Friday, January 30, 2009

Hopefully it Bears Repeating

When life gets tough [yes, I did have another staff meeting today, thanks], I tend to turn to my "Writing World" for comic relief. I was cleaning up some files when I came across an old story. I think I shared it on my first blog, which has long since evaporated. So I'm taking a chance and sharing it again.

Weirdly enough, the whole thing still makes me laugh.

I remember like it happened yesterday. Probably because he won’t let me forget.

I was 17 and my boyfriend of six months was a rugged, outdoorsy guy who hunted and fished. A lot. I’d wondered if that love of the outdoors had anything to do with 3 sisters and an Air Force pilot Dad often TDY. The woods probably looked good to a guy surrounded by that many X chromosomes. I grew up in a family which believed guns were something other people had and we were never to touch…even if we all knew where Dad kept the small pistol he’d inherited. My family did, however, fish. It wasn’t my fondest hobby, nor was an outdoor adventure my first choice for a date. But you know how it is when a girl idolizes her boyfriend.

One day boyfriend Scott decided we'd take his Dad's jon boat for a ride on the Wateree River. Putting in under one of the bridges off a highway, we peacefully drifted downstream, away from the cacophony of traffic. As birds sang cheerfully, Scott began rattling off a list of instructions which wasn’t the norm for our dates. But hey, we were going into territory unfamiliar to me and he was the expert. I was just grateful I wasn’t expected to bait any hooks.

First he asked if I could swim. Sure. Okay, so I held back the part where drowning was easier given my less than Olympic caliber technique. He reminded me how swift the current was, something easily confirmed as a tree shot past the boat at full tilt. Scott advised should I fall overboard to just go with the flow until he caught up.


Undeterred by my lack of enthusiasm, Scott continued. The river was full of submerged trees which tended to bob up and down. Visible… invisible….uh-oh, boat overturned. I had to be prepared, at a moment's notice, to either hold on for dear life or bail. I also needed to keep my eyes open if we floated along the river's edge while avoiding peek-a-boo trees. For branches? Oh no. Evidently swamp dwelling snakes enjoy free falling and boat rides. If that happened, I was to remain still until he handled the situation. I figured paralyzed with fear would dramatically slow my movements.

Scott commented that when we stopped onshore for our picnic [who had an appetite now?] I should remember the wild boars. Anti-social piggies, they might find our picnicking an invasion, at which point they'd chase us into the river. Yeah, and probably eat our lunch. Scott inquired if he’d mentioned the chance of encountering gators, which I could neither out sprint nor out swim. My best bet appeared to be either running along the shoreline, as gators aren’t good at cross country, or letting them and the pigs divvy me up for lunch. He added that gators in the river also looked like submerged logs, so any temptation to grab for driftwood should be avoided.

As if this wasn't enough, my final instruction was to comply on command. NO QUESTIONS ASKED! My Dad would’ve declared that the oldest guy trick in the book. I, on the other hand, floating down a hazard filled waterway where I seemed to be fair game, agreed wholeheartedly.

Scott cranked up the motor, a sound best described as an F-16 jet engine mounted on a tin can. At 6 ft. tall he was built like a grizzly, while my 5’1” frame weighed 100 lbs. soaking wet. [Then, not now. Sigh.] Off we went, him steering in back, me sightseeing up front. Literally. Between me being a lightweight and the inability to move fast, the boat wouldn’t plane out. So I sat, about a foot above the water, as he pointed out things of interest. Or so I thought. The noise was so loud, even looking at him, I couldn’t lip read for the vibrations. We settled on a system where he yelled my name, I‘d look back, then try to figure out what he was pointing at…and why.

After 30 minutes, I’d relaxed enough to loosen my white knuckle death grip on the boat‘s edge. That’s when Scott suddenly yelled, "DUCK!" With lightning fast reflexes, I assumed the duck and cover position taught to school children during tornado drills. Nose on knees, arms shielding my head, I was fairly proud of my quick response. I did wonder, however, why I was hiding. We were in the middle of the river, nowhere near jumping snakes. My eyes darted about for dancing logs, gators disguised as logs or hogs swimming for the boat. Nothing. And then I heard it.

Maniacal laughter.

