Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Our Not So Brave New World

I was a history major in college. I changed my major 4 times at the University of Richmond, so totally aimless and irresolute was I during those 5 years. I settled on history for two reasons. One was that I truly loved it. The other was that I was a gifted enough writer and consequently could bluff my way through essay exams with the barest of actual knowledge in the subject matter. I had not the vaguest clue what one would do with a history degree. I ended up in the investment business, but there on the wall over the leather wingback chair hangs my diploma. What I have learned in the years since is that once a history buff, always a history buff. My knowledge of history informs my thinking about almost everything. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, I know that in fact there is nothing new under the sun. And yet I can’t help wondering if this particular slice of history that we live in is uniquely tenuous and fragile.

We live in an era of unsurpassed technological triumph with the promise of greater advances to come. People are living longer, less stressful lives than at any time in the history of civilization. We talk a lot about stress, I know, but whereas a century ago people stressed about having enough food to eat, today we stress about relationships and where we will go on vacation. Today we communicate instantaneously with anyone, anywhere, at anytime, a feat unimaginable a mere 50 years ago. The gadgets we pay less than a thousand dollars for and hold in the palms of our hands are more powerful and do more things than literally rooms of machines did 50 years ago. But with all of these manifestly beneficial breakthroughs has come no feeling of greater security and no enrichment of the human spirit. With all of our newfound access to knowledge, we seem to have gained no measure of wisdom. With all of our freshly minted communication devices, we seem to say less to each other than ever before. A casual reading of message boards on social websites seems vulgar and vapid laid next to the letters written between John and Abigail Adams 230 years ago, which were teaming with emotion and immediacy even though most were already months old when first read.

Although man has it within his grasp today to protect himself from peril in ways that past generations couldn’t possibly have imagined, I cannot escape the feeling that we are teetering on the edge of something dreadful. The unnatural interconnectedness of world finance and the staggering complexity of its instruments bring with them the nagging suspicion that events in Greece and Ireland ultimately will bring us all down. The masters of the universe who design the systems of this world have no answers except more complexity, in the vain hope that the solutions will be stumbled on by the next generation of geniuses. As a student of history I have concluded that man’s scientific and technological evolution has far outpaced his ability to find joy, to experience beauty, to give and receive grace. In our mad headlong dash to conquer, discover and build, we have ignored our souls and have created civilizations capable of killing each other with blinding efficiency. Even our art isn’t created to inspire but to shock, not to lift the human spirit but to magnify the course and baser regions of our nature.

Perhaps a tragic turn in our destiny will cause us to return to first things. Maybe if the tools of technology bring about our destruction, we will find a way to refashion them into something that serves a higher purpose.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Whats that smell???

Ok..this falls under the category of…”so weird you have to see it and smell it in person to believe it”. A couple of weeks ago our garbage “refuge technician” asked us to stop putting large plastic bags of grass clippings in our big garbage cans because they made the thing too heavy to lift into the truck. This says something profoundly disturbing about where we have evolved as a nation when trash collectors start demanding better working conditions but I will save that thought for another time. So today when I finished cutting the grass I took two large 45 gallon plastic bags of grass clippings and two weeks worth of Molly’s bowel movements down to the curb as instructed. I placed them five feet or so in front of my daughter’s boyfriend's  car. After a lovely dinner out on the deck I decided to try out my new battery powered weed eater that I had bought earlier in the day but hadn’t used yet because the battery needed 8 hours to charge. When I made it around the corner of the house to the front yard I was met with a bracing stench that I first thought was from the neighbors newly sealed driveway. I ignored it the best I could and instead concentrated on my very cool new weed eater which was doing an awesome job of giving my lawn that finished look. Eventually I made it around to the front curb where I noticed that Jon’s car was gone but oddly, so where the two bags of clippings. At this point the stench became even more foul and overpowering. Suddenly my neighbor Walt pulled up and leaned out the window with his hand over his mouth and said, “Hey Doug. I think you have two bags of grass and dog crap in the middle of Hazeltree Court.” Time stood still as I simultaneously noticed that there was a 6 inch wide slimy green trail leading from the spot where the bags had been, disappearing up Aprilbud Place and then leading around the corner and out of sight. I looked down at Walt with my mouth open, eyes now burning from the toxic mixture of rotting grass and manure. “Yeah, it looks like somebody dragged them or something and they made it all the way to Hazeltree but then the bag busted open so there’s a big pile of dog turds up there. I just followed the trail to you.” Walt felt it necessary to get me fully up to speed on the malodorous affront I had inflicted on the community on this otherwise fine Saturday evening in suburbia. “ I’m really sorry Walt,” I managed to say. “ I cant imagine what happened but I’ll go up right away and clean it up.”

I quickly jumped into the Pacifica and followed the green trail of tears up the street around the corner to the stop sign. There a few small pieces of canine feces that I recognized pointed the way up the hill of Center Ridge drive. When I got to the sweeping left turn on to Hazeltree there it was…two ripped and soggy black bags of shame lay in the middle of the street with large unruly piles of grass in various stages of decay littered around in all directions with small hills of dog crap floating on top like so many brown lily pads on the surface of a dirty pond. An elderly Asian couple out for their nightly constitutional held frilly handkerchiefs over their mouths as they scurried past me trying not to make eye contact. At this point Jon pulled up in his car, looked out the window and won the world championship of stating the obvious with this gem…” I think I might have done that.”

As we worked to clean up the mess I asked him why he didn’t hear something dragging underneath his car as he was driving out of the neighborhood. “We had the radio on I guess”. But my daughter knew something was amiss when she asked the question..”Jon, how come your car smells like a baby’s diaper?”

My abilities as a writer will be sorely tested as I struggle to describe for you the offending fog that has drifted over all of Wythe Trace.

