Friday, December 7, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me or Ten Things I Hate about American Culture

This post has been "in the can" for some time now.  I hesitated to go public with it because it seemed so whiny.  Grouchy, I think, would be the right word.  You see, I was only 59 years old when I wrote it and still bedazzled by the prospect of making moral choices, ethical decisions, and persuasive arguments that would affect people's behavior.  Today, however, I am 60 years old, and I now realize that most of this is just the griping of an old hippie who has a head full of earned gray and doesn't give a rat's auntie who does and does not agree.  Therefore, get your virtual tomatoes ready to throw.  What would have hurt my feelings yesterday is tripe today.

WARNING:  This post will contain opinions, assertions, and criticism.  I learned in college that before I opine, assert, or criticize, I have to read some books and then tell you what all I read.  I believe that applies to you as readers, as well.  Therefore, you can opine, assert, and criticize right back at me.  I wish you would.  But you have to read books first.

That being said, there were reasons why I read these particular books.  Somewhere along the late '80's, I realized, along with many of my contemporaries, that the safe, predictable culture I grew up in had lost some of its warm-fuzzy charm.  It had, in fact, taken on some sharp edges and ugly extremities.  I had had my feathers ruffled before during the '60's and '70's, and usually flapped my left wing in response.  There was much to respond to in those days--Viet Nam and Watergate primarily, followed by the insufferable decade of disco.  What we emerged into at first seemed like a fresh breeze what with New Wave music and some cool new gadgetry to play with.  But the 80's ushered in Reaganomics and an in-your-face set of attitudes that had very little to do with counter-culture sass-to-society.  I set about trying to learn what was causing the seismic shift in behavior.

Here's the book list I told you about.  Several authors were out there trying to explain what had taken place in the Land of the Free.  As early as 1981, Marvin Harris blamed women (Why Nothing Works).  Arlie Hochschild blamed men (The Second Shift, 1989).  Allan Bloom in 1987's The Closing of the American Mind blamed higher education, while Jonathan Kozol blamed public education (Savage Inequalities, 1992).  Most recently, Lynn Truss, a British lady, blamed inexcusable, brash, no-home-training rudeness (Talk to the Hand, 2005).  To sum up, the "rudeness explosion" of self serving, victim-mentality, non-cooperation has been caused by the breakdown of the procreative imperative, the refusal of husbands to do their part in running households, the softening of university moral and ethical standards, poor allocation of public education funds, and the F word.  I admit I oversimplified all that a bit.  Go read the books.

While all these authors contributed some relief to my cultural concussion, none of them applied enough balm to make the headache go away.  There were, and are, some things about American culture that I really, really, really dislike.  And though my reading has helped me to understand why we sometimes behave as badly as we do, I still find my patience taut as a twin-size fitted sheet stretched across a full-size mattress.  So without further ado, I present my list of the TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT AMERICAN CULTURE.

1. Excessive appetites--Back when Johnny Carson ruled late-night, and late-night was still considered to be 11 p.m., the Tonight Show was host to a singer named Sheena Easton.  I believe the young lady was from Scotland.  When Carson asked her if anything about Americans struck her as oddly different from Britons, she replied, "You go out for breakfast . . ., " and she described plates piled overwhelmingly and unnecessarily high with more food that a Scottish family would consume in an entire day.  Carson agreed with her.  That was back in the 80's. The breakfast bar still exists in all kinds of restaurants, and one venue gleefully serves up their "Grand Slam" breakfast that no one has any business consuming for any reason, hunger included.  I blame factory farming, grossly inhumane animal slaughter, and disregard for overall personal health for the overkill.  Don't condemn Obamacare.  Embrace it.  One more Grand Slam Breakfast and you'll need it.
2.  Big for big's sake--From our Big Box retailers to our campus football stadiums, to our fishing trips down at the Gulf, we tend to think that bigger is better.  We're pandered to by folks whose sole purpose is to tell us exactly how big a crowd, a building, a boat, or a fish turned out to be.  AT &T is running a low-budget commercial these days showing a marketer "interviewing" little kids in a school library.  "What's better?"  he asks them.   "Bigger or smaller?"  "BIGGER!"  they chorus.  Bigger isn't better.  Bigger is unmanageable, unwieldly, and unfriendly.  If you don't believe it, take your next road trip in a Bigfoot Dodge Ram and try carrying on a conversation with the person riding shotty.
3.  Sports entertainment--the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball:  overblown. overrated, overpaid, overattended, and over attended-to.  They attract huge crowds that pay huge amounts for tiny tickets to sit in tiny seats and drink bucket-size Cokes.  See #2 for more information. 
4.  The drive-through--Talk to the sign and get mad!  Signs don't earn much for their effort, so their service is generally low-quality.  As for our feelings of frustration when we learn, for the umpteenth time, that our orders are wrong, we deserve them.  We're  pretty lazy if we're willing to drive around in a circle formed about a building, lean out the driver's side window, holler our lunch selection, and drive forward to window #2 just to get a hamburger with fries and a drink.
5.  Choices, choices, choices--My Russian exchange student, Tonya, always left the local grocery store feeling worn out.  In her hometown in Kamchatska, she and her mom went to the store, located the cooking oil, bought it, and left.  In the U.S., we are constantly strapped for cash and complaining, but is it any wonder?  Our stores have 12 brands of olive oil, and if we aren't buying the olive oil that costs $15.00, we must be getting crappy olive oil.  Same wisdom applies to margarine, salad dressing, cereal, and frozen limas.
6.  Reality TV--Survivor was first.  It should have been last.  Actually the Louds of PBS' An American Family predate today's glut of reality shows, but few of the recent series attempt to capture the social drama of the PBS documentary.  Instead, they aim for the low common-denominator that allows us all to say to ourselves, "I may be dumb/redneck/overweight/stupid/irresponsible but I ain't never been that bad."  Besides, reality shows have low overhead (they're cheap to produce), making them extremely profitable for the producers.
7.  Professionalization of just about everyone--Kurt Vonnegut predicted this in Cat's Cradle.  Thus, we have "professional" bus drivers, "professional" manicurists, "professional" oil change specialists, and "professional" paraprofessionals.  LOOK THIS UP:  A professional is an individual having an advanced degree in one of several select occupations.  They aren't any smarter than the rabble.  They don't all perform their responsibilities excellently.  But professional refers to the type of position they hold and the amount of education it took to get there.  Sorry, "pro" wrestlers.  See #3 above.
8.  Flip-flops--Nice that you could afford a pedi.  Hope the pedicurist was a professional!  But I don't want to SEE your pedi or HEAR your shoes-that-are-not-shoes flapping down the hall where I work.  You didn't get a pedi?  Then there's one more reason why you need to wear those slides in your house.
9.  Designer dogs--The King Charles Cavalier spaniel is a beautiful pup!  and smart!  The Bichon frise is also adorable.  But your "Cavachon" is a mix-breed.  So is your Golden doodle and your Peke-a-Poo.  If you paid some one top dollar to confuse some recognized breeds, I hate to tell you:  It would have been cheaper and more compassionate to adopt from the local shelter.
10.  People who say "If you don't like it, I'll help you pack!"  One thing I LOVE about American culture?  The insistence that we are free to be as cranky, critical, condemnatory, and cantankerous as we please, as long as we don't push those four C's on everyone else. So if I offended any hapless reader out there, I certainly understand if you wish to un-read all of the above.  I won't need your help in packing.  However, I cannot resist closing with a cousin to the quotation I just disrespected:  Can't stand behind our Troops?  Feel free to stand in front of 'em!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Isaac? Is That You?

I began this blog a year ago with a harsh criticism of the month of August for having no holidays.  I suggested a few new observances we could add to our August calendars, but I guess none of them were good suggestions.  The folks at Hallmark never called me, nor do I know of anyone who placed flowers on the altar in honor of St. Bartholomew.  (See my blog for August 2011?  Yes, scroll down.  Waaaaay down.)  Twelve months and twelve blogs later, I have a few followers and a handful of positive comments from family and friends.  Thanks!  I am having fun with this.  Or I was . . .

This week we got an unexpected August cool-down, and the mid-eighties temperatures along with kids' return to school gave the month a bit of a fallish feeling.  The hint of autumn just around the corner and football season cranking up makes my fellow Alabamians almost forget we are still in "dog days."  Do you feel a "however" coming?  You should . . .

There is a storm on the horizon.  Late last week the message came down my newsfeed on that chatty, junk-mail website of a social network where we all hang out.  Isaac?  Who's he?  The next thing I knew, a couple of my friends were posting projections of Isaac's journey through the Gulf of Mexico and advising us what kinds of things we might want to pick up on the next Wal-Mart run:  ice, nonperishable foods, gasoline for the generator, batteries.  TS became CAT 2.  Even the Republicans shifted their party plans a bit.  Isaac meanders in the Caribbean tonight, and we watch him.  In the midst of the early-phase hurricane watch, I receive a call from a distressed family member.  There is another storm on the horizon.  Like Isaac, this storm, too, is out of my reach.

This late-August evening finds me comparing the projected paths that Isaac might take.  Some have him crunching poor New Orleans by throwing his weight onto the Mississippi coast.  Other computers track him a bit further east, and it looks like Mobile will once again be swamped.  I also gaze accusingly at my phone, as if by being the messenger, it could bring me news of resolved problems for my loved one.

Waiting and watching, you remember.  October, 1995:  We were living in the Dalraida area of Montgomery, Alabama, a neighborhood where I grew up and where our newborn boys both came home for the first time.  I was part of a private counseling practice at the time, and my partner made the unexpected decision to cancel all appointments and shut the office when Hurricane Opal made her way through the still-warm Gulf waters.  "I don't think we'd better stay open," he advised me.  "There are supposed to be 65-mile-per hour winds." Is that bad?  I didn't know. I had no direct experience with hurricanes.  I toured Mississippi after Camille hit and saw the dreamscape of steeples on the beach, sailboats on rooftops, and huge oaks uprooted, but I had no concept of what she might have looked like trekking through Biloxi.  My boys, ages  7 and 3, sat with me on a daybed in our front bedroom all night long, staring out the front window at a curtain of rain the like of which we'd never even imagined and listening to wind that sounded like the crowd cheering a touchdown.  But the rain never ceased and the crowd never settled down, and we fell asleep at dawn.  We woke up to houses without porches and streets blocked by big, heavy limbs.  The sky was still dark gray, but the rain was sporadic, and we cleaned the debris from our yard.  The power came back on.  We suffered very little.  I learned later on that this compact, fast-moving storm killed 2 Alabamians.  The name Opal has been retired as a storm name.

A terse message appears on the Messenger app on my iPad.  Same kin, same unhappy situation, same helpless response from me.  Our personal storm is still a way off, but we see it coming, and no matter its landfall outcome, there will be damage.  I try to offer reassurance, even a bit of unwelcome advice, but nothing changes the advance of  the inevitable.  Change will come.  We cannot fight it; we will see what it brings to us, and we will adapt.  The next day passes with no news.

September 2004:  Montgomery is just a memory.  Mr. Powers and I have become Elmorons by moving to Slapout, Alabama, and taking our boys and animals with us.  The children are 16 and 12, and we've been joined temporarily by my stepson, Chris, who is in his 20's.  He's from Tennessee and knows less about hurricanes than we do.  He tells us one afternoon that he's heard there's "some kind of storm coming."  "Just a hurricane," I drily reply, since I remember Opal and I have already bought bottled water and batteries.  I am not sure what everyone else did the night Ivan hit, but I moved into the basement where we had a den/bedroom and positioned my futon so I could see out into the backyard.  The winds came in early, I would say 8 p.m.  We lost power around 11.  Whereas Opal blew in and back out again, a 0 to 60 personality, Ivan dug in, and the rain and wind went on and on and on.  The next morning never dawned; rather, the outside grew gradually lighter as the storm screamed.  There was little to see through that river pouring from the sky.  You dared not go out even for a second, because you knew the wind would flatten you.  We ventured into our yard at maybe 4 p.m. between squalls of rain.  The wind pushed and shoved us, and it felt wrong to be outside our four walls.  Chris went to the store, which had opened back up, for another Mountain Dew.  The rest of us went back inside.  We missed 3 days of school that week due to lost power.  After two weeks, I could still hear generators running throughout Slapout at the homes of neighbors who still did not have power.  In Montgomery, philanthropist Ida Belle Young died when her generator caused carbon-monoxide poisoning in her home.

We were not touched directly by Katrina.  Oh, it rained, all right, but mostly we watched in horror as one of our favorite cities drowned, and we hung our heads in sorrow at the city's needless waste of human life.  The reality of Katrina affected us more when displaced families enrolled their children in Elmore County schools.  They didn't bring records, and we were told not to ask for any.  We wouldn't have anyway.  One young lady wound up in foster care because her mother fled back to New Orleans, leaving her daughter behind in the shelter provided by a local church.

The phone isn't ringing.  I see no new messages.  My heart aches, and I despise my inability to help.  I pray and doubt the efficacy of my prayer.  I watch the hurricane projections with great interest.  Best case:  Isaac brings us a bunch of rain and even a day off.  No one gets hurt.  Worst case:  New Orleans and/or Mobile get shaken to their foundations.  Again.  People wish they had been more prepared.  Again.  Finger-pointing and blaming ensues.  We try to remember what we've learned from past experience, but the destruction is too recent and the disappointments too sharp to bear.

I live in Alabama.  This is all I know of storms.

Friday, July 13, 2012


When the U.S. Mail was the only mail, when cards and letters carried greetings and news, when people allowed 6-8 weeks for parcel delivery, there were catalogs.  I am speaking of fat, glossy catalogs that included clothing, appliances, and toys displayed and described to entice and sell.  I am sure the "mailman" did not look forward to catalog season, but as a child, I certainly did.  The Big Two catalogs were Spiegel and Sears.  Both catalogs would land in our mailbox around October of every year.  I drew big circles around all the clothes and toys I wished would be my Christmas presents.  Sometimes I was lucky enough to see and feel the real merchandise on Christmas morning.  Sometimes gazing on all those full-color photos was as close as I came.

