Thursday, February 28, 2008

Just Listen

Intellectually, I understand the safe world of my childhood is gone. Long gone. And yet, I optimistically venture forth expecting to find more good than evil. It seems for the most part evil is confined to outside my zip code. Sure, there’s the occasional petty thief or drug user taking other people's money to support their habits. However our murder rate is so low, it’s almost nonexistent. I know. Any murder is bad. I agree. But the ones in my corner of the world are, sadly, usually the result of a toxic mixture of alcohol, relatives and stupid arguments. Strangers don’t drift into my quaint hometown to murder. I live in the kind of town where it’s safe to say "Hi!" to total strangers. There’s an unspoken mandate in small southern towns that we feel compelled to exchange a friendly greeting when passing another soul. It’s as if the motto is, “A stranger is simply a person who isn’t my friend yet.” I never gave that attitude a second thought until Tuesday night, when weirdo reality invaded my world.

I didn't like the feeling.

It was hubby's birthday. We’d opted to stay home and eat pizza rather than dine out but a few ingredients were needed. Having already been Birthday Person this year, I volunteered to go shopping. Hubby teased that with me limping like I was 150, he’d be surprised if I got back before bedtime. He added that perhaps my last birthday had put me into the Aged and Infirmed category. I shot back that it was just a pulled knee muscle and reminded him I was still the younger one. Grabbing my car keys, I found the dogs waiting at the door. My two furry bodyguards and I took off for the only grocery store in town.

I’ve never been a fan of shopping after dark. It goes back to working with State Troopers who often held the belief that anyone they didn’t know was suspect and probably up to no good. Darkness was just a cover to aid them. After leaving that job, the feeling of constantly being on alert faded. But it still raises its head like a silent alarm if something feels off kilter. Women call it intuition. My Troopers called it survival skills. To me, it’s the “Little Voice”. Not my conscious or any condition needing medication. It’s an internal early warning system when something’s not right. Always listen to that little voice, the Troopers would tell me. There’s a reason for it. And it’s usually right.

I’m glad it still works.

Gimping into the grocery store I grabbed a cart and greeted the cashier. Up ahead an older man stalked off with a cart like he was on a mission. Leaving a polite distance between us, I stopped for bread. The man spun his cart around and parked it in front of mine. Okay, who hasn’t walked past something while shopping, only to realize they need it? But he’d blocked me in. With an inward sigh and a grumbling knee, I backed up. As I stood in the Produce section searching for a decent bell pepper, the man left. Then suddenly he spun around. As I mentally noted he should’ve made a list, he blocked my path and worked his way over to reach for something right at my head. It irritated me he couldn’t wait five seconds. My brain labeled him rude. My aching knee used language my mother doesn’t approve of as I maneuvered away. I paused on the next aisle. I’m not a slow shopper. Knowing what I need, I grab it and go. Like a bad magic act, the man appears behind me. Again. This time my little voice whispers, “He’s way too close!” Before I can put space between us, his hand brushes through my hair as he leans in to grab an item over my head. The hair on my neck stands up. My insides turn cold. That wasn’t accidental. It was a little too lingering. The little voice insists I just move, not confront. I walk off, careful not to look like a scared rabbit. Or future victim. What if I’m being paranoid because I’m tired and my knee hurts? I start to go down another aisle, realize it’s the wrong one and turn at the last minute. Hearing an odd noise, I glance over my shoulder. Having started down the same wrong aisle, the man is overcorrecting his cart to get back behind me. I turn down the next aisle. So does he. I reach for an item. He stops, reaching for one three feet behind me. I stand still, as if searching the shelves. He does the same. I take a step forward. So does he.

Maybe I’m not paranoid.

There’s a part of my brain I refer to as “Crisis Control”. It allows me to remain calm and function like a well oiled machine in the midst of a crisis. I can be scared later, when I’m home. That leftover law enforcement habit begins taking notes. White male. Late 50s, early 60s. Wearing a white windbreaker, white t-shirt, white pants and once white sneakers. Except for the shoulder length white hair, he’s so average he borders on nondescript. Ghost-like. Practically invisible. That realization sends my internal alarm up a notch. I make eye contact with the kid stocking shelves. Ghost man retreats. Stopping next to the kid, I peer around the corner as nonchalantly as possible. Ghost man’s in line. Feeling somewhere between ridiculous and uneasy, I wait until he’s looking the other way to slip down another aisle. I finished shopping in record time and didn’t give him another thought… until I had to exit. To go into the cover of darkness, where evil mischief dwells. Scanning the area before stepping outside, I don’t find any ghost like vision haunting the parking lot. And yet, as I gimped toward my car at half my usual speed, I felt vulnerable. Was this what I had to look forward to as I grew older? The realization I can’t outrun trouble? As I sat behind the steering wheel, looking around again, one of the dogs leaned forward and nuzzled my cheek. I was safe. And I wasn’t yet victim bait. Maybe I was proof that being careful is a good practice. No matter what your age.