Even now as I bang these words out I can still catch whiffs of it off of my thrice washed hands. The bags were full of two week old dead grass that had been cut wet and then subsequently rained on several times along with large amounts of dog feces. Think of a skunk with a dirty diaper crawling out of a dead skunks behind. Or maybe the smell of a gigantic belch from a biker who just ate a dozen rotten eggs with a side of expired sardines. Maybe its more like 25 bedpans from the diarrhea ward at the old folks home…anyway, you get the picture.

But the problem is more than just the smell because eventually that will fade away. No, long after the smell is but a nauseating memory, there will still be the damning evidence of the long green arrow on the streets of the neighborhood that will point for all to see to 3308 Aprilbud Place as the source of the offence. Like some 21st century scarlet letter, it will remind everyone who was to blame. I had no choice. I mean I like Jon and all but I have to live here. I feel bad about it, but it had to be done. I tacked a brightly painted sign on my mailbox with 4 simple words….”KAITLIN’S BOYFRIEND DID IT”

Friday, June 24, 2011

" My Girl"

A couple of days ago my son sent us an email with a recording attached to it. He had written an arrangement of the old classic “My Girl” for a jazz ensemble or something. After he finished with the writing he sat down at his computer and the $300 fancy microphone he had insisted that we get him for Christmas and proceeded to record all 6 parts along with the percussion himself and then somehow mixed everything together. I know virtually nothing about how any of this is actually done but I console myself with the knowledge that all of the technical hardware that it was done with was paid for out of my generosity. When I hit the play button on my computer I was overwhelmed with a torrent of conflicting emotions. I heard my son’s voice doing a spot-on impression of David Ruffin , then his voice filled out all of the crisp harmonies of the other Temptations and all I could do was sit there and smile. The song was a musical feast , so beautiful that if Smokey Robinson heard it he would have picked up the phone to offer his congratulations. When it was over I pressed the play button again and again.

Whenever he sends us some new recording or some new video of a musical creation I am overcome with two competing emotions. On the one hand I am so proud of him and his freakish talent that I instantly want all of my friends to hear it and marvel with me. But then the other emotion rears its ugly head. I think to myself…How is this kid ever going to be happy and fulfilled in this life if he doesn’t end up in the music business? When you’re walking around with this sort of musical creativity bouncing around in your head 24/7, how can you be happy being a high school chorus teacher? Not that there’s anything wrong with that…some of my best friends are high school chorus teachers. But the problem for me as a parent is that I am afraid of the music business. It seems to be a dirty rotten collection of egomaniacs who live a life contrary to what most parents dream of for their children. Unless he is able to find some benign corner of the business unblemished by drug use, broken relationships and rehab, I’ll always be worried about him. But that’s just the way it goes as a parent I suppose.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Let's Make A Deal" first Oval Office address

Good evening. This is the first chance I’ve had as your President to address you on live television here from the Oval Office, and I must say, this place is amazing. Much bigger than it looks in the movies. Anyway, back last November when you guys shocked the world by electing me President, I began work on what I was going to call my administration. You know…Teddy Roosevelt had “The Square Deal”, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt had “The New Deal”, and Harry Truman came up with “The Fair Deal”. Well, after weeks of thought I’ve decided to call my Presidency…”Let’s Make A Deal”. And the deal is this…as the representative of the government I promise to get Leviathan off your back and out of your way, balance the books around here, and generally introduce some common sense reforms so that you won’t be embarrassed every time you watch the news. In return, you’ll have to promise to knock it off with all the belly-aching, stop blaming all of your personal failures on somebody else, and get out there and make something of your life. What do ya say?

First, let me explain my end of this bargain. I will not here go into exhaustive detail about every issue facing us as a nation. For one thing, I don’t have all the answers. Heck, half the time I don’t even know the right questions! For example, I know virtually nothing about energy( although I’m pretty sure its none of my business what kind of light bulbs you should be allowed to buy)or housing or agriculture so I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I do. There are some broad themes that I do know a thing or two about and so I will lay out tonight what the goals of my administration will be. Hopefully this won’t take too long because I don’t want you to have to miss the American Idol finale…so here goes.

Foreign policy: effective immediately I am pulling all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Europe, Japan, and South Korea and any other place they may happen to be. The first three countries on this list are just a God-awful mess and combined not worth one drop of American blood. The next three are all pretty wealthy places and I figure that they need to take care of their own defense needs. The party’s over guys since we have no money. Henceforth as long as I am President the military will never be asked to be the world’s policeman and the days of the US marines being turned in to community organizers are over. In addition, to help safeguard against the casual commitment of US forces in some ill-conceived mission in the future, I shall make it mandatory that all children of elected officials be required to serve in frontline units of any and all combat divisions of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Domestic policy: effective immediately I have ordered an across the board 15% spending cut throughout all agencies of government with no exceptions. Now I know that this will punish all agencies equally and some will argue that some departments should be exempted. But the more I think about it the more that I like the across the board idea…so much easier. If we ever balance the budget, then we’ll talk about restoring some of the cuts. But until we get our financial house in order..a little shared sacrifice, OK? I will also propose a complete overhaul of the tax code with all of its Byzantine contradictions and Rube Goldberg logical leaps and replace it with a flat tax of 17% with NO deductions…for anyone. That’s right, you heard me. No charitable deduction ( if the only reason you give is to catch a break on your taxes, shame on you), no home mortgage interest deduction ( why should we make it more desirable to own than rent? Its none of my business where you live.), no deductions period. Also, everyone will be required to pay their taxes themselves either with a check or online, NO WITHOLDING allowed. That way people will understand exactly how much they are having to pay in taxes. This change will eliminate the need for the IRS and place millions of accountants out of work but on the bright side, it will save everyone else a fortune in fees and lost sleep. Now I know some of you are thinking “I’ll have to pay more under this plan”, or “that rich guy over there he might end up paying less”. Well, get over the class envy people. Our current system has produced a nation where 45% of Americans pay no income taxes at all. That can’t be right can it? Besides, if you eliminate all of the complexities of the system, you will effectively take away all power from politicians, and won’t that be worth it?

