkage, and I vowed to never sacrifice my vitality for vanity again.

“I would like to dip my bald head in oil and rub it all over your body.”

I never gave Rogaine oil or foam much of a chance to regrow hair out of my head. After a few dollops, Rogaine made my heart beat out of my chest. So the last option I considered was Bosley Hair Transplantation. The Bosley commercials were inviting and the whole process sounded like a Sherwood Forest adventure. The doctor steals follicles from the follically-rich areas and gives them to the follically-poor areas. Here’s what they don’t show you in their follically-misleading commercials:

  1. “Stealing follicles” is Dr. Frankenstein speak for scarring your scalp.
  2. The hair that “regrows” is about as thick and voluminous as my 8th grade pubes.

Oh, and if you want to maintain your freshly grown pubes, you have to take Propecia for the rest of your life. Thanks Bosley! A lifetime of sex using my freshly boiled “Fusilli Jerry”.

“[Shane] is getting upset!!!”

That’s all it took. My father opened up to me about Father Time and feeling past his prime. So I cheered him up by reminding him that his sons, 30 years his juniors, often feel the same way. We laughed the whole ride home. 

I also reminded my dad that there aren’t too many 74-year-olds who still hang out with their sons. I mean, if my dad weren’t so young for his age, we’d drop him off at the Bingo parlor on our way to the show. The truth is, we love hanging out with him. And I’m sure hanging out with us makes him feel young again. Which is why, I think, dad turned into George Costanza that night. When I started talking like an old fart, I think dad started to feel like one. Never again!

“Appearance not important! This is unbelievable. Finally an ideology I can embrace.”

Two nights later, I found myself at a much younger, cooler event. The Chilli Peppers rocked out to a sold-out Barclays Center crowd half their age. My “old age” and bald spot were the furthest things from my mind. In fact, I’ve never felt so young and alive at a concert. And it wasn’t the strong gust of second-hand wind that must’ve blown in from Colorado that gave me such a buzz (and my kids the munchies). It was the opportunity to experience what my father experiences with his 2 sons several times each year. I was the old man, feeling lucky as hell to rock out with his young sons. With any luck, I’ll still be young enough to rock out with them 33 years from now. 

get-attachment-1.aspxThe truth is, I’ll never stop trying to look and feel younger. At 41, I’m probably not ready to stop shopping at American Eagle…even if my sons think it’s “getting kind of creepy”. I may never stop searching for that fountain of youthful hair. And the next time I post a picture of myself, I’m sure I’ll still search for a Hair Restoration photo filter between Antique and Sepia. But I will try my best to embrace my advancing age and my ever-expanding bald spot. When all else fails, I’ll follow the example of the youngest 74-year-old man in the world.

I will also hold out hope that my favorite prophet, George Costanza, was on to something when he said:

“Hey believe me, baldness will catch on. When the aliens come, who do you think they’re gonna relate to? Who do you think’s gonna be the first ones getting a tour of the ship?”

I know who…

Me. My brother. My father. And his tits.

Plumbing the Depths of Despair: A Christmas Story

207915_418685898189798_1412836350_nOn the eve of my 41st birthday, I had many reasons to be merry about my first year as a mid-lifer. My family was healthy, business was booming, and Christmas was right around the corner. I guess you can say I was happier than Ralphie Parker and his carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle.

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Shortly after my 41st birthday, without cause or provocation, my ass started talking to me. Nothing odorous or vile, just these little baby-talk gurgles that spurted out of me every time I so much as sniffed food. There was no way to control it or explain it. Whether a Tic Tac or a taco, my ass would break into staccato.

Then came mid-October. My appetite was writing checks that my colon couldn’t cash, and the ass-gurgles graduated to full-blown movie quotes:

  • When I ate something spicy: “Say hello to my little frrrrrriend!”
  • When I’d reach for some produce: “You can’t handle the [fruit]!!!
  • If I dared to dream of fried food: “If you [eat] it….[shit] will come.”

Now I’ve spent the better part of my professional life as a medical writer. I know that, unless you’re a pet detective, a talking ass shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here’s the problem, though. I may have enough medical knowledge to diagnose a fart before it comes out of someone else’s ass. But when the medical writer becomes the medical subject, I cling to my own hypocritical oath. Meaning I don’t practice what I preach. I hide behind my MD (medical denial).

“I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.”

By mid-November, I was still in denial and a whole lot of pain. Far too proud (scared) to visit the doctor, I self-diagnosed myself with a disease called bull shit. It’s a rare condition where the food you eat runs through the corridors of your colon like the bulls of Pamplona. The bathroom breaks were so frequent, I began to measure my ass-weary misery in medicated wipes. I “worked in (medicated wipes) the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was (my) true medium. A master.”

By Thanksgiving, my colon sounded like the demon child of Danny Torrance. I’ll never forget the horror of seeing blood in the toilet or hearing the chants of “Red rum! Red rum!” as I flushed.

“It was all over. I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.”

Eating anything became far too great of a price to pay. So I boycotted my all-time favorite meal, Thanksgiving leftovers. “No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone”. 

By Christmas Eve, my brain-gutt connection was completely disconnected. I was crapping out food that I hadn’t even eaten yet. I had dropped at least 10 pounds, and my body fat consisted only of my hemorrhoids. At dinnertime on Christmas day, I sat alone on my couch and sulked. My bottom, as I concluded, had finally reached bottom. And the next morning, my wife made the call that I should have made 3 months earlier. I visited the gastro-enter-my-ass-agist and….

…. “Ohhhhh…..fuuuuuuudge……

….he scheduled me for a colonoscopy. He also gave me instructions for a type of cleansing called bowel prep. Don’t let theImage B_SUPREPKit_About_SUPREP_sm name fool you. Bowel prep isn’t like SAT prep. It’s not a dry run to help you get a better test score. Bowel prep is Chinese water torture mixed with a grape-flavored nuclear warhead. My bowel prep instructions were quite explicit: “drink 48 ounces and then let Linda Blair possess your ass for 5 hours.”

