The Basketcase

“What About Prom, [Shane]?”

True to the masthead I write under, I learned everything I know about high school traditions from the movies of John Hughes. Which is to say, I spent more time watching movies about high school traditions than I spent participating in them. Today, these movies are more dated than a “Where’s the Beef?” T-shirt. As such, my oldest son Cal pays zero attention to the high school lessons I preach. Lessons he aptly named: The Gospel According to John Hughes.

The kid’s got a point. Up until my senior year, I never participated in any of the major high school traditions. I observed them. I never swigged the booze or bagged the babe, but I could tell you who swigged the babe and bagged the booze. I guess you could say I was a bit of a high school anomaly. I was an extroverted introvert who studied hard, had a few close friends, just said “no” to everything, and lived vicariously through the lives of Hughes’s high school heroes and heroines. For me, there were no parties (Sixteen Candles), no detentions (The Breakfast Club), no cutting class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and no school dances (Pretty in Pink). In fact, I had virtually no life after midnight (The Gremlins).

So by the time my senior prom arrived, the thought of scoring a date sounded downright prom-posterous. For starters, I wasn’t exactly on any girl’s A-list of eligible bachelors. In their rolodexes (remember those?), they filed my number somewhere between N and O. And with the exception of my two sisters, and maybe a few of their mannish friends, I hardly even talked to the opposite sex. In their minds, I was the opposite of sex.

“Good morning! Welcome to another day of higher education!”

In my defense, my oldest siblings didn’t exactly paint a pretty-in-pink picture of high school proms:

  • At her prom, my sister Cindy walked through an unopened glass door and wound up concussed.
  • My sister Sherry’s prom dates equaled the collective coolness of Ernie and Bert.
  • My brother Brett never made it to his senior prom; or senior year for that matter.

Even so, I knew that the senior prom wasn’t just another dance. This time, I couldn’t just say no. As prom night grew closer, my family started reminding me of this very point. Actually, they started to sound like Andie (Molly Ringwald) hammering Blane, her would-be prom date and major appliance: “What about prom, [SHANE]!?!?!” 

Sadly, up until 2 weeks before prom, this Ferris Bueller-sounding promposal was the best offer I got: “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who said she might go with you.”  

“This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me!”

Inspired by Pretty In Pink’s Duckie, I finally summoned the courage to ask the sweetest girl at Morristown High School to the prom. As I recall, my shaky-legged promposal sounded an awful lot like Rocky Balboa proposing to Adrian:

“Hey yo, Selina. I was just wonderin’ if you
wouldn’t
mind goin’ to the prom with me too much?” 

Nonetheless, Selina said YES! I wore a slightly ironic mismatched black-and-white tuxedo. We shared a limo with my 3 best friends. And I enjoyed a prom night that still inspires me to this day.

Flash forward 27 years…

As I worked late last night, and watched social media drive MHS prom photos into the local zeitgeist, I was at a loss for words. So overcome with pure pride and joy, I could only text the following to my wife: “I can’t stop smiling and crying!”

I share my slightly exaggerated story above because I know that every kid at the prom last night has his or her own story. And like bookends to each kid’s story, there are parents who’ve supported their child through it all. As parents, we see beneath the newly coiffed hair, the flawless tuxes/dresses, and the generous helpings of tan spray paint. We see the long, winding, sometimes bumpy road of adolescent life that brought our kids to this destination. And when it comes to high school, let’s face it, getting there isn’t always half the fun. But boy, don’t the memories of “getting there” make moments like last night so much sweeter?

I think of all the demands that parents, teachers, coaches, peers, and cellular devices place on kids. Heck, these demands are probably nothing compared to the demands our kids place on themselves. But for one night–and a long weekend down the shore that has every parent praying to whomever they pray to in times like these–there was only one demand being placed on our kids:

Just go out there and have the time of your life!