Slowly, I pried one arm away from my head and snuck a covert look backwards. I found Scott laughing so hard tears streamed down his face. And he was pointing. As my eyes crept up his arm, there at the end of his finger a tiny speck grew until the world’s slowest duck flew past. As my arms, along with my ego, slid south, I merely nodded, as if Daffy was fascinating. Scott laughed all the way back to the landing. And a couple of times on the way home…for reasons I didn’t want to entertain.

And yet, I married him. And he's still here. But to this day, if someone suddenly says “duck” he looks at me and cracks up. He's told the story a zillion times over the years and I’ve learned two things. You can be the butt of a joke and survive. And men may forget where they leave their keys, but they never forget funny stories when the wife is the punch line.

But that's okay. It took a while, but I finally got a story to tell on him. Usually just after he finishes the duck story. Remind me and one day I’ll tell you about the Bear who roared….moo.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Word of Thanks... Susan and Darragh, who have introduced me to yet another way to find something to play with when I should be working. But that's okay. This turned out to be useful in an unexpected way.

I'd never heard of Wordle until they pointed it out. It's not just fun. No, my subconscious saw a truth there which it's been keeping hidden from logical me. Using the words from my story "Say a Prayer", where I'd asked for everyone's help in my career pondering, this is what my brain "read".

"Find Time. Good Today."
And on the very far left hand side, "Go hope."

Works for me. :)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Say There Watson

Sorry, with the dental woes I neglected to give the answer to Dr. Watson's puzzle in that Sherlock Holmes re-make that made me fall asleep.

The question posed by Dr. Watson was this,"What is the word which describes 'magnificent' and also 'power of attorney'?"

Cue drum roll. Or be prepared to roll your eyes. Just don't throw things at the messenger.

The word was SIGNIFICANT. Makes sense with the magnificent word, even if I find that a stretch. And the power of attorney angle? Ready with that drum?


I know. But what writer among you will find a way to use that in the future? :)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Little Green Men

Recently Ken Armstrong was discussing hypnosis and how at one point after being hypnotized, he was asked to catch a little green man, something like this...minus my four legged kid.

Well the truth be known, I HAVE a little green man in my possession. Have had him since I was a mere child. And no, he's neither Irish nor a Leprechaun. But I considered him to bring me good luck...or at least gave me something to hold onto when times got bad.

I'm not sure exactly how old I was when the little green man fell out of the bubblegum machine into my hand but I'm guessing seven or eight. He was quite a fashionable trinket at the time...a bald headed little troll doll. I found his little green self somehow comforting, which I guess probably resulted in the fact I NEVER won a toy out of that bubblegum machine, only gum. He became my personal good luck charm.

I don't know when Mom suggested I carry him to the dentist with me, but at some point in childhood he became my right hand man. Literally. That's where I kept him when I went to the dentist...clutched in my right hand. I was convinced that if I'd just give him a squeeze when I got nervous, everything would be fine....or at least over in a few minutes. As much as I feared the dentist, it's a wonder I don't have a permanent impression of the little guy in my right palm. I got away with this for years, until the Dentist heard the receptionist talking to my Mom. He finished up with me one day, then said with a smile, "So do I get to meet this fella you keep bringing along?"

Feeling somewhere between foolish and angry to have been caught, I slowly opened my hand to show my friend. The dentist nodded sagely, as if all his patients brought in bald, green plastic men as part of their dental health plan. After a while, I put the green man away in my jewelry box even though my family teased that whenever I felt nervous about something, they still believed I took the little guy along in a pocket for a morale boost. He was the only toy I ever owned that I refused to share. Hey, he was tiny. Less than an inch high. Could I afford to share any of his luck with a sibling?

The last time I used the Little Green Man, as he was known in our household, I shared him with the man who'd probably lent me the money to go into that bubble gum machine. Dad had been diagnosed with cancer and we'd been to several different offices for a variety of tests. Dad had remained fairly calm until we faced the one test which would tell how far the cancer had spread. As he tried to remain calm and parental on the ride down in the elevator, I said very quietly, "I thought you might want to borrow this." As he looked at me, I opened my palm to reveal the Little Green Man. Dad laughed, a hearty, cheerful laugh I hadn't heard in a long time. He took the little guy, placed him in his pocket and gave me a hug. After the test Dad returned him without a word, just a smile. I think the little guy went with him two more times before he joked that he might be using all the luck up. So I bought him his own little troll doll, somewhat bigger but with the same silly grin. I think Dad got a bigger kick out of that than any of the real gifts I bought him on the various gift giving occasions. When he died five years later, the troll reverted back to me. He lives upstairs, in a drawer somewhere.