I really don't know if children spend hours on the couch with a catalog and a crayon nowadays.  I don't recall either of my kids being inclined that way, although they might have spent a few minutes with a flier from Toys R Us.  No, I am sure the heyday of catalog marketing is past, with a few exceptions . . .

I get about a dozen catalogs out of my mailbox every year.  There are a couple that I am glad to see and one that I will buy from.  That one sells shoes.  I don't like to shoe-shop in stores because I rarely like any that I see.  If I flip through the catalog often enough, I eventually find 3 or 4 pairs of shoes I can live with, and I order them all.  (I also feed Mr. Powers a ton of beans and rice for the rest of the month.)  I am not surprised that the shoe catalog keeps showing up whether I need shoes or not.

There are an additional two catalogs that I get; I have ordered from them before, so they keep coming back.  I won't order from them in the near future, but I don't mind looking at the pictures.  One of them sells all kinds of kitchen equipment.  There are aqua frying pans, bright red toasters, and purple Dutch ovens for sale.  One time I was so seduced by the idea of pretty pots and pans that I ordered a 12-piece set of coppertone cookware.  The tops of saucepans and boilers counted as part of the 12 pieces, which hardly seemed fair.  Worse, the non-stick coating began to peel off of every single item after one or two usages.  I should have read the fine print.  I imagine it says, "Cookware is not intended for use at high temperatures or with liquids, solids, or cooking oil."

I also get a seasonally-accurate catalog selling decorative items for the home.  Five years ago I ordered some fake antique vanity drawers which are supposed to be used as catch-alls in the bathroom.  They are, in fact, still in my bathroom, and they look okay.  In the future, I will make sure my "shabby chic" decor is the real thing.  I enjoy the catalog every fall and spring, and I especially like the Halloween issue.  I am amazed that people buy witches with LED eyes, resin gravestones, and faux pumpkins that look just like real jack o'lanterns.

Several other types of catalogs have appeared periodically at my house for the past couple of years.  I don't remember inviting any of them.  For example, I sometimes hear from the nice folks at Cabelas.  I don't know why; we have very little in common.

There are a pair of clothing catalogs that I am getting by mistake.  I am certain they are intended for other women.  Somewhere, these ladies are disappointed every day, because they need to buy themselves some clothes.  One of them must be an African-American woman in her 40's.  Her catalog sells gorgeous 2-piece suits.  The slim, calf-length skirts have kick pleats.  The jackets have squared shoulders and wide lapels.  Each suit has a handsome, elaborate hat to match.  The suits, I think, are for church, and if they aren't marketed for black women, then why are all the models black?  Besides, anyone marketing Sunday clothes for me would know
1.  I am a Lay Eucharistic Minister, and I serve at the altar.  I have to dress out, so it doesn't matter what I am wearing when I arrive at church.
2.  Episcopalian women come to church wearing whatever they'll wear to the lake as soon as church is over.
3.  I don't wear hats.

The other clothing catalog I get, inexplicably, is for hookers.  Sister, if this is your catalog, send me your address by private message, and I'll forward it on.  For now, for the record, for any misguided marketers out there:
1.  I never wear tops that lace up from navel to breast bone.
2.  I never wear jeans with laces in the back.  Why would you do that?
3.  If I wore 10-inch platforms, I'd have to sue you sooner or later, because I would break my ankle.
4.  Why does that pink bra have black appliques on the cups?  They look like hands.  Creepy.

Which brings me to the one catalog that gets a laugh from me and Mr. Powers both--we have just copped our second copy of it, and I must say I admire the nerve of these marketers.  I can understand mailing out one of these catalogs in the hope that they have targeted the right audience, but two?

The catalog is slick enough.  On this season's cover is a thin blonde in Capri pants frolicking on the seashore.  (Already they have missed the target--I am not blonde, I despise Capri pants, and I never frolic.)  The merchandise is called "products for your well-being."  Okay, I'll bite.  I found sections selling vitamins, homeopathic creams for banishing spider veins, and CD's with ocean sounds.  I found fabulously expensive pillows for my aching neck, wind-chimes to drown out my tinnitis, and an herbal tea to treat most anything.

There were a few pages of special underwear.  My grandmother would have named these items corsets, but my catalog said they were super-slimming support for the lower back.  It also promised I could have some free gelcaps containing a miracle herb that would rid me of belly fat forever if only I would order two corsets.

Then there were these mystery products displayed on two pages in the middle of the magazine.  I think they may be flashlights.  Yep, they're pink and purple flashlights that must be powerful because they guarantee me mega-satisfaction with just the flip of a switch.  And they are so cute--one of them has a switch shaped like a butterfly.  That flashlight has intensive thrusting action, but sorry--I won't be nosing around in any dark corners any time soon.  If I have to do any work up in my attic, I'll know whom to contact.

Now, anyone out there shopping for a purple, vibrating, ultra-thrusting-action flashlight--you are welcome to this catalog!  I don't need any well-being products.  As long as I can order new shoes once a year, my well-being is secure.

I leave you with a warning:  Even though I order only a few items at a time, and even though I am predictable in my buying habits, I suspect my name and address have been shared by catalog merchants!  It's incredible, I know, but the evidence is piling up like junk mail.  I should have been suspicious when Cabelas arrived trying to entice me with a dozen free rubber worms for every rod and reel purchased.  I am thankful for catalogs, but I must admit--Sometimes I miss the old days. . . Sears and Spiegel, once a year.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Name This Blog!

"What's in a name?" Juliet famously wondered.  I wonder, too.  I have an unusual problem today  in that my story, chameleon-like, changes its colors each time it dons a new title.  I have been unable to name this blog accurately, but I have been able to borrow a few titles from their better-known authors.  Also,  I am familiar with the Chinese proverb that tells us that the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names.  Therefore, you may choose any of the following titles for this blog or you may make one up.  I, wondering what's in a name anyway, will never be the wiser.

The Journey to the East
(borrowed from a lesser-known work by Hermann Hesse)
The Summer Solstice is only days away.  Afternoons have grown long, and they languish for hours, especially as we move into the Eastern time zone.  My companion on the trip is my husband, who prefers to drive.  I am the navigator.  So we pull onto Interstate 10, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean.  This trip is a labor of love, for our #1 son, a 23-year-old, will head even further East soon.  He is in the Navy; it's his first deployment.  We intend to see that ship leave its home, Mayport, FL.  But first, we are going to spend some quality time with him and let him know, once more, that we are brimming with pride.

As we get closer and closer to Jacksonville, the text messages fly.  He wants to know where we are, how many miles out of Tallahassee, when we will make the next pit stop.  Then he is texting directions:  follow the Jax Beaches signs, exit onto Atlantic Blvd., stay straight, keep right, you're almost here.  There is still plenty of daylight when both our vehicles pull into the motel parking lot.  Mr. Powers and I are a little bedraggled from the long, boring road trip; Jonathan is refreshed and smiling, winding up a much-deserved day off-duty.
Hugs are exchanged, news from all corners shared, supper plans made.  We eat together on the patio of a local restaurant, and by the time the last daylight fades, it is after 9:00 p.m.  We cannot believe how late it already is, and suddenly everyone is exhausted.

