That Time I Almost Got Ryan Seacrest Fired

New Year’s Eve would be a different experience without him. Kelly would not have a Ryan to chat with every day for the foreseeable future. And that famous pregnant pause between “this” and “is American Idol” would probably not exist.

Year’s back, in Atlanta, a friend was producing a game show with this likable young local kid, Ryan, with a freakishly grown-up voice as the host. We ended up taking him out to some Buckhead bars. We were of age, he was not. I can’t remember if we knew the doorman or if we just had Ryan speak in his deep radio voice, but we had no trouble getting him in.

A few years later, I had moved to LA and my producer friend invited me to lunch with a small group of starving-artist types, one of them being Ryan. It was appropriately Mongolian BBQ. The type of place where you take a bowl  and smash as many ingredients into it as you can. You then hand your stuffed bowl to a guy standing over what’s basically a big flat wok. The guy dumps all your ingredients onto the wok and grills up a giant heaping of hot food for you at one low price.

Ryan had moved out to LA about the same time as me, not long after that Atlanta game show. Judging from our overfilled bowls, I’d say we were both at the starving point. He did, however, have a gig at the local radio station. Not the best time-slot, but a start. He was talking about attending community college as some kind of backup, I guess.

When my girlfriend heard that Ryan worked at the radio station, she had me call him to see about recording a voice-over reel for her. You know, the kind of thing that gets you jobs reading copy for commercials and such? Well, Ryan, being the nice guy that he was, said “sure thing, come on over to the studio while I’m working and I’ll set you up.”

When we got to the station he had on his headphones, on-air. He was going a mile-a-minute: talking, pushing buttons, flipping switches, multi-tasking. This guy was in his element. He saw us and smiled and waved us in. He held up his finger like “just a sec,” pushed another button or two, put down his headphones and greeted us both warmly.

He had us follow him into an empty studio next to his and showed me how to run the recorder in there to do the demo reel. It was actually easier than I thought. Ryan then bolted to get back to his next radio segment and left us in this studio all alone with the door closed.

About 15 minutes later we were almost done with the demo-reel when I saw a face in the little window in the door to our room. The face had a scowl. I heard a knock and I opened the door. “Who gave you permission to be in here?” the face asked angrily. “Uh, Ryan” I answered. “Ryan!” the guy turned and went to confront Ryan. I rushed to the board and pushed record. “Hurry up,” I said to my girlfriend, “let’s finish this last take before we get kicked out of here!”

Ryan got scolded, not fired, and we kind of lost touch. I hoped it wasn’t for the recording incident.

A few years later, I was in an LA restaurant with another friend who was not in the business of show whatsoever. Up comes this well-dressed kid with the brightest smile, and frosty tipped hair. It was Ryan. He asked how things were and I did the same, though I knew he’d been bumped up to the best time-slot in radio: the afternoon drive. I introduced my friend to Ryan who regaled us with some Hollywood chatter. Later, my friend said presciently, “that kid’s either going to make it big, or crash even bigger.”

I haven’t seen Ryan since…. Well, except everywhere.

Halloween Santa

Three years ago today our  French goddaughter Ines was visiting and told us last minute that she wanted to experience an American Halloween. She was in her late teens at the time so we explained that the trick-or-treating thing was more for little kids. She said it was kind of a dream of hers since she’d seen so many movies and TV shows depicting this event. Plus, she did have a serious sweet tooth. So who were we to crush a young French girls dreams? 

We called our friend’s kid Trent, about the same age, and asked if he’d like to join her. He said sure but he didn’t have a costume. “That’s okay, neither does Ines….yet.”

We rummaged through our closet and couldn’t find a thing. Finally I came upon a Santa costume still in its bag. “How about this,” I asked Alex. “Why not,” she answered, “and we can give her a big pillowcase she can sling over her shoulder like Santa’s bag of toys so she can collect more candy!”

