Category Archives: Biographical

Celery Is The Cure For Happiness – An Autobiographical Anecdote

 

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The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.

To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.

I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.

I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.

Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school. I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly. I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.

Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing as delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were always held in high esteem. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.

At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.

I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book – and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.

Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies. Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.

Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”

As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating was a characteristic of all real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next-door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth. (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit with sufficient time to do so.)

It is strange looking back, because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings did. I often daydreamed of sautéing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.

In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial stoves. Countless times, I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.

One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates; I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.

In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.

It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the under-rim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.

I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.

A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.

How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something that I often didn’t touch. However, I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.

“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.

The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. Moreover, I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.

This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.

Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.

We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned. While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.

She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.

 

If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.

Another Nostalgic Surprise

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Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.

A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.

My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.

As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.

The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…

P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.
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An Imperfect Expression of Memory

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It’s strange that jadeite glass and kitchenware was created to brighten people’s day in the early part of the 20th century. The idea that the glassware was made without any real focus toward consistency of color and defects makes it more interesting to me. If I were in charge of the world, every cup, plate, spoon, and fork would be distinct, both in style and color. Consistency for appearance is one of the biggest constrictive forces in our lives.

When I was young, my grandpa often drank from a jadeite coffee mug. There’s so much I don’t remember or remembered wrong. A few years ago, I thought I had it figured out but as if often the case, my certainty evaporated into 100% confusion. I find it hard to reconcile that I remember so many distinct moments so vividly, but yet somehow have lost 99% of the memories around them. My grandparents were magical to me, in part to their living at the edge of a cotton field, and in part to my youth, one punctuated by upheaval and anger. If I had to define an anchor point of my young childhood, it would be the simple house along highway 39, where I learned to love salt pork, mustard sandwiches, and coffee. I once tried to enumerate the number of places I had lived in my youth and it exceeds 20 and almost certainly reaches 30. I would consider the place in City View to be another defining place for me, one completely dissimilar in geography and content than the one in Monroe County, but one which shared the connection of people.

I had my first cup of coffee when I was very young. I remember my grandpa shushing my grandma Nellie. He was a big proponent of letting people try things, even if they shouted in surprise or pain as they did so. It’s part of the reason I learned to wince when I hit my fingers with a hammer, instead of screaming in pain. I sat at the table, trying not to burn my fingers on the hot glass of the coffee cup. Grandpa made me that cup of coffee in a green jadeite coffee cup. He put a dollop of evaporated milk in mine, mainly because he thought I’d like it better that way. Given that I once loved eating ashes and cinders, he should have assumed that I would prefer it black and bitter. (I still prefer coffee to be black – and I still can’t resist the taste of a burned match tip and the much-maligned flavor of a lot of burned foods.)

It’s very likely that grandma and grandpa got their jadeite with promotional items. It was included in sacks of flour, at giveaways at grocery stores and with ‘green stamp’ promotions. Grandma always had several glasses that were, in reality, empty snuff jars. Most were W.E. Garrett snuff jars. Like most people of her time, she also had an extensive collection of butter bowls and other assorted kitchen items which served other purposes in their previous lives. Grandma also saved anything interesting so that I could bury it in my ongoing excavation project next to highway 39. Both grandparents lived through the Great Depression and it molded much of their attitudes about things. Because of nostalgia, mason jars for drinking are in vogue. I’m waiting for snuff jars to get their turn in the sun again. Jadeite made a resurgence a few years ago thanks to Martha Stewart and a few ardent aficionados. It’s also weird to think that jadeite was widely used in diners and cafeterias, an almost valueless item back then.

I also know that my grandparent’s glassware was by Fire-King because grandpa would often set his coffee cup directly on the wood stove in the living room. I learned to read a few words ahead of my time, as life was slower in that part of Monroe County. Sitting on the floor, idly tracing words and letters was a great way to pass the simmering days, or poking myself with a sewing needle as grandma patiently showed me to sew without a thimble. I’ve never used one, despite discovering that I could stick one into my finger fairly deeply when distracted.