I went to the dentist yesterday to pick up my crown. You know, the one on the tooth that had the month long root canal history? The one I battled through infections and long sittings to get right. It was beautiful and it fit like a glove. The x-ray which we took prior to cementing it in place attested to the fact. It also found a cavity I had no clue about. I felt my heart sink. Doc offered to fill it or have me return. I voted on filling it so I wouldn't have to come back. Unfortunately, it was above the crown, meaning another shot of Novocaine. That part of the mouth really hurts. When he was done, he asked for another x-ray, sighed and informed me the tooth next to it had a small cavity as well.

I tried not to burst into tears. Instead I swore that I was going to give up eating. He began to sing, "Doom, despair and agony on me." His assistant immediately ordered duct tape, saying I was suffering enough without his entertainment.

So I left yesterday with one crown, two fillings and three shots of Novocaine. And I discovered I'd only paid a portion of the crown, so they got an extra $525 for that. Sigh.
Dude, I sure could've used you yesterday. You were always there for me. And you didn't sing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Change arrived...sorta

Okay the "snow" which fell might not even qualify as a "dusting". It was fun, however, to see our youngest dog Bou standing on the porch, alternating between looking at the sky and looking at us. Puzzled describes his expression as he's never seen snow. When hubby pointed at it, Bou backed up and wanted into the house, as if he wasn't about to be blamed for whatever that white stuff was falling on the ground. No, he gets in enough trouble for tracking in mud.

I canceled lunch, therefore no Business Meeting or accompanying drama. For the uninitiated, southerners from around my parts aren't real good at driving in snow. Doesn't matter if it's only a flake or two. Add the extremely cold weather and the Inauguration and they're all better off staying home. Most of them thanked me when I called to cancel. Sure, it'll be rescheduled for next week but by then, maybe some of the steam under my collar will find a better place to lodge. Note to self, no more posts containing the words "boss" or "supervisor". Not worth the space it takes up, not fair to the readers either.

The President thing will be a done deal in about an hour. I hope and pray all goes well, with hope winning out over hate. Sadly, there are people who think we're swearing in the Anti-Christ today. Although according to what I heard in a beauty shop this summer, Obama isn't the Anti-Christ..his wife is. :)

As for the Sherlock Holmes wordplay, I'll wait until this evening [or in the morning if need be] to give you the answer.

Have a wonderful day...I'm going to go warm up!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Change Is A Coming

Today I played with one of the gifts hubby got me for my birthday: a Kodak photo printer, which is also a scanner and copier. My other printer felt snubbed until I pointed out that it has Fax capabilities and the new kid on the corner table does not. All is well in computer far. I look forward to printing pictures which won't use up all my ink in less than a dozen photos.

Tonight is supposedly bringing us a touch of snow, something I haven't seen here in about 10 years. I'll let you know if it was enough to make us show up later than normal for work.

Tomorrow brings a new U.S. President, which has to be a step in the right direction considering what we've been through to date. It also brings the senior citizens' annual Business Meeting, which will be just short of a circus this year. Their little club has a new Chairman who is intent on re-inventing the wheel. [Hey, I've only been in charge for 15 years, what do I know about my job?] He's sent me a dozen e-mails over the past few days, leading me to breathe deeply before replying. Oh, he means well, but he also believes men know more than women. Yeah. Seriously. Ask his wife. They use to call that being a chauvinist pig. In his case, it's merely the sign of a retired civil service worker too use to having his own way and a staff to boss around. :)

Said Chairman invited my Supervisor to lunch and the meeting. I was intelligent enough to place her at the beginning of our agenda. She will speak, I will call for a Q&A session, they will grill her unmercifully as I sit in silence, then she will flee. Afterwards, we'll finish the meeting. And yes, I'm still looking for employment elsewhere. I can't see how tomorrow is going to help the cause but hey, they're grown ups and pay taxes. If I was them, I'd be angry with how the upper echelon views them....a necessary evil. Yeah, but they vote. :)

Now my word play people, this was just in a Sherlock Holmes movie I watched...well, mostly watched. It was a remake, it was slow and well.....I took a nap. I didn't see who-dunnit. Hubby woke up just long enough to find out.

