All posts by X Teri

A Car is Just a Better Way to Travel

I still am missing the male gene that requires any member of the human race who also has facial hair to be concerned about his vehicle. (Which might include the occasional female or flannel-wearing member of our species.) This includes the size of the engine, whether it can traverse a 20-foot deep water-filled ravine in mid-December, and how new the model is. I don’t care. Does it accelerate decently without using more gasoline than a 20 year-old arsonist? If so, I’m fine. If it has good air conditioning and a radio, even better.

I would give up ALL aesthetics of my automobiles in exchange for reliability. All of it. It could be the ugliest monstrosity this side of Wyoming and as long as it afforded better mechanical reliability, I would welcome it. Being able to easily find parts and mechanics is of greater practicality to me.

I’ve never been one to care much about cars, nor about upgrading and tricking them out. If it has the modern conveniences and decent gas mileage, all else is irrelevant. I had thought that aging might perhaps bring out the macho concern in me, but it hasn’t. When I’m working around younger men, it still amuses me to hear them talk about variations on their self worth being tied to the desirability of their vehicles.

Imagine if we had 5 or 6 varieties of vehicles. Not based on model or brand; rather, based on utility. Most of us simply need an affordable sedan with good gas mileage. All else is secondary and drives up the cost. The super rich could then just have their vehicles specifically made, leaving us boring folk to take advantage of the reduced costs associated with having fewer vehicles.

As for vanity modifications such as pin stripes, wheels larger than a small house, chrome bumpers, or canopy running lights, just tax those. I can see my plan being very popular with those who enjoy flying a rebel flag on the front porch.

While I can appreciate a nice vehicle, our obsession with cars is one of the reasons our society is so complicated and expensive. Yes, I’m trying to make a minimalism point here. My car doesn’t reflect on who I am. It doesn’t “give me pride,” a phrase I loathe hearing about vehicles.

But if you have 24″ tires or more than 2 square feet of chrome in unusual places on your mode of transportation, you probably disagree with me.

01012014 Disco Inferno and Please Cremate Me

Although not considered a joyous topic, everyone who knows me should know that I want to be cremated. Preferably once I’m dead, in case someone wants to get things out of their proper order. Like most people, I have a few detractors who would gladly reverse the order. Were I born a few centuries ago, I would have been one of those heretics burned at the stake, saving several intermediary steps.

Somewhere around 100,000,000,000 people have lived and died on the planet, with around 7 billion now walking gleefully about. Imagine all those graves! Imagine our population growth and the future acreage that would be needed if we were to continue to bury people individually in plots, as we do now. There are websites you can visit which will visually demonstrate the size of cemeteries for one billion people – it is surprising. Assuming no other alterations to our world population, it is a certainty that burial will not be possible at some point in the future.  Being buried is another one of those bizarre things to me. Taking up valuable real estate when I die is not my idea of sensible. Even being buried in an allegedly impenetrable concrete (or steel) vault only slows the inevitable fact that one’s body will turn into sludge and decompose.

If you want to amuse yourself when I’m gone, definitely bury me intact. If there is the remotest chance of me haunting you after death, such a decision will guarantee that I visit you with evil intent after my passing.

Paying for all the extra pomp and circumstance is eliminated with cremation as well. The cost is not the bigger issue to me – it’s the attempt to conserve what must decompose. No matter how much effort we expend to memorialize someone we love, time will erase all of our vestiges of honor. I think it’s more important to celebrate our time here while we can and preserve the memories and mementos of the people we love. If we are careful and do it in a loving way, such archived memories can easily survive forever. Human flesh and even stone all succumb to time.No matter how mammoth your memorial, it will disappear in time.

Once cremated, place the ashes in a simple box and scatter the ashes. Putting ashes of a loved one in an urn is better than burial but still strange for me. Spending lavish amounts of money on an eye-catching urn doesn’t indicate a greater love for your lost loved one, just a larger bank account. No matter how much you treasure the ashes, you will then worry about who will care for the ashes once you’ve passed. Each thing that must be treasured weighs down those who follow us.

Embalming is another anachronistic relic leftover from earlier times. By avoiding burial, embalming is eliminated as well. Less chemicals, contamination, etc. Even if I were okay with being buried, I could care less about being embalmed. Wrap the body in a sheet and plant it, without all the intermediate materials, processes, chemicals and hassle.

That custom here dictates that we almost must use a casket is another weird thing to me. The casket, too, will decompose. Its alleged beauty is for the brief interlude between your death and burial. Putting a perfectly good quantity of metal, wood, and artwork in the dirt for no good reason is just weird to me. Paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of seeing it for a couple of days is absurd. Save your money and leave it to a friend or family member – or a charity. Or give it to the IRS – anyone other than planting it in the dirt.

I’ve found that a lot of people have never had a comfortable conversation with anyone about this type of topic. True, they might have had a quick, inadvertent talk with someone at a funeral, or done so while making funeral arrangements, but most people simply haven’t examined why they do things the way they do in relation to death.Many people will only look at death through the squinted corners of their eyes, as if contemplation of its shadow in their own lives will hasten its arrival. It’s an anachronistic viewpoint. This tendency leads to much family discord and financial issues that should easily be sidestepped.

From a very early age, burial seemed bizarre to me. When my grandpa Cook died is the when it really hit me that pretty much everyone else didn’t mind going along with tradition. His death was the first that clicked with me mentally and that we were putting people’s bodies in the ground. I had walked around the White Cemetery in Monroe County when I was young. Grandpa showed me several graves and told me stories – none of which do I remember. I do remember him reminding me that there was nothing to fear there. It was a common theme for him when he was talking to me, that men were the problem in most cases, not unseen ghosts or forces.

