Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Herbert's Habits

Every afternoon at precisely 6:00 PM, regardless of the weather or planetary alignment, Herbert Evans would stop whatever he was doing and observe Happy Hour on the front porch of his home high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Herbert lived at the highest point on Big Ridge Road, and from his front porch, you could gaze out over the crest of the mountains. The view was beyond gorgeous.
When we first traveled to Herbert's mountain home in 1988 with his niece, our friend Ginna, she warned us that Uncle Herbert had some strict habits, so I was immediately fascinated, being a strong creature of habit myself. I knew that he would be a kindred spirit, and indeed, he was. On that very first visit, Herbert came out to meet us and welcomed us graciously, as if we were family, as if he'd known us for years. All of us, including our daughter Sarah, who was only three at the time, immediately settled into his home and became a part of the family fabric.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Herbert had spent his childhood in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Townshend, Vermont, and throughout his life, he maintained an identity with each of the places he had lived. He would tell stories of riding his bike in Beaufort and then, in the next breath, recall the magnificent fall foliage of Vermont. You could tell that these two places had real significance to him and had helped to shape his early years. After living in New York City, and then serving in World War II, he and his brothers John and Tom decided to open a family restaurant. After considering several cities in the Southeast, they finally opened the first Evans Fine Foods in Atlanta in 1946. Herbert served as bookkeeper while his two brothers ran the day-to-day restaurant operations. Herbert and his brothers made a good living for themselves and their families, and in the 1960's, they purchased a piece of land atop a mountain on Big Ridge Road, close to Glenville, North Carolina, where they built a home in the 1970's. It was to this home that Herbert retired in the early 1980's.

By the time our family made its first trip to Big Ridge, Herbert had it down to a science, and the kitchen especially was a strictly defined workspace. Herbert owned a vintage Philco refrigerator that had a unique door which would open in either direction. For some reason, he preferred that it be opened on one side. He wouldn't say anything if you opened it on the other side, but somehow, if you did that, you just knew that you were going against the grain. Ice cubes had to be manually evacuated from their trays in the Philco and kept in individual resealable sandwich bags. The dishwasher door, even when the dishwasher was not running, had to be closed and locked. It was not enough for it simply to be closed. I didn't know the reason for this, other than that insects might enter the machine if the door was not tightly latched. (Not that such a thing ever happens here in the Southern United States.)

Every evening, at precisely 6:00, Herbert would announce that it was time for Happy Hour. He would poll the crowd for preferred libations, then pour out a little bowl of nuts and Chex Mix. He mixed good drinks, and sometimes, we had seconds, but always only the one bowl of snacks; otherwise, we might spoil our dinner.

Dinner at Herbert's, more specifically grilling out, was a unique experience that I enjoyed immensely. Charcoal on the little portable green grill had to be drenched with charcoal lighter fluid (ah, that smell) and an electric lighter had to be placed in a certain position within the briquettes so as to provide optimal lighting efficiency. The grill had to be placed a few feet from the back porch, where there was an outlet into which the lighter could be plugged. One evening, while we were grilling after Happy Hour, we got a little too close to the house, but the important thing was that nothing was permanently damaged.

Herbert was a wonderful host, and he delighted in taking us to visit at friends' houses in the area, some of which were quite interesting. One friend had an immense wood shop in his basement, and others maintained a sizable Christmas tree farm. An Atlanta attorney and his family recently had built a spacious mountain retreat filled with modern Mexican art, and every Labor Day, we would visit their home for a huge shish-kebab festival. We generally did the driving to the friends' houses, because Herbert had a heavy foot and was not afraid to use it on the winding mountain roads. Every time he fired up his vintage International Harvester Scout with no seat belts, we felt our hearts skip a beat. Once, while Herbert and I were out for a drive in my wife Karen's new Isuzu Trooper, he led me up a mountain road which terminated on a steep ledge. We got stuck, so Herbert got out and helped me maneuver in the opposite direction, until we finally arrived back at the house, where everything was going well until Karen noticed a faint smell of burning clutch. 

In his later years, Herbert had to move to assisted living in Atlanta, because the house and its huge yard were simply too much to maintain, but he continued to be actively engaged in family activities for his remaining years, and when he passed away in December, 2011, at the age of 93, he had lived a very full life indeed.

I think there's a reason we have habits. I think they help define who we are and how we relate to the world at large. They give us a sense of predictability, which often can be quite comforting. In Herbert's case, they made him a unique gentleman who gladly shared his home with others. I treasure those days and those memories. We miss you, Uncle Herbert, every day.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sears Had Everything

The "Walton" Craftman house plan
The first news item that I read last Monday morning was that Sears was filing for bankruptcy. The news is certainly not a surprise at this point, but still, I'm a Baby Boomer, and for generations before mine, and even the one following, Sears was an institution. A jingle years ago said, "Sears Has Everything!" Even though the company was sued over this claim some years later, the fact remains that at that time, it really did stock more items than just about any other American retailer. Some people refer to it as the original Amazon. Sears even sold house plans and kits. Today's popular Craftsman style house was actually an invention of Sears (there's a fascinating podcast about this at https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-house-that-came-in-the-mail/).

Richard Warren Sears
Sears, Roebuck & Company was founded by Richard Warren Sears (we share the same first and middle names, by the way) and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1892, and for years upon years, its catalog was a staple of American households in every nook and cranny of America. In it, you could find clothing, tools, musical instruments, and home goods. It was a great pastime, and actually somewhat educational, to just sit and browse the catalog, and it seemed like everyone was on the mailing list. The catalog was the ultimate wish book: there were things in there you didn't even know existed, but the pictures and descriptions effectively constituted a retail encyclopedia of the time. It's no exaggeration to say that Sears set the stage for online shopping.

Alvah Curtis Roebuck
Sears even had a sense of humor, although they probably didn't always realize it. One day when I was away at college and on the phone with my parents, they asked if I'd seen the latest catalog. I knew that something was up, because my parents were laughing so hard that they could barely ask the question. When I replied that I'd mostly been looking at chemistry books (which was actually true), they told me why they were so amused. Apparently, on page something-or-other in the men's underwear section, a minor wardrobe malfunction had occurred with one of the models, or at least that's what appeared to have happened. Finally seeing the catalog some time later, I had to agree that the editors appeared to have been a little lax on that one. Or maybe it was just a shadow.

But Sears did not live by the catalog alone: its stores, located all over the country from small towns to big cities, were bustling centers of commerce. Its grand old buildings, erected mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, dotted the American landscape from coast to coast. Smaller suburban stores were often the anchors of shopping centers and later, malls. People would buy each other clothes from Sears for Christmas because the logic was that if the item didn't fit, you could just "take it back to Sears," the thinking being that everyone had a Sears close to their home.