I won’t pretend to know what natural childbirth feels like. I can, however, describe what it feels like to carry a 48 oz water balloon to term. I never felt a contraction, it was an eruption. I hopped off the couch, unbuckled my pants with one hand, corked my ass shut with the other, and pogo-sticked my way into the bathroom. [Insert image of my 3 supportive children laughing their asses off]. I made it to the bathroom, popped the cork, frantically dropped trough, and finally dumped a polka-dotted potpourri of prep on my bathroom tiles.

“Oh my God! I shot my [ass] out!”

But the cleansing was all worth it. By the next morning, I was wheeled into the exam room where Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb serenaded me into the most relaxing snooze I’d had in months. When I awoke, the true music to my ears was that the gurgling, the pain, the blood, and the express lane from my mouth to my ass finally had a name: Ulcerative colitis. It’s kind of a scary disease. There’s no known cause. It’s chronic, you treat it, and hope it goes away for a long time. But not before you endure one final assault on whatever dignity your derrière has left.

My doctor handed me 2 prescriptions that day:

  • Prescription 1: A 28-day course of steroids, administered orally.
  • Prescription 2: A 28-day course of mesalamine, administered rectally (in medical terms, this means you stick it up your ass)

photoFortunately, the manufacturers of mesalamine included this handy dandy diagram that offers 2 positions for administering the medicine. What they don’t include are instructions for growing the orangutan arm required to administer it.

Following the directions closely, I assumed the anal rape position. “Insert the applicator slowly to avoid puncturing your rectum” lent comfort as did the feeling of 60 mL of yogurt traveling up my colon. Thanks to what I assume to be the anal sphincter’s natural catch-and-release defense mechanism, the first 60 mL bottle only managed to medicate my bed sheets. The second bottle gave me bed shits. But the third bottle made itself at home. I “remain[ed] in the position for 30 minutes to allow thorough distribution of the medication internally.” And gradually, I drifted off to sleep.

Today, I am one week shy of completing my therapy. I am finally eating again, and I haven’t heard a word from my ass in weeks. More than anything, I am so ready to put ulcerative colitis, and the past 3 months of hell (fueled by denial), behind me.

If there’s any lesson to learn from my painful experience, it’s that we all know our bodies and we have to trust our gutt when it tells us something is wrong. The other is that the brain-gutt connection is a two-way street. Just as anxiety and stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system…so too can digestive problems take their toll on your psyche. As I’ve been reminded, I was miserable to be around. And with each miserable day, I withdrew more while gradually accepting each new low as my new normal. Resigned to just living with my symptoms, I was too depressed to see that I was hardly living at all.

I regret that I spent the first 3 months of 41 with my head up my ass, and my ass on the toilet. Which is why, I guess, sharing my “Christmas Story” feels surprisingly cathartic. But I’ll stop short of calling it a cleansing.

Mesalamine-Box_and_bottle“Next to me in the blackness lay my [60 mL bottle of mesalamine]. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep…”

Buddy Hinton’s Guide to Bullying

553923_416617291729992_787666550_n“Baby talk, baby talk, it’s a wonder you can walk.”
Buddy Hinton

If life were a sitcom, our worst fears and biggest problems would be introduced, pondered over, and resolved within 24 minutes. When “calm, cool, reasoning” failed to deter a bully, we’d face our tormentor head-on and he’d never rear his ugly mug again…unless his sitcom got picked up for syndication.

When I was growing up, endless repeats made Buddy Hinton the poster child for the schoolyard bully. You remember that episode, right? “It’s the story…of a lovely lady…” who comes home in tears after Buddy Hinton picks on “the youngest one in curls.” Peter tries admirably to defend his sister Cindy—the lisping Goldilocks—but he doesn’t get porridge for his efforts…just a black eye. So Mr. Brady decides that Peter must learn to defend himself. Peter does…and he knocks Buddy’s “tooth looth”…and all is right in Brady Land (until it’s time for Peter’s voice to change).

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While I was never bullied growing up, I was definitely an easy target for teasing (proof: I wore Bugle Boy kaki suspender pants jacked up to my nipples on the first day of school. Not pre-school, HIGH SCHOOL)! So yes, I had my awkward, slow-to-reach-puberty teen years. And as my brother likes to remind me, I had more ticks than Lewis Morris Park. There was my “ostrich-neck” twitch, which is hard to explain and nearly impossible to watch. With whip-like force, I would lunge my neck as far as it could go from left to right. Imagine watching a mental patient trying to eat French fries off his shoulder and you’ll have a pretty clear picture. There was also my “porno grunting” habit, which began innocently as I would try to clear my throat perpetually with a “Ha-um”. Until eventually, my “Ha-um, Ha-uh-um” slowly transformed into a one-man symphony’s rendition of “Orgasm in C Minor.”

The point is, I endured my fair share of weirdness and loneliness growing up. But while this made me an easy target for bullying, I was never targeted. Was I prepared to fight a bully? Probably. Was I prepared to take flight from a bully? Maybe. But what I can’t imagine are feelings of loneliness and shame that bruise so deeply that a teen would choose suicide over subjecting him or herself to another day of merciless taunts. This is how far bullying has come since the days of Buddy Hinton telling Peter Brady to “cackle like a chicken.”

In today’s society, bullying extends outside the school bus and beyond the schoolyard. The bruises inflicted by today’s Buddy Hinton don’t heal from a slab of meat that Alice stole from Sam the butcher. The punches are often viral…thrown from a mobile device…and forwarded by others. The bruises are more often psychological than physical….and the damage often goes unnoticed until the victims finally make us notice.

In the troubling documentary, “Bully” (available on Netflix), we follow a group of teens and tweens who face constant bullying in the form of physical and verbal abuse. We meet Kelby, an out-and-proud 16-year-old who faces homophobia from students and teachers on a daily basis. We meet Alex, a 12-year-old whose daily routine includes humiliation and assault on the school bus (or whatever you call being stabbed with pencils repeatedly). Alex can’t bear to tell his parents about the abuse, and I couldn’t bear to sit by and watch grieving parents whose sons chose flight…in the form of suicide.

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Yes, the film only states the obvious: feelings of loneliness are one of the most painful consequences of bullying. But what the film doesn’t say is that loneliness is often the cause of bullying. And it’s not only the socially isolated who are targeted—for every “new kid”, “fat kid”, “gay kid”, and “basket case”…there’s the perfectly ordinary kid who’s bullied for reasons only his or her tormentors know. Maybe it’s jealousy fueled by the tormentor’s own insecurities. Whatever the case may be, the bully virus doesn’t discriminate. And today, it takes more than a stiff right hook and a cup-o-chicken-soup to cure the virus.

