I’ve got to mow the lawn today and I’m just sick about it. I hate mowing the damned lawn. If there’s a more useless activity or a bigger waste of time than cutting grass, I’ve never heard of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against wasting time. As a matter of fact, wasting time is what I do best. I take a back seat to nobody when it comes to laziness, loafing, shirking responsibility, or just plain fucking around.
But when it comes to mowing the lawn, there are other forces at work. The neighbors, for example, start giving me ugly looks and making snide comments when the grass on the front lawn grows to knee high. I’ve had people leave nasty notes in my mailbox, threatening to report me to the alderman unless I did something about the lawn. Even the local dogs consider it beneath their dignity to shit on my eyesore of a front yard. They prefer to do their business on a more aesthetically pleasing expanse of greenery.
The worst, however, is when my wife starts in on my ass.
“Hey, Milo, the lawn’s looking pretty bad.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Trust me, the lawn needs to be mowed.”
“Okay, I’ll take care of it.”
“Tomorrow, or maybe the day after.”
“I wish you would do it today. The lawn looks terrible. It’s embarrassing.”
I was about to tell the lovely Mrs. Milo that I had other plans, more important things to do than fuck around with the lawn. But she’d probably ask what those plans were, and I was pretty sure that having a couple of drinks and taking a nap would not be an acceptable excuse at that particular moment.
Besides, she had the steely, combative look in her eye that I knew so well from dozens of other vicious marital dust-ups we’ve had over the years, so I just said, “Yes, dear.”
A short while later, I went to the garage, got the power mower, checked the fuel level, pushed it out to the front yard, primed the engine, and yanked on the starter cable. To my bitter disappointment, the damned thing started up right away.
Mowing a lawn isn’t as dangerous for a man of a certain age as, let’s say, shoveling wet snow. Casualties are rare, but not unheard of. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
I’m not a dumbass, like a lot of guys my age, so I took my time, paced myself, stopping often to regulate my nicotine levels and hydrate myself from a half-pint of Old Crow. I stopped for a while to chat with a neighbor about the Chicago Bulls’ off-season acquisitions, and spent another five minutes talking to a neighbor about the long-legged, busty babe who had just moved in down the street.
When I finally got the job done, I was pleased with myself. Except for the weeds, bare spots, divots, ant hills, and brown patches, the lawn looked okay.
Plus, my timing was great. By the time I put the mower away and got cleaned up, it would be cocktail hour.
I was in the process of making myself a drink, when my wife walked into the house and said, “Nice job with the front yard, but the back yard has to be mowed, too.”
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I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’ve got a lot of shit on my mind. The IRS has been hounding me. The lovely Mrs. Milo wants to drag me off to marriage counseling again. My sister has cut off my line of credit. And my mother hasn’t taken any of my phone calls since she got Caller I.D.
But these are problems I can live with. The main reason I’m pacing the floor at three in the morning instead of sleeping is due entirely to the presence in my home of a mangy, rotten bastard of an alley cat named Otis.
Ever since Otis followed my youngest daughter home and weaseled his way into our household, about 12 years ago, my life has been a living hell.
I haven’t got the time or space to write down all of Otis’ despicable character traits. But the thing that bothers me the most is that Otis has alienated my family’s affections. It’s become obvious that my wife and daughters care more for the cat than they do for me. When my eldest daughter, who lives a few miles away, comes to visit, she barely acknowledges my presence. Instead, she rushes straight for the cat, picks him up, cuddles with him and showers the bastard with baby talk.
“What cutesy little kitty you are. How’s my favorite little guy in the whole world? Ooh, I miss you so much.”
And when my wife comes home, the first thing she asks is if the cat had been fed. Apparently, my nutritional needs don’t matter. It is plain to me that I have become a second class citizen in my own home.
About a week ago I was sitting on the rocks at Foster Avenue Beach, sipping from a half pint of Old Crow and feeling sorry for myself, when I noticed that a film crew was working nearby. I recognized one of the crewmembers, a guy named Kevin, from my days in the advertising business, so I went over to talk to him. After a bit of small talk, he said that they were going to shut down the set.