The question posed by Dr. Watson was this,"What is the word which describes 'magnificent' and also 'power of attorney'?"

Tell ya later. ;)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Simple Pleasures

Today's my birthday. I still wonder if it's necessary to post my age here. I discovered a long time ago that people tend to pre-judge others merely upon seeing that number. I bet some even decide, based on that age, they're not interested in even reading further to see who you are. Oh well. Their loss. Perhaps I'll do a poll on it one day.

I digress. Alas, that has nothing to do with the aging process. :)


... I didn't have to go to work. Employees are allowed to have their birthday off. Employees are allowed to take off Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King and I were born on the same day, even if the government moved "his" to Monday. Therefore, I usually turn this into the world's nicest long weekend. And I would've pulled that off it we didn't have a mandatory meeting tomorrow. So I work, then have 3 days off.

...I took my sister's advice. She will now pass out upon reading this declaration, then print out a copy to use as future blackmail material. Her advice was to do as I pleased and forget the rest of those who are always in need of my assistance.

...Okay, so I mostly took her advice. I did what I wanted with the exception of two loads of laundry. But hey, some of us in this household prefer having towels and clean underwear available.

...I pushed all negative thoughts about work aside. That can be tackled during the hours mandated that the employer gets to mess with my brain cells.

...I found gifts in unexpected places. In Susan's tale of her mother's wish. In Matt's kindness urging me to "hold on". They were both fine examples of how good good rises to the top and the unimportant falls away. And I will take the tongue-in-cheek pat on the head from McDanger for pointing out his brilliant turn of phrase while discussing bogs and turf.

...One of my favorite things I found in my mailbox. I do try to further causes where I can, especially when they make me happy. Today the mailman brought my copy of Hugh's book "Postcards from the Hedge". It was like a two way gift: financial praise for him, brain food as recreation for me. I'm looking forward to hiding somewhere quiet so I can enjoy it. Perhaps I'll just pretend I'm sitting on the Isle of Skye as I peruse the map.

Excuse me now as I go in search of...chocolate cake.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


That's what life is all about, isn't it? Every day we make choices which effect our lives, as well as the people around us. My big choice at the moment is career wise. The scary part is the word "change". There's a little kid in me stomping her feet and screaming, "It's not fair!" The adult in me knows that life ISN'T

Hubby, of all people, understands how I feel. He too once had a job where the impossible was expected of him and yet when he managed to deliver, the bar was just raised higher. After ten years of that work environment, he called me at work one day and asked if I could add him to my health insurance. I checked, called him back and told him it was possible.

"Bring home the forms," he said, his voice bearing a trace of elation that I hadn't heard in months, "because I'm going to the corporate office to tell them I quit!"

I was proud of him. And scared shitless.

Suddenly I knew how the men of my Dad's generation had felt. Although Hubby had already lined up a place to go temporarily, I was now the "steady pay check". Like it or not, until the future sorted itself out, I couldn't get mad and join the "I quit!" bandwagon. I had to stay put to maintain our financial integrity, which isn't easy considering what my employer considers a salary. I was already restless after 6 years of handling elections, but I managed to transfer to where I find myself now, therefore losing nothing...benefits wise. Hubby's declaration of independence had sent my heart soaring one minute in hey-he's-free-and-we're-in-this-together mode yet a moment later, I realized my heart was beating awfully loud in my ears.

We made it work. Where many guys find it mandatory to be THE breadwinner, hubby didn't care. He'd proudly joked with customers that he liked being a "kept man". Yeah, right. He still mows the lawn. And at this point in time, he is self employed with an ever growing archery business. Sure, I tease him that out of the phrase "Rich and Famous" he's only gotten the latter part. But he's happy.

