Live fast and die young to leave a good-looking corpse and a little coin

We all want to have a leisurely, healthy and financially secure retirement.I know I do. Of course, I also want a 32-inch waist and a head of hair full enough to sprout from a paperback romance novel’s cover.My point is that we don’t always get what we wish for.For instance, the Social Security system evidently is a train wreck. Technically, it’s not yet a train wreck. However, the runaway train of Social Security distress is flying downhill into the valley of bankruptcy.Well, this is terrible news for all of us who want to retire and take walks in the woods bordering long par 4s and use long black stretch limos to tour flea markets. Call me a sucker for nostalgia, but I’d love to enjoy retirement like my father does and my grandfather did.Now, I’m wondering — fiscally speaking — if it would be better to go directly from puberty to six feet under. After all, the inevitability of death is a quick cure for any and all rock bottom retirement blues.Granted, George W. Bush is trying to save Social Security from drowning in a sea of red ink. But since there are some of us who feel that George W. couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, this is hardly comforting.He’s preaching to Congress that enabling younger workers to create voluntary personal accounts will help throw a lifeline to the floundering Social Security system. Of course, if investing truly worked when the stock market is more upside down than a derailed train, our 401(k)s wouldn’t all be on life support.Bush also is prodding our esteemed lawmakers to consider reducing the benefits guaranteed to future middle and upper income retirees to assure Social Security’s solvency. This sliding-scale benefit formula, however, has the Democrats howling as if they all just stubbed their big toes on a railroad tie. Their concern is such a formula would gut benefits for the middle class. And since I’m definitely middle class, I emphatically feel Bush’s proposal has no class. You see, Social Security’s woes hit all of us who don’t happen to be CEOs, rock guitarists, quarterbacks, shortstops and spouses (or ex-spouses with pre-nups) of film superstars. Therefore, wearing a mask of detached amusement is not an option.Well, I’m not all that trusting that our politicians will find a solution to providing retirees with a comfortable cushion that can cover the cost of walkers, hearing aids and adult diapers. So I’m considering other revenue streams.Right now, I’m pondering whether to go into real estate or go the squalid, gangster route by collecting the vig on crummy loans, running a sleazy topless joint, looking for cheap scores, peddling drugs, selling protection and laundering money.

Our spies blind to a jagged fall into the abyss

A lot of lives have been snuffed out, a lot of lives have been otherwise shattered, and a lot of limbs have been torn asunder since we went to war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.Obviously, this is hardly news. But was it newsy here in Berks County Wednesday because former CIA director George Tenet and former New Jersey governor and 9/11 commission chairman Tom Kean participated in a decision-makers forum at Kutztown University.Of course, the cold light of hindsight has put a harsh light on the fact Tenet and the CIA were asleep at the switch on Iraq and 9/11. Not a good thing when you’re a spy, I might add.Tenet admitted at KU that the two dumbest words he ever said were “slam dunk” when he made the case for going to war against Iraq. If you recall, everybody back then in the Bush Administration saw nothing but purity and clarity in kicking Saddam’s butt. After all, they told us, Hussein was up to his eyeballs in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.As we all now know, that wasn’t the case. The rays of the hot Iraqi sun may lean heavily on flesh and bone, but no WMDs were glinting in the sun while Saddam was bluffing badly in the worst hand of international poker anybody ever played.Still, Tenet shouldn’t beat himself up for screwing up. Let’s be honest. It was a slam dunk that George W. Bush was going after Saddam no matter what the details were. George W. fancied himself as a gunfighter, and the quickest draw wins. He couldn’t wait to pull the trigger on Saddam. Not to mix historical metaphors, but Bush was determined to ride like the young Lochinvar out of the west to smite the eastern heretics.So he brought down the Iraqi sky on Saddam. Big deal! The guy who picked the fight on 9/11 was Osama bin Laden, not Saddam. But Bush, perhaps because Saddam was more of a stationary target than bin Laden and perhaps because his father hadn’t finished off Saddam when he had his shot in the White House, struck back at Iraq. And now the U.S. still is stuck there because like a desert half-crossed, the only thing that keeps us going ahead is what’s behind.Unfortunately, what’s behind is a lot of needless death and destruction, a lot of maiming of bodies and searing of souls. Meanwhile, bin Laden, the fiendish architect of 9/11, is footloose and fancy free in the mountains somewhere.Kean’s commission reported that U.S. leaders failed to grasp the gravity of bin Laden’s threat. Tenet disagreed Tuesday night with that assessment, but admitted that years of apathy toward terrorism, compounded by intelligence budget and personnel cuts, had the CIA fighting with one arm tied behind its back.More sobering was Kean’s assertion that the Bush administration and Congress have been slow to plug gaps in our national security. Obviously it’s not a good thing to be even pokier than humidity in such a grave endeavor.The U.S. already swallowed a mammoth wrecking ball of terror on 9/11. We should be hungry enough to do everything possible to help duck the next shot. In fact, do it with as much warp speed as we displayed in taking the fight to Iraq.