“We ran out of cats,” Kevin said, then explained that they were shooting a commercial for a Canadian pet food company and the scene required a cat on a surfboard. “The cat’s supposed to catch a wave, ride it all the way to shore, then hop off the surfboard, and walk up to a bowl of tasty looking cat food.”
“So, how did you run out of cats?”
“Well, we started with eight cats and as soon as we put one of them on the surfboard the fucker fell off and drowned.”
“Jesus, are you saying that all eight of the cats drowned?”
“Yeah, now we’ve got to shut down the set and do it all over again tomorrow, when we get some more cats. This was supposed to be a one day shoot. I’m going to catch hell for blowing the budget.”
“Wait a minute! I may be able to help you. I’ve got a cat that’s an expert surfer.”
“Yeah, I picked him up in Malibu a couple of years ago. The cat was raised on the beach. He’s forgotten more about surfing than most people will ever know.”
“Oh, man, that’s great. I can pay you a couple of hundred bucks. How soon can you get him here?”
“I’ll be back in half an hour.”
I rushed home, grabbed Otis, stuffed him in a cat carrier, and headed for the door. When I got back to the beach, Kevin said, “Alright, let shoot this thing while the light’s still good.”
A short while later, Otis was perched on a thin sheet of wood, about 150 yards from shore, and bobbing up and down with the roll of the waves. It was a windy day and the water was rough. I expected Otis to immediately lose his footing and tumble into the water like the other cats did. But to my surprise, and bitter disappointment, he kept his feet. In fact he seemed eerily calm, almost confident.
When the big wave came along and lifted Otis to the crest, I expected he’d be done for. Instead, Otis pulled an aerial on take-off, and then did a fins-free snap and a cutback. He rode the tube for a few moments, followed by a roll off the top, before coasting into a floater. When the wave weakened, Otis did a bottom turn, before hitting the lip to return to the top of the wave. As he got close to shore, the cat put a paw in the water to slow the ride and stay in the tube.
Otis stayed on the surfboard until it beached itself on the sand. Then he hopped off and headed for the bowl of cat food. Maybe I was imagining things, but it seemed like he was strutting as he walked toward the food.
“Milo, that was spectacular,” Kevin said, shaking his head in awe. “The cat’s a natural. Do you think he’ll be available next week? I’m shooting another commercial that calls for a cat to be caught in a cattle stampede.”
“Yeah, Otis will be there. But I’m sure he’ll want more money.”
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I’m a White Sox fan. I don’t care for the Chicago Cubs. In fact, I dislike the North Side team intensely. They are a hugely profitable organization that has done nothing but disappoint their fans for 100 years.
Next to professional wrestling, I consider the Cubs to be the longest running scam in American sports history.
That said, I was saddened to hear that the Cubs traded pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the Oakland Athletics. By all accounts, he is a fine pitcher with many good years left. But that’s not the reason I hate to see him go.
The reason I’ll miss Jeff Samardzija is that we share the same last name.
It’s not easy going through life with a name like ours. Nobody can spell it, and very few people can pronounce it.
I’ve heard my name mangled in every way possible. The rolling Rs and the harsh consonants are too much for most non-Slavic speakers. But the absolute worst offenders were the basic training drill sergeants in The United States Army.
“Trainee, what kind of fucking name is this?”
“It’s, ah, a Serbian name.”
“What the fuck is a Serbian?”
“A Serbian is an Eastern European of Slavic descent.”
“Eastern fucking Europe! Are you some kind of fucking communist?”
“No, drill sergeant. My people are all good Democrats.”
“Well, I’m going to keep my eye on your ass, trainee, just in case.”
I was resigned to hearing my name butchered for the rest of my days. But then, the Cubs signed Jeff Samardzija, a promising All-American athlete from Notre Dame.