Well, except for a few moments this weekend where I made him feel slightly miserable because we're not at a point in this sad economy where I can declare my independence. See "Life isn't Fair" rule. He held on, taking abuse for 10 years. I've been here 21...yeah, you can imagine.

So here I sit, surrounded by choices. Keep a job I'm growing to hate thanks in part to the sucky economy. Run for my life to something....anything, just to get away. I've contacted people I know who might know people. Their answers mean more choices. Submit an application for Activities Director at an assisted living facility, where someone has already put in a good word for me, with the knowledge that their expansion leading to the position has only gotten as far as clearing ground? Consider a newspaper reporter position that pays more, not knowing if I'd be asked to sell my soul [again] if I can't get them to just accept me as a Features Writer? Stay where I am, slightly miserable but financially secure...and insured. For now.


This being a grown up stuff is not panning out the way it was explained to me in childhood. Someone changed the rules and I didn't get a copy of the update.

In the middle of all this contemplation, I recalled a conversation I had with my father-in-law years ago. After 22 years as an Air Force Reconnaissance Jet pilot [meaning his plane shot photos, not ammunition], he'd retired a Lt. Colonel. We were talking about his tour in Vietnam, where the only weapon available to him was the pistol strapped to his ankle in case he had to eject. I remember asking him, "But weren't you afraid flying over enemy territory with people shooting at you when you couldn't shoot back?"

I'll never forget his answer.

He smiled at me the way parental figures do before replying, "The biggest choice you make every day is whether or not to get out of bed. Once you put your foot on the floor, you've chosen to live. Whatever's gonna happen, will happen."

That one conversation has often been the inspiration I needed to try something new. Or to get out of bed.

You see, my father-in-law was a very content man. A few days before his birthday he'd gotten out the projector to show slides of places they'd been stationed. And as usual, as soon as the lights were out, his own kids would slowly filter out of the room, one at a time. They'd seen this presentation a million times. But I'd been born and raised in the same small town several generations of my family had grown up in. His slides took me to places I'd never been, even more real due to the stories that came with them. So we both pretended not to see everyone leave us as he answered my seemingly endless questions. As we got the call to come eat, he looked at me with a smile and said, "You know, if I died tomorrow, I'd be content. I've had a wonderful life. I've been places some people only dream of. I still get to fly while I'm doing crop dusting. I have a wonderful family and they marry good people. [insert me grinning here]. I'm a happy man. Let's go eat!"

A month later, he died.

It was ironic and sad, unexpected and never explained. For fifteen years after retiring he flew crop dusters, first planes and finally helicopters. One of my proudest moments was when he took each of us up in the helicopter, one at a time. It was so small, envision two metal chairs sitting side by side under a dome. I remember he took the doors off...for fun. As the only non-military person in the family, they all thought I'd be the one who wanted to be grounded fastest. I lasted longest, a point of which my father-in-law was quite proud.

Several months later he ended his 15 year career on a Friday. He'd ordered a van so he and his wife could finally do the traveling TOGETHER they'd always dreamed of, instead of all that military regulated moving around. Over the weekend he got a call. The farmers who he'd been flying for were a couple of states away, in Georgia. They wanted to know if he'd come back, just once more, to finish another field that they didn't trust his boss to handle. Jovial easy going guy that he was, he agreed. Half a mile from setting down the helicopter for the final time to enjoy a well earned retirement, it plummeted to earth. No reason was ever found for the helicopter's malfunction. When they found the wreck, the helicopter had been crushed to a little over three feet in height. It was a closed casket service, which made saying goodbye harder. And yet there was that small sense of peace in knowing at least at the end, he was doing what he loved. Flying.

So as I face the choice in front of me concerning my career, I see my father-in-law's smiling face. Hubby has that same grin. I guess the bottom line should be simple; Die happy. Or just curl up and die.

Martin Luther King and I were born on the same day. [So what if the U.S. government likes to move it to the first Monday following the 15th]. Like Dr. King, I too have a dream and equality is a big part of it. So my choice for tomorrow is simple...I will give my brain the day off from endless pondering and just eat cake. Yes, chocolate cake. :)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sharing a Laugh

Enough gloom and doom for this weekend. Here's something hysterical that my Mom forwarded to me. Yeah, I've had days where I think the computer and I are fighting. This may prove it.