Crowd thunder crescendos for A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez has been the best ballplayer on the planet for years. He was with Seattle. He was with Texas. And he is with the New York Yankees.More importantly in a sport flawed by steroids, A-Rod is the real, natural deal as far as anybody can tell. No pumped-up artificially bloated muscles. His body is the perfect piece of marble in no need of self-sculpting through chemistry.Still, Yankee fans, arrogant and elitist louts spoiled by decades of imperial reign and payrolls exceeding the national debt, have been slow to embrace Rodriguez since he joined New York a year.The Yankees have been Derek Jeter’s team. Although A-Rod, a better defensive shortstop, moved to third base to respect Jeter’s territorial imperative, it wasn’t enough. Nor was the fact that he has never worn his talent like a crown, despite the royalty of his $252 million contract.A-Rod’s public persona is one of Captain Cool. But I’m sure the tepid response by Yankee fans has caused a profound ache in his core, a hurt lingering in coals that not-so-subtle slights fan to heat.Of course, everything may have changed on a titanic Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. A-Rod, to put it mildly, was squeezing a bat so hot it glowed. The fluid motion with his bat was like an efficiency expert’s flow chart. He punctuated his eminence by smashing three homers, including a grand slam, and ripping a single en route to a torrid 10 RBIs as the Yanks bombed the Angels 12-4.Fans, fickle frontrunners all, worked themselves into a jubilant froth. They chanted “A-Rod! A-Rod!” until he stepped on the dugout’s top step and raised both hands overhead. You could spend a lifetime sifting through clues in the minds of fans, working on the unsolvable mystery of what makes ’em function exclusively on knee-jerk response and instant gratification.Believe it or not, A-Rod has been criticized for being too perfect. After all, every hair on the guy’s head evidently has agreed to lie perfectly in place for eternity. And he always says the right thing. He did it again Tuesday night.“Definitely tonight was one of those magical nights,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve hit three home runs twice before, but nothing feels as special as this, doing it in New York, doing it in the pinstripes.”I think A-Rod is genuine, not manufactured. Still, a little spontaneous flamboyance would help his image. The guy comes across as frigid even when he’s torrid. Nevertheless, at least we know he’s no imposter with a bat in his hands.