Sunday morning finds the three of us in church together.  It is Fathers' Day, and at this particular church, it is the day of the Bishop's visit.  There are many young adults being confirmed here, a very good sign for a parish in the city.  Jonathan shows me the bulletin, and points to his name.  He is on their prayer list.  During the Peace, parishioners greet him happily, but they hug him when he says he is about to be deployed.  The Priest-in-Charge, Teresa, beams at him as he shakes her hand at the end of the service but looks distressed when he shares the news of his departure.  "You'll be prayed for extra hard by name, every day," she promises.  She turns to me and says, "We absolutely love your son.  He is an awesome young man!  But you knew that."  Yes, I guess I did.  How strange and wonderful to discover that others seem to know it, too.

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation"
(borrowed from Ernie Souchak, a fictitious character played by John Belushi)
The wind blows constantly off of the gray-green Atlantic.  I sit beside the pool at our hotel reading a book.  Later on, Mr. Powers and I decide to be touristy--we crank the Chevrolet and head toward the public beaches.  We are used to the Gulf of Mexico, like most Alabamians.  We cannot help making comparisons--the sand here is gray and coarse with many, many shells and pieces of shells.  The surf is active, roaring; only a few people swim.  Many walk their dogs.  A man sleeps, fully clothed, with newspaper for a pillow.  The strand is firm beneath our feet.  We remember that Jonathan says he runs 2 miles on the beach right outside base housing.  We see how that might be possible, but he insists he'd rather run in the loose, sugary sands of the Gulf coast.  He says it's harder running and therefore, better exercise.

Then it's back into the car and on to do some shopping.  We find a bookstore, buy what's on sale, and get iced coffee.  We are vacationers, and we pay no mind to the clock.  But the sunlight is fading, and we remember that it is probably supper time.  A beachy-looking restaurant beckons as we drive up A1A.  We eat steamed shrimp until well after dark in a screened-in, second floor dining room with newspaper spread on the tables.  The wind rustles through the palmettos, and we can see the steely expanse of the Atlantic from where we are sitting.  It's not crowded, and only the two of us occupy this corner of the room.  I wonder if Jonathan, who is on duty his last night stateside, has ever been here before?  Not likely, we decide.  He is allergic to shellfish.

A Comedy of Errors
(borrowed from that English playwright)
With our son facing a nine-month deployment, we must bring his pick-up truck home with us.  Two vehicles will return to Alabama where there was only one.  I will of course drive home in the Chevrolet; I am used to it; it is reliable.  Still, I am not looking forward to getting out of the congestion of downtown Jacksonville, nor do I relish the thought of the long stretch of highway that is I10 West.  I know my way home, but I get drowsy sometimes, and what if  . . . ?

I strongly recommend to Mr. Powers that he get a cell phone; just a cheap pre-paid one would be fine, but something, anything, just in case . . . 

Mr. Powers says NOPE.  "We're going to stay together," he tells me.

And for the most part, we do.   Mr. Powers has the truck and therefore GPS, but he wants to follow me out of Jacksonville.  I am OK with that as I do know my way out, but I am not always sure how many lanes of traffic I have to cut to get to my exit or how long I have to get over.  That makes me not the best person to follow if you are not sure where you're going.  When we make a pit stop, Mr. Powers tells me there are certain rules of etiquette I must follow if I am going to be the lead auto.  I am not in a very good mood, and I really don't listen to his complaints.  I thought I was doing great.

At any rate, it is only an hour or two later that I signal for another stop.  I have plenty of gas, but the car feels shaky and hard to handle when braking.  We look at the left front tire, which had been suspiciously low the day before, but all appears well.  Mr. Powers is no longer annoyed, since driving on the straightaway of the interstate has apparently improved my ability to lead considerably.  When we get back on the highway, I let him pass me, since he is hungry and will decide where we'll stop.

We pass Lake City.  Tallahassee.  I am enjoying the symphony on Florida State University Public Radio when noise from the back right side of the Chevrolet intrudes.  This is not a "What was that sound?" kind of noise. This is "Get off the road RIGHT NOW" noise.  So I put on my blinker and roll onto the shoulder.  The white pick up in front of me never sees a thing.

I do have a cell phone.  It does many things, and on that particular morning, it had been a workhorse of a camera.  What I do not have for this trip is a car charger.  I have enough battery left to text my neighbor, who is caring for our dogs.  I tell her I have car trouble and may be delayed.  I call 911.  I wait.  A State Trooper comes.  He ascertains my tire size, because the back right tire has peeled its top layer like a cheap re-cap, exposing a now-useless steel belt.  A service truck arrives with the appropriate new tire, replaces the useless one, and charges me $100. I stand in tall roadside grass under a mean Florida sun and try to fend off fire ants.  The fire ants win.  After two hours I am back on the road.  Sweat is rolling down my cheeks.  My child is deployed.  I don't know where my husband is.

If I weren't in such a hurry to get home, I would kiss the pavement on 231N.

War and Peace
(borrowed from a Russian who knew a whole lot about both)
Jonathan arrives at our hotel room shortly after 0700 on 20 June 2012.  He collapses onto one of the beds.  He has been off duty for half an hour, since he had to stand watch while on duty overnight.  He says he'd like us to get him up in two hours, because he has to be at the ship by 1000.

We get coffee and newspapers in the lobby.  I have already done Jonathan's laundry, and he will pack some of it into his seabag when he wakes up.  The rest will go home with us.  True to his plan, he is awake again around 0900.  He is wearing civvies--he says he won't man the rails, because he has to put on his coverall and get to work.  He is a DC--a damage controlman--and he works below decks.  He is tense and impatient on the ride to the base.  We are all three in the truck, in which Mr. Powers and I will leave the base later on.

There are so many people on the dock.  Sailors in dress whites are walking up and down the ramp where there is a banner:  USS Hue City.  There are strollers with little kids, babies in their parents'arms, groups of three and four posing for pictures.  The wind is brisk and constant; the engines rumble.  It is hard to converse.

Jonathan reminds us that he will not be in whites.  He boards the ship after "one more hug" and tells us we can go on if we want; he has to get to work.  He does not know exactly how he'll stay in touch.  He loves us.  He goes aboard.  

We are not leaving until the Hue City leaves.  Sorry, Jonathan.  You'll understand when you're a parent.  Right now we will sit here and talk to --who is this?--a nice set of Kansas parents whose son, Sean, just made E-4.  Congratulations!  Nice to meet you, Sean.  How long did your trip take?  Our son is still E-3, looking for a promotion during this deployment, hopefully.  