A Sears nut and candy shop
The stores stocked absolutely everything, but there were a few common threads regardless of location. For one, almost every Sears store featured a candy and peanut kiosk built in one of the main aisles. This always imparted a carnival aroma to the store, and it was a uniquely Sears thing. A Penney's or Montgomery Ward would not smell like this. When you got downstairs (there were usually two floors) to the hardware and automotive departments, the smell was decidedly that of freshly molded tires. Even catalog orders had a whiff of the "tire smell." If you positioned yourself between the upper and lower floors, or in the case of single-level stores, somewhere in the middle, you would be treated to the combined essences of fresh rubber, warm chocolate, and roasted peanuts, all at the same time. It may sound a little off-putting, but it was actually part of the whole Sears experience and not really offensive.

Ad for the Lemon Frog Shop
In today's competitive clothing market, it's probably hard to believe that at one point, many of us actually bought lots of clothing at Sears. In the late 60's, many teen girls stocked their wardrobes from the Lemon Frog Shop, which featured the latest in flower-power garments in vivid colors. When I went away to Chicago for college in 1973, I pulled out my suggested clothing list from Northwestern (published for the benefit of those of us from warmer climates) and purchased almost everything from Sears. I bought red and blue plaid flannel shirts, jeans, hiking boots, and a "survival parka," one of those coats that was navy with bright orange lining. You couldn't beat Sears prices, and again, the thing was, they were everywhere. Even just a few years ago, when our daughter Hannah went to Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, we bought her snow boots there, because they honestly had the best selection, all in one place. (I don't think those boots ever wore out.)

Major styling in 1967
I remember when I placed my first Sears catalog order. I had my own money from working at the grocery store, and it seemed like such a grownup thing to do. I ordered a zip up burgundy knit shirt (the zipper had a brass ring on its end) and a coordinating pair of knit pants in burgundy and gray plaid. I thought I was the bomb. I also ordered a very low-tech odometer for my bicycle, featuring a little strike pin which attached to a wheel spoke and advanced a small gear with every revolution, tracking miles using a somewhat approximate method which was close enough for those analog days.

Over the years, we purchased many staple items from Sears, some of which we still use. A green wheelbarrow which we bought in 1983, shortly after moving to Atlanta, still sits under our deck, and only recently did I retire my Craftsman lawnmower that I bought in 1993. It was still running, but after years of faithful service and many trips to the repair shop, I thought it best that it hand over its duties to a new Honda.

Things went well for many years, and then, something happened. The first clue I had was one day back in the late 80's when I went to buy tires for our Nissan Sentra station wagon. In those days, tires were made with one side whitewall and one side black, so that they could be mounted with either side facing out. After waiting almost two hours for the tires to be put on the wagon in a near-freezing Gwinnett Place Mall, I observed that the front tires were mounted with the black side out, but the rear tires had the white side out. Apparently, no one had noticed, but the car was returned to the garage, where after another period of near frostbite on my part, everything was made right.

Another thing I noticed some years ago was that the Craftsman tools, once the pride of every American home handyman, appeared to be made more cheaply. Handles which used to be sturdy were now covered in flimsy plastic, and the metal parts of the tools seemed to have been somewhat carelessly molded, with rough spots here and there. Craftsman hand tools always had a certain finish, but that no longer appeared to be the case. And on a summer day several years ago, I needed two tires for my Craftsman mower. I checked the model online to make sure they were in stock at our local North Point Mall Sears store, then headed over. I bought the tires and brought them back home, but they did not fit, even though the mower model number matched. Frustrated, I headed to Home Depot and bought a set of generic mower wheels, which fit fine. I returned the wheels to Sears and never went back to the lawn care department.

In 2009, fourteen years after Sears had vacated the property, the iconic Sears Tower in Chicago was finally renamed the Willis Tower. In 2014, the twelve-year agreement between Sears and Lands End was terminated. In 2017, Whirlpool ended its 101-year relationship with Sears. It's no doubt the end of an era. One thing cited as a potential issue by financial gurus is that for the last several years, Sears has reinvested only 1% of its profits into facility improvement and modernization, and in today's competitive brick and mortar retail market, that just isn't going to cut it. But who really knows all the factors that led to its demise?

Sears Crosstown in Memphis
Still, there are those grand old buildings, the ones erected early in the twentieth century in cities from coast to coast, the ones that are now being re-purposed as multi-use developments, full of shops, restaurants and upscale residential lodgings. The legacy of Sears will live on, regardless of how the company manages its holdings from this point forward. I'll bet a fair amount of money that Jeff Bezos, long before he founded that online shopping wonderland that we now call Amazon, purchased at least one pair of jeans from Sears in his youth. But I'll bet he never ordered checkered pants from the catalog. His loss, my friends.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Black Sheep

Every family has at least one member for whom conformity to the perceived norm is simply too much of a stretch. In our case, there was one quite memorable black sheep: my Uncle Clay.

Clay Wells was a Navy man who married my great Aunt Mary and thereby became part of our family. There's no denying that Clay marched to the beat of a different drummer, yet he was an upright, honorable man with a dry sense of humor and a passion for good living. But from the beginning, it wasn't all peaches and cream for Clay and our family.

According to Grandma Estelle, our family historian, her younger sister Mary had fallen in love with a man sometime during the late 1920's or 1930's, and they became engaged to be married. No one was really clear about exactly what happened, but shortly before the wedding was to take place, Mary's fiance committed suicide. Mary, gentle and kind to a fault, was devastated. Our family was close and offered constant support, and eventually, Mary's spirits were lifted. A few years later, she met a young man named Clay Wells, and they married.

Estelle's accounts of Mary and Clay's early years together made me realize that from the beginning, Clay was something of an outcast. In good Southern tradition, there was never anything said directly to either of them in that regard, but there were stories. One of my favorites involves an incident that occurred some time during the 1940's. 

At the time, Uncle Clay was selling automobiles at a large dealership on Union Avenue in Memphis. Union Avenue was, and remains, a major thoroughfare in the city. There are few times when the road is not busy with crosstown traffic. As the story goes, my grandfather Leslie, Estelle's husband, purchased a car from Clay one day, and everything was going well until he headed out onto Union Avenue on his way home. Before he had gone even a mile, smoke appeared from under the hood, followed by flames -- the car's engine was on fire. Leslie, furious by this time, had the car towed back to the dealership and gave Clay a piece of his mind. From that day forward, my grandfather was convinced that his brother-in-law had intentionally sold him a bum car.

Eventually, Mary and Clay settled into a comfortable life in Memphis. They became successful real estate agents and owned a beautiful home on North Trezevant Street in Memphis, only steps away from Overton Park, the city's lush in-town greenspace. In the early 1960's, we would visit with them often. Oddly enough, my kindergarten teacher and her husband lived next door, so on occasion, we would drop in there as well. Mary and Clay loved fishing and often would travel to Florida to pursue their hobby, always bringing back fresh catfish, which would be served with fried chicken and hush puppies at one of our favorite regular family gatherings, the back yard fish fry.