Today, any twit can tweet, text, or post a comment that acts like a weapon of mass social destruction for an unsuspecting kid. But for reasons never explored in “Bully”, and for reasons I’ve never understood, why do we as a society fail to embrace—or simply protect—the most isolated and vulnerable kids? How do we as parents monitor bullying when the opportunities to bully extend way beyond the few times that our kids are unsupervised at school (cafeteria, recess, school bus)? Is it as simple as reminding our children that being an “innocent” bystander to bullying is in fact part of the disease?

“Bully” doesn’t offer any answers to these questions. It only offers the testimony of brave youths and heartbroken parents who still search in vein for answers. I highly recommend that you seek out “Bully” and encourage your kids to do the same. It’s time that we encourage our kids to stop being indifferent to bullying…and to make a difference—to stand up against bullying instead of standing by.

In my lifetime, I’ve known a teen and a teacher who committed suicide. I can’t be sure that bullying was the cause. But I sensed their loneliness, I assumed they were struggling, and I failed to act. Today I live with the regret of knowing that maybe all it would have taken were a few simple words of encouragement. Not from a family member whose love is unconditional…but from peers whose respect every teen yearns to earn. Maybe all it takes is a simple nonverbal cue. A wink or a smile that says “Hang in there….I’ve been there too.”

Because, let’s be honest, haven’t we all?

To learn more about the movie “Bully” and The Bully Project, visit www.thebullyproject.com.

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Still Wild About Wilder’s Willy Wonka

553923_416617291729992_787666550_nWhen my friend Molly posted this photo of my first movie hero last week, I felt like I had just chugged a Fizzy Lifting Drink. I was sky-high and belching my way to Cloud 9.

Then I read her caption: “My most serious crush, even more than David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman.” Huh? Willy Wonka as sex symbol? When I try to describe Wilder’s on-screen appearance as Wonka, I sound an awful lot like Grandpa Howard from Sixteen Candles. You know, when he’s inquiring about the whereabouts of Long Duck Dong.

“What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see, he was wearing a [brown top hat, purple jacket, tan bow tie, and pink shirt]. Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded.”

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A couple of days after Molly’s post, my brother left me the following message: “Shane, I just watched Willy Wonka again. It’s still the greatest. You’ve gotta write a blog about it.” Hmmm? No, he’s not retarded either. Brett’s a fanboy who—like me—calls Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the greatest children’s movie of all-time. [Sorry Dorothy, flying monkeys creep the crap out of me].

As a little boy curled up in my beanbag chair, I remember being so captivated by the colors of Wonka World…so intoxicated by the imagined smell of the chocolate river…and so scared shitless by that riverboat tunnel ride. “There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going/There’s no knowing where we’re rowing/Or which way the river’s flowing.” This same verse can be used to describe the genius of Gene Wilder’s Wonka. It is, quite simply, my favorite cinematic invention of all-time.

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In his biography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Gene Wilder writes that he was hesitant to play Willy Wonka at first. In fact, he would only accept the role on these terms:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself…but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When asked why, Wilder replied:
“Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And from that time on, Gene Wilder gives a chocolate factory tour-de-force performance as Willy Wonka. He’s compulsively manic, eccentric, distrustful, and quite possibly diabolical. “And almost everything you’ll see is eatable, edible. I mean, you can eat almost everything.”

I firmly believe that Gene Wilder built his performance on a simple fact. Kids are smarter than we—and Disney—give them credit for. They don’t miss a trick. The brilliance of Wilder’s slight-of-hand performance is that he’s still tricking kids some 40 years later. The trick? Kids don’t even realize they’re being fed a three-course morality meal. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is chock-full of hard lessons in gluttony, vanity, greed, bad parenting, and “gum-chewing’s fine every once in a while.”

But Wonka’s lessons never taste preachy because Wilder never lets kids get comfortable. He dismisses “bad eggs” the same way he dispenses whimsy…with little effort or concern. “It happens every time. They all become blueberries.”

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As a kid, I was scared to death! They’re “gonna squeeze her like a little pimple”? Won’t she explode? Will Charlie be next? Sorry kids, no Disney shortcuts here. Your happy ending is going to be earned.

“The suspense is terrible, I hope it’ll last.

The suspense lasts until the final scene. Just when you think there’s nothing left of the weary Wonka, his frustration over not finding a worthy heir boils over into a fit of rage: “You get nothing!!! You lose!!! Good day sir!!!” Then with the simple drop of an everlasting gobstopper, all that vein-popping, spit-spewing, hair-straggling rage settles into a genuine smile. That same smile, I presume, that Molly’s been crushing on all these years.

Yes, Charlie ultimately gains Wonka’s trust. And Wilder finally lets us trust Wonka….while planting a gobstopper-size lump in our throats. No more tricks. Just the treat of watching Wilder’s Wonka tell “an honest, loving child” that he’ll live happily ever after.

There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.

Willy Wonka and the Chocoloate Factory is that rare family film that hits all the magical movie marks: Delightful and funny, exciting and scary, silly and smart. And Wonka’s all these things because of Gene Wilder’s genuine work of pure imagination.

As for Molly, I have but one question: Like the gobstopper, is your Wilder crush everlasting?

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50 Shades of Porn

Nearly 2 years after my wife started having an affair with her Kindle (on) Fire, the movie poster for the long-anticipated 50 Shades movie was finally unveiled this weekend. Now I know what I’ll be doing Valentine’s Day 2015. And who she’ll be doing later that night. Laters baby.

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From the Dear Mr. Vernon files, May 2012….

My wife says it best: I’m a “book whore.” I simply cannot read only one book at a time. Hell I’ve even serial-cheated on Stephen King. Could it be that my scrambled egg book brain works best in a blender? Whatever the case, at one point this year I was reading fiction: King’s brilliant 11/22/63; non-fiction (really?) Heaven is for Real; and a biography: Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friendsexcept the story about snorting coke with teen girls. All great reads, and best enjoyed in a blender. “Hit puree!” [watch Goonies].

