Wednesday, December 30, 2015

True Believers

Wayne Dyer said there are two ways to have the tallest building in town. One is to tear down everyone else’s building. I always liked that and repeat it often. Lately, it occurred to me that there is a third way to have the tallest building in town:
Just convince/bribe some authority figures to declare that your building, in spite of all obvious evidence, is indeed the tallest. (Bonus points if you can con them into making it a law.)
We see it every day: Get a pack of politicians, reinforced by select networks, to repeat something over and over and over—if they can say it in a way that’s halfway clever or rhymes, so much the better. As any successful cult leader can testify, it doesn’t matter if it’s blatantly false; what matters is that they keep saying it.
Here’s a simple example of how it works: According to neurologist Richard E. Cytowic, two-thirds of the US population believes that we humans use only 10% of our brains. Nearly half of all science teachers believe it. It’s not true. It’s absurd. That doesn’t keep most folks from spouting it as fact. Why? Because they’ve done extensive research or applied a spark of common sense? No, because they’ve heard it repeated over and over by credible others. Spooky, ‘eh?

(“If you’re still defining ‘tallest’ merely in terms of height, you need to wise up. Savvy citizens measure tallness by desire, by clishmaclaver, and by divine right! It’s hard work, yes, but where did laziness ever get anyone? Consider David and Goliath. Who stood tallest when the dust cleared? When life gives you molehills, make mountains!”)     


Saturday, December 26, 2015

It's the Thought that Counts

Ever heard somebody say, “You can’t go home again.”?
Our true home is the only place we’ve really ever been.
What makes one place so special? How is happiness defined?
All that safe and snug and wahoo happened mainly in your mind.
It’s not dictated in the least by mere geography.
You’re in charge of all that you recall and what you see.
When it comes to others, you are generous and kind,
But don’t forget to save yourself; be gentle with your mind.
You won’t abide a cobweb or a single speck of dust.
Your house and your vehicles you quick-rid of dirt and rust.
Every wrinkle is erased, each wiggly line aligned;
Relax and squirt some WD-40 on your mind.
You see and bring out the very best in everyone.
You never quit or give up until the job is done.
You take up the slack so we who lack will not be left behind.
We love you. Thanks. But you can’t change the world, so change your mind.
Each thing that came knockin—every “woe is me,” each grin,
Only gained admittance because we let them in.
If you’re homesick, heartsick, entertaining any secret fears,
You can arrest those rascals with that thing between your ears.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

You Are Here

Is that the finish line? I recognize that tree.
I cannot separate soon-to from used-to-be.
We’ve run a million miles, but not so very far
From where those two limbs fork, where our initials are.
Is that the finish line? I recognize that smile.
Be back where it all began in just a little while.

Is that the finish line? I recognize that face.
No need to hurry now; there is no second place.
That vicious circle ran me ragged now and then,
But it’s a hoot now that I have my second wind.
Is that the finish line? Got here but don’t know how.
I know you still have the map, so can we go home now?

Is that the finish line? Look there: I see the time—
That priceless thing you did that cost me not a dime.
I’ve kept it in my heart, wrapped in a golden dream.
Reminding me bad times are more than what they seem.
Our walk around the block detoured to everywhere.
You brought back a ton of memories and love to share.

Is that the finish line? Your secret’s safe with me—
It is my template for true grit and sanity.
(It’s how the bees spell buzz; it’s what the new bird sings.)
I pray, “Dear Lord, deliver me from lesser things.”
The finish line: Ain’t that a fine how-do-you-do?
If you’ll hold my hand, I’ll walk the final steps with you.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Good Things In Store (and in the parking lot, too)

“Water and air’s free. We got to charge for gas and oil, but water and air’s free.” ~Gomer Pyle, Wally’s Filling Station, Mayberry
Ah, the good ol’ days. Nowadays, you can’t even find a filling station, and you dang sure can’t find free air. It’s at least 75¢ at the convenience stores, and I’ve paid up to a buck to air up a tire. Our planet is mostly water; our physical selves are mostly water, so you’d think it would be free. We know better, don’t we? The water we drink and tote around (inside and out) is the same water the dinosaurs drank, water that’s been around the world and recycled a million times,  yet so many of us are willing to pay extra for a bottle of it that came all the way from the French Alps.
So what’s the trade off? What, if anything, have the convenience stores got over the old filling stations? At the filling station, I’d sit in my car while Wally did everything. Not that Wally wasn’t good company, but he was usually the only person to talk with. I hardly ever went inside because there was nothing to go inside for. At the convenience store, there are wonderful things inside: damn good coffee, fried chicken, sausage biscuits, donuts, etc. And there are interesting people and interactions going on. It’s rare that I leave a store without story. (If every Sociology major spent a semester working at a convenience store, it could be the most beneficial “class” on the transcript.) You get to know the regulars and the employees; it can put a shine on a new day to visit with them and observe them for a few minutes.
They have to charge for gas and oil…and air…and water, but making new friends is still free.

At the convenience store this morning, a woman came in and paid five dollars for gas on pump 6. I was next in line when she left. The guy pumping the gas for her ran over five bucks by just a dollar or two. One of the clerks said, “I hope she’s got it.” The other one said, “They don’t look like they do. I’ll just put it in, myself.” Those of us in line would not let that happen. We all chipped in to cover the overrun. Not a lot of money, but the good part was seeing people’s first reaction being to help instead of saying something derogatory. Five dollars’ worth of gas used to fill a tank. This morning, it topped off my mood and my optimism.

Statistically, about half of them voted for different candidates than I did. Observationally, almost all of them go to a different church—I’ve never seen them in the right one, mine. Many aren’t even the same color as me, and a few (catch me lest I faint!) have not yet mastered English as their second language. Yet somehow, with our TVs turned off and our phones in our pockets, we find common ground: It’s 7 in the morning and we want some coffee. We’re all so nice. “Go ahead, man.” “I ain’t in no hurry.” “That one just finished making; it’s fresher.” Around the convenience store coffee bar, we act like we should. Yeah, the coffee’s good, but that’s not the best part of waking up.

At the convenience store this morning, there was a guy taking inventory. He was on a mission: counting, punching in numbers, and carrying on a loud, rapid-fire conversation with a grim woman sitting at Mission Control about 20 feet away. The inventory guy was bobbing and weaving around the lone cashier. She wasn’t exactly tripping over the guy, but it wasn’t a graceful dance, either. I could tell she was doing her best to stave off irritation while being her usual cheery self with the customers.
When it was my turn, the inventory guy had just found a discrepancy; something didn’t add up. He was looking around frantically. He knelt down just to the cashier’s left, opened a lower cabinet door, and said, “What’s in here?!”
I said, “Oh, man, you don’t even want to know what’s in there!”
He jerked backward and said, “Oh, shit!”
I said, “Ever since what happened on Halloween, no one has dared to go in there.”
The cashier was grinning, almost out loud. Same here.

In line at the convenience store this morning, waiting to pay for my coffee, I started feeling a bit whimsical—you know how that early morning whimsy can sneak up on a person. When it was my turn, I took out a 5-dollar bill and swiped it in the card machine, hoping for at least an eye roll from the cashier. He, on autopilot, said, “Debit or credit?”
“Neither.”
Got the eye roll…and a slight grin.  

At the convenience store yesterday morning, there was only one cashier, an ugly woman with a bad attitude. She was distracted by a pile of paperwork. Had to fake a cough to get her to notice me. She wearily told me the price of my big cup of damn good coffee. I was on the devil’s edge of saying something sarcastic like, “I hope it’s not too much trouble.” Or “Sorry to bother you.” But I caught myself this time. She got stuck with the paperwork. Been there. I’m not worth a hoot at multitasking, either. While snark was wrestling with empathy, she almost sneezed but couldn’t quite seal the deal. We all know that feeling.
I said, “Ever notice how no one just does the second half of a sneeze?”
She laughed. Her eyes cleared. She smiled. She became pretty, became her real self.
We had a fun visit. When I left, we were both laughing and wishing each other well.  
None of us are attractive when we’re scowling; all of us are charming when we’re smiling. Circumstances often provide opportunities for the former. It’s up to us to sneak in the latter—for ourselves and our fellow travelers.
(And what’s the appropriate response to a half sneeze? “Gesundh…”? “God ble…”?)

“I was hungry and you fed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was a stranger and you took me in.”
You know the story. I bet, come Judgment Day, it doesn’t have to be anything that drastic to get us welcomed in. It could be something as simple as, “I was standing behind you in line at a convenience store on a Thursday morning. My brain was in neutral. You didn’t know me from Adam, but you paid for my coffee; that woke me up and made me smile all day.”
That happened yesterday. The guy paid for mine and everyone else’s.
I thanked him. He smiled and said, “I just feel good today.”
You get to know the regulars. Never seen that guy before, but for a few bucks and 20 seconds of his time he left everybody beaming, including the cashier.

Friday afternoon. Hectic day at the grocery store. Customers in a hurry, checkers trying to sound cheerful even as the despair in their eyes belies their forced smiles when they glance at the line and see no chance in this lifetime to put up their “This Lane Closed” sign and take an overdue break. Harried sackers are being paged for “Carry Out on Six!” before they’re even out the door with the overloaded cart, cranky mom, and whiny kids from Eight.
In the deli, I’d picked up a little plastic tray of deviled eggs. Never done that before, but they just looked good—and the tray will make some cool ice cubes.
The sacker put the eggs in a separate bag. He probably wanted to know if I wanted to carry them instead of letting them get piled in and jostled with the other stuff. He held up the bag and said, “Do you want these deviled eggs?” I said, “Yeah, that’s the main reason I bought them.” (Wish I’d thought to say, “No, I got ’em for you. Happy Birthday!”)
In the midst of the chaos, the sacker, the checker, and I all started laughing. (One of those situations where the stress relief makes it seem funnier than it really is.)
As he was wheeling the cart to the car, I deliberately slowed the pace. Jeff—no longer an anonymous sacker—and I had a leisurely chat…about the nice weather, how the Razorbacks are going to kick some serious ass next season, and how glad we both are to have jobs. I gave him the best tip I could—which is why there’s nothing but deviled eggs in my lunchbox today, but I ain’t complaining.

The customers in line and elsewhere in the convenience store yesterday morning exchanged the customary “how-are-you” ritual. Some responses: “Well, I’m here…” “You know: same ol’ same ol’.” One of the more positive bluebirds said, “At least it’s not Monday.”
The clerk whose line I was in is always smiling, always upbeat, no matter how hectic or weird things get. When it was my turn, I asked her how she was doing. She said, “God has been so good to me, I can’t complain about anything.”
Always smiling…always upbeat…leads with what’s going right. Coincidence? We know better, don’t we? There has been a slew of research done on the correlation between gratitude and happiness.
All the jargon and rigmarole can be boiled down to a simple experiment: Each day, set aside one minute—or even 30 seconds—to focus on 3 things you’re glad about. It can be 3 things that went right that day, 3 things you’re happy to have, any 3 things that please you. Hold those in your mind for just a bit. Do that for a month. Make it a habit. See what happens.

At the convenience store last Friday morning, Grandma’s Cookies were on sale, so I grabbed a pack of two (chocolate chip) for an afternoon snack.
When checking out, I offhandedly told the cashier, “Granny makes the best cookies.”
He picked right up on it: “I know Granny will be pleased to hear that you enjoy them.”
No one would remotely mistake us for having a common Grandmother. He’s at least a foot taller than me and probably about a third my age.
I said, “How is Granny?”
“Doing okay. She’s a little slow getting started in the mornings, but she tries to stay active. You really should come see her more often.”
“I know… We get so busy sometimes and forget the things that really matter. Tell Granny I said hello, will you?”
“I sure will.”
We were both cracking up, amused at ourselves and each other. No way to know for sure, but I’d bet that’s the first time he’s had a conversation about Granny with a short, fuzzy white guy.