And oh yeah, by the way…I’ve decided to decriminalize casual drug use. Over the past 50 years there exists no government initiative that has been a bigger failure than the “War on Drugs”, with the possible exception of the “War on Poverty”. But at least with the war of poverty we don’t imprison those who stay poor. Alcohol use in this country destroys millions of lives and consumes millions more in property and yet its legal and the government collects a fortune in tax revenue from its sale. I see no reason why some kid who smokes a joint should be thrown in jail. And since the majority of violent crimes are drug related, maybe a lot of that violence would disappear and the government would raise some much needed cash. Have you noticed how broke we are? Oh, and one more thing. I will introduce legislation next week to make our congressmen and women part time legislators just like they are in most of the states. Along with the part time status will come an elimination of life time congressional pensions and health benefits. The Founding Fathers never imagined full time career politicians. An added benefit of this plan will be that since there is less time devoted to “law-making”, there will be less of it. Plus, during the off season, the capital building will be available for civic groups to rent out and also for birthdays and bar mitzvahs. We need income, people.

In closing let me mention that since I am President, I have taken the liberty to impose a few changes outside of government..just because I can. First off, for the remainder of my term in office the American League is hereby forbidden to use the designated hitter. I also have taken it upon myself to bring back the chain gang work crew concept in all federal prisons since there is so much work out there that Americans just won’t do. And last but not least, I have declared lite beer to be illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Well, its been a pleasure to speak with you tonight and I see from the clock right above the Thomas Jefferson portrait that its 8:50...made it with ten minutes to spare. I hope in the future to always thus exceed your expectations. God Bless you and God Bless America.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Tribute To My Father

I was 13 and very much looking forward to summer. Early May was already hot in the afternoon so I was cutting the grass without a shirt at 10 o’clock in the morning. Just one more month of school and I would be free. As I made the long sweeping turn from the front yard toward the garden I saw him. He was walking across the back yard in a v-neck tee-shirt and overalls and my heart sank at the sight. I knew that the minute I finished the grass he and I would get into an argument over working in the garden. I would object on the grounds that I had already spent 2 hours mowing the yard. He would point out that when he was my age he had already put in 2 hours of work before breakfast and besides he couldn’t do it alone. He needed my help so I had better stop with the crying and get on with it.

My Dad didn’t have my gifts of logic and reason, my skills at debate, or my winning charm but even so I never once won an argument with him. He would look at me with a half-smile and patiently listen to my brilliantly argued and flawlessly reasoned positions and when I was through he would say something like,”Ok, well, pick up that bag of fertilizer and lets get started.”

Although I could tell I was his son, he was much bigger than I would ever be. He was in his late forties and very strong and straight. His big arms hung down to his sides when he was in his suit on Sundays, down practically to his knees. Out of those dark jacket sleeves would emerge two enormous and powerful hands that were calloused from hard work and genetics. Even though Dad was a minister and a man of thought and learning, he never lost his taste for demanding physical labor. He was a man of toil. In the fall and winter it was carpentry work , building junk in our cramped pit and the pendulum basement. He would stay down there for hours sawing and drilling and sanding and emerge covered with sweat and sawdust. In the spring and summer it was the garden. As soon as the ground thawed in March he would get someone to plow it up since we didn’t own a tractor. Then he would crank up the old orange roto-tiller that he bought at Western Auto and stored under the back porch all winter since we had no shed. He would go back and forth over the molded-smelling dirt over and over again for days until the ground was all the same sandy color and fine as rice. I had actually looked forward to my big chance to run the roto-tiller after watching Dad all those years. The thing was loud and I liked the way it ground up weeds and clods with such violence. When my chance finally came when I was 10, the unwieldy beast practically ripped my arms out of their sockets. After I suffered through 3 passes down a single 6o foot row I wrestled the monster into neutral and then made the mistake of holding on to the kill switch too long once it made contact with the spark plug. The shocking jolt knocked me flat on my backside. Dad helped me up and said, “ You’ll get better son”.

It was then that I first became aware of just how strong he was. He stood around 6’2” and weighed 210 or so with broad shoulders , a big head and dark jet-black hair. All the ladies and half of the men in our church accused him of using Grecian formula, but I knew that he didn’t. The only health and beauty aids in his medicine cabinet were a Schick injector system razor, a can of Barbasol and a bottle of Aqua Velva. There never lived a man with less vanity than my father. When he worked in the garden he always wore this ridiculous floppy straw hat with a green eye shade thing built in to the front brim. It was huge and sitting on top of his enormous head towering over 6 feet in the air he looked like a menacing extra in the prison yard from the set of Cool Hand Luke. The odd thing was that he was as gentle as a lamb. The only time he raised his voice in anything approaching anger was when he was in the pulpit holding forth on the dangers of sin. His face was handsome with unruly eyebrows, a prominent nose that I had inherited and kind, tender eyes which I had not.

“OK son,” he began slowly. “ Today we are going to lay down some corn and potatoes and if we’re lucky maybe some pole beans.”

“What’s so lucky about pole beans?” I mumbled under my breath.

“ I know you’d be happier playing ball or riding your bike, but when we finish today you’ll be able to look back proudly on what you’ve accomplished. A job well done need not be done again, my daddy used to say.”

“Then how come I have to cut the grass every week?”
“ Well, almost every job. I think that this year you need to learn to use the push plow”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Me? Me, getting to use the push plow?? This was not going to end well. I had been preparing myself for the yearly lesson about the importance, nay, the cosmically crucial to the survival of mankind importance of laying down straight rows. How it was a matter of family pride that rows be perfectly straight, any crook in the line an indication of sloth and inattention at best and darkness or even madness at worst. How it was ok to set a stick in the ground at the end of the row but unsporting and somehow cheating to tie a string to it to guide your work. A virtual encyclopedia of information about a man’s character could be revealed by an inspection of his garden. And now my father wanted me to do the honors, our family reputation in the community riding on my slim teenaged shoulders.

