Thursday, December 23, 2010

Santa's Hands

For several years during the holidays, my dad worked as a Santa Claus for Goldsmith’s Enchanted Forest. The Enchanted Forest was an indoor winter wonderland, a family attraction that featured hundreds of extravagantly decorated Christmas trees, thousands of lights, kid-sized gingerbread villages, and a metric ton of fake snow. Murals featuring Christmas characters covered the walls; scenes like elves standing on each other’s shoulders to place a wreath around a reindeer’s neck. But the elves were sinister-looking and had a Nightmare Before Christmas quality to them. It was festive in a creepy sort of way.

But children and parents were willing to overlook the weird art and stand in line for an hour to see Dad. I mean, Santa. And he made a great Santa. He could be extremely jolly when the occasion called for it, and he loved the kids. Of course, neither of my parents told me at the time that he was playing Santa, but in retrospect, his coming home smelling like peppermint and urine should have raised some flags.

One Saturday, Mom promised to take me to see Santa. Like the hundreds of others there to see him, we waited in line for what seemed like days. As the line snaked around the North Pole Village, I could see children climbing onto his lap to make their requests. Some smiled shyly and whispered their Christmas wishes in his ear, while others screamed bloody murder until their parents apologetically whisked them away.

When my turn came, I climbed up on his lap like a pro. His right arm instinctively slid underneath my right arm, his left hand resting on my right knee. It felt familiar, but before I could put my finger on it, he launched into his Santa spiel, booming out a Ho! Ho! Ho! and asking me what I wanted for Christmas.

I knew exactly what I wanted — the Fisher Price airport, the one I had seen on TV a million times — but I was too distracted by his hands. Like his lap, they were strangely familiar, and not at all like what I expected Santa’s hands to look like. Santa’s hands would be white and pasty from doing nothing but eating cookies and ordering elves around. But these hands were brown and weathered, with small scars from past cuts and scrapes. They were strong, yet gentle, like iron wrapped in leather. I knew these hands.

These were the hands that kept me out of the reach of our cousins’ hateful German Shepherd. The hands that brushed soapy foam on my face so I could pretend to shave, and guided my hands as I learned to polish my shoes. Hands that would keep me steady as I learned to ride a bike, and hold me up in the waters of Sardis Lake, teaching me to swim. Hands that folded in prayer for me every night of my life, then and now. These were my father’s hands.

As I climbed down off of his lap, I gave him a knowing look, one that said, “I know who you are.” And I think he understood. As Mom and I walked back toward the parking garage, she asked me how my visit with Santa went.

“That wasn’t Santa,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Sure it was,” Mom said nervously. Mom was always a horrible liar.

“No, that was my daddy.”

Later that same Christmas season, Santa visited my kindergarten class just days before we were to be out for the holidays. He burst through the door and issued an authentic, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!” All the other children shrieked and rushed to surround him. I simply put my hands on my hips and rolled my eyes.

“Daa-aad,” I whined, as if embarrassed by his presence. “What are you doing here?” Instantly I was swept out of the room like the president being whisked away by the Secret Service after a failed assassination attempt. I was encouraged (read: threatened) to play along. Which I did gladly after Mom and my teacher Mrs. Simms explained that Dad was here as a favor to the real Santa Claus, who couldn’t make it because he was, of course, busy making toys.

Merry Christmas!


Monday, November 29, 2010

A Quick Thanksgiving in Memphis

It was a little after midnight when we pulled into the dark driveway. Six hours on the road had left Mary and I glassy-eyed and sore. As we opened the back hatch on the car to start unloading, the porch light came on and Mom stuck her head out the back door. They’d waited up for us. They’d both been excited that we were coming to stay with them for Thanksgiving this year. Mom had been cleaning since August when I’d told her we were coming.

We usually stay with Mary’s parents when we go to Memphis, which is becoming an increasingly rare trip due to our work schedules. It’s not an intentional slam against my parents by staying with Mary’s; it’s just where we usually end up. But this year things would be different. Just how different we were yet to discover. Mom and Dad are in their late seventies, and it takes them a little longer to do things.

For instance, one of the first mornings we were there, as I was on my way to the shower, Mom told me that Dad wanted me to take a look at the showerhead. “He said it’s leaking water all over the back of the wall. If you have time today, take a look at it,” she said. I told her I had plenty of time and I’d check it out. When I went into the bathroom, Dad was waiting for me. I turned on the shower, and as it ran, one single bead of water brimmed up over the lip of the handheld fixture and ran down the hose.

“See that leak?” Dad said. “I was thinking we could put some of that, um…” he trailed off. Dad forgets his words sometimes and it takes him a while to express a thought, so I tried to help.

“Teflon tape?” I offered.

“No, uh, we need to put some, uh…oh, you know…” then he walked off midsentence. I felt bad. He couldn’t think of the word he needed and was too embarrassed to continue. Moments later, though, he returned with a caulk gun.

“Caulk!” he announced.

“You want me to caulk the showerhead?”

“No, I want you to caulk the top of the knob fixture so water doesn’t run in behind it.”

Never mind the fact that it already has a rubber backing on it to protect it because it’s in a shower; I caulked it. Poorly. (Sadly, I’ve never been much of a caulker.)

Later, Mom told me she wanted me to show her how to make the asparagus dish I had made last time they visited us, asparagus, red onion, and mushroom sautéed together with butter and herbs. Sure, no sweat. I mentioned picking up some asparagus, and she said she already had some — in a can. I must have made a face when she said “can” because she added, “Well, I don’t know how to cook the fresh kind!” How do you get to be seventy-seven and not know how to cook fresh asparagus? I told her it was super-easy. She wanted to know how long it would need to cook. Would it need more than a half hour or so? I explained that it would only take about ten minutes.

“Ten minutes?” she asked, wrinkling up her face. “Will it get done?”

“Yes. It’s asparagus, Mom, not raw chicken.” Why do they think it takes so long? Then I remembered the broccoli they prepared in my childhood — cooked until it was limp and gray.

Then she said she would be cooking a ham. She had bought one of those big spiral-sliced jobs that come fully cooked. All you have to do is heat it and add the packaged glaze that comes with it. Mary and I went out for a while to run some errands. When we returned later that afternoon, the ham was resting on the counter. I lifted the foil, expecting to find succulent pink meat. Instead, the ham was bone dry, reduced to an almost jerky-like state.

Mom called from her chair in the living room, “That ham may be a little dry. I cooked it like it said, but it dried out.”

“How long did you cook it?” I asked, flicking a crusty spiral-sliced flap.

“Two and a half hours,” she replied.

What?! Mary and I looked at each other in alarm, with that look that says both, “Oh my God!” and “Don’t speak!” all in one. Two and a half hours? It was an eight-pound fully cooked ham. It had languished, uncovered, in my mother’s oven for more than twice the amount of time it needed. And now it lay on her counter, charred and withered, like a tiny little burn victim.

One of several things she wanted me to do while I was there was clean the light fixture that hangs over their kitchen table. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour,” she reassured me. An hour? In what atmospheric conditions? We’re cleaning a light fixture in your kitchen, not repairing a damaged rocket booster during a spacewalk.

“An hour?” I asked.

“Well, don’t we need to take the fixture down?” she said.

“No,” I said with a shrug. “We’ll just wipe it with a damp rag.”

“Oh,” she said. She sounded almost disappointed. “I guess that’ll work, too.”

I wrung out a wet rag and wiped the fixture, the globes, and the base, replacing the dust with shiny polished brass. It took about ten minutes.

It was a good visit. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Mom and Dad, talking about the old days and reminiscing about family. But unlike all the other things that week, it didn’t take nearly as long as I would have liked.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Memoir Excerpt – Dead in the Street

It was only a few weeks after providing medical treatment at a wreck that I drove up on an accident that had just happened on my street. I saw a girl lying in the road and a crowd forming at the curb. I pulled over and hopped out of the truck. I had been on a high since helping out at the first wreck, and I expected to swagger up and be the hero again. As I got closer I spoke to a crossing guard, an older woman who had come over to keep the onlookers back.

“I’m a medic in the Army. What happened?” I asked in a very official tone.

“She got hit by a car.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “She’s dead. You can’t do anything for her, honey.”

I kneeled over her body, and the gravity of the situation was like a vacuum, sucking every thought out of my head, every word out of my mouth. She was already dead and there was nothing I could do. A wide trail of bright red blood, still wet and glistening, painted the path in the street where her body had slid after the impact.

“How did it happen?” I asked quietly.

She was thirteen, a seventh-grader at the local high school, a dingy white building just two blocks from where her lifeless body now lay in full view of the horde of students that peeked over and around each other to get a good look at the only dead body some of them would ever see outside of a funeral home. She had gotten out of school only moments earlier and was walking with her friends when she spotted the car of an older friend coming and decided to play a prank on him, something she would never live to regret.

As he approached, she crouched between two cars parked on the side of the street, waiting until he was only twenty or thirty feet from her before leaping in front of it, arms flailing, a move that she had hoped would scare him and make him swerve wildly, but he couldn't swerve — or stop — in time. Now she lay in the street, her petite body buckled, eyes open and staring at nothing, textbooks and notebooks strewn about, a thin river of blood trailing from her head and pooling at the base of the curb.

I went home, got in the shower, and cried. I squatted down in the tub and as the water ran over me I cried deep, hard sobs that forced the air out of my lungs until I was almost heaving. It was the oddest time to notice that I was actually thin enough now to squat sideways in the shower, and I laughed through my tears for a moment. Then her ashen face came back to me and I sank again and wept for a girl I had never met.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mennonite Date Night

“A Mennonite restaurant?” I asked, looking at Mary with my head cocked to the side.

“Yes. It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she said. “They have kind of a limited menu, but it’s all homemade and I’ve heard just . . .” hands over her heart now, “incredible things about it.”

Neither of us had ever been to a Mennonite, well, anything before, much less a restaurant. We’d seen them at the craft fairs or around town, women in modest shin-length dresses, sparse makeup if any, and the traditional black or white covering on the back of their head. But a restaurant run and staffed entirely by Mennonites? We weren’t sure what to expect.

“So, do we need to brush up on our early American vernacular?” I asked. “Do I need to be like, ‘Wife, what wilt thou have for thy entree?’, or, ‘Miss, couldst thou top off my sweet tea when thy time affords thee an opportunity?’”

“You’re an idiot,” Mary said. “For one thing, I don’t even think I’m supposed to talk. I think you’re supposed to order for me since you’re the man.”

Then a look of concern spread across her face. “Are they going to make me wear one of those doily things on my head?”


“You know, those doily thingies they wear on the back of their head. Am I going to have to wear one of those?”

“What, do you think it's going to be like those restaurants that require jackets on gentlemen?” I asked. “You think they’re going to have spare doilies for heathen women that come in without them?”

Mary pouted, “Shut up, I don’t know.” Then she giggled. “Do you think the schedule is posted on the bulletin at their church?” Then: “Or that we’ll have to put our tips in an offering plate?” She snorted to herself while I shook my head.

“Thou art indeed a heathen, wife.”

So it was with mixed expectations that we visited The Wooden Spoon in Gentry, Arkansas. It’s a small restaurant, but very charming. A small area with gifts and baked goods lines the inside of the front wall. Zucchini bread, scones, Rollkuchen (fritters), and streusel cakes were just a few of the items available. And our apprehension about how to behave was lifted when we saw one of the modestly-adorned waitresses texting on her iPhone.

Once we were seated, we perused the menu. It was limited to less than a dozen selections. Catfish, chicken, pasta, standard fare. We each ordered a cup of potato soup and the catfish dinner. The soup came in a coffee cup, which, like all the other dinnerware, was speckled enamel. We discovered after she’d left that our waitress had forgotten our spoons. Trouble was, we weren’t sure which one she was. They were all built and dressed so similarly.

“Is it her?” Mary asked, pointing to a young woman carrying a tray of food.

“I have no idea,” I said. Sadly, I couldn’t have picked her out of a police lineup if she’d stolen my wallet. And describing her would be equally useless. “Yes, officer, she was tall, fair-skinned, light-haired, wore a long, plain dress, and a black doily on the back of her head.” Every waitress in the joint fit that description.

Fortunately for us, she came back and asked if everything was all right. When we told her we needed spoons, she smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand and said, “Duh! I’m so sorry.”

Everything was wonderful: the food, the service, the relaxed atmosphere. And the dessert selections nearly outnumber the entrees. Bumblebee Pie (a mix of berries), French Silk Pie, Rhubarb Cream Pie, Coconut Pie, Dutch Apple Cake, Bread Pudding, and more I can’t recall.

Mary ordered the French Silk Pie and I the Bread Pudding. Both came quickly and were positively ginormous. Her “slice” of pie — a piece so large that if it were a rock it could be used to bludgeon a man — was drizzled with chocolate swirls and topped with a creamy whipped fluff. My bread pudding was just as big and smothered in a buttery, sugary, cinammon-y sauce that I am not ashamed to say I wanted very much to pour over myself.

It was a fantastic experience, and we will go back again and again. The staff was gracious and attentive and the food was fabulous. So the next time you find yourself in Gentry, Arkansas on a Friday evening, stop by The Wooden Spoon.

Thou wilt love it.



Monday, August 9, 2010

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Mary and I went to see Dinner for Schmucks this weekend. Allow me to give you a lightning quick synopsis so you’ll better understand the details.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is an aspiring executive who’s invited to a dinner with other execs at the big boss’s place. The catch is, everyone has to bring an idiot for the group to laugh at. Barry (Steve Carell), a man who creates dioramas with dead mice, is Tim’s idiot. OK, moving on.

It’s a matinee, so the theater is not crowded in the least. 2 ladies in their seventies hobble in and look around for a seat. There are over 100 unoccupied seats all over the theater, yet they choose to sit in the seat right next to me. Mary and I look at each other as if to say, “Seriously?”

Now, I’m a big guy. When I’m at the movies, I need a little space to spread out. And in a theater that’s less than a third full, that shouldn’t be an issue. But Granny Moses has already made herself comfortable, including commandeering my armrest. This is not going to be good.

As the previews begin, she says to her friend (loudly), “I hope this is good. Carol said it looked like it would be good. But she told us that that 2012 movie was good, and I thought it was just awful.”

Her friend looks at her and asks, “What 2012 movie?”

“You remember, the one about the end of the world.”

“Did we see it together? I don’t remember that.”

“Yes we saw it together! Don’t you remember? Carol was going to go with us but she didn’t get back from the doctor’s office in time to meet us.”

“What was she at the doctor for?”

At this point, Mary leans forward and gives them “the look,” which they completely don’t get.

When Steve Carell makes his first appearance, my seat buddy remarks out loud to her friend, “He’s so funny. I just love him.”

Mary squeezes my leg.

The movie progresses, and the screen fills with close-ups of Barry’s elaborate dioramas — dead mice dressed as little people in suits, ties, hats, and glasses, in realistic surroundings.

In the darkness I hear, “Awww… aren’t those cute? I’d like to have some of those to put out on my coffee table.”

Dear God, make it stop.

In one scene Barry says his wife left him because he lost her clitoris. When pressed for details, he explains, “I don’t know, but she was always mad because I couldn’t find it.”

Granny Moses leans toward her friend and says, “What did he say he lost?”

“I think he said he lost someone named Doris.”

“Oh. I bet that’s his wife’s name.”

By now Mary and I are in tears, shaking with laughter.

The movie eventually ends and as the credits roll, Barry brings the audience up to speed (with dioramas, of course) on what’s taken place since the movie ended. One of the happily-ever-afters is that Barry has a new lady friend. And with tiny dead mice in a bedroom diorama on the screen, he proudly reports that he’s been able to find her clitoris.

“Oh, good!” my neighbor says. “He found Doris.”



Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Girly Man

OK, I admit it. I’m a little different than other guys. Most of the guys I know like to talk about guy things. Manly things. Who’s playing in the PGA. How to repair a clutch on a ’79 Mustang. Which college team is the top seed (whatever that means). I don’t know anything about automotive repair and I loathe sports, so I’m no help in either of those areas. I am, however, knowledgeable and competent if you’re looking to repurpose a door as a headboard, find an area rug that goes with your artwork, or prepare a delicious pot of Coq au Vin.

I have an idea where this mindset and behavior might have come from. I was the youngest of 4 children, the one child that my mother had vowed to raise herself, without help from her mother. Consequently I spent a lot of time with Mom doing things like laundry and cooking. When I graduated from US Army boot camp, I was the only one of 50 or so guys who knew how to iron my Class A uniform. And the first week Mary and I were married, she was shocked that I hung my clothes up or put them in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor or the couch.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not apologizing for being this way. I love the fact that I can tell a female coworker her shoes are cute and mean it. I think it’s great that I can breeze through the grocery store while other guys are hopelessly lost because they don’t know what a leek looks like or where the sliced almonds are. I find humor in the blank looks on other men’s faces in flea markets and antique shops as their wives chatter excitedly about finials and chargers and curios and settees, and the husbands’ faces practically shout, “What the hell is she talking about?”

Not only do I know exactly what the wives are talking about, I know that the punched tin lamp and the Victorian quilt she’s buying are going to look positively hideous in the contemporary bedroom she’s been talking about. Fine. I admit that I have definite opinions about interior design. I also admit that I like to shop (yes, really). I admit that I get excited about French imported soap. And yes, I admit that I’m dying to see Eat, Pray, Love.

At the end of the day, though, I’m still a guy. I still love a good action movie with plenty of gunfire, explosions, and naked women running around, but I’m equally happy watching Phantom of the Opera. I still play air guitar — badly — to .38 Special and Aerosmith, but the beauty of the theme from Schindler’s List brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I hear it. I still love pizza and an ice-cold beer, but I get positively giddy when my crème brulée turns out just right.