We came downstairs with the costume and proposed it to Ines. “Pere Noel?” she asked a little unsure but when Alex explained the pillowcase to collect more candy with, she was all in. “This is a good idea!” she exclaimed giddily.

Trent came over dressed in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with a T-shirt underneath. “I’m Ace Ventura!” he proclaimed after none of us could figure it out.  Alex helped him round out the ensemble with a nametag. “Otherwise your just gonna’ look like some older kid who didn’t even try.” 

Alex and I always hated when older kids came with hands out, dressed just like it was any other day. “I feel like I’m being robbed by those older kids sometimes,” Alex would say, “I mean, they could at least put on a ski mask or something.”

Trent started telling Ines about all the good candy hauls he’d gotten as a young kid in our parts. “Some of these houses even give out full size candy bars!” Ines looked at me and said “quoi?” She didn’t yet know about the mini-candy thing. 

We told Ines she probably wanted to wait at least until it was dark outside before going trick-or-treating. That’s the way we always did it, but I guess times had changed. By nightfall, people weren’t even answering their doors, or if they did they were mostly out of candy.

Fortunately, some neighbors who always put up the biggest and best decorations were still going strong. These people had a semicircle driveway with a giant spider web going from their house, OVER the driveway, so you could drive right through the web.

They loved Ines’ Santa costume and invited us all in for a small party. Not the normal kids American Halloween, but she did get Santa’s toy bag filled to the brim at this last bastion of Halloween 2017. She had such a big haul, she could barely get her suitcase closed before heading back to France. 

The Hamster Under the Hood

If you ever see us driving down the road and my wife puts her hand out the window and flicks her fingers like she’s tossing something at you, don’t panic; she’s just trying to feed the hamster inside your Nissan Rogue.

Let me explain. We’d gotten a rental car the night before a trip to Charleston a couple summer’s ago. I’d asked for a regular-sized SUV, but all they had was a mid-sized Nissan Rogue. I’d never driven a Rogue, nor had I driven too many Nissan’s period, so I thought “cool, let’s try something new.”

Well I must have had the radio turned up too loud on the way home from the rental car place that night, because I didn’t notice the chuk-a-chuk-a-chuk sound the car made until the next morning when we pulled out of the driveway. “Oh no,” I immediately announced. “What now?” asked Alex, who is too familiar with my noise sensitivities. “If this thing is going to make that noise the entire drive, I’m going to lose it.” 

It was a longer-than-usual 6 hour drive, but at least we had some laughs. We pulled up to a drive-through for lunch and the car was noisier than ever. Alex started to chuckle and said, “ask them if they’ve got any sunflower seeds in there.” I knew from her tone that she was onto something. “Why’s that?” I prompted her. “To feed the hamster under our hood.” And she was right, it sounded like there was a rusty hamster wheel under there.

Fortunately, we arranged to exchange the car in Charleston so we wouldn’t have to endure another 6 hours of the hamster wheel on our drive home, but to this day whenever we see a Nissan Rogue, Alex flicks her fingers at them to help feed their hamster.

Dr. Smith Will No Longer Be Seeing Patients

My dad died this year, but I still had a flash of a thought about calling him today. Maybe it’s the fallen leaves on the ground, or the crisp autumn air, or the weekend; weekends were when we’d usually talk.

As little kids we lived on a quiet midwestern dead-end street. When fall came my dad would rake the leaves into big piles that we three kids would subsequently demolish. We’d throw footballs, baseballs, anything semi-spherical and crash-land into the leaves like it was the endzone.

My dad encouraged activity in our lives, and sports were a big part of that. There were often sports on the TV but we’d only watch long enough to get the urge to go out and play that sport ourselves. We replicated Indy 500 races on our bicycles with playing cards in the spokes for engine sounds, summer Olympics with my dad’s workout mat as the only thing to break our fall from a high jump, Stanley Cup hockey in the driveway.

