Family Life

Brush with Greatness

I’m reading The 50 Funniest American Writers. It’s an anthology by Andy Borowitz. Good stuff. When I finished the George Carlin section, I turned the page and, BAM! The next story caused a memory to come flooding back. A connection to a little story I tell. A brush with greatness.

I occasionally have these strange little star crossings. Meeting someone famous, usually while they’re in the middle of being a normal person. Odd and exciting for me. Annoying for my friends because the actual stories are usually pretty lame, but I still tell them over and over.

“Did I ever tell you guys about the time I played basketball with Emmit Smith? I did? Did I tell you about the time I ran teleprompter for Danny Glover? Really? I did? Well how about the time I bumped into Dave Grohl buying sunglasses?” Eyes roll. “Yes. Yes Brian, we’ve heard the story.” I need to find new friends or new stories. Anyway, this is kind of one of those.

The next story in the Borowitz book, the story that caused the BAM memory, is Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father. Seriously. That’s the title. My first exposure to Lamentations of the Father was in 1998 while driving home. It was read aloud on This American Life. I love This American Life. I love Ira Glass. I loved this story. But I missed the intro and that fact resulted in my next long distance brush with greatness.

I wanted to know who wrote the story and what it was called so I decided to look it up. But where? The internet of 1998 was not the internet of today. Today, This American Life episodes can be streamed or downloaded and episode summeries are available on the site. (After you finish this drivel, go there and listen to some truly outstanding storytelling.) But in 1998, I didn’t have the website option. So I called WUWF, my local public broadcasting station, and asked if they had the info. They did not. But they were kind enough to look up and give me the This American Life number in Chicago. So I called.

Ira Glass

Ira Glass

Maybe you’ve jumped ahead of me but that’s ok. I called expecting a secretary or intern to answer and I would ask my question and move on. But when I called, I heard these words; “This American Life, Ira speaking.” Or “This is Ira” or something like that. The exact words are a blur. But there’s no mistaking that voice. Ira Glass was on the other end on the line. I froze for a moment. (That, unfortunately,  is a common aspect of my star meeting stories.) I finally stammered through my question, describing the story and explaining that I missed part of it and wondered what it was called and who wrote it. He of course knew right away and gave me the info. (Ian Frazier wrote Lamentations of the Father. Still love it. I’ll post it below.) I thanked him. He said you’re welcome and that was the end of it. Lasted all of a couple of minutes. But I’ve lost count of how times I have said or written “Did I ever tell you about the time I talked to Ira Glass?”

For the first 10 years or so, it didn’t come up very often. There was the occasional opportunity at a party or at work where the show would be mentioned and I would pipe up. But it was rare. Then, Facebook happened. People “liked” things. And when any of my friends “liked” This American Life, I took advantage of the opening by commenting. “Yes I like that show too. Did I ever tell you about the time I talked to Ira Glass? No? Well, the year was 1998…”

I guess there are benefits to social media. Mainly being, now I don’t have to see the eye rolling or hear the sighs. :-)


(This is the version I heard on This American Life in 1998.)

Pensacola FL, Home of the Blue Angels
(image by Brian L Butler)

Men in Uniform

So here’s a thing that can turn your hair gray. Daughters hitting dating age. And here’s a thing that can make that gray hair fall out. Daughters hitting dating age in a Navy town. I knew this time was coming. I knew that one day I’d have to worry about the possibility of them falling in love and heading off to Guam or Okinawa or god knows where with some yahoo in a uniform.

(And I say that with all due respect to our fine men and women in the armed services. Love you and what you do. Dead serious. But these are my little girls and my irrational, overblown fears we’re talking about.)

The thing is, until this year, some yahoo in a uniform meant just one of the thousands of sailors on base or, what was more frightening, a fly-boy, Maverick wanna-be, getting his start in the “Cradle of Naval Aviation”. Some pilot with a need for speed putting my daughter on the back of his motorcycle and heading to the beach for a game of slow motion volleyball before either breaking her heart or capturing it and taking her with him, bouncing around the country and the world, putting me and Julie in a positon where we rarely see her or the grandki… OK. Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

But Pensacola girls flying off with Navy and Marine pilots is the stuff of legend around here. Sometimes it works out beautifully. Sometimes not so much. Just like all relationships. But there are special challenges to being a military spouse. That’s not the point here though.