Just click PLAY and move your mouse out of the way. Apologizing to Susan in advance...don't know if this will work for you or not.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Say A Prayer...

...or wish on a star. Find a moment of zen and meditate. Point out how to stay on the higher road or show me a rainbow. Anything short of voodoo dolls...they creep me out. Whatever it is you do when someone needs advice on finding the light at the end of the tunnel [no, not THAT tunnel] would be greatly appreciated.

Because here I stand. In the tunnel. Lights out. Not hopeless. But...deflated.

Radge, I'm about to break that rule we talked about. The one about not discussing situations at work. Since I'm not naming names, I won't have any regrets.

I arrived at the crossroads today because I was pushed into it. I hate being pushed.

I was blindsided, actually. Fortunately the semi-truck hasn't come along [yet] to completely flatten what's left of my ego. Oh I'm still employed. So far. Working for the government we're constantly hearing about budget cuts and other ways for us to work more...for less. But today I finally realized that it's time to quit saying, "Maybe I should do something else". Today I need to find my backbone and realize I have a lot to offer, no matter what those above of me believe.

The problem, you see, is I have a brain. And I'm not afraid to use it.

Ironically, I didn't do anything wrong. My senior citizens did. In short, they've been accused of being snobs who won't play nice with others. Which isn't true. They're a very down to earth group. The problem is, they too possess brains and like to choose what they attend or how they care to participate. So I am a very bad employee because I can't make a group of folks old enough to be my grandparents go do events they don't like. The bottom line is it doesn't matter what a good job I've done for 21 years...or how much I go above and beyond to do it. No, I was advised that my superiors cannot, in good conscience, be supportive of my center or back me up because my seniors don't support the correct events.


Yeah. That's how I felt.

For a couple of years now I've been restless when it comes to work. Not miserable, not bored, just knowing I can accomplish more than I am allowed. I've become numb to the fact my work is claimed by others and console myself by muttering, "What goes around, comes around." When it becomes overwhelming, I usually have a good cry, then suck it up and go on "for the sake of the group". That routine has gotten old. As has the offhand remark today of, "We're trying to keep cost cutting to a minimum and not lose jobs. Yet."

Ah yes, the veiled threat as inspiration.

What sounds so painfully obvious is something I've avoided for a long time. For every legitimate reason I conjure up for leaving, I allow my conscious to overrule. Who would actually care about the seniors as much as I do? After all, they treat me like family. I've always been pretty sure that if I was to leave, the higher ups would use it as an excuse to close a Center they've attempted to close in the past just for monetary reasons. Was I merely allowing the stress of a sucky economy to blow things out of proportion? Cool off and the world will come back to center. After all, the annoying people in the world eventually find the door and exit. Nothing lasts forever.

Cue light bulb.

I've already had a good cry, via telephone. A least hubby's shoulder stayed dry this time. Hey, I try to be considerate. He always knows what to say. After agreeing that I'd stayed long past the time normal folks would've walked out, he told me to start looking for that way out. Without looking back.

"The time has come," my brain echoed silently. "LEAVE. Get out while you still have a soul and give a damn about people."

And that is where I need the power of YOU, dear readers. The reality is I can't just walk out the door. I have to find something to go to, rather than run away from. So if you pray, wish on stars or just think positive, I'd appreciate it if you'd reach out into the cosmos and make a simple request.... her find what she was born to do. And kindly allow her to keep her hope.

Here's thanking you in advance. Why? Because I have just enough hope left to know good people when I read them. ;)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Yes, I Did Wonder Why

Every now and then life throws you one of those "What the...?!" moments when you least expect it. For better or worse, the majority of those tend to tickle my funny bone. I've discovered if you aren't rich or famous, possessing a sense of humor will get you through a lot in life.

Last evening I was driving home from work later than normal. I'd stopped to get some cold medicine for hubby, who is having his "once every 5 years" head cold from hell. It was dark as I went slipping through the countryside on my way home. Rural living means I pass at least four tiny country churches on my commute. One church has always made me more curious than the rest. Located in a deep curve, it's an AME church [if you're not from around here, that means the congregation is black]. The first time I noticed the church someone had erected a very large angel, probably four feet tall, which stood looking down over a grave. The angel stood out not just because of it's size amongst the small gray stones, but because it was black.