It turns out that cups made from original jadeite glass aren’t supposed to go in a microwave. (I also find it incredible to think that residential countertop microwaves first appeared in 1967, the year I was born.) One of the things I learned is that a couple of the companies making jadeite glass used glass that contained uranium. They did so up until WWII. Like all things, jadeite has a wider history than I would initially believe. To learn one thing without learning a spider web of interconnected details is impossible.

Even though I’m a minimalist, I ordered a green jadeite coffee mug from a collector on Etsy. The one I ordered is similar than the one I recall. As a nostalgia item, it serves its purpose despite not being quite right. If my grandpa could see that I had not only figured out what type of cup it was but also buy one online, he would shake his head in wonder at the crazy things that people do, especially for dishes. Like me, he would think anyone wanting matching plates and cups had lost his or her mind.

After years of wondering and searching for the green coffee cup I remembered so well, a friend of mine on social media unexpectedly posted a link to the exact brand I was looking for. I can’t completely explain why figuring out the origin of the green coffee cup was so satisfying for me, but it was. A few years ago, I asked my mom about the green coffee cup. She remembered a couple of them but since her memory wasn’t tied to anything personal, it didn’t have the same power of imagination and recollection attached to it. Grandma had some blue cups made by the same company, too.

Holding this touchstone from decades ago, I can imagine my grandpa, sitting in his chair, watching me as I sat on the wooden floor in front of the stove. He gave me the gift of coffee and the effervescent joy of running carelessly in the mud which inevitably curves its way around the fields.

 

“The Picture” Lives On…

 

I originally posted this in 2014.

Enough time has passed since Jimmy died for me to remember the goofiness more than the anguish of cancer that he endured. It’s natural that death works that way, as he was alive and kicking for much longer than he was suffering. There are still those days when I catch myself wondering what Jimmy might make of something or I half-expect him to drive up to the house after getting more stuff for his hoard from a local garage sale.

Fair or not, a lot of Jimmy’s energy was siphoned away by his one family member’s obsession with money and getting what she thought was hers. It was a travesty and I learned a lot from it, whether I wanted to or not. It angered Jimmy that he was being punished with cancer. Had he survived and not relapsed, I think he might have begun to feel pity for his family member again, as she was at the whim of her own addictions and demons – and he could see it.

The above picture is one which my cousin Jimmy insisted I take of him. It was immediately after his first cancer surgery. We were at his mom’s house. (My Aunt Ardith.) As you can see, Jimmy was still smiling and laughing. His mom wasn’t too thrilled with our brand of humor. Our custom was to make the most outrageous, tasteless and macabre statements that we could imagine. Between the two of us, we used to come up with some epic craziness. Aunt Ardith would sit in her perch on the couch next to the sliding glass doors, drinking her whiskey and coke, smoking, and feigning surprise and mirth at some of our goofiness. We had the ability to literally say anything to each other or about each other, directly, without fear of anger.

Jimmy was very confident that he was going to beat cancer. When this picture was taken, I was very hopeful. Realistically hopeful, I thought. Jimmy joked that this picture would make an ideal Christmas card. His mom specifically told me that I had better not make cards with the picture on it. (My reputation for doing that sort of thing was quite well known…) Jimmy then chimed in that it would make an ideal “All I got was this lousy bout of cancer” t-shirt. It’s still funny, although with a slightly different twist to it now.

The plan was going to be to post this picture on Facebook after-the-fact. Jimmy was interested in being able to talk to people about his experiences. As a well-liked employee of Budweiser, he knew a lot of people and would have a lot of opportunities to talk to people. Unfortunately, his cancer came back to take him down.

This picture might as well have been taken in another century. It both seems like both yesterday and ten years ago simultaneously. His mom became ill and died a few short months before him after he relapsed. His mom’s house is sold to strangers and Jimmy’s life is fading in everyone’s collective consciousness.When Jimmy died, I had tried to get people to write anecdotes and stories to share with me. I had made a commitment to share them out in the world in such a way as to attempt to keep those memories alive. I did my best to disseminate his pictures to friends and family, sharing them on public drives and makings disks, printed copies and any other method I could think of. We all have our stories and moments to remember with Jimmy. Some of us have a strong collection of memories, many of which were times that weren’t fun while we were living them but are as much a part of his life as the “good” times. As time slides past us, our stories will slide into the fog with us.