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos (image by Brian L Butler)

The point is this. Now there’s a new game in town. Some yahoo in a uniform has turned into some Wahoo in a uniform. The Cincinnati Reds have a Double A baseball team now. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos started playing this Spring. They’re a big hit with the fans and I think it’s pretty darn cool myself. I’ve been to a lot of games already. But…

All I keep hearing from my daughters and their friends is how cute these young, athletic guys are. Most of these girls don’t know the difference between a sac fly and a horse fly but they clamor to get autographs and photos with the guys and instantly post them to facebook or instagram and get “ooohs” and “ahhhs” and “oh my he’s cutes” from their friends. Add this to my Bull Durham visions of life in the minor leagues and well, there goes my hair again.

And there’s no Wahoo more sought after  than relief pitcher Donnie Joseph. Young, tall, fit, professional athlete with a big glowing smile. There’s a sigh in the voice and the eyelids flutter when they say his name.

From what I’ve gathered, he seems like a good guy. Very good pitcher, very religious, always smiling and spends time after every game signing autographs and taking pictures with his fans, like the one below with my daughter. Dare I say Tebowesque. What’s not to like. But again, these are my little girls and my irrational, overblown fears we’re talking about. Military spouse is hard. But I think pro athlete spouse would be even harder.

Donnie Joseph and My Daughter

I know I still have a few years before I really need to worry about these things and I know I shouldn’t even actually be worried. Julie and I should just do the best we can and stay rational and hope the girls make good decisions. The more I think about it, there are definitely worse choices out there than an athlete or a service member. God I hope they stay away from TV people.

And then there’s this. Literally as I’m writing this, I hear that Donnie Joseph has been called up to the Red’s Triple A team in Louisville. Somebody else’s dad will have to worry about that particular baseballer. :-)

Brian L Butler

Plan B

This morning’s adventure. Snake in the backyard. Somewhere between 2 and 10 feet long. I’m pretty sure it was a Black Mamba. Or maybe a Black Racer. I don’t know. It happened so fast.

I let the dog out this morning to do that thing she does. She’s in the middle of doing that thing she does when she sees the snake and suddenly bark/yelps and runs away. (That’s my dog.) I look up and see the slithering creature for a split second and then it takes off… into the shed! Great. Of all places. It’s full of stuff and more importantly, that’s where the weapons are.

When I was a kid, these situations were taken care of with a hoe. Big ugly snake comes around and someone shows up with a hoe to remove the business end of the snake from the rest of its body. End of threat. I need to get in there and get my hoe.

I poke my head in and look around. No visual on the serpent. So I ease into the shed and step over the lawnmower and beach gear and bikes, watching every foot placement as I creep to the back of the shed where hoe type things are kept. I make it safely. And then, it dawns on me… I don’t own a hoe. Don’t judge me.

But I’m already deep in the snake den so I pick up a plastic tube thingy that’s leaning in the corner and I start poking around. Julie is out in the yard at a safe distance but can see what I’m doing.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Less than lovingly than you would expect from a wife whose husband is taking charge of a dangerous situation.

“Trying to find it.” I say.

“Then what?” she says. Then (and I’m not making this up) she adds… “What’s the plan Phil?”

My wife is a funny lady. And she’s right. I need a plan. So I put down the plastic tube thingy and come inside to formulate a plan. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Step 1: Eat breakfast. I can’t think on an empty stomach.

Step 2: Rationalize. The snake is more than likely harmless. The little guy is probably taking care of bugs and mice for me, so just let him be. Do nothing. Not because I’m scared to death of snakes mind you. But because I believe all creatures are here for a reason and should be treated with dignity and respect. No seriously, that’s the reason.

Step 3: Drive to Home Depot and buy a hoe. Just in case I’m wrong about Step 2.

Brian L Butler

obama_ed21The President’s “Back to School Message” has caused quite a stir. I read in the Pensacola News Journal that Escambia County schools are not planning to show the address because they say it will cut into valuable class time. Could be a reasonable claim in these times of constant standardized test preparation. But… let’s just say that claim struck me as odd considering a recent conversation I had with my daughter. What follows is my letter to Malcolm Thomas, Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County.

Mr. Thomas,
I appreciate what you’re doing with the school system. For what it’s worth, I voted for you and think you are doing what you feel is best for the students. But….

When I read your quote in the PNJ Friday, my jaw dropped. You say, “We’re in a district where our students struggle. We have bell-to-bell instruction, and we don’t want to waste a single minute.” Sounds nice. But…

My daughter is a middle school student in Escambia County and earlier this week she told me one of her teachers keeps a stack of magazines for the students to read in their downtime. “What magazines?” I asked. “It’s a stack of People magazines.” she says. I thought she was joking but she wasn’t. I still can’t believe it. A gossip magazine in, get this, her Language Arts class.

After I vented to my wife and calmed down, I second guessed myself. Maybe I’m over reacting. So I picked up the current issue of People. Just from the cover I get: “Kate Strikes Back” about the Jon and Kate divorce. “LeAnn & Eddie Take Their Love Public” and best of all, “Gerard & Jen, Their Sexy Night Out”. Nope. Not over reacting.

So I was in the process of figuring out if I’m going to make a big deal about this or just let it go and make sure my daughter brings other, more appropriate material with her to read during this “down time”. Then I read your quote in the article about the district not showing the President’s address. This is the point where my jaw dropped.

We don’t have time to interrupt our “bell to bell” educational schedule for an address by the President of the United States to our children about the importance of education. But we have time during the middle school day to catch up on the sex lives of Hollywood stars. That just doesn’t add up.

There may be a time and a place for gossip magazines or video games or other mindless distractions. But that time is not in the classroom.

There is also a time for vigorous political debate. But our children shouldn’t be used as pawns. My personal politics tend to lean to the left and I love a good natured debate. But even if I have differences with someone ideologically, I can still respect them as a fellow human being. We’re all just trying to do the best we can on this crazy ride. I say that to say this. I wasn’t a big fan of President Bush’s policies but I respect the man and think he was doing what he felt was best. So when he came to Pensacola for a rally at the Civic Center a few years ago, I checked my daughters out of school and took them to see the President of the United States in person. An experience I don’t think they will ever forget and an experience that both of their teachers felt was very worthwhile. The school work they missed that day was easily made up and my older daughter wrote a short essay about the day.

I realize “in person” and “on television” are different experiences but you dismiss the address by saying “We do not let teachers just watch television” like they’re watching soap operas or something. It’s the President of the United Sates. Disagreements or not, (and I have my own on policy as well) encouraging student to study hard and stay in school is always an important message. Yes, some children will be bored. Some will just parrot what they hear at home. But some may actually be inspired. It may be a version of the same message they alway hear but it carries extra weight coming from the President speaking directly to the students. But…

I guess if they don’t get to hear it from the source, they can always read about it in next week’s People Magazine. Maybe they’ll do some in depth coverage of the President’s choice of suit and tie for the address.

Thanks for your time. Have a great weekend.
Brian Butler

Mr. Thomas was kind enough to reply in a timely manner. He and the district have been bombarded with complaints over the past few days so the letter is more than likely a stock response that they have prepared. I’m okay with that, for now, understanding the immediate pressure he is under and the impossibility of replying to each individual message. I’ll address the magazine thing with him later. (He is a Facebook friend of mine:-) Here is his reply.

You are reading a few statements from a 15 minute interview.

There are numerous logistical issues with showing a live event to students across a large school district.

Some of the reasons most schools will be recording the address rather than watching the event live are:

– timing of address – the speech will occur in the middle of lunch schedules and the day after a holiday
– our district is conducting mandatory assessments in grades K through 10 on Tuesday
– the address is not time sensitive; the content does not necessarily have to be viewed in real time
– technology issues related to streaming video across the school district to all classrooms at the same moment; this may create bandwidth issues for us
– recording allows use of the address at a time of the teacher / school’s choosing; for some students / classes the address may not be appropriate for content or age
– allows the teachers time to view the material so that appropriate activities are developed to follow the media presentation

I have also recorded a video cast that discusses how the President’s address is being handled.