Then he is walking toward us, looking a bit sheepish, but looking handsome all the same in his dress whites.  Yes, he is going to man the rails!  Photo ops begin in earnest now.  We take one of just him, one with Sean, one with his dad, and the lady from Kansas volunteers to take one of all three of us.  Then it's 1130, and everyone in uniform needs to be aboard.  The giant crane removes the walkway.  Sailors take their places on all three decks.  They all look the same in dress whites, of course, especially from this distance, but I can see Jonathan next to a ladder.  I know he sees me, too, because he stands still while I take another picture.  The  Hue City bellows a good-bye into the cloudy sky.

Then she is free and drifting away.  The Sailors stand fast, not waving, gazing at their children, wives, husbands, and parents, who are waving good-bye or holding American flags.  Tugboats bring her slowly around, and she is headed out to sea.  A little one wails that she wants her daddy.  In another group, a young woman says to her mother-in-law:  "You OK mama?"  The older woman nods slightly, solemnly.  I do not think it is her first deployment.  Mr. Powers and I walk back to the truck.  I will not cry.

The USS Hue City is a guided missile cruiser assigned to the USS Eisenhower battle group.  They are headed for the Mediterranean and then the Gulf.  She is carrying more than enough to defend with if anyone should be so foolish as to meddle with the carrier.  This, say Navy spokesmen, is a longer-than-usual deployment.  Nine months.  They go in peace.  May they not encounter war.  Godspeed.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Decoration Day? (Rethinking the Three-Day Weekend)

Memorial Day Weekend begins on Friday, May 25, 2012, as I sit in the stands overlooking the parade ground at the National Infantry Museum.  Summer is an early guest, and Ft. Benning, Georgia swelters in a still afternoon-ish heat.  Two companies of new Infantry face us, serious, disciplined, and weary.  On their shoulders they wear blue infantry cords just placed on Thursday by family members or superiors.  Traces of colored smoke hang in the windless air, and our ears ring with the echoes of the simulated rifle fire used to herald the advancement of our newest troops:  our sons, brothers, and husbands.

Ceremonies complete, we greet graduated Infantrymen, load duffels into trunks, and take pictures.  The collage of white shirts, blue pants, and black berets sharpens into close-ups of young men with fresh haircuts, smiles of relief, and tired eyes.  My Soldier dozes in the car on the ride home.  He arrives at the front door, lets himself in, greets the dogs who are unsure at first and then elated.  He drops bundles of gear in his old room and finds some civvies to wear.  He connects with former associates and makes plans.  He is up to no good!  He is my infuriating adolescent again--no.  Not really.

I sadly resist the reflex to tense my shoulders, sigh, ask questions, give reminders.  That time, clearly, is past.  This unseasoned Soldier can plan anything, go anywhere, talk to anyone until the date on his orders.  Then he will show up at the next post, focused, without questions, without nonsense.  He is a detail in a much bigger picture, a panoramic, cinematic picture, much of which he is unaware of and some of which only he and his comrades will see.  As I turn him loose to take his place in that picture, I visualize other details.

ca. 1958--I am in elementary school.  I know nothing about the twentieth century's headlong race into wars that began when my grandfather was a baby.  Yet I know that the U.S. and its citizens are winners somehow.  I also know that somewhere on the globe is a place called Korea.  Some of my friends' daddies and big brothers were there.  It isn't anyplace you would want to be, and they are glad that their dads or brothers are home.

ca. 1962--A magazine called LOOK comes to our house.  There are color photographs of some Soldiers traipsing through lush, watery grasses.  They are wearing Green Berets.  I hear the word Viet Nam  for the first time.  

1968--People all over the United States are crying out for peace.  Most of them are only a little older than I am.  Many of them are 18 and eligible for the draft.  Many of them do not want to go.

1971-74--It's "Vietnamization" now and "Peace with Honor."  We're a resentful, confused nation.  We don't notice the Viet Nam veterans arriving home singly to hostile greetings at airports.  But they notice us, and their anger and bewilderment wounds them anew.  (It wounds them still.)

1990--A dictator named Saddam Hussein tries to overrun Kuwait.  President George H. Bush initiates Desert Shield and later, Desert Storm.  National Guard units from all over the U.S. roll out.  They are probably surprised by this.  (I wonder now if they wondered then whether or not they were ready.)  Some of the same citizens that angrily denounced the Viet Nam vets tie yellow ribbons onto everything in sight.  Patriotism surges with a new-found "Support Our Troops" mentality.  We watch with renewed self-assurance and satisfaction as our PATRIOT missiles pick off Iraqi Scuds with the precision of the video games we are learning to play so well.

1991--My son, Seth, is born.

09/11/2001--The United States is attacked.

The canvas bursts here, and our frightened present emerges.  Under President George W. Bush, we find ourselves at war with Terrorism.  We go to Afghanistan, launching the world's longest ongoing manhunt.  (It continues after we get our man.)  We invade Iraq, sending Soldiers on a search-and-destroy foray, seeking the elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Korea heats up and cools down and heats up and cools down.  Stateside, we support our troops.  We wear "red on Fridays 'til they all come home."  We burn blue candles.  We Adopt a Sailor.  Our shoulders drop with fatigue, and we shake our heads.  We are going to be in Afghanistan another two years.

This is not a history lesson, although we could use one--a lesson, that is.  Of pride, there is plenty.  My Soldier  wears two ribbons right now.  One is for completing his Infantry training.  The other is for volunteering to serve in a time of war, a symbol of pride, but not of learning.  Tomorrow is the observance of Memorial Day in the United States.  The President will visit The Wall, an overdue thank-you for Viet Nam vets.  Speeches will be made and applauded.  Flags will fly at half-staff.  Moments of silence will be observed.  All of it will be fitting and dignified and probably forgotten by sunset along with whatever barbecue is leftover.

Me?  I live in a strange culture.  I belong to a sorority of sometimes weepy Navy moms who are always a bit wary because they are never sure exactly where their deployed Sailors are.  I also belong to a sorority of Army moms who do not cry at all.  They just grit their teeth and say to one another, "Army strong, Mom.  Your Soldier needs you to be strong . . . "  Most of them DO know where their Soldiers are, and it scares them.  I haven't tied yellow ribbons onto trees or mailboxes--yet.  I haven't made a habit of wearing "Red on Fridays 'til they all come home"--yet.  My sons are not deployed--yet.

I burn blue candles.  I learned of the tradition from Navy moms marking "Blue Candle Events" such as national holidays or the deployments of ships.  I have adapted the tradition over the last few months.  On Armed Services Day, I burned two blue candles--one for my two active-duty children, one for all of yours.  Tomorrow I will light them again.  There will be one blue candle for all Fallen Heroes.  There will be a second blue candle for all Infantry.

This day was called Decoration Day in its early history.  I wonder if we have forgotten to decorate the graves of the Fallen in our haste to wear red for the living?  Or maybe we should return to a strict May 30th observance of Memorial Day so we're more likely to think of our direction than to cook out.  In the meantime, congratulations, Seth, on your graduation.  Thank you, Alpha Company, 2-19, for your willingness to serve.  And to all of us, a solemn, peaceful, and yes, happy Memorial Day.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

My Field Trip

The first thing you notice is the marching.  You don't actually see any Soldiers, but the sound of their footsteps is everywhere.  The cadence is perfect, no one falters or gets out of step--and it goes on and on without end.  So begins the journey at the National Infantry Museum, as you start up a ramp that leads through the horrific and inspiring battles of American footsoldiers, beginning with the American Revolution and progressing through time to the recent Desert Wars.