It wasn’t until after my dad died that I really appreciated his encouragement to do things, and how he lived life that way himself. 

My dad was the first person on our block who jogged, albeit in loafers, and he had a pretty good set of weights. Of course I knew about his love of tennis, since he played the sport with us until an accident he had in his 60’s. There was skiing, which was the cause of the accident, sailing (he was a Captain), Army medic, a short foray into pilot training, scuba diving, welding, ham radio operator license-holder, Teamsters Union member, Boy Scout etc., etc.

Going through his things after his death, I joked to my brother that maybe Dad was Secret Service, we were finding out so many things we’d never known.

By profession he was a heart and lung surgeon. How he had time to do all the other things, and be with us at so many of our own events, is beyond me.

We didn’t get to have a funeral for him because of the pandemic but here’s what we kids helped write for his eulogy:

Richard Noel Smith, age 82, of La Crescent, MN died Sunday May 31, 2020 in his sleep of natural causes. Born in Chicago, Rick graduated from Northwestern Medical School and practiced thoracic surgery in Indianapolis, Atlanta and La Crosse. He led a full life accompanied by his wife of 58 years, Carolyn. A renaissance man, Dr. Smith was equally at home in the operating room, on the seas, the slopes, the symphony or the tennis courts. He and Carolyn raised their three children Brian, Kirk (Alexandra) and Noelle who inherited his love of travel, life-long-learning, and an abiding love of reading. He was a proud Grandpa to Rosie and Charlotte (Brian and Suzie Reider-Smith); Colby and Delaney (Noelle). 

There will not be a funeral service at this time. In lieu of flowers please consider donations to the La Crosse Symphony, or the Beethoven Festival.

An Anniversary in the Time of Pandemic

According to Hallmark, your 12th anniversary gifts should be those of silk or linen. Ours was neither. 

For our 10th we were at The Ritz Carlton in Montreal, so we really didn’t care what Hallmark recommended. This year the threat of virus has kept us inside, except for the occasional Costco or home-repair run. 

Like many, we’ve taken to house projects to fill the void. Problem is when those projects create a mess and you have nowhere to dump said mess except, well, the dump.

So we loaded our car up and made the drive. It was nice to be out of the house and going down a different path than the one leading to Costco, so I drove slowly to take in the sites. Pretty trees here, horses in a field there, and birds circling overhead in the distance. I was about to bring the birds to Alex’s attention, as in “look at those beautiful birds in the sky,” when I realized these were scavenger birds circling the dump.

Turning off the main road into this literal wasteland with our truck full of crap, I looked at my wife of 12 years and said “happy anniversary honey!” Fortunately, she laughed. And that’s just one of the reasons I love her. 

We had some steaks and good wine to try to make the day special, but I think we’ll always remember the dump trip this anniversary. Apropos, I’d say.

Take the Ride

In early 2020, just as the virus was creeping into our consciousness and not long before the days of confinement, Alex and I got a couple of free tickets to Busch Gardens in Tampa. We’re not huge theme-park fans, nor do we love large crowds. But hey, who can pass up free, right? So we packed our pockets with mini hand-sanitizers and off we went. 

Once there, we wandered around to get our bearings, and noted the park didn’t seem too full. Our first stop was a pond with giant alligators sunning themselves on its edges. Even though there was a moat and a short fence, you could sense the danger of these sleeping beasts. 

Suddenly there were screams nearby and we jumped, fearing the worst, but it was just a rollercoaster looping overhead. I laughed, but Alex wasn’t amused. She had a fear of rollercoasters almost as deep as that of gators. “Oh, hell no,” she said. And I knew she was talking about not riding a rollercoaster that day without even asking her to finish her sentence.

Instead, we wandered into an Egyptian-looking theater to see an ice-dancing show. I wasn’t sure about the whole Egypt/ice connection, but for Alex it was definitely safer than a rollercoaster. We sat and watched really good skaters, on a real ice stage, perform a somewhat meaningless show. The music and movement was mesmerizing, but it was more flash than substance.

