Monday, March 31, 2014

Creative Seeds (StoredStory #13 )

I feel lucky that I can think of some wonderfully nurturing moments from my days as a kid in school. Especially if you are a creative type,  nurturing teachers leave lasting impressions. A nurturing moment plants a seed that becomes rooted as a fond memory that will sustain you even in dark times.

When I was in second grade, I had visited my aunt and uncle who own a farm. We lived four hours away from the rest of our family, but we made several visits throughout each year. However, this visit to agrarian living must have sparked something inside; I ended up writing a story. Not only did I write the story, I made it into a picture book that I bound with glue. Having learned from my wonderful school librarian about the anatomy of books, I even created a book spine out of a strip of paper.

I took this book into class one day and showed it to Mrs. Ryan. Mrs. Ryan had a smile as wide as a white-kernel ear of corn. She used to let me help "grade" by checking answers in the teacher's book against what other students had put on their papers. This was probably during times when I was too sick to go outside during recess. I felt special during "grading" and wanted to become a teacher.

When I brought my book in, Mrs. Ryan took time out of our class day to let me stand in front of the class and read my story. As I read, I turned my book toward the class to show the pictures just as my teachers always did when they read to us. The book was peopled with stick figured farmers and stick cows. There was probably a barn. Maybe a house too.

Mrs. Ryan's thoughtful, kind act left such an impression in my young mind. She let me have space to share my creativity with my fellow classmates. What took less than five minutes of class time communicated a lasting message that remains with me to this day.

When I taught English at a technical college, I once asked my students to write a journal entry about a teacher or mentor who had influenced them in some way while they were growing up. Sadly, there were some who could think of no one. (Or, maybe they refused to). I can think of many adults who gave me more than they might have realized by just letting me be me. For that, I am forever thankful.

Children  need moments where mentoring adults plant seeds that will last a lifetime. This is the way the world gets freshly created over and over through the generations from age to age.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Touch Test (StoredStory #12)

I am one of those people who have to feel the texture of objects. Whenever I am in a store with fabrics, I touch many of the ones I pass. I am tactile, perhaps a kinesthetic learner and sensor of the world around me.

This propensity started at a young age, probably way before I ever remember. But, the earliest memory of my kinesthetic longings, if recounted with my mom, would send her blood pressure soaring even to this day.

We were enjoying a cool, early summer day in Cades Cove, part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We lived close, so Cades Cove was often a weekend retreat.

As often happens at Cades Cove, whenever there is wildlife spotted, everyone stops. Time sort of slows down into this sorghum stream, and people take notice of their surroundings. To get around the main points of Cades Cove, you have to drive an eleven-mile, one-way loop. There are many stop offs, but whenever there is a sighting of some sort, there is usually a traffic backup.

On this particular day, a throng of nature-lovers had all joined the sorghum stream and took notice of something in one of the meadows. A fence sliced us off from the meadow. Against the fence tall grasses had grown up just enough where I could not see what was going on because of my five-year-old height.

I was in the middle of the road, among the gawkers with their cameras. I've always kind of had a dreamer quality where I just stand in my surroundings and don't notice the immediate activity around me. I had sunk into one of these musing moments and failed to see that the people had parted as though Moses had struck his rod against the pavement.

I was on one side of the parting, and my parents were on the other. Then, the thing that people had gathered to see emerged from the tall grasses and went under the barb wire. He had a dead fawn in his mouth. The fawn's white speckles of youth sagged on the limp body. The brown fur of the grizzly bear holding the fawn poked out in places. I stood right at the edge of the part in the road as the bear made his way across.

I joined the sorghum time and watched the bear walk as though he were in slow motion. His body was within a foot of mine, and so I did what any curious child might do. I stuck out my hand and felt the fur on the back of the bear.

Now, I'm sure my mom 'had a duck' (what she sometimes likes to call a fit). But, in that brief moment, I learned what a bear felt like. And, the bear didn't seem to mind.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Case of the Popping Button (StoredStory #11)

Zippers and buttons, though small parts of our garments, are quite significant. A zipper or button has the power to change things for you really fast.  When I transferred to a customer service position at a bank, I was shadowing Angela, a fellow a customer service rep during my training. Around mid-morning, a customer walked up to us. She had on a long, navy trench coat that was open. Under that was a solid button blouse.

In the midst of our interaction with her, one of the blouse's buttons took on a mind of its own. The button holding together the fabric over her boobs decided to come loose. So, here we were, listening to this customer's serious concern, yet her brazier and cleavage became exposed. Angela, who was training me, said lightly, "Your blouse," as she delicately pointed her pen toward the woman's chest. The lady, in mid sentence, looked down, fastened the wily button back and continued with whatever she was saying.

Well, the button wouldn't have it. It defiantly undid itself and stuck out its tongue. Bad button, I thought. