Monday, December 21, 2009

A Safe Place

It's two o'clock in the afternoon. My wife, two friends, and I park at the unmarked entrance of a nondescript building. A phone call is made. The door opens and we step out of the bright sun into a dim, fluorescent-lit corridor. We are escorted though a maze of hallways, each under the scrutiny of monitored surveillance cameras. We are being watched closely. Each door we pass through requires a key or badge. Security is at its highest. This place is not a government bunker or a maximum-security prison. It's the Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, a safe haven for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. They've experienced firsthand the kind of violence that most of us only encounter in nightmares that leave us with racing hearts and sweaty skin. But these women have made the decision to leave, and, perhaps in the dead of night, they've fled their homes, leaving behind their old lives—along with many of their possessions—in order to start a new one. We're here to cook Christmas dinner for them. It seem like such a trivial thing to do when compared with the list of other needs they each must surely have.

The kitchen is in the middle of the residence, and "clients," as they're referred to, peek from their rooms and around corners as we make our way through the hall. Though small, the kitchen has sufficient room to work. We begin to unpack the rolling cart, suitcase, and cooler with the food and tools we will need to cook. On my team today are Margo, a friend and coworker (who I am convinced is my sister, Evelyn, incarnate), her friend Kristy, and my wife, Mary. They have graciously volunteered their time to help prepare the large meal. As we begin, I'm a little flustered. I'm not in my own kitchen, which throws me a bit. Fortunately, Mary steps in and makes the logistics flow. She is the Tom Cruise to my Dustin Hoffman.

Margo and Kristy chop apples, peppers, and onions while I retrieve from the cooler one of the two turkeys we'll be cooking. I smear butter and herbs in the pocket created by separating the skin from the meat with my fingers. Chopped apples, onions, and herbs go into the cavity of the turkey to act as aromatics and add flavor. The children's laughter bouncing through the halls surprises me. I don't know what I expected. Of the four or five years that we've cooked for the shelter, this is the first time we've cooked on site; the first time we've been in close proximity to the clients and them to us. A little girl suddenly appears at the kitchen door.

"Boo!" she says loudly. "Did I scare you?" We all feign surprise and shock, assuring her that we were, indeed, scared. She giggles and runs off. Moments later she is back to scare us again. And we are just as scared the second time around. And the third. And the fourth. Eventually the other children come into the kitchen to check things out, watch us work, and stand on tiptoes to peer into bowls being filled with chopped apples, peppers, and onions. A woman with a positively cherubic baby on her hip slips into the kitchen quietly and opens a cabinet door.

"I'm sorry, I just want to get a coffee cup and I'll be out of your way," she says. Out of our way? Is this another symptom of having been abused? The assumption that no matter where you are or where you go you're in someone's way?

"I think we're the ones in the way," I say with a smile and a slight laugh. A smile forms on her lips, hesitantly at first, then spreads across her face, crinkling her skin.

"No, we appreciate y'all coming in here and cooking for us," she says. The baby grabs a handful of Mom's hair and gently pulls her fingers through it. This child is beyond adorable. With chubby pink cheeks and eyes as blue as the Mediterranean, she is the kind of child who turns rational adults into babbling idiots. We all fawn over her, which delights her and her mother to no end. As they leave the kitchen, we all return the little one's bye-bye waves—not so much waves as fat little fingers repeatedly scrunched as if grabbing at invisible butterflies.

Both turkeys are now in the oven. Margo, Kristy, and Mary are a blur, cutting focaccia bread into cubes and sautéing onions and peppers as I chop celery for the rustic bread dressing. Mary has had the presence of mind to bring the iPod and a portable speaker. As we cook we're serenaded with Christmas tunes by Harry Connick, Jr., Chicago, Bebe and Cece Winans, and others. The pots on the stove release wisps of steam into the air, which is warm and thick with the smells of holiday food. Another woman steps into the kitchen, hands Margo an envelope, and quickly walks away. Margo opens it and begins to read the enclosed card to us. As she reads, her voice becomes strained and tears well up in her eyes. By the time she finishes, we are all overcome and unable to do anything remotely resembling work.

"Me and my children would like to thank you all for making Christmas dinner for us. It touches my heart that you all take time out of your own lives to touch someone else's. Thank you and God bless you."

She includes her first name and those of her three children—something not usually done in these circumstances. We compose ourselves and soldier on. It's time to toast the bread cubes and start the cranberry compote. Margo and Kristy have buzzed through chopping vegetables and bread. There's not much left to do except wait for the turkeys to finish cooking, so I tell them that if they want they can leave. I do have two other dishes to make, smashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and nutmeg, and green beans with a balsamic shallot butter, but these will be easy. After Margo and Kristy leave to be escorted back out, a little boy comes into the kitchen, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, and asks, "What're you doing?"
"We're cooking dinner," Mary responds.
"Wif what?"
"Well, there's turkey. Do you like turkey?"
A head shake no.
"How about dressing. Do you like dressing?"
Another no.
"What about sweet potatoes. Do you like those?"
Yet another no.
"I bet you like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese," Mary says triumphantly.
Finally, a nod yes.
"Well, we're going to have some for you here in just a little bit. Would you like a cookie for now?"
A vigorous nod yes.

He clutches his cookie close to his chest like an otter holding a clam and skips out of the kitchen, only to return a few moments later. I can see him eyeing the suitcase full of utensils and dry goods. Picking up a masher, he asks, "What's dis?"
"That's a potato masher," Mary says. "You use it to mash up potatoes."
"I wanna do it."
"Um...OK." Then to me, "Are the sweet potatoes ready to be mashed?"
"Yes they are," I answer.
Mary sets the foil roasting pan on the lid of the cooler and together they mash the sweet potatoes. Several more utensils get pulled from the suitcase, each with the requisite "What's dis?" and "I wanna do it." After helping bring other dishes to completion, he darts off to play with the other children.

As the afternoon goes on, we begin the process of cleaning up and packing our things back into the cart and suitcase. The women are now milling around outside the kitchen, peeking in occasionally to smile, say hi, and tell us how good it smells. Their gratitude for such a small thing is overwhelming. I can only imagine the ways in which their worlds have been turned upside down. Perhaps something as simple as a meal can lend a sense of normalcy to their lives.

As we head down the hall, a stampede of children rushes us from behind and surrounds us, reaching and hugging, giggling and thanking us. After every hug has been dispensed, we are escorted back through the maze of hallways to the exit. We are thanked one last time by the advocate on duty and the door closes behind us. It is now dark and cold outside, but I know that the women and children inside are enjoying a warm Christmas dinner in a safe place.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Hickey

When you're eleven years old and bored out of your mind, whether due to a lack of creativity or a lack of intelligence, the idea of shooting pecans at each other with a high-power slingshot sounds exciting. My best friend growing up, Bill Cook, had an enormous back yard that was perfect for a game of slingshot tag. The only ingredients needed were a five-gallon bucket of pecans, a slingshot, and a sense of adventure bordering on stupidity. Unfortunately, we had all three. The rules were simple; run around the back yard like an idiot until you either get hit with a pecan or cross into the safe zone: Bill's mom's flower bed. Bill was up first as the "runner." I took my position and loaded my first pecan as Bill prepared to make his run. Due to my inaccuracy with the slingshot and Bill's winding pattern through the back yard, not a single pecan found its target. He bobbed and weaved, dodging each of my shots. Finally, a pecan made contact with his torso, meaning it was my turn to take to the yard.

It turns out that since the slingshot belonged to Bill, he was significantly more accurate with it. Every time I got within twenty feet of him, he'd nail me with a shot to the leg, chest, or back, requiring us to trade places. This went back and forth for some time, and I began to build up quite a collection of bruises. We took a short break to get something cool to drink and get out of the hot sun for a few minutes. Afterwards, I felt renewed and took my place ready to run. I took off like a shot, tracing a serpentine figure around the yard. Even Bill's marksmanship was no match for my clever maneuvering; I faked left, then right, then left again, stopping and starting, jumping and ducking my way around trees and through open areas, getting closer and closer to the safe zone. Bill’s face was red now with frustration, and as I wove an intricate pattern toward the flower bed, I hoped he would begin to fire out of desperation, substituting quantity for quality. Instead, he seemed to be channeling his frustration and converting it into a frightening mix of anger and accuracy. The pecans began to get closer to me, and I could hear and feel the whiz of air as they rocketed past me. He was launching them really hard now, stretching the bands of the slingshot into long, thin strands of rubber. But he hadn't hit me yet, and I was only steps away from the flower bed now. As I made my final dash for the safe zone, I decided to add a little panache and leap across it. And that? Turned out to be a really bad decision.