The guy in front of me at the convenience store yesterday afternoon was balancing four of those big cans of beer. I heard him tell the guy in front of him that two were for his buddy out in the truck. He was wearing a dirty, sweat-stained work uniform. When the cashier rang him up, he didn’t have quite enough cash. He said, “Aw, man…” Then he turned to the rest of us in line and said, “Anybody got fifty cents?”
I was/am so very pleased: 1) He didn’t hesitate to turn to strangers for a little help. 2) The rest of us immediately started digging in our pockets for change. No one was about to begrudge them a couple of beers after work. No judgment; no carping; just an abundance of small-town friendly.

At my favorite convenience store, I do not know the politics or the religion of the owners or the employees. All I know is they have fried chicken at 7 in the morning. And damn good coffee, so God bless ‘em.

If you want to attract 7 out of 10 men in the area, raise the hood of your vehicle.
It is reaffirming and fun when strangers stop to help.
One among the assortment of assistants was Willie. Willie was hanging around out front when I went into the convenience store yesterday morning. He is the thinnest person I’ve ever seen, like maybe he hasn’t eaten anything for days, if ever. He looks like he’ll never see 60 again. The baggy, ratty clothes and the frayed gimmie cap cocked to one side do not inspire confidence. When he speaks, his words fall apart after the first syllable. I nodded and said hello. He said something and grinned.
He was still there when I came out. I avoided eye contact. You get the feeling that Willie is going to ask for something. (You don’t know that. Be fair. Practice what you preach.) I hopped in, turned the key…nothing. Well, hell. Popped the hood, hoping it would be something obvious—I have no business under the hood of a car; I only look to keep from having my Guy License revoked. I don’t know a distributor from a dipstick.
The helpers appeared and the opinions flowed. Consensus: It’s the starter, yep, need a new starter. Willie thought it had something to do with the radiator.
I did what any sane person would do: I called Brett. Of course he was busy. He’s always busy, but never too busy for a friend. Brett was out of town; he’d be there as soon as possible.
After I’d closed the hood and thrice thanked the assistants, Willie was still there. He took a position in front of my car, blocking the walkway. Other patrons glared at him and I tried to look like “He’s not with me.” (He’s going to ask for something—a dollar, a cigarette, something.) Willie greeted everyone who drove up. After a dozen or so ignored him, one of them said to him, “Come on. Let’s get you something to eat.” Willie’s eyes lit up and he limped in behind his benefactor.
Willie came out with a plastic bag and a fountain drink. He used a newspaper rack for a table. He gestured toward me with the sack and said something. “Beg your pardon?” Willie said, “You want some?” I understood him that time.
Brett showed up. No big deal, just needed a new battery. Easily replaceable. 
Meanwhile, by a mile, I’d miscalculated Willie. He did indeed ask me something: He asked if I wanted to share his breakfast.
It was good to visit and get caught up with Brett. It was good and necessary to revisit and get caught up with my shortsighted judgments. Brett is never too busy for a friend. I was too blind to see one.

What’s your take on angels? I’d never given them much thought. Never doubted it—we’ve all seen things we can’t explain without a touch of booga-booga—but it’s never been on the front burner.
Until recently: Nine days ago, I posted a story about a friendly old guy who taught me a much-needed concrete lesson about judging people. I kept avoiding him because I just knew he was going to ask me for something. Had him pegged for a bum. My car wouldn’t start, so I was stuck there at the convenience store. Spent at least 30 minutes wishing he would go away. But most of the time he stood right in front of my car until help arrived. I told a friend later that it was like he was guarding the vehicle, and I was cynically thinking he’d expect a tip for it. All he ever asked me was if I wanted to share his breakfast—that someone else had voluntarily bought for him. “You want some?”
If you ever saw this guy, you’d never forget him. He was old, raggedy, and bent over. He had such a limp that it seemed he would fall over with every step. He was the thinnest man I’ve ever seen—made Don Knotts look like Chubby Checker. No, you’d not forget him.
Later that day, my friend, Gayla, commented, “You just never know ~ the old guy might have been an angel helping you get things in perspective…”
That got me thinking: 1) He never once asked me or anyone else for anything, including the guy who paid for his sack of sausage biscuits. “You want some?” 2) As soon as Brett brought the jumper cables, the car started, and I closed the hood, the guy was gone. He could not have moved that fast. He was there…and then he wasn’t. At the time, I was too focused on getting to the mechanic’s place to even notice. 3) When you go to the same convenience store every weekday morning, you get to know the regulars and the surroundings. I’d never seen this guy hanging around before. It’s been over a week and I haven’t seen him since. 4) When I was telling my friend, RaChelle, about it, she said, “Back up: You said it seemed like he was ‘guarding’ your car. Guarding…Guardian…” She looked at me, waiting for the connection to click.
Something Wayne Dyer said popped into my head: “You’ll see it when you believe it.”
(Update: Over two months later, I still haven’t seen hide nor hair of “Willie” again.)

A few moments ago at the convenience store, the clerk smiled and said, “You sure have some pretty white hair.”
Well, now! I said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Then she said, “That’s how I want mine to be when I get old.”
Well, now…

On the far side of the convenience store parking lot sat a Budweiser truck. When leaving, I had to wait for the driver, wheeling a stack of cases into the store, to cross in front of me, then drive on and turn beside the truck. Next to the truck, there were more cases, stacked and ready for the next trip. Just sitting there…with the driver’s back to them. Yonder came a guy about my age, on foot. His trajectory toward the store required him to walk behind the Bud truck. Without turning his head, he glanced over and took in the unguarded cases. Our eyes met. My truck was in the perfect position to block anyone’s view. We exchanged smiles and subtle head shakes.
I read a lot into that smile. No way of knowing what was going through his mind, but I bet our thoughts were similar. To me, it meant, “We know better now, don’t we? We know that karma is very real. We know that unearned rewards not only fail to satisfy, they actually diminish, and ain’t nobody got time for that. We may not have much by some standards, but what we do have: isn’t it a joy and a refreshment to know that it’s truly and rightfully ours?”
(While the choir stands and sings “I Don’t Do Like That No More.”)