I told hubby about my “creepy” encounter and he asked why I didn’t tell the Manager. The Manager doesn’t work nights. So why didn’t I ask a bag boy to carry stuff out? Two little bags. Like I’m helpless or something? And that was when the little voice offered, “But you weren’t. You listened to me. You didn’t panic. And he saw that.”

My Troopers were right. That little voice is there for a reason. Listen to it. And act accordingly.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

So, Why Do You Cross the Road?

He's no where near this small any more but I still love this picture. I'm not sure what the yellow elephant contributed to the conversation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Say What?

As someone who loves words, the oddest things can catch my ear…or eye. I remember learning the definition of “cacophony” and marveling how well it fit the word. Or the day I finally learned the perfect word to describe the musculature of my tall, lean great Uncle Claude the construction worker…sinewy. Words don’t just effect the here and now. They follow you.

Now granted, in a presidential election year, it’s harder to find words I actually want to hear. But an interesting turn of phrase always captures my attention. This morning a comedian on the radio was huffing that Presidential candidate Barack Obama wasn’t black or white, he was “Half-frican American”.

I like running across sentences that can help me truly appreciate the archaic act of swooning. From poet George Moore we have: ”Other men it is said have seen angels, but I have seen thee and thou art enough.” Wow...makes you feel good to be a girl. Then again the simple, [and anonymous], works too: “My favorite color? The color of a good woman’s eyes.”

Words and phrases can stick with you for the oddest reasons. Soap operas are not well known for their scintillating dialogue but Mom watched them and if we remained quiet, we could too. This was a nice reprieve during southern summers when the temperature made playing outside unbearable. I was about 12 when an older male character, trying to win the love of a woman who distrusted him, was asked if he had a message for her. The man replied, “Tell her I dreamt of the nape of her neck.” At the time I wasn’t sure why that made my heart beat a little faster but as I grew older, I got it. To this day if someone uses the word “nape”, which happens rarely, a ghost of a smile tugs at my lips. Words are powerful.

But the words I like best are those which bring to mind a mental picture that makes me smile. Granted, with my vivid imagination perhaps those pictures are um…different. I tend to see funny sometimes when the words are suppose to invoke serious. Maybe it’s why I like comedians like Steven Wright who wrote, “When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’. I said, ‘No, I made a few mistakes.’”

Then there is the occasional jewel you stumble across and it makes you smile for no reason other than those mental pictures. From the man who brought you “Peter Pan” [and I don’t mean the peanut butter] J. M. Barrie: “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.”

What a picture.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Have a LOVEly Day

Today is Hallmark's favorite day. The florist is grinning and the candy people are over the moon with joy. Funny thing is, I don't really need them to appreciate love.

Don't get me wrong. Cards and flowers and candy are nice. But to me the true meaning of love is those unexpected moments of wonder and surprise when you least expect them. Like last week, when I sent an e-mail card to a male friend who'd been ill. The man is a DJ and notorious for voicing an opinion on air about women going ga-ga over cards while men just don't get how a piece of paper can make a woman swoon. And yet this very same man sent me an e-mail thank you for...yep, sending him a card. It wasn't the card, it was the fact I was concerned about him. This in turn touched him and because he knows I love getting cards for no apparent reason, he sent one. It made me smile on a day that had been pretty crappy.

Love is a husband you met at age 16 and can still be surprised by almost 28 years later. And I would still rather have a hug from him, where I am safe from the world and it's ills, than all the roses in the world. In a world where people change partners like they do their socks, it's nice to know that Happily Ever After is possible. It's work. Hard work sometimes. But possible. And very satisfying.