As I leapt into the air to cross into the safe zone, Bill fired one last pecan, which tore through the air toward me like a little brown missile. I could see it coming straight for me, and there was no way to get out of its path. It connected with the left side of my neck, just above the collar, with a resounding THWACK, knocking me off my flight path and dumping me into the begonias like a sack of dirt. As I lay in the midst of the flowers with a hand over my stinging neck, I heard Bill saying, "Gotcha!" as he laughed hysterically, and I knew he would taunt me mercilessly about it. However, over the weekend the large red welt developed into what appeared to be a massive hickey. Mom tried to help me find a shirt with a collar to cover it, but the middle of May wasn’t really turtleneck weather, so she suggested that I simply make the best of a bad situation by taking preemptive action. Bill was always late for school on Mondays. Always. It was just a fact of life, like leaves changing color in the fall, and I decided to use it to my advantage. I arrived at school a little early on Monday, wearing a collarless shirt. The other members of my fifth-grade class instantly gathered around me to point and stare, their eyes and jaws wide with amazement. The rumors began to spread like a flame consuming a trail of gasoline. By roll call it was common knowledge that I had gotten a hickey from a seventh-grade girl—instantly propelling me to rock-star status—and by the time Bill arrived there was no convincing anyone otherwise. So Bill, if you’re reading this? Gotcha.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Holiday Request From Me to You

Dear friends and family,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I want to take a moment and ask for your help. For the past few years Mary and I have worked with the Benton County Women’s Shelter, now the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter. These ladies and children have gone through physical and emotional abuse that, thankfully, most of us will never experience. In many cases they’ve literally fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We cook either a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for current residents (usually 20-30), and we also purchase Christmas gifts (for the most part simple necessities like clothes and shoes—of course, the kids also get toys and books) for as many of the families as we can. Between now and Christmas, I’ll be coordinating with the shelter on how many ladies and children will be in need of Christmas gifts­­. I’ll have a wish list for each lady and child a little closer to Christmas. And you don’t have to buy for a whole family; you can purchase just one or two items on any list.

Also, we’ll be cooking Christmas dinner for them this year. If you’d like to contribute to that instead of (or in addition to) the wish list, by all means do. Anything you do is helpful. These ladies and kids are amazingly sweet, appreciative people despite all they’ve been through. If you’d be interested in helping, here’s how:

For locals friends, just send me a message on Facebook and tell me you want to help, or use the option below.

For my out of town friends, I’ve set up a PayPal account to which you can send money online. And I hope this goes without saying, but for the worry warts out there, please keep in mind the following:

  • This money is not for me. I have a nice job with a nice salary. I have my own money. I don’t need to steal yours.
  • This is voluntary only. If you’re not able or don’t want to help for whatever reason, don’t sweat it.
  • I won’t be able to see any of your credit card or personal information. Again, don’t need it, have my own.

Ok, now that we’ve crossed that bridge, here’s how to send money via PayPal:

  1. Go to and click Send Money at the top.
  2. In the To box, put my email address,
  3. In the From box, put your email account.
  4. In the Amount box, put the amount you’d like to contribute.
  5. Click the Personal category tab and select Gift, then click Continue.
  6. On the next page enter all your information just as you would for any online purchase.

Finally, if you want to help the shelter but you’re not comfortable with sending money to me, go to their website, and click Donations. You can do a PayPal donation there. It won’t go to this specific effort, but it will help them with everyday costs. If you have any questions, just send me a message here on Facebook. Thanks so much!


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where I Am

Ok, I admit it. I'm having a hard time, and I don't want to tell anyone because I'm 1) ashamed of myself for having such a hard time with something as seemingly innocuous as food, and 2) convinced that those who read this won't understand. And most probably won't. Fact is, until you've stood in front of a vending machine, dollar in hand, fighting the urge to buy a package of Ding Dongs, you won't understand. What makes a grown man want to sneak food into a bathroom stall and devour it while perched on the toilet like a big fat gargoyle? I have no idea. I mean, logistically I understand not wanting to be seen eating foods that, as a diabetic, I'm not supposed to have. I also understand the urgency to eat it quickly, destroying the evidence of my failure. If it were a carrot stick or a stalk of celery, I'd have no problem being seen with it. I might even flaunt it. What I don't understand is why I feel compelled to eat things that I sometimes don't even truly want. Sometimes the food has absolutely no flavor or texture, but the mere act of consuming it is a physical and emotional release. And then afterwards I hate myself with the fire of a thousand suns. Ok, that's a little dramatic. Let's say a hundred suns. Then, the voices start floating around in my head, telling me that I'm never going to beat this and that I might as well give up. I know better, but I can't change the station. That comes from my depression, and recently it's been worse. I'm getting close to the end of my freelance contract at work. To say that I'm anxious about my January 31 contract renewal would be like saying that I have a little weight problem. I don't want to go through another year, or even another month, of unemployment. I don't want to leave this job. I love my job. I love my coworkers. I've made friends and found a place where I finally feel like I fit in and enjoy what I do. The thought of losing that coupled with the prospect of job hunting in this economy has delivered a psychiatric one-two punch that has me reeling. So that's where I am. But things will get better. They almost always do.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Letters from Home - Rayleen's Wedding

Once again I find myself sharing the latest installment from my family. My cousin Rayleen was recently married, and Mom and Dad attended the ceremony, which was held in the thriving metropolis that is Batesville, MS. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I can always count on the folks to fill me in when I miss something...

Dear son,

Hello, how are you? We’re doing pretty good. We’re in Batesville, MS this weekend. Your daddy’s cousin Junior’s daughter Rayleen got married yesterday so we’re down here staying at the Budgetel. Your daddy wanted to stay at one of them hotels that’s got that fancy toilet what washes your rear end (he saw it on the Travel Channel), but I told him they don’t have places like that in Batesville. Well, I wish you could have been here for the wedding. It was a real pretty service. Poor old Junior was worried about his little girl getting married right out of high school, but she and Carthel (that’s her husband, Carthel Higgins) just love each other to death. He’s a few years older than her (she’s 19 and he’s 26), but they get along real good. Junior said it was a blessing in disguise that Rayleen had to repeat her senior year twice, otherwise there’d have been an even bigger gap in their ages. Carthel’s daddy owned a farm implement dealership over in Pope. Now, just between you and me, Carthel ain’t a real good looking boy, or the sharpest tool in the shed, for that matter, but he’s a real sweet boy, and he’s got his daddy’s money and that’s made him a real prize to most every girl in Panola County. But, as he says, he was “took up” with Rayleen from the moment they met at the dealership. He was telling us about it at the reception.

He said she came in with her daddy one day looking for a hitch adapter for a bush hog. Their eyes met, and he fell “smack dab in love,” as he says. They dated for about a year, and then one Saturday night he took her to dinner over at the Tour Chef (that was where they always went for special occasions) and afterwards he told her he had to stop by the dealership for something. He pulled up and parked right in front of the dealership sign which, like most everything in Batesville, gets turned off at 7pm. He ran inside and turned on the sign so she could see where he had spelled out “Will U Marry Me?” in them little square letters. She said yes and they set a date right there on the spot. They chose April 29th because that’s Dale Earnhardt’s birthday and Carthel loves Dale Earnhardt almost as much as he loves Rayleen. Anyway, about a month before the wedding Carthel got in a fight with Earl Smoot over at The Beer Barn. Earl had always kind of had a thing for Rayleen, but she wouldn’t go out with him on account of he used to date her best friend Mandy Lynn’s younger sister Loretta and she had that scabies where you get them blisters on your privates and Rayleen didn’t want none of that mess rubbing off on her.

Anyway, Earl had been at the Beer Barn a pretty good while and had gotten good and liquored up. He told Carthel that he couldn’t make Rayleen happy with his daddy’s money and that what she needed was a man who made his own living. Of course, that got Carthel all upset and he took a swing at Earl. They fought for a few minutes, but they were both so drunk that neither of them got in a good lick. That is, until Earl smacked Carthel square in the mouth with a bottle of Wild Turkey. As soon as he saw what he’d done, Earl sobered up and felt real bad. He even called Rayleen to come get Carthel and rode with them over to the all night medical clinic in Oxford. On the way over, they all had a good talk. Well, Earl did most of the talking, what with Carthel having to keep a bar towel pressed up against his mouth and all. Do you know he had to get 14 stitches in his lips? Thank the Lord, they healed just fine in time for the wedding, but he lost all but three teeth in the front. Bless his heart, if he wasn’t ugly enough before (don’t go repeat that, now). Anyway, over the next couple of weeks Earl came by the dealership every day to check on Carthel and sometimes they’d go eat lunch together. They got to be real good friends. In fact, when the best man, Vinton McFarland, fell off his roof and broke his leg a couple of days before the wedding, Carthel asked Earl to be his best man. It sure was a pretty service. The reception was just as nice as it could be. Junior and them’s next door neighbor Velma Jenkins made a red velvet wedding cake shaped like Dale Earnhardt and Carthel was so happy he cried, bless his heart. They had bought a case of balloons to fill with helium and let loose out of a big old livestock water tank, but Rayleen’s younger brother Darnell and his friends got carried away with the helium and used most of it up singing them midget songs from the Wizard of Oz, so they had to just blow up the balloons by mouth. When they pulled the tarp off the tank to let them loose, they all just kind of sat there. Oh well, at least everybody got to take one home. After the reception, Rayleen and Carthel left on one of his daddy’s antique John Deere tractors. It was just beautiful. Even Earl cried. Well, I guess I need to wrap this up. We’re fixing to go downstairs and get us a continental breakfast. You take care, and we’ll holler at you again soon.


Mom & Dad

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thank You, Veterans

I originally posted this on Memorial Day, but it's equally appropriate today.