My change at the convenience store was $14.82, so the cashier, while handing it to me, said, “Fourteen eighty-two.”
I said, “What a coincidence: That’s the year I was born.” (Hoping for at least a polite chuckle.)
He nodded seriously and said, “Oh, is it?”
I know I’m getting a little rough around the edges, but hey…

When it was my turn for an audience before the convenience store cashier, she was deeply involved in a conversation with her supervisor about some paperwork protocol. They did not stop talking the whole time my purchases were being rang up. Neither even looked at me. When the total was announced and the hand extended, I was on the verge of saying something snide like, “No, no, don’t let me distract you. The last thing I want to do is interrupt. My petty needs can wait. In fact, if it will make it easier for you, I can just go to another store.”
But the angel on my right shoulder whispered, “Just for fun, see if you can break the spell.”
Hey, where I work, we too have our forms that must be properly filled and our databases to obey (“You must check one of these boxes!”). It’s easy to become a slave to the software and forget that there’s an actual person standing there, someone who doesn’t give a $#!+ about our logistics. Been there, done that, bought the sausage biscuit.
So I said, “The gasoline was a refill. Don’t I get a discount?”
Their eyes cleared. Their brains rebooted. They laughed. Not because what I said was funny, but due to the relief of momentarily returning.

Later this morning, so many of us will be so busy, so important, so professional. We’ll be meeting and multitasking and PowerPointing and pontificating. We’ll be on point, on the ball.
But not yet. First, we’ll stop by the convenience store to stock up on coffee, fountain drinks, cookies to stash in the desk drawer, maybe a sausage biscuit to pop in the microwave for a mid-morning snack. We’re relaxed, visiting with the regulars and bantering with the cashiers. Maybe a tank full of gas and a lottery ticket to fuel our daydreams.
It can even, at times, trigger a burst of gratitude. For billions of people on our fine planet, a trip to this convenience store would be like a journey to Oz. “Not only do you have money to buy things, but there are actually things on the shelf to buy!” (It might be fun for a delivery truck driver to see that wide-eyed wow every now and then.) Just a routine stop at the store on a Monday morning? Not hardly. I wonder if the store employees realize what a valuable service they provide. Maybe I should tell them.

1 Corinthians 13:11 talks about being all grown up and putting away childish things. Sure, we want to shed the childish stuff; ain’t nobody got time for that.
But let’s not confuse childish with childlike. We want to keep the childlike things: The sense of wonder, the capacity for unbridled joy, learning something new because we really want to. That little person is still there, still part of the mix. We don’t leave it behind; we transcend and include. Most of the time—at least in public—we try to keep a lid on that kid, but now and then s/he jumps out, anyway.
This morning at the convenience store, when I stepped up to pay for my coffee and snacks, the two guys leaving were almost doubled over with laughter. Don’t know what they said to the cashier, but he was also laughing. He tried to recover, but it wasn’t happening. He was laughing so hard, he couldn’t even talk. He, this grownup, was…delighted. I got a glimpse of him as a child; it was refreshing…and contagious. I wasn’t in on the joke, but I was in on the best part. He tried to apologize. I said, “Don’t you dare, man. You just made my day.” And he did. Eleven hours later, I’m still smiling out loud about it.

Yesterday at the convenience store, in my change, they gave me a 5-dollar bill that was wrinkled beyond belief. It was limp, worn, and faded. There was a piece of cellophane tape mending a rip. Someone had written on the flipside, something quite tacky. It felt creepy, especially when I imagined where all it might have been and what it may have been used for. People were waiting in line behind me, so I didn’t make a big deal of it.
During lunch, I took it to the bank. In exchange, they didn’t hesitate to give me a crisp, new one, confident that the folks who created it would still honor it. No matter how it looked, no matter its history, it retained its face value.
Someday, I’ll have to offer my wrinkled, faded, nasty-past self. Oh, what fun it is to know that I’ll still be accepted, at face value and then some. Not because of what I am, but because of who made me.

A few weeks ago, we were all invited to try a sample of a new sausage they were considering at the convenience store. It was very good. The other day, I asked if they were going to switch to the new one. The woman said, “We told ‘em everyone really liked it. They’re having a meeting about it.”
“They’re having a sausage meeting?” I asked.
“Yes.”
Never been to a sausage meeting. Sounds like fun. I’ve been to a lot of meetings, most of which were nowhere near as interesting.
(Wonder if there was a report from the biscuit committee. And if so, did they do a FlourPowerPoint presentation?)


This morning at the convenience store, I was checking out when a fellow came in—if I’m any judge of codger flesh, he’s about my age—and asked to see a local phone book. The cashier looked around and couldn’t find one. She asked the guy if he had a phone. He did. “What are you trying to find?” He said he wanted to find a U-Haul dealer. The cashier said, “Just Google U-Haul on your phone.” Well, the guy didn’t know how to do that or even if his phone had the capacity. “I know green for call and red for hang up.” I can identify; that’s all I knew or wanted to know for years. I do now know how to Google on my phone, but my glasses were out in the truck, so I could not have read the dinky screen print. I pulled up Google (I can see the blue icon) and handed my phone to the tech-savvy, young-eyed cashier. She took it from there and got him the number. A phone book would have been quicker and easier—they used to be everywhere—but there wouldn’t have been as much friendly interaction. We all had fun with it and a bonus grin to kick off the day.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Reapplying

It might be fun to video job interviews and play them back whenever someone is dissatisfied.

“What am I doing here?!”
We’ll discuss that during your evaluation. Meanwhile, it might help—watch this—to recall how you all but begged us to let you be here.

[Muuuunday moanin…Muuuunday moanin…drag-ass cryin ‘cause it’s Muuuunday moanin]
Come with me to Rwanda. Tell those folks how awful it is to get paid to come into a temperature controlled building, drink coffee, and eat donuts on a Monday. They will surely weep and pray for you. Besides, look here: You said you’d be delighted to work flexible hours—nights, weekends, and holidays if necessary. Monday shouldn’t faze a trooper like you.

“Is it Friday yet?!”
Not quite, but when it is, you’ll have money to blow on your favorite pastimes. Cool deal, ‘eh?