My wife, on the other hand, is a book bore. She’s a prolific reader of the type of romantic westerns that Laura Ingalls would rate G. At least, that’s what I believed before I bought her a Kindle Fire last Christmas. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring…except Shane syncing his wife’s Kindle Fire to her Amazon account.

When what to my wandering eyes should appear…but half-naked cowboys on the covers of her countless “historical romantic westerns.” These weren’t Little House on the Prairie novels…they were Little Hoes on Fabio! I feared her Kindle might catch FIRE or go into heat from all the barebacked, bare-chested, naked cowboy romance.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a little. But for every Sarah, Plain and Tall my wife reads…there’s at least one Tall, Dark, and Handsome on her Kindle Fire. Nothing, however, compares to the genre switch that has her giggling in bed until the wee hours of the morning. Yep, it appears that Fabio has hung up his saddle and hair extensions to allow my wife to enjoy the newest sensation that’s titillating women all over the nation…MOMMY PORN!

50 Shades of Grey? Bondage. Domination. Sadism. There’s no gray about it. It’s porn!

And since I’ll never be accused of judging a book by its cover…I’m now reading the book my wife reads under the covers. My initial review: It’s Crap-tacular! I mean, how can’t you love this crap:

“Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Christian?”
“No, Anastasia it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I f**k… hard!”

To quote EL James’s fellow literary genius Wayne Campbell:

“Ex-squeeze me??? Baking powder???”

Yes, the writing is hack…but it’s HOT…and it’s flying off e-Book shelves faster than Christian’s and Anastasia’s clothing. Think of it as a permission slip for conservative wives/moms everywhere to feel a little naughty. I mean, don’t all wives/moms deserve a  little extra sugar, spice, and everything nice (eg, masks, handcuffs, whips, and ties)?

What I find most entertaining is trying to predict which mom, daughter, sister, or even grandmother is reading it. Since the Kindle has essentially become the modern-day brown-bag booze cover….I pay extra close attention to the moms who read their Kindles at my 6-year-old daughter’s baseball games. Note to Moms: Your 50 shades of blushing give you away.

The book has been dubbed “mommy porn”, but I think that’s an unfair tag. I call 50 Shades of Grey mommy escapism. An escape from “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mama. Mama. Mama.” [watch Family Guy].

So to moms everywhere, I say: embrace your “inner Goddess”…and enjoy your 50 Shades of Porn.

Laters baby,

Shane

NOTE: Universal has already purchased the movie rights to 50 Shades of Grey. My wife is campaigning HARD for Matt “White Collar” Bomer (ryhmes with female boner). While I can’t agree with her casting prediction because I’m jealous of him, I will offer the following prediction.

The following exchange….

“Why don’t you like to be touched?”
“Because I’m fifty shades of fu**ed-up, Anastasia.”

…will replace “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” as the corniest fu**ing line in film history.

A Mets Fan’s Guide to the Top 10 Baseball Movies of All Time

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_nMets pitchers and catchers report to camp next week. I’ve looked at their projected roster and all I can say is: “Who are these fu**in’ guys.”

If you know that movie line, you probably know where I’m heading with this. Even the eternal optimist in me can’t crystal-ball a scenario where “the worst team a Ponzi scheme can buy” will win 80 games this year. So with little hope for the 2012 Mets —and zero interest in the team playing in the House that Ruthless Built—I turn my attention to my favorite baseball movies of all-time. These are in order, and open to debate…especially from Yankee fans*:

10. The Rookie
The day after watching The Rookie with my young son, I suggested he buy one of those baseballs with the built-in radar. This way he could measure the speed of his fastball. My son was only 4 at the time. I clocked my fastball at 68 MPH. In school terms, that’s a D+. In The Rookie terms, that’s 30 MPH short of the 98 MPH fastball that a 39 year-old chemistry teacher throws. Today, like The Rookie, I’m 39-years old. I wonder how fast my fastball…err…my son’s fastball is now?

9. Moneyball
I hate math. I suck at math. I loved this movie about a general manager who uses advanced math to field a winning baseball team on a shoestring budget. Because beneath all the Bill James number-crunching, there’s an underdog story played to perfection by Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. Like “Jerry Fu**ing Maguire” before him, Billy Beane rolls the dice. He takes a chance on the fat kid from Superbad, sticks to his guns, and watches their little experiment change the game forever. To that, I say, “show me the Money[ball]!”

8. Eight Men Out
By now, everyone knows that the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series. But most people don’t know how it was done or why it was done. Did Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrongly paint all eight with one broad brush. Was Shoeless Joe Jackson merely a victim of his own illiteracy? Did Buck Weaver commit a crime simply by NOT ratting out his teammates? This is a heartbreaking story from one of baseball’s darkest days. It’s a reminder that baseball is big business…and whenever there’s big money to be made, big-time corruption is sure to follow. Did you hear that WILPONS???

7. Soul of the Game
This little-known, made-for-HBO movie tells the story of the Negro League superstars who were not the first to cross baseball’s color line. Satchel Paige was arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation. Josh Gibson the greatest hitter. Yet it was a lesser-known Jackie Robinson who was anointed to cross the line first.

When “Linsanity” first hit a couple of weeks ago, I made the comment to my boys: “Wow, can you imagine what it must have felt like for Jeremy Lin to sit on the end of that Knicks bench every night? Knowing he was good enough to play…wondering if his Asian-born/Ivy league background was the reason he wasn’t.” Then I kicked my own ass for making the comment, rememebered Satchel’s persistence,  Gibson’s heartbreak, and Robinson’s courage. And I watched Soul of the Game with my boys.

6. The Bad News Bears
A couple of years ago, on the eve of our team’s first 9 year-old All Star game, we scheduled a team-bonding night. We built it around a classic kid’s baseball movie. Twenty minutes in, we realized our mistake. “All we got on this team are a buncha Je*s, spi**s, ni**ers, pansies, and a booger-eatin’ moron!” Bad News Bears is NOT a kid’s movie. It is, quite possibly, the most politically incorrect movie ever made. It also remains one of the most consistently, unapologetically funny movies I’ve ever seen. Oh, and there’s also “a cruddy alky for a manager!”

5. Major League
I had only been dating Helena for a few months. We were watching a Mets game. “El Sid” Fernandez was laboring on the mound [didn’t he always]…when, in a perfect Lou Brown rasp, Helena blurts out: “Get me Vaughn!” First comes “Vaughn”, then comes marriage. And after 17 years of marriage, she still watches baseball on her own Major League terms. After an anemic offensive output from the Mets: “That’s all we got, one goddamn hit?” After David Wright boots a ball at third: “Don’t give me this olé bullshit!” Major League is a major reason why my wife and I don’t only watch rom-coms together.

4. Bull Durham
“…I believe in the soul, the co*k, the pu**y, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch…I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there oughtta be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter…and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” And I believe that if Crash Davis had heard voices in an Iowa cornfield, he’d have plowed over his corn, built a driving range, and waited for Tin Cup McAvoy to come. And I believe that’s why I like Bull Durham. It shows the funny, sexy, and sometimes “…utterly fu**ing hopeless” side of baseball.

3. The Sandlot
My baseball career peaked at the age of 12. And even though I played baseball until my senior year in high school, I don’t reminisce about wearing a uniform or hoisting a trophy. When I reminisce, I’m playing baseball in sweatpants cuffed at the knee. I’m in the back yard with my brother making permanent baseball diamond dirt-prints. I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, or helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. Today, backyards have perfectly manicured lawns. Dead-end streets like mine are dead quiet. Baseball fields are often empty or—GASP—have lacrosse nets where outfielders should be. That’s why I love The Sandlot.

2. The Natural
I was never a fan of comic book superheroes until my brother rented The Natural when I was 12-years old. More like The [Super] Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs still feels like a superhero origin to me. He’s the golden-haired Wonderboy with the corn-fed upbringing. He has a special power—a cannon for a left arm. His weapon of choice—a bat he carved out of a lightning-struck tree. Unfortunately, his father dies before he can warn him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Need I go further? I will. Sixteen years after he “up and vanished like a fart in the wind”, our hero returns in nomadic Dr. David Bruce Banner fashion. He knocks the cover off baseballs, shatters stadium light bulbs, and could probably leap tall buildings in a single bound. The Natural is baseball and cinematic magic at its best…and Roy Hobbs is my favorite superhero.

1. Field of Dreams
Not only my favorite baseball movie of all-time, but my favorite movie—period. It takes a special kind of movie to send me out on a road trip to Iowa for my one-year wedding anniversary. [Relax ladies, we toured the Bridges of Madison County too. Okay, we drove through one of the bridges.] I needed to experience “the smell of the grass” and “a chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it.” I wasn’t disappointed. I only wish I could make a return trip with my father, brother, and two sons. There’s simply nothing more Apple-pie American than a boy having a catch with his father. And there’s no greater movie ending than the simple, childlike innocence of “Hey dad…you wanna have a catch?” Field of Dreams so authentically represents all that is right about the American dream and America’s game. “It’s the [movie] where dreams come true.”

NOTE TO YANKEE FANS:
Please don’t take the exclusion of Pride of the Yankees too personally. Yes, I hate the Yankees. But Gary Cooper is one of my all-time favorite actors. And yes, his “luckiest man” speech manipulates my tear-ducts just like yours. But sorry…until a Spielbergian director can digitally re-master Gary Cooper into anything that resembles a baseball player who’s actually held a bat before…I cannot rank Pride of the Yankees in my top 10.

The Best Western

553923_416617291729992_787666550_nFor those of you who think this is an article about my favorite family-friendly hotel chain, I’m very sorry. Since my blog readership skews more toward the Women Are from Venus end of the universe, consider yourself warned. This article will have about as much appeal to women as a tossed salad served in a dust bowl.

Today I’m writing about the best “movie” westerns of all-time. I was named after one of the best, and I was practically breast-fed on the rest. Before I could even mimic a “Come back Shane!” cry, I had a holster filled with a cap gun. Then I graduated swiftly from breast milk to Gerber and onto roast beef sandwiches from Roy Rogers. You remember the old-school, saloon-looking Roy Rogers, right? As a kid, the Roy Rogers on Rte. 10 in East Hanover felt like Wild West City to me. And in my childhood fantasy, my dad was Wyatt Earp…and I imagined he was the only reason why a gun fight never broke out around the Fixins’ bar.

Seriously, nobody ever looked cooler in a pair of “dungarees”, work boots, and a flannel than my dad. If he hadn’t smoked Winston reds, we’d have called him the Marlboro man. And if he weren’t such a cool dad, maybe I wouldn’t share in his passion for a true American original: the movie western.

Now you can argue about the real birthplace of baseball (some say it’s England, not Cooperstown). You can convince me that our current president was born in Hawaii (by way of Kenya). But you can’t tell me that there’s anything more American, more inextricably linked to the world’s vision of America, than the movie Western.

And here are my Magnificent Seven westerns [sorry, Magnificent Seven came in at #8]…

7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Home for the funeral of an old friend, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) recounts the true story of the man who killed the titular villain (Lee Marvin). When the true story is finally told, the answer defines the western genre: “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Was the true legend Jimmy Stewart’s lanky, leftist-leaning lawyer? Or was it the gritty John [right as] Wayne gunfighter? Not so much a whodunit as a character study of two polar-opposite heroes (and actors for that matter). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves that in the old west, just as in today’s western world, America is at its best when people of different beliefs join forces…even if it means crossing party lines.

6. Unforgiven
It’s fitting that Clint Eastwood got to make “the last great western” some three decades after making a fistful of dollars redefining the genre. But this ain’t your father’s man-with-no-name Eastwood. Here Eastwood has a name (William Munny), he has an anti-hero past, and he just wants to settle down with his young wife and raise crops. But as another iconic Eastwood character famously warned, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

So when a couple of cowboys cut up a prostitute, the bounty on their heads is all the convincing Munny needs to saddle up with his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and seek the justice that Sherriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) cares little to provide. Eastwood’s never been better. He wears regret on one sleeve while unleashing his gun from the other.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

Unforgiven doesn’t just “blur the lines between man and myth, heroism and villainy”…it says unapologetically that sometimes the good can also be bad and ugly.

 5. The Searchers
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, but the war still rages inside him. When “Injuns” attack and kidnap his young niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) set out on a years-long journey to find her.