You can access the video clip at the following web address:

Not a bad explanation. An article on the front page of today’s News Journal talked about the flap and all the emails that came in pro and con to the Superintendent’s office. The  paper asked for the emails as a matter of public record and printed quotes from some of them. I was so hoping mine would be quoted but no. I guess it wasn’t inflammatory enough. :-)


iStock_000001823485XSmallI’ve been watching a lot of basketball during the playoffs. A lot. So much so it’s invading my dreams.

My number one fantasy dream has always been about basketball. In the dream, I glide across the floor and I make the sweetest, thread the needle, no look passes you’ve ever seen. I leap toward the rim and at the point in the real world where I surrender to gravity, in the dream I continue to rise. It feels incredible.

I haven’t had the dream in a while. I guess since I don’t play anymore and I’m no longer completely obsessed by the game. But I’ve been watching so much lately and the games have been so edge of your seat intense it triggered something. The dream came back. And this time I have competition.

I’m going back and forth with this guy. He’s about six inches shorter than I am and is running his mouth non-stop. Every play. Now, I don’t mind a little yacking. Good smack is the trumpet section of the hardwood symphony. But that said, this little punk is getting on my nerves.

Suddenly there was a tie up. He and I wrestling for the ball. Ref calls a jump ball. And of course little man starts poppin off about how he’s going to out jump me. Bring it. Jump circle. Ref lofts the ball. Little man somehow DOES out jump me and tips it to his man. What the… Whose dream is this?

While I’m in a “what the…” daze, I lose track of little man and he slides under the basket. His man sees him wide open and flips him the ball. Here’s where it gets fun.

Everything slows down. Little man doesn’t see me and thinks he has a free and easy layup. I know different. I can feel it. As he shoots I leave the floor and he’s mine. I go up and keep going up. I could probably just grab the shot out of the air but I’m about to teach big mouth a thing or two. So I rare back and prepare to send this shot into the stands. The ball floats. I swing as hard as I can and SMACK!!!

Julie bolts straight up out of bed in a groggy half sleep and whisper yells, “What was that!” I heard something too but I’m not sure what. I try to wake up and clear my head. Is someone breaking in the house?

Julie flips on the light and we see the noise maker. There’s a vanity next to our bed on my side. Perfumes, gels and god knows what else. I had rared back and SMACKED Julie’s hairspray bottle across the room in my sleep. Tumbled some other stuff on the vanity too. “What did you do?”

The explanation brought out a sleepy laugh and an eye roll. Julie wasn’t impressed with my defensive prowess. She was, as you may have guessed, glad I wasn’t facing toward her in bed when I enacted my revenge on little big mouth. Maybe it’s best if I sleep on the couch during the Finals.


1213504646My day doesn’t usually start at a National Landmark fielding pointed questions from armed security. This was one of those rare mornings when it did.

We’re on a family trip to the N-Y-C. It’s the first time Julie and I have taken the girls along with us to our favorite city and we’re about to begin a big day with a trip to the Statue of Liberty.

I bought tickets online before the trip and made the reservations for the very first ferry of the day. Beat the crowds. Beat the heat. I’m a genius. But there’s a hitch. We’re staying in the beautiful Upper West Side and the ferry leaves from the extreme Southern tip of Manhattan. We’re gonna have to get an early start.

We crawl out of bed in the morning, get dressed and grab a quick breakfast. The kids aren’t really hungry so they don’t eat much. Julie and I know we don’t want hungry kids dragging through the morning so I stick some snacks in my bag, grab a couple more to put in my pockets and we’re out the door.

After a long, early morning subway ride we make it downtown and head to the pier. We already have tickets so we get to skip that line and go straight to the security line. You know those winding lines in amusement parks. It’s just like that. Only instead of a roller coaster, you’re waiting for a metal detector. Wooooo!