Soon, I started seeing headlines in the sports pages of the Sun-Times and Tribune, trumpeting the name Samardzija. Sports reporters were regularly mentioning his name in radio and TV reports, and they were pronouncing it correctly. I even saw kids wearing Cubs’ jerseys with the name Samardzija stitched on the back.
Best of all, as far as I was concerned, people began pronouncing my name correctly. I was shocked the first few times it happened. I wasn’t used to hearing my name flowing effortlessly from the lips of shop clerks, restaurant hostesses, receptionists, and other complete strangers.
I got asked, so many times, if I was related to Jeff, that I developed a stock answer. “Depends on what kind of season he has,” I’d reply.
Last year, my in-laws, Richard and Linda, were visiting from Minnesota. When I told Richard about this momentous turn in my fortunes, he agreed that life is indeed a rollercoaster.
Later that day, Richard and I went to Crafty Beaver on Lawrence Avenue to pick up supplies for a small home project. Sure enough, when I handed the clerk my debit card, she glanced at it and asked, “Are you related to Jeff Samardzija?”
Richard I looked at each other and smiled. “Depends on what kind of season he has,” I said.
I hope the bad old days don’t return now that Jeff has been traded. I was getting used to not repeating my name several times and sometimes spelling it out when meeting new people.
Still, there is an upside to the trade. Now that Jeff is pitching for the Oakland Athletics, there should be a lot of people in the Bay Area who will be able to pronounce my name correctly.
One afternoon, many years ago, I was climbing a steep hill near the village of Duc Pho, which was located in a Southeast Asian nation that no longer exists. It was a tough climb. Not only was the hill steep, it was also covered in dense jungle growth, and the footing was treacherous, due to months of monsoon rains.
I was also burdened with 50 or 60 pounds of equipment — poncho, air mattress, c-rations, several canteens of water, an automatic rifle, ammunition, a PRC-25 battery, and a couple of hand grenades – which made the climb even harder.
When I got near the top of the hill, I felt a sharp pain in my back, but it only lasted a few seconds. A couple of minutes later, the pain came back, with a vengeance. It was excruciating, the worst pain I ever felt. I doubled over and groaned. I wondered, for a moment, if I had been shot.
I don’t know how I made it to the top of the hill. I suppose some of the guys in the squad helped me, but I don’t remember. The only thing I was conscious of was pain. It was overwhelming.
The medic rushed over. “Man, what happened? What’s wrong?”
“Fuck if I know. You’re the medic. You tell me.”
“This is out of my league. If you were shot, or stepped on a booby trap, I could help you out.”
“Okay, okay, just give me some morphine.”
“I don’t have any.”
“What do you mean you don’t have any?”
“Some rotten fuckers went through my kit and stole all the syrettes.”
A helicopter was called and I was evacuated to Brigade Base Camp. When I got to the medical tent, I was given mild pain medication to alleviate the worst of the pain while the doctors ran tests to find out what had happened to me.
After a while, a doctor showed up and gave me a shot of morphine. The pain went away immediately. In fact, I started feeling pretty good.
“You’ve got kidney stones,” the doctor said.
“I’ve got what?”
“Kidney stones are hard mineral deposits that form in your kidneys. Sometimes a stone will move into the urinary tract. But the stone is usually bigger than the tract and causes a lot of pain as it moves through the tube. It’s one of the most painful conditions a person can have.”
“Can you do anything about it?”
“We’ll hook you up to an IV and flush fluids through your system. Hopefully, you’ll piss it out. If not, we’ll have to cut it out. In the meantime,” the doctor added, with a smile, “we’ll make sure you don’t feel any pain.”
I spent the next couple of days in a very pleasant narcotic haze, lolling on a cot, dozing and daydreaming. If I didn’t have to get up and piss every hour and a half, I never would have left the cot.
Eventually, I passed the kidney stone. Once it was gone, it was as if it had never happened. There were no aftereffects. The next day I was sent back to rejoin my company.