On this Veterans Day, I dedicate this post to each and every veteran who has ever served or is currently serving our country. Allow me to offer you my thanks for the following:

For the days and nights you spent in a foxhole, trench, swamp, jungle, or desert

For being afraid that you might be killed while serving, and doing it anyway

For every war cry you sounded while taking a beach or a hill, a cry that was likely fueled as much by your fear as it was by your motivation

For every hour of sleep you lost because you were scared to close your eyes

For every time you woke up in a cold sweat wondering what it was you just heard

For every bullet you fired that found its target

For all of the ways you’ve been affected by having to take another person’s life

For every time you wondered if you were doing the right thing

For every grain of sand, drop of water, and clump of mud you shook out of your boots

For the time you spent away from the places and people you loved, and for each of you who never got to come back to them

For all the “first’s” you missed: the birth of your first child, their first steps or first words, or your first anniversary with your new wife or husband

For every school play, wedding, or funeral you didn’t get to come home for

For each of you who were denied a hero's welcome upon returning home

For every scar and every limp; for every wound, visible or invisible

For every time you were stared at because you were missing a limb

For every nightmare that you can’t stop having

For every right and freedom that we have

For every time you shake your head when those rights and freedoms are abused by those who didn’t have to fight for them and cannot even begin to fathom the cost

For your willingness to fight to protect this country

For all you have done, and still continue to do, I thank you.

If you know a veteran, share this with them. And thank them.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Through the Rain

This weekend Mary and I were planning to go to a fantastic Halloween costume party. We didn't make it. We ran into someone from my past Saturday afternoon while we were out running errands, and I was so incensed afterward that I completely lost my party mood. This person, who shall remain nameless, is completely oblivious when it comes to the ways of empathy or social grace. He is the proverbial bull in the china shop of etiquette. He is familiar with my employment history and knows that I lost my job in April of last year due to a corporate reorganization. He asked how we had been doing and how long I ended up being out of work. I told him a year. He said that that sucked. I agreed. He then proceeded to ask us if we'd made it. If we made it through the rain. If we kept our world protected. If we made it through the rain. And kept our point of view. If we made it through the rain and found ourselves respected. By others who got rained on, too. If those words don't ring a bell, they're lyrics from a Barry Manilow song. And he tossed them out with such cavalier indifference, it was just shy of mockery. And this is but a mere glimpse into how much of an asshat he truly is. This is how he chose to inquire as to whether we had survived the year of my unemployment. A year of feeling worthless because I couldn't find a job, despite applying for roughly two hundred of them. A year of wondering when, or if, it was ever going to get better. A year of buying groceries from Dollar General. A year of trying—unsuccessfully at times—to put on a brave face in front of Mary and then weeping after she left for work because I wasn't taking care of her. So to answer your question, you bumbling, boorish jackass, yes. We made it through just fine. And in the future, when you see me? Do us both a favor. Turn around and walk the other way.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trick or Treat

It's that time of year when leaves turn brilliant colors, fireplaces are awakened for the first time of the season, and kids begin to get excited about going trick-or-treating, a tradition that families have taken part in for ages. But I have a confession to make: I've never been trick-or-treating, at least not in the traditional sense. Growing up, I lived next door to the Monastery of St. Clare, a secluded order of Franciscan nuns who spend their days in prayer. My family lived in a house on the grounds and worked for the monastery. My mother drove the nuns to doctors' appointments and ran other errands, and my dad, on his days off from the fire department, cut the grass and served as a general custodian. One of the byproducts of this unconventional living arrangement was a lack of friends. Any other time of the year this wouldn't have been a problem, as I was happy to entertain myself, but in order to trick-or-treat, especially at the age of eight, one needed friends to go with, and my solitary existence severely limited my candy-gathering potential. So did my parents' paranoia about my going from house to house "begging for candy," as they called it. They were convinced that our neighborhood was filled with sadistic child murderers, and that I would meet an untimely death after having consumed candy laced with poison, or discover too late that a stranger's apple concealed a razor blade, as if fat kids even ate apples to begin with. But I had a bigger problem; if I didn't have candy to share at my second-grade Secret Pumpkin party the following Monday, I would be subject to public humiliation and a subsequent pummeling by Richard Baumgarten, the class bully.

Since the neighborhood was clearly off limits, Mom suggested that I go trick-or-treating at the monastery. I had not previously considered this as a viable alternative, but it wasn't a bad idea. The sisters adored me, and they had scads of food in the place. Yes. I would trick-or-treat at the monastery. A last-minute trip to the local Ben Franklin yielded my first and only Halloween "costume," a simple tiger mask, the only thing left in the costume bin that hadn’t been destroyed. Its hard, razor-thin plastic edges cut into my face, and a wisp of a rubber band served as the only means of securing it in place. The microscopic air holes in the nose were never meant for a human to breathe through, causing an inevitable build up of condensation—not to mention carbon dioxide—on the inside of the mask. I wore it the entire afternoon, bumping into walls and door frames due to the lack of visibility through the tiny slits masquerading as eye holes. Mom told me repeatedly to take it off, that she would tell me when it was time go.

As dusk approached and the blue sky began to melt into orange and pink and gray, I went to the hall closet to find a bag in which to carry my loot. Bag selection would be crucial; too big a bag and they might think me presumptuous, while too small a bag sent the message that I didn’t want or expect much. After some deliberation I chose a middle-of-the-road paper grocery sack, one you might use for a few oranges, say, or a couple of handfuls of golf balls. As soon as the sun sank out of sight, taking with it the last remnants of light and color from the sky, I began to get antsy, waiting for the go-ahead from Mom. The sisters usually retired to their individual rooms around 7:00pm, writing letters, reading the Bible, or spending time in prayer. If Mom didn't hurry, I would miss my window. As soon as I heard her call my name, I sprang into action, grabbing my loot sack and mask and heading for the door. She had originally insisted on going with me, but I talked her out of it, reasoning that she could watch me make the entire 150-foot trip while standing on our back porch. With Mom at her post, I stumbled across the parking lot, through the covered walkway, and into the monastery. It seems they were expecting me. Mom, I later learned, had called and told them I was coming. Eleven of the twenty-six sisters—most were older and had already gone to bed—greeted me at the front door without my having to even ring the bell. They each held a mixing bowl full of goodies. They all ooh-ed and ahh-ed about my "costume," remarking how scary I was and asking if I bit. One after another, they approached me and emptied the contents of their bowl into my grocery sack, which was soon overflowing. They were prepared for that as well. Sister Jude, one of the younger, newer members, pulled out a canvas tote bag large enough to hold a baby elk. The rest of the sisters emptied their bowls into the tote bag, then laid my puny bag on top. They hugged me, tousled my hair, and generally made a big deal over me, after which I issued a muffled "thank-you" through my mask and made my way back across the dark parking lot, struggling to drag the tote beside me.

Once in the house, I peeled off my mask and unceremoniously dumped the contents of the bag on my bed to survey my take. There was candy: Tootsie Rolls, root beer barrels, butterscotches, peppermints, caramels, candy corn, circus peanuts, Dum-Dums, bubble gum, and Hershey's Kisses. There was also less traditional Halloween fare such as apples, oranges, and bananas. Then there were items that didn't fit into any other category: a packet of powdered lemonade mix, a dozen or so Oreos in a plastic sandwich bag, a small crucifix, and a tin of Sucrets lozenges. I knew instantly that these items came from Sister Gabriel, an eighty-nine-year-old nun who was young at heart but oblivious when it came to social situations. She didn't understand the rules of Halloween, the unwritten protocol of costumes and candy. She simply knew she was supposed to give me something, and she likely just collected items that were lying around in her room. But I loved Sister Gabriel, and I would find a use for each of her gifts.

Our Secret Pumpkin party was in full swing when our teacher, Mrs. Yarbrough announced that it was time for us to play Secret Pumpkin, the portion of the party where everyone placed on our desks the jack-o'-lantern lunch sacks we had created earlier, and then walked around dropping some of our Halloween candy into each sack. As we prepared for lunch, we all grabbed our pumpkin sacks, excited to see what we had gotten from our classmates. As everyone sifted through their candy, they found root beer barrels, butterscotches, and bubble gum. Everyone was pleased except Richard Baumgarten, who sat at his desk with a sour look on his face, staring at a handful of Sucrets.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Worth Celebrating

Progress is, in some respects, not unlike money. The more you have, the more you want. I had my weekly weigh-in today, and was down a pound. I know I should celebrate that victory, but after last week's substantial loss, a part of me is disappointed and feels like I could have, should have lost more. And that part of me? Can bite it. I lost another pound, and I'm proud of myself. I was reading some work by one of my favorite authors recently, and the following sentence caught my eye: "Every success, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is evidence of change." So very true. Change has always been difficult for me, not only with regard to food, but also when it comes to giving myself a little credit. Like many other people, I'm my own worst critic. If one of my friends had lost a pound, I would congratulate them as if they had completed a marathon. But my own lost pound is met with a dismissive wave and a sigh of boredom from the side of me that expects more. So it may take a little while for me—all of me—to truly believe that even small successes are worth celebrating. But in the mean time, I'm doing just that.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Un-Fair Food

I was outside earlier today during lunch. The sun was out, and the air was cold and crisp. Yep, it's craft fair weekend here in Northwest Arkansas, and from War Eagle to Bella Vista, huge white tents have been popping up in pastures for days. The other morning on my way to work I passed by one such site. It was misting and still dark, and as I got closer I could see the lights of the concession stands, already powered up and ready. The soft flicker of golden light reflecting off the peaks of the nearby tents in the dark field made it seem almost sinister. But there's nothing sinister about the craft fair. Except the food. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, kettle corn, and a host of meats on a stick. The smell of it hangs in the air and rides on the breeze, tempting you as you browse through booths filled with quilts, wooden crafts, and birdhouses constructed from license plates. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with fair food. I love it, but I can't devour it like I used to. I love kettle corn; popped in a steaming cauldron the size of a Buick, the sweet and salty mix is one of my weaknesses. And corn dogs. I may need a moment. No store-bought or fast-food corn dog will ever compare to a corn dog from the fair. Ever. Even the mustard is better. A properly prepared corn dog with just the right application of mustard will make me weep openly, causing passers-by to stare, their children pointing and asking, "Mommy, why is the fat man sad?" Oh, and funnel cakes, made irresistable with a liberal dusting of powdered sugar, are another favorite. You can easily spot someone who's just had a funnel cake: eyes crossed and mouth slightly ajar, powdered sugar on their face, hands, and clothes, a wad of napkins the size of a grapefruit, and a single paper plate, gray blotches of oily residue peeking through crumbs and clumps of white powder. Whoever said ignorance is bliss has obviously never had a funnel cake. Or any fair food, for that matter. But fair food has a dark side; namely the calories. And fat. And carbs and sodium and...ok, there is no redeeming nutritional quality in fair food. Out of curiosity I Googled "fair food nutrition." I found a chart showing the calories, fat, and carbs found in popular fair foods. I've included the link below, so I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that, with the possible exception of meth or heroin, you'd be hard pressed to find anything worse for you. So as I head out to craft fair this weekend, I will do so already having eaten. Because fair food? Is not the least bit fair.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Now That's More Like It...

Sometimes encouragement comes just when you need it. Today, I needed it. And, thankfully, I got it. Last week's weigh in was a real disappointment with a loss of only a half pound, taking me from my starting weight of 480 to 479.5. Then I folded like a cheap lawn chair last night and ate everything but the dog. Needless to say, I was ready for something positive to happen. And the timing couldn't have been better. When I weighed this afternoon, I was down eight pounds to 471. It was sufficient motivation to keep me from repeating last night (which will henceforth be referred to as The Great Calorie Debacle), as well as providing me with the positive numerical feedback that I so desperately needed. Now that's more like it.


Punching Cicero

If Cicero were alive today, I'd punch him in the junk. The Roman author wrote, "Where is there dignity without honesty?" There is nothing dignified about this post. When I recently began writing about my battle against obesity and diabetes, I made a promise, both to myself and to the faithful few who read this blog, to be honest and forthcoming about my successes and failures. It seems that promise has come back to bite me in the ass. Last night I caved. I knew it would be more difficult with Mary at an out of town conference until Wednesday, but I had no idea just how easily I could fall back into old habits. When I got home I changed clothes and went straight to the kitchen. I grabbed a one-pound container of chicken salad out of the fridge, a sleeve of Ritz crackers from the pantry, and plopped into my chair to watch a recorded episode of My Name is Earl. I polished both off before the first commercial break. Then I followed it up with two chili dogs, half a bag of Fritos, and a large bowl of lite ice cream. And lite ice cream? Loses quite a few of its low-calorie benefits when you consume an entire pint of it in one sitting. Afterward I felt miserable, both physically and emotionally. I know that I'm the only one that can change my eating habits. And that's what scares me. Why would anyone put me in charge of something as important as my own health? That seems like a role that would be far better suited to someone more responsible. But it's ultimately my job to become that responsible person. The best thing to do after you fall is to get right back up. So today is a new day, and I've done well with my eating. And tonight will not be a repeat of last night; rather, I like to think of it as an opportunity for success.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Problem with Big Balls

In my recent efforts to become a healthier version of myself, I’ve begun looking at various exercise programs to strengthen my core, if I still have one. Several fitness books and websites suggested a body ball. However, I’m not sure a body ball is the way to go just yet. I have serious trust issues when it comes to sitting on things that I’m not entirely certain will support me. This is not an irrational fear, but rather the result of experience.

When I was about eight, the Bishops, one of the families we went to church with, invited us over to their house one Sunday night after services. The adults sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee, eating pound cake, and talking about boring adult subjects. Things adults always talked about that bored us kids to tears; things like sales tax or property easements. The kids, Carrie, Leigh Ann, and I, played in the garage, which, except for a few toys, garden tools, and the girls' bicycles, was empty and made a fine playroom. The toy we all ran to first was something called a Hippity Hop, which was fiercely popular at the time. If you don’t remember, it's a large colored ball with a handle that the kiddos straddle and hang onto while they bounce around. It looks like a lot of fun, but in reality? It's a tool of the devil.

Even at eight I was a gentleman, so the girls went first, each taking their turn on it, bouncing around the garage and giggling hysterically. I could hardly wait for my turn. When it finally came, I was beside myself. I swung a chubby leg over one side, gripped the handle, and settled down onto the huge ball. It took more than a little effort to generate enough energy for me to actually bounce, but once I got started there was no stopping me. I bounced as high as I could, reveling in the momentary feeling of weightlessness between bounces. Upon contact with the garage floor at the bottom of my trajectory, I noticed that I was putting a bit more of a strain on the ball than the girls. I didn't really give it much thought until, on my third or fourth trip around the perimeter of the garage, I passed by the girls and noticed that their smiles had melted into pained expressions of profound concern.

As I rounded the corner on my next trip, the ball exploded with a loud BANG that sounded very much like a gunshot, sending bits and pieces of red rubber shrapnel rocketing in every direction. The girls screamed and ran into the house, only to be met by our parents, who had heard the noise and were coming to see what we had destroyed. I sat motionless on the garage floor, scraps of red rubber dangling from my head and shoulders. I still maintained my grip on the handle, from which the remains of the ball now hung lifelessly. A white powder, industrial talc from inside the ball, covered my face and clothes as if I had been sandblasted, and the acrid smell of warm rubber hung heavily in the air. My parents scooped me up off the floor, dusting me off and brushing flecks of rubber from my hair. Apologies were made, along with a promise to replace the ball. The adults exchanged the obligatory pleasantries and goodbyes while I stared at the powdery starburst on the garage floor, not realizing that some thirty-odd years later it would serve as the deciding factor to not purchase a body ball.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A (Half) Pound of Flesh

As you may have imagined, I can't weigh just anywhere. A bathroom scale is completely out of the question, and even a regular doctors scale won't do the trick. Fortunately, my doctor's clinic has a biometric scale that will weigh me. So on Tuesdays when I get my allergy shot, I also weigh. For those joining this blog already in progress, last Tuesday I weighed in at a petite 480 pounds. I've been eating well all week, feeling better, and even re-introduced my rear end to a pair of pants that hadn't fit in months. So today when I weighed, I expected to see a decent loss. When one is as overweight as I am, weight comes off quickly in the beginning. That said, I would have been excited to have dropped six or eight pounds, but I would have taken two. But when I stripped off my socks and shoes and stepped on the scale, I was shocked to see that I had lost a whopping...half-pound. Son of a—half a pound?? Really? That's what I've been busting my ass for? For the love of Pete, I can pee half a pound off. I stared at the numbers for a moment, as if I could stare at them long enough for them to adjust to my liking, but the 479.5 just stared back at me. I stepped off, reset the machine, and got back on again. 479.5 again. The nurse passed by the open door and asked if I was doing alright. I wasn't. I picked up my socks, slid my bare feet into my shoes, and left. Quickly. Disappointed? You bet your sweet bippee. I've done really well with my new lifestyle, and some numerical evidence would have been fantastic. In the past, that kind of disappointment would mean, ironically, stopping on the way home to binge—a Quarter Pounder, large fries, 6-piece McNuggets, large drink, and a McFlurry—and then eating dinner as normal to hide the fact that I binged. But now? Not so much. I have to think about the other forms of validation I've gotten: feeling better, having more energy, spending way less on fast food and restaurant meals, and enjoying a happy reunion with a pair of cargo pants. It's not all about the pounds. So I'm finishing this post, then going into the kitchen to pack my lunch and get ready for a new day.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

You're Going to Make It After All

Yesterday, I made my two coworkers look at my butt. And, good friends that they are, they congratulated me because my butt, it seems, is a bit smaller. I wore a pair of cargo pants that I haven't been able to squeeze into for quite some time. I'm starting to get the hang of this new way of eating, and it's not that bad. I'm rarely hungry. Truly hungry, not just bored or anxious. I do have to admit that I miss some things. I could really go for some mint chocolate chip ice cream, and I'd wrestle a bull moose for a plate of fried pickles. I know, technically, I could have a half-cup of ice cream or an ounce or two of fried pickles. But I don't want just an ounce or two. I want a heaping platter. And therein lies the problem. Once, when I was only ten, I consumed an entire peach cobbler. I'm talking about a made-from-scratch peach cobbler in a nine-by-thirteen Pyrex casserole dish. That unhealthy mindset is the reason I weigh only slightly less than a Mini-Cooper. And that's what I have to fix. Why have I always felt the need to consume my food like Cookie Monster, with crumbs flying and falling from my mouth as I make num-num sounds? So, for now at least, no ice cream, fried pickles, or a host of other food items that send me into a feeding frenzy. Like any relationship that leaves you in a bad place, they've had to be nixed until I'm healthier and more responsible, physically and emotionally. But if my progress thus far is any indicator—and I believe it is—that day will come more quickly than I might have imagined.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Starting Over

After finding out the week before last that I was diabetic, I’ve begun the process of turning over a new, very heavy leaf. My diet has changed. You’ll notice I didn’t say I was dieting. Diet, for me at least, is a noun, not a verb. I can’t diet. I have dieted in the past and failed. Miserably. The Atkins Diet. The Hilton Head Diet. The 3-Day Diet. The Hollywood Diet. The Slim Fast Diet. I could go on, but in the interest of your actually reading this, I won’t. Did I lose weight? Sure, a little. But like a broke college kid, it always came home, welcome or not. I’ve never consistently been conscious of—much less careful about—what kinds of food I put in my body. I would not be surprised to find out that I’ve spent as much on fast food as Iran has on uranium enrichment facilities (cue rim shot). I would eat breakfast, lunch, and, on many days, dinner out. My total food consumption on a typical day was somewhere in the range of 5,000-8,000 calories, or three to five times what a normal person eats. And I did this for years. It’s no wonder that my weight has climbed like it has. After eating healthy for nearly two weeks now, my weight is 480 pounds.

