Sunday, July 5, 2015

All you need's a strong heart and a nerve of steel

Well, I can cross the number one item off my bucket list now. 

Several weeks ago, Jamie and I went to Las Vegas for our 10th wedding anniversary. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Like many American cities, Vegas is a place that you can’t completely take in over the five days we were here, so I’ll share some random observations on the place. 

  1. Las Vegas is, in ways both good and bad, the most American of all U.S. cities. It contains incredible wealth, and, of course, the promise of more wealth—but if you walk just blocks from the casinos, you’ll see homeless people sleeping in doorways. 
  2. 1957 is over and all five members of the Rat Pack are dead. Don’t go looking for your mom and dad’s Vegas—it’s gone. Today, “Old Vegas” means a $3 martini at happy hour, and Frank, Dean and Sammy have been replaced by rappers and club DJs whom I don't know from a can of paint. (The more I think about it, “1957 is over” is great advice for life, not just Vegas.)
  3. McCarran Airport is the only airport I’ve been to that has slot machines (although I didn’t see anyone playing them). Hey, you have to do something to break up the incredibly long walk from the gate to baggage claim.
  4. A downtown hotel—the Golden Nugget—was an excellent choice, as The Strip, with its crowds and craziness, would have overwhelmed us. Even at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, the crowd walking around the GN still resembled a scene from the movie Idiocracy.
  5. One thing I noticed, being a letter carrier, is that mail trucks were on the street at 8 a.m. I later learned that the work day starts at 5 a.m. for letter carriers in Vegas. And when the temperature hits 90 by 11 a.m., you know why. 
  6. I highly recommend Eat Las Vegas for a great breakfast.
  7. I was a bit disappointed in the selection of tracks at the sports book. Maybe I’m spoiled because I have a Twinspires account, but—I flew across the country to bet Finger Lakes? Then again, I’ll take a 60-1 shot across the board at Yonkers Raceway, no matter where I bet it.
  8. It was cool to go to a window and bet on baseball as if it were a horse race. And I’m now 2-for-2 on baseball. Thank you, Buccos!
  9. Our first Vegas show was the drag show Divas featuring Frank Marino. Quite well done. You mean that wasn’t really Britney Spears?
  10. The Neon Museum is a priceless look at Vegas history. It consists of old neon signs from long-gone casinos and other attractions, accompanied by remarks on the city’s history—both glorious and not so. 
  11. Guy Fieri’s restaurant in the Linq is really good. Not what I expected after reading a hilariously bad review of his New York City restaurant. 
  12. Our second show was The Million Dollar Quartet, based on the real-life meeting at Sun Studio of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The music was live and great. 
  13. The Strip is home to the most garish architecture I’ve ever seen, and it all seems to be fighting to occupy the same space. 
  14. How ironic that, for all its glitz and glamour, the most beautiful sight in Vegas is the mountains off in the distance. 
  15. The area on Las Vegas Boulevard between the downtown casinos and the Strip casinos looks like it was destined to be on “Cops.” Bail bonds, strip clubs, pawn shops, quick loans. And wedding chapels, too. 
  16. Name a hit TV show, classic movie, or recording artist, and there’s probably a slot machine based on it. 
  17. Our 10th anniversary dinner was at the Chart House in the Golden Nugget. The hotel’s theme appears to be fish—you can swim alongside them in the pool and watch them in a large fish tank as you eat at the Chart House. There are fish in the tank that I never knew existed—none of which, thank goodness, were on the menu.
  18. There’s no greater feeling than winning enough money at blackjack and craps to pay for the trip. 
  19. Except celebrating 10 years with the love of your life.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I was the dandy of Gamma Chi

I recently remarked on Facebook that it’s never good when you see a college fraternity on the six o’clock news.

And, sure enough, it isn’t. Fraternities have been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, ranging from videos of racist songs to posting nude pictures of women on the internet.

After the story about the infamous SAE song broke, I read a thoughtful Facebook discussion about diversity and racism in college. It may surprise some that this discussion took place on a fraternity’s page—the page of my fraternity, Pi Beta Sigma.

That’s me, third from left in the top row, in Pi Sig’s 1986 composite picture. Pi Sig, AKA The Bulls, was founded in 1908 and is not only the oldest fraternity at Otterbein College, but the oldest fraternity in America without a national affiliation. 

The story of how I came to pledge Pi Sig is, in itself, strange. When I was looking at a college, the thought of joining a fraternity was far from my mind. What I knew about frats came from watching “Animal House,” although I knew the film was not a documentary. I’d heard that frats were expensive and, generally speaking, an indulgence for rich kids. 

During my senior year, a high school friend was attending Otterbein. While I had committed to going to Otterbein (as it was the only college to offer me a scholarship), I still had some misgivings about what the social life was like. I knew that it was a Methodist school with a dry campus and limits on opposite-sex visitation in the dorms, and I had the slight suspicion that I was being shipped off to Bob Jones University. 

My friend reassured me that this was far from the case. One of the things he talked about was the Greek system, especially the frat he was pledging—Pi Sig. He talked about all the frats, what campus cliques each tended to draw from--and how they were often used as a way to bend campus rules. 

Right away, I liked the idea of Pi Sig (even though I had not yet even visited the campus). I guess it was the sense of belonging to something that attracted me. While my friend left Otterbein soon after pledging, I was still determined to check out Pi Sig once I got there. 

Something about the place clicked with me, and I’m still not sure what. Several other Otterbein frats attracted athletes and were very much part of the jock culture, which did not appeal to me. But Pi Sig was more of a mixture. There were members who studied theater, music, English and journalism, among many other majors. The atmosphere was more bohemian than one might associate with a fraternity. If Jack Kerouac had started a fraternity, it would have looked like Pi Sig.