For me, prom is the American high school tradition. It’s truly a rite of passage and the one important ritual of American youth that I was proud to have participated in. Today I’m so proud and excited for all those self-tanned and smiling faces that I recognized on social media last night. As for what lays ahead for them this weekend, I’ll let Duckie sum it up for you:

“Oh you know, beer, scotch, juice box… whatever.”

Have a great weekend everybody! “I’m off like a dirty shirt.”

The ’80s: Stranger Things from a Simpler Time

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You’re only young once. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be young-at-heart forever. 

My father possesses this rare gift. At the age of 76, he’s still the same dreamer with the Elvis Presley comb-over and a sweet tooth for Hollywood endings.

Lucky for me, all signs indicate that dad’s youthful heart defect hasn’t skipped a generational beat. I don’t just reminisce about those “I want my MTV” wonder years. I’m not merely a nostalgic who watches Freaks and Geeks and The Goldbergs (both great shows) or quotes John Bender like a “neo maxi zoom dweebie.” I go further than that.

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  • I’ll disappear into the rabbit hole of YouTube’s memory lane for hours, only to return in Marty McFly’s DeLorean.
  • I’ve ordered 1980’s Sears Wish Books on eBay just to remember what I put on my Santa list.
  • I’ve Googled so many 1980’s TV commercials that I ask myself classic rhetorical questions like “Where’s The Beef?” and try in vein to answer them: “The HAMBURGLAR???”

I’m not your Magic Garden-variety nostalgic who simply remembers the ’80s, I inhale them. I let the ’80s seep so deeply into my pores that I need Clearasil to fix the zits.

Understandably, my significant other thinks I may have a problem. To my wife, being young at heart also means that I’m lost in time…I’ve never grown up…and I still haven’t found what U2’s looking for. I remind my significantly more mature other that I use the fond memories of yesterday as my pop-culture-infused energy source. In today’s youthful terms, they’re like power-ups that help keep me optimistic about the future. When I revisit pop-culture from the ’80s, I also remember time spent with my family, my neighborhood friends, a home that I couldn’t wait to come home to, and a president who made me feel safe…even during difficult times.

By difficult times, I mean like this one time in 1982:
I came home from school like every other day. I changed into my sweat pants, remembering to 
carefully cuff them just below the knees. I pulled my Wigwam tube socks just below my balls. I laced up my Jaclars and raced downstairs to find the end of the world as we know it (5 years before REM did).  

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Seeing this TIME Magazine cover story was like experiencing my own private “The Day After”. The mental fallout was so severe that I’d Poltergeist myself into our Zenith at the mere mention of the words NUCLEAR WAR.   

Shortly after TIME Magazine foreshadowed why I’d one day pop Xanax like Tic Tacs, my father introduced us to a SONY Betamax. He also gave me my very own Video Express card. As an escape from nuclear hysteria, that card quickly pimped me into a rental whore. Late at night, when dad was watching the news downstairs, I’d play the movies extra loud upstairs. This way I’d drown out any news of the nuclear arms race and the inevitable extinction of Morris Plains, NJ. No joke, when I wasn’t navigating the aisles of Video Express, I was mapping out the quickest Jaclar route from Sussex Avenue School to my home on 14 Meslar Road. You know, in the event of global thermonuclear war.

But that was life in the ’80s. I think we all had active imaginations that fueled our childhood anxieties. We also knew our parents had a lot on their cholesterol-filled plates, so we couldn’t run to them every time something went bump in the night. I now realize, of course, that we were the last of a great generation of kids who solved their own problems. We were dreamers who looked up to the stars, not down at our cellphones. We were the first generation to have VCRs and video games; the first generation to be raised on Steven Spielberg and Stephen King; and the last generation whose parents didn’t have to worry if we strayed too far from the yard.

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The 80’s were difficult times, sure, but they were simpler times. As kids, we were able to exempt ourselves from the problems of the adult world by simply disappearing until dinnertime. After dinnertime, I disappeared into the movies that captured the spirit of that time. Classic ’80s movies empowered us and gave legitimacy to our far-flung fantasies. The ones where ordinary, lower-middle-class kids could do extraordinary things.