Embarrassing to share? You bet it is. But I’m determined to open myself up and let myself be vulnerable. Most guys consider it taboo to discuss their emotions. But I’m not most guys. And I will be dissecting my life to get to the bottom of the destructive relationship I’ve had with food for as long as I can remember. And it won’t be a whiny, poor-me-I-have-an-eating-problem tirade. At the end of the day, I’m the one responsible for my weight. No one forced me to eat, like, everything. No, it’ll be a humorous romp through my history of bad decisions—including favorite binge foods—as well as my current efforts to get back to something resembling healthy. If you think this sounds sad and you pity me right now, don’t bother following the blog, as you’ll likely be mortified. If, however, you want to witness the hilarious journey of a fat guy getting in shape, I’ll see you soon.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Some Good News

I heard back from the ultrasound I had done on my leg, and the resuts are normal. I'm relieved—and just the tiniest bit surprised. I'm thankful for those results, but it's almost like taking your car to the mechanic for that clanking sound, only to be told that there's nothing wrong. Still, good news is good news, and I'll take it where I can get it.


Friday, September 18, 2009

I've Been Violated...

I've been violated. No, really. I have. Allow me to explain. First of all, this has been a particularly disappointing—albeit, not surprising—week for me. After years and years of irresponsible eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, blood work from a recent dotor's visit revealed that I am now diabetic. Of course, this means a whole new lifestyle, including diet changes and medication. It also means I'm the proud new owner of a glucose testing meter. Okay, not proud, but an owner nonetheless. My doctor also checked my feet and legs. She told me that the discoloration on my lower left leg—the discoloration I've been ignoring because it didn't hurt—is due to blood pooling in the shin area. That discovery led to a referral to have an ultrasound on my leg to check circulation. So today I went to the hospital to have the procedure done. After checking in and getting my obligatory wrist band, I was led to the imaging waiting room by a volunteer. Less than ten minutes later—just as I had become engrossed in a scintillating article in Rural Arkansas touting the virtues of canned okra—a woman I can only describe as "of Asian descent" stepped into the waiting room and called out, "Ah-yen? Ah-yen...Simpson?"
Yeah, that's gonna be about as close as she gets, I thought. I followed her back to the procedure area into a small, dark room where an ultrasound machine sat blinking just to the right of a stretcher draped with sheets.
"You take pants off, leave underwear on," she announced loudly before slipping into an adjacent room where another tech sat reading a newspaper.
Alright, then. I wasn't sure why I needed to take my pants off to ultrasound my shin, but whatever. So I removed my pants and took a seat on the stretcher. She returned a moment later and began entering information into the computer.
"You lay down," she said briskly.
As I lay back on the stretcher, she draped a towel over my waist, and I began to get the idea that maybe my shin wasn't going to be the only thing involved. Without warning, she squirted a sputtering line of warm lubricant down my left leg from crotch to ankle. I jumped slightly but quickly regained my composure. However, it wouldn't last long, as her next move was to jab the ultrasound probe into my bad place where leg and crotch meet and begin digging around the way one might if one were milling grain using a mortar and pestle. I grabbed a handful of sheet with each hand and froze instantly. I've always heard how, in the event of a bear attack, you're supposed to play dead. I always imagined that it would be difficult to not move, to completely disengage your body from your brain—which is telling you to run as if Satan himself were chasing you with a belt sander—and just lie there while this animal determines whether or not it's going to rip you to shreds. I can now say with a fair amount of certainty that it's really not that difficult to lie still. Your body and brain seem to simultaneously realize that you are in crisis mode and agree that it's best if they part ways for a while. The tech finally gave up on my crotch and began maneuvering the probe down my leg. Every ten or fifteen seconds she would step back and press a few buttons on the machine, temporarily stopping the pulsing electronic whoosh, the sound of blood flow. After what seemed like an eternity, she abruptly took the probe away, stabbed a few final buttons on the machine, and threw a towel in my direction, all in what seemed like one deft movement.
"We all done. You clean off gel, then get dressed and go," she said dismissively. "Go left at double door and go out through waiting room."
As much as I wanted to stay and thank her for a magical afternoon, I was more than ready to go. Cleaning the gel off took a little more time and effort than I would have imagined, as she had somehow managed to smear it from the waistband of my underwear down to the inside of my sock. I wiped off as much as I could, then quickly got dressed in the dimly-lit room and headed out into the bright afternoon sun to go home and take a much-needed shower.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Letters from Home: Aunt Lucille's Boobs

Once again I find myself sharing tidbits of my life that should probably remain hidden. This most recent letter from the folks reinforces one simple but important tip for better living: don't cook naked.

Dear son,

Hello, how are you? We're doing real good here. Your daddy says hey. He's on the phone with Aunt Lucille. She's just getting home from the hospital after a little accident. She was baking a cake for her neighbor Levinia Scoggins, who just had that eye surgery they do with the lasers. Levinia can call it "quality of life" if she wants to, but everybody knows she had her eyes lasered so she could get her trashy novels up at the Quickie Mart and stop having to order the ones with large print from that place over in Selmer. Anyway, Lucille had been taking food over there to her for three or four days even though Levinia told her she was fine. I guess Lucille just needs to feel needed. Anyhow, Lucille was putting a load of laundry together and decided she might as well wash what she was wearing, so she stripped down to her birthday suit right there in the kitchen and put her clothes in the washer. About that time the timer went off for the cake. So she opened the oven door a little and bent down to check on it. As soon as she did, her bosoms settled on that hot oven door. She jerked up right quick and started blowing on them and fanning them trying to cool them down. She finally ran a sink full of cool water and leaned over it to let them dangle in there for a little bit. Uncle Dub came in from cutting the grass and saw her butt naked with her bosoms hanging in the sink and asked her what the hell she was doing. She told him what happened and he busted out laughing, so she clanked him over the head with a Pyrex dish that was sitting in the drying rack. He took her to the emergency room since it looked like he was going to have to get stitches anyway. It turns out she had first degree burns on both of what Dub calles her "chesticles." They told her she's going to have to keep them wrapped up for a while, but that they should heal soon. Dub ended up getting 7 stitches in his head. Serves him right for laughing at her. Well, other than that there's not much going on here, so I guess I'll say goodbye for now. Take care and we'll see you later.


Mom & Dad

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Ode to Poo

A few days ago, I stopped into the bathroom at work to pee. The only station unoccupied was the back stall, so I stepped in and closed the door. Inside the toilet was a small mound of poo slightly smaller than a tennis ball hanging onto the side of the bowl. It was alone; there were no other remnants or remains of previous occupants, and, except for the presence of the poo, the bowl was sparkling clean. I quickly did my business and flushed. The poo hung on with amazing tenacity and remained after the rush of water had ceased and the bowl had refilled, leaving it peeking above the surface of the water like a fat little frog. As I washed my hands, I couldn't help but giggle like an eight-year-old. I exited the bathroom and went about my day. A bit later, I found myself in need of another pit stop and headed back to the bathroom. It was empty this time, but out of morbid curiosity I leaned into the back stall and peered into the bowl. The poo remained, still clinging to its spot as if it had been organically welded there. I finished my business and flushed, expecting the poo to release it grasp on the porcelain and float away. Instead, it clung fiercely to the bowl and never flinched. Impressed, I washed up and went back to my desk. The rest of the day came and went, and as I headed out to go home I had to stop in one last time just to see if it was still there. As I entered the stall, I could see that the poo was still hanging on, but it looked tired and haggard. I hesitated a moment, then flushed. The poo gave up its grip, tumbled around the bowl for a second, and was then quickly escorted away, leaving me alone in the silence of the bathroom. As I lay in bed that night, I shared the story with Mary and we giggled and snorted about the resilience of poo. I told her that, in light of that resilience, I felt the need to give the poo a name. Almost immediately, she offered a moniker that seemed proper and fitting. So I dedicate this post to you, Mr. McClingy.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thanks But No Thanks

Back in March of this year, while still unemployed, I responded to a job posting for a tech support position. The company I applied with, Collabera, is a local company here in Northwest Arkansas run by Middle Eastern and Indian management that provides third-party tech support reps for larger companies. It turned out to be a huge pain in the ass, a less-than-pleasant experience that left me mad as hell. A few days ago I received another email from Collabera informing me that I had been selected for yet another tech support position. For the first time in my life, I responded the way I wanted to instead of just deleting the email. And it was wonderful.