“ Dad, you can’t be serious” I pleaded.

“ I’ll help you every step of the way son. You’re 12 years old boy, its time you learned”

“ I’m 13 Dad!” I was always indignant with him when he would forget my age or what grade I was in. The man could recite entire chapters of the Bible, tell you every detail of the life of every Christian from Martin Luther to Vance Havner but half the time he couldn’t remember my middle name.

“ Well, of course you are. What did I say.. 12? I tell ya son the older I get the more that happens. I’ll be thinking one thing in my head and something else will come flying out of my mouth!”

“ Good thing that doesn’t happen in the pulpit , huh dad?”

“ Don’t be so sure “, he answered with a smile.

We both laughed a little at the joke, which actually was funny unlike most of his jokes, the kind of jokes that he would get out of those dreadful “500 Clean Jokes” paperbacks somebody was always giving him. Stupid church people.

Dad walked down to the end of the garden closest to the road and drove a tomato pole into the ground with a 10 pound ball peen hammer. Three licks and it was stiff and straight.

“ Ok son , keep your eyes right here on this stick and walk slow and steady!”

The dirt rolled up and over the plow in soft clumps to my right and I tried my best to straddle the row with my feet trying not to look down too much, keeping my eyes on the stick. The more I stared at the stick the dizzier I became. When I made it to the end of the row I was light headed from the stress and my heart was beating loud in my ears. I was afraid to look back. Dad put his hand on my shoulder as we both inspected my work. After an uncomfortable moment of silence he finally spoke up.

“ Son, that’s about the worst looking first attempt at plowing a row I’ve ever seen. Which means that it can’t get anything but better. Let’s try her again.”

My father was not a parent in the modern sense in that he was incapable of coddling. When I did stupid things he let me know about it. He didn’t buy in to the notion that every kid should get a trophy, that all kids were wonderful. He never seemed to be very concerned with the level of my self esteem, figuring that my self esteem would rise when I learned to do something well. But because he never lied to me about how great I was, I learned that I could believe him. Always. My dad could be depended on to tell me the truth.

Dad ran the roto-tiller over my hideous s-shaped row until all evidence had been erased and then I tried again. This process was repeated 5 more times until finally he was positively beaming.

“ Look at that !!!” he yelled, clapping his big hands together. “ Its beautiful!”

It really was beautiful. With this triumph behind me I warmed to the work. Now it was time to line the furrow with fertilizer, horrible smelling nitrogen fertilizer that came in a big 25 pound burlap bag with a paper lining. I would drag the thing behind me as I dug down and grabbed a handful of the blue crystals and scattered them along the furrow. I never wore gloves so by the end of a day of this my hands would be on fire and all of the hair on my fingers had been burned off. Such were the appalling conditions under which I toiled in clear violation of numerous child labor laws. But by this time I was thoroughly into it and eager for what was next. I would drop the seeds a foot apart then flood the row with water from the garden hose, then cover up the row with the push plow and then rake up the foot prints so it looked perfect. I would spend hours out there with him during the summer, first plowing and planting then hoeing and weeding and finally the harvest would come. We would walk back to the house with a bucket of potatoes or a grocery bag full of string beans and always a half dozen bright red tomatoes. I always felt grown up when bringing those vegetables to the house. There was yellow squash, black-eyed peas, lima beans, English peas,corn…although Dad always had something negative to say about the corn. The stuff never suited him for some reason. It was either too puny or too wormy.

Dad doesn’t keep a garden anymore. He’s 86 now and finally gave it up 6 years ago. I miss those hot miserable days, the stinging flies, the dirt, the smell of the soil. Mostly, I miss seeing my Dad in control of that little piece of ground. I miss hearing him tell stories of when he was 12 years old and was given an entire field by my Grandfather to grow whatever he wanted. He chose tomatoes and made 200 dollars in 1936. I couldn’t even imagine such a thing. He would stand in the shade towards the end of the day, lean on a hoe and tell me how God loved a hard worker. How important it was that a man learn how to provide for himself and how out of God’s rich blessings we could know the unspeakable joy of giving to others.

“ Why is it so hard, Dad?” I asked late one afternoon. “Why is keeping a garden so hard? It’s non stop sweat from March to September.”

“ Because nothing in this life that’s worth anything is easy. Gardening is hard, work of any kind is hard. Preaching is hard. Going to school is hard. Jesus had a pretty hard time up on that cross, don’t ya think? But everything that’s hard produces something wonderful.”

“ I guess so,” I said absently.

“ Besides, gardening might be hard, but it sure is easier than starving”

We smiled at each other and walked back to the house as I admired the calluses on my hands in the dying light of the day.

Business Geek-Speak

I have seldom used this blog for peevish rants but today I make an exception. I just returned from a business meeting in Pittsburg where I endured 8 hours of what I like to call “business geek-speak." Men and women in suits who work for home offices somewhere all seem trapped inside a language cocoon of their own making. They all seem to somehow have developed a distinct language unlike any spoken anywhere else in the world. I don’t know exactly where this language came from but I suspect that it probably has something to do with the dreadful business periodicals they all read. You’ve seen them on planes and trains when everyone else is reading the sports page or the Sky-Cab magazine. There they are, their noses firmly implanted in the latest copy of the Economist or Forbes. Whatever the source this new language, it's at the top of the list of things that piss me off.   So, just because I can, I present to you a short list of the most inane and annoying. For your enlightenment I have also provided a translation of this idiocy into understandable English:

1.Paradigm Shift.   Whenever I hear this I think of that great song by The Who…"meet the new paradigm, same as the old paradigm."  Whenever a home office stooge starts throwing out “new paradigm” what he really means is..."We’re hemorrhaging money so we’re going to cut your commissions."  But when they say “new paradigm” it makes them sound a bit smarter and not so overwhelmed by events.