“I have to do everything around here. Even make the coffee!”
Now’s the time to put those team-player people skills you bragged about to good use.

“This sucks!”
Then trot out your problem-solver critical thinking expertise and find a way to make it blow.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
We do: According to you, you’re not the type to give up easily. You’re no quitter. You’ll always find a way. You and your sterling references did tell the truth about that, right? So go get ‘em!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Elethea Gives It Away

Everyone knew that Elethea had healing powers. She was amazed at how many were intimidated by her abilities instead of feeling welcome and worthy.
It started a few years back when Old McJerzyr boldly knocked on Elethea’s door and requested a healing for his son’s ailing heart. Elethea happily complied.
Word of the “miraculous” healing spread quickly throughout the land.
The McJerzyrs grew broccoli on their farm and the market hadn’t been too good lately, so when people asked if there was some special way to approach Elethea, the farmers informed their neighbors that Elethea would only grant favors to those who kept to a strict diet of broccoli and beer for at least three weeks before visiting (McJerzyr’s son, Barthel, had a little microbrewery going on the side).
It wasn’t long before the community could boast of a thriving broccoli cult, complete with leaders, slogans, songs, and a secret handshake. And it worked! Every adherent of the broccoli and beer regimen was granted a healing.
Terriana’s car broke down and she had to walk the last mile to Elethea’s place. It was forty-five minutes into the crepuscular hour. The darkening road was deserted. Terriana imagined she heard all manner of mischief on the road and in the woods. She kept a constant vigil, turning ever to the left, to look behind her, then into the woods on one side of the road, then up the road, then into the woods across the way. She walked in a panic, turning in slow circles all the while.
Elethea was quick to grant Terriana’s request to get rid of her headaches, fix her car, soothe her anxieties, and help her find a better job.
Terriana was delighted and grateful. She had fortunately stumbled onto the proper way to enlist Elethea’s help and she was quick to tell others every detail of how they, too, could get on Elethea’s good side. The notion soon took hold that the farther a person walked, while turning in slow circles, the more apt s/he was to get what s/he wanted. Hey, and if you crawl, you increase your chances all the more! Speculation evolved into fact. People arranged to be dropped off five, ten, up to twenty miles from Elethea’s front door.
Elethea knew nothing of all this. She thought it curious that some folks showed up half drunk, with little flakes of green trapped between their teeth, while others arrived dizzy and sweaty.
There was no end to the superstitions and rituals that sprang up around her. A seeker would ask Elethea’s advice about something and she would give it. Before long, that advice showed up as a strict rule in the creed or sacred writings of some group or another.
Elethea didn’t have to be cajoled or flattered into doing what she came here to do, any more than the sun has to be bribed to shine. That didn’t keep folks from figuring that the more complicated they made things, the more personal sacrifice and inconvenience involved, the better. And it did work. Can’t argue with success! Hey, if it ain’t broke….



[This story is from The Lonesome Wizard Boys’ Campfire Tales by Tom Hale]

Elethea: The English meaning of the name is “Healer.”

Jerzyr is a name meaning "Farm owner." (I added the “Mc” part just for fun.)

Terriana means “One who is innocent.”


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Airplane Mode

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode, just to see what would happen. When I woke up this morning, it was flying around the room. Couldn’t access it again until I got online with AT&T and downloaded a boarding pass.

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. A few minutes later, I got a text from a TSA agent demanding a barefoot X-ray selfie. (Good thing I got that radiology app.) Upon awakening, I discovered that my pillow showed up in the lost & found at GaleĆ£o International Airport in Rio de Janeiro. Since I don’t speak the language, I’ll be met by a dream interpreter.    

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in Airplane Mode. Almost immediately, I got a text asking if I’d like to join The Mile-High Club. I said sure. They booked me on a bus to Denver. (Maybe if I hadn’t asked about the AARP discount…)

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. Dreamed I was flying. Then was awakened by a call letting me know that my flight had been cancelled.

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. The phone rang. I answered and was put on hold. Been in this holding pattern for hours.
“Since we cannot deposit you at your desired destination, please enjoy this god-awful music and intermittent assurances that your port of call is important to us. Thank you for flying AT&TWA.”
But didn’t TWA tank in 2001?
“I do not recognize the word ‘tank’ in this context.”
Well, when a company tanks—
“What?”
Tanks!
“You’re welcome. Coffee, tea, or meme?”
Uh…meme, please.”

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. Woke up feeling great! Feather light and rainbow bright! Rooster crowing, bluebirds flying in and out the windows, Captain Kangaroo unlocking the Treasure House, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds tap-dancing and singing “Good Morning!” Aunt Jemima and Dinah in the kitchen, blowin on the old banjo and whippin up a Disney Land breakfast. Up and at ’em! Ain’t nothin we can’t do! Seems they’d lost all my emotional baggage.

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. My PayPal account was immediately charged $8.00 for half a can of Pringles.

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. I was instructed to go sit in the driveway for 12 hours, between a screaming baby and a drunk Seahawks fan, while we waited for a part to arrive from the dark side of the moon.
(The movie is Groundhog Day. We’ve watched it over…and over…and over…)  

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in Airplane mode. “White Rabbit” was automatically added to my playlist.

Before turning in last night, I put my phone in airplane mode. Had to change carriers in Dallas.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Gabriela

I don’t offend easily, but Gabriela made me wince almost daily. She was one of my GED students, a single mom, dirt poor, with a nasty attitude. She made Debbie Downer look like a Mouseketeer. If I wasn’t mindful, I’d catch myself hoping she wouldn’t show up for class. She was foul-mouthed, disruptive, and abrasive—to put it mildly. One morning, Gabriela told me she would be absent the following day because she’d been asked to sing at a funeral. I was on the verge of waxing indignant and telling her that wasn’t funny. I applied my mental emergency brake and remembered that on those rare occasions when she did smile, it was one of the prettiest things you ever saw. Gabriela said she used to sing in her church and these folks asked her to do it again. I asked her what she was going to sing. Her favorite song: “Victory in Jesus.”
Gabriela, of all people, was being called on to bring comfort and hope to a grieving family. And she said yes.   
Anymore, whenever I’m about to judge someone harshly—and even in the midst of doing so—that tune comes to mind (♫ “And then I cried, ‘Dear Jesus, come and heal my broken spirit’…”♪) along with this quote from Saint Francis of Assisi: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”
Someone else will have to cast the first stone. I’ve been disqualified.

Some Loser Singing Victory in Jesus

Working hard at having fun—how screwed up can you get?

Last call came and went and we weren’t having any yet.

The slushy sidewalk seemed the perfect setting for my soul:

Like our not-quite white Christmas, kind of shallow and cold.

We could see a crowd had gathered down the street a little ways. 

My ears picked up a faint, familiar tune from younger days. 

Some guy was walking toward us, kicking up the winter slop;

We asked him what the fuss was; he slowed down but didn’t stop.

We had high hopes it might be something to intrigue us.

“Nah, just some loser singing ‘Victory in Jesus.’”


I’d blown a lot of money just to smell like smoke and lime;

I felt ripped off and like somebody owed me a good time.

The music got clearer as we headed toward the sound.

A Salvation Army Band can make up for an ugly town—

Sincerity and purpose in a circus atmosphere,

Perhaps the sidewalk sermon will be just as fun to hear.

Hard living makes it tough to tell a body’s actual age.

As rough and fragile as the orange crate she used for a stage,

Through salty tears that made the key of G rust,

She warbled about victory in Jesus.


She used to sing that same song when she was just a girl

In our little church back home—it sure is a small world.

About as graceful as a pogo stick without a spring,

She wasn’t much to see, but man, that woman could sing.

It was her way of escaping from a world as dark as dirt,

Some mental morphine to forget a while how much life hurt.

It was the only positive attention that she got.

“Yonder goes a loser,” said the kettle to the pot.

Can’t help but thinking someday, somehow, we must

Pay for writing off that little friend of Jesus.


Now, as then, that sick, thin woman’s voice was clear and strong.

She couldn’t buy a blessing, but she sure could sell that song.

She looked like she believed it for a minute or a few;

Perhaps what matters most is she made us believe it too.

It never hurts to open up, let in a little light;

Part of me was pulling for her, wishing she was right.

Who’s that in her moist, brown eyes reflected, looking back?

It makes me want to cut myself and others lots of slack.

If we could see each other as God sees us,

We might relate to victory in Jesus.


That low-down lady gave my sagging spirit quite a lift;

It had taken several decades to appreciate the gift.

I felt a stab of gratitude that put me in my place.

What could I complain about—at least with a straight face?

When it comes to religion, I don’t prefer any brand.

They all bring hope and peace—at least any of them can.

When it’s been a month of Sundays since we’ve drawn a winning card,

When life sneaks up on us and hits us real hard,

He or She always sends something to release us,

Like some loser singing “Victory in Jesus.” 


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Garbage Day

I knuckle down, look up, and hey,
It’s here again: it’s Garbage Day.
Things that clutter, stink, disturb:
Wheel them, drag them to the curb.

Things that cannot, must not stay:
They’ll pick ‘em up, take them away.
It’s been a good week, did a lot,
And screwed up as oft as not.

I made the grade, stared down a dread,
And hit the nail right on the head.
I also hit a sour note,
And just completely missed the boat.

Got hung up on a judgment call,
Picked up some points, and dropped the ball.
It’s Friday; hip-hooray and whew!
A happy Garbage Day to you.
           
That dumb mistake, ill-founded doubt?
Toss ‘em in; we’ll take them out.
The victories, that winning grin?
Those go in the recycle bin.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Potts’ Luck

Otto Potts inherited the metronome. His mother insisted he take it. “Your great-great-grandfather brought it over from the old country.”
Otto never knew the old guy, so it had no sentimental value. And it didn’t even work. No value of any kind.
When the Antiques Roadshow came to Little Rock last month, a friend had an extra ticket and asked Otto if he’d like to go. Otto loves the show, so yes. His friend said, “Oh, and you’ll have to bring something to be appraised; everyone does.”
Well, diddley-dang. Otto had no antiques. But wait, he sure did! He had that metronome; he’d been using it as a paperweight.
Otto was admitted and directed to the appropriate appraiser.   
The Roadshow pro asked, “Do you know what you have here?”
Otto shrugged and said, “Far as I know, just a worthless metronome that doesn’t work.”
“You sure it doesn’t work?” The expert slid the weight up the pendulum a little way and wound the crank. It worked fine.
Otto blushed, forced a laugh, and shook his head. “Knock me down with a feather!”  
The appraiser grimaced and said, “But you’re right about it being worthless.”
Worthless in dollars and cents perhaps, but…
I wonder if it would help Otto to know that he owned the same metronome Ludwig Fakowee used when he composed “Waltz of the Frahnkinschteen Fairies,” the same song that was playing on the elevator where by chance he met and fell in love with Anna Morada, the woman he would later ask to marry him.
Probably not. Anna turned him down. She became a pioneer in the development of 3D printers and recently sold her startup company for 3.6 billion dollars. I’m guessing Otto doesn’t want to hear about it.
But is it really worthless? Isn’t that the same metronome the cat knocked over? Otto stooped to pick it up, causing the stray bullet to merely part his hair instead of departing his—
“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t even have a cat.”
Oh, hey, Otto. Just looking for a way to make that metronome valuable.
“Look, I’m only a character you created, so I may be out of line here, but do you have any idea what time it is? It’s five o’clock in the morning! Give it a rest, will you? Some of us have to go to work today. Speaking of which, could you get me a job somewhere besides Pep Boys? That’s a little over the top, don’t you think?”
Sorry, man. Otto Potts won millions in the Powerball lottery.
"That's more like it."                                                                                         
But it didn’t make him happy.
“Stop that!”
And it made him very happy.
“That’s better. Good night!”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Don't That Beat All?