Thank you for contacting me in regard to the position with Hewlett-Packard. I interviewed with your company, Collabera, in March of this year. I met with Jaspal Nandra regarding a similar position with IBM and, even after explaining to him that I had no UNIX or Linux experience—two of the three operating systems listed in the job requirements—was told that I would be suitable for the position. An interview was scheduled with IBM later in the week. Mr. Nandra was to meet me outside the IBM building at 7:30 the morning of the interview, go over some details with me, and accompany me to the interview. He didn’t show up until 8:30, after the interview was over and I was walking to my car. He offered no apology or explanation. It was a colossal waste of my time, as well as IBM’s. And if you, Mr. Purohit, would have read my entire resume, you would have seen that I still have no experience in UNIX or Linux, again, two of the three the operating systems on this job posting for Hewlett-Packard. As I am not keen to waste any more time attempting to communicate with your company in English—which your employees seem have problems understanding—let me crystallize the theme of this response in a more succinct manner:

I would rather dig ditches for a living and live in squalor the rest of my life than to give even the slightest appearance of being in any way associated with the reprehensible façade you call a business. You may consider this email as notice to purge my resume and contact information from your system.

Kiss my ass,

Alan Simmons

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Invitation

I just got invited to attend a nude party. By a group of lesbians. Why are they inviting me? It's not like I'm hot. And even if I were, I've got the wrong, um, equipment. These are the thoughts rushing through my head as I try and maintain a polite smile because I'm still talking to them. I'm in the waiting room of my doctor's office. I just came in for a lousy allergy shot, but I came on the wrong day and the allergy nurse isn't here, so I have to wait until there's a nurse available to stick me. Which could be a while. As I waited, I noticed the three women seated across from me. Stocky, mannish women in their mid-forties with short spiky hair, each wearing t-shirts—one of which read "You Say DYKE Like It's a Bad Thing"—and cargo shorts with sandals. They had been quietly talking amongst themselves about throwing a party for the friend who was seeing the doctor while they waited. Who knew lesbians went to the doctor in packs? Let me clear the air, lest you think I have a problem with homosexuals. I don't. Like smoking or bicycling, homosexuality doesn't work for me personally, but that doesn't keep me from befriending them.

"Excuse me, can we ask you a question?" one of them asked.

"Um, sure," I said.

"Hi, I'm Denise. This is Carla and Deb."

"I'm Alan," I said.

She leaned forward in her seat and said, "We're planning a little get-together next week for our friend. There may be a few guys there, and we're trying to make sure we've got enough 'guy food'." Carla and Deb, seated on either side of her, smiled pained expressions, as if this whole let's-ask-the-big-straight-guy-what-he-likes-to-eat idea had been thrust upon them with no prior notice.

"Well, is it going to be like finger food or a dinner?" I asked.

"It's just finger food and snacks," said Denise.

So I told them the kind of snacks and foods I liked, the kind that most guys probably like. We chatted about the party a little, then food in general, eventually moving into deeper conversational waters with topics like weight loss and self-image. They were completely honest and open with me even though I was a complete stranger. And I found myself surprised at how comfortable I was talking about sensitive subjects with three women I had just met. They invited me to their party, a really nice gesture. But that's when it happened. That's when they informed me that the party was, in fact, a celebration of freedom and individuality. Oh, and that guests would attend in the nude. Naked. Without clothes. I tried to react casually, as if she had just told me that she was thinking about adding lil' smokies to the menu, but I could already feel the blood filling my face as I forced out an, "Uh-huh."

"We're not ashamed of our bodies," Denise said. "We believe that they're truly beautiful, no matter what society may think, and we celebrate our individuality with nudity."

When she originally mentioned freedom, I had envisioned a Fourth-of-July-style event with sparklers and lawn chairs. But that concept was now shot. Because sparklers and nudity? Do not mix. I struggled to come up with a lucid response that would make me appear hip and open- minded with regard to partying in the nude. But I just kept muttering, "Uh-huh... mm-hmm," all the while praying that their friend would return and they would leave or that the nurse would call my name and rescue me. The conversation had been going so well and I was really enjoying talking with them. Until, that is, they brought up the whole nude party thing. Now, instead of smiling and chatting, I was bargaining with God to get me out of this conversation. I promised to work with orphans in Malawi, widows in Haiti—and a lot of other people in places I can't even spell—if we could just change the subject. No such luck. As Denise went on about the beauty of the human body, I couldn't help but think about logistical issues like whether their furniture was fabric, how high the serving table would be, and if snapshots would be taken. Do you wear clothes to the party and then take them off, or do you just go in an overcoat like a flasher? Do you wear shoes? What if you're in an accident on the way? What is proper "nude etiquette" in situations involving hugging, spilling food or drink in your lap, or interacting with your host's crotch-sniffing dog?

"Alan Simmons?" the nurse called from the door.

Thank you, God. Oh, wait ... crap. I wonder what it's like in Malawi...


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I think I'm watching way too much television. I assume most of you have seen the latest Dell commercial with the "Lollipop, Lollipop" musical production. Guys in overalls and hardhats mincing around a huge computer manufacturing plant which, for some reason, has an assembly line comprised mostly of cartoon robots. And the song? Is seared into my brain like grill marks on a steak. Scorched gray matter aside, I noticed on the most recent airing of the commercial—a number so high that it utilizes an exponent—that the “workmen” don’t Instead, they dance around and sing, watching the little robots do all the work. They stand idly by with their hands in their pockets, smiling and whistling while the robots squirt out the goo for the computer, stamp it out flat, and paint the logo on the back. What if we were to bring in an HR specialist to analyze the efficiency of this operation? These guys would be in the unemployment line faster than you can say “Lollipop.”


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dining Mediocrity

Mary and I are enjoying a few days in Branson, MO, before she starts back to school next week. We arrived last night, had a great night's sleep, and started the day today with breakfast at a place called Peppercorn's that features breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets. It's a nice-looking place from the outside, although the out-of-place cast-iron bathtub out front probably should have been a warning. The tables were all covered in that 1970's nasty pink laminate, and the carpet looked like something Grandma might have thrown out. The windows were covered in curtains that looked as if they were made from old colonial American flags (the ones that had thirteen stars in a circle), decor that seemed to say, "We're proud of our Southern heritage, and we have serious boundary issues when it comes to decorating with symbols of national freedom." The guy that waited on us looked like he may have spent a little time as a roadie for Aerosmith. Between stints in prison, that is. And he talked the whole time about how much he hated "this job" because of all the "freakin' foreigners" that are in the food business now that "can't speak American". Okay, I'll give him that last one, but until you line up another job that doesn’t “suck the life out of you”, shut your spit cave and bring me my sweet tea.

The buffet, while a delightful break from Sir Bitchalot, was a truly dismal little piece of real estate. I've seen more variety—not to mention more appealing food—under heat lamps at convenience stores. The most interesting item was the bacon. It looked as if someone had cooked up a huge batch of crispy bacon strips and then pummeled them with a saucepan until they were in pieces slightly larger than bacon bits. Mary tried to be optimistic, referring to it as a “topping” for the eggs, but I was beginning to feel guilty about picking this place. Waiting at the cashier seemed like an eternity. For one thing, there was an Indian family in front of us scrutinizing their bill. Um, yeah, it’s a little late for that, Haji. Load the kids and the wife on your flying carpet and get out of my way. Which he would have done, but Agnes at the register was so slow that by the time we got to her I needed to shave. Leaving the restaurant—and I use that term loosely—we were approached by an older couple about to go in. The man asked me if I “had left any food for them.” (Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before). The woman, still giggling from her husband’s clever remark, mentioned that they had heard mixed reviews about the place, and asked if was good. And I don’t feel a bit guilty about telling them that it was one of the best restaurants we’d ever eaten at.


Sunday, July 12, 2009


The waterfall. Such a simple thing, yet incredibly splendid and special. This one is at the end of a service road behind a hardware store off of the highway, all but hidden from view. Sometimes the best things in life turn up in the most unexpected places.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Pity the Fool...

I love infomercials for the same reason I love bad movies; because they’re just so easy to make fun of. And—mature person that I am—that’s what entertains me. Take this afternoon, for example. I was channel surfing while Mary was napping. I ran across several infomercials, but the one that caught my attention immediately was the starring Mr. T in an apron. He was paired up with some scrawny little white woman, and together they were explaining the benefits of being able to roast an entire chicken in eleven minutes. They were selling one of those set-it-and-forget-it-type countertop cookers, and although the volume was very low since Mary was asleep, I could have sworn I heard him say, “I pity the fool who cooks his bird in the microwave.” It struck me as a sad moment. It’s like seeing a huge pit bull wearing one of those plastic collars so he can’t lick himself. He knows that you know he’s humiliated, yet it’s something he’s got to do. After beating the crap out of Sylvester Stallone as Clubber Lang in Rocky III, it must be unbelievably emasculating to be a sidekick to some infomercial bimbo and say lines like, “I can’t believe this cake was cooked on the countertop. It’s so moist!” It’s Mr. T, for crying out loud. At least write the lines like we would expect him to deliver them. “Woman, dis cake is moist as hell! You bes’ git me some mo’ or I’ll tear dis place up!” But, no. He’s lifting the lid off of this cooker to reveal a perfectly-cooked steak. As he cuts into it and turns it to show its inside to the camera, he says, “See that wisp of pink? Now that’s a good steak!” I can’t take it anymore. I’m changing the channel. And if I run across Hulk Hogan making smoothies in a Magic Bullet™, I’m calling it a day.