Whether it is wrong to say so or not, Jimmy’s death affected me in countless more ways than my own mother’s death did. I was with Jimmy for much of his final time and was with him when he finally had nothing left with which to fight. He weighed so little that it seemed only his soul remained in him.

Not only were we contemporaries, but we shared a common bond of ridiculous attitude toward many of life’s idiocies. We were both forged in a family where laughter could be replaced by drunken rage without notice. My youth was fuller thanks to Jimmy and his parents, even when the times weren’t so good.

Jimmy’s life was one of potential. His younger years were full of missteps and mistakes. (Isn’t that true of all of us, though?)  It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of his promotion at Budweiser, of his relationship with his girlfriend (and then wife) before his passing, or of his new appreciation for the scarcity of life. Had cancer not kicked him, I think he would have been one of those people who would have flourished with another lease on life. His laugh would have been a beacon to people and his youthful impatience would have dissipated.

 

 

(Jimmy is on the far right. Picture from Dogpatch, USA, the 1970s.)
If you’re interested, you can find a few more stories about my cousin Jimmy on this blog by using the “Category” drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the main blog page.
Here’s one: A Reminder…   and An Unfinished Blog Post.

I Think His Name Was Johnny

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It is strange how the human mind works.

This is a picture of a neighbor of mine, from years ago. I had a picture of us once. I took it in a moment in which he was feeling spontaneous. Jokingly, he asked to see it one afternoon and so I went inside and found it, handing it to him with a smile, so that he could look at it and make a wisecrack.

“Thanks,” he said, and put it in his pocket. I never saw that picture again.

This picture is one I took when I came out of my place and saw him sitting on the stoop, watching life pass him on the nearby street.

 

He lived near me and I spoke to him at least 100 times. While I have the ability to newly discover his name, I don’t recall what it is without using the power of the internet. He spoke with his hands, always, as his fingers moved through the air to document how much he had seen in his life.

I think his name was “Johnny,” and even as I tell myself that this is the case, I doubt my memory. I remember how animated he was when another neighbor left their car in the wrong gear. It rolled down the slight hill and smashed his older and meticulously-maintained older car. I also remember asking him for a lit cigarette (I didn’t smoke) and sticking it up one of my nostrils. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to need CPR.

He killed himself with a pistol as he sat mired in his loneliness, near the narrow road in that insufferably small town, where the community pool once existed. The road is no longer so narrow, but my memory remains constricted.

I felt stupid and selfish, watching the thunderstorm of police and bystanders near the road. His wife was there, waiting for the rush to subside. I drank at least 6 cups of coffee, one after another as word spread that he had killed himself. He had lived a fascinating life, one filled with great moments and great turmoil.

I feel like my own unseen and upcoming suffering erased him from my mind.

I see his picture in my photo archives. It picks at me for reasons that I can’t quite place.

I added the hyperrealistic effect to the colors because my memory of who he truly was has made its escape from my grasp.

A Day in 2006

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As you get older, photo albums become museum exhibits, each page containing an increasing number of people who’ve departed. From life to history, exchanged laughter to memory, photos measure our metamorphosis into two-dimensional objects, even as our minds scramble to keep the growing blank spaces filled in.

One day, if we are lucky, loving hands will choose our picture to honor a place in their album. We’ll sit in frozen repose, our life encapsulated inside a rectangular slice of paper. Maybe someone will look at our features and shed a tear for our passing and perhaps even laugh uproariously as we are remembered in our glory of ridiculousness.

In time, though, even those hands will succumb to frailty and find their own place in an album chosen by another friend or family member. We are each a link in the perpetual chain of human memory.

This is not a call-to-action, nor another “carpe diem.” Rather, it’s a call-to-inaction.

I ask you to sit in silence and look at the arc of your life, one measured in mirth, connections in time, and moments. It’s impossible to reflect on one’s own life without appreciating the immensity of days most of us have been given. Each passes us by, though, and afterward, we are left to wonder how they slithered past.