They should have drank coffee or water

There’s a time and place to be in the center of things. But you have to know when to infiltrate and when to spectate.For instance, participatory journalism has had its shining moments. The late George Plimpton brought his urbane wit and charm to stories about his clumsy attempts to quarterback the Detroit Lions, play goalie for the Boston Bruins, box Archie Moore, pitch to Willie Mays, play Pancho Gonzalez in tennis, duel Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in golf, perform as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic, and try out as an aerialist with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus.Then there was the late Hunter S. Thompson, who invented Gonzo journalism by outrageously injecting himself into his stories.At least Plimpton and Thompson were straight with their readers.Which brings yours truly to the point of this blog. The Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette recently fired a staff writer and photographer for drinking while reporting and photographing a story on a drinking game called beer pong. The story was part of a series focusing on heavy drinking by young adults.The writer and photographer admitted they consumed alcohol while covering the story in an off-campus apartment. Of course, they didn’t divulge this information to the editors prior to the story’s publication.Well, what the hell were thinking? Of course they got fired. Pull off a stunt like that and it’s bound to cause editors to yell like sentries on guard duty. It’s the type of misconduct that tightens tendons in the jaws of publishers. It’s the type of misbehavior that sets off a lot more than pinpricks of regret and remorse, not to mention righteous anger, throughout the world of journalism.The reporter and photographer allowed their integrity to be compromised. Which is a real bad no-no in Journalism Ethics 101. There are some things you just don’t do, like pouring kerosene on a fire or becoming part of the story when you’re a journalist.Credibility is a fragile commodity. And credibility is as vital as a pulse to newspapers. If it’s in the newspaper, it should be credible and untainted. Like an omelet, once you break credibility, it’s mighty hard to repair. In fact, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the king’s editors might not be able to put it all back together again.I guess this sad story shows just how enticing alcohol can be to some folks. It’s not exactly breaking news that booze can be addictive and that the cycle feeds on itself. I’m sure that beer pong party got raucous and crazy until it all inevitably crashed.And buried in the debris were two Kalamazoo Gazette staffers.Of course, as a former journalist, I am curious whether the two ex-staffers wound up poisonously hung over. They evidently failed to mention that when they ripped back the curtain on the confession booth.

Putting velvet behind and a bright light on a MoMA visit

I know it may be difficult to believe, but every and now then I catch some riffs of culture. After all, there is a world besides sports and trash TV to dip our toes into. And since those two aspects of the world tend to be a tad shallow, it can be rewarding to step into a deeper wading pool.So perhaps propelled by the injunctions of the stars, the wind and the tide, I found myself Sunday in The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. And yes, the cultural waters were over my head at times. Because when it comes to graphic arts, my mind can be a disaster area where parts are blown into an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle. Consequently, some things I saw seemed to be somewhat silly or simply hieroglyphics.Nevertheless, I found the visit to be surreal and sublime … a wonderful experience I won’t cease to feel for sometime. The Museum of Modern Art, affectionally known as MoMA among we art lovers, is an exquisite smorgasbord abounding with magnificence.MoMA’s collection includes a staggering 150,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, architectural models and drawings, and design objects. There are so many images to scan and process, you find yourself and others biting bottom lips in reflection and retrospection. You could strike a match on everybody’s concentration. And the concentration is intense because visual delights are everywhere.The museum boasts the world’s largest and most inclusive collection of modern painting and sculpture comprising some 3,200 works dating from the late nineteenth century to the present. It provides a comprehensive selection of the major artists and movements since the 1890s, from Paul Cézanne’s The Bather and Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night to masterworks of today.Fifth-floor galleries survey the 1880s to the 1940s, with works by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Salvador Dali, among others. Fourth-floor galleries showcase masterworks from the 1950s to 1970s by such artists as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Andy Warhol. I was awed by the works of Picasso and van Gogh, amused by Warhol’s and confused by Pollock’s. But I guess you don’t have to understand art to appreciate it. And I also appreciated all the benevolent benefactors with deep pockets who have made MoMA possible.One of the museum’s current special exhibits is Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape. This epic exhibition presents 23 landscape-design projects that reveal the surge of creativity and critical debate in the design of public spaces, from small urban plazas to large parks for post-industrial sites to long-range plans for entire urban sectors. Since there are many among of us who want to recast the look of Reading, this marvelous exhibit should be a required field trip for all would-be city planners.Yes, even to an untutored mind like mine, spending several hours browsing and savoring the spectacular MoMA treasures truly is a glorious, uplifting expenditure of time. In fact, I was so smitten by art that I soon may start sporting a beret and wearing my coat draped over my shoulders. I guess getting swallowed up in the mystique of culture can give one an attitude.