Love is a spontaneous hug from a child, just because they're glad to see you. Yes, hugging was big in my family. Perhaps genetic. My maiden name was Huggins, which means "Son of Hugh". I wonder if the original Hugh was a hugger? My Mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, was called "Huggy" by her kids. We seem to reap a lot of pleasure out of the simple things in life.

Love is being cheered up by a friend contacting you just because they were thinking of you. My best friend from college, who lives miles away, seems to know when I'm having a bad day. When I open my e-mail, there she is with a funny card. She says we're linked because I do the same for her. Out of the blue.

Love is laughter and friends named for Birds who don't let you take yourself too seriously. Love can be poetic, a world away and unseen, yet still touch you in kind gestures from the heart. In honor of the Day of Love, I salute my favorite Scottish poet Shug and the cute weans he has added to this world. May they grow to be kind, generous and have their father's sense of humor.

Love, quite simply, is what makes you happy. I hope you find a large share of that today. Just make sure you store enough of it so Mondays are easy to face.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

My Hero was Always a Cowboy

The little girl in me can still see him. The cowboy’s name was Joe and he was tall and lean. Hat perched on his head as if he’d just pushed it back with one finger in friendly greeting, it was underscored with a smile that made you smile back… whether you wanted to or not. His eyes were wise, kind and mischievous all at once. A gentle giant, he protected small children and women while defending his friends and moral code with his fists. After all, he wore a white hat. Granted, all this fist fighting from a guy with a disarming smile that made my little girl heart skip a beat was a conundrum. But he was the good guy and sometimes good guys had to make their point…um…loudly. He had a booming voice that could get your attention or make you feel safe, depending on what color hat you wore. So what if my first impression of him was in black and white. It didn‘t matter. He proved himself trustworthy week after week. I’ll admit to being a little shocked when our newly acquired color TV illustrated that he was in fact wearing a pink shirt. But he was man enough to pull it off.


When “Laredo” debuted on TV I was seven. It only lasted for three seasons but it made quite an impression. In a lot of those episodes my hero seemed to either forget to button his shirt, had it torn, or took it off to take care of business. Well there was that one time he was shirtless and tied up, hands above his head, but when you’re being tortured by the bad guys you can’t ruin a good shirt. By the second season the pink shirt had given way to a buckskin number with the lowest v-neck I’ve ever seen on a man. It was the western equivalent of a muscle shirt and Joe complimented it nicely. Even a little girl can remember a torso like that. What stayed with me as I grew older was the impression, not of a half naked cowboy, but of a man quick to smile and ready to help. I concluded that real strength was a balance…an ability to use your hands for defense yet still be capable of gentleness. The key was knowing which situation called for what. Joe tipped his hat to ladies, leaned down to talk to children and laughed heartily when happy. Some little girls dream of a knight in shining armor. I would’ve been perfectly happy for Joe, still dusty from riding the trail, to come sweep me into those arms for a bear hug.

With "Laredo" finished, his career took another path and sadly, we grew apart. He discovered motorcycles, biker chicks and that deep, booming voice became a menacing growl. It made me sad, although I’d never have admitted it out loud. I felt like I’d lost an important part of my childhood. Then in the 70’s, he did another western. A teenager then, I tuned in out of curiosity. He came on screen, tilted his hat back and that booming voice declared how they were going to save someone. My heart skipped a beat.

He’s in his seventies now. The other day I caught part of an old TV western while flipping channels. I paused momentarily, hoping to find him amongst the sage brush and dust. No such luck. The program was hokey, the dialog was awful and one guy could barely stay on his horse. Joe would’ve been able to handle that, I found myself thinking adamantly. A ghostly vision of my childhood hero drifted past my mind’s eye and I smiled. Curiosity kicked in again and I went in search of his biography. There’s something very satisfying in discovering even kids know something special when they see it. Turns out my hero was a star athlete, an amateur boxer [with a 31-1 record], a Trainer, a Lifeguard and a bodybuilder with brains who received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Bodybuilding and Fitness. I mentioned brains, right? He graduated Cum Laude with a Masters in Russian, a subject he’d later return to teach. He speaks fluent Russian, German, French and Serbo-Croatian. An Army veteran with a Purple Heart, he was the stunt double for Tarzan’s Lex Barker…after personally turning down the role. The one thing in that bio that jumped out was a mention that he was a direct descendant of Western figures Kit Carson and Daniel Boone. That explains a lot.

I was fortunate. I had a happy childhood. No major trauma. Few spankings. Everything I needed to grow up, dare I say it, normal. I’ve thanked my parents for their help. Now it’s time to thank my Cowboy Hero for being my childhood proof that right always wins out over wrong. Especially when dispensed with a smile and a tip of the hat.

Silly? Probably. But when someone mentions his name, my heart still skips a beat.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Southern Sweetness

We live in a culture that doesn't generally respect age. We tend to act as if hanging around older folks is contagious...that we'll wake up with gray hair or stiff knees if we say more than hello in passing to a senior citizen. We want to live longer, a respectable goal, but we don't want to LOOK as if we've lived longer. There's nothing wrong with trying to keep in shape for health reasons. Age doesn't frighten me...that strained mask of surgical intervention for "perpetual youth" does. Sorry, but I don't want anything nipped, tucked, lifted or shifted. It's my same policy with you look means you're still alive and kicking. And occasionally kicking back.

My most "mature" senior came in today, a wonderful widower named Herbie who's 97. He bowls with us every week and goes dancing twice a week...where he dances with ALL the ladies, as he feels letting one be a wallflower is a shame. And Herbie knows about flowers. This morning he brought in a huge bouquet of camellias. It's winter. It's suppose to be cold and yet yesterday we hit 81 degrees and set a new record. The flowers wanted to open up and drink in the sun. It will get cold again in a day or so and their pretty heads will droop. Herbie wanted to share before that happened. He took great pride in showing me the four varieties, one of which resembled a rose. I promised to put them in a big bowl so the others could enjoy them. And I admitted a couple would land on my desk to make me smile.

Those flowers warmed my heart twice. Besides the kindness of sharing with the group, how many men do you know who grin with pride as they recount a long deceased wife planting those very bushes 30 years ago? The fact he thought enough of us to make a special trip to share them is priceless. A lot of people complain about Wednesday being "Hump Day", cresting the hill of a long week. Well not today. Every woman who came in today saw the flowers and sighed. When I shared how they got here, they sighed again. Older women appreciate the simple, heartfelt gestures of life.

Wouldn't it be nice if that were contagious?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Universal Language

Yesterday as I was changing channels, the face of yet another starlet appeared with the all-too-familiar tag line of “In Rehab”. I shook my head. Why would someone so beautiful, if semi-talented, set a stumbling block in her own path? How do you take a possibly golden opportunity [if you don’t count paparazzi] and let a vice weasle in to take control of you? Is the seduction of drugs or alcohol so strong that “Just Say No” doesn’t even compute? Is it a matter of choosing friends badly…or perhaps friends with the same habit? How sad that there was no one in her life to stand up and yell, ”Have you lost your happy mind? This can kill you.”

There are lots of people in the world, [single mothers come to mind] who work hard at something other than make believe and do fine. Even with more month than paycheck. And they raise children who are well educated, both intellectually and in street smarts. For a moment I wondered if reaching fame and fortune too fast makes people stupid.

This morning I was made quite aware that there’s no caste system for stupid. It is not the property of the rich. It’s universal.

At first I viewed the pickup truck in front of me, driven by an older gentleman, with concern. No. That’s not true. My first reaction was, “Didn’t the idiot see me before he pulled out in front of me?“ Obviously not. My concern was in that he was doing 15 miles under the speed limit. And he kept drifting back and forth, from side to side. And yes, I did grit my teeth and want to pass him until concern kicked in. His movement wasn’t like the intoxicated driver who will slowly slide to the edge of the road before realizing it goes the opposite way. No, he was all over the place with no pattern.

So I strained to see if he was in the throes of some medical problem. He didn’t seem to be slumped over the steering wheel. He wasn’t clutching at his chest or looking around in confusion. I looked harder, trying to find some clue to why this man was all over the road…slowing down, speeding up for a moment, then slowing down again. And then I figured it out as he turned to Page 2 of his newspaper.

I kid you not. He was reading the paper as he drove.

He finally sped up when he finished. Then he began throwing trash out of his window, little by little. All I could think was ,”There is a cop in your future. I hope you meet him soon.”

Comedian Bill Engval does a great bit about the stupid things people do. He insists we should be able to give them a sign saying “STUPID“ as a warning to the rest of us. His punch line for each of those jokes is, ”Here’s your sign.”

If I come into contact with that truck again, I’ll have his sign ready.