I should say here that we (my husband, my older son, and I) were the guests of my Soldier-in-Training, Seth, who was enjoying a much-deserved 36-hour pass before entering the infantry-specific portion of his time at Ft. Benning, GA.  We were greeted by a smiling Veteran, a volunteer I suppose, whose job it is to greet patrons and direct them on their trek through American military history.  He recognized Seth as an SIT who had already paid the NIM a visit along with his Company.  So he asked him, "You've been here before, haven't you?"

"Yes Sir, I have,"  came the reply.  Who said that?

"When do you graduate?"

"May 25th, Sir."

"Are you prepared to assume your post?"

"Yes Sir, I am."

This could not possibly be my child conversing with an adult without guesswork, shrugs, or vague UMMMM's or UHH's.  The volunteer turned us family members over to this young man that I've been calling "my kid," and we went in.  He proved to be an able guide, pointing specific exhibits out to us, while taking second looks at things he remembered from his first visit.

I would say the NIM is a must-see, those of you who live in the South, and those who might be passing through.  I won't give away the interactive and audio-visual surprises, but I will say that the World War I gallery absolutely floored me.  But I will also say that this is not a particularly easy walk to take.  If your idea of a military museum includes congratulations for victory and flag-waving, be forewarned.  There are flags in this museum, sure enough, but they have holes torn in them.  I admit that I did not walk through every gallery.  I am saving the Viet Nam gallery for another visit.  While my sons walked through that one, I waited upstairs with my husband.  Impressed as I was, I asked him the question that I'll wager is on the tip of every visitor's tongue:

"When will it end?  When will we ever evolve to the point where we don't consider blowing each other up every time we disagree?"

"Never," came his flat reply.  He then reminded me how power corrupts, and "absolute power corrupts absolutely," as we have all heard.  In fact, one of the last galleries you'll walk through at the NIM is the one that displays the sole superpower in its  fragile pride--that  would be us.   Corrupt?  I pray we are not, for I understand that the Infantry are the guardians of peace.

I don't believe in peace the way I used to, back in the days when I thought I could offer my enemy a peace sign and an olive branch and he would stand down.  That was before I knew that my enemy would shoot me where I stand.  That was before I knew that some one had to have my back if there is to be peace and safety and the quality of life we long for.  Do I believe in peace?  Absolutely.  It's the best thing we can ever strive for and pray for.  The difference for me is that I have come to believe in sacrifice and to be grateful for it.

Go to the National Infantry Museum.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"The Kindness of Strangers"

Let's bring out our Tennessee Williams and re-visit The Glass Menagerie.  In this play, we meet Williams' pitiful single mom, Amanda Wingfield.  She's the lady whose telephone company husband "fell in love with long distance," leaving her with the rent, the bills, and two young adult children.  In a world without entitlements, Amanda says she has always depended on "the kindness of strangers" to get by.   I haven't seen a production of the play lately, but I wonder how contemporary audiences would react to such a dependency?  I suspect half the audience would have a thought bubble above their heads reading WTF?  The other half would mutter, "Yeah, right."

OK, I am a bit cynical.  I live in a world where I absolutely would not leave the house with the thought of depending upon the kindness of strangers.  I can depend on myself, my friends and family, and a well-charged cell phone.  In emergencies, there is always 911.  But the kindness of strangers?  Please.

That's the attitude that made my most recent non-adventure all the more astonishing.

I was headed south on Highway 231 after work one Saturday morning with the thought that I would run a quick errand, get some gas, and go home for an undemanding afternoon.  I was driving a car that had primarily been my son's.  In my own defense, I should say that I was not aware of how long I could delay the fuel stop once the "Low Fuel" warning appeared.  Still, I was only slightly surprised when the car coughed a bit and slowed down in spite of my insistent foot on the accelerator.

I was in a fortunate location for unfortunate circumstances.  A  quick right turn off the highway found me on Green St., coasting downhill into downtown Wetumpka.  I was hoping that, miraculously, a brand-new filling station would have sprung up between the ancient buildings, and I could be on my way with a minimum of trouble. 

Sadly, the only thing I found at the bottom of Green St. was a STOP sign.  Who knew that cars with no fuel lost power-assist steering and brakes?  I learned that, because I couldn't use my momentum to cruise through the intersection.  There was a car coming.

I was able to stop for a second or two, roll across the intersection, and come to a stop barely off the road in the parking area of--what is this?--a repair service?  A garage?  A garage SALE?  I spied a couple of antique gas pumps and a sign advising me of the price of kerosene.  I put the car in PARK, turned off the key, and ventured out.

I crossed the concrete tarmac and was met by four adolescent cats.  Two meowed a greeting, and two thought I was a monster, so they scurried under a shed.  Then I saw a human--a very senior human, who approached me slowly with a questioning expression.

I sheepishly pointed to my car, which was decidedly off the road, but barely into the parking area.  I indicated the gas pumps and explained my poor job of parking.  I hadn't been able to roll quite far enough to stop beside the pump.  I was intentionally ignoring the saw horses and other debris in the space a car would occupy.

The gentleman shook his head.  "We don't have any gas, ma'am."  He didn't elaborate or explain why there were gas pumps.  He didn't say anything else.  A little rat terrier/chihuahua-looking critter put her front paws against my knee and looked sympathetically up at me.  I absent-mindedly scratched behind her ears, and she ambled away.  A long-haired tortoise-shell cat stood up in the rusted lawn chair where she'd been napping, circled a time or two, and went back to sleep.  The teenagers stuck their heads out from under the shed and went back in.  I lamely apologized to the man for parking in such an obvious non-parking area in front of his business.  I walked back to my car and got in.

My next challenge would be to get Mr. Powers to answer the landline at our house.  The odds of this happening were not good.  If he were outside, he would never hear the telephone ringing at all.  If he chanced to be inside, he would pretend to never hear the telephone ringing at all.  Who answers a landline?  I thought I would give it a try.

I took my cell phone out of my purse.  I stared at it.  Can cell phones run out of gas, too?  No, Stupid, but they do go dead, especially if you have been playing Scrabble on them for the last two days!  I shook my unresponsive phone as if it were a bottle of orange juice.  There was no blink or beep of response.  For a moment I thought I saw a glimmer of hope, because my son had left behind the car-charger for his old phone.  Would it fit my phone?  It would not.  I wondered later on if an empty gas tank also disables the power point in a car.  I had one option remaining.  I would have to find the fellow whose job it must have been to oversee the dog and the cats.  I would have to ask him if he at least had a phone.

I got out of the car again and went to find my new acquaintance.  He was already walking toward me.

"Ma'am?  I've called a fellow, and he's gone with a gas can to buy you $2 worth of gas.  It'll take him a little while to go get the gas, but he'll be here in just a minute."