The frat’s culture was also more diverse than some frats that have been in the news lately. While I was there, Pi Sig pledged students from several different countries—South Korea, Japan, England, Germany, Syria, and Thailand, among others. And we managed to do this on a campus where "diversity" usually meant your roommate was Catholic. I recall a song that was written during pledging one year—a parody of CCR’s “Down On The Corner”:

You don’t need a ticket
To the universal frat
Eight countries holding,
Ronald Reagan can’t stop that
So if you think of England,
Japan or Germany
The Bulls are who to talk to 
And the only place to be

That’s a far cry from “There will never be a n***** SAE”!

I recognize that Pi Sig is not a typical fraternity. I suspect that Otterbein’s Greek culture, in general, is a bit different from that at most other colleges because the organizations are local, rather than national, and the dues are much lower, which makes them more accessible to the average student. From what I’ve seen, fraternities at most other colleges are the province of the privileged and bring with them many associated problems. If I had gone to a major university, a fraternity would not have interested me. 

Maybe it's just because I'm older, but I now think of fraternities, in general, as a bit antiquated and immature. By definition, they are sexist in that they do not admit women—no way to get around that. And it's hard to think of a good thing you can get from a fraternity that you can’t get elsewhere in college. Learning to work with people? Male bonding? There are many other activities that foster those things. 

When I see news stories such as the SAE controversy or read about fraternities being involved in sexual assaults, I start to think that maybe the time has come for frats to go the way of panty raids and freshman beanies. 

But when I catch up with Pi Sig on Facebook and see that many of its members are good, decent people, I can say that I am still proud to be a member of the organization. If I had to join a fraternity, I picked the right one. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well

Three years ago, I found out something about me that made much of my life make sense. 

I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

For those who do not know what Asperger Syndrome is, it is a form of high-functioning autism. If you asked someone what an autistic person is like, they would probably say Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. (While that character was based on someone who was not autistic, there are some similarities.) Autism actually varies widely and affects people in different ways. Most autistics are not afraid of flying, nor are they especially adept at counting cards. 

Some of the characteristics of AS include difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, restricted and repetitive interests and behavior, speech and language abnormalities, and problems with motor skills. I have all of these characteristics.

It is hard for me to write this, but I think it is important to try, because I feel that my experiences are things that people can learn from—Aspies, their families, and perhaps even myself. 

I could spend a month of blog entries on each of the Aspie characteristics and how they have impacted my life. The most prominent one is the inability to read people. It has been only recently—since my diagnosis—that I discovered that I have a big problem understanding people and their motivations. I tend to take things people say literally, which often gets me into trouble. Case in point: I was in law school for a year—the mistake of my life. At the beginning of the year, one of the officers of the student bar association spoke to the first-year students. Among the things he told us was, “Don’t worry about your grades. They’re like the lottery.” I took this to mean that your grades somehow did not matter. I’m still not sure what he really meant—maybe that you can work your butt off and still get a C. Regardless, it’s way too late to figure out that statement. 

One might look at my Facebook profile and wonder how I can have a problem with people. My college major was, of all things, public relations. But I saw PR as more of a writing job, and it appeared to be a way to write that promised more job opportunities (or so I was told) than majoring in journalism or English.

The irony is that I actually thought I was good at working with people back then. The reason I thought this seems silly in retrospect. I figured I was good with people because—are you ready?—math and science were my worst subjects in high school (and I think that might have had more to do with how those subjects were taught than any lack of ability on my part). I’m bad at math, so that means I’m good with people, right? There’s a lesson in that. As I learned, in rather humiliating fashion, during a seventh-grade field day, just because you can’t hit doesn’t mean you can pitch.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Words are all I have

Why do people blog? I think it’s because it gives them an opportunity to make a difference. Blog and you could end up on the news or make a difference in some way. And we all want to make a difference. Not many people want to just exist. 

I have not blogged in quite some time, mainly because I work six days a week. Any spare time is devoted to spending time with my wife, cleaning up around the house, feeding various animals, and falling asleep in front of Penguins games. 

I also, frankly, don’t have much stomach for being involved in controversy. There have been past blog entries where words have offended certain people, even though those words were not aimed at those people. Incidents such as this keep me from saying what I want to say and take all the fun out of blogging. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what kind of legacy I will leave on this earth. If few people want to just exist, even fewer want to not exist. The thought of becoming nothing is too horrible for most people to contemplate—that’s why religions were created.

I will be gone someday. It does not appear that I will have any children. So what can I do that will live on after me?

Writing seems like the most logical way to leave something on this earth. I have written a novel, which is available at (end of commercial). All the people who have read my novel could fit comfortably in my house. I still say it’s a pretty good read. 

A blog seems more alive than a book that will sit on a shelf for 20 years and end up in a yard sale, anyhow. With a blog, I can say what’s on my mind at any given moment and it’s always out there, for better or worse. It will stay out there as long as there’s an Internet.

So you may see more blog entries from me in the future. I’m not sure what form the blog will take. I’m not one to bore people with the minutiae of my life. I don’t share pictures of my dinner or rant about the jerk who shut me off in traffic. I don’t feel comfortable doing that and I don’t think a whole lot of people are interested in it, anyhow. 

I would like to turn a blog into a kind of memoir—sharing parts of my life and the lessons I’ve learned from them. I feel as if I have a lot to say about certain subjects and I think people could be enlightened by them. 

You might hear from me again soon. Or you might not hear from me until I rededicate this blog, again, two years from now.