Fish fries were absolutely delightful, and once we had our fill of fish, we would retire to the living room, where one family member after another would tell stories. Clay was an excellent storyteller who just happened to possess a rather far-reaching knowledge of serious literature. Often, when just he and I were talking after a big dinner, Clay would ask if I had read books by authors whose names I was beginning to hear in junior high school, people like John Steinbeck and James Conrad. I found that I was beginning to develop a strong interest in literature, so I relished the opportunity to talk about it, and Clay always seemed to offer yet another author or book to explore.

Despite his somewhat intellectual bent, there's no escaping the fact that Clay, like all of us, had his unusual habits, and one of them I found especially entertaining. Back in the day, due to less than perfect preventive dental care, many people were fitted with dentures as they approached their later years. Clay was no exception, but his dentures did not fit well enough for him to make it through a meal without incident, so he generally opted to remove them prior to eating. The result of this was that he often mixed up the contents of his plate into a singular mushy entity, which he would consume while the rest of us methodically ate our easily identifiable meal elements. Behind his back, Grandma Estelle would say, "Honey, I just hate what Clay does with his food." But being good and proper Southerners, we never said anything directly to him; instead, we simply looked on in befuddled amusement.

The flaming car incident remained a stumbling block in the relationship between Uncle Clay and Grandpa Leslie. One weekend in the late 1960's, I was staying with my grandparents. By this time, Leslie had suffered two severe strokes and was confined to a wheelchair, where he would consume six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola and Pall Mall cigarettes nonstop as he sat by the front window of their North Hollywood Street home. Early one afternoon, Mary and Clay pulled up in the driveway, and Leslie said to Estelle, "Maw...get my gun." At that point, it was clear to me that the feud would never end until either Leslie or Clay had passed from this earth.

Despite the fact that people always saw Clay as something of an outsider, he and Mary appeared to have lived full and happy lives. From my youthful perspective, I appreciated his eccentricity, and I think that Clay was good for us -- he brought to our family a wonderful sense of humor and tons of delectable fried catfish. Intentionally or otherwise, he provided a bit of comic relief during the turbulent days of the 1960's. I miss him, and I never see a Steinbeck book without thinking of him.

Oh, and just for the record, I have a cousin who sells cars. Several years ago, we bought one from him. It has never, ever caught fire.

Friday, September 14, 2018

I've Got My Hands Full Over Here

The cleaning people were coming to our house this morning, so I started collecting items to take with me to the coffee shop where I'm now sitting. On cleaning days, I head to the shop at around 8:00 AM and remain there until around 10:00, when the cleaning is usually completed. About an hour ago, I packed my laptop and all its accessories and then started gathering everything else: walking shoes, socks, my wallet, a pair of regular glasses, a pair of computer glasses, and a pair of sunglasses. It was about then that I realized I needed to grab my flexible nylon duffel bag, the one that I got for free at my last job, for overflow. There was simply no way everything would fit into the laptop bag. Such situations are not unusual.

About twenty or so years ago, the item known as the "man purse" came into vogue. To me, it seemed like a logical thing: a tiny backpack-like invention that could be strapped over your shoulder. I bought one and used it almost every day to go back and forth to work. Mine had compartments for phones, pens, an ID card, as well as a stretchy piece of webbing on the outside that would allow you to pack a water bottle. It was made of black leather and hung comfortably over my shoulder. During the period I carried it, both the Palm Pilot and iPod were invented, and it was great for toting those around. But eventually, the cultural male gender assertion began to take hold, and the "man purse" became a thing which was no longer cool to carry. I shook my head and acquiesced, because when you're a guy, that's what you do.

Let's take a look at the obvious here. Men's pants are made with functional pockets, but for ladies, this is not always the case. Women's jeans, for example, are made with shallow pockets that are marginally functional, unless you're carrying nothing larger than a package of chewing gum. Women often end up carrying their phones in their back jeans pockets, a practice which carries its own risks, especially considering that Apple now thinks nothing of charging over a thousand dollars for an iPhone. But women also have the option of carrying a handbag (it's not a "purse", as they used to tell us when I worked at Macy's). The handbag is a completely practical, useful item. Men are not culturally permitted to carry anything resembling one, because that would not be man-like. And therein lies the problem.

If you can't carry a handbag, where do you put the stuff that you have to carry around with you? Why, in your pockets, of course. That works up to a point, but unless you are wearing cargo pants or shorts, you're going to run out of room in short order, and guess what? Men are often chastised for wearing cargo pants. I beseech you, therefore, what are we males supposed to do?

Well, I can think of only one logical answer. All that stuff you're carrying, guys? Find a way to put it on your smartphone. For credit cards, boarding passes, reward cards, and the like, you can use Wallet on your iPhone or iPad (wait, you don't have room for an iPad). You can take pictures of things that you'd like to be carrying around but don't have room for and store them in your phone's photo album -- that way, you can look at them and think about what you would do with them if you could hold them in your hand. Need a tape measure? There's an app for that. Your keys? Well, you're on your own there, and by the way, key fobs are getting bigger and bigger.

To me, it's just so obvious that guys need another way to carry stuff, one that doesn't come with any gender-based stigma against its use. How many times have you guys, fortunate enough to have a female significant other, had her tell you, "I'll put that in my bag" while you're struggling to find available pocket space? That's crazy, because if you think about it, she already has her own stuff to carry. The difference being that her gender, savvy about such things, sees no issues with carrying a handbag; designers offer bags in a plethora of styles and colors to complement almost any wardrobe. They are practical, everyday fashion accessories. Now, that rocks. The fact that males have no equivalent is just, in a word, dumb.

It's high time that we disposed of the notion of judging that a guy is less "masculine" because he needs to carry some kind of bag. If we don't do something soon, we males will be carrying our entire lives on a smartphone, which of course will make Apple, Samsung, and others even happier than they already are. Let's put our minds to a solution -- we're the same species that once sent people to the moon. But come to think of it, I don't think astronauts even had pockets. I rest my case.

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).

#   #   #

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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

True Colors

I found myself in an odd, but strangely familiar, situation today. I had eaten a healthy steamed chicken and broccoli entree for lunch, but I was still hungry, so about two hours later, after a bit of light shopping, I stopped by a McDonald's drive-thru, then pulled over into a parking lot to eat my second lunch, because honestly, I just couldn't wait any longer. That alone was bad enough, but the really sad thing was that the lot where I was wolfing down my food was outside an LA Fitness gym. I sighed and resigned myself to errant behavior, but soon, the addictive flavor of the french fries washed over me and erased any sense of guilt I might have had. That's when I noticed them.

Two young men stepped out of their vehicles, stopped to say hello to each other, and headed into the gym. Both were rather heavily tattooed, with buzz cuts that gave them a rough and ready air. They strutted into LA Fitness, muscles a-blazing, and it was then that I remembered that once upon a time, I sort of walked in those shoes. Of course, there were a few differences. For one, I don't have any tattoos. (I got a temporary lizard tattoo on a 2007 weekend trip with friends after we had consumed a very large amount of light beer, and it scared the bejesus out of my friend Neharika, whose childhood home in India had been plagued by lizards. Since that time, I have not messed with tattoos.) Also, my haircut is a simple 3.5 clippers "do" that is very easy to maintain but still has a Baby Boomer One Step Removed look about it.