(Sidenote: my dad did not want to be buried. But he was. The well-meaning family members exacted their revenge by doing the opposite of what he wanted. They justified their decision in several ways, not the least of which was their views on cremation versus burial and the resurrection. Despite his constant reminders about not wanting to be planted in the ground, his desire to never be buried was wiped away with the idea that “he didn’t mean it.” While it is true that a lot of dad’s insistence about his views on burial happened while he was drinking, I would argue that much of his life in general was spent that way. Again, though, their revisions to history have been so constant that even they fight any mention of the truth. The problem is, though, that I know they they did the wrong thing in this regard. The month before Dad died when I visited him, he asked me about how I felt about church, god, and things like that. These were not normal topics of conversation for dad and me. He was pretty clear about what he believed – and what he didn’t. But each of us holds our own ideas who people are – sometimes these perceptions and filters cloud our judgement. They affect me, too, as much as I would like to believe otherwise.)

As far as I’m concerned, regardless of the circumstances of my death, if you would rather wrap me in dynamite and detonate it, that too would be okay with me. Especially if it’s on the internet. And you can sell the fuse lighting privilege to one of my detractors. Make even more money from the event.

Writing Advice #45

Before asking “Who is this idiot?” please remember that most people can’t write significantly better than you or me. When you factor in that many funny and insightful people can barely write at all, the issue becomes less important.

I’m no Pat Conroy, nor do I aspire to be. But at least I don’t have ‘blank page syndrome’ like almost everyone I know. It’s easier to say nothing and hope no one notices you in your dusty corner of the world.

Are we afraid that people will ridicule us? Don’t they already? And the ones who are most likely to ridicule are people that are just plain annoying anyway.

Is someone a writer when they are paid to do it? Only when they are paid or when they earn most of their living doing it?

Most people aren’t smarter than you or me, either. They probably are REALLY smart about a subject but this specific education doesn’t translate into unilateral respectability. Everyone seems markedly smarter than us – but it’s not true. I’m still finding out that most people I think are geniuses secretly believe in some crazy stuff like paranormal hauntings, aliens, or religious dogma involving magic underwear, transmutation, etc.

For the record, being well-versed in sports trivia is a mark against you. Sorry, but it’s true.

Start writing blogs or important emails with no intention of polishing or “perfecting” the content.

Get your basic idea across and then stop worrying about filling in the cracks. You are going to be misunderstood anyway. Just like in real life.

A Belated Thanks to Barbara

As you read this post, I’d like to remind you that I think of my dad’s life with regret, as his life could have been a fascinating journey for him and the rest of the family. Now that my own mom’s death has been added to that of my dad, I think it is time to push out the words of grateful respect to one of the best people I’ve met so far in my life: Barbara a.k.a. “Mike’s mom.”

I would hope that most of us at least one point in our childhoods have at least one true friend. Not just a person we call best friend, but someone who truly defines us and who we were at a particular point in our life. As in the case of so many other people, my friend was discovered entirely by accident. (But this post isn’t supposed to be about him.)

My family had once again tripped itself up and moved into a trailer park, once infamously named City View Trailer Park. It was no slum, but it wasn’t a place people aspired to reside in. For the trailer my family had, I think even the cockroaches didn’t appreciate the reputation of the place they lived. I didn’t mind it, though, because even though people in those days tried to ignore or stay out of other people’s business, the proximity of the trailers forced my parents to at least attempt to not try to kill each other every weekend. (The Hignites had wisely got a trailer on the outside northern edge, both next to the road and a huge field.)

In my case, Mike Hignite and his mom (and his mischievous brother Jim )  were people who literally allowed me to survive on several occasions. They certainly were responsible for many of the truly great happy moments of my childhood.

I first saw Mike Hignite playing outside a nearby trailer. Unlike most people, Mike didn’t insult me or make a face when he saw me the first time. I was poor, dirty and had fingernails bitten down to the quick. Mike smiled at me and we played catch. Watching him grow up, I’d like to add that his approach hasn’t varied much and the term ‘fast friend’ more than casually describes his outlook on life.

Had Mike and his mom not been in my life, I’m certain that my life would have been an even bigger disaster. Mike would be one to underplay the truth or significance of my belief. He had witnessed the malignant stupidity of the violence and substance abuse of my family repeatedly. It took me a lot of work to keep Mike shielded from just how bad the violence and alcohol had infected my family. There were times I was certain that I was about to be killed. Many of those times ended with unexpected sleepovers at the Hignite house. Mike was poor and aspired to find a way to be someone and be happy doing it. I, on the other hand, had honestly given up hope of a good life but used Mike and his family as a template of what might be possible.

The longer I grew to know Mike, the more ashamed I became of my life. That is hard to admit. Not only was I increasingly sure that I wouldn’t survive to adulthood, but I felt infected by the sheer incivility if not downright evil I was immersed in. I found myself working harder and harder to not tell Mike things. For some of these tings I was convinced he would either shriek in terror or disgust or worse, not believe me at all.

Before I forget to tell one of many stories: one Friday night I escaped to Mike’s trailer without making arrangements in advance. Mike, his brother Jim, his mom Barb, and her boyfriend Hub were eating at the table. Honestly, I don’t know how I lied in a convincing way, but I went in and asked if I could stay the night.  When Mike’s mom said “Okay,” (as she inevitably would) I went into the end bedroom and basically had a nervous breakdown. The Hignites didn’t know is that I had been in my bedroom reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” when dad came home. (I was as far away from Narnia as could have been possible.) I could tell dad was drunk when arrived just by the way he had been revving the truck and how he slammed the truck door. (Abused kids learn quickly to gauge the impending storms.) Within moments, there was screaming and then shattering glass. Mom was yelling my name and without thinking, I ran down the long hallway and into the kitchen. Dad was sitting on mom’s chest and shoulders, holding a pistol to her face while pulling her hair. Mom was screaming at dad to pull the “f#$%ing trigger.” Dad looked up at me and then pointed the gun at me. Honestly, I knew for a fact that he wasn’t going to be happy until someone was dead. I ran back down the hallway. The back door was on the right and I flew through, not even bothering to try to shut it. After a few minutes of crying, I ran over to the Hignites. That’s how I ended up in the back bedroom, internally hysterical, wondering if anyone had been killed at my house. If the Hignites had not been there, I think that I would have simply kept running, maybe forever. As with all these stories, it sounds far-fetched. Mom would have denied it under oath. Besides the fact that the Hignites lived in the trailer park, the truth is that it didn’t occur to me to even try to go anywhere else except there. It was a “safe” place for me. I never told Mike or his mom this story.