After years of searching in vein, Ethan’s single-minded hatred toward the Comanche appears to change his primary motivation. Recognizing that she’s probably been tainted by the “savages”, thoughts of rescuing Debbie are replaced by thoughts of the unthinkable. This is John Wayne’s greatest performance because he’s not afraid to ride his angry anti-hero dangerously close to the edge of insanity. So close to the edge, in fact, that the climactic scene feels less like a rescue and more like an attempted kidnapping. That is, until our worst fears are relieved, and the anti-hero turns hero with four simple words: “Let’s go home Debbie.”

Don’t get me wrong, The Searchers is not an easy movie to watch. It’s also a movie experience you’ll never forget.

4. Rio Bravo
“A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?”

Add Ricky Nelson’s Elvis wannabe/Love Me Tender-less gunfighter, and that’s exactly what John Wayne’s got in this classic, often hilarious western. Yes, the story and the archetypes are all too familiar. Here the under-matched good guys face insurmountable odds in order to keep the brother of a local villain in jail. But it’s not the story, it’s the cast of characters, that makes Rio Bravo so unforgettable.

As John T Chance, John Wayne essentially plays a fun-loving parody of himself. Dean Martin’s Dude is the most loveable drunk this side of Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch [rent Hoosiers]. But it’s Walter Brennan’s Stumpy who damn near steals the movie as the cantankerous old cripple assigned to guard the prisoner.

Rio Bravo is filled with so many memorable and quotable moments. My personal favorite is the “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” sing-along. Like the “Show me the way to go home” scene in Jaws, it’s that perfect movie moment where the characters forget their differences and come together for some buddy-bonding….just before the shit hits the proverbial fan.

3. High Noon
Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just hung up his badge. Now he’s looking forward to riding off into the sunset with his impossibly gorgeous bride (Grace Kelly). As western fate would have it, he picked the wrong day to honeymoon with Grace Kelly. Kane learns that Frank Miller, a man he sent to prison years before, will return on the noon train to exact his revenge.

Against his better judgment [he's passing up a honeymoon with Grace fu**ing Kelly], Kane decides he must defend the town he no longer calls home. Unfortunately, his door-to-door calls for help are greeted with the kind of response I give a Jehovah Witness. Even his own deputy begs for a day off, to which Kane responds: “Go on home to your kids, Herb.”

My brother will never come right out and say it, but he’s not a Gary Cooper fan. So I think he downgrades High Noon on those grounds. Others, like John Wayne, came right out and called High Noon “Un-American” in its day. I argue that “the story of a man who was too proud to run” is the story of our everyday American heroes: The brave officers and  firefighters who run into burning towers when others are running out. Or how about our military heroes who risk their lives to defend our freedom every day…so I can “go on home to my kids” every night? To me, that’s the story of High Noon.

2. Once Upon A Time In The West
To fully appreciate the artistry (and some might say larceny) of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, you must first feast on this greatest of all Spaghetti Westerns. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is still everyone’s trendy pick, but Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s time-tested masterpiece. Brilliant set designs, a score that soars, and camera views that practically stick the loaded barrel between your eyes.

Steely-blue eyes have never been meaner than Henry Fonda’s. Harmonica-playing heroes have never been cooler than Charles Bronson. And bombshells have never been, well, bombier than Claudia Cardinale.

The film also features the greatest climactic draw in film history. When Frank (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) square off, their history is finally revealed to us. And when the harmonica is placed in the mouth of a mortally-wounded Frank…this same history becomes his final, horrifying recollection on Earth. I guess Frank was right: “People scare better when they’re dying.”

1. Shane
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t watch the movie I was named after until I was in high school. My defense: Shane is one of those movies that’s famous even among people who haven’t see it. In other words, I wish I had a fistful of dollars for every time some jack-wagon hit me with the much-parodied “Come back Shane!” line. For the record, it’s “Shane! Come back!”

When I finally overcame “Come back Shane” fatigue, I learned that my namesake was more than just a one-line-wonder. It’s a wonderful movie about a weary gunfighter (Alan Ladd) who attempts to hang up his guns and settle down. Shane quickly wins the admiration and employment of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a humble, hardworking homesteader whose embroiled in a fight for his land.

Shane also wins the hero-worship of young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) and the quietly obvious affections of Joe’s wife, Marion (Jean Arthur). The plot inevitably forces Shane into a fateful climax against Wilson (Jack Palance), a hired gun who looks like a Muggle-born version of Lord Voldemort. Wilson’s serpent-like features and menacing expressions make him the personification of pure evil. It’s up to Shane to confront Wilson and “clear out all the guns from the valley.”

As for the “Shane! Come back” finale…some contend that a wounded Shane rides off into those majestic mountains to die as he wanted to live…in peace. Others have suggested that Shane’s respect for Joe Starrett makes him retreat before the inevitable love triangle reared its ugly head. I think the answer is much simpler, and we can draw our conclusion from Shane’s own words: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back.”

As for Joey’s final cry out to Shane, I believe it represents the idea that a boy’s childhood heroes are fleeting. Inevitably, at some point, most boys go back to respecting the values of their first hero. “It’s a brand…a brand sticks.” And for the lucky sons like me and Brett and Joey, our favorite brand of hero is our father.

[Note to Dad: I'm proud to be named after Shane...even though I'm less gunfighter and more gunpowder puff].

[Note to Brett: How can you have a DieHard-on for a certain “Yippee-Ki-Yay motherfu**er” cop…and not love Gary Cooper’s Will Kane?]

Long Duk Dong’s Back-to-School Fashion Guide

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What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see…he was wearing a red argyle sweater, and tan trousers, and red shoes………Hmm? No, he’s not retarded!”

Don’t spend another second feeling sorry for Long Duk Dong. For a “Chinaman named after a duck’s dork”, he had an epic first day as an American high school student. Sure his taste in “appetizing food fit neatly into interesting round pie” was square, but his style was all his own. And he rocked that style harder than the Porsche-driving, sleeveless-swea   ter-wearing object of Samantha Baker’s affection. “Donger’s here for five hours, and he’s got somebody. I live here my whole life, and I’m like a disease.” Yes, for those who kept score, Long Duk Dong nabbed a “new-style American girlfriend” before Jake Ryan did.