My commonality with the two modern gentlemen harks back to 1988, when I spontaneously decided that a) I needed to take more vitamins and b) I needed to get more exercise. A new gym named Sportslife was opening in the area, and they were signing up people at an attractive introductory rate. I braved it one evening and headed over. The very first thing the trainer did was to line us all up and give us a fitness evaluation. The group numbered about ten, and we were pretty equally distributed by gender. We were asked to perform various calesthentics, including a series of push-ups and sit-ups. Sit-ups have always been a weakness of mine, and I only made it to about eight or nine. The young woman next to me, on the other hand, attired in a brilliant yellow outfit with coordinated leg warmers and matching shoes, did 25 without missing a beat. She didn't even look tired. I realized at that point that I had a long way to go.

To make a long story short, I joined Sportslife and became a regular. I worked out three times a week, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, for about an hour and a half per session. I was religious in the order I did things and cycled through a combination of circuit training, cardio, and free weights that just made for the perfect workout. I began to see results, and that was encouraging. At one point, I could set a StairMaster on its 8 out of 10 setting and easily climb for 20-25 minutes. If I tried to do that now, paramedics would need to be on call. Yet, I was doing this three times a week and feeling absolutely incredible. But the exercise alone wasn't the whole experience -- part of it was a visual thing, and here's where I contrast the experience with that of today's gyms.

Sportslife was a product of the 1980's, and if you actively participated in the 80's, you remember such things as bright colors, form-fitting attire, Big Hair, and color-coordinated scrunchies. The gym itself was architecturally stunning, and everyone in it looked at least somewhat happy, even though, let's face it, we were all glistening profusely. On any given day or evening, the place was populated by a dedicated group of exercising fools, dressed in every color of the rainbow. And this didn't apply only to women -- we men had our own scintillating array of duds. I owned a nice pair of Nike white and teal training shoes, three pairs of stretch athletic tights in black, blue, and purple, and t-shirts in a plethora of colors. You would think that I would have stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn't. This was because Joe Schmo, weighing in at around 250 with biceps the size of Staten Island, would also be wearing a brightly colored outfit, as would all the other guys who made their way through the locker room. Drab was out, flash was in, and it was a grand time. I was in the best shape of my life, and honestly, I felt like a million bucks.

But somewhere in time, many people, and especially men, began to be fearful of color. We all remember how 80's neon gave way to 90's grunge, so it wasn't just a gym thing. Over time, I had let my Sportslife membership lapse, so when I once again joined a gym in the late 1990's, first a YMCA and then some years later, LA Fitness, I noticed that everything had taken on this monotonic variation of gray and black. It wasn't just the clothes, but the people, too. No one seemed to really smile at gyms any more. The atmosphere had become street-ready and aloof, and it made me uncomfortable, so I let it go and started walking for exercise, which I've maintained to this day. Who knows? It may turn around, and we may find ourselves back in a convivial workout universe. I would like for that to happen, but I'm holding on to a memory, I guess.

I still have those purple workout tights. They only measure about a foot across at the top. Every few years, during a clothing purge, I'll try them on, just for old time's sake, but I just can't bring myself to give them away, because they remind me how good I felt back then. I can't wear them for any measurable amount of time, because my circulation would be cut off, and given my recent experiences with eye issues and kidney stones, I just don't need anything else. But you know, I still think there's a special place in the world for spandex.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


We relocated to Atlanta from Chicago in 1982, and we have been here since, except for two years in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the mid-90's. As soon as we returned to Atlanta after our time in the Tar Heel State, we located and put a contract on a house in a neighborhood that we'd always had our eyes on. It was in an excellent school district, which was very important to us. Plus, it was only about three miles from our old house, so it was like coming back to a familiar neighborhood. We instantly bonded with our neighbors and have remained that way ever since. We've lived in the house since 1995, and we always say that none of us will move unless all of us move. It's a nice feeling, to be living this way in a metropolitan area with lots of relocated folks and more arriving all the time.

Most of our houses were built between the years 1984 and 1989, well after the advent of cable television, so there was no waiting for cable to be run to the neighborhood. By the time we got here, it had indeed arrived; in fact, when we made our first visit to the house with our dedicated real estate agent Sandy, we noticed that there were cable jacks and telephones everywhere. The former owner had been the CFO of the Upton's retail store chain, and from all indications, he liked staying in touch.

Our cable saga began with Media One, which at one time had the dubious distinction of being the company with the worst customer service in the United States. It was acquired by AT&T in 2000 and then by Comcast in 2002. I have to say that when we initially moved into our house, there was no problem getting cable connected. Right away, we were able to experience the mystical adventure of being Media One customers. We survived the acquisitions by AT&T and later by Comcast, but it was in those early days that things began to get interesting.

From time to time, as is the case with all modern television technology, reception issues surfaced. The technicians would almost always come out at the appointed times to repair whatever was broken, but if you had to contact a person by phone, you had to be prepared. One night, I sat on hold with Media One for about an hour and fifteen minutes, after which time I was about to pull out locks of my already thinning hair. But the service people themselves were generally nice, and some even had a pretty good sense of humor.

One of the most memorable visits we had from service people was during the early Comcast days, when two energetic, knowledgeable young Japanese contract technicians who appeared to be related or at least very good friends, showed up to fix whatever problem we were having. At one point, they said that everything was really messed up and that they needed to run another cable along the side of the house. This was amusing to me, since at that time, we already had two cables running in parallel along the side of the house where they wanted to run the third one. Nevertheless, I acquiesced, and a third cable was run, parallel to the other two and evenly spaced. Several days later, my next door neighbor David was working outside, and when he saw the three cables, he started laughing and said that we would never have to worry about the house falling down, because it was now so well supported by coaxial cable. And he's a mechanical engineer, so I trust him.

All along our pay TV journey, we've had issues where the solutions, regardless of provider, have been to run more cable or replace splitters and connectors. As Mick Jagger once said, "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." At one point in time, I knew what all the various cables did, because I would follow the technicians around and outside the house as they ran or rerouted them. But over time, I lost interest in doing this and instead opted to sit inside the house and wait for a signal to reappear -- to play dumb, as it were. The result is that we have a truly byzantine arrangement of cabling supporting our TV viewing, and I have no idea what some of it does or if it even carries a signal.

One afternoon about eight years ago, we were shopping at Best Buy, and they had one of those desks set up where they try to sell you some TV service other than the one you're using (how do they always know?). In our case, the salespeople were selling DirecTV, and when they snagged us and told us the phantasmagorical low price we'd be paying, we decided to make the switch from Comcast. In order for the service to work, we of course had to have a satellite dish installed. This was a bold step we'd never taken, but when the installation technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side, I figured the whole thing was legit, and our installation proceeded without a hitch. When we locked on the signal, I saw that the DirecTV channel guide was a beautiful thing to behold, graced with a tonal palette rivaled only by the finest of National Geographic photographs.