Unfortunately, kidney stones are often a recurring problem. I’ve had two episodes since the original. One was mild and I treated it myself, with lots of water, Vicodin and bourbon whiskey. The other attack was a monster, even more painful than the one on the hilltop, and I ended up spending a couple of days at Illinois Masonic Hospital.
I was surprised to discover that the treatment for a kidney stone attack had not changed in 40 years. Other than having an air-conditioned, private room and a comfortable bed, it was the exact same treatment I had received in the medical tent at the Brigade Base Camp.
I spent two days in a very pleasant narcotic haze, dozing and daydreaming, while hooked up to an IV that pumped fluids into my system. The only time I left the bed was when I had to piss, which was every couple of hours. And when I finally passed the kidney stone, I felt perfectly fine. It was like it never happened.
Although I’m pretty sure it will happen again.
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The other day my wife got on my ass about the state of my physical fitness, or rather, my lack of it. I had just awakened from a pleasant afternoon nap when the lovely Mrs. Milo came home after a hard day of selling real estate, lunching with her slutty girlfriends, and teaching Pilates classes.
“Have you been lying around in your underwear all day?”
“Ah, no, dear. I was just in the process of…”
“I wish you’d be more active. You’re starting to look sloppy. You need to start exercising once in a while.”
“I took a nice walk today.”
“Yeah, I know. You probably walked down to Swillagain’s and spent the afternoon drinking with all the bums that hang out there.”
“That’s a harsh thing to say. I know for a fact that two of the guys have regular jobs.
“Since when is dealing pot considered a regular job?”
“So, what’s your point?”
“The point is that you’ve got to start taking better care of yourself. You have to start exercising. I don’t care for you that much anymore, but your daughters are still somewhat fond of you. They wouldn’t mind having you around for a few more years.”
“Okay, sweetie, I’ll give it some thought.”
Physical fitness is important to my wife. She started taking Pilates classes a while ago and liked it so much that she studied to become a Pilates instructor. Now she’s happy. She’s got a physical regimen that will keep her busy and in great shape until she’s 112 years old and driving her ninth husband crazy.
On the other hand, I don’t give a rat’s ass about exercise, physical fitness or anything else that distracts me from the important things in life, like drinking, smoking, enjoying recreational drugs, eating red meat and entertaining impure thoughts.
That said, I know my wife will make my life miserable unless I start some sort of fitness program. And once the kids start in on me, well, let’s just say things will get interesting, in the Chinese sense of the word.
So, the next afternoon I went down to Welles’ Park, a Chicago Park District Fieldhouse on Sunnyside by Lincoln Avenue. They have a well-equipped gym there, which doesn’t cost much to use.
The guy behind the counter was a typical Chicago Park District employee – gruff, overweight, with a pack of smokes in his shirt pocket. I thought I smelled liquor on his breath, too, but I wouldn’t swear to it. After I filled out the paperwork and received a laminated Welles’ Park membership badge, the guy offered to show me around the fitness area.
“You ever use any of this shit before?” he asked, pointing out all of the exercise equipment.
“Can’t say that I have. What’s that?”
“That’s called a stationary bike. You gotta watch yourself on that thing. We had a regular customer, used to come in four or five times a week. He’d ride that thing nonstop for an hour. Last week he was riding on it and just keeled over.”
“Was he okay?”
“That’s too bad. How old was he?”
“About your age.”
“That’s a treadmill over there. It’s like a walking machine. A couple of months ago a guy was on it and had a heart attack. He died, too.”
“How old was he?”
“About your age, I guess.”
“What the hell!”
“That thing over there is a rowing machine. Last month a guy…”
“Don’t tell me. He was about my age, right?”
“No. I believe he was a bit younger than you.”