Your series of rectangles will wait there for you, somewhere in the nebulous fog of time, even if you reach then unprepared.

We ask for things when moments always suffice.
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P.S. This is a picture I took years ago, in 2006. I was feeding the ducks and the half-submerged and hesitant turtles lurking near the bank of the pond. The lady and boy were visiting. While it was her clothing which caught my attention, it was the incredible wit of the young boy who stole the moment. He was a delight and my wife kneeled down to discuss important matters of zoology with him. I didn’t snap a picture because I was overwhelmed by the interesting people and moment. I don’t remember any other details about the encounter, except that it was a late Monday afternoon.

 

The Very Thing

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*Written as a response to someone who says it shouldn’t be done this way…
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“Very,” I whisper into the wind. I look up for a second, seeing a world devoid of words, yet never at a loss for perfect expression.

Around me, a gathering mist settled and the air moved with a tinge of chilliness. My coffee had long since turned cold, absently set aside and neglected.

Sitting on the park bench at the edge of the woods, I read the words which had cascaded from my mind, through my fingers, and onto the paper on my lap. I imagined the voice of a high school English teacher, almost deafening with assumed authority. In my head, I heard her lecture us all about using words lazily. Her principal argument was that our language was an ocean of possible variations and that we owed it to ourselves to avoid banality. “Treat the word ‘very’ like a curse,” she would say, and “Choose a word more powerfully suited to your audience.” Her age granted her solemnity in her own mind; to me, it was a reminder that she was the gatekeeper to the way things once were. She erred on the side of the thesaurus, confident that complexity equated to prose. I learned her dance and to use words like suffocating blankets.

Hearing her ghostly voice in my head, I reminded myself that sometimes language was a thing of comfort and better-suited toward a regression toward simplicity. For most of us, “mom” was our first word, and words such as “fireplace,” although unimaginative, evoke emotional memories. The basic words survive precisely because of their universal connections. Since then, I’ve heard and read a 1,000 admonitions regarding words of simplicity or substitution and ‘very’ inevitably sits on the list. I read them all in the shrill voice of an unimaginative authority. They are not wrong, I will admit. They are not right, either, not entirely, and certainly not to me.

For all the thousands of childhood hours spent inside books, most of the authors wrote and spoke to me as friends and none seemed to evoke the authoritarian spectacle of my teacher. Rules were made to be understood and then discarded as needed, or locked away inside a private box until they learned to bend and behave to the will of the person giving them new life. Magic forever resided in the outlying edges of words.

For much of my life, my amateurish efforts have helped me overcome the grip of perfectionism which seems to haunt people who earn their living sharing words with strangers. I look at words like I might an expanse of piano keys, each key assigned a note but when played as a whole, an infinite stream of beauty. “Very” was one of those piano keys, easily substituted, but placed there with reason. Today’s melody might be one of majestic and operatic symmetry; tomorrow’s might be suited for an intimate dinner. I would not presume to tell the man clearing my sidewalks of snow that the roads were perilous. He’d rather know that they are risky.

Even as I sat on the bench, quiet and unmoving, an entire universe was swirling in my thoughts. I thought of my past, of my youth, and of the slow pop of the logs in the wood stove of the shotgun house in a field of cotton. That thing was both heat and community, a thing beyond its confines.

“How very beautiful, this thing of memory,” I whisper.

The thing that belied my simplicity of language was also somehow responsible for juxtaposing creativity and expression.

May your ‘very’ be forever at your lips, even if you’re told it shouldn’t be.

X

Mistaken Feline Identity

I was in the bathroom trying to shave, a doubtful enterprise at best, especially after being sick and deciding that my appearance was even less important for several days. My neck resembled a cheese left long-forgotten in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

My wife Dawn energetically opened the bathroom door, regardless of my current state, and breathlessly asked, “Why is Güino outside?” (Güino is our tuxedo cat and our current landlord.)

My mind began racing, attempting to imagine the scenario wherein the cat dematerialized and passed through a wall – or in a more sinister fashion, learned how to open the front door.