I consider myself fortunate to enjoy both ends of the spectrum, both hemispheres of the delicate yin/yang balance. I'm sure some of my manly-man friends will have trouble understanding that. Some men have preconceived notions about guys that like to shop and decorate and cook. But that's OK. They're entitled to their opinion. I'll even help them out the next time they're in the grocery store and can't find ginger root.



Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spice, Spice, Baby...

God bless my wife, Mary. When I’ve repeatedly promised and forgotten to do something, she doesn’t yell or nag. She simply gives me a gentle reminder that it needs doing. Such is the case with our ever-expanding spice cabinet. In an effort to broaden our culinary horizons by preparing different cuisines, I’ve been adding to it consistently for some time now. We started off with the spices everyone has in their collection: Thyme, Parsley, Garlic Powder, and the like — what I like to refer to as the khaki slacks of the spice world, meaning they go with most anything.

But when we wanted to make Mexican one night, I bought Cumin. Then there was French night, which meant I needed Tarragon. Then I found an Italian recipe that called for Rosemary. With each new dish came the need for a new spice or two. More and more of them kept creeping into the cabinet. Basil, Curry Powder, Marjoram, Coriander, Garam Masala, Chives, Dill, Turmeric, Celery Seed, Ginger (ground and candied), Onion Powder, Chipotle Powder, Sage, Paprika, Chinese Five Spice, Cardamom ... and that’s only the bottom shelf. Mary asked me to clean it out, organize it, do something with it.

I looked at spice racks at different stores and online, but 1.) they all come with spices. I don’t need more spices. I don’t have room for the spices I have. 2.) The most I’ve ever seen a spice rack hold is 20 jars, and I passed that number long ago. I considered buying individual empty spice jars, but at three to five dollars each I’d have to sell a baby on the black market to collect enough to contain the culinary arsenal spread across my table now. But the other day a wonderful thing happened. Mary sent me a text saying that she had gone out and purchased three different types of spice racks. When I got home from work, she said, I could decide which one I liked, keep all three, get more of one, whatever.

This is what she does. She takes care of me so well and there are no words to tell her how much I appreciate her patience. Maybe I’ll cook her a nice dinner. I have a great recipe for Jamaican Jerk Chicken. I just need to get some Allspice...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Memoir Excerpt - Church

The memoir is coming along, but I'm constantly trying to convince myself that it's not arrogant to think that someone would want to read a book about my life. My real purpose is simply to share the funny things that happened along the way and make people laugh. Here's another chapter excerpt I hope will do just that. I'd love to hear your comments. Enjoy!

Georgian Hills Baptist Church was a decidedly Southern Baptist church. The people who attended there were no-nonsense Christians. No drinking, no dancing, and no smoking—except for Mr. Willis, an older man who was regularly chastised by the several of the old church ladies for setting a bad example by smoking right out in front of the sanctuary where everyone could see him.

The church started small, and I don’t really remember much about the original building except for the small sanctuary that might have seated 100 people. A center aisle stretched from the back doors to the altar. The wooden pews on either side creaked when we sat down or moved. The back of each pew had built-in holders for tithe envelopes and those tiny little pencils that were impossible to write with, holes for your little plastic communion cup, and bookracks that held copies of the Baptist Hymnal. And if it wasn’t in the Baptist Hymnal, we didn’t sing it.

Church was painfully boring for a kindergartener. To pass the time, I doodled on the back of envelopes or on a sheet of paper Mom had been clever enough to tuck into her Bible, but more often than not, I ended up falling asleep. This usually resulted in a subtle nudge from Mom, but one time I woke up as Dad was carrying me out of the sanctuary hissing, “Alan! Wake up, son.” I had seen other children get carried out for misbehaving and knew they got a whipping, but I didn’t know what I had done.

I started to cry about the time we reached the back doors, and as he set me down outside the sanctuary I began apologizing profusely, even though I had no idea why I had been removed. I was expecting Dad to remove his belt and whip me, but instead he sat in one of the wingback chairs in the foyer and laughed, covering his mouth so he wouldn’t be heard. I finally mustered up the courage to ask, “Am I in trouble?”

“No, son, you’re not in trouble,” Dad said, still chuckling. “I had to bring you out here ‘cause you were pootin’ in your sleep so loud everybody could hear it.”

A wave of relief coursed through me, then horror. “I was pooting?” I asked, my face burning from embarrassment. “Everyone heard me pooting?” There was no way I could go back in there now. Even though unintentional, I had passed gas in God’s house, in front of God’s people. Were I to go back in now He would surely smite me. Had I known my body was going to turn on me in the form of audible emissions, I never would have dozed off. I could never fall asleep in church again, that much was clear.

Monday, June 21, 2010

(Un)Happy Father's Day

It’s uncanny. I posted something just days ago about the parents we saw last weekend that couldn’t control their kids, and then this weekend I ran into their exact opposite. To be clear, when I said control your kids I just meant keep them from running amok. I didn’t mean verbally analyze every move they make with a critical tone.

Mary and I are sitting in Outback Steakhouse Saturday evening. The hostess seats a family at the table next to us. It’s a mom, dad, and four boys, the youngest about 9, the oldest about 13. Before they even get their menus open, Dad turns to the oldest boy and says, “Are we going to have a problem in here, or are you going to be able to keep your attitude in check?” The boy mumbles something, and Dad continues, “Well, you need to tell your face and your body that you don’t have an attitude problem, because your body language is projecting as if you do. You’re all hunched over. Sit up straight like a man, Josh. Make eye contact with the people around you. How many times have I told you how important eye contact is?” The boy engages the other members of the table, and Dad seems satisfied for a moment.

Then he begins to watch the other three boys across the table, who are playing the games on the disposable placemats. The boys are having fun and behaving themselves, but he can’t help himself. “Connor, are you watching what you’re doing? You put your X in the corner. That means Steven can put his O here and by the time you get one row started, he’ll have two rows started, which means he’ll win.” Then to the other boy, “Tyler, what are you playing down there? Ah, the maze. Let’s see how you’re doing. Hmmm. You see this section right here? It doesn’t go anywhere. Did you follow it first before you drew your line? You didn’t, did you? That’s why you’re going to get stuck in this spot here. This is what I mean when I say ‘think ahead’.”

At this point Mary and I are staring, wide-eyed, at each other over our drinks. It’s a look that says, “Oh. My. God.” I lower my drink and mouth the words
control much? and Mary giggles. This guy is the antithesis of the dad from the weekend before. I can’t even imagine this dad being affectionate, what with his rigid demeanor and clipped speech, much less letting a kid crawl on him.

The waitress arrives to take their drink orders. Dad orders a draft beer and gives specific directions on how he wants the head. They also order a Bloomin’ Onion under Dad’s direction. When it arrives, Dad makes sure that everyone has some. Whether they want it or not. The youngest boy agrees to try it, but he doesn’t want the dipping sauce. Dad responds, “Either you take some sauce or you don’t get any at all.” The boy is fine with that, as he didn’t want any to begin with. But Dad ends up forcing the sauce on him anyway.

As they decide on entrees, on of the boys mentions that he wants a steak. Dad says, “No, you’ll order from the kids’ menu.” Mom speaks for the first time of the evening and mentions quietly that it might be all right if the boy wanted a steak. Dad snaps back at her, “Either he orders off of the kids’ menu or he doesn’t order. That’s it. End of discussion.” Mom lowers her head and stares at the table.

I’m beginning to get a more accurate picture of this guy. I can imagine him requiring Mom to arrange the canned goods in their pantry with three-quarters of an inch between cans or making sure that the towels on the towel rod are even and straight like the freaky husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. He wants to make sure everyone knows that he is the one in control. That he and he alone makes the decisions for this family.

As the boys order (from the kids menu), he badgers them while they choose condiments. “Tyler, do you want ketchup and mustard? Then tell her what you want. She has other tables to take care of. Josh, speak up, she can’t hear you when you mumble. And if I have to tell you again to make eye contact...” Then he instructs the waitress about the condiments they order for their burgers. “Ma’am, what’s your name? Shelley? Shelley, go easy on the mustard and ketchup, ok? Otherwise they’ll make a mess.” Then he cautions Shelley about his baked potato. “Shelley? On my potato, make sure it’s baked really well. The last time it was a little firm in the middle. Oh, and you can put butter and chives on it, but bring the sour cream on the side.”

As I sign our check and Mary and I get up to leave, he’s still going at it with the boys. “Connor, can you tell me why your elbows are on the table? You know we don’t put our elbows on the table. Tyler, your napkin goes in your lap. Josh, if I have to tell you again to sit up straight, we’re going to have a problem. Steven, stop playing with your straw wrapper.” The last thing I hear him say as we round the corner is, “You’re making it very hard for me to enjoy my Father’s Day dinner.”

What a jackass.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Smack the Monkey

“Boo!” Mary and I are at a local restaurant, and a little boy in the booth behind us is creeping up over the seat repeatedly. Our lack of participation in his game hasn’t deterred him. Obviously he’s under the mistaken impressions that 1.) Yes, we would love to play, and 2.) We’re hard of hearing. So he does it again. Louder. “BOO!” His mom and dad are right there, but neither of them has said a word to him. He’s climbing in the booth, under the table, and on his parents. The rare moments that he is still are spent leaning over the booth, elbows resting on the back of the seat as if he’s captivated by our conversation.

His younger sister, an adorable little girl with blues eyes and blond hair, done up in a top-of-the-head pigtail like Pebbles from the Flintstones, is sitting in a high chair at the end of the table spreading barbecue sauce on her face as if preparing for a voodoo ritual. Mom and Dad are carrying on a conversation as if the kids aren’t even there. “BOOOO!!” My eyes meet Mary’s, and we share a look that says, “Really?”

I love kids. Truly, I do. I believe that kids are a blessing. However, parents have a responsibility to their kids to teach their kids how not to be hellions. Don’t get me wrong; I know kids will be kids and have boundless energy, and that’s fantastic. But there’s a time and a place for it, and this is neither. This is apparently an ideology that this mom and dad have yet to embrace. As they’re eating, three ladies come in, one with an infant. They know Mom and Dad, so the ladies stand at the table and chat while the boy climbs all over his dad as if he were a jungle gym. And Dad is completely unphased. I’ve seen animal handlers exhibit this same conversational casualness as the creature they’re holding darts back and forth. The difference? Dad is not Jack Hanna, and the boy is not a capuchin monkey (at least in theory).

This is not a behavior you just have to accept because it’s natural. Smacking a capuchin monkey on the ass is likely to result only in your being bitten (plus, it’s just plain wrong—on a lot of levels), but I suspect the same action might just get this young man’s attention and curb his freewheeling attitude. It certainly worked for me when I was a kid. Usually all it took was a look or a word from my father, but in the event those were unsuccessful, a firm hand always did the trick.

As the adults chat, Mom takes Pebbles, who is now covered in barbecue sauce, out of her high chair and sets her on the ground. She looks at Mom, giggles, and totters off toward other tables. Mom doesn’t notice until a waiter almost dumps a tray of food trying not to step on the child. Mom is apparently shocked that this three year old would not stand still at the exact place she set her down. After retrieving her, the conversation continues. Monkey Boy is now climbing on the high chair. He’s standing on top of it—not just in the seat; he’s standing on top of the rails. None of the adults says a word. I’m waiting for him to lose it and hit the ground like Wile E. Coyote, but he manages to avoid a fall.

In the mean time, Pebbles has managed to unfurl about 60 feet of paper towels from a roll that sits on the table, covering each one with little barbecue fingerprints. Dad notices, but simply rolls the towels back onto the roll, fingerprints and all. He passes her to Mom because Monkey Boy is climbing on him again. Mom sets her down on the ground, where she promptly stumbles off to find adventure. She makes it all the way to another table this time before Mom notices. This happens several times, and Mom is just as surprised the third and fourth time that a three year old would wander off. After about 20 minutes, the ladies finally leave and mom and Dad pack up to leave.

As Dad is paying the bill and Mom is scrubbing Pebbles’s face, Monkey Boy spots an elderly man with a cane and a straw brimmed Panama hat waiting for a takeout order.
“What’s that stick for?” he asks him.
“This?” the old man says, lifting his cane. “This helps me walk.”
“Why do you need help walking?”
“Because I’m old.”
Monkey Boy nods, then eyes the hat curiously. “Are you a cowboy?”

The old man laughs. “No, I’m not a cowboy.”
“Oh. OK, bye.”

Neither of the parents even so much as acknowledges the old man. He’s just another object that provides entertainment so they don’t have to. Mom and Dad strap the kids into car seats in the back of a huge SUV, climb in, and drive away.

The moral of the story? If you’re going to have children, be a parent. Otherwise, please do the rest of us a favor and just get a capuchin monkey.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Letters from Home: Uncle Bud at Disneyworld

The latest in the series of unfortunate situations my family is all too familiar with. Enjoy...


Dear son,

How are you? It’s been a while since we wrote. We’re doing pretty fair, but we had kind of a rough few days. I don’t remember if we told you we were going to Disneyworld for Memorial Day weekend, but we did. One of our church members, Madeline Vanarsdall, died about a month ago. She owned the Beauty Barn down there off of 196 and the Klassy Kuts over in Somerville. Apparently in her will she left a whole mess of money to the church, with one condition. Part of it had to be used to take the first and second grade Sunday school class to Disneyworld.

After that, the church could do whatever they saw fit with the rest. The will said that Madeline never got to go to Disneyworld herself (her portable dialysis machine would only run for a couple three hours before she had to charge it, and I guess they don’t have outdoor plugs down there) and since she never could go, she figured she could at least pay somebody else’s way. So last Friday afternoon we loaded up the church bus and took off. There was 11 kids and 5 adults.

Me and your daddy, Shirley and Jimmy Don McQuiddy, and your Uncle Bud. He says to tell you hi, by the way. He’s got him a job working in the body shop down at the Ford dealership. He’s a good man, but he’s just not quite all there. We didn’t expect he’d be much of a help with the kids, but he’s been wanting to meet Snow White ever since he saw her in the Ice Capades down in Selmer year before last (we didn’t have the heart to tell him it was just a group of students from the junior college) so we took him along to help drive. We were planning on staying the weekend and coming back on Monday, but we had a little situation come up.

Once we got all the tickets and got everybody inside, Bud was about to come unglued wanting to meet Snow White. So we decided to let him go his own way and the other four adults would tend to the kids. That Disneyworld is something else, I tell you what! We stood in line for the longest time to get on some ride that wasn’t nothing but some tea cups spinning around. I had to go to the bathroom after that, and the line for the bathroom was near about as long as the one for the rides.

After I got out, we were deciding where to go next when a couple of security guards come tearing past us with their little walkie talkies just blaring. They said something about an incident with Snow White. We figured it must have had something to do with Bud, so we told the McQuiddys to watch the kids and we went off to see if we could find out what was going on. It’s hard getting through that place just walking. I don’t know how them security fellas was able to run flat out like they were. It took us a few minutes to find the commotion, but when we did, it was a little worse than we expected.

There was about ten or twelve security folks standing around, and Uncle Bud was on the ground on his belly with his hands cuffed behind his back. His face was red as a beet and he was yelling at the top of his lungs, “That ain’t the real Snow White!! Get your money back! That ain’t the real Snow White!!” There was a couple of dozen little girls there all dressed like Snow White, and the louder Bud yelled, the more they cried. They finally had to mace him to shut him up. We pushed through the crowd and explained who we were and that Bud was about two fat ladies short of an opera, and they let us through.

Snow White was sitting over on a bench crying and talking to one of the security fellas, and a couple of them little midgets what lives with her were standing off to the side. The security folks were asking how it happened. Apparently Bud was standing in line to meet Snow White with all them little girls. He was the only adult there without a kid. When it came his time to talk to her, he asked her to sign his t-shirt, which she did. While she was signing, he told her how much he enjoyed seeing her at the Ice Capades in Selmer.

When she told him that she didn’t ice skate and had never been to Selmer, he started putting two and two together—only, in Bud’s mind, two and two don’t always equal four—and he figured she was a fake. That’s when he started yelling that she wasn’t the real Snow White. He kinda got in her face a little bit and one of them midgets told him to back off. Now Bud don’t take real kindly to being told what to do, especially by a midget in pointy shoes. So he shoved the little fella down and his big old fiberglass head thunked against the concrete.

Then another one of them midgets shook his little pick at Bud, and Bud told him he was going to “break that handle off in his ass.” The little guy took a swing anyway, but he missed. Then Bud rared back and smacked him square in the head and dropped that midget like a sack of dirt. Snow White screamed, and then all of them little girls screamed and scattered like little blue and yellow cockroaches. That’s about the time the security folks got there. They tackled Bud and handcuffed him and he was hollering about Snow White the whole time.

The security folks were nice enough to let us ride in their little golf carts over to the security office with them. We were a sad looking little parade, let me tell you. Snow White, with her makeup running and eyes red from crying, them two little midget fellas with their big old dented heads, and Bud, snot-nosed and watery-eyed from being maced. When we got to the office, your daddy asked if he could have a minute with Bud before they called the real police to come get him. He was still mouthing off about how he was going to sue Mr. and Mrs. Disney for false advertising.

Your daddy went over to him and whispered something in his ear. Bud looked up at him and asked if he was sure and he nodded. Bud’s face turned white as a sheet, and all of a sudden he was apologizing to everybody in security, Snow White, and even the midgets. He told them how bad he felt for what he did and asked if there was anything he could do to make up for it. He even offered to pull the dents out of them big fiberglass heads. After talking it over, the park decided not to charge him, but they did ban him from the park for a year.

When we got back to the hotel, I asked your daddy what he said to Bud in the security office that made him change his tune so quick. He said he’d just told him that this was the real Snow White, not the one in he’d seen in Selmer. After all, why would the real Snow White be in Selmer when she lives at Disneyworld? Your daddy’s a pretty smart old man. Well, I guess I ought to run for now. You take care of yourself, and we’ll see you later.


