Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Listen to All That Quietness

I don't think my father ever realized that he was a wordsmith of sorts. I've mentioned before on this blog how he liked to subvert normal usage and pronunciation of common words, and I'm sure it was all in good fun, but he really did seem to enjoy uttering profound, folksy statements at just the right time. One day, while vacationing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we turned off the Chevy and stepped out at a scenic overlook in the Ouachita National Forest. It was absolutely still, and as my dad took in the glorious view, he said simply, "Listen to all that quietness." I'm not sure at that time that I had ever heard the word "quietness" used in a proper sentence, but my dad really hit it on the head with that one. There was not a sound to be heard anywhere. We stood there for a few minutes looking out over the verdant scene in front of us and then got back into the car and returned to Hot Springs for some "diamond" shopping. (Hot Springs mines its own diamonds, which are actually faceted rock crystal, but they look splendid to the naked eye.) I remembered that "quietness" thing.

It may come as a surprise to many of you who know me, and particularly to those of you who have worked with me, but at my core, I'm really all about quietness. Sure, I'm as ready as anyone to engage in some serious (or sometimes, not so serious) storytelling, but I absolutely relish solitude. This is probably one of the reasons that walking is one of my favorite hobbies. It's for the most part solitary, and even when I'm plugged into 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, or some other favorite podcast, I can always remove the headphones and snap right back to peace.

When I'm engaged socially, I'm totally there. I grew up as a rather shy child, and with the exception of a few close friends, I didn't really reach out to people much until I was in fifth grade, at which point I decided I wanted to become a secret agent and would do anything in my power to get there. I guess the fact that I didn't (and still don't) have a penchant for guns and violence probably kept me from pursuing that as a career. But playing secret agent got me involved talking to other kids in my class, and it went on from there. I experienced the awkward years around seventh and eighth grade and clammed up a little then, but by tenth grade, having found a group of seniors who accepted me as one of the cool kids (from a student government and political interest perspective, that is), I was going full throttle. Strangely enough, in college, I tended to be rather quiet except around my closest friends in the dorm and elsewhere. I didn't have the "rah-rah" experience at college, because a) Northwestern never won football games, and b) I was too busy studying neurons. When I entered the working world, however, I got my social skills back and have since, for the most part, enjoyed being in that space (as they say in the business world).

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While walking this morning, I was listening to a Super Soul Conversations podcast (surprise!) hosted by Oprah Winfrey in which she was discussing with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle the concept of living in the moment. This is a popular topic these days, given our constant bombardment with information in all sorts of formats and our incessant need to keep ourselves busy. You can't go fifty feet without hearing someone say that we all need to be more mindful, and I totally agree with this idea. The question is, how do we get there? One of Tolle's basic tenets is that stillness is a very necessary part of our existence. He believes that we derive strength from being restored in peaceful moments. And yet, we often bypass opportunities to take a quiet, reflective moment to ourselves, either out of necessity, as in work situations, or because we just don't think to do it. I suspect it's often more of the latter.

In the last couple of years, I've had a lot of time to reflect on this kind of thing. I've spent days and weeks in compromised physical situations where there was sometimes no other choice than to relax and reflect, and although I wasn't particularly fond of the way this all happened, it has had a very positive effect on me. I have always been guilty of sweating small stuff, but after a weird bout of pneumonia and, only one year later, a series of eye surgeries, almost everything tends to look like small stuff, and for the most part, I've adapted. I don't sweat nearly as much now, unless it's 95 degrees and I've underestimated the duration of my walk.

Don't get me wrong: there is nothing I enjoy more than getting together with family and friends. To me, it is the very essence of life. When I am with other people, tipping a glass or having a wonderful dinner, time seems to stand still. Jimmy Buffett has a song called "I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever," and I can totally relate to that. And yet, when I'm out walking with just a well-applied layer of sunscreen, my headphones, and sunglasses that I've yet to break, time stands still in its own way. And after that time of (relative) peace and quiet, it always looks like a whole new world. It's been this way ever since I started serious walking back in 2005, and I have no reason to believe it will ever change.