We had DirecTV for about five years, and I must say that overall, it was a pleasant period of time. DirecTV has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the business, and our experience bore that out. There was exactly one phone number to call, and when we needed something fixed, they were on it. One night, I was experiencing some kind of minor system malfunction, so I called "the number." The person who answered was not able to assist me, but she instantly (and I mean instantly) transferred me to a technical support representative. This lady sounded like a hippie, and I don't mean the faux-hippie-but-really-a-hipster-who-wishes-they'd-lived-in-the-Seventies type, but the real McCoy. She asked me a few questions and then immediately gave me a solution that worked the first time. I found her entertaining, and at the end of the call, when I thanked her profusely for giving me such a quick fix, she laughed and said, "You're very welcome. I've been doing this a long time, and you know how this stuff is. It's so weird." Amen to that.

Despite the great service offered by DirecTV, the prices started to climb, as they have been wont to do since the introduction of pay TV. My wife Karen started hinting about switching to AT&T U-verse, since they seemed to offer lower prices for more channels. I demurred, saying that I'd heard some bad things about the service. I held off like this for about two years, with the DirecTV prices climbing and the U-verse offers getting better and better. Early one evening, a young man came to our door trying to sell us U-verse, and I proceeded to lecture him on why I didn't want the service. I think that, after the first five minutes, he had actually stopped trying to sell me on it, but by then, I was wound up and had started listing all the various and sundry problems I'd heard from other people. He finally went away without convincing me, sporting what looked to me to be a profound sense of relief.

But finally, due mostly to service outages during periods of bad weather, we made the decision to leave DirecTV in favor of U-verse. It all happened when we went to upgrade iPhones at the AT&T store. They made it sound so good, both financially and technically, that I finally gave in, and we scheduled the installation.

Several days later, the U-verse technician showed up in a nice, clean van with the logo emblazoned on the side. This part felt familiar. Once again, I felt that we were about to get something pretty good, and when he entered the house with a professional demeanor and tools on his belt that I had never seen, I was fascinated. There were all these weird wrenches and electronic tools that appeared to be fiber optic related, and for about two hours, he took control of our cabling and set us on the path to U-verse. It started out well, except for one thing: he gave us this little book full of phone numbers to call in case something went wrong. Note the use of the plural here: there was not one number to call, but many numbers, depending on what might have happened. But the channel guide...oy vey...it was beyond magical. For any given program, a stunning (and grammatically correct) paragraph would be displayed, telling you everything you might want to know and then some. Aesthetically, it was just a beautiful thing to behold. But beauty, as we all know, can sometimes be only skin deep.

There is no way to truly describe in sufficient detail, within the length of this blog post, what we experienced with U-verse. Although I have great respect overall for the past accomplishments and true innovations of AT&T as a company, it is evident that the U-verse television service has some serious technical limitations. In fairness, many of these are infrastructure related and cannot be readily ameliorated. When I would ask friends who used U-verse about the service, I found that the answers were bipolar -- either the service fell into the "I don't know, I've never had any problems" category, or it had to be disconnected due to poor reliability.

The difference between DirecTV and U-verse was actually quite simple: DirecTV service would go out during bad weather, whereas U-verse would go out regardless of the weather. In some cases, it even appeared to perform more poorly during good weather. Whenever there was an interruption, a very detailed screen would appear, listing five steps to take to recover the service. Each step was listed as a paragraph, and each was grammatically correct. Punctuation was flawless. However, despite the five steps listed, the real fix for restoring service was either to simply sit and wait for a few minutes, or to go mix up a martini, after which time the signal would return in all its former glory.

And then one night, we were again upgrading phones at the AT&T store, the same store, in fact, where they had sold us on the U-verse service. The sales associate asked us what we were paying for U-verse, and he told us that surprise, he could save us money by switching us to DirecTV, which by now, AT&T had purchased. With a look of amusement I told him that it was right here, in this very same chair, that I had been sold U-verse. He laughed, and then he told me that DirecTV was now "the thing." I later found out that AT&T has for some time been pushing all new TV customers to DirecTV. So, once again, we switched, even though I had reservations about phone support through the "new" AT&T-owned DirecTV. Besides, U-verse hadn't had any hippies on its support staff.

Last December, the DirecTV technician showed up to perform the installation. This time, I did not see an emblazoned logo on the service van, but still, I allowed him to enter the house and make the necessary modifications to restore our DirecTV service, and I'm pleased to say that, since that time, we've only had two minor service interruptions during bad weather. On clear days, everything seems to work. A few weeks ago, I saw a note that DirecTV is sprucing up its channel guide, improving its tonal palette a few degrees more. Things can only go up from here.

Oh, by the way, in all this back and forth, some of the cables have been removed, so that now, alongside the house, those three parallel cables have been reduced to one. I don't know if that single cable goes anywhere, but I'm sure I'll find out sooner or later. Best to leave well enough alone, I say.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Press Hard

It's interesting how things come and go. The compact disc was released in 1982, and sales of the medium peaked in 1999. Yet here we are, only 36 years since its debut, and the compact disc is very quickly becoming a thing of the past. A recent article from Digital Trends indicates that Best Buy will stop selling CD's on July 1 of this year, and other major retailers are rumored to be considering a consignment model for selling discs. Truly, nothing lasts forever, and even though I was aware of that maxim at the time, I still took a job as data processing manager for a carbon paper company in 1980.

My employer, American Tara Corporation, was at that time one of the nation's largest producers of carbon paper. Headquartered in Chicago, and with branch offices in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles, their annual sales volume peaked at about $50 million in the early 1980's. To understand the importance of carbon paper at the time, you have to know a little bit about the product itself.

To anyone born after 1980, carbon paper is something of a mystery. Everyone has heard the term "carbon copy," but many people may not know how that term originated. Carbon paper consisted of rolls of very thin tissue paper, coated with a wax-like ink, usually in either black, brown or red. The rolls were cut into document-sized sheets, and these sheets were used to make copies of handwritten or typed documents. The way it worked was that you would put a sheet of carbon paper behind your original document and on top of the second page, then another sheet between each layer below that. Often, there would be printed instructions on the top document which said, "Press Hard -- You are making xxx copies," where "xxx" ranged anywhere from one to about six. The mechanical nature of it sounds primitive by today's standards, but at the time it was, just like having no air conditioning, all we knew.