Speechless is not the word.  I believe I remembered my manners and thanked the man.  I think I reached down to pet the solid white kitty which had stolen out from under the shed again.  I know for sure I got back in my car to wait for the Fellow with the Gas Can.  I watched as cars, trucks and vans passed me by.

Along came an electric-blue Ford Taurus.  A younger person than me would have admired the set of rims on the Taurus.  Being from Slapout, I just wondered why the car sat up so high.  Did the driver plan to take that thing stump-jumping?  I've seen 4x4's that weren't that tall.

The Taurus pulled into the business that by now I had concluded used to be a service station.  A tall middle-aged man unfolded himself from the driver's seat.  (Maybe he, too, was driving a car used mostly by his kid?)  He opened the trunk, and sure enough, he removed a red gas can.  I believe I sighed relief and grinned at the same time.

The man spoke briefly to the Senior Citizen-Keeper of Dogs & Cats and Summoner of Help.  Then he approached my car with a friendly expression and a chuckle as I described my apparent predicament and apologized for my irresponsibility.

"It happens," said he, and we chatted about the ridiculous price of gas as he poured $2 worth into my tank.  "You want me to crank it for you?" he asked.  "Sometimes they won't start right up."

My Chevy started right up.  I asked him how much I owed.  He told me to go see Mr. H.  So my Senior Savior had a name.  He was Mr. H!  But Mr. H said, "Just pay him," and indicated my Junior Savior.  "He helps me out with the wrecker sometimes."

I was at a wrecker service!  Taking another look around, I noticed all kinds of things that would suggest a towing service, not the least of which was an aging tow truck.  Why had I never noticed this place before?  A gold and white cat sprang artfully onto a gas pump, which contained no gas to be pumped. 

I gave my new-found friend a $5 bill and thanked him for his trouble.  He, of course, said, "No problem," and went on his way.  I never got the name of this unusually tall African American neighbor who likes to wear a Vietnam-era camo hat.  He might be driving around in that electric-blue Taurus. 

Mr. H smiled and said, "Come back to see us when you can stay longer.  Come on, Eula Mae."

The dog's name was Eula Mae!

I do intend to go back.  I will have dog and cat food with me.

I will keep a good eye on that gas gauge from now on.  I am pretty independent, and when my cell phone is fully charged, I'll go just about anywhere.  After all, I can depend on my family and my friends--and the kindness of strangers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tacky Pleasures!

In preparation for Lent or in observance of Valentine's Day, I notice the popular press having fun with Guilty Pleasures.  "What's Yours?"  scream the blurbs.  "Jen's Secret Temptations!" squalls the cover of some magazine.  One read is all that is necessary.  These articles are going to talk about how we will overlook budget constraints, diets, and rational thinking when it comes to our favorite pricey indulgences.  Examples are easy to come by--designer chocolate, fancy-label jeans, shoes that will match one outfit, flying first class, and $6.00 lattes.  These guilty pleasures are not my concern.

I'm interested in the OTHER pleasures we don't talk about much and that the popular press most surely ignores.  These are tacky pleasures.  They differ in many ways from the more sought-after guilty pleasures mentioned above.  They are cheap.  They are common.  They are strangely ill-suited to the persons who own them.

In order to write about the tacky pleasure phenomenon, I first had to research it.  This was a two-step process.  First, I had to look up tacky in the dictionary.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, tacky  is an adjective which means "lacking style or good taste.  tawdry.  distasteful or offensive; flimsy, rundown or in poor repair."  Here's the kicker:  The term derives from tackey, an inferior horse.

Step two was for me to canvas the riders of the inferior horse.  To put it bluntly, I went around asking people what their tacky pleasure was. (Such a tacky thing to do!)  The list of their responses was as varied as their personalities.  I should interject here that some folks could not come up with a tacky pleasure.  They seemed genuinely apologetic about it, and they wanted to cooperate.  For example, the supervisor of my workplace, who is just not tacky in any way, could only come up with her weekly Sunday smoothie, which, it turns out, is an extravagant little treat.  Alas, I informed her, that is just a guilty pleasure, nothing tacky about it.  She seemed a bit disappointed, and she promised to think it over and let me know "in the morning" about her tacky pleasure.  I have yet to hear from her.  The lady isn't tacky.

Those of us who do have a streak of tacky ( and we are the 99%) don't have to think about it much to come up with an answer,  Oh sure, there were a couple--both teachers, coincidentally--whose hesitation really alarmed me, as I had so hoped their tacky pleasures would be revealing.  Both of them, however, came through, identifying pleasures so deliciously tacky that I was nearly envious.

So I present a sampling of my favorite tacky pleasures, offered up by a group of people who are generally not tacky.  If I save some reader from being racked with guilt about his/her tackiness, I shall not have labored in vain.  Except that tacky folks won't care anyway.

Chosen by a lady who is my friend, confidante and go-to when I need HELP is a particular shopping experience.  Not the Galleria.  Not Kohl's.  Not even Wal-Mart.  My buddy loves her shopping trips to Dollar General!  Not only Dollar General, but a specific, "nice, new" Dollar General in a nearby neighborhood. She goes out of her way to shop this particular store.   I suspect she and her daughter have already planned their summer wardrobes around what is soon to be the sale rack.

An associate of mine, an able paraeducator in a challenging alternative school setting, seems to go beyond the necessary in service to community activities for kids.  She sponsors Scouts, keeps the nursery in her church, and boosts the high school band.  I would expect her tacky pleasure to not involve kids in any way, since she certainly deserves a break.  But no, when this world-class chaperone winds down, she turns to the tackiness of Smurfs.  That's right, the little blue midgets with boring wardrobes and shallow dialogue.  She puts in a Smurfs video on purpose and watches.  She simply shrugs.  "They help me unwind," she says, "and I think they're funny."

This was an admittedly gender-biased survey, but I did ask one guy (a football and baseball coaching, hunting, fishing kind of guy) about his tacky pleasure.  There was no hesitation from this fellow, and I believe it was with a great deal of pride that he replied, "My Christmas lights!"  Moving right along . . .

 . . . to my sisters.  One lives in Alaska, so I had to text her with my query.  Her text came back in less than 30 seconds.  I am pleased that tackiness does not stop at the Mason-Dixon line.  Her tacky pleasure in the frozen North?  Marshmallow cream!  Yep. The gooey, sickening sweet nonfood that as far as I know is only used in Fantasy Fudge.  (Because we have to fantasize to believe that recipe actually does make fudge.  But I digress.)  "Get me a jar of marshmallow cream," read her text, "and I am good to go."

My other sister, a resident of Georgia, and only slightly less tacky than her Alaskan counterpart, shared her 3-way tie.  I suppose that means she has so many tacky pleasures that she had to take the top 3.  In order, then:  She loves being the Queen of her Red Hat group, watching Alton Brown "for hours" and topping it all off, buying yard gnomes for her son, my policeman nephew.  She admitted that she bought him his first one as a tongue-in-cheek housewarming gift.  Now, she buys the poor guy a new gnome for every holiday.  At the time of our interview, she had already purchased his Valentine Gnome.