The above story is just one of many. This story isn’t about the violence or that part of my life; understanding it, however, is a prerequisite toward appreciating how damaged I was – and how important it was to have someone like Barb welcome me so often into the safe haven of her home.

When I was young, I had fervently hoped that my parent’s anger and violence would lead to their disappearance from my life. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – there were times when my parents came to the brink of a double murder either by direct action or by driving drunk. I would like to say that I had prayed for their death but prayer had become a theory in my mind. God had long since shut the book on my pleas for mercy. Mercy was just a word written in a book that no longer had meaning to me. Many of my childhood fantasies were not of new bicycles or wealth, but rather, mostly included living in a place like Mike got to live. (I loved my own brother, of course, but most of the family who could have been trusted were in another part of the state – and they might as well have been on the moon. And my brother was made of different stock than me.)

The Hignite family somehow survived through tough times and came out with a strong faith in god and each other – something that was definitely not the case in my life. When I thought of what peace might look like, it was Mike’s mom and the family home she provided that would appear in my mind.

I would have done anything to have lived at the Hignite house. I would have disowned everyone in my life to have been given that opportunity. Mike’s family was  poor and his mom’s frugality led to some interesting stories (for later consumption.) The difference in Mike’s house was that his mom worked two jobs to support her family and her decision to live a different, better life. His mom didn’t spend her hard-earned money on drinking or frivolity. She looked directly at her kids when she talked to them, even if the talk preceded punishment. Punishment wasn’t just a threat with her, either, but she exercised both discipline and control, something else I was unaccustomed to in my life.  That had a huge affect on how I learned to watch people treat other people. His mom did her best to keep track of Mike and his brother and was genuinely interested in their welfare. In my case, it became clear that mom was more adept at playing the role of mom when it suited her or when appearances might matter. Mike’s mom instilled in him a powerful work ethic and an even stronger desire to expand the intelligence that he and his brother were obviously born with. Because of Mike, I started in band. I think I’ve written many times how being in band gave me access to a larger world that I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. I started running after the 9th grade after watching Mike play sports. I played two games of little league thanks to Mike and his mom; those two games were my only experiences with organized sports.

Later, when my family’s trailer burned to the ground, I was scared senseless to not be able to have the Hignites nearby. I always felt more at peace and at home at their trailer than I ever would around my parents. Being forced to move away after my family’s trailer burned drastically changed the course of my life. I’m convinced that more optimism would have flowered within me and more doors would have been opened for me, if only the Hignite family influence would have lingered longer.

I laugh about it now when I call it my “first job,” but Mike’s mom gave me my first job. Since she got up to go to work her first of two jobs before the roosters woke up, she offered to pay me $15 a week to babysit Mike and his brother Jim during the summer. Why she thought it would be a task to pay me for hanging out with the coolest person I knew is a mystery. Why she trusted a kid like me, against a backdrop of a family like mine, is quite the conundrum, looking back on it.  Maybe she was testing me to see if I could tolerate her youngest son Jim? (While Jim is extremely smart, that guy would have tested the nerves of Mother Teresa.)

Over the years, I have written Mike Hignite’s mom several letters, trying to bridge the gap between a sincere thank-you and over-the-top explanation. It’s a shame that I never finished a letter and then mailed it. I finished several but they always ended up in a drawer. I didn’t know how to say thanks in such a monumental fashion without being negative about everything else in my life and about my childhood. There was no way to express how grateful I was to have had her around without also condemning everyone around me. In my mind, a sincere letter should be complimentary in scope and without reservation – and in the case of Mike’s mom, I couldn’t say “thanks” without a long explanation. She certainly knew that things were bad, but I’m not quite sure she knew that my life literally was in danger more than once, had it not been for her welcoming arms.

Truth be told, I also didn’t relish the idea of catching Mike’s mom off-guard, such as running up to her unannounced and basically tackling her in a bear-hug of gratitude.  It has been difficult for me to learn to effectively express specific emotion. I’m not putting Mike’s mom on a pedestal or conferring magical powers to her. Instead, I’m thankful for all the times she tolerated me even she was bone-weary of working two jobs and of listening to our loud boisterousness. Mike’s mom probably never understood that this type of normal living, carefree and full of both joy and work was not something that I knew to be possible in my daily life.

I went to see Barbara in 1990 after she had given birth late in life. She was starting a new life even after having packed a full life into her first forty years of living. I tried (and failed) to say “thanks” in an appropriate way that would convince her how instrumental she had been in getting me to be able to survive to adulthood. I was still too young to see that life is indeed fleeting and that it’s best to say the words that need to said while you are feeling them. Seeing her starting a new life when so many other people would have been worn down by life made me very happy.

As I’ve aged, my perspective has deepened immensely. I think often of Barb and of how easily my life could have been something drastically different. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact that Mike’s mom ultimately had on me – but it is a certainty that her presence hung heavily in the balance sheet of my life.

Since all other attempts have failed me, I’ll say is as simply as I can:
Thanks, Barbara.