Mom & Dad

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Recipe Box - Pan-Seared Tilapia and Summer Spaghetti

I posted a photo on Facebook the other day of a meal I had cooked, and I got a lot of comments on it. So for those who are interested, here's my recipe...

Pan-Seared Tilapia in a Ginger-Shallot Butter with Summer Spaghetti
Serves 4

Summer Spaghetti


2 cups diced tomatoes (Romas are great for this, or just used canned)
½ cup roasted peppers (roast your own or buy them in a jar) - optional
2 cloves of chopped garlic (or, if you’re me? 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
A handful of fresh basil leaves (just the leaves, please)
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Half of a 14.5 oz. box of angel hair pasta (I use Barilla Whole Grain)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Throw the tomatoes, peppers, and garlic into a NASA-hot skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil. Toss them for 2-3 minutes, just enough to get them hot.

In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, peppers, garlic, vinegar, basil, and olive oil. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes for the flavors to get their groove on.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to instruction on the pa—no, you know what? If you’re older than twelve and can’t cook pasta, you don’t need a recipe. You need a helmet. Just cook it, ok? Drain the pasta and toss with the love soup going on in the bowl. Adjust the seasoning if it needs it.

Pan-Seared Tilapia in a Ginger-Shallot Butter


4 filets fresh tilapia
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup of butter (oh, relax. It’s feeding four people. I use Smart Balance anyway)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Get that skillet NASA hot again. Add the ginger, shallots, and butter. Toss it around until the shallots get a little brown on them and the butter is all melted, then transfer it all to a bowl.

While your skillet’s rebuilding heat, season your tilapia filets. Once it’s smoking add a little olive oil, then add them to the skillet. They should be all sizzly and smoky. If they’re not, you didn’t let your skillet get hot enough. Let them cook until the edges start to pull away from the skillet, just a couple of minutes. If they move when you gently shake the skillet, they’re ready to turn. They should have a nice crust.

Once you flip them, let them cook for about a minute, then add the ginger-shallot butter back into the skillet, cook for another minute, then turn the heat off. Carryover cooking will do the rest.

Plate up your summer spaghetti, and then slide a beautiful golden brown tilapia filet over it. Make sure and get some of that ginger-shallot butter on there. Enjoy!


Monday, May 24, 2010

Memoir excerpt - Dad

Dad was, on many occasions, also a teacher of the lessons you never learned in a classroom. I hated the school I attended in tenth grade. The school I had attended since second grade had closed at the end of my ninth-grade year. As a result, I—along with about 50 other kids of various ages—would be bussed from Frayser to a school in an affluent area of Whitehaven, Mississippi.

The bus ride was just under an hour, but seemed like it took forever, and the rich, preppy kids at the new school hated us because we were from Frayser. I came to view the place as hell with lockers. Consequently, I made it my mission to spend as little time at school as possible.

To keep from having to go, I feigned illness of every imaginable type, including (but not limited to) food poisoning, strep throat, amnesia, and—my personal favorite—not being able to feel or move my legs. If I were not successful in staying home, I would do my best to make it through a half-day, and then call Mom to come get me. My reasoning was simple; if she had to continue to come all the way to Whitehaven to get me, perhaps she would get tired of it and just let me stay home.

Iron clad, right? Wrong.

One day when I called, I told her my eyes were bothering me. I “couldn't see well” because everything was “so blurry.” It was a brilliant performance, and I hung up with the knowledge that within an hour, I would walk out a free man. Despite my protest, I was sent back to Algebra to wait for Mom to arrive. What good would it do? I couldn't see anything. As far as they knew.

Twenty minutes later, the secretary came to let me know my ride was here. Twenty minutes? The drive from Frayser was more like fifty minutes.

As I stepped out the front doors of the school, I saw my father's white Ford Escort station wagon in the circular drive. Mom must have called him while he was at his second job, selling insurance. A cold wave of fear washed over me.

My father was not as sympathetic as my mother. In fact, he wasn't sympathetic at all. We kids could be covered with pustulous boils and bleeding from the eyes and he would make us go to school and church.

Walking slowly toward the car, I quickly began to piece together my strategy. I would begin with an apology for interrupting his route. Then I would casually suggest that he just drop me at the house so I wouldn’t inconvenience him further. I climbed into the passenger seat and made my apology and suggestion, but he didn’t respond.

We rode in silence from the school to the stoplight at the end of the road. I had been waiting for the explosion. Finally, it hit. But it wasn’t the verbal lashing I’d expected.

“Your mama and me are trying real hard to give you the best education we can,” he said softly, his voice trembling.

“Yes sir, I know,” I said.

“And we’re getting real tired of coming to get you two and three times a week because you’re ‘sick.’” His eyes were wet now, and tears began to stream down his face.

“I’m sorry. I know you and Mom are working really hard.” I hesitated. “But everybody at this school hates me—not just me, all of the kids from Frayser. They call us ‘Frayser trash.’”

“They can’t hate you, son,” he said, ignoring the tears that streaked his face. “They don’t even know you. If they knew you, they wouldn’t hate you.”

I sat quietly, reflecting on what he’d said, which sounded strangely like a compliment. Except that Dad didn’t do compliments.

I had planned on being home and enjoying the freedom of my room; instead, I would spend the remainder of the day with Dad on his route, going to the homes of his clients and waiting in the car while he attended to their insurance needs, whatever that meant.

We went to house after house. Dad would go in and spend twenty minutes or so at each. The last stop of the day was at a dilapidated old structure that can only be referred to as a shack. It was too small and beat up to be a house and lacked the rustic charm of a cabin. Chickens scratched and pecked around the front yard, which was mostly dirt, and wisps of smoke curled up from the small stovepipe chimney, only to be scattered by the cool October breeze.

“You can come in with me here,” Dad said.

Fine. I was tired of sitting in the car at every stop. Plus, I still felt a twinge of guilt after he had shed tears and then offered me what I still had not fully decided was a compliment.

Dad grabbed his briefcase out of the back and we approached the old shack. He knocked on the front door, which looked to be no more than a few boards nailed together at the top and bottom with battens.

“Datchoo, Mistuh John?” a voice called from inside.

“Yes sir, Mr. Melvin, it’s me,” Dad called back, opening the door.

“Come on in dis house, Mistuh John!”

Following Dad inside, I could barely make out the figure of an old black man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting in front of a pot-bellied stove, feeding the small flames with kindling.

He turned his head over his shoulder toward us.

“Who dis is you got witchoo today, Mistuh John?”

“This is my youngest boy, Alan, Mr. Melvin,” Dad said, motioning for me to shake his hand.

“How you do, suh?” the old man said with a smile, extending a large black hand.

“Fine, thank you,” I said.

“Y’all come on in dis house and sit down,” he said, motioning for us to take a seat on the couch.

As we sat down, he shuffled into the kitchen area and began to pull cups out of a cabinet.

“How ‘bout some coffee, Mistuh John?” he asked.

“Yes sir, I’ll take a cup. Just black is fine.”

“Does you drink coffee, young man?” the old man asked.

“Um, no sir, thank you,” I stammered.

As he milled around in the kitchen clanking dishes and cups, he whistled a tune I didn’t recognize. It was the kind of whistle you heard in old black and white movies; light and melodic with a heavy vibrato.

There wasn’t much to the room. Except for the light coming from the one window above the couch where we sat, it was dark and it smelled like the old quilts in my grandmother’s cedar chest. There was a small bed in one corner, a chair in another, the couch, another chair that faced the kitchen, and the kitchen itself, which consisted only of a sink, a table, and a small stove and refrigerator. A small table against one wall held several sepia-toned pictures of family in old ornate frames, and an open door next to the refrigerator revealed a small bathroom.

“Can I help you with those, Mr. Melvin?” Dad asked.

“No suh, just don’t let me spill none of dis on you,” he chuckled. “It sho’nuff is hot.”

As I watched him make his way back toward us, I noticed that he was looking straight ahead as if staring at something off in the distance. Without looking down, he lowered one of the cups to Dad’s waiting hand. As he made his way around to his chair and sat down, the light from the window illuminated his face, revealing his eyes, which were covered with a milky film, and I realized that he was blind.

Immediately I knew what my father was doing. It was his way of shaming me and educating me all at the same time. His way of saying you think you’ve got eye problems? I’ll show you eye problems. And not only was Mr. Melvin blind, he was also independent. And he didn’t complain even once about not being able to see a thing.

Dad and the old man chatted for a while, and then Dad got out the forms for him to sign and read them to him. Then he guided the old man’s hand to the signature line, where he scrawled a barely legible mark. Once done, Dad began to collect papers and folders and stuffed them back in his case.

“Now, Mr. Melvin, if you have any questions, you know my number at the office and at the house. You call me now, hear?”

“Yessuh, Mistuh John. I sho do, I know how to get holt of you. I’ll sho call you, too, if I needs somethin’.”