This was the assignment from my favorite college president, Jim Genandt: “So I want you to write a short story and here are the names of the four characters I want you to use: Wangus Farkle, Deeshpot Snickmanf, Horobax Pinkerglot, and Snorban Quiglesblurt. No other characters. I would prefer a sci-fi western campfire setting set in 1900 near Flush, Kansas. Are you up to the challenge?”

Flush, Kansas is in the northeast quadrant of the state; you know, over in Pottawatomie County. The town got its name when Wangus Farkle won it in a poker game back around the turn of the century—not this one, the last one. The winning hand? Five diamonds. Some dang fool claimed that his five cards in a row (8-9-10-Jack-Queen) was a lot harder to get than five of the same suit, so he should win the hand. Wangus showed him the rule book and the unblinking eye of a cocked Colt 45, convincing the dang fool that a flush does indeed beat a straight.
That aforementioned dang fool was Horobax Pinkerglot. You’ve no doubt heard the name if you know a damn thing about the Wild West. Being an outlaw, Pinkerglot never gave two hoots for anybody’s rules. He dedicated himself to seeing to it that Flush, Kansas would never prosper until it changed its name to his. You think paybacks are hell? Horobax is hell and then some. If any business—general store, blacksmith shop, barbershop, or bank—started to show a profit, Pinkerglot would gut it. Rob it then burn it to the ground.
Deeshpot Snickmanf probably created more useful smartphone apps than anyone in the 21st century. When he was ignoring his boring high school classes in favor of pursuing something he was actually interested in, his parents and school counselors kept telling him he needed to get his head out of the clouds and face reality. “Reality?” said Deeshpot. “Before we can discuss it intelligently, you’re going to have to define your terms. Tell me: What is real?”
Real poor: That’s what most folks in Flush, Kansas were. And not just moneywise; they were poor in spirit. A bright lad like Deeshpot could move away, shake the dust from his Adidas and never look back. But Deeshpot believed you should bloom where you’re planted.
The dispirited citizenry had long since resigned themselves to their circumstances. Some said the community was just plain snake bit. Others claimed the town was built on an ancient burial site and was thus cursed. Deeshpot didn’t buy it, any of it. But it was still his birthright, so he owned it. Could he get a refund? No, but maybe…maybe he could swap it for something else? He had no idea what, but he was not going to give up. This was his home; these were his people; he would not let them down.
The Universe honors an unbending intention. The edges of doubt and fear curl and flake in the heat of a burning desire. About 2:23 one morning, Deeshpot’s phone buzzed. A text from…Snorban Quiglesblurt? Who the hell? The message: “Go to Tuttle Creek. Build a fire. Bring a picture of yourself when you were seven years old.” That didn’t make a lick of sense, yet for some reason it seemed important.
Ever do something that didn’t make sense but you did it anyway because you were eat up with curiosity? If so, you know where Deeshpot was an hour later. Flint, steel, kindling, twigs, bigger sticks. He sat cross-legged and gazed into the flames, the glowing coals, the snapping sparks. He heard the wind in the treetops and an occasional owl hoot. He heard the same water the dinosaurs drank singing sea shanties and reciting sacred limericks to ancient rocks. It could have been five minutes or five years.
“Show me the picture.”
Snorban’s voice was not loud, unduly deep, or commanding. It was inviting. He was never obeyed because folks were afraid but because something in his tone and his manner made them want to. People knew he was there to help and add to the fun, not to condemn and dampen—you know, a true leader.
Deeshpot handed Snorban the photo of his grinning seven-year-old self.
Snorban smiled back at the kid in the picture. He raised his eyes to meet Deeshpot’s and asked, “Is this child dead?”
Deeshpot was already off balance from Snorban’s arrival: He was just sitting there on the other side of the fire, like he’d been there all the while. Deeshpot never saw or heard him approach. Now this question. “No, of course not.”
“Where is he?”
“Well, he’s…he’s me. I’m just a grown up him.” (Yeah, that sounded real bright. Sheesh!)
“So, he’s part of you?”
“Yes. That’s a better way to put it.”
Snorban shook his head. “That’s not physically possible. There is not a single cell, not so much as an atom that was contained in that kid that is with you now. That child no longer exists. When someone no longer exists, we commonly refer to them as dead.”
Deeshpot’s brain was not responding. (Try unplugging it then plug it back in.) “No, he’s still there.”
“Where?”
“Here.” He pointed to his head. “I can…”
“Remember?”
“Not just remember, actually experience.”
Snorban smiled. “So the trick is to remember, and…?”
“And what?”
“RATS!”
Deeshpot jumped—as much as one can while sitting. “Rats?”
“That’s your mnemonic: RATS. It stands for Remember And Then Some.”
Deeshpot grinned. “Yeah…yeah, that fits.”
“So if you wanted to go back to when you were six?”
“Remember And Then Some.”
“Two?”
“I really don’t recall much before—”
“RATS!”
“Oh…okay…hey, yeah.”
“The year before you were born?”
“C’mon, man…you can’t…”
Snorban raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to define reality for me now?”
“RATS?”
“Give it a go.”
Deeshpot felt defeated. “Sorry, I just don’t get it.”
“No, no, don’t be sorry.” Snorban raised a halting hand. “If I’m going to pass myself off as a teacher, if you’re not getting it, then it falls to me to find a way to help you get it.” He massaged his chin and pondered. “You’re probably too young to remember videocassette recordings.”
Deeshpot brightened. “No, I’ve read about them. They even let us play with one at the museum.”
Snorban clapped his hands. “Okay, frame of reference, good. If a person wanted to watch one again, he had to what?”
“Rewind?”
“Exactly. And when did people stop rewinding?”
“When they got to the end of the tape?”
“Yes! And they could have kept on rewinding if they…fill in the blank: if they…”
“Had more tape?”
“Bingo!”
Deeshpot was still a bit confused. “But it would be blank tape.”
Snorban winked. “Not if you put something on it. RATS backward is STAR. Go back and STAR in your own movie. Put something on it. Rewind that rascal.”
When did the sun come up? The campfire was smoldering, little intermittent wisps of smoke. Deeshpot said it slowly and reverently: “Holy shit.” Then he jumped to his feet and shouted like a tent evangelist: “Holy Shit!”
Snorban placed a gentle hand on Deeshpot’s shoulder. “The app will work, obviously. I think you know that you shouldn’t make it available to just anyone?”
Deeshpot nodded.
Flush, Kansas is in the northeast quadrant of the state; you know, over in Pottawatomie County. The town got its name when Wangus Farkle won it in a poker game back around the turn of the century—not this one, the last one. The winning hand? Five diamonds. A flush.
 Horobax Pinkerglot threw down his cards. “Damn! I almost had a straight. All I ended up with was a lousy pair of tens.”
Farkle eyed the cards. “Hold on, pardner. One of them cards is the ten of diamonds. I’ve got the other ten of diamonds. You dealt this hand.” Wangus pulled his pistol and shot Horobax dead. Them’s the rules.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Send in the Crowns