Oddly enough, two weeks later, that very same angel was white, to the point of shining. No, I don't have a clue as to what happened.

Due to the location of the church, I tend to be careful coming around that corner. If they're having a funeral, the road is lined with cars, with barely one lane to drive through. You have to possess good reflexes and the ability to let opposing traffic go first if they beat you to the curve. The added fun is that deer love to cross into the field across from the church, adding an extra element of excitement.

I slowed down, anticipating deer in the early evening. Instead four small, soft glowing balls of light caught my attention. Glancing to my left, I saw that four of the graves were sporting those small, solar lights that people tend to mark their home walkways. I looked again, just to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

It made me wonder. Are ghosts afraid of the dark? Or is it just a nightlight so they can find their way back again should they go for a midnight stroll?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Anyone Seen Mr. Elam?

I've probably related this story in the past, in a different connotation, but today it struck me as funny. Again.

As a kid I was always 12 going on 35. Small, shy and easily lost in a crowd, I knew that "standing out" would never be my forte. But with words I found a world I liked. Enjoyed. A place where I could be ruler for a day. The land of "No harm, no foul". Yes, this is probably how writers get typecast as having a "God" complex because we not only create a world of our choosing, we get to smite anyone who gets in the way. However we choose. And it's legal.

My Dad lovingly referred to me as his "mathematical idiot", as my brain absolutely froze when anyone added "X" and "Y" to all those numbers. Dad determined I'd survive because I had a good concept of money... meaning I spent mine and did not spend my time trying to get his. So it's not hard to see that English is where I excelled. The fact I had wonderful English teachers during my most important time of learning, ages 12-18, didn't hurt. No, I wasn't enthralled with the grammatical rules governing semi colons and homonyms. I wasn't thrilled by identifying metaphors or similes, although I did like like the sound of onomatopoeia. I can safely say I have NEVER felt the need to diagram a sentence after learning how that worked. I did, however, love weaving words into stories.

I truly admired my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Kitchen. She looked like a picture book Grandma. White hair swept back in a simple bun, a round, pleasant face with rosy cheeks and a perpetual long as we were listening. I sort of pictured her as an escaped Mrs. Claus, bent on teaching all the good little boys and girls how to speak and write properly. Ironically the only "coal" she handed out was to children who chewed gum in class. The punishment was to memorize a poem, then recite it in front of the entire class. I'm not sure if it was just the "good kid" in me that made me able to dislike gum during time with her or the horror of turning the words I loved into possible public humiliation. Reciting in disgrace seemed awful.

One day, Mrs. Kitchen asked us to write a simple poem. For the first time in my life, the first line sprang into my head out of nowhere, to be followed by three more. There it was! Complete, like magic. I double checked the spelling, found everything done properly and then sat back in horror. What in heaven's name had possessed me to write such a thing?

One day I found the world quite dead.
So I began one in my head.
And there was something I did find.
I'd rather live within my mind.

Dear Lord! I remember thinking. Have I lost my mind? Already? I'm too young to be a hermit.

Time was up and there was nothing I could do but pass my paper forward as Mrs. Kitchen stood at the front of the room, fingers moving like a magician's, motioning a wave of paper into her grasp. She placed the pile on her desk, then proceeded with whatever piece of literature we were studying at the time.

That night I went home, worried. In bed, I tossed and turned. Live in my own mind? I questioned myself in horror. You have friends. Family. Okay, so the little sister was a giant nuisance but she hadn't physically maimed me. Yet. Why would I want to push everyone away to create a world of my own?

Now that I'm older, the answer is easy. Because I could.

It took a giant red "A+" at the top of that page and an enthusiastic scribble of "Excellent work!" to convince me that no one was coming with a butterfly net and a jacket with arms in the back to take me to a padded room. Mrs. Kitchen continued to gently push us through commas and apostrophes and yes, diagramming sentences. She encouraged me every step of the way, including the part where she practically cajoled me to offer the little disturbing poem to the school's literary magazine. When I saw it in print, I was sure she had pulled some strings if only to show off what her students were capable of doing. She swore that wasn't the case. And I believed her because "honor" was a big concept in her class.