01072014 Dr. Valentine Pardo, Early Memories of a Memorable Person

I recently came back to this fascinating person, after someone online pointed me to an online community which was riddled with misremembered history about Dr. Pardo. I’ve become accustomed to people’s vague memories, as it is something I struggle with myself. It has taught me to be skeptical of much of what I think I know to be true. I’m sure that even I have details wrong but I’m on guard against believing that history has obscured some things from total clarification.

Dr. Pardo’s office, at least where I remembered it, was past the Monroe Baptist Church, in Monroe, Arkansas, on the opposite side of the road from the tavern. He supposedly traveled around at least 3 counties.

Dr. Valentine Pardo (he was listed as “Valentin” on travel manifests) studied to be a dentist and a doctor. He was born in Placetas, Cuba, in 1902 or 1903. Having both skills was invaluable for such a small community. He had left Cuba when he was 18 and arrived in the U.S. on the 23rd of June, 1920 to live in New York and get his dentistry degree. After about a year, he decided to become a medical doctor and went to Kansas City to earn his medical degree. When he got it, he came to Arkansas to practice. When the U.S. government hired him as one of a group of doctors to go to East Arkansas, it was to help fight disease on that side of the state.

The story is that he would make house calls and would drive by jeep or mule. Many times, he accepted payment in any way a person could afford to make it. One of the stories I do remember is that he never turned anyone away for not being able to pay him. He delivered around 5,000 babies, as well as doing dentistry, too.

When I grew up, I was pleasantly shocked to find out that he was Cuban. This, too, was quite a revelation and explained how foreign and surreal his voice sounded to me as a child. To be Cuban and end up in Monroe County seemed like the most unlikely thing in the world to me.My grandma visited Dr. Pardo quite often to get her “pills.” I didn’t get to hear him speak very often, but when I did, his voice sounded exotic to me.

I remember listening to one of my aunts and grandma talking about him, telling stories of him traveling late at night, in storms, or just about any distance to help someone.

I know that he lived until around 1996. One of my biggest “misses” as an adult was not looking him up to talk to him about his life. I’ve always thought that his life would have made an ideal book or maybe even a movie.

One of the biggest myths about him was that he wasn’t licensed to work in the state. It isn’t true. Anyone so inclined can visit the state’s archives and find his medical license and information. Maybe the myth is more interesting. I’m not sure. The misconception lessens his effort to realize his American dream and put down roots in eastern Arkansas.


Grandmother Terry Was (Barely) 14 When She Married

My paternal grandmother: Harriet Charline Mull, born on  23 Oct 1917.
My paternal grandfather:  James Arthur Terry, born on 07 Jun 1908.
They were married on 26 October 1931, plus or minus a day.
My grandmother would have been 14 years and 4 days old.
My grandfather would have been 23 years, 4 months and 20 days old.
If you enlarge the picture of their marriage license, below, you will note that it erroneously indicates that she was 15 years old at the time, for whatever reason.  She wasn’t. She had just turned 14.  There is also a signed affidavit above the license, indicating that grandmother’s parents gave consent for the marriage, although their signature isn’t on the document.


We can further pinpoint her age, even if oral accounts differ. The 1920 census page for my grandmother’s family is above. The census sheet is dated 06 February 1920. This means that she was 2 years, 3 months and 15 days old on the day the census sheet was completed. If you look closely, the census sheet has her at around 2 6/12, which is close.
Her social security index and tombstone also all agree with these dates.
The purpose of this post isn’t to attempt to draw attention to her marrying “too young” or anything of that sort. It’s to document that people should stop and look deeply into their family trees to see how their ancestors lived and not only ask about the superficial details.
All of the interesting stuff lies much deeper than the superficial details found in the average family tree.
Why did grandmother marry so young?
Why was grandfather so much older?
Was a pregnancy involved or some other factor?

I’m assuming that my grandfather well knew that she had just turned 14 instead of the 15 indicated on the signed affidavit. Maybe another family member knows and would perhaps share the ‘story’ of this with me. But probably not. I have a lot of dates, facts, and sources for her life but not too many stories which enrich the story of her life. Her memory is fading as people inevitably take their own places in the inescapable hall of memories. It doesn’t have to be that way, but most people aren’t forthcoming with their own genealogy efforts or with their stories.


“The Fault In Our Stars” (Update)

The Fault In Our Stars  (Novel, not movie…)

Have you ever had a mystery revealed to you? Even when you know you aren’t going to comprehend fully, you get a glimpse of what it might feel like to be satisfied with your own mind? Reading this book was like that for me.Such a book overshadows your days, lingering at the edges of everything you say and do. For anyone unfamiliar with such a feeling, I would ask that life allow each of us at least once to be so overpowered by the written word. I’ve never been one to concern myself too much with book genres; I find that ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting’ are better expressions of the content of a book. While this separation seems a bit too generalized, each of us is also governed by where we are in life as we experience a new book. I think that TFIOS is one of the few novels that will touch you regardless of your circumstances. I wish that I would have read this book when it was first published. It would have been such a boon to use the humor with my cousin Jimmy and others. How other people who’ve lost people to cancer might avoid being overwhelmed reading this book is beyond me. Whatever your temperament, you can’t “just read” this book and not immerse yourself in issues beyond the book. It is personal, much like the way John Green describes the cancers his characters live and die with.

I’m a late arrival to the John Green bandwagon. For whatever reason, I’ve always read his words in bursts on the internet, even at the expense of not watching him and his brother on their online presence, or of reading his novels. Despite my lesser writing ability, I see an affinity with the unexpectedness clever preciseness of his writing.