We walked out of there comparing it to a French theme-park we’d been to where there were more shows than rides, and every show had a historical storyline from Joan d’Arc to the Three Musketeers to a Roman gladiator event in a replica Coliseum replete with a good-guy gladiator and a bad-guy Roman, chariot races, and lions.

But back to Busch Gardens, a place named after a beer. 

Well, Alex had read somewhere that there were free beer samples, so at least we had a mission. We walked from one end of the park to the other for this supposed free beer but it was a ruse. Apparently, at one time they used to give out beer samples but no more. 

So now dry and tired and frustrated we took a gondola ride over the entire park. From this vantage point you could really make out the main attractions of the place: specifically two giant rollercoasters. One had you dangling from your seat by your shoulders like a rag doll while it went upside down and all around, the other had a cheetah theme and looked a little more basic. Alex saw me smiling at the rides and read my mind. “You can ride a rollercoaster if you want to, I’ll watch,” she said. Tempting, but I didn’t want to leave her behind, so I said no.

After a slow train ride “safari” we caught our last event of the day, a cheetah run. They brought out two beautiful cheetahs and had them chase a toy bird that zipped along a string for about 50 yards. These things go from zero to sixty faster than a Ferrari- very impressive- but apparently they run out of gas after about 500 yards while doing so. Kinda’ like we were feeling after walking around the park all day.

As we were about to head home, the Cheetah coaster twirled above our heads and riders screamed in joy and fear. I noticed we were right near the entrance to the ride, so I said “let’s just see how long the line is.”

There was a jovial bespectacled young girl manning the entrance to the non-existent coaster line so I asked her how bad the ride was for a scaredy-cat such as my wife. The girl laughed and said, “on a scale of 1-10 I’d give it a 3. I mean it’s fast, but that’s about it.” I turned to Alex and she surprisingly seemed game, so we went for it.

Approaching the first hill we anticipated a slow climb to the top, but this thing accelerated like, well, a cheetah, and Alex screamed louder than I’d ever heard her scream. The guys in front of us looked back like “what the hell?” and off we went. At the first drop Alex screamed again and started chanting “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” I was trying to hold myself together while also trying to calm her. When we went into an inversion, I thought she might pass out.

A few minutes later, with heart rates higher than they’d been in years, we exited the coaster on wobbly legs. “If that’s a 3, I certainly wouldn’t want to ride a 10” Alex gasped.

On the way home, we were probably both still high on the adrenaline of the coaster ride when I asked Alex if she’d do it again. “I’ve bungee jumped head first from hundreds of feet above the ocean, flown in small planes landing on small island landing strips, skied down from the top of the Rockies, and now I’ve conquered the Cheetah ride. I think I’m good.” But I could tell she was glad she did it.

What I learned was you really should take the ride while you can. 

We’ve since only been out of our house for necessities, with not even the chance to take a chance.  

Liberty ~ repost

Her flame burned bright not long ago
A shining light for wayward souls
Seems we’ve all been bought or sold
And this old place is turning cold

But we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of liberty

She’s taken hits, she’s taken blows
She’s eaten cake, she’s eaten crow
Her torch is out on payday loan
But there’s still a spark way down below

And we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

Our truths are self evident
Our rights are our own
Our gift is our giving
To those that need more

Yes we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

691025bafbf8d501076c20c67ad10365

Thank You Debra Messing

Here in Atlanta now, my beautiful wife likes to remind me that we don’t get to the beach enough. Atlanta does not have a real beach, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Back in the 80’s there was a bar called Buckhead Beach with a sandy outdoor area replete with palm trees and hammocks and volleyball nets. Bikini-clad waitresses walked through the crowds holding trays of colorful drinks.