Dawn raced to the living room window facing the street and peered through the blinds. “He was looking at me through the office window!”

Just as I decided that I foolishly let him escape through some unimaginable series of events, Dawn exclaimed, “That’s not Güino!”

I almost regret that Dawn figured out the bewildering puzzle before cat-whispering the outside doppelganger strange cat into the house, only to be face-to-face with Güino.

What a strange tale we might have told, as our house morphed from a solo to a duet, cat fur flying in the background, one of the rarest cases of mistaken feline identity.

P.S. Dawn already wears glasses.

Living in a Glass Castle

This isn’t simply a review of the movie “The Glass Castle,” nor is it simply a biographical reflection. It is, however, an unsettling hybrid of a portion of myself and the movie. Like all things observed, our own peculiar perspective discolors the content of what we occupy ourselves with: our own face and temperament are reflected in the things we deceive ourselves into believing to be mere entertainment. While I was entertained by the movie, I was also stabbed in a way that few movies can achieve.

I knew the movie preview was slightly misleading and that it had artfully avoided showing the underbelly of what pervaded Jeannette Wall’s life. To be honest, I had forgotten the memoir, even though it was a book that I very much wanted to read a few years ago. After seeing the movie, I can appreciate just how much of the grime, horror, and shock was dropped from it. People love great stories but often recoil when the truth is laid bare. When a good writer is determined to be both honest and unflinching, some stories become too overwhelming. It’s quite the art to begin telling a story that people want to hear, but cringe as they lean in to hear the words they know will hurt them in a way that’s difficult to see.

Perversely, I was relieved to know that my instinct about the movie being sanitized was accurate. Much of the nuance was powerful and authentic; as a student of family violence, a couple of the scenes seemed disjointed to me. Perhaps it is madness to expect continuity in craziness but once you’ve filtered out the normalcy, even lunacy has its rules.

In the movie, Woody Harrelson as the dad is arguing with his daughter, insisting that she’s a revisionist to history. This pathos is one I’ve long held close to my own heart in my adult life. While I sometimes fail to steer away from revisionism, I at least know that I’m not impervious to the tendency. So many others, though, they cling to their idealized fantasies about people in our lives. They frequently take out their acquired masks and repaint them, all to tell themselves that the monsters in their past weren’t really monsters, just tormented and troubled people. People who do their best to tell their stories and to unmask their monsters are a threat to their self-identity. I want to see the monsters, both in my own life and in the lives of others. It does no one an injustice if you are sharing a piece of yourself. Each one of us owns our stories, even those pieces which darkly silhouette our lives.

I’ve written before that sometimes I observe the world and am amazed that most people seem to be unpoisoned by their own secret boxes, the ones some of us have managed to swallow, surpass, and mostly overcome. In my case, I judge most other people to be novices regarding human violence. Knowing the box is there at all robs me of a portion of my ability to live freely. It’s ridiculous to assert otherwise. If you don’t have such a box, feel glad, rather than doubtful that others had the necessity of constructing one to avoid fragmenting into incoherence.

 

After the movie and during the credits, the dad Rex was shown in grainy black and white, peering out of an abandoned building’s window, ranting about capitalism and property. It was clear that he was much angrier, unmoored, and detached than the movie would have us assume. My wife wouldn’t know it as she sat mesmerized beside me, but it was a visceral punch for me. The flash of recognition I experienced in seeing Rex as he really was versus Woody Harrelson’s impersonation of him almost untethered me. Seeing his as a ‘real’ person somehow unmasked the subtleness and veneer of the movie. Gone was the pretense of nobility or great acts. I could only see the residue of a base life, like the yellowish tint which permeates a smoker’s life. No matter what good Rex Hall might have done in his life, he was a part of what allowed children to be damaged. That any of them took this stew of disaster and emerged with great lives is a testament to our creativity and resolve.