Offices used reams of carbon paper, because sheets did not last for more than one or two uses, after which most of the ink would be transferred to the copies. And "carbon copies" were a necessity as proof that the original had not been tampered with after the copy had been made, since any extraneous notations after that time would stand out like a sore thumb. Given its pervasiveness in the workplace, carbon paper held on for many years, until it was upstaged by carbonless paper and Xerox machines. One very specific niche market for carbon paper was for airline tickets -- years after the working world had adopted photocopying as the norm for document duplication, airlines continued to use red carbon in their tickets. In this application, there were no separate carbon sheets; rather, the top copy of the ticket would be coated on the back with a layer of red ink, and since all the ticketing machines in use at the time were impact printers, characters would be transferred through to the back copy. When airlines finally moved to computer printed boarding passes, it was evident that the days of carbon paper had come to an end.

American Tara was a well-managed, profitable company, and it treated employees fairly, regardless of their positions or levels within the organization. I recall being asked by my boss, the corporate controller, only a week into the job to make an emergency trip to L.A. one afternoon. He paid for a first-class ticket for me and put me up in a fancy Marriott. There were no per diems, so dining could be fairly open-ended as well, although we were careful not to go out on a limb in that regard -- we did work for accountants, after all. For me, travel was frequent, but since I was visiting the same offices over and over, I began to make friends all across the country. The work was demanding: I handled programming, support, maintenance contracts, and budgeting, but I didn't mind, because the experience was so educational. On one occasion, I even spent a week wiring a recently remodeled, high-ceilinged office with data cable, climbing on Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height ladders and soldering each individual connection, of which there were many.

Adjacent to each of Tara's administrative offices, where people in roles like mine worked, was a physical carbon paper plant. My boss told me during my first week that there was no point wearing my best clothes, since I would likely get ink stains on them, not to mention that the pervasive smell of hot ink would permeate every thread. (I stuck mostly to sport coats and dark suits.) Because of the nature of the business, our plants weren't located in ritzy areas, but the Chicago plant stood alone in this regard.

We were located on West Lake Street in Chicago, about a dozen blocks west of the Loop, in an industrial area that had seen better days. Down the street were a handful of cafes, a loan company, and a bookie joint. (The bookie joint didn't have a sign over its entrance, but my compadres told me what it was.) Prostitutes periodically roamed the streets, with the most common invitation being, "Honey, do you want a date?" One snowy, slushy winter evening, I was very late leaving the office after working on a payroll system upgrade and took a side street to save some time getting over to the Kennedy Expressway. I stopped at a stop sign, and suddenly, out of nowhere, four or five hookers converged on my old Chevy Nova, some lying on the hood of the car. I was startled and to be honest, somewhat terrified, but I motioned to them to move away, which they did in a singular collective water-parting motion. I drove very slowly past.

Located in South Central L.A., our West Coast office presented its own unique challenges. Our management recommended that we leave early, so every afternoon at 4:45 PM sharp, office operations would cease, and the employees would move equipment such as adding machines, check writers, and calculators into a walk-in safe. The computer system was rack-mounted, and it was located in its own locked room, so it was presumed to be secure. Nevertheless, one evening, plant employees in the adjacent building watched two men roll the computer cabinet out of the office and down Beach Street in a vain attempt to steal it. The two thieves were spotted by plant employees, and they fled immediately. After that, I took the 4:45 PM closing time even more seriously.

The L.A. plant manager was a man named Bob Judy. He was a former Marine who, despite a sometimes rough and ready attitude, was a consummate gentleman and something of a big kid. Bob and his wife lived in a beautiful home in Whittier, California, just outside the city. I was born in Whittier, and when I told him this, Bob and I became fast friends. I spent several evenings with Bob, his wife, and others at their home, drinking wine, playing the piano, and soaking in their giant hot tub beneath the stars. Bob was a personal friend of Robert Mondavi, and he received regular shipments of 375 milliliter wine bottles, delivered to the office directly off the Mondavi truck. He and his wife maintained a small cellar beneath their kitchen. Being the consummate entertainer, Bob also kept an inventory of disposable plastic-paper swim trunks that he would offer to guests when it was hot tub time. There was nothing not to like about Bob's house.

Even with the challenges of the each of the respective factory neighborhoods, we had some fun days. At the L.A. office, a food truck would appear every morning about 9:30 and announce itself over the intercom as "Lunch-er-o!" I would stroll out to the parking lot and catch up with the factory guys while we feasted on high-carbohydrate snacks. Unlike the L.A. operation, Tara's Boston office was located in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, but once the employees found out that I was married to a native Bostonian, I immediately became family and was treated to many lively New England breakfasts and lunches. Funny things happened at that office.

Our Boston office manager was a charming lady in her sixties named Miriam, who kept absolutely everything humming. Whenever she would call with a computer problem, I knew it was real. She was adept at handling her own issues, but one morning she called me at my office in Chicago, and before I could even answer, I heard her laughing hysterically. Every morning, Miriam's first order of business was to boot the computer from a Teletype console. (Teletype machines were high-impact printers with attached keyboards and paper tape readers.) When our computer systems booted, the operators were typically presented with a message which read "PLEASE WAIT...", but that morning, Miriam was treated to an Easter egg.

When Miriam finally stopped laughing, she said, and I am rendering her thick regional accent the best I can through written words, "Rich! You'll nev-ah believe what the compu-tah said this mah-ning. When I booted it up, instead of saying 'PLEASE WAIT,' it said 'PIS-SAH!" When I repeated what I thought I'd just heard, she confirmed that the computer had indeed issued a scatological message. We never again saw that exhortation from any of our systems, but you had to think that someone at Data General (the computer manufacturer) was laughing his or her head off. That computer eventually booted up, by the way.

On another occasion, I received a call from Teresa, who was the data processing manager in our Boston office. When I answered, she exclaimed in an agitated voice, "Rich! The compu-tah is on fi-ah!" When I asked for details, Teresa told me that the entire 12 x 12 room was filled with smoke. I called our Boston service representative, and when he checked out the system, he found that a light panel on the front of the computer chassis had shorted out, sparking a small internal fire which burned its way through a circuit board. I have worked for years since in the computer industry, and not since that day have I seen a computer catch on fire.

In 1982, the owner of the company began to turn over control to his son, who lived in Atlanta and worked in the office there, so several of us were offered an opportunity to transfer south. I had worked with the Atlanta crew for several years and already had some friends there, so after an evaluation trip and some soul-searching, we decided to move. Our last winter in Chicago, American Tara hosted a Christmas party at the legendary Como Inn in Chicago, which in its 57-year history had been host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. We had a wonderful dinner, followed by jazz and dancing. Late in the evening, the band played "Georgia on My Mind" for all of us who would be moving to Atlanta the following summer. That's an emotional moment that I will always remember.

The American Tara operation in Atlanta was not quite the same as in Chicago, but there were some glory days. We bought a house in suburban Roswell (as far out as our realtor wanted to take us, but now relatively close to the city). In 1985, our first daughter was born, and soon thereafter, I left American Tara to explore greener pastures. Several of the Tara employees are Facebook friends, and there are several others whom I see from time to time.