It’s back-to-school-time again, and we want to tell our children that the content of their character matters more than the contents of their closet. And it does. But we’re talking about the first day of school here, and you always remember your first. So whatever first-day fashion statement your child is about to make…be sure it’s one of their own making. I know this may not be the best lesson to preach, but I preach from a painful personal pulpit.

“Why do you think you’re a dork? I don’t think you’re a dork. I don’t think Mom thinks you’re a dork.”

My mama always said that I was born with Forrest Gump feet…so my fashion choices were limited. She had the option of sending me to school with braces on my legs or with special shoes. Back in those days, “special shoes” was the medical term that podiatrists used to describe saddle shoes. And “saddle shoes” was the politically correct way of saying Shane dressed like a f**king cheerleader.

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Vintage saddle shoes from the late ’70′s…as worn on the Gump feet of a young Shane Smith.

While it took a few years, and some ribbing from my classmates, I managed to grow out of my Gump feet. In time, I also rose above my reputation as Morristown’s cutest cross-dresser.

In mom’s defense, I had medical issues that forced her to dress me like Cindy Brady boarding The Good Ship Lollipop. My sister Sherry, on the other hand, had no such reason to send me to school looking like the love child of Steve Urkel and Punky Brewster.

[NOTE: Before I continue, let me just say that I adore my sister Sherry. I idolized her growing up, so I had no reason to question her fashion advice. She wanted her little brother to avoid all the trappings of high school. The  trappings that could turn a "super-cute boy" like me into...well...a teenager. So I took her "Stay gold Pony Boy" advice to heart, and I never gave the outfit that she picked out for me a second look. And since I was able to charm the parachute-pants off girls in middle school...I really didn't think one outfit could change all that in high school.]

“Take those ridiculous things off!”

I can still recall the most minute details from my first day at Morristown High School: a school where they brew a melting pot of more than just John Hughes clichés. We’re talking white, black, and yellow; straight, gay, and crooked; clean, burnt, and extra crispy. Scared freshman struggled to doggy-paddle their way through a sea of hacky-sac circles, decked suede Pumas, and cigarette smoke rings. You could feel their uneasiness. Desperate to climb the first rung of the high school social ladder, yet fearful of belly-flopping into the shark-infested waters of the high school fish bowl. And then there was me…

As soon as I stepped off the bus, it was clear that I had committed a wardrobe malfunction of Janet–Miss Jackson if You’re Nasty–proportions. I wore Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants on my first day of high school. Not pre-school. High school!!! Belted just below my nipples, the clown pants made me look like an anorexic alcoholic who hadn’t eaten since the Irish Potato Famine.

shane
Shane is wearing vintage 1990 Bugle Boy Khaki Suspender Pants and pure white Jaclar high-tops with untied shoelaces. Hmmm? No he’s not retarded.

I’m not sure about the rest of my body, but my cheeks were flaming more than my favorite WHAM cassette. I considered hiding, but I had already drawn attention from two of my former girlfriends [let's call them Blonde and Blonder]. I knew I was fried the moment Blonde and Blonder waltzed up to me and started surveying my wacky khaki package.

As Blonde squeezed my flaming cheek, Blonder plucked my suspenders like Eddie Van Halen. And to this day, I haven’t forgotten the looks on their faces or the eight words that Blonder uttered in jest:

Blonder:
“Ooooh, look at Shaney!  Isn’t he so cute?”

But she didn’t say this in a “Chachi’s so cute” kind of way.  No, these were the words of a grandparent squeezing the cheeks of an infant who’d just discovered the joys of eating poop. I was the infant, minus the diaper. Hell, who needed a diaper when I had Hefty-brand suspender pants to carry my shit.

By the time I crossed the entrance to MHS–like a threshold between boyhood and manhood–my Bozo T. Clown pants had already made me public enema #1. I clicked my Jaclar high-tops and mimicked Dorothy by heart.  “There’s no place like [middle school]. There’s no place like [middle school].” But I wasn’t in middle school anymore, and the great and powerful Oz was about to eat me up before lunch.

Speaking of lunch, that’s where my next huge embarrassment awaited.

“This information cannot leave this room. Okay? It would devastate my reputation as a dude.”

If you are what you wear on the first day of high school, then I’m convinced the rest of your social existence rides on who you share a table with at lunchtime. I prayed to the gods that I’d share a lunch period with at least one of my best friends, but no such luck.  Actually, I think all my friends took one good look at my suspenders and begged for a schedule change.

Fearing fashion guilt by association, I imagined they stormed into the Principal’s office and pleated their case:

Friend #1:
“You don’t understand Mr. Rooney, he’s wearing Bugle Boy khaki suspender pants.”

Friend #2:
“I’m pretty sure they’re the same pants my brother wore to kindergarten.”

Friend #3:
“I mean, what’s next?  An Alf lunch box?”

Mr. Rooney:
“Boys, I’ve heard your statements.  And quite frankly I am horrified!!!”

Friend #4:
“You mean, horrified that we’re such awful friends?”

Mr. Rooney:
“No!  I am horrified that Bugle Boy makes suspender pants for high school students.”

The office erupts with laughter.

Meanwhile, I was looking for at least one familiar face in a cafeteria filled with  sophomores who ignored me and freshmen who pretended not to know me.  Christ, with the get-up I was wearing I had a better chance of scoring a seat at Chuck-E-Cheese.

I finally set up camp next to several harmless-looking gnomes who must have raided Alex P. Keaton’s wardrobe.  We’re talking Izod sweater vests and Jox-brand velcro sneakers.  The closest thing to a jock among them was wearing a varsity jacket with a harp on the back.  I offered a faint hello to my new best friends, buried my head in my tray, and started eating. Until suddenly, and inexplicably, I found my bony index finger was lodged in my proboscis.

As luck would have it, my quick pick caught the attention of [let’s call him Biff], a sophomore whose brains were in his love handles. Destined to work in the school cafeteria upon graduating, Biff couldn’t let this opportunity pass him by. So with all the dimwitted passion of Rocky Balboa calling out to his equally dimwitted Adrian, Biff let out the following cry…

 ”EEEEEW! Look at the Freshman picking his nose!”

Knockout!  Before I had a chance to get up off the canvas, all eyes were glued to a suspender-wearing, booger-picking freshman in need of a standing eight count.