Even though I bought the book for interim reading on a recent trip to Hot Springs, I found myself gleefully abandoning the facade of the real world for the quick-witted, emotional world of The Fault In Our Stars. Few books have hit me with such explosive force. It compares equally to A Prayer For Owen Meany in punch. While the latter’s world is more complex, TFIOS is a rapid succession of both emotion and wit. For those who have lost people close to them to cancer, it not only will make you laugh at the serious absurdity of it all, but challenge you to not cry. For it to have been written by someone not scarred by cancer, it is a testament to John Green’s intense style.Regardless, you will yearn for a world inhabited by people as smart and interesting as Hazel Grace and Augustus. As you walk around your real life while consuming this book, the people you encounter will suffer by comparison.

For the five people who’ve never heard of “TFIOS,” I would ask you to forego the usual clichés and give this book a try. Whether you are into clever banter or engaging story, this novel should satisfy anyone. I’ve heard some criticism of the movie, as it allegedly veers too harshly into shmaltz. With the novel, John Green writes with such clever insight that you’ll find yourself wanting to earmark pages for re-reading and sit alone with a cup of coffee, pondering the issues it will free up in your mind. For whatever reason, reading the book will spark 100 distinct bouts of creative thought and leave you wondering why you couldn’t have shared the world described in the book. At its heart, the book is devastatingly harsh, but always true, and always resonates.

“You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect.”

“I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

“The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture.”

“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”

“The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

“That’s part of what I like about the book in some ways. It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence”

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”

― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars


Either Hypocrisy or Mixed Messages (A Memory)

In the early 2000s, my Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck finally tried to learn to use a computer. Ardith got a special discount for internet, having worked at AT&T seemingly forever. I wasn’t involved in buying the computer: Ardith bought it with winnings at a casino. The computer was very slow and wasn’t very much to begin with. I fixed that miserable machine dozens of times, adding memory, a bigger hard drive, replacing the power supply, reloading the OS a couple of times, etc.

My focus with the aunt and uncle was to get them to see the utility of a computer for bookkeeping, email, weather, and easily staying in touch with anyone in the world. I also loaded the computer with thousands of pictures. It was my hope that they computer would reduce the isolation that their retired lives and constant drinking were creating.It was an uphill climb, too. They seemed to attempt to use it most often after having too much to drink. It was a terrible combination and I ignored it as best as I could. I spent hours at their house, going through the same routines over and over in an attempt to get them able and comfortable using a computer. I spent a lot of time with Jimmy, teaching him to use antivirus software, fix minor issues and keep the computer running. But other people such as one of his half-sisters and a couple of friends of the family were constantly doing stupid stuff on the computer: not only looking at some fairly crazy stuff on the internet, but deleting important files, cancelling necessary stuff on the computer, etc.

Because my cousin Jimmy was at his parent’s house so often, it was usually he who used it go get on the internet and it was also his job to call me when something wasn’t working right. One thing Jimmy enjoyed were those stupid videos, the kind usually featured on America’s Funniest Home Videos. He also liked the ones that were a lot more vulgar, such as the ones featured on the movie/show “Jackass.” He would watch the same video over and over and over. Honestly, Jimmy loved watching porn on his parents computer, too. Instead of wasting my time trying to convince him not to, I instead showed him to try to keep it away from the accidental eyes of his parents.

I don’t know when exactly, but at some point, a supposed friend of the family “found” the videos that Jimmy had hidden on the computer. By way of preface, the friend of the family was a very shady character himself, having been involved in every nefarious activity he could get into. (Jimmy and I later had a good time making many funny pictures based on this guy, who I’ll call John to protect his guilt. Up until Jimmy died we would sometimes say “Even babies hated John” to get a good laugh.)

My Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck flipped out on Jimmy. (As much as they ever could flip out on him or become angry – he always escaped unscathed from consequences with them.) They then tried to act like all of it was somehow my fault and that I was some type of degenerate for letting Jimmy leave the horrible videos on the computer.

Also by way of preface, my Uncle Buck had always had one of the biggest porn magazine stashes in the world. It was in the upper left side of his bedroom closet. He also kept a few in the garage where his electronic repair area was located. He was certainly no stranger to either porn or illicit behavior. I’ve already told you stories of some of the absolute craziness and destructive behavior all of my family had been involved in, so  a repeat shouldn’t be necessary – just keep in mind that both my aunt and uncle were guilty of much, much worse behavior than looking at bad videos on a computer.

A few days later, I remember Aunt Ardith getting drunk and just going on and on about how sick Jimmy and I were. Using my normal direct approach, I told my aunt and uncle that they were being very hypocritical and should stop and compare their own behavior to any accusation towards Jimmy and especially toward me, as anything on the computer was Jimmy’s, not mine. I used examples of their own porn stashes, affairs, and DWIs as examples to drive home my point of hypocrisy. They got really angry because I pointed out the hypocrisy. It was one of the few times they got mad like that at me. They drank too much every day, so it was difficult to catch them in a normal state of mind, much less talk to them rationally.

I don’t know at what point one of them had complained to the Brinkley Aunts. Jimmy and I had one aunt in particular who was always judging people and turning her nose up at anything or anyone she disagreed with. This really angered Jimmy. He wanted to get 5 or 6 of his dad’s favorite porn magazines or vhs tapes and mail them to his aunts to see how his dad would enjoy being called out. I finally convinced Jimmy to not do anything stupid and let me come up with a way to get through to them. Had I to do it all over again, Jimmy and I would have loaded up their mailboxes with every kind of porn imaginable.

For a couple of days, I couldn’t figure out how to talk to Uncle Buck when he wasn’t drinking. I knew that there was no point even trying to get through to them if alcohol were present. After an inspiration, I wrote him a letter and put it in the middle of his newspaper. I drove over to his house at 4 in the morning and put the letter inside the rolled up paper and then put the paper on the porch. I knew that my uncle would find it, read it when he was sober and realize that Jimmy looking at videos in bad taste on the computer was almost meaningless in comparison to the things that our adult family members had put us through when we were growing up. I also reminded my uncle that he had short-changed Jimmy and I – as we had no way to be adults and talk to him when he wasn’t under the influence and Uncle Buck well knew my dislike of trying to be around alcoholics. I had written my uncle, detailing a few of the things that were MUCH worse in comparison to looking at bad videos on a computer, both words and violence that had direct impacts on living people.