He walked us to the door and opened it for us. Show off. As we walked out, he extended his hand to shake Dad’s, then mine.

“You take care of dis man now, you hear?” he said to me, patting Dad on the back. “Dis here’s a good man, yessuh, a real good man.”

I caught Dad’s eye and answered, “Yes, sir. Yes, he is.”


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cause for Alarm

Dear First Alert,

I understand from several independent consumer reporting agencies that you are the manufacturer of the best all around smoke alarm. I must respectfully disagree. This is to inform you that you will soon be receiving a package from me via express courier.

My wife and I have lived in the same house for 9 years now, and your smoke alarms were already installed when we moved in. The low battery alarms have always gone off at seemingly the most inopportune times, but last night was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

First, let me bring up a point. There is no need for the low battery beep to be as loud and piercing as the beep that occurs when your house is in flames. There’s just no reason for it. A nice, soft reminder beep would serve the same purpose. Now, last night’s debacle.

At approximately 3:22am, I was awakened by the incessant chirp of the alarm outside our bedroom door. Well, by that and by my ShihTzu wrapping himself around my face like a cartoon. Apparently the frequency you chose for your beep is one that makes small animals tremble violently and lose clumps of hair. Way to go.

After deciding that the chirping wasn’t going to stop, I got up and dug around in our junk drawer in the kitchen to find a replacement 9-volt battery (seriously, 9-volt? It’s the 8-track tape of the battery world. I’m just saying.).

After stumbling through the dark house, stubbing my toe on the ottoman, and nearly severing my finger on the knife that I forgot was in the junk drawer, I found the battery and made my way back to the still-beeping alarm. By the way, Gizmo, the aforementioned ShihTzu, was at my feet the entire time, still trembling.

I don’t know why I never noticed this before, but your installers chose to place the unit at ceiling level—10 feet in this case. I realized I was going to need a stepladder. I opened the garage door to retrieve said stepladder, setting off the house alarm, an eardrum-bursting 150-decibels. Gizmo began climbing my leg as I entered the code on the keypad to turn off the alarm.

I peeled him off, stepped out into the garage, grabbed the stepladder, took one step back in the house and slipped in the puddle of urine that Gizmo had just created, dropping the stepladder squarely on my face. As I lay there in a warm puddle of fresh dog urine on the cold tile floor, the alarm chirped again.

In the package you will find one pair of urine-stained pajamas, the bashed remnants of your stupid alarm, and enough dog hair to make a wig. Enjoy.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Must Try Harder to Not Be Stupid...

Every Friday night Mary and I have date night. We go to dinner and sometimes a movie. This past Friday night we went to Red Lobster, one of our favorite new places. Only in recent years have we become seafood fans, so we're still testing the waters, so to speak. We both like shrimp, scallops, tilapia, and sea bass, but our favorite item on the menu is without a doubt their Cheddar Bay biscuits. They're light and fluffy and buttery and garlicky. They are magnificent, and if I ever figure out where the hell Cheddar Bay is, I may move there.

Anyway, I've been working on developing a taste for salmon—a task I'm not having much luck with. I don't necessarily dislike it, but I just can't make myself really enjoy it. But in yet another attempt to become a fan, I ordered the wood-fire-grilled salmon. Salmon, as you may already know, is rich in essential vitamins and minerals, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids. It has tremendous health benefits. Benefits that were completely eclipsed by my consuming roughly 38 Cheddar Bay biscuits.

I was modest at first, breaking my first one into several small bites. But as the butter and garlic took over, I got all worked up into a froth and began to devour them Cookie Monster-style, with bits of buttery crumbs flying about. At one point, the waitress asked me to slow down because the guys in the kitchen couldn't keep up. I was reduced to picking the crumbs off my chest like an otter. I even offered the folks at the table next to us $20 for the three they had left. It was not a proud moment.

But every experience is an opportunity to learn, and that's exactly what I did. People say that changing your habits and losing weight is a battle that's fought a day at a time, but I disagree. I submit that it's a bite-by-bite battle. You have to be consciously aware of every single thing you put in your mouth. Next time we go to Red Lobster, I'll be ready for the challenge. You know, once the restraining order expires.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Monday, April 5, 2010

New to Me

I seem to be a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to trying new things. I get excited about finding some exotic new food, only to discover that all of my friends and family have been eating it for years. I imagine such will be the case with my latest discovery. This weekend Mary and I made a day trip to Branson, MO. It’s only a couple of hours from us, so it’s great for a quick getaway.

She took me to a Mexican restaurant she had been to during a conference there last year. Cantina Laredo is an upscale Mexican bistro, doing for Mexican food what PF Chang’s did for Chinese food. It’s located in Branson landing, a trendy outdoor mall of shops on a river walk waterfront of nearby Lake Taneycomo.

It’s a beautiful day, so we decide to sit on the patio and watch the water and fire shows that occur every hour. We place our order and sit back and relax, the breeze gently carrying the sounds of nearby fountains and music. When the food comes, I’m impressed. I ordered mushroom and goat cheese enchiladas in adobo sauce. Good stuff, but not my food trophy for the weekend.

On the side is a small salad of lettuce with a white-fleshed fruit or vegetable of some kind. I poke at it, trying to figure out what it is. I stab a small piece with my fork and take a hesitant bite. It’s a little crunchy, with a mild sweet flavor like an apple or a pear. It’s actually pretty darn good. Even after I’ve finished my enchiladas, I’m still picking at this mystery food. When the waiter comes back, I ask him what it is. He tells me it’s jicama (pronounced “hick-uh-mah”). It’s fabulous.

I’m sure many of you reading this have already experienced the crunchy sweet goodness that is jicama. But for those who haven’t, check it out sometime. It’s high in fiber and a great source of Vitamin C. It’s also fairly low in calories and carbs—about 50 calories and 10 carbs for one cup—making it perfect for a diabetic like myself. And it’s a culinary chameleon, perfect for anything from salads to entrees to desserts. Maybe it’s old news to the majority of folks. But to me, it’s brand new.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cultural Revelation

In my sometimes-successful quest to eat healthy, I have also recently begun expanding my dining repertoire. I always seem to eat the same things: broccoli, asparagus, chicken, beef, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with those. But I wanted to get outside my culinary comfort zone and try something new. Which is precisely what I did last weekend. One of the guys I work with sometimes gets lunch from a place called Aroma here in Bentonville. It’s a Pakistani restaurant. The first time he brought the food in—chicken biryani, he said it was—I thought it stunk horribly. But over the next few times, I began to break down the complex scent into its pleasing components: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, mint, cumin, garlic, chili powder, and turmeric. It’s a hearty smell that may offend at first. But like making a new friend, once you get to know what it’s made of, you settle in comfortably.

I decided to visit Aroma. Mary, though reluctant, agreed to go. I promised her that if it was horrible I would take her somewhere else immediately. I also wondered how my middle-aged digestive system would process Pakistani fare. I was prepared to have regrets, either in the restaurant or in the bathroom. We arrived at Aroma, and even getting out of the car, we could smell the strong spices on the breeze. Mary made the comment that it smelled really good, and I agreed. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. The gentleman taking food orders at the front counter was obviously of Middle Eastern descent, but when I told him we wanted 2 chicken biryanis he said (with no trace of an accent), “Dude, you don’t wanna do that. Get the buffet. It’s like 4 bucks cheaper and you get everything.”

So we did. We sampled a small portion of everything: chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala, chicken vindaloo, and dal masoor, as well as roti (also called chapatti) and naan, baked flatbreads with amazing texture and flavor. It was, in a word, wonderful. Each dish had so many contrasting flavors that work together so well.

Admittedly, Pakistani food, like traditional food of any culture, is probably not terribly healthy, what with its liberal use of cream and butter. But I’ve already found several websites that offer healthy versions of the dishes we enjoyed. So now when we get tired of plain chicken and rice with vegetables, I have a whole other culture from which to borrow.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Work in Progress

I've been working on a memoir of my childhood for the last few months, and I thought it might be fun to post a chapter and see how you like it. It's long—it is, after all, a chapter—but I hope you'll read it when you have time and let me know if you enjoyed it. So for your reading leisure, The Old House.

During a recent Christmastime visit to Tennessee, my family gathered at my parents’ home for a Saturday morning breakfast. I hadn’t seen my family in at least two years, and sitting with them unleashed a flood of memories from my early years. As we ate, we recounted stories from our early years, mine being the most recent, more than 30 years ago.

It was like pulling the sheets off of furniture in an abandoned house, years of dust billowing into bright shafts of sunlight. Remembering some pieces of our childhoods brought us lots of laughter; others, sheepish, embarrassed grins. Like all the times my older brothers Steve and John launched me down our long wooden hallway on a toy tractor. Or the time John ran maniacally around our back yard covered with a sheet, shouting, “I’m a ghost! I’m a ghost!”; then plowed face-first into a fencepost. Or when Steve raced his bicycle down a steep hill and crashed like Evel Knievel at Caesar’s Palace. Or my insistent belief that I was, in fact, bionic.