I was too young to go to Buckhead Beach, but my older brother and his friends would talk about it, and in my imagination I saw a real beach, real palm trees, an ocean even. So my geography was a little lacking back then, but not my imagination.

Back in LA, we were probably 10 miles from the beach, and yet we were not there every day, or even every weekend for that matter. In fact, one of our favorite escapes was kind of the opposite of the beach: It was a Mexican restaurant in the Valley called Casa Vega.

You’d walk in on a bright hot Valley day with your sunglasses still on and be blinded by the darkness: dark wood paneling, dark booths, dark carpet, and really, really low light. Eventually your eyes adjusted, but never completely. Especially after a margarita or two.

It’s a bit pricey these days, but back then you could get a couple margaritas, a burrito, and a celebrity sighting pretty cheap. It was dark enough in there that celebrities seemed to blend in. We’d see Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, when they were still together, and almost mistake them for old friends. Rockers in black leather and spiked hair wandering around like extras from Spinal Tap. Big name directors getting booth readings. Hollywood agents in suits. Hollywood wives discussing their latest treatments. And wannabes counting change for a beer at the bar next to neighborhood regulars who’d been coming there for years. It was a real motley crew.

My wife used to get (and still does) that she looks “just like that woman from Will and Grace… What’s her name… You know?” And we’d smile and nod when they’d say “I bet you get that all the time?” If we had a dollar for every time that happened in LA we’d be rich. But the only concrete thing we ever got out of it was a good seat at Casa Vega one busy night.

The place was packed. Probably an hour and a half wait for a table. I guess word had gotten out that the food and drink was affordable and the customers interesting, to put it mildly. We had a group of 6 people from out of town. No reservation. Alex and I approached the hostess and were about to put our name in for a table, when one of the waiters popped out of nowhere, all smiles and compliments. “Good to see you again!” He said to Alex. “How have you been?” “Good…” Alex answered. The waiter shakes my hand and says hello like he knows me too. “We have a table for you and your guests right back here, if you’ll just follow me,” the man says to Alex. On our way through the crowded restaurant Alex looks at me with her bright eyes, red hair and high-cheekbones and just shrugs.

We got the best table and the best service that night. Our out of town guests thought we were celebrities. And so did the waiter apparently.

Thank you Debra Messing.

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40-Love

It started to snow as the pastor said his last words. One element turning into another. Fresh pink and white flowers on mahogany, the only show of color. These too would eventually transform.

The service brought family and friends together. People sharing stories and anecdotes. As is sadly the case, often revealing more about a person when they’re gone.

I knew her as my sweet aunt Colleen who sent me sweaters from Marshall Field’s and sometimes cold hard cash in an envelope for Christmas and birthdays. I took the Marshall Field’s gifts for granted, thinking they came from just another department store, but I came to find out that going to the downtown Chicago Marshall Field’s was a big event. 

My cousin, sitting next to me at lunch after the burial, told me Colleen had taken her there for her first pair of heels. Colleen had taken her daughter there for fancy dresses and her son for fine suits. And they’d always get the Marshall Field’s Special: an iceberg wedge on top of a turkey and rye open-faced sandwich with bacon and hard-boiled eggs. A sandwich disguised as a salad, or vice-versa depending on how you wanted to look at it. 

The salad/ sandwich can’t be had there anymore though since Marshall Field’s morphed into Macys. 

My aunt always greeted us with a twinkle in her eye and often with a different color hairdo than the previous visit. She was stylish. My dad, her younger brother, told me as we looked at old photos on a video screen that she never had any trouble meeting boys. 

I also learned from the service that she taught her kids to do whatever they did with grace and love, not just to win or to make money. And to be kind to others. These kids do just that.

The one thing I was most surprised to find out though was that she played tennis…. Competitively!

At the lunch that day there were toasts and laughter. And on the menu, by pure coincidence, was the same salad/sandwich by another name as the one Colleen used to love to get at Marshall Field’s. I had my eye on the salmon, but when I was told about the Marshall Field’s Special connection with my aunt, I said “give me one of those in her honor!” 