When Jimmy read a copy of the letter, he teared up and told me that, until that moment, he had never really considered how crazy some of the stuff we had lived through had been. I might have used a verbal sledgehammer in my letter to my uncle, but it really opened Jimmy’s eyes. I think that letter I wrote to his dad made him see me more as an adult than he had ever thought about.

Anyway, I don’t know ‘why’ I wrote down this memory in particular.Every once and a while, Jimmy would joke about how pissed he had gotten about his parents telling the family in Brinkley about the videos on the computer. “F them,” he would say and then laugh.

A Reminder About Our Own Lives (Update)

During Jimmy’s last days, I was one of the people trying to help him be in comfort and be in control of the little life and time that he had left. It was hard and I wasn’t good at it all, even though I was a geriatric nursing aid for over two years when I was young. Everyone had demands on his life and his wife. Half-forgotten acquaintances, disconnected family members and others clamored to have their moment with him. It was too much. Like so many, I was spoiled in the pursuit of my own life and demands on my time.When someone we love is stricken, we have great intentions, some of which get withered away by the sheer fatigue of normal life. A lot of my time with Jimmy honestly was to get him to think differently about his remaining time, regardless of how long he lived. I wanted him to get his affairs in order, make plans for everyone in his life, to use the energy he had to go places and be with people he truly wanted to be around. I’m sure I got on his nerves about living wills!

When Jimmy was healthy after the first bout of cancer, he focused on being alive and getting back into the daily effort to live and be happy. He needed time to get back to his own mental place of quiet. Most of the people Jimmy treasured had the chance to laugh and smile with Jimmy, to talk about the good times, and to wish him well on his new lease on life. Even I left him peace. I should have bothered him more, dropped in unannounced, and watched over him. But he was his own person and had his own laundry list to tend to. I made it clear to those caring directly for Jimmy that everyone, including me, should be told to go jump off a boat if necessary.

Anyone who had wanted time with Jimmy had more than 40 years before his cancer to enjoy life with him. They also had time during his first bout and during his remission. Many people squandered these opportunities – and that is okay. That is how life is. We often fail to express in our life what matters to us and time sneaks past us until all we have left are regrets and missed opportunities.The ones who squandered their chances the most were also by and large the people who were the most vindictive and vicious as Jimmy’s condition worsened. They tried to compensate for their failure to be with Jimmy in the past by lashing out and somehow trying to prove their devotion by demanding time with him when he wasn’t so willing or able to provide it.

You have to take advantage of your life in the present. Waiting until someone is crippled with a disease to attempt to recapture a lost connection is a disservice to everyone involved. It is not about you or me once someone is dying – it is about him or her and what he or she wants. His or her demands take precedence.

Once Jimmy’s cancer returned, it was another feat of energy for him just to deal with daily life. As more and more people came forward, it became a drain on his lifeforce. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate those who shared time with him before, but rather his limited energy had to be measured out and carefully tended. He avoided talking to many people; some of those people he sometimes wanted to talk to a lot but just didn’t have the energy. When you are confronted with a disease like cancer and you think it’s going to kill you, you want to live in the moment and not be constantly reminded of what is being lost.  Old acquaintances have less and less in common with you and while they might want to recapture some of what was lost, the person who is ill is facing losing everything, both past and present.Somewhere in the midst of all this, his mother got ill and died in a very short span of time. Jimmy’s life was very much connected to that of his mom. Her loss had a profound effect on him. Her death also opened up the door for another family member to continue to distract Jimmy about things that normal people shouldn’t have to deal with.

For many distanced friends, family and acquaintances, the polite veneer peeled back to reveal a self-righteous anger, especially when they were politely told “no.” For those of us in the middle of it all, we forgot that people don’t always respond to logic. Had I to do it all again, I think a taser and pile of restraining orders would have been handy. (And a 7′ hulk of a man whose sole job would have been to visit the miscreants draining away our energy. Anyone still arguing would have gotten one courtesy knock to the head and tied to a chair.)

As Jimmy started to withdraw and avoid talking to people, some of them didn’t respond well to being asked to wait or to plan their visits. The people providing care were put in the middle. Jimmy’s wife was left to be the scapegoat and recipient of the anger and stupidity of those people. As bad as it was for me, I can only imagine what it was really like to be the caregiver and yet be cursed at and threatened for following Jimmy’s wishes. People didn’t stop to think that Jimmy was always needing medication or that he was tired and confused a lot. He would have moments of great lucidity and a desire to talk to people – rare moments. Followed by intense withdrawals. Some couldn’t understand that this was normal for someone going through intense cancer treatment. Meanwhile, his wife, who was keeping Jimmy alive, was being called horrific names, harassed, and even threatened. Her motives were questioned and her life was degraded from some of the anger.

Meanwhile, someone who should have known better than any was torturing me. This person had missed the years of chances to visit Jimmy and once it became too late to do anything about it, lashed out with some of the most vile anger I’ve ever imagined or witnessed. I almost lost my mind over it. Had I to do it all over again, I would have been aggressive about it when it started, rather than hoping for a person’s better nature to come to the surface. So great was this person’s anger and guilt that I was ultimately cast as the villain in the story. Luckily, I was keeping my sanity for Jimmy. But I did waste a lot of my energy trying to get the idiot spreading anger out of my life. That energy could have been better served by being available for Jimmy and those around him. Instead, I had no choice but to suffer from the foolishness of this person who was ruining our lives under the guise of caring.