I mentioned a couple of teachers above, and they both had to think a little while before they came up with anything.  But I must admit, they have both pegged the tackymeter with their choices.  The first teaches English, which makes this tacky pleasure all the more admirable.  This beautifully educated, articulate and witty lady likes (and buys!) supermarket tabloids.  She probably owns the one I only glanced at, and she could tell us every one of Jen's Secret Temptations!  The other is actually retired from teaching--she was a professor of communication at a university that I will not name out of kindness to the institution.  The former prof is elegant in every way.  She is tasteful, gracious, and a master gardener.  So get ready--She likes Moon Pies, the "big, fat, chocolate ones."   She will even eat boiled peanuts, slimy though they be. I guess she was mortified to have to utter the truth.  At any rate, she ratted out her equally elegant, articulate, and educated husband.  He likes Stadium Dogs.  "No telling what they put in those things," she worries.  May this couple rest in peace after they die of hot dogs and squishy marshmallow sandwiches.

Odd how things with marshmallow keep cropping up . . .

Confession, they say, is good for the soul, but I admit, I have been putting this off.  I am no less tacky than my Dollar General-shopping, gnome-buying, marshmallow cream-eating, tabloid-reading companions.  It's just that my tacky pleasure doesn't match any of the things my profile says I am.  This proud Navy mom who just became a proud Army mom is also decently educated, a member of a professional organization, and I even studied art history one time.  So how can I confess this without blowing my self-image wide open?  Here goes.

I like Thomas Kinkade.  No, no, I don't collect the cookie jars or the lighted tapestries.  I just like looking at those impossibly lit-up, cozy, thatch-roofed cottages situated by stone bridges arching across babbling brooks.  I was at the local Slapout flea market one Saturday before it closed, and I was elated to find, for a mere $5.00,  a framed 199something Christmas print.  It showed a snowy village Main St., a hansom cab drawn by a horse (probably a tackey), light pouring from shop windows into the lavender dusk, and glowing gas lamps.  No disparagement meant to the artist's effort or success, but I don't do sentimental, and I can't stand contrived collectors' items.  Yet, those romantic cottages, the gardens just wild with hollyhocks, the glow from every window that says, "Come home."  It would make me weep if it weren't so tacky.

So there we have it . . . the tackiness of a dozen or so otherwise rational people poured onto a page that will be read by maybe another dozen or so who have their tacky pleasures, too.  Maybe we can get together with a jar of marshmallow cream and laugh about it.  I will be by the fire . . . in my cottage . . . .by the bridge. . . .over the babbling brook.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Three Epiphany Gifts from Three Wise Kids

I am attached to an Episcopal parish named Trinity.  Like many Episcopal churches, we have occasionally found ourselves between priests.  During one such period, our interim rector was my friend, the Reverend John Keith.  Mr. Keith is the author of a revealing memoir called Complete Humanity in Jesus (Newsouth Books, 2009).  He is also a fine preacher.  One Sunday in the course of his sermon, he remarked that Epiphany--the season we entered on January 6--was his favorite season on the Church calendar.  I had never heard anyone claim Epiphany before, and I was always inclined to love Advent most, so his remark surprised me a little.

Nowadays it doesn't surprise me a bit.  I have joined my friend in favoring Epiphany, and it isn't because of Mardi Gras.  No, I treasure Epiphany because it reminds me of three other treasures I received over a period of years, treasures delivered by three Magi named Lori, Jonathan, and Seth.

Lori's gift came first, and I am not exaggerating to say that I have been opening and re-opening this gift periodically for the last several decades.  Lori was a seventh-grader when I met her.  She was a student of mine when I had just landed a part-time teaching post a couple of counties south of here.  Lori was a bug-eyed, freckle-faced, grinning annoyance with an amazing vocabulary and the ability read beautifully anything I put in front of her.  Upper-classmen shooed her away, and her peers tolerated her until her constant, steady stream of chatter drove them to yell, "SHUT UP!"  I really liked her.

Lori was in the habit of joining me for lunch most every day, as my classroom was empty during the time the other students gathered in the multi-purpose room to eat.  One day as I sat alone, eating yogurt and putting lesson plans on the transparencies (it was 1975!), Lori marched in, plopped her heavy book bag down by the door, and stomped up to my desk.  She was exasperated. 

"Miss Susan!" she began.  (These were well-mannered country children in this school.  If they knew an adult well enough, they would use her first name but always prefaced with Miss or Ms.)  "I don't understand why people always say that money won't buy the best things in life, because the best things in life are horses and chocolate doughnuts, and you can get both of those with money!"  I had to agree.  At that moment, wrestling with the certainty that my part-time job would end, I couldn't think of anything really much better than horses or chocolate doughnuts.

GIFT #1:  I have known for some time now what the best things in life are.

Many years later, I was the proud mom of a first-grader.  That child's name is Jonathan, and he is an adult now.  I am still his proud mom, and he was the bearer of the second treasure.  On a mundane Sunday morning, I was fixated on getting breakfast on the table, the baby dressed, and husband and kids out the door on time.  I don't recall the season of the year, but I do recall the rain that fell in thick gray sheets and created a curtain of water from the roof that we'd all have to navigate on the way to the car.  Jonathan sat looking out at the yard through the kitchen window.  I put two pancakes on his plate.  It was quiet in the house for a minute.  Jonathan looked up at me, smiling with pleasure.  "It's raining outside," he said, "and there's pancakes in our kitchen.  This is a good day for us!"

GIFT #2:  I can't speak for everyone, but I know exactly what constitutes a good day in this household.

My second-born, Seth, was the third of the Magi to show up.  He is now a young adult who never misses the opportunity to confound.  I don't worry about him, though, due to the fabulous treasure he delivered one morning when he was only four.

We are a Christian family, so for some reason that morning, the name of Jesus came up in conversation.  I do not remember why.  I do recall with crystal clarity what happened next:  Seth looked up from his breakfast and said, "I know who Jesus is."

Now, I don't know what I expected.  It could have been "He's the Baby in the manger," or "He died on the Cross,: or something else Seth would have learned in Sunday school.  But Seth said, "Jesus jumps on the trampoline with me, and we sing.:"

I said wow.

For sure I didn't worry about Seth jumping on the trampoline anymore, and I suppose that at some level, I believe that Seth actually experienced the presence of Our Lord singing and playing with him.  I wouldn't be the only one.  A couple of weeks later, I told our rector (All Saints', Montgomery, AL) about the incident.  This was a priest named Albert S. Newton, the author of Biblical Interleaves in Prose and Verse, a wonderful, meditative little book (Forward Movement Publications, 1987).  When I told Mr. Newton about my son's remark, Bert didn't smile or even raise his eyebrows in surprise.  He nodded seriously and said, "He probably does."

But I believe there is much, much more happening in Seth's statement.  Jesus jumps on the trampoline with me--I am safe--and we sing--I am joyful.    I believe this statement was God's message to me about who He is and about His nature.  This is true for me every day, and it may be true for anyone who has sought prayerfully or angrily to discover who God might be.  God is Whoever or Whatever keeps us safe and brings us joy.

GIFT #3:  I know who God is.

May the light of Epiphany shine brightly!