Listen to all that quietness.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Doing Shots with Mickey Mouse

For some unknown reason, I can remember events that happened many years ago with remarkable clarity. I cannot recall exactly what it is that I need to pick up this afternoon at the grocery store, but I can remember exactly where I was, and what toy I was playing with, when I heard that John F. Kennedy had won the 1960 Presidential election. It makes no sense, but it comes in handy sometimes.

Back in 1959, when I was one month shy of my fourth birthday, my parents and paternal grandparents decided to take a car trip from Tennessee to California to see my uncle, aunt, and cousins. My mom and dad had lived in California when I was born but had moved back East several years later, so in addition to visiting my dad's brother and his family, they also wanted to get back out West to see some of their favorite places. My dad had recently purchased a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air, shiny yellow with lots of chrome and a big old V8 under the hood. It was a powerful, yet comfortable car, but it was also produced during a time when air conditioning was a relatively new thing, and our car didn't have it.

And so it was, on a sunny morning in April, 1959, we headed west from our home in Dyersburg, Tennessee, with my dad driving, my mom in the front passenger seat, and yours truly in the back, sandwiched between my grandmother and grandfather, who by the way, were always impeccably dressed. We crossed the Mississippi and headed into the wilds of Arkansas.

My parents were savvy about car travel, having crossed the country many times on their own, so before we left, they purchased a couple of toys for me to play with on the trip. One, designated as the westbound toy, was a doctor's kit, and the other, which I was supposed to keep wrapped until the return trip east, was a plastic toaster that could be disassembled and reassembled. Once we had gotten some miles behind us, I pulled out the doctor's kit and got to work.

It's worth noting here that in those days, just about every other child born in the United States had some type of allergy or respiratory issue, and I was no exception. I was constantly being taken to the doctor, a wizened older fellow in downtown Dyersburg who would give me a shot in my buttocks (as Forrest Gump would say), then "allow" me to go home until the next poke session. The shots never seemed to do much, but I started to take them for granted as part of life.

Since our California trip would clock in at nearly 1,900 miles each way, and given the fact that I had no siblings, I brought along the only friend that would fit in the car with me and everyone else, a little squeezable plastic Mickey Mouse. He wore his trademark red pants but had long since lost his shirt, which was a good thing, since a) the car had no air conditioning and b) we would be driving through the desert. Almost immediately upon opening the doctor's kit, I started giving Mickey shots. I was concerned for his health, and it kept my little brain occupied knowing that I had to care for him on a regular schedule. In effect, it made the miles tick away. Mickey got a shot about every hour or so, and this amused my parents and grandparents alike.

We had many adventures on that trip. Mickey and I saw Hoover Dam, a vestigial version of Las Vegas (I still remember the old Sands and Golden Nugget signs), and the Grand Canyon. We even survived a flat tire in Needles, California, which is notable for often being the hottest place in the United States. Finally, after several days of driving, we made it all the way to Los Angeles and marveled at how anyone could grow a palm tree right in their front yard. We watched TV the night that my mom and dad went to see Lawrence Welk, and we saw, right there with our own eyes, my mom dancing with Mr. Welk. Mickey seemed to be doing well in California, so I pulled back on the shots schedule to give him a little room to enjoy himself.

After a couple of glorious weeks, it was time to head back East, so we said our goodbyes, and I resumed Mickey's shots, just to be on the safe side. I also opened the plastic toaster and began disassembling and reassembling it between administering shots. I was one busy guy, just let me say.

Everything was motoring along well until we got to Needles, where once again, upon entering the city, we had a flat tire. We got that fixed and left town, then headed east. It must have been about 30 or 40 miles before I realized that Mickey was missing, so my dad (and I will never forget this) turned the Bel Air around on an Arizona highway and headed all the way back to our motel in Needles, where I found Mickey safely nestled in the bed sheets. We got back out of town with no further tire damage.

I don't remember much about the trip back home, other than the fact that my grandmother put sheets of comics from the newspaper up on the windows to shield us from the desert sun. My grandfather, never a stitch out of place and almost always in a good mood, would make sly observations from time to time that would keep the rest of us reasonably happy, given the close proximity of our seating arrangements. My mom and dad seemed to have gotten their fix of California, at least enough to sustain them until their next trip out, which, as it happened, wouldn't be for another ten years.