I want to be certain to mention that most people were understanding and could subvert their own wants and wishes long enough to listen to the family as Jimmy’s time was parceled out. As in daily life, most people are compassionate and generally great. A small handful of people can make life into a living hell, though, if they want to do so. There’s so much frustration wasted on the few who don’t listen that it can easily drown out the good people around us in these situations. Even though it was a lesson I thought I had already learned, the next time I have to deal with those who attempt to insist on their interference in such a situation, I think I’m going to opt for the less subtle approach. (The taser or a bucket of water…)

Link for the “Ring Theory” about not sticking your foot in your mouth…

In part, it was Jimmy’s resurgence of cancer that motivated me to keep writing. I’ll try to explain why in this sidebar. When Jimmy was younger, he was a hellcat. He loved Hank Williams, Jr, Pantera, and above all, Metallica. He loved smoking and drinking – being around people was his primary comfort in life. He was wild. His biggest demon was alcohol. It caused him a lot of heartbreak and misfortune. As he aged, his demon still climbed on his back, but somewhere along the way he opened his eyes to god and allowed himself to see another way of living. Even when he failed to live up to the standard, he knew in his heart what direction he should be walking. Even though we disagreed a lot on religion, he knew that I got a kick out of the idea of a “Converted Jimmy.” Jimmy knew what failure was but he still plugged away at the idea of a renewed life, spiritually and in daily life. The first time I went to church with him as an adult was an interesting invitation into his new life. To see family members look at us is astonishment – that both of us were going to church, was a great laugh for Jimmy. One thing he disliked intensely were those who professed to be christian yet lived their lives in judgment of others. Given Jimmy’s propensity to drink, it’s no wonder. These observations lead me to mention that the latter part of Jimmy’s life didn’t mesh well with his youth. Those who wanted to remember Jimmy as nothing but a hell-raiser couldn’t accept that while Jimmy still had that hell-raiser loose inside him, he had changed into someone else, moving in a different direction. Many of the people who caused difficulty for Jimmy’s wife tended to be those who shared the younger years with him. They had indeed shared many a drink with Jimmy and even a degree of love with him – but couldn’t see that he wasn’t the same person. Even during Jimmy’s viewing, a childhood friend brought pictures and angrily told me that this new Fayetteville crowd had somehow tricked Jimmy – that he wasn’t that kind of church-going person they were trying to celebrate. He wanted to do the eulogy and share some of the wild stories. While I think mixing some of the old “wild Jimmy” with the Jimmy of the last few years of his life wold have been interesting, the truth is that the old crowd still would have felt as if his real legacy had been betrayed. That’s what convinced me to write more. In my case, no matter what sins or mistakes I’ve made, anyone can come back to my words and see firsthand what I’ve wrote. My own words will be the best guide of what I thought was interesting or important.

It’s not the destination that matters most, for we all will finish our journey inside the same house. How we get there is the story. None of us are the same person at the end of the journey as we were when we stepped into life. None of us knew how complex, beautiful, and utterly tiring life can be. I wish Jimmy’s journey had been at least a little longer and maybe then I could have convinced him to share more openly so that he can be remembered the way he might have wanted.

He was, like most of us, different in each of our eyes.


A Wedding (Update)

“Time announces itself not with bells, but with whispers.” -x

I’ll start this post with a funny anecdote. (It would be funnier if someone other than me were to write it down!) Jimmy and Alissa were to be married at her mother’s house on the east side of  Springdale. The wedding had been assembled in a few short days and the house, though large, was full of people. Jimmy was pacing the house, nervous and trying to relax. At one point, he wanted to sneak away and smoke. Given how close it was to the start of the wedding, I told Jimmy he didn’t have time. Ignoring me, we went out the back in the garage. He very seriously and in a very quiet voice told me to keep watch by the door to make sure that Pastor Harry wouldn’t come out and surprise Jimmy, catching him smoking. Naturally, I obliged, but pointed out that Pastor Harry had probably seen worse things than people smoking, regardless of cancer or weddings taking place. Jimmy insisted that Pastor Harry not find out. The cigarette had a huge impact on Jimmy’s state of mind and calmed him down, but I was still amused that Jimmy thought Pastor Harry would have cared whether he smoked or not. As we went back inside, I stood in the middle of the living room and told everyone, Pastor Harry included, that I had just been outside with Jimmy so that he could smoke, and that Jimmy had me stand guard so that Pastor Harry wouldn’t find out Jimmy had been smoking. Everyone turned to look at me, as I had just ratted Jimmy out. And then we all laughed. Alissa’s dad Nick laughed the most over it. Jimmy just shook his head and smiled when he heard what I had done. At least I fixed his Pastor Harry problem!

While Jimmy and I were in the garage, he told me that he should have gotten married a long time before, not just for himself, but for Alissa, his son Noah, and Alissa’s girls. He reminisced a little over his first marriage years before in Eureka Springs. Jimmy had been deathly afraid that I was going to run around naked as a surprise for that ceremony. He got the idea because I kept telling him I was going to do it. (For reference, he was married the first time in a glass and steel church, one which would have been ideal for a bout of streaking…) I promised him that I wasn’t going to pull any stunts and he told me it might be a good surprise for Alissa’s family if I ran through the living room naked. He was certain that Nick would get a laugh, if not a snapshot to commemorate the event.

Just a few short weeks before Jimmy’s death, he had finally decided to get married. One of the reasons I moved up my plans to become an ordained minister was to remove one of Jimmy’s impediments to getting it done. It surprised me when he had went to Las Vegas without getting married and I was also fairly sure that he and Alissa would have wanted a small ceremony somewhere private. I had been a strong advocate for Jimmy to get those things done in his life which he thought to be valuable. When he and his then-fiancé went to Las Vegas, I talked to him more than once about getting married there to minimize the stress and to focus on the positives, rather than his fears. During a couple of his hospital visits, I thought he might opt to go ahead and take the plunge. Having my minister credentials made it possible if were to come up.