And you know what? It was better than any salmon.

I don’t know why we have to wait to learn so much about people when they’re gone. It seems to be one of the few times we gather to remember. Maybe we should all have a living funeral, and not when we’re old… how about every quarter of our lives: 25, 50 and 75?

I mean, I could have been eating salad/sandwiches and playing tennis with my aunt all that time and I never even knew!

The Magic Jacket

The first time I wore the jacket was for a dinner party with a Moroccan theme. I was told the jacket was Batik… I didn’t know if that had anything to do with Morocco, but it sounded exotic, and the jacket sure looked exotic, so I went with it. 

The jacket was a hand-me-down from my wife’s uncle Jim in D.C. It was one of a whole rack of suits and sportscoats that no longer fit him and had been taking up space in their basement for quite some time. In fact, his wife was just about to take them to Goodwill when we happened to visit. It was my first time meeting them, and I couldn’t help but notice Alex’s aunt eying me up and down. “You cut a figure exactly like my Jim used to,” she said as Jim, sitting right next to her on the couch, held his belly and chortled.

We went to the basement and sure enough everything fit me like a glove. “Doesn’t your son want any of these?” I asked Alex’s aunt. “He’s too tall,” she said, “I’ve been putting off getting rid of them in hopes that someone would come in here and fit them and I could tell you were the one the moment I laid eyes on you. There are some real special pieces in here,” she said as she ran her finger across the fabrics.

There were so many, I actually had to choose what I thought I’d wear and leave some for Goodwill. The jacket almost didn’t make the cut. I thought it was too wild, or crazy or different… But it was Jim’s favorite we were told, and Alex and her aunt wouldn’t let me not take it.

So, back to the Moroccan dinner party. A guy I’d known for years, and had seen all my clothes from dressy to messy—a guy who had hardly ever even uttered “nice shirt” when I broke one out—wanted to try on the jacket he liked it so much. After wearing it around the room for a minute he offered to buy it from me on the spot! I kept it, but I really didn’t have the occasion to wear it too often after that– maybe one Thanksgiving dinner it made an appearance.

Fast forward a few years to my annual company meeting. It’s in Boston every January and they fly everyone in. Besides the business meetings, they arrange a nice dinner, like a late Christmas party. 

Well, I’d had a really good year and was feeling pretty confident, so I packed the Batik jacket for the big dinner party. For pre-dinner drinks we walked into a microbrewery and grabbed some beers. Between walking in, ordering, and imbibing, I must have talked to five complete strangers about the jacket.

Entering the restaurant for the dinner party, I was given a “love your jacket” by the attractive young hostess, and a “yo, nice jacket” by the tough-guy-demeanored barkeep. But the most attention I got was from my boss and his father who was visiting from England. Something about the jacket made this old English gentleman melancholic. He even regaled me with stories about himself as a dashing young man in England.

After dinner, we went back to the microbrewery. The guy at the door taking ID’s smiled at us like we were regulars and waved us in. “You remembered us?!” “Who could forget that jacket?”

The jacket made an appearance at the next two company work parties, but this year I thought about maybe leaving the jacket at home. I told my wife it’s almost too much at times, it takes over a conversation, a room even….

Then I was having a casual meal with a work colleague and we started talking about the upcoming January meetings. “You’re bringing the jacket, aren’t you” he said, more than asked.

I’ve always had favorite shirts, suits that fit better than others, shoes that were not only comfortable but cool, but this jacket is a different entity. It’s magic.

I’ve decided it should be passed on to another generation one day. My wife’s uncle’s boy may not have fit the jacket, but maybe one of their kids will. Or maybe I’ll find my own worthy keeper-of-the-jacket one day to pass it down to. Until then, I’ll have to honor the garment and take care of it… and wear it a little more often.