I guess we often take family time for granted when we're younger. But I still remember so much of that trip, the joy on my parents' and grandparents' faces when we got out of the car in Los Angeles and saw our family. The moments we shared were all ours, and even Mickey was a part, thanks to some good proactive health care on the part of his owner. The trip was so worth it.

If you're headed out of town this summer, be safe, and I hope that you experience, to borrow an old Esso phrase, "Happy Motoring." I also hope that you can make some memories of your own, so that one day, you'll have some stories to tell, regardless of whether regularly scheduled preventive healthcare and appliance maintenance are involved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mrs. Keltner and the Lightning

Of all the awe-inspiring forces of nature, lightning is my least favorite. I am genuinely terrified of its potential for sudden destruction, and I will do almost anything to avoid going outside when it appears. But it wasn’t this way before 1963, the year I started third grade.

Mrs. Keltner was our third grade teacher, and if memory serves me correctly, she was a fairly nice lady. She reminded many of us of our grandmothers, in that she seemed to watch over us like a flock, doling out practical advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the things about which Mrs. Keltner was most concerned was our exposure to lightning.

Before I was in Mrs. Keltner’s class, I have to admit that I hadn’t given lightning much thought, but only a few weeks into the school year, she got into high gear with lightning warnings. She told us that during a thunderstorm, we should not ever go outside, stand close to a window, or even bathe or take showers. I translated this last admonition into not going anywhere near the bathroom or running water in general. In short, I truly internalized Mrs. Keltner‘s advice, to the point where I became deathly afraid of lightning, even after I’d finished third grade and headed on to fourth. And fifth. And sixth, and so on. But one memory stands out above all others in this regard.

The summer after I’d finished third grade, our family took a vacation to the Ozark Mountains. The trip was going fairly well until late one afternoon, when my parents decided to go to an outdoor play called “The Shepherd of the Hills,” which was held on the outskirts of as-then-undiscovered Branson, Missouri. We drove down a gravel road to a field that was set up for parking, and just as we were about to leave the car, I saw on the horizon one of the meanest looking storms I had ever seen. To this day, I have seen nothing that compares to its sheer ugliness. The sky had turned a deep, dark green above a narrow ribbon of sunshine. It looked unbelievably disturbing, and I was terrified. I began crying hysterically, fearful that my parents would insist that we leave the car to watch what by now I am sure I had dubbed “this stupid play.” Of course, my parents would never have done such a thing, but still, I was beyond help and was having a total meltdown.

"The Shepherd of the Hills" in progress
As with many summer storms, the green cloud turned gray, the rain poured in sheets, and then the whole thing was over. It was then safe to leave the car, but there was still the play to endure.

When you are nine years old, even an hour seems like an eternity, but seriously, "The Shepherd of the Hills" had to have lasted almost three hours. For all that time, we were perched on hand-hewn, uncomfortable, wet wooden benches. The play seemed to go on forever, and although it was billed as family entertainment, I couldn’t really follow the plot, but at least there was no lightning, so that was good. When it was over, I told my parents how sorry I was that I had acted so dramatically, but they seemed to understand, and by the end of the evening, the vacation was back on track.

In the many years since, I’ve seen my share of inclement weather, having lived through Memphis tornadoes, Chicago blizzards, and some wicked Southern heat, but still, nothing rattles me like lightning. If I am parked only twenty feet from the entrance to a store or restaurant during a storm, I will generally run like hell to the door, effectively folding time and space to get inside. I know Mrs. Keltner would be proud that I have heeded her warnings. Every time I see broadcasts from the “Severe Weather Center," which in Atlanta generally runs up the flag when we are having no more than an eighth of an inch of rain, I think of her and how she cared for her flock.

Bless you, dear Mrs. Keltner, for your lightning obsession. I’d rather be safe than sorry. And by the way, I just looked up “The Shepherd of the Hills” on Wikipedia, and you know, the plot doesn’t really look too awful. Maybe I’ll give it another try, but this time, I’ll wait until the sun is shining.