Foreboding fallout from fractured friendship

Sometimes we read news so utterly shocking and depressing that it repaints our mood for hours. When I read with head-snapping alarm that Paris Hilton is rattlesnake angry with her “The Simple Life” co-star Nicole Richie, I instantly became resigned to the sobering fact that I likely will be depressed for eternity.And then a question bellowed up from the bowels of my deep depression, shouting to know just what triggered this epic cat fight. Did Nicole steal a guy from Paris? Did Nicole borrow a credit card from Paris? And if so, so what? I imagine the hotel heiress has almost as many credit cards as boyfriends. But Paris isn’t revealing what dastardly deed by Nicole altered both of their lives, not to mention mine. “It’s no big secret that Nicole and I are no longer friends,” Hilton said in a statement. “Nicole knows what she did, and that’s all I’m ever going to say about it.”

Their harmony is toast, causing fissures if not downright ruptures in America’s superficial psyche, and she’s not giving up the goods on exactly why!

Whatever the reason, Paris evidently will not easily shed the scowl of anger that hangs like a dark curtain over her pretty face.

Paris also claimed that Nicole will be replaced on “The Simple Life” by her friend Kimberly Stewart, the daughter of singer Rod Stewart. Hilton and Richie have starred on the Fox reality show for three seasons. Fox has denied the casting change. (By the way, since Nicole is the daughter of singer Lionel Richie, I have another question: Are all of Hilton’s girlfriends daughters of crooners?)

Whatever the cast, “The Simple Life” is a show that’s hardly tastier than barbecued shrimp.

It seems apparent that Paris and Nicole are not destined to be lifetime cellmates in airheadness. Which is probably good for Nicole. If she’s not tethered as the eternal sidekick to Paris, perhaps she’ll have a fighting chance at someday acquiring maturity.

Because Paris isn’t the ideal role model. She’s living proof that being born a filthy rich thin blonde isn’t one of humanity’s nobler enterprises. Which is why she’s so busy spending prodigal amounts of time shopping for clothes, accessories and men while reveling in the joy of being a mildly rebellious celebrity child.

Well, I hope that Paris, despite the angst resonating in her heart over the split with Nicole, relishes the unalloyed delight in being the ultimate impossibly rich party girl. Granted, she has paid a dear price for fame as some dastardly media types treat her like a thin dartboard.

And speaking of thin, have you ever seen such a tiny isthmus for a waist? I’ve seen bigger headpins.

Paris is accustomed to living life with a bright light on her. But soon that light will dim as the dazzle in her magic aura pales. Her looks eventually will be ambushed by her birth date.

Once the allure of youth, sex and delicious scandal escapes from her like air from a leaking balloon, she likely will morph into a brooding recluse.

After all, it’s not like the girl is exactly blessed with impeccable talent.

I may drown myself soon in Antietam Lake!

When will our city fathers find a resolution to the endless debate over just what to do with the 560-acre Antietam Lake property?I believe they began discussing this when Teddy Roosevelt still was rough riding the range. Or was it Stonewall Jackson? Hopefully a decision on Antietam Lake will be forthcoming before the Apocalypse makes it all a moot point.I don’t know about you, but pretty soon I will have to anesthetize myself to the endless chatter. Because the protracted noise has turned me into a man ready to be staked out in the sun.In case you’ve just returned from a field trip to Neptune, the cash-strapped city would love to sell the lake property, since merely wrapping it in gauze and pretending it will go away isn’t going to help the bottom line. And that sure would have tree huggers chewing the bark in angst.

It’s not like the city doesn’t have options.

The county has offered the city $2.5 million for the land to add to its park system.

Greth Development Group has offered $5 million for 370 of the 560 acres. The city would keep 190 acres, including the lake. Greth also would pay for state-required upgrades to the dam and would build several hundred upscale homes on the 370 acres.

Of course, the home construction portion of the offer has everybody in Lower Alsace Township freaking out because that’s where the city-owned property is located.

Can you imagine how many children would be spawned in those new homes … kids thirsty for education who subsequently would be elbowing their way into Antietam School District classrooms?

If you’re wondering why Antietam Lake is located in Lower Alsace but owned by the city, well, just chalk it up to a geographical quirk. Actually, I’m sure there’s an explanation. But frankly, I’m too lazy to research it.

Back to the offers. As you may have noticed, $5 million is dramatically bigger than $2.5 million. If my math serves me correctly, it’s twice as big.

The city would like to have as much money as possible while still doing the right thing. A tougher balancing act than doing the tango in a canoe, I might add.

Consequently, Lower Alsace is holding a workshop to discuss how preservation backers might augment the county’s $2.5 million proposal.

Since the lake simply bubbles with absolute serenity and the surrounding acres are flush with nature trails and wildlife, preservationists just might dig deep in their wallets.

But what if they don’t? After all, money and mouths are two different species.

Since suburban sprawl isn’t welcome in Lower Alsace, perhaps the city should just keep the Antietam Lake property and turn it into a profit center.

But by doing just what?

Yes, the devil is always in the details.

I have no clue. That’s for far greater minds than mine.

But here are a few suggestions:

Theme park for nature lovers.

Nudist colony (but watch out for poison ivy).


Aquatics park.

Shooting gallery (might keep gun lovers off city streets).

Monastic retreat for CEOs in dire need of serenity.

Convention center (the Sovereign Center is an arena, not a convention center).

Navy yard (why should Mohnton be the only one in Berks?).

Underwater outlet center.

Lumber mill.

Feel free to offer any intelligent input on other potential enterprises the city may explore.

Once fat "Today" ratings lead down to skin and bones

There’s a heaving sea of despair splashing around NBC’s Manhattan headquarters these days. It seems its morning stalwart, the “Today” show, is getting smacked around in the ratings war trough.The foaming chaos swallowed up the show’s executive producer Tuesday. Tom Touchet got axed with the network’s biggest money-maker in a ratings slump and feeling the heat from ABC’s “Good Morning America.””Today’s” position of unchallenged dominance in the morning has eroded. Its margin over second-place “Good Morning America” is roughly half of what it was last year.To NBC, this all is terribly embarrassing, like suddenly finding a huge bump in your kitchen linoleum while hosting a dinner party. The network is finding out that the viewing public can be a witch’s brew of loyalty spiked with attention deficit. Consequently, they’re passing the Kleenex around at 30 Rockefeller Center.As a veteran “Today” viewer, I think the show has exhibited diminished energy and charm. I’m bored with Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry. The mystique of “America’s First Family” has vanished. So its ratings are suffocating from breathing the same stale air.Or perhaps it’s Katie’s glasses. They’re a big turnoff. The librarian look isn’t chic. Actually, when I do watch “Good Morning America” on occasion, I’m not all that impressed with Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts and Tony Perkins. Roberts is OK, but I’d rather spend a morning getting flogged in monastic gloom than watch the syrupy, pseudo-sophisticate Sawyer. I think “GMA” is doing better because ABC’s strong prime time programming is giving its morning show a yawning boost … and because folks have noticed that “Today” is oozing vitality from its pores. Actually, I think all network morning shows are overrated anyway. They’re crammed with commercials and their viewers are too busy prepping for their day to actually engage with both eyes. People watch these shows with one eye while the other eye is focused on breakfast or the morning newspaper or packing lunch. Nobody casually sits and watches TV at that hour while picking at a scab.Perhaps if Matt and Katie started picking at scabs while on the air, it would jack up the ratings and stem the mutation of fear at NBC.