You see, Mrs. Kitchen and the teacher who followed, Mrs. Teer, were a major influence on allowing me to be me...on paper. They knew when to encourage and how to gently point out the error of my ways without making me feel hopeless. Or foolish. They shared parts of themselves as people, which only fed my curiosity about discovering the "why" of how people are different.

There was poetry memorization and performance in Mrs. Teer's class as well, but not as punishment. My first performance was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain". Hard to forget a poem where the poor guy's first appearance is, "...oh the bleeding drops of red. Where on the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead." My most heartfelt recitation was Kipling's, "If". To this day if I get angry, a little voice in my head will whisper, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you." And yet for all the serious poems she taught, it was she who introduced me to Ogden Nash...the poet who made me giggle. On purpose.

What I remember most about tall, thin Mrs. Teer was that she painted pictures with words and personal stories. Which is how, this many years later, I can still remember her telling us about the first story SHE every wrote, "How the Robin Got His Red Breast". The answer: "he fell into some ketchup". Or how, being the tallest kid in her class, she quickly tired of hearing, "Hey, how's the weather up there?" One day, she confessed, she'd gotten angry and spit on top of a boy's head while answering, "It's raining!" Although she encouraged us to pursue whatever made us happier, thus more interested in learning, her stories made me want to tell other people's stories along with my own.

By the time I got to Mr. Elam my senior year of high school, I was confident. On paper. Mr. Elam, looking every inch like Ichabod Crane come to life, wasn't interested in pretending to be William Shakespeare, like his co-worker next door. Whereas that class spent an entire year worshiping at the alter of Shakespeare, discussing period costumes and building a model theater, Mr. Elam prepared us for life. He ensured that when I arrived at English 101 in college, I did not fall into the trap of the dreaded "comma splice". He challenged us to think BEFORE we wrote, which had nothing to do with research but in thinking things through. My favorite assignment was the time he asked us to write simple instructions for an every day item. I picked tying shoes. How hard could that be? He promptly told me the words "knot, tie and laces" were off limits. We learned, not by having him bleed all over our papers with a red pen, but by having him stand at the front of the room to perform whatever we were reading to him. When it was my turn, I began to wonder if he had a problem following instructions. I read it twice. He praised me for my ability to work around the forbidden words, but he couldn't make it work. He asked if reading my own instructions, I had been able to tie my shoes. I had. No problem. Some teachers would've said, "Well, you're wrong. Sit down." Not Mr. Elam. WE had a problem, therefore WE needed to work it out together. So he read and I tied my shoe. Easily. He made me do it again. I will never forget the smile of understanding on his face when he yelled, "A ha!", like a scientist during a eureka moment.

And he'd had one. Courtesy of me. Mr. Elam pointed out with a huge grin that right handed me was tying my shoes...left handed.

And so Mr. Elam deconstructed our work in a way which was helpful. We received two grades: the first for grammar and the second for originality. What I loved most about Mr. Elam was the fact he took the time to highlight the parts we got right. Enthusiastically. In Mr. Elam's eyes, the second grade was the most important. He believed anyone could learn the basics of English grammar. But something well written, he would say, is when the writer makes a point you don't forget. When I arrived in English 101, my first professor complimented my initial assignment by noting that I seemed well prepared for someone so young. Sure I secret weapon had been a guy who looked like Ichabod Crane, was more noble than William Shakespeare and had the same sense of humor as Odgen Nash.

When I was in my twenties and sold my first story to a newspaper, I sent a copy of it to Mrs. Kitchen and Mrs. Teer. I added a note thanking them for participating in my success. With them caring, instead of being present just to earn a paycheck, I had been able to keep enjoying my love of words instead of putting them aside with childhood toys. They were instrumental in nurturing my life long love affair with words and I needed for them to understand. Mrs. Kitchen passed away 6 months later. Before she did, I received a hand written note telling me that it was I who had given a gift to her...the knowledge that she had made a difference. I ran into Mrs. Teer a year later. She commented that teachers are human, wondering if they actually do make a difference, and thanked me for giving her a passing grade.

I still have a thank you note to write because I missed one. And I'm reminded of that every time I tie my shoes. Guess my next assignment will be, "In search of Mr. Elam".