2. Value Proposition or Value Added.  Whenever nervous home office guys keep saying things like this what they are practically screaming at you is…"We do very little to help you and consequently are having one hell of a time justifying our existence”

3. Seamless Transition.…"This new thing we want you guys to do has more trap doors and moving
parts than a Paris whorehouse and if you make it two weeks without your computer exploding it will
be a miracle."

4. At The End of The Day.  OK, if I heard this expression once I heard it a hundred times, to the point where if everything that they said was gonna happen at the end of the day actually DID happen at the end of the day, then the end of the day would implode in on itself and the universe would disappear.  How about something simple and elegant like..."ultimately?"

5 Cutting Edge Technology.....the stuff we don’t have yet

6. Broad Based Consensus….we’re all wrong

I could go on but maintaining “sustainable” blood pressure readings are a “stage one priority” for me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Yard Sale Madness

Every two years in my life there is a famine in the land. It’s the year that the locusts eat. The year of the great scourge. When it comes I am powerless to prevent the desolation. I simply bow to its inevitability, and soldier on until its plague has passed. What am I referring to, you may ask? The Dunnevant family Yard Sale. It’s our family’s bi-annual excursion into the strange land of the entrepreneurial experience whereby Americans pretend to be turning their junk into money when in fact they are voluntarily spending weeks working for less than the current minimum wage…in Angola.

Weeks ago it began. Pam and I spent a rainy day plowing through the attic gathering the most worthless of the accumulated debris of our 27 years together. To even get at it I had to flatten and remove literally thousands of gift boxes which I carried down two flights of stairs to the back of my van. Six trips to the dump later I was through. Now we could begin the arduous task of staging the chosen items into the “yard sale pile” in our newly spacious attic which by now was a toasty 90 degrees. By the end of this 8 hour torture-fest Pam and I knew that we had only just begun to prepare for this wonderful family tradition.

The actual week of the big event is a very special and unique time in our home. We shuffle by each other timidly with slumped shoulders trying not to get our feet tangled up in the growing organism that has taken over the downstairs of our house. With lots of heavy sighing Pam trudges through the “staging area” of boxes, grocery bags, and worn out electronics with a clipboard full of freshly printed pricing stickers. “50 cents” one says. “1 dollar” says another. The irony is lost on us. When you are in the midst of organizing the unorganizable it never occurs to you to ask “why”. So all week she prices and all week the piles grow larger and larger as if the beast is taunting us in our futility. All the while more man hours of labor accumulate.

The night before the big event might be the worst part. We all make the 30 minute drive all the way across town, Pam in our loaded down van looking like a cross between Ma Joad and the Beverly Hillbillies, me in a truck I borrowed from my father-in-law.( I will not here discuss the fact that on this night I was visited with a violent bout of irritable bowel syndrome because to do so might make me cry.) We all descend on our premium location in Mechanicsville which my brother-in-laws’ saintly mother provides free of charge. For three hours in 97 degree heat and oppressive humidity we sort through bags and boxes of stuff in various stages of readiness trying to determine what goes where. Which folding tables should be placed in which location? Shouldn’t all household items be kept together? Should the three thousand books we have brought to sell to the masses for 50 cents each be left in boxes or arranged more provocatively fan-like on the large wooden table that sags in the middle? “ Why don’t we write down how we did it two years ago,” someone asks over the roar of the floor fans. “ That would make this so much easier!!”

Finally D-Day arrives. I am the first to arrive at 6:30 sharp so I can assemble the game table that I had to take apart so it would fit in my borrowed truck which has just made its third trip across town. On trip number one I noticed that it wouldn’t go any faster than 60 mph without a violent shimmy and shake. When I pointed this out to my father-in-law he pleaded ignorance. “I’ve never driven it 60 before so I’ve never noticed” he said, filling me with needed confidence. Although all of the signs posted around advertising this adventure, along with the ad that ran in the Mechanicsville Local clearly state that the sale begins at 8 AM, I found myself beating back the eager customers. “ Uh..W-wait. We don’t open for business until 8!” I yelled as they began to nose around at the garage doors which I had foolishly opened prematurely. Thankfully, soon reinforcements arrived. And by the official starting time of 8 o’clock we had already sold $300 worth . Soon the crowds began to swell in more ways than one. Car after car began to arrive left randomly askew in the middle of busy streets. Very large and determined shoppers came seemingly in packs, expertly rummaging through our inventory with practiced eyes searching for bargains. We took their quarters and dimes and nickels and stuffed their purchases in grocery bags as they said “God bless”. I sold the game table for $70 bucks to a Mexican man with two young kids who served as his interpreters. They were thrilled to get such a prize and their father seemed so thankful to me for letting him buy it..I was actually a bit embarrassed . Maybe if I were a better Christian I would have given it to him. But this was no time for existential angst. There was money to be made and from the constant stream of morbidly obese shoppers making their way to our sale the prospects for profit looked good.

The time finally came for us to close up shop, gather everything left into the garage for some Christian charity to pick up later and count our money. It was an all-time record. We made $1100. That would be more than enough to pay for all the groceries for our beach vacation at Nags Head in August. We would be eating well, no doubt. After I drove around town returning all of the tables I had borrowed, returned my father-in-laws truck, and spent an hour in the bathtub bringing feeling back to my feet, I began to do a cost benefit analysis. It wasn’t pretty.