There’s no reason now to sugarcoat the fact that several people were against Jimmy getting married. Some were very angry about it. Their anger led to much of the frustrating interference in his life that I wrote about in a previous blog post. Another word for those naysayers: doofus. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but opinions should be grounded in facts. In Jimmy’s case, disconnected acquaintances and some family were alleging that Jimmy didn’t know what he was doing or that his fiancé was somehow forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. How they could have known Jimmy’s mind well enough at that point is the reason for my derision of their opinion. Their were only a handful of people that were very close to Jimmy in his last weeks.

As outspoken as I am, as negative as I can be about things at times, I had been 100% supportive and encouraging toward Jimmy getting married and to live his life to the fullest he was able. For quite a long time, it included marrying Alissa. Jimmy had often expressed his regret of not marrying again, of not trying for a normal life. It surprised me that he was reluctant to take the plunge. When he would talk openly to me, he was honest and revealed that much of his reluctance was actually grounded in other people being negative about marriage, especially with Alissa. His mom was one of those reluctant ones, but even Jimmy could see that she wasn’t normally a person motivated by happiness.It seemed that a few people were spreading their own fear and distrust into Jimmy’s head.His mind would get cluttered with “what ifs” and fears of what could happen; to which, I would counter reply that all the positives could happen just as easily and it would better to decided things not from a vantage of fear, but choose based on hope and positives. Jimmy and Alissa had experienced troubles. To use the excuse of difficult times to not take a leap of faith is to lose before the attempt. When Jimmy first dated Alissa, I heard only his side of things. (Upon meeting her, I was surprised to discover that she couldn’t breath fire and that she wasn’t carrying a loaded gun to shoot those who argued with her.)

Getting to the point: if you were one of those people being negative or hateful about Jimmy remarrying, you were wrong. It was a good thing, perhaps even a great thing.Alissa stepped forward and took care of Jimmy for long months. She was his lifeline and his only source of constancy in life. When everything else was waning, she was there, during chemo, radiation and above all, when Jimmy’s impatience and anger would get the best of him. Most people didn’t get to see Jimmy when he would be in those long, dissatisfied bouts of depressive funk. Just as Jimmy’s misunderstanding about the severity of his disease hindered him, Alissa’s presence allowed Jimmy to live longer. (Jesus himself would have pistol-whipped Jimmy a couple of times, or at least hollered at him. Alissa managed to avoid setting his bedclothes on fire.) Those who were judgmental about Jimmy’s choices and his marriage were not witnesses to the daily struggle as Jimmy came to terms with his slide into oblivion.

(Now that time has elapsed sufficient enough to think more clearly, I would remind everyone that I’ve been quite clear about my thoughts and wishes if something as harsh as cancer should get the best of me. My wife gets to decide when, if, and everything else. If I choose to act strangely, it is because I choose to. Please stay to the right, so to speak, and allow me disintegrate in the manner I see fit. I would wish fire upon your head if you were to speak ill or interfere with my wife as she strives to entertain my wishes. It seems obvious to say so, but those closest to us in our boring daily lives get the ultimate say in just about everything when our lives are ending. I would want whoever I leave behind me to get out the taser or shotgun and deal with those interfering appropriately.)

It’s easy to look at the wedding pictures and focus solely on how gaunt and frail Jimmy looked. You can choose to either see him as an ill person getting married, or as someone getting married who is ill. I think the perspective you look with indicates much about your own outlook.

This picture is of Jimmy and Alissa during the after-party. It reveals so much about the weeks leading up the wedding and of Jimmy’s priorities before his death. Again, you can look at this picture and be overcome with sadness; to me, it is a metaphor for our lives. If we are looking closely at our lives, we should be able to see that none of us know for certain whether we are closer to the end or to the beginning of our time. We often fail to honor the staggering implication of our lives being either quickly or slowly snatched from us.For good or ill, Jimmy had the unavoidable and unenviable long approach toward his own death.

Jimmy, Alissa, and Pastor Harry. Pastor Harry evidently needed a kiss, too.

Just to be sure everyone understands the context of some of the wedding pictures: Jimmy had no bottom teeth, something that bothered him relentlessly. Not just because of his lessened eating ability, but because his mouth was pulled up and tight due to the growing tumors. I’ve had people incorrectly assume that Jimmy wasn’t smiling because he didn’t have cause to. His physical limitations were always there to bother him. Even when he smoked, he had to curl his mouth a certain way.

Here’s a picture of Jimmy making his favorite person in the world comfortable and more handsome.


For this picture, you might not think so, but Jimmy had just laughed at me. He was fidgeting and I joked to him that I would run and fling open the back garage door if he wanted to run away. He laughed and asked if his face looked funny. “No more than usual,” I told him and hugged him, then quietly asked if he and Pastor Harry wanted to go outside for a quick cigarette – and then promptly made my own face for the next picture.

Some might wonder at the efficacy of a wedding so close to one’s death. I would ask you to note that the only difference is that Jimmy clearly saw his approaching reaper and made a positive decision. Each of us, right now, might be breathing our last breath or might have just started our last day on the face of the earth. We just don’t know. That Jimmy did know can’t be used to lessen the meaningfulness of his decision to get married. His was a position that we all secretly and fervently wish to avoid and we should grant him the measure of respect he earned – not just through his cancer, but because he was a human being whose time and effort in this place is worthy of consideration.

Words Jimmy texted to his new wife on his wedding night:  “I love u so much Alissa. And can’t say enough how beautiful you are. I love you.”