There are places and times you never forget, and for me, my days at American Tara were among the most memorable. I learned from my time there that you don't have to be in a leading edge company to learn. In fact, my times at Tara offered more broad-based experiences than I've seen since, and I've worked in companies far larger and more "modern." But in a small company, you learn about people. You see good and bad, up close and personal. For its part, American Tara was in many ways a compassionate company which truly understood its people. I'd like to leave you with a story about that compassion.

The founder of American Tara was a man named A.M. Bridell. He had started the company himself, and he ran a tight ship, but he was fiercely protective of his employees. During the early days of the company, in the 1940's, he employed a number of young Japanese men, and several of them were still working at Tara when I started there in 1980. One day, I was talking to Mak Kawano, who was one of our chemical engineers. Mak was constantly monitoring and studying ink formulas, which were, of course, the core of our business. As we concluded a meeting one afternoon, Mak said to me, "You know, Rich, I owe A.M. Bridell my life." When I asked him to explain, he told me why.

According to Mak, one afternoon during World War II, A.M. literally stood between his Japanese employees and agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had come to take the workers away, presumably to internment camps. Mak said that at one point, A.M. looked the INS officers in the eye and said sharply, "You're not taking MY MEN." That was the end of the story: the officers left the premises, and A.M. assured them that they had nothing to fear. Consequently, Mak and many of the other men worked at Tara until they retired.

Mak passed away several years ago at the age of 90. Had I not heard his story, I would never have known the things he'd lived through, because he was the personification of a peaceful man. I like to think that Mak left the world knowing the spirit of goodness that he saw exemplified by American Tara, the same place where I learned that you don't have to be a giant to make a difference.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Put Another Dime in the Magnavox

Today at lunch, I stopped by McDonald's, and as I walked in, pianist Floyd Cramer's rendition of "Green Green Grass of Home" was playing. I thought immediately of my dad, because Floyd Cramer, of whom many people these days have probably never heard, was one of his favorite artists.

Although not a musician himself, my dad had a fairly broad interest in music (guess where I got that from). He listened often to the likes of Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Glen Campbell, John Hartford, and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. He took such an interest in Davis that he decided to make a major upgrade to our house in 1969 by purchasing a Magnavox console stereo. It wasn't a room-filling, Cadillac-length model, because we didn't have that much room, but boy-hidee, did it ever sound fine. The day it was delivered, my dad played his favorite albums, one after another. That was a landmark day on Chatwood Street.

My mom had played piano since I could remember, and she, too, was a music lover. Her interests were a bit more tame: Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy's rendition of "Indian Love Call", anything by Lawrence Welk or 101 Strings, and all the old Irving Berlin favorites. But when it came to stretching musically, my dad was in a league all by himself. He would be listening to Eddy Arnold one day, Booker T and the MG's the next, and Elvis as time permitted...it was fabulous.

Growing up, I didn't learn much about sports, because even though my dad watched football, baseball, basketball, and anything else involving a ball, he wasn't much on imparting his sports knowledge, so my education is that area was (and is) still somewhat lacking. But when it came to music, he would not hesitate to play it, talk about it, and best of all, get us concert tickets. We saw so many people: the Memphis Symphony was always hosting a guest musician, and we attended those concerts about once a year. Our annual Mid-South Fair featured a rodeo, and at the "halftime" of the rodeos, popular entertainers would be featured. (One year, I actually saw the Three Stooges, with Moe, Shemp and Curly's replacement.) In 1968, we saw Johnny Cash at the rodeo. I still remember that as we were driving away from the Mid-South Coliseum after The Man in Black's show, we passed his limo and saw him sitting in the back seat, wearing sunglasses and looking out the window. He was a character of unparalleled dimensions.

One night in the early Sixties, my dad had a treat for us. He showed up at the house after work with a bag of Krystal hamburgers, and since they'd gotten a little chilled in transit, we reheated them in our oven. We finished up dinner quickly that night because he was taking us downtown to the Ellis Auditorium to see Louis Armstrong, the legend, the real Satchmo. I was only about seven years old, but I was so excited that I could barely control myself. We had great seats, and I'll never forget the way Satchmo took the stage, pulled out that white handkerchief, raised that gleaming trumpet, and started making magic.

I recall only one time that my dad did not enjoy music. One night in the early 70's, I was listening to Chicago's second album on the Magnavox. In those days, Chicago was one of the most popular bands in America, and their music was all over the radio. We had brought my mom home from the hospital only a day or two before -- she had been there for over a week -- and my dad and I had a quiet dinner. Afterward, he went to check on my mom, and I put on some Chicago, at what I thought was a reasonably low volume. A few minutes later he emerged from the bedroom and asked me to turn down the music. I did not hesitate to comply, of course, but I remember that he said, "Son, your mom is trying to rest. Do you want her to get well?" I didn't play any more music for a few days, until I saw her spirits rise. It was a moment that stuck with me, because my dad was a gentle man, and he didn't often get irritated. I figured he knew the situation better than I did.

One day in the late 1960's, while we were on a trip to Nashville, my dad took us to the newly opened Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. This was nirvana for him, and he had a running commentary while we were there. Since Memphis was home to rockabilly, blues and soul, we actually had to make the four-hour drive to Nashville for true country immersion. Whenever I'm back in Nashville, I think of that trip and his stories of going to the Grand Ole Opry at the original Ryman Auditorium, where he would listen to the legendary Roy Acuff singing "The Great Speckled Bird." It was, in my mother's opinion, one of the worst songs ever written. For that reason, my dad would bring it up over and over, and my mom would just roll her eyes and move on.

Even though it might have taken me until the age of 32 to really understand what a first down in football was, I appreciated a wide variety of music. Just like with people in general, my dad taught me that there were talents everywhere and that everyone, regardless of heritage, background, or belief, had something to contribute to the whole. He would be so proud of my daughters today: Sarah and Hannah both recommend music to me on a regular basis, and it runs the entire gamut of recorded sound. I am so grateful for that, and now that music streaming services exist, I don't have to wait to get to a music store to hear their recommendations -- I can simply enter the names in a search box, and off we go. My personal music library is constantly being enriched because of their contributions.

So there you have it: that's why I still fall asleep during "important" football games but somehow knew about Tuvan throat singing well before 1990. Put another dime in the jukebox, baby...live life big.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Change Is Good

I wish I could count how many times I've heard that expression. In the working world, it's often used in the aftermath of some unpleasant occurrence, in which it serves to appease those who may have some lingering uncertainty about the decisions that have been made. "The whole organization one level up from me may be gone, but I guess change is good." I suppose that, in that context, it serves a useful purpose. But one morning last summer, I experienced change on a whole new level.

On January 31, 2017, as part of an optional voluntary retirement program, I left a job which I had held for over 21 years. That's a long time in any position, but for me, there was no question that it was a good move. I had weathered countless reorganizations and changes in corporate direction, many with more than a little drama, and those facts, coupled with the financial uncertainty that the company was facing, convinced me that it was simply time to do something else. I had a wonderful retirement party -- people said the nicest things, and as I left the building that sunny Tuesday afternoon, I snapped a picture looking back toward the entrance and promptly made it my Facebook cover photo.