There are 15 paying members of our family when we go to the beach for vacation. The total profit from the sale was $1100. That comes out to $73.33 per person. For my family, that means that we made $293.34 from the yard sale. But first I have to deduct the $20 worth of gas I had to put in Russ’ truck. A cursory examination of the man-hours involved ( or in Pam’s case, woman hours) reveals that between the two of us and Kaitlin we contributed 60 hours of labor towards the enterprise. So, that means that my family toiled for $4.88 per hour. Put another way, if I wanted to make an equivalent contribution to our vacation food fund I would simply have to set aside 40 cents a day for the next two years and I could save myself the agony of having to watch someone pay 50 cents for a hardback of the Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe. 40 cents a day people, 40 cents a day.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Not a Good Day to be a Man

Just watched the Anthony Weiner press conference. Its official. I am embarrassed to be a man.

It all started I suppose with Tiger Woods. Every golf fan remembers where they were when they first heard that Eldrick, the famous Buick pitchman, was a serial adulterer. Although he was married to a former Swedish model and was the father of two beautiful children it just wasn’t enough. He was spending his down time chasing around with trailer-park porn stars, women who were all 10’s on the skank-meter when he had the fabulously gorgeous Elin waiting for him at home. But there he was laying unconscious in the street after wrapping his Escalade around a tree in his front yard trying to get away from an enraged wife waving a nine iron with murderous intent, a Buick nowhere in sight.

Then there was John Edwards, he of the perfect hair and the “Two Americas” stump speech. Much of America held him in high regard after the announcement that his wife Elizabeth had terminal cancer but would soldier on with her husband while he campaigned for the presidency because of how much she loved him and believed in him. Although the adoration wasn’t enough to trump America’s fling with Barack Obama, it did endear him to millions. Then came word that the slimy senator had a love child with a campaign worker, a relationship that had thrived before and after the discovery of Elizabeth’s illness. Two Americas, indeed. Dude wasn’t even allowed to attend her funeral.

Of course, any discussion of male infidelity wouldn’t be complete without mention being made of Gov. Mark Sanford of the great state of South Carolina. After becoming somewhat of a star in the Republican party for his conservatism and “family values” reputation, it was discovered that while on a trade mission to South America the Governor had met the love of his life. Meanwhile back in Columbia, the wife of his life and the four boys she had brought into this world were devastated and his career was over. As soon as he left office in January of 2011, he was spotted on a beach in Rio with his new soul-mate. Which caused me to wonder why it is that married men always seem to find their soul-mates in warm climates. Why does no one come back from a trip to a plastics warehouse in Idaho to announce to their wife that they have met someone new?

Speaking of slimy Republicans, just before announcing his candidacy for President Newt Gingrich felt the need to clear up this business about him cheating on his wife and forcing her to sign the divorce papers while she was dying from cancer in a hospital room some years back. Gingrich explained, “ in the past there have been times when I loved my country so much that I worked too hard and things happened that were not appropriate”. So I guess that means that he cheated on his dying wife…with Uncle Sam. How’s that for a family value?

Which brings me to the ill-named congressman from New York. After a picture of his crotch was published on twitter Mr. Weiner spent 10 days denying any connection to the photograph, blaming it first on an anonymous hacker and then on a practical joke gone bad. For 10 days the good congressman (if you will pardon the expression) castigated anyone with the temerity to question his version of events. But by yesterday it had become clear to Weiner that the game was up. There were more pictures and more women coming forward with lurid details of his depravity. And so we were all treated to the smartest guy in the room having to face the music on live television. Riveting. This newly married progressive champion admitting to being a pervert. Would he resign? No. You see, he hadn’t “broken any laws”. I for one am glad he cleared that up.

I heard a sports show host the other day say that we fans have no right to criticize athletes or other famous and rich men who get caught cheating on their wives because the only reason the rest of us don’t cheat is because we don’t have as many opportunities. If we had hot women throwing themselves at us in fancy hotels in exotic locals without our wives in attendance we too would stray with equal frequency. Maybe so.
Maybe he was right, but if he is what does that say about us as men? Are we just dogs with clothes? I have been married for 27 years and have never been unfaithful, but maybe its just because I haven’t had enough opportunity. I like to think that the reason I haven’t had opportunity is because I have constantly strived to avoid temptation. I don’t put myself in situations where I might have to discover how weak I am.
Its not just opportunity. There’s something else. Something that’s absent from all of the stories that I have mentioned above. Shame.

For the past 13 years I have taught scores of high school and college kids the basics of Christianity. Hundreds of students. Many of them have for whatever reason held me in high regard and continue to long after I taught them. They admire me, want to be like me. The guys want to marry someone like my wife. Many of the girls wish their fathers were more like me. For better or for worse I am a role model to them. If I cheated on my wife all of the good will built into the lives of everyone of those kids would be wiped out. More importantly, I have two kids of my own. How could I possibly face them, look them in the eyes and admit that I had betrayed their mother? And what of the vows themselves? I spoke solemn words in front of my family and friends and God himself. Do those words mean anything? Why don’t the Anthony Weiners and the Mark Sanfords and the Tiger Woods of this world slink away in shame hiding their faces from us? How can they call a press conference? What has become of us? What has become of men?

On the odd chance that my pastor reads this, if you have the guts...this might be a good sermon topic.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Where Have You Gone Mayberry,USA ?

I had settled in for the night after cleaning up the kitchen and taking out the trash. I turned on the television to see if anything good was on but after surfing through 1500 channels I decided on an old episode of the Andy Griffith Show especially because it was one that featured Otis. Good old Otis, the Mayberry town drunk. Dude was hilarious. Alcoholics Anonymous? Otis didn’t need no stinkin’ AA. Otis didn’t beat his wife or buy his booze with food stamps. Was he even married? Otis never got a DUI, never plowed his car through somebody’s front porch. He knew exactly what to do when he was too plastered to go home. He would stagger over to the jail and let himself in with that key that used to hang on the wall right outside the cell. It was genius. Then he would sleep it off, wake up 24 hours later, catch a little hell from Barney and be on his way. The lovable drunk with the heart of gold. In Mayberry even the seedy underbelly of society was lovable. What an awesome place to live. Mayberry, North Carolina, USA…a place where even the ugliest man in town can land a hot girl. What could Thelma Lou possibly have seen in Barney Fife?