Several hours of laughter and catching up later, we parted ways with hugs and promises to stay in touch. Mary and I, feeling a little nostalgic, decided to visit some of the places that had been such prominent fixtures in our youth.

I don’t even remember the last time we drove through Frayser to see the old house by the monastery. Mom and Dad had moved to the country years ago, where they retired from the business of caring for nuns and began caring for Mom’s aging mother, who had moved in with them.

As we passed familiar sights, I took note of landmarks—not in a cultural or historical sense, but in the sense that they had been, for 25 years or so, significant places in my life—and how they had changed over the years. The house of my best friend growing up still looked the same as it did 30 years ago, only now there were different cars in the driveway. The building that had once been Mary’s uncle’s auto repair shop still stood in the same place, but was now a used car lot. The Frayser Community Center, where I learned—with no great amount of surprise—just how badly I played tennis, still looked much like it did the last time I saw it.

We passed Frayser Elementary School, Frayser High School, and the corner convenience store where I used to ride my bike to get a cold Mountain Dew on a hot day.

Finally the red brick wall surrounding the monastery came into view. As I turned into the driveway, we passed under the familiar archway reading MONASTERY OF ST. CLARE, still standing, in brick and iron.

But the house was gone. Our old brick house, with the chipping white paint and the green shingle roof, was gone. Not even a brick remained; the only thing still standing was the detached garage that was now most likely used for storage. A gravel lot scattered with leaves now sat where my entire childhood took place. Gigantic oak and pecan trees that shaded us in the summer now stood sadly like mourners over the grave of a friend who has passed on before her time.

I started to speak, but the thoughts racing in my mind couldn’t slow down long enough to find their way to my mouth. Tears took me by surprise and I tried my best—unsuccessfully— to fight them back.

Why was I crying? I mean, it was just a house, right? No. It wasn’t just a house. It was my house, and it was so much more than bricks and plaster walls and hardwood floors. It was the house where I learned to tie my shoes, ride a bike, throw a football. The house where I careened at breakneck speeds down a long hardwood hallway on a toy tractor; played with Muffin, my first dog; and survived 11 days without power during Memphis’s worst-ever ice storm.

Mom and Dad had discovered the house in the late ‘60s. Like many other young couples in those days, they were having trouble making ends meet. Supporting a family on one salary from my father’s job as a firefighter was difficult, and they always seemed to have “month left over at the end of the money,” as they said. With three kids in school and the recent addition of a fourth—me—they were no longer able to make rent. Knowing their situation, a friend of Dad’s at the fire department, Frank Bradford, told him about the house he and his wife were living in.

Situated across a small parking lot from a secluded order of Franciscan nuns, the house was owned by the Catholic Diocese, and the Bradfords lived there rent-free in exchange for running errands and being general caretakers for the monastery. They lived in one side of the house, and an elderly woman rented the other side. Frank’s wife had been a schoolteacher and, after a few years off, was ready to start teaching again. They would be moving to a new home in a month or two, and Frank offered to let Mom and Dad take over their responsibilities.

Dad came home one afternoon and asked Mom if she wanted to move. For months, Mom had been praying for a new start. She never told Dad, but she had pleaded with God for something inexpensive so they could begin to work their way out of a mountain of debt. Her only request was that it have indoor running water and at least one toilet. She sighed a prayer of relief and gratitude when Dad told her it had two indoor bathrooms.

Indoor plumbing notwithstanding, the house was a wreck. It was infested with fleas, and the chiggers in the unkempt yard nearly carried Steve away, according to Mom. The windows were so loose that they were falling out of the sashes, and paint chips littered the windowsills and the floor at the baseboards. The elderly woman, after learning of the Bradfords’ plans to move, left and moved to Ohio to live with her two sons. But she left her mark on the place. She had cooked on a hotplate in her bedroom so often that gelatinous layers of brown grease had built up on the plaster walls and ceiling, and her toilet was caked with petrified feces that had to be scraped out with a putty knife.

My mother’s mother cried when she saw the house for the first time because she didn’t want her grandchildren to have to live in those conditions. My parents spent years fixing, cleaning, patching, and repairing that house to make it a home. They lived there 30 years, but still never got it quite the way they wanted it.

Sitting there facing a blank slate of land, I closed my eyes, and I could still see it standing there. My mind’s eye carried me through each room the way a robotic camera slowly takes viewers through the murky wreckage of a sunken ship.

We had two garages; one attached, one detached, that we referred to as “the little garage” and “the big garage,” respectively. The big garage was home to a collection of lawn mowers that we used commercially, and it always smelled of oil and gasoline. Garden tools, business end up in a blue fiberglass barrel, resembled a huge vase of particularly ugly flowers, old cans of motor oil and transmission fluid lined the shelves of a dusty bookcase, and scraps of plywood, old windows and doors, and lengths of trim molding loomed overhead in the cobwebs of the rafters.

The little garage held our washer and dryer, along with a chest freezer and baskets of laundry patiently waiting their turn. A counter ran along one side with cabinets above and a chest of drawers below, both full of treasures. My grandfather’s old hand tools, a five-pound coffee can full of assorted bolts and nuts, paintbrushes and rollers, cans and jars of stains and paints, their contents dribbling down their sides, crusty pairs of White Mule work gloves, and a collection of carpenter’s folding rulers.

I remember watching Dad sharpen lawn mower blades with the bench grinder, passing the long blades carefully over the wheels, a storm of orange sparks raining down on his boots and disappearing into the floor. When he had finished, the edges of the blades would gleam like polished chrome.

Exiting the garage and going up the stairs to the back door, I could see down the long hallway that stretched all the way to the front door. I stepped left into the kitchen, with its cornflower blue walls, linoleum floor, and Formica table, where scores of family dinners and conversations about grades, behavior, girls, and attitudes took place. Across the table and above the counter, a black rotary phone hung underneath shelves between two sets of ivory-colored metal cabinets on the wall opposite the refrigerator and stove. The fireplace on the far wall sat next to the cabinets where Mom kept flour and sugar in plastic one-gallon ice cream tubs.

Crossing the hall, I moved into the den that had once been my brother Steve’s bedroom. A couch and chair sat where his bed used to, and the black ornamental iron eagle he had secured to the fireplace years ago still spread its wings majestically. Stepping into the bathroom that joined my room to Steve’s, an old cast-iron claw foot tub sat under the window. The bathroom floor was made up of one-inch tiles, each a different color.

I remember bathing in that tub as a kid, pretending to be at the top of a huge mountain and staring down at those tiles as if each one were a parcel of land. On other occasions the tub was the captain’s chair of my spaceship and the tiles were buttons on a massive computer that controlled my flight through space. When bath time was over, I’d slip into my pajamas and crawl into bed, the coolness of air on wet skin sending a little shiver through me.

Stepping into my room, a row of storage cubbies sat above the bathroom door. They were where Christmas decorations, and on occasion, gifts, were stored during the year. My bed sat against the opposite wall, flanked on either side by my dresser and chest of drawers. A closet sat on either side of the bathroom door; one for my clothes, shoes, and toys, the other for my parents’ clothes. My room was the only one in the house without a fireplace. That was probably best, as I would most certainly burned the house down had I had one.

Across the hall was my parents’ room, which had a bathroom of its own that we all shared because it was the only one with a shower. I remember watching my dad and uncle Jim remodel that bathroom; covering the old walls with a new melamine material, caulking it, and even installing new fixtures in the sink and shower.

My parents’ closet was tiny—only deep enough for shoes—necessitating their acquisition of one of mine. There were many nights my little feet padded into their room and crawled into bed to sleep with my mother when my father was at the fire station. I would go to her side of the bed, the furthest from the door, and pat her on the shoulder until she woke up. She always said, “Climb in.”

I also used to sneak into their room when they were outside or busy somewhere else in the house and quietly slide open the top drawer of my father’s chest of drawers. At the very back left corner, behind his boxers, was a small tattered black box lined with red felt and divided into a half-dozen sections. Each section held something different and wonderful; mysterious coins and stamps collected from other countries during his years in the Navy, silver and brass pins worn on his firefighter’s uniform, tie pins he wore to church on Sundays.

I would place each item in the palm of my hand and run a finger over the surface to feel its texture, every curve and raised edge, and then place it back in its little section of the box. Once I had satisfied my curiosity, I carefully wedged the box back into its spot and slid the drawer closed. I did the same with items in my mother’s dresser. She kept a collection of silver dollars in a coin purse in the top right drawer and I loved to crawl onto their bed with it, spill the clinking coins onto the white heirloom chenille bedspread, and then push them over each other to listen to the smooth friction between them.

The living room was the last room at the end of the hall, and it spanned the depth of the house from front to back. The house was so old that the light switches in the living room were the push-button kind. At one end of the room was the fireplace, and on either side were shelves filled with Bible reference books, countless Reader’s Digest condensed books, various knick-knacks, and a set of Book of Knowledge encyclopedias. Occasionally I would sit in the floor with one volume open in my lap and peel through the thick, glossy pages to look at the colorful pictures of exotic animals in places I would probably never go. Sadly, the encyclopedias were used more often as weights to hold sheets and blankets in the construction of forts than they ever were for the purpose of education. Our living room was for that sole purpose: living.