So many of us had family members who would only marginally fit our definitions of what it means to be human. We individually adjust, trying to come to terms with the insanity of anger, knowing in our own hearts that some people are permanently damaged. We fight against the ignorance of others, the ones who insist that forgiveness and acceptance are on our plate and must be consumed. We know that anyone who hasn’t been in a room with a family member and suffered the inconvenience of knowing that our loved one truly might kill us in that moment cannot ever be reached on an emotional level. Until you’ve felt the metaphorical knife, the blade is just a vague unknowable threat.

One of my demons in life has been my aversion to a return to the crucible of anger and those who live there. I’ve been happiest when I’ve been able to reject such associations and cut the strings, and in some cases to stretch them. It’s always a fight, though, because those still melting in the crucible fight to keep you tethered to it as well. I no longer judge as harshly as I once did. Each of us decides for ourselves how our lives should proceed. Seeing the strings is all too often the first step to either severing them or ignoring them. I don’t take kindly to the angry insistence that I pay homage to the monstrous portions of my own past. I’m well aware that I have more than a few people who would gladly bash my head against a stone if it would mean they could resume believing the fantasy that my stories expose as untruths.

I know that intelligence forces us to do strange things with horror and mistreatment. Most of us buttress our sanity by converting these things into humor. It’s a skill I’ve honed for a few decades. As the credits rolled, I watched as Jeannette’s brother joked about his father’s memory, even as he sat at a table with his siblings who shared his past. I can’t speak for him. I do note, however, the brush of nostalgia in his words. Time is what grants us peace and the ability to laugh. Because life goes on, the fists and shattered bottles on the kitchen floor fade. We count our scars, both seen and unseen, and put one foot in front of another.

And sometimes, we watch a flawed movie that somehow reaches a talon inside our clenched hearts and ruptures a piece of what we’ve imprisoned away from the light. Because I know that the author of “The Glass Castle” had a life which was much worse than the movie revealed, my memory is slightly more forgiving. It makes me glad that the grandmother’s legacy has been forever stained and that some things were allowed to slither out from under the rocks to be viewed.

That a memoir such as “The Glass Castle” was written warms my heart. Jeannette Walls overcame and used her gift to sling arrows out into the world. Arrows are both weapon and tools, and she has done a great service to her own survival. The discomfort people might feel is an acknowledgment of how much suffering happens in the world. Next door, across town, wherever people live and breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family History is Literally What I Choose To Make It

This post has no point, no moral or objective. It’s just a fact.

My paternal grandmother had just turned 14 when she was married. When she married, my grandfather was much older than her. Grandmother had just turned 14 and although she needed a signatory to marry, even the marriage license states she was older than was true.

Even in Arkansas, it seems, people were always concerned about a scandal. When I was very young, I knew my dad wasn’t in Alaska, even though he told me this more as a drunken joke than an explanation. He was in prison in Indiana, for what amounted to a minor crime compared to a few things he had done, one of which resulted in someone’s premature demise. The amusing thing is that my Grandmother Terry was petrified of gossip about her and her family.

I’ve written from time to time about it and other family stories. Like so much of the family lore, I learned of the existence of hidden secrets via hushed silences, sideways glances, and anger when direct questions were asked.

As I grew older, I knew that one day research and DNA would ‘out’ much of the stories some family members didn’t to be revealed. Most of those family members have died, leaving a tantalizing list of questions that might never be answered.

But I do know this: much of what made them nervous under scrutiny were legitimately embarrassing stories and behavior. Their refusal to be honest is a much bigger problem than anything they tried to conceal.

Lately, I’ve seen so many stories which skirt the edges of my grandmother’s story. Some of the same people who seem shocked by the revelations in the public realm are the very same who worked so tirelessly to conceal the truth in my family’s foggy past. They “cluck” at others, all the while knowing their own past is littered with much worse.

Isn’t that the way it always seems to be?

The danger some of my departed family seems to not understand is that by failing to divulge some of the family secrets, they have left their legacy in the hands of someone like me.

If I don’t get answers, I’ll make it up, based on what most likely happened. Given the trajectory of what I do know, that gives me license to go in any direction, no matter how dire, without possible complaint from those who constantly shouted, “Hush!” at me.

Family history, it seems, is literally what I choose to make it.