It wasn’t just Otis or Barney that made Mayberry special. The town mechanic wasn’t some shady, double-talking shyster. No, the town mechanic was named “Goober” and seemed totally without malice. The only politician in town was Mayor Pike and he was a blowhard who everyone knew to be wrong about everything. It was perfect. There was Floyd the barber who sat around all the time gossiping about everyone. There was Emmett the fix-it man, the struggling small business owner with serious productivity issues. But all was not well , even in Mayberry because of the annoying presence of Howard Sprague the county clerk and therefore only full time government employee. He with the tweed jackets and bowties. He with the artistic sensibilities. Howard was clearly the town liberal. Truth be known, I feel certain that had Howard had a car it would have had a “I Adore Adlai “ bumper sticker. Ever notice how old Howard would disappear from the show for weeks at a time with no explanation? I’m sure he just tired of the provincial Mayberry life and had to escape to the buzz and pop of Mount Pilot where he and the other government employees could plot the formation of their union. Then there were the marginal characters that filled out the place. Ernest T. Bass, the incompetent TV repairman. Raif Hollister the farmer and erstwhile bootlegger who, it was clear to everyone in town still dabbled in the Moonshine business, but was allowed to exist owing clearly to Andy’s libertarian tendencies.

Holding the whole place together though was Andrew Jackson (Andy) Taylor, the sheriff, the law. Wise, good-natured, calm and cool. He didn’t carry a gun because he was in control. Although being a single parent in a southern town in the 1950’s might have been problematic to some, Andy was not without feminine help ,what with the ever reliable Aunt Bea constantly pulling fresh blueberry pies out of the oven and his strangly creepy girlfriend Helen Crump always at his side bringing with her not one ounce of sex-appeal. If America ever really was like Mayberry it would have been a wonderful place to live. But tonight Andy was in trouble, held prisoner by a couple of bank robbers in a cabin in the deep dark woods just outside of town. Barney and Howard both try and fail to come to his rescue leaving Otis, ten sheets in the wind, to stumble and fumble onto the scene with a loaded shotgun in one hand and an open bottle of Old Grand Dad in the other. After passing out momentarily, he wakes just in time to clobber the bad guy over the head with the whiskey bottle. Otis, the man of the hour.

After watching several commercials for erectile dysfunction pills, Cholesterol medicine and the biggest, baddest pick-up truck in America, a Law and Order episode came on that featured a couple of corrupt cops who hang out in strip bars and are secretly on the Mafia payroll, not in Mayberry but New York city. I turned off the television and sat quietly for a moment as a sadness came over me.

Of course, the fictitious town of Mayberry was just that...fictitious. The writers of the show didn’t spend a lot of time examining the darker parts of American life. Race relations never came up, Mayberry being a decidedly white enclave. And despite airing throughout the entire decade of the 60’s, no anti war sentiment ever cropped up in town. But that’s not to say that the show didn’t have a culturally relevant theme. It most certainly did, and that theme was...Don’t get too big for your britches and be kind to your neighbor. The one episode that sticks with me still today was the one where the big shot banker from New York City is driving through town when his big shiny car breaks down. Stranded in this bucolic backwater, his vehicle in the capable but slow hands of Goober, (who obviously doesn’t work on Sunday), our uptight banker finds himself stranded at Andy’s house for Sunday dinner. Apparently, there is bad news coming in over the telephone from the bank, and the worry writes itself plainly on his face. Meanwhile, after dinner, Andy, Bea, Opey and Barney retire to the front porch, still in their Sunday clothes. At first, the impossible peacefulness of this scene baffles the New York business tycoon. How can these people be at such peace? Don’t they know what’s happening in the world? But, after Bea hands him a glass of lemonade, and Andy whips out his guitar and sings a mournful song he remembers from his childhood, his countenance begins to change. The worry lines around his eyes begin to soften, he loosens his tie, tips his fedora back a bit...and the scene fades to black. End of show.

Of all the shows, that’s the one I remember. Whenever I find myself stressing over some big weighty thing, I think of that banker, and I remember that there is always reason to slow down and be thankful  for my life, go out on the deck, drink some lemonade, and listen to a mournful song.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Hymn For the Road..........a short story.

It had come to this. I found myself at a bus station at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night somewhere in Tennessee. It was as far as I could afford to ride from Mobile. I was out of money and cursing myself for being stupid enough to spend my last dime on a bus ticket to nowhere, the latest in a long line of foolish decisions. I suppose I thought that Tennessee was closer to home than the gulf of Mexico. But Virginia was only home because it was where I was born. There was no house in Virginia, no front porch, no light on for me. There wasn’t any family waiting. My folks had passed on years ago and my wife and child had moved on from me several years back, so there wasn’t anyone left. I had called Jill a few months ago to ask about my son. We hadn’t talked in awhile and she was cold and sad on the phone. She hadn’t even asked me where I was like she always did before. It was over for her. She was tried of hoping and worn out from caring.

It had all been my fault. I had walked away from her right after Mick’s 2nd birthday. I told her that I felt trapped and then blurted out viciously that I didn’t love her anymore and probably never did. I had been drinking too much after Mick was born. I stopped going to church with them, stopped doing anything with them. A couple of guys from the church had come over one night, said they wanted to pray with me. Something in me just snapped. Even though they were good guys and wanted to help me I had flown into a rage at their suggestion that I needed to repent of my sins. I threw them out of the house, packed my bags, and after a violent argument with Jill the screen door slammed behind me and just like that I was gone. I abandoned her with a two year old and a checkbook full of bills so I had been on the run from the law ever since.