’80s movies made us believe that:

6 kids, a treasure map, and a pirate ship loaded with booty can save the Goondocks.
(SPOILER ALERT: Their parents didn’t even have to schedule the play date).
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With the help of a boy and his flying dirt bike, an alien voiced by Debra Winger can phone home without an Apple or Samsung device.

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Boy who sweeps leg no match for karate kid who wax on and whacks off (sorry).

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8 kids called the Wolverines can save their high school from a Russian invasion and Charlie Sheen.

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When my young heart reminisces about the “good ol’ days”, I’m actually just tapping into the spirit of that simpler time. Take this election season for example. So disheartened by both major-party candidates, I desperately needed to refuel my pessimistic 2016 engine with 1.21 gigawatts of Reagan-era optimism. So on the advice of a friend, I turned my attention to a Demogorgon monster in an upside down world. No, this Demogorgon is not one of the monsters running for president. And the upside down world isn’t the DNC, the RNC, or Run-DMC. It’s the latest binge-worthy sensation from Netflix called Stranger Things. A show that my aforementioned friend described this way:

“It feels like a show written by Stephen King, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring
the
cast of the Goonies. Oh, and Winona Ryder is still kinda hot “

No further selling was required. I finished the sometimes scary, always spectacular 8-episode series in 2 days. In bed suffering from a brutal ulcerative colitis flare, Stranger Things proved to be a better antidote than any ass enema. It had me shrieking in fear, blubbering with tears, and goose-bumping like a 12-year-old all over again. In addition to a tremendous cast of kids, it features familiar ’80s faces like Winona “Heathers” Ryder and Matthew “Vision Quest” Modine. The nods to the ’80s classics are endless. The chills feel like they’re courtesy of Stephen King and John Carpenter; the thrills are the work of Spielberg; and the three sides of the teenage love triangle are shaped by the John Hughes classics. But it’s almost an insult to call Stranger Things an homage to ’80s movies. It doesn’t just reference ’80s movies and look like an ’80s movie. It feels like an ’80s movie too. With each new episode, I was reminded how I felt the first time I watched all those kids-can-do classics. Lost innocence found…some 30 years later.

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For me, the Duffer Brother’s “Stranger Things” felt like a time portal trip through the Poltergeist TV. After 8 tightly-packaged, swiftly-paced episodes, I triumphantly screamed: “They’re baaaack” in reference to the ’80s. And this child of the ’80s is waiting anxiously to learn if “Stranger Things” will be baaaack for a season 2.

Stranger Things is great entertainment. Escapism at its best. A reminder of a simpler time before far-flung fantasies gave way to far-too-real realities. Today, our worst fears aren’t dreamed up after reading a doomsday scenario in TIME Magazine. They’re not played-out on Dungeons & Dragons game boards in the tree houses and basements of suburbia. Today’s worst fears actually come to life. We watch them in real-time. They’re devoured on social media, recycled on the nightly news, and then spun ever-so-delicately to fit his and her own political point of view.

For a brief 8 episodes, however, Stranger Things offered a welcome respite to the hate-filled campaign coverage that proves we’re living in strange times with the risk of stranger (and scarier) things to come. (Where’s the Xanax?)

So far I’ve been steadfast in my belief that neither of our current major-party candidates is worthy of my vote.

So the next time someone asks me:
“But if you had to vote for one candidate…right here…right now…who would it be?”

My answer will be:
“I’ll endorse Stranger Things right here. And I’ll vote for a season 2. Right now!” 

Like my father, I proudly remain young at heart…and apolitical to the core.

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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.

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Shane is wearing vintage 1986 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.

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Now will you forgive me?

“SOFA CITY SWEETHEART!”

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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

11036419_983825525009163_9214948248004658624_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…”

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.