We wait and walk as the line inches forward until we eventually make it to the security checkpoint. After Julie and the girls get through, I put my bag on the conveyor belt and it begins its short trip to x-ray land. I keep everything in my bag. Camera, keys, phone. All my metal detector triggers. So when I walk through the metal detector and nothing goes beep-beep, I think I’m good to go. I gather my gear on the other side and prepare to meet Lady Liberty.

But as I start to walk away, a security guard motions me over to the side. She and her partner seem like nice enough ladies but at this moment, they’re looking very serious. The sidearms punctuate their seriousness.

“Is there something wrong officer?” (I actually said that. Like some bad movie line.) Anyway, apparently something is wrong. I’ve aroused suspicion. The officer points at me and asks the strangest question. “What’s that there? In your pants.” My eyes dart down and I’m confused for a second. Then it hits me. This is going to be awkward.

I ask the officers if I can show them and they nod, although, and I’m not making this up, they each put their hands on their holsters. I ease my hand into my pocket, pull out the offending object and show it to the ladies. They both crack up. Actual giggles from officers of the law. There’s a banana in my pocket. I, am a walking punch line.

Now I’m laughing too and I even say the “line” out loud. (I used a horrible Groucho Marx accent. Anyone who has heard me try knows, I can’t do accents. But they didn’t seem to mind.) The officers wave me on as the laughter continues and I leave to catch up to the family.

Julie was waiting up ahead and wondering what the heck was going on. When I told her what happened, she of course got a heavy case of the giggles too. Still makes her laugh today. We affectionately refer to my Statue of Liberty interrogation as, The Chiquita Inquisition.

A good while after the C.I. and after I’d told the story a few times, something dawns on me. I had that banana in my pocket all morning. During the walk from the hotel to the station. During the long subway ride. During the walk to the pier. During the long wait in line. And what I realize is this. Not once does Julie say anything about it. So we have two options. Either she saw the fruit in my looms and just didn’t say anything. That’s unlikely because she would not have let that go. Or option two, she just didn’t notice the entire morning. Not even a glance. Frankly, that bothers me a little bit.


istock_000003758518xsmall1Icing on the Cake

My daughter is working on an essay about what we can do to save the planet. Quite possibly the most popular essay topic in every school in the country right now. But that’s not the subject of this story.

She’s a very good writer and that’s not just your average proud papa talk. She’s really good. But this essay is different. It’s part of a district wide contest with the winner at each school receiving a $100 savings bond. My daughter is stressing herself out about winning the thing and I’m trying to do the parent pep-talk thing. Trying to get her to focus on writing and not worry so much about winning or losing.

“Do your best sweetie and the rest will take care of itself. So many factors play into winning or losing so try not to think about it and just do your best.” But I don’t want to completely discount the contest so I add, “If you do your best and you end up winning, it will just be icing on the cake.”

Then I get that look. Eyes squint. Lips purse. The wheels are turning and I’m in trouble. Turns out she has a problem with the well worn idiom Icing on the Cake. Seems pretty simple to me. A little something extra on top of an already good thing. Nice. But the daughter sees it differently. Maybe it says something about the times we live in or maybe it’s just our family but what she asked was this. Who eats cake without icing? To her (and quite honestly to me too) icing is not extra. It’s essential to a cake being a cake.

So she hears the opposite of what I’m trying to say. The cake is not complete without the icing. The essay is not complete without the win. I do my best to rework what I’m trying to get across and explain it a different way but now I’m just mumble-ramblin’. As I leave her room, I close the door and the discussion with, “Just do your best sweetie.”

Part of the beauty of being a dad is having this little slice of me asking questions that I have trouble answering. Looking at even the simplest, idiotic idiom in a brand new way. That is so cool.

So that was a few weeks ago and guess what, I got bailed out on this one. She won the essay competition at her school. The results came in today. I told you she was good. $100 Savings Bond and she’s going down to an awards ceremony at City Hall with the winners from the other schools in the district. She’s so happy she’s glowing. And so am I. Oh, and she’s also getting her picture made with the mayor while she’s there. I guess that’s just icing on the cake.


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