Naturally I did what any other proud high school student would do in that situation. I dropped my tray and ran straight the hell out of the cafeteria and upstairs to the library. The library became my lunchtime sanctuary during freshman year. It was my quiet place, where I could reflect on the most humiliating first day in high school history. A day that began, and ended, with a fashion statement that wasn’t of my own making.

“It’s really human of you to listen to all my bullshit.”
If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that we all tell our children that the first day of school is about being respectful, paying attention, and making new friends. And it is. Unfortunately, making new friends and making the appropriate fashion statement aren’t mutually exclusive. When in doubt, just be sure the fashion statement your child is about to make is one of his own making. If that doesn’t work, rent Sixteen Candles, or tell him the story about the  “Chinaman named after a duck’s dork”…and the numb-nuts who let his sister dress him like White Urkel.

P.S. Sherry, I still love you. More importantly, I forgive you.

[keep scrolling]

Now will you forgive me?

“SOFA CITY SWEETHEART!”

sherry

Turning 40: From a Glass-Half-Full Kind of Guy

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I’ve always been a glass- half-full kind of guy. Even on my worst day, when I’m convinced that half the country is half-full-of-shit, I choose to focus on the better half. The half who wake up every morning and realize that, despite its imperfections, America is still the greatest country in the world. But for the better part of this summer, I’ve struggled to keep my glass full enough to appreciate all the little things I love about this great country of ours.

Dear Mr. Vernon: Is that why you’ve battled blogger’s block worse than an axe-wielding Jack Torrance? [Rent “The Shining”]

To paraphrase my favorite country singer, I’m just a blogger of simple blogs…I’m not a real political man. I do lean right, but I’ll be the first to admit when the right is wrong. I’m a man of faith, but I have no such faith in Bible-thumping politicians who speak of “legitimate rape” and preach on the miracle of the female reproductive system’s kill switch.

What concerns me? I’m concerned about a New Jersey unemployment rate that’s at 10% and swelling faster than Governor Christie’s waistline. I’m also preoccupied with the prospect that I could one day join this group of 10-percenters. Think “Obama Care” and the FDA have spun our nation’s healthcare system into disarray? You should join me every day as I attempt to write for, and about, a pharmaceutical industry that currently doesn’t know its ass from its elbow cream. In my humble, glass-half-full opinion, the state of American healthcare isn’t in flux. It’s legitimately fu**ed. And at the rate our economic recovery is going, Generation X will hand the reins of this country over to “Generation Y us?”

[And I’m about to turn 40…can’t you tell?]

Today I find myself a few weeks shy of life’s half-way point. That mid-life mile marker called 40 will soon appear in my rear-view…and I’ll struggle not to wax melodramatic about what America is, was, and may never be again. Life’s glass will soon be half-empty for me, but I’m determined to keep the glass full with hope for our nation’s future.

During my one [and only] week of vacation this summer, two events gave me hope for America’s future. Even more than those “Chevy Runs Deep” commercials narrated by Buzz Lightyear.

“We’re just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the [corporate-sponsored] farm.”
Even in an America where development threatens to spoil whatever pristine country remains, the dream of wide-open spaces and down-home living endures. So much so that 56,000 city-slickers (like my father, brother, and I), flocked like lemmings to Met Life Stadium on August 10th. We didn’t dust off our shit-kickers to see The Boss, Eli, or Mark Sanchez’s back-up play. We were a bunch of Metropolitanities who came to get country-fied by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

chesney

Yep, we’re talking a mix of blue- and white-collared folks who are about as corn-fed country as I am juiced-up junkie. We were all wannabe rebels who didn’t have a clue we weren’t on a farm, but in a corporate-sponsored behemoth of a stadium.

Heck, even my old man was acting like he didn’t have a clue he was 72-years old. For example,

[As a 20-something walked by in Daisy Dukes, showing off her future skin cancer]

Brett:
“Dad, when do you think 20-year-old girls finally stopped looking at you?”

Dad:
“Who says they ever did? Asshole!”

After the summer sun fell out of sight, we were still singing lyrics like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”…  knowing full well my Korean-built Hyundai was unsexy. It didn’t matter. For nearly six hours, we drank, sang, and sweat our red, white, and blue asses off. Country music has that ability to transport you from the realities of your fast-paced/tech-obsessed daily life. These are simple songs about a simpler life. Songs that paint the perfect picture of an idyllic America that may only exist in our refried dreams.

brett

“Is this Heaven? No, it’s [Williamsport].”

If you’ve never visited Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series, then you may be missing the very best example of youth sports, camaraderie, and sportsmanship that this country has to offer. Entry is free, the umpires and concessionaires are volunteers, and watching the games will make you feel “as if you dipped yourself in magic waters.” Repeat that quote in a James Earl Jones voice, then stroll the friendly confines of Howard J. Lamade Stadium and tell me that Williamsport isn’t “the place where dreams come true.”

kids

At the tail end of my one [and only!] vacation week this summer, I took my boys to Williamsport to support our local Par-Troy East little league team. While my boys were disappointed to see their local team fall in their opener, they quickly shifted their focus to an international story that was just unfolding. We had heard the story about a diamond in the rough where a shoeless version of baseball is played on rocky fields among cows, goats, and anthills. And here they were, the team from a third-world country…captivating everyone in Williamsport with their unbridled joy for life and the game of baseball.

Long before their improbable 3 to 2 victory over Oregon, the Ugandan team had already staked their claim to the title of undisputed fan favorites. Despite lives filled with adversity that most Americans couldn’t possibly fathom, the Ugandan players were so happy, so gracious, and so ready to show their appreciation for a dream-come-true that wasn’t given to them…it was earned. We Americans have a tendency to focus on all that’s wrong with our country. The Ugandans showed us that every second in America felt like paradise to them.

The Ugandan story is a triumph of the human spirit, and it’s quite possibly the greatest thing to ever happen to little league baseball. Perhaps the only thing better than watching how the Ugandan team responded to their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was how our American little leaguers responded to them.

uganda

Thanks to clothing and equipment drives run by many of the American teams, it’s safe to say that the Ugandan All-Stars will bring more than just memories back home with them. No, the Ugandans didn’t win the Little League World Series. They won the hearts of America instead.

Now please excuse me while I refill my glass.