Queen Carisa and her family were pretty excited when the wedding took place a few years back. They all, especially the queen, figured that the king had chosen her because of her charm, talent—great singer, dancer, artist, quilter—and good sense.
Truth is King Gascon chose her because her family owned a strategic watering hole, a place his troops could refresh themselves and their horses when far from home, kicking the crap out of other soldiers from neighboring kingdoms. By rights the spring was now his. By rights Carisa was now his, too.
Gascon was hostile toward anything that wasn’t him. Carisa had only one talent he was interested in. He resented anything that distracted his queen from worshiping her husband. Any singing, dancing, painting, or quilting had to be performed for him alone. That took the fun out of it. Good sense? She did not know anything about battle strategy; ergo, she had no sense.
That nonsense got old pretty quick, but Carisa thought that surely the king would lighten up over time. He didn’t. Carisa wanted to be more, much more than dutiful and beautiful. She sang to herself, danced in her head, drew on her inner strength, and created colorful monogrammed covers for her hostilities. (She tried to keep them tucked in, but they were restless and fitful.)     
Gascon returned from a great victory. He crossed the drawbridge carrying the keys to a new kingdom. Trumpets blared, peasants cheered, and children flapped flags. Once in his chambers, King Gascon called for his pipe; he called for his bowl, and he called for—get those three fiddlers outta here!—his queen.
Queen Carisa tried, but she could not maintain a jubilant spirit. Well how could she with that deplorable man running around the kingdom saying those awful things about Gascon? This man who hid in the woods and raided the storehouse and treasury by night! This horrid individual who claimed to be the real king and who swore by Zeus that he would use the black heart of King Gascon to decorate his next winter solstice tree. This lovely man—did I say lovely? I meant to say loathsome—who dared to hide himself away in the queen’s wardrobe and, well, you really don’t want to hear about what he tried to do. The animal!
Gascon bellowed and fumed until she thought he would blow a seal. “This man must perish! Bring him to me!”
“Yeah, well, he’s pretty good at hiding and scheming. He’s not just gonna walk in here and volunteer to let you kill him.”
BELLOW! FUME! IMPOTENT PROFANITY!
“If it please my lord, I’ve rendered this likeness of the scoundrel.”
Gascon snatched the portrait from her. “Durst this be him?”
“It most certainly durst.”
“Have this picture distributed to every citizen, with orders that the man be rendered asunder on sight!”
“Sure will.”
“Offer a reward of 23 gold Me-coins to the person who brings in his head!”
“You got it.”
Carisa spent the next three days drawing, for there were no copy machines back then. The portrayals were posted throughout the palace and in every ale house within a day’s ride.   
That night, Carisa made sure that the king got drunker than a waltzing pissant. It was easy. All she had to do was brag about the superior quality of the wine produced from the king’s vineyards and gush about how much she admired him for being able to drink more than any man alive and still be coherent.
After Gascon passed out, Carisa tiptoed to the side door and let in the eunuchs. They applied a depilatory to the king’s great beard; the only hair left on his head was at the crown. That hair was braided into a ponytail and left to flop behind. Is the ribbon a little much? Nah, leave it.
Next morning, King Gascon awoke with a mighty thirst. He staggered out the door, aiming for the well. The guards smote him repeatedly until he gave up the ghost.
“The usurper is slain! The reward is mine!”
“Hey, I helped!”
“Me too!”
Carisa gave each guard 23 gold coins. Then she pinched her nose behind her handkerchief hard enough to produce tears and informed all gathered that the impostor, that vile ill-mannered creature, had sneaked in during the night and evaporated the king.
“Good heavens!”
“What kind of nasty magic is that?”
It’s okay. He’s dead now. Toss his carcass over the falls; let the catfish and vultures have their way with him.
       They had no heirs, so Carisa got the castle and the kingdom and everything that went with it. She sent for her family and appointed her father dean of the world’s first liberal arts college.
Carissa taught the other rulers of the region how cooperation was superior to kicking ass, how win/win beats win/lose every time. Peace, purpose, and prosperity were the happy results for everyone.

This story is from The Lonesome Wizard Boys’ Campfire Tales. Find a whole passel of them here.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dryer Lint Booties

On this day in 1934, the first “Washateria”—most nowadays call it a laundromat—opened in Fort Worth, Texas. This is kind of a special day for me…kind of, for you see, I was born in such a place.
It was just a brief, late-night encounter between a drifting spin cycle and a lonely unbalanced load. I was wrapped in Downy sheets and left in a plastic basket.
My setting has never been “Normal.” It’s either “Permanent (De)Press” or “Heavy Duty.” Sad, bored, low-sudsing? Sure. But I noticed early on that if I put on a happy face folks were nicer. Wrung out on the inside, fluffed up on the outside: Blue Cheer.
Seen a lot of folks come through these doors, and I’ve noticed that most everyone has their hang-ups. Carefree young couples, acting as if they’ll always be wrinkle-free. Wheezy senior citizens who still haven’t figured out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Kids pounding the hell out of a vending machine trying to jar loose a precariously-hanging Butterfinger.
I’ve tried to get out in the world and pass myself off as something I ain’t, but I guess who we really are always shows through. Panhandlers don’t even ask me for money; they just want to know if I’ve got change for a dollar. Sure, buddy, here ya’ go.