The entire family was doing just that one night when I was five. The circus was on our rickety 20” TV, and as the high-wire performers on the screen inched carefully across a thin cable, I pretended to do the same around the edge of our large braided rug. At that age, I was seriously deficient in both motor skills and balance, and I promptly fell face-first into the coffee table, leaving two tooth-sized grooves in the edge where my front teeth gouged their way through the wood. I don’t really remember much after that, which is probably for the best.

Other, brighter memories in this room included countless Christmases, with family members spread around the room laughing and reminiscing, just as we had earlier that day at Mom’s and Dad’s.

The images of my childhood in this crumbling old house are still so vivid, it’s hard to believe that it’s gone. The stories each board and brick held we also hold in our hearts and minds. The memories leave a permanent imprint like, say, teeth in a coffee table. I can’t help but feel a little silly for naively believing that it would always be there. That I would always be able to drive by and see it. The house’s absence still leaves me a little sad. It was both a monument to and an icon of my formative years, but realizing it’s gone has brought about an overwhelming desire to reconstruct both on the page. It’s brought me a reason to keep in touch with my family a little more often. To revisit the places I remember so fondly and wake the ghosts of my childhood.

And by remembering the good times we had and keeping the memories alive, that old house will stand forever in our minds, chipping white paint, spaceship bathtubs and all.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Fly By

“I did a fly by today,” Mary says while we’re washing dishes after dinner.

“You did a what?” I ask.

“A fly by. Is that right? Fly by?”

“Ummm, not familiar with the term. At least not outside the realm of aeronautics.”

Gesturing with her hands, she says, “You know, when you fart and then walk by someone. I did a fly by on them.”

“I think you mean you crop dusted them.”

“Crop dusted! That’s it!” she exclaims, smacking the counter with the dishtowel.

“Who did you crop dust?” I ask, laughing and scrubbing the inside of a skillet.

“A school visitor in the office. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” she says sheepishly.

“Then it wasn’t an intentional crop dusting?” I ask.

“Well, I knew it was coming and I didn’t do anything to stop it,” she says.

“Then it was intentional.”

“Oh. I really didn’t mean for it to be.”

A moment of silence passed, and then she said, “I think she heard it.”

“What? Why? Did she look at you or say something?”

“I don’t know, I was too embarrassed to look back. But it was loud enough that I’m pretty sure she heard it. I heard it.”

“Yeah, but you knew to listen for it. You can’t assume she heard it,” I say, hanging the skillet on the rack.

“I was leaving the office when it happened. Maybe she thought it was the door opening?” she says hopefully.

“Hey, whatever you need to tell yourself.”

Another moment of silence, then: “You’re going to put this on the blog, aren’t you?”


Friday, February 26, 2010

On Thin Ice

Nothing comes closer to turning me into a gay man than watching figure skating. When Chinese pair Shen and Zhao performed their short program on Valentine’s night, I wished for a gold medal for them. And they got it, by the way. I found myself sitting there enraptured by their talent, their grace and power. And I was nearly on the edge of my seat with every move, finally breathing when they finished.

Other couples were less memorable, and I found myself being a little catty with them, saying things like, “That is the most horrible triple toeloop I have ever witnessed,” “What’s up with that straight line step sequence? I’ve seen better footwork in 'Planet of the Apes on Ice,'” and “It’s a pair combination spin, honey! You’re supposed to be in synch with each other, hence the word ‘pair!'”

I don’t understand. I didn’t behave like that when we watched snowboarding or downhill skiing. What is it about figure skating that makes me go all Carson Kressley? Don’t get me wrong; I love Carson more than my luggage, but why am I not that way with all of the competitions? Maybe it’s the intrinsic femininity of the sport itself.

I don’t mean the competitors are gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but let’s face it—it does require one to move with quite a bit more flourish than other sports. Plus, if you compare the petite frames of the female skaters to those of, say, the female curlers, the difference is obvious. I’m probably thinking about this too much. I should just enjoy it. And I will. As soon as I make myself another Cosmopolitan.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Just One of the Girls

Super Bowl weekend is over. Apparently the Saints won, although I didn’t watch the game—I was obsessed with Hoarders and couldn't stop watching, a fact I find ironic. My weekend didn’t include anything even remotely Super Bowl-ish. In fact, Saturday night Mary and I went to a Miss America Pageant party. Yes, I know the pageant was last week. But the weather here was such that the party was postponed a week. The pageant was recorded, and all those invited had to swear to not watch it.
At a Miss America pageant party, you might expect the atmosphere to be one of dignity and grace, where champagne is served in crystal goblets, petite finger foods are artfully arranged on beautiful platters, and conversation is intellectually stimulating. This? Was not that kind of party. This gathering was for the express purpose of making fun of the pageant and its contestants. As a born cynic, that’s the kind of party I can really sink my teeth into.
Instead of champagne in goblets, there was wine and rum in plastic cups. Instead of crudités, pâté de foie gras, and petit fours, there were pigs in a blanket, cheese dip, and red velvet cupcakes. Instead of dignity and grace, there were cackles and screams of laughter, especially when a contestant nearly bought it coming down the steps in her evening gown, hit a bad note during a performance, or had a ridiculously bad hairdo. And instead of intellectual conversation, there was talk and laughter about another friend—who wasn’t present—blow-drying her naked crotch in a hotel room while her roommates looked on in shocked disbelief. It was a fantastic party.
The invitation came by way of Tracy, a friend of mine whom I worked with at BP. Her friend and former neighbor, Darlene, hosts the party every year for a group of about ten women. This year, for the first time ever they broke tradition and invited a man. Me. And I had a blast. Mary even made pageant sashes for the two of us. She was “Misdemeanor” and I was “Misguided.”
Several of the other women have obviously known each other for a long time. They enjoyed a familiarity with each other, one that quickly rubbed off on Mary and me. The chatter was nonstop throughout the pageant, but when a contestant appeared in a particularly garish evening gown, ill-fitting swim suit, or displayed a decidedly lame talent, catty laughter and applause swelled and filled the room.
Comments were made about contestants’ awful spray tans, having too much junk in their trunk—which was true, as more than one could have used their butt as a bookshelf—or bearing a striking resemblance to everyone from Mary Lou Retton to Princess Fiona from Shrek. Even the winner, Caressa Cameron (Miss Virginia) was not exempt from this, as she was compared to “the Avatar chick.” If you’ve not seen either, trust me—she looks just like her.
One of the great points of the night was during Miss Hawaii’s talent portion—not surprisingly, the Hula—when the graphic at the bottom of the screen flashing snippets of information about her revealed that her favorite accessory is a smile, placing her in direct contention with the overly perky Miss Kentucky for Pageant Pollyanna. The noise that came from those women was one of frustrated dismay—the same noise that men make when their team fumbles the ball.
The night ended too soon. Mary and I had a fabulous time, and feel like we made some new friends. I selfishly hope we’re invited back next year. I can’t wait.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Drawing Board

There’s nothing I hate worse than staring at a blank screen. I’m sitting here attempting to craft a series of words that will explain, with brevity and clarity, why I haven’t written anything about my diabetes and weight loss in so long. That’s what I intended this blog to be about—along with the occasional funny experience or observation.
The simple truth is this: I haven’t been doing as well as I would have liked, and I’ve had so much support from so many of you, I really didn’t want to broadcast my failure. I shouldn’t say failure; my friend Chuck always reminds me that it’s only failure if you stop trying. I initially expected that the accountability of sharing my results on this blog would propel me to action and certain success. Yeah, not so much. So instead of admit my struggle, I’ve just chosen not to share at all, which is not what I promised myself I would do. So here’s a very brief recap of what I’ve omitted:
During the holidays, I ate more than I intended to—peanut brittle and fudge were particularly hard to resist—but still managed to maintain some semblance of control. But then I put weight back on that I had lost, slumped into a bit of a depression, and spiraled into a short season of bingeing. I’m doing better now, although I still have the occasional setback, though not nearly as often. I still need to get into a regular exercise schedule, something that will help as much or more than eating right. I’ve also been in the process of writing a memoir, for which the research and writing takes up a good bit of time, but were I to manage my time more efficiently I would have time for it all.
So I seem to be back at the drawing board, in a sense, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the drawing board is where plans are created, edited, and (hopefully) improved.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Dredging up the Past

I haven’t posted here in a month or so, and I have to come clean: I’ve been writing on the side. For the past several months I’ve been working on a memoir of my childhood growing up next door to a Catholic monastery, and the past few weeks have kept me at my computer, putting the finishing touches on chapters that will serve as a partial manuscript (after an initial query) for a literary agent should he or she require them. But I still plan on blogging as often as I can, if for no other reason than the fact that I enjoy it. And those of you who knew me in my childhood, feel free to toss your memories my way. I’d love to hear them. Thanks.