Saturday, June 13, 2009


Nothing unravels the fabric of a wholesome family vacation like a little porn. A couple of years ago Mary and I spent a few days in Branson, MO, with my parents and my brother, Steve, and his wife, Wanda, at a very nice condo on the lake. During the day we shopped, checked out local attractions, and found great places to eat. In the evenings we would retire, exhausted, to the condo, some of us playing cards or dominoes while others read or watched television. On one of these nights, as Mary, Mom, Steve, and I sat around the table playing a mindless game of Go Fish, Wanda perused the local newspaper, and Dad flipped through channels on the television. Unfamiliar with the remote, Dad was studying it, tilting his head back to peer down at it through his bifocals, eyebrows raised, mouth moving slightly as he read the labels on the buttons. The television’s volume was low, and as we stared at our cards, the background noise provided by Dad's channel surfing was almost hypnotic. A tiny burst of static, then a short preview of the channel, and then another little burst of static.

PSSHT—where, just last year, Egyptians were struggling just to—PSSHT—would not comment, saying only that House and Senate leaders agreed earlier today on—PSSHT—just a little salt to season. You don't want to add a lot, because the bacon—PSSHHT—these three titanium blades that chop the food while they mix it, giving you the perfect—PSSHT—oooh, that’s right…oooh, I like it when you do that…

This channel selection naturally seized our attention and everyone looked up at each other and then at the television, except for Mom, who was arranging her cards into a neat fan, and Dad, who was still looking down through his bifocals at the remote trying to make sense of the buttons. On the screen were four naked women in a hot tub, writhing and moaning—honestly, there may have been more, but it was difficult to tell, as some of them were partially submerged. Having been raised to be fairly modest, we were initially speechless. Each of us thought—prayed, even—that maybe he would just keep clicking through the channels and away from the virtual slip and slide that was taking place on the screen. When, after a few seconds, we realized that he was unaware of his viewing choice, Mary was the first to speak, but she could only manage one word.
"PORN!" she sputtered, pointing at the television with one hand, and tugging at my shirt sleeve with the other.

Nodding my head but still unable to speak, I reached over to nudge Steve, but because he embarrasses easily, he had quickly left the table to go outside and smoke a cigarette. Wanda, who also is prone to embarrassment, had brought her newspaper up close in front of her face as if she were reading a tiny little article. Mary continued to tug at my sleeve like a child trying to draw someone’s attention to an approaching tidal wave. Or a hot tub full of naked women. “Um, porn! Porn!” she blurted helplessly. Mom looked up and turned to see what was on the screen. She chuckled, and then turned back to her cards. “John, change the channel, honey,” she announced calmly. Dad looked up just in time to see the gals changing position. Like cheerleaders readying themselves for the big finish at the state finals, they clambered over one another, splashing and cooing. Dad immediately went into panic mode and began trying to change the channel, but instead began raising the volume.


Instinctively, we all scrambled towards him to try and silence the television.
“Just turn it off,” my mother instructed Wanda, who was now searching the front of the set for a power button. Or any button.
“There’s no buttons on the front!” Wanda shrieked. “Why aren’t there buttons?!”
Eyeing what I thought might be a button, I asked, “Isn’t that the power button right there, Wanda?”
“Where?!” she cried, her eyes racing over the front panel.


“The little red button on the left!” I snapped. Mary had gone to get Steve, but when he came in and saw what was taking place, he immediately turned and walked right back out, tapping another cigarette out of his pack.
“That’s not even a button, that’s the infrared thingy for the remote!” Wanda snapped back.
“Then just unplug it!” I shouted. “Just make it stop!”


Meanwhile, Mom and Dad, who by this time were in full Hail-Mary mode, began pressing random buttons on the remote in hopes of finding some magic combination that would bring an end to the earsplitting love fest.
“Will you please hand me that?” I said through clenched teeth, extending my hand for the remote. Snatching it away from them, I lowered the volume, changed the channel, and then turned the set off. Everyone was motionless for a moment, steeping in the abrupt quietness of the room. I gently set the remote on top of the television and stood back up, awkwardly stuffing my hands in my pockets. Hearing that the commotion had stopped, Steve wandered back in and was leaning against the refrigerator. We all spoke at once.

“Ok, I’m calling it a night…” “It’s past my bedtime…” “I think I’ll turn in…” “I’m beat…” “I’ve got to get something from the car…” “Is it nine-thirty already?”

We didn’t speak of it again, and the remote remained on top of the television for the rest of the trip.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Re: Hygiene

To: The driver of a red Ford Bronco whom I had the unfortunate experience of being stuck behind

From: Alan Simmons

Date: June 8, 2009

Re: Hygiene

There is no easy or delicate way to say this, sir. You stink. I was northbound on Walton Blvd. today when I let you in front of me as you exited the Radio Shack parking lot. It wasn’t long before I regretted that decision. The weather was nice, so I didn’t need the A/C, but I had my vents open to get a little air. As I rode behind you, a distinctly pungent odor began to creep through my vents and into my vehicle, invading—no, violating my nostrils. That odor? That would be your nasty body, sir. Do you know what it means when your body odor is so powerful that the person in the vehicle behind you can smell it? In the simplest of terms, it means that you need a bath. Not just a bath; you need a scrubbing down that would make the shower scene from Silkwood look like a baby christening. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how you got to your present level of stinkiness without a family member, friend, or—let’s face it—neighbor saying something to you. It’s called soap, sir, and it’s available at most fine retailers. It doesn’t matter what brand or scent you choose (at this point, vinegar would be a step in the right direction). But here’s the trick with soap: you have to use it every day. And be careful; something tells me that you may, at least initially, have an adverse reaction to it. Keep some Benadryl nearby just in case. And let’s not forget deodorant. A couple of quick swipes or sprays will do wonders. I’m tempted to suggest additional methods for you to de-stinkify yourself, e.g., burning your clothes and vehicle, but let’s keep it simple for now. Now go. Buy soap, deodorant, and no fewer than a dozen of those little pine trees to hang in your vehicle. Let Operation Loofah commence! And in the mean time? Roll up your windows, dude. Seriously.

Friday, June 5, 2009

When Nature Calls

When the urge to pee hits, it's an unmistakable feeling. A feeling I recently encountered in a local convenience store. After asking the clerk where the facilities were, I made my way into the back past stacks of boxes and shelves of cleaning supplies to the bathroom. It was a one-seater with a tiny stall next to an out-of-order urinal. Inside the stall, a stainless steel toilet paper dispenser served as a shelf for a tall can of disinfectant spray on one side, and a simple bolt latch locked the stall door. The toilet sat up high, and inside the bowl was an enormous wad of toilet paper floating in what looked like raw sewage. As I began to conduct my business, I found myself absentmindedly humming the Doobie Brothers' Black Water. Moments later, experiencing the complete and total relief that only comes from an empty bladder, I began to put myself back together. I have a rule on flushing. In a public restroom, if I sense a potential overflow situation, I don't flush. And since what I added was significantly less disgusting than what was already in there, I had no intention of flushing. I turned slightly to retuck my shirt, and the toilet flushed.

A wave of terror washed over me as I realized the toilet was an auto flush. As the contents of the bowl began to rise, I began to panic, fumbling with my button and zipper. I turned again to let myself out, and my elbow hit the can of spray on the dispenser, knocking it to the tile floor. The tip of the spray mechanism must have hit at just the right angle, because it snapped off and sent the can into a violent tailspin. I screamed like a girl as disinfectant spray began to fill the stall and the can spun wildly, clattering and clanging against the porcelain base of the toilet and the wall. The rotating evil in the bowl was quickly reaching the point of no return, and I tugged at the latch desperately like the victims you see in horror movies who are trying to escape from the guy with the chainsaw. I grasped clumsily at the tiny metal latch with my now-sweaty hands, but it wasn't budging. The fumes from the spray stung my eyes and left a bitter, chemical taste that burned my mouth and nose. And it was at that moment that I heard the most horrifying sound one can hear in a public restroom: water spilling over the rim of the toilet bowl and onto the floor. I’d been putting it off, but now it was time to bargain with God. I promised a lifetime of servitude in every war-torn and disease-ridden country I could think of, pledging to care for the blind, the deaf, the young, and the old.