I had heard enough. I handed the Park District guy the laminated badge and said, “You can take this badge, give it back to Mayor Rahm and tell him to stick it up his ass. This place is a death trap. I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
I was a bit shaky when I left Welles Park. There’s no telling what terrible things would have happened to me if I had stuck around and tried a few exercises. Fortunately, I had to pass Swillagains on the way home, so I stopped in for a few drinks and enjoyed a hand-rolled smoke with my friend, Nickel Bag Bernie, just to calm down.
When I got home, a few hours later, I was in the physical and mental shape that I prefer above all others. The lovely Mrs. Milo, sipping a nice white wine, was waiting for me. “Well, how did it go?” she asked.
“How did what go?”
“Your trip to Welles Park.”
“It went okay.”
“Did you try any of the equipment?”
“Let’s say I checked things out.”
“So, do you feel any better?”
“Honey, right now, I feel great.”
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Nicknames were common in the Northwest Indiana Rust Belt where I grew up. When I was a teenager, I knew guys called Rooster, Doc, Whitey, Goof, Ducky, Slim, Kit, Babe, the Saint, Pussy Lips and Knucklehead.
The only guy that had a problem with his nickname was Knucklehead. He said it was an undignified name for a high school senior. The guys and I agreed. After giving it a great deal of thought, and drinking lots of beer, we began calling him by the much more dignified name of Roosevelt Knucklehead.
My friends earned their nicknames in various ways, most of them based on looks, character traits or actions. Whitey had pale blond hair. Kit’s given name was Kermit, which he hated. The Saint was anything but. Goof was a dumbass. Slim weighed more than 250 pounds. And Pussy Lips, who we called P-Lips in mixed company, was the first of the boys to try cunnilingus, although he didn’t hold that distinction for long.
Most of the guys accepted their nicknames, good, bad, funny or mean, with good humor. It was a different matter when it came to nicknaming girls. I learned, through bitter experience, that giving a girl an unflattering name can have dire consequences.
When I was a freshman, I had a classmate who I’ll call Joanne. She was 14 years old and at the physically awkward stage of life. She was tall and skinny, with no curves at all. She was also uncoordinated and clumsy, always knocking things over or tripping over her own feet. And she wore braces – not the sleek, nearly invisible kind that are in style today, but the braces of 50 years ago, the ones that weighed about 12 pounds and looked like the grill of a Pontiac.
There is probably not a creature on earth as mean or cruel as a 14-year-old boy, and my high school had more than its share of heartless young bastards. For some reason, a few of the guys started giving Joanne a bad time. They teased her unmercifully. They made fun of her figure, her braces, and the way she dressed. Nothing was out of bounds. Some of the comments were so mean-spirited and crude that they made her cry.
One guy started calling her “Jugs,” because she had none. The poor thing was flat as a table top. But the name stuck. She was Joanne Jugs from that moment on.
Then, a couple of years later, something astonishing happened – Joanne blossomed. When she returned to school for her junior year, she was a total and complete babe, a busty, long-legged young women, with a gorgeous smile, who had suddenly become the prettiest girl in school.
She was fine, and she knew it. She walked the school’s halls, her wonderful ass rolling and tumbling and her breasts defying gravity, like a model strutting on a runway. The guys couldn’t keep their eyes off of her. They sniffed the air and howled like wolves when she passed by.
Of course, the teasing stopped immediately. And the nickname she hated, Joanne Jugs, was quickly shortened to JJ, which she didn’t seem to mind.
By the end of the first week of school, Joanne had risen to the top of every boy’s wish list. She was inundated with requests for dates. She accepted some of the offers, usually from guys who had nice cars. But she had a long memory and never went on a date with any of the dumbasses that used to tease her or call her Joanne Jugs.
Sadly, I was one of those dumbasses.
I rarely call people by their nicknames these days, mainly because I don’t know many. Tagging people with nicknames seems to be a young person’s thing and most of my friends are older folks.
That said, I do use pet names when I’m talking to the lovely Mrs. Milo, terms like sweetie, honey, precious, and babe. One morning, the words “Sugar Tush” popped into my head. I liked the way the words sounded together, so I said to my wife, “Hey, Sugar Tush, do you want to see a movie tonight?”