Conservative plumes of smoke herald new pope

Far be it from me to question God’s will. And I assume the conclave of cardinals follows God’s will when electing a pope, even if there are political overtones to the process.After all, we Roman Catholics believe the pontiff to be God’s chief conduit to all of us.Granted, popes aren’t mere marionettes. They all have their individual styles and substances. I believe the election of the conservative and ancient Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany today gave the world a dramatic glimpse of hard reality. The Roman Catholic Church is not ready to feel the scorch of fundamental change. Spontaneous combustion doesn’t happen in the Vatican. The new Pope Benedict XVI was the dean of the College of Cardinals and it was his job to make the faithful and theologians — they aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way — toe the dogma line. He has a history of clashing with liberals. His age clearly was a factor among cardinals who favored a transitional pope following John Paul II, rather than a younger cardinal who could have another long pontificate.Personally, I would have preferred a younger, dynamic, liberal communicator as pope. But I will try to think positive about Benedict XVI. After all, if you look hard enough, you might even be able to find the gleam in the eye of a hurricane.And perhaps Benedict XVI already has softened his image with the selection of his new name. Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, was a moderate following the conservative Pius.So perhaps the church won’t retreat into cobweb darkness under a new hard-line pontiff. Right now, only God knows.

Caught in a draft

If you’re an NFL nut job like me, every connection with the real world this week has been snipped. This is draft week. Nothing else truly matters. In fact, I can’t imagine how the cardinals in Rome can even concentrate on electing a new pope.The NFL’s meat market/lottery is this weekend and I’ve been blitzed by streams of online and printed copy detailing every microscopic positive and negative concerning this year’s crop of studs. Plus, of course, reams and reams of speculation on just who is going where.Drafting talent, you see, is more complex than calculus. Scouts, general managers, coaches and draftnik pundits do everything but watch these wunderkinds eat their Wheaties. They break everything and everybody down into symmetrical pieces. Top draft prospects can’t do anything that isn’t viewed under a microscope. As you can imagine, these microscopes are industrial size.Indeed, this talent hunt scopes out physical evolution carried to the ultimate. Tracking gifted prodigies and predicting NFL performance take more than spotting impeccable talent and eyeballing genetic marvels. The exquisite smorgasbord of abilities that make up an NFL superstar is so vast that infinite measurables must be evaluated.It’s a shame we aren’t so thorough when it comes to picking presidents. After all, do you think George W. would have measured up? But I digress. We draftniks all are bloated with profile overload. All of it brimming with enough jargon to fill a bottomless abyss. My eyeballs are spinning like casino slot machines from reading endless player profiles detailing character issues, big bubbles, vertical threats, vertical leaps, intangibles, bursts, happy feet, arm strength, RPMs on the ball, velocity, touch, accuracy, bench presses, 40 times, cone drills, Wonderlic football IQ tests, height, weight, hand size, arm span, low pad levels, stiff hips, vision in the open field, and guys who look like Tarzan but play like Jane.Yep, looking for Galahads of the gridiron is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Picking plums that turn out rotten smells awful to a team’s fans, not to mention the horrid impact on the team’s bottom line and won-loss record. This year there supposedly isn’t one true superdooperstar who stands out as the utterly obvious No. 1 pick. Still, quarterbacks always are coveted. Teams perpetually look for top guns who can make secondaries bow like butlers before them.However, this year’s top two QBs — Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers — aren’t the type of passers you can strike a match on their crisp spirals. But Smith is a natural athlete whose chromosomes all are shaped like varsity letters. And Rodgers’ mechanics have been so finely tuned that he can pass for big scoops of yardage in his sleep.The San Francisco 49ers, unless they trade down for multiple picks and/or bodies, are on the clock with the top pick. Speculation had been rampant that they would pluck Rodgers. Now the pendulum has turned toward Smith.Well, I can’t wait for Saturday at high noon to see what happens. And I can’t wait for Monday when the two-day draft is history. I need to see the sun again. Because to me and countless others this week, draft mania has been purpling the skyline.