In those first few weeks away from my job, I found myself having to acclimate to such things as quiet grocery stores, an absence of scheduled meetings, and a noticeable lack of traffic (with seemingly lost drivers). In March, I accompanied my younger daughter Hannah to Washington, D.C., on a job interview trip, and when she was offered the position several weeks later, I helped her move from North Carolina to an art deco apartment in the nation's capital. I felt happy that I had the luxury of time to be part of that experience. She got settled in nicely to her new neighborhood, and along the way, we made some great memories.

Back home, the days were getting warmer. On a Monday morning in June, I headed over to my favorite local coffee shop to browse LinkedIn and Glassdoor in search of another IT position. I was somewhat distracted by a local film crew that was interviewing people to get their views on a hotly contested local election, but after finishing a delicious chocolate muffin and a large Americano, I headed home.

It had been some time since I'd caught up with Words With Friends, so I pulled out my iPhone, and that's when I noticed it -- an object that looked like a tree branch had appeared suddenly in my left eye. I called to my wife Karen, who was upstairs, and told her that something had happened and that I needed to get to my eye doctor. In a strange twist of fate, Karen was home at the time, having been laid off from her job some two months earlier. We got in the car and headed to the optometrist's office.

My eye doctor examined my eye and told me that I had a vitreous detachment, a condition which is not unusual for people my age, and that I should watch it carefully for the next few days to make sure that it did not damage my retina. Quick physiology lesson: the vitreous humor, or simply vitreous, is a gel-like substance which fills the eye. The retina can be thought of like wallpaper that covers the back of the eye and contains receptors for color and black-and-white vision. In the case of vitreous detachment, the vitreous substance shrinks; normally, this is not an issue, but in some cases, the vitreous takes the retina along with it. If left untreated, this condition leads to blindness in the eye. At that initial visit, my eye doctor wanted to make sure that this was not happening.

The next morning, Tuesday, my vision was much worse. Now, in addition to the "tree branch," my eye appeared to be filled with murky water. Also, and this was downright disturbing, I was starting to see a black bubble appearing in the bottom of my field of vision. We returned to the eye doctor, and I was told to head immediately to a retinal surgeon on the other side of Atlanta.

The story gets rather complicated from here, but to summarize, I was indeed experiencing a retinal detachment, and owing to the speed with which it was progressing, I required surgery on Thursday. I could go into detail, but suffice to say that this is a type of surgery which cannot be performed with lasers -- manual intervention is required. The surgery went smoothly, but afterward, my vision was extremely blurry in my left eye. It gradually improved, and after a time, I was able to function fairly normally, although with lingering blurred vision in the left eye. In early September, I had more surgery, this time to remove a cataract which had formed in the eye and to replace the lens with an intraocular implant. For a few weeks, everything was getting back to my new sense of "normal."

On the morning of Halloween, I noticed flashes in my right eye's field of vision. Knowing that this was a potential indicator of vitreous and/or retinal detachment, I returned to my retinal surgeon. He indicated that the retina appeared to be trying to detach, but that he would attempt a laser treatment to secure it into place. He zapped my right eye with unbelievably bright green laser beams, and I was told to rest for another week or so. Unfortunately, only four days later, on a Saturday evening, I began to see a telltale black bubble in the eye. I knew what was coming.

The following Monday morning, I returned to my retinal surgeon, and he confirmed that the right eye's retina was indeed detaching like the left eye had done, at a very rapid pace, which necessitated emergency surgery. That evening, I had surgery on my right eye. But this time, my vision was more sharply affected; for about a week following the surgery, I was unable to read text of any type or size. Karen helped me by reading my email, text messages, and Facebook posts. I would dictate replies, and she would send or post them. For all that week, I have to admit that I felt helpless. Objects were just a blur, the problem being that the first (left) eye had sustained permanent macular damage when its retina detached, rendering me unable to read text in the center of my field of vision. Now, the right eye, although repaired to the extent possible, was also a mess.

The recovery for the right eye took about six to seven weeks. During the surgery, a "buckle" had been secured around my right eye to keep the retina in place, resulting in extreme nearsightedness in that eye. I was prescribed contacts to help in the interim and was told that I would need cataract removal and lens implant surgery in the right eye. (I will actually be starting that process in the next several weeks and hopefully will be able, at the end of that time, to see more clearly.)

But enough of the physical details. What I really want to communicate here is how all this has affected me.

When I experienced the "tree branch" effect that Monday morning, I had literally been minding my own business. I was hanging out at a coffee shop, looking for a new job, and generally doing the things that ordinary people do. When the eye problems led to surgery, I became a person at the mercy of others to a degree -- I could not read clearly, I could not drive myself anywhere, and even my favorite pastime, exercise walking, became something of a challenge. In time, I was able to read and work for short periods on a computer screen, and within the last couple of months, I have started driving again, but only to familiar places and in agreeable weather. I'm dealing with it, and in fact, the whole experience has given me fresh insights.

I don't see things quite the way I did before. When you experience something like loss of vision or, to a more serious degree, a debilitating or life-threatening illness, you start to be very grateful for what you have. Little things, and to paraphrase a popular bestseller, they're all little things, just don't bother me the way they used to. I don't complain as much, because I don't see much to complain about -- I'm just glad to be able to see anything at all. I realize that there are many people who are not as lucky as I am, and to say my heart goes out to them would be a vast understatement.

As many of you know, I have always been a rather social person, some would say an extrovert, so I did not know how I was going to deal with a) being away from a work environment, and b) being by myself. Fortunately, on both counts, I seem to have adjusted. I miss my friends from work, but I see some of them on a regular basis, so I stay up to date on what's happening in my old corporate world. And as for the being alone part, I've learned to value peace and quiet. Some days, I utter no words other than asking the dogs if they want to go outside. This is a complete one-eighty from my old persona. Many of you might be surprised (and amused) to know how quiet I actually can be.

We recently were blessed with the birth of our first grandchild, a sweet boy named Brooks Macalister. His parents, our daughter Sarah and son-in-law Tom, are taking to parenthood as if they'd written the book. When I look into Brooks' bright, inquisitive eyes, I see all that is ahead for him, all the experiences, the successes, and the challenges. I want very much to get past my current infirmity so that we can explore the world together, and I know that's just a matter of time.

My wife Karen has been so incredibly supportive of me, listening to my eye stories, helping me read and navigate, and just generally being there. Our daughters and son-in-law are making their respective ways in the world, and I am quite proud of them all. My friends have gone above and beyond to communicate their care and concern. And this is what it's all about. I can forego the pace of my "old" life if this is what I get in return.

Each day that I can look out and quite literally see the world, rain or shine, is a gift. Maybe in my previous life, I took some of those days for granted, but that is no longer the case. Live it, everyone, because nothing is really guaranteed. Treasure the things you see and the days of your life, regardless of what happens, because change is inevitable, and once in a while, it actually can be good.