“What did you call me?”
“Where in the world did you come up with that phrase?”
“It just occurred to me.”
“Well, I don’t I like it. Please don’t call me that anymore.”
I was about to protest, but then I remembered Joanne from high school. I recalled how my poor choice of words ruined any chance I had of frolicking with the young lady. I wasn’t willing to take that risk with my wife.
“Sure, honey,” I said. “I’m dropping those words from my vocabulary.”
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The only thing I knew about Terre Haute, Indiana, was that it was the home of two institutions of higher learning. One was the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary and the other was Indiana State University.
I imagine a lot of folks back home thought I had a better chance of ending up in the prison than attending the college. Somehow, I got lucky and managed to avoid the prison, but I did do a little time at the university.
I had never planned on going to college. I always thought I’d end up working in Gary’s steel mills. I figured I’d marry a big-ass woman, raise a clutch of bratty kids, spend my leisure time drinking beer, watching TV, or working on my truck, and live in a double-wide in one of Northwest Indiana’s more exclusive trailer park communities.
Sadly, that particular plan never worked out. Before I could put the plan into action, a situation arose that required my immediate attention. The situation was called “Vietnam.” Unfortunately, that Vietnam thing didn’t work out too well, either.
I was a bit of a wreck when I came home from Vietnam, mentally, physically and attitudinally. I was 20 yars old and felt like an alien inhabiting someone else’s skin. The thought of going directly into the steel mills was inconceivable. I needed something different, new faces, new places and new ideas. I needed to start over. Fortunately, the same government that sent me to Vietnam also offered a way to save my soul.
One of the perks of risking your life, limbs and sanity for your country is that, if you survive, you get to take advantage of the G.I Bill, which includes education benefits. So, instead of taking a job in the steel mills after my discharge, I decided to take some well-deserved time off. I figured I’d go to college for a while, smoke a lot of pot, drink a lot of beer, meet a lot of chicks – and let the government pay for it all.
The only problem with my scheme was that I doubted that any self-respecting college in the country would accept me as a student. You see, I may have been the worst student in the history of my high School. The only reason I didn’t graduate last in my class was that there were a lot of other dumbasses vying for the same honor.
Not only was I a terrible student, I was also disruptive, insubordinate, and chronically truant. I was the kind of kid that parents warned their children about. The terms “bad companion” and “bad influence” described me perfectly.
I spent more time in the principal’s office than I spent in any classroom. My conversations with Mr. Mart, the Principal, went something like this:
“Milo, someone drilled a couple of holes in the wall between the girls’ and boys’ locker rooms. Do you know anything about that?”
“There’s a drill missing from the Woodshop class. You take Woodshop, don ‘t you?”
“It’s my favorite class. But I don’t know anything about drills. We haven’t gotten to that part of the curriculum yet. We’re still studying hammers, nails and wood putty.”
Another time Mr. Mart asked, “Milo, there were a couple of empty half pints of cherry vodka found near your locker. I thought you might know something about it.”
“That is disturbing news, sir. As I’m sure you know, the drinking age in the State of Indiana is 21, so, clearly, it couldn’t have been me. You might want to investigate the janitorial crew. They’re a rough looking bunch.”
Then there was the time he asked me about a melee that had taken place after school.
“Milo, do you know anything about that fight after school yesterday?”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that, sir. I was probably doing homework.”
“What are those bruises on your head and neck?”
Despite my abysmal high school record, I eventually found a college that would accept me – Indiana State University in the fine city of Terre Haute, Indiana. The acceptance was probationary. In order to remain in school beyond the first semester I had to maintain a certain grade point average and behave in a responsible manner.
I agreed to everything asked of me. After all, it wasn’t the first time I had misled educational authorities.
A couple of months later I was driving south on Highway 41, a six-pack beside me and a joint in the ashtray, heading for Terre Haute, which is a French name that means “the high ground.”
Laissez le bon temps rouler.
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