Since that night I’d been living on the road, picking up odd jobs, drinking and wasting away. In Mobile I had taken a job at a junkyard where the greasy old boss had let me sleep for free on a cot in the back of the warehouse. One night a storm blew in off the gulf and the wind was shaking that old building to its very foundation. As I lay in the dark listening to the wind and rain beat down on the roof a memory came to mind. I hadn’t thought about my mother in so long I couldn’t even picture her face in my imagination. But there she was sitting on the end of my bed the night I had wrapped my Dad’s Impala around an oak tree after a football game in high school. I had gotten drunk at a party and on the way home had lost control and somehow managed to survive without a scratch. I was 17. My mother stared into my eyes as she held my hand between hers then said, “ Jackie, you should have been killed tonight. But you were spared. God spared you because he loves you and he wants you to learn to love him back.” I had almost forgotten that night until it came roaring back with the wind and rain. The next day I bought the bus ticket. As far as I could go for 65 bucks.

And now here I was walking the damp sidewalks wondering why I had left my free cot and job for yet another mindless trip to nowhere. I was about done. I wasn’t afraid of dying anymore. Nothing could be worse than what my pathetic life had become. I had found myself thinking more and more about ending it. It was practically all I had thought about on the bus. How much better would it have been for everyone if I had been killed that night in my Dad’s Impala.

I walked for an hour or so until I saw some sort of mission through the fog ahead. Lights were on and the old store front windows were empty but there was noise and warmth and the smell of soup. The front doors were propped open with two cinderblocks. I went in and instantly recognized the smell of bums and the sound of hungry men slurping down a free meal. This was just another soup kitchen like a hundred others I had relied on, run by some do-gooder college kids or church group. I didn’t care. I knew the drill and I was hungry so I got in line and was served a bowl of beef stew with a couple of rolls and a ham sandwich. A tall glass of tea was brought to my table by a hippie looking kid in a tie-dyed t-shirt who smiled and said, “Here you go brother.” As I ate I looked around the room at the usual faces I always saw at these places. Some were on drugs, most were drunks, some were just out of their minds whispering something to themselves as they pointed frantically at unseen demons.

Then I saw him. He was a very old black man with an oddly sane and cheerful smile. When he spotted me his eyes danced and sparkled. “ Well hello there my brother!” he shouted with a laugh. Startled, I could only think to answer..”I’m not your brother old man, and you for damn sure aren’t MY brother!” “Sure you are,” he answered. “You and me are God’s children so that makes us brothers!”

I ignored him and went back to eating, wondering why it was that God treated his children so poorly. After I finished I started to get up to leave when a strong voice began to sing. The old black man had taken his hat off and rose from his chair and with his eyes closed and his head tilted up slightly sang…

“ I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross he suffered, from the curse to set me free.”

The room had fallen quiet. The spoons were still, the feet had stopped shuffling, the lunatics had stopped their whispering, even the kitchen had stopped to listen. The old man’s voice was raspy and worn but the notes were clear and beautiful…

“ Sing, oh sing of my redeemer, with his blood he purchased me.
On the cross he sealed my pardon, paid the debt and made me free.”

The song was familiar to me. When I was a child it was a favorite at the church Mom always took me to but nobody there ever sang like this..

“I will tell the wondrous story, how my lost estate to save,
In his boundless love and mercy, he the ransom freely gave”

Tears had begun to track down his cheeks and disappear softly into his beard. I found myself with a knot in my throat and my hands began to sweat as I watched his face with amazement. How could this old bum with nothing and nobody sing such a song?

“ I will sing of my redeemer, and his heavenly love to me;
He from death to life hath brought me, Son of God with him to be.

He must be crazy I thought. Instead of whispering and pointing he sings. But he could sing, really well, the kind of singer that might have really been something at one time. The kind of singer who might have done it for a living before the wheels came off and he ended up broken and busted up eating free soup in a rescue mission. When he finished the room erupted in applause. He seemed not to hear it as he sat back down and began to eat. I stood there looking at him for a minute as the noise slowly returned to the room. “That was some nice singing,” I managed to say. He looked up briefly from the soup and smiled, nodded his head and said nothing. “ I recognized that song from when I was a kid,” I offered awkwardly. I began to get irritated with him for not responding to me. I heard myself blurt out, “If God loves you so much old man, why the hell are you here?” He sat up straight, looked at me brightly and said, “Whatcha mean what am I doing here? Why, my God is supplying me this wonderful bowl of stew, that’s what I’m doing here! Ha! Don’t let my looks fool you brother. I got joy you know nothing about.” “Yeah, but you got nothing else,” I said in a quieter voice. “Well of course not. You got anything else?” he paused for effect. “I didn’t think so!. See?? I told you we was brothers, we’re just alike , practically twins you and me..Ha!”

He continued to eat and I sat there staring at him, unable to look away, much less leave. When he finished his meal he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “Jack is it?” he asked. “ Jack, I’ve got something to give you. Ha! I lied a minute ago when I let you believe I didn’t have nothing! Ha!” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wrinkled and stained folded envelope and slid it across the table to me. I opened it cautiously and pulled out a bus ticket to Richmond, Virginia leaving in an hour with my name typed across the front. “what the hell?” I whispered .

The old man leaned forward and spoke in a quiet voice so just he and I could hear. “See, you’ve got business in Richmond. There’s something there that you need to make right. It won’t do for you to be running anymore. You’ve got to go home and be a man. You got to take whatever you got to take when you get there…but its time for you to go home.” He stood up, put his hat on his bald head and smiled down at me. “One day soon Jackie-boy you gonna sing of YOUR redeemer” And just like that he shuffled through the opened doors and disappeared down the street. I made my way back to the bus station with the words to that hymn in my head. As soon as the bus ramped onto I-40 I was sound asleep and going home.