I could only imagine what it must have looked and sounded like from outside the stall. A vile pool of murky water seeping out from under the stall, spreading across the tile floor; the frantic prayers of a hysterical man, barely audible over the clanging and hissing of a runaway aerosol can rocketing around the small room like a Jack Russell Terrier; the cloudy haze of disinfectant that hung in the air; the persistent rattling of the stall door, and the violent rocking of the stall itself, which pitched back and forth like a cage containing a wild animal. Giving the latch one final wrench, I heard it snap, and the door swung open. I made my way across the slippery tile floor to the sink, jerking and sliding as if I were taking my first ice-skating lesson. I leaned on the sink and closed my eyes for a moment. What had felt like a half-hour ordeal had taken only about a minute. The spray can was now spent, sputtering its final drops in the corner. Straightening up to regaining my composure, I washed and dried my hands and exited the bathroom, stopping only long enough to flip the switch under the sign that read, “Let Us Know if Restroom Needs Attention.”


Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Wreck

I saw the truck swerve across the highway and plow into the grass median, flipping it and jack-knifing the trailer it towed, sending a splash of sod and grass into the air. As it settled in the fresh dirt, other drivers began pulling over and getting out of their cars, cell phones in hand. As I got closer I noticed one woman with fresh tears streaming down her cheeks, which, for some reason, annoyed me. Unless she knew the driver, why would she cry over a complete stranger in a (most likely) non-fatal accident? The cars lining the sides of the road began to slow traffic, which annoyed me even more. Let's go people, I thought as I tried to maneuver into a different lane to get past the car in front of me, which had slowed to a crawl even though there wasn't car in front of it. Finally free of the cluster of onlookers, I found open road and picked up speed, leaving the now-smoking accident in the rear-view mirror.

As I lay in bed that night, I began to evaluate my actions. Replaying my thoughts from the accident, I began to feel a little ashamed. What happened to me? Have I lost the compassion that I used to have for others? Am I so jaded that I no longer even feel the compulsion to help someone in need? I tried to justify my actions to myself. There were so many people stopped. I would have just been in the way. Someone else helped the driver, I'm sure. Exactly. Someone else. And that bothered me, because not helping people? Is not who I am or what I'm about. I know better than that. I remember a time when I would go out of my way to help someone. In the late eighties I was out one night with one of my best friends from high school, Bobby, when we saw a pickup truck smash into a sedan at an intersection. An explosion of tempered glass and twisted metal littered the rain-soaked street, and while other cars were just starting to slow down, Bobby and I had already pulled over and begun to approach the wreck. We had just returned a few weeks earlier from ten weeks of combat medic training at Fort Sam Houston, and we were prepared. We had even called dibs; I took the pickup and he took the sedan.

The driver of the pickup was bleeding badly. The collision had launched him into the windshield, and now blood was pouring from a hundred little cuts on his forehead like water through a sieve, matting his black hair against his head like a thick red carpet. As I attended to him, the sickly-sweet aroma of alcohol paired with his incessant—and unintelligible—chatter made it obvious that he had passed "drunk" quite some time ago and was now on the cusp of "sloshed". I fashioned a crude cervical collar out of a towel from Bobby's car and secured it around his neck like a long, thick scarf. As I the held the end of the towel against his forehead and tried to keep him from moving, he babbled on incoherently through the blood, which now just trickled from his forehead. He had no idea he had been in an accident. I suppose when you're that inebriated, the brain fills in the blank spots with familiar things, the way you wake up from a dream about a beeping dump truck backing up, only to discover it’s your alarm clock. With the towel, the line of cars, and the falling rain, he apparently thought we were at a car wash and I was the attendant.

The woman driving the sedan, who was wearing her seatbelt, had several cuts on her face as well. And she was furious at the other driver. Her light was green and she was halfway through the intersection when Chatty McDrinksalot t-boned her. He never even hit his brakes. Bobby was trying to hold a t-shirt against her wounds, but she kept yelling around him at the drunken pickup driver. Each time she screamed at him, he would chuckle and, without moving, yell back for her to wait her turn. As the police and ambulance pulled up, Bobby and I, with a few other bystanders who had called 911, explained to them what had happened. We got in the car to leave, sinking down into the seats and exhaling for what felt like the first time in days. Our hands, shirts, jeans, and shoes were covered with streaks and splotches of blood, and the blue and red lights flashing through the rain on the windshield drew strange patterns on top of it. But we wore that blood like a badge of honor, proud that we had helped someone else. I’m still proud to tell that story.

As I lay in the nearly-dark room staring at the ceiling fan rotating slowly above me, I had a sudden moment of clarity; an ironic, sad realization that draped itself over me like a thick, heavy quilt. I still care about what happens to people. I still have compassion for others; I never lost it. I just haven't used it.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Letters from Home - Gerald Wayne's Pit Stop

I am always amazed at how seemingly harmless events can, in an instant, truly make or break someone’s day. The latest letter from home is a perfect example…

Dear son,

It’s been awhile since I wrote you last. How have you been lately? We’re doing pretty fair here. Daddy’s doing real well and I’m feeling pretty good, too. We even went to a Sunday school potluck reunion at Maynard Park last Sunday. It sure was a lot of fun. We saw folks we haven’t seen in years. Some of them we thought were already dead. I’m trying to remember who all was there… well, we saw Frank and Selma Jean Burgess, Jo Lynn Carney (she’s 58 and still single, poor thing), Chester McCarthy and his new wife Clara, Virgil Stutes, Raymond and Earlene Betts – oh, and Mary Beth Sizemore was there showing off her new artificial hip. She was prancing around in the ugliest mumu-looking thing, bragging about how it was some kind of fancy Italian silk (Dupont, I think she said) and how her son bought it for her in Milan. I don’t know what she thinks the big deal is. We’ve been to Milan a hundred times or more. Your daddy and me go to the flea market next to the Tennessee National Guard armory up there almost every weekend. Anyway, she hugs everybody she meets whether she knows them or not so they’ll feel like they have to stay and talk. But they don’t ever get a chance to talk. They just have to stand there and listen to her tell that awful story about how long her hip operation was and how she had to go through all that physical therapy and then find out that her female therapist Jolene was a Lebanese (you know, she likes women instead of men). Norma Faye Sprague was doing her best to avoid her but Mary Beth just loves her to death. Norma Faye can’t stand Mary Beth but she doesn’t have the heart to tell her. You know how she hates conflict. Norma Faye would walk a mile to avoid an argument. She said to tell you hello, by the way. She’s still teaching piano up at the community center. Bless her heart, I don’t know how in the world she does it with half a liver.

Anyway, she had her nephew Cleavon and his boy Gerald Wayne with her. Cleavon is Norma Faye’s brother Harland’s middle boy. He works in his daddy’s septic business, but he can’t drive on account of he’s got that necrophilia, where you just fall asleep all of a sudden. Anyway, Gerald Wayne’s a cute little thing. He’s about four and he had just gotten one of those play tattoos to match his daddy’s NASCAR tattoo. Lord have mercy, that boy loves NASCAR. Knows every single driver and everything about them. Well, we were standing there talking and Gerald Wayne started pulling on his daddy’s jeans saying, “Pit stop, daddy, pit stop!” Well Maynard Park tore down all their bathrooms years ago after those high school kids got in there and wrote nasty words on the walls in poop. Norma Faye told Cleavon to take him across the way to the Pic Pac Grocery. But Gerald Wayne was hollering, “I got to go pit stop now!!” So Cleavon pulled a 7-11 cup out of the bed of Norma Faye’s truck for him to go in and stood him up right there on the tailgate. Let me tell you what, that boy did need a pit stop. We kept hearing the cup getting fuller and fuller (and it’s real hard to have a conversation when that’s going on) and Cleavon started saying, “Son, stop… stop, now… stop, stop, STOP!!”

The next thing we heard was a great big splash. Cleavon hollered like he’d been shot, came staggering around the side of the truck, and said some words I don’t care to repeat. Apparently he panicked and tried to back up and let go of the cup, but it hit the edge of the tailgate, splashed up and covered him from head to toe in pee. His shirt was wet, his jeans were wet, and he was white as a ghost. You’d think a fellow that traipses around and other folks’ poop all day wouldn’t be bothered by a little pee, but just between you and me, Cleavon’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Anyhow, poor little Gerald Wayne was still standing there peeing off the edge of the tailgate with his britches down around his ankles. He looked like one of those fountains you see in fancy hotel lobbies. Norma Faye told Cleavon to go over and get some paper towels from the end of the food line while she took care of Gerald Wayne. He went stomping off and I helped Norma Faye get Gerald Wayne cleaned up and get his little britches pulled back up. We were washing his hands when we heard a scream. We turned and saw Mary Beth standing in front of Cleavon and she was wet all down her front. She figured she’d tell him about her new hip and her Lebanese therapist, so as soon as he got close enough she grabbed him and gave him a big old hug. I reckon she didn’t notice he was covered in pee until it had soaked into her fancy new Dupont mumu. Let me tell you, Mary Beth like to have come unglued right there on the spot. She was hollering and fussing at Cleavon, then she came over and hollered and fussed at Norma Faye, and then she just busted into tears, got in her car, and took off like the dickens. I was glad because I figured this meant Norma Faye would finally be shed of her, but do you know she’s already wanting to buy Mary Beth another one of them mumus since the pee smell wouldn’t come out? I guess we’ll take her and Cleavon and Gerald Wayne with us next weekend when we go to Milan and see if we can find her one up at the flea market. Well, I’ve about talked your ear off so I’ll say bye for now. You take care, and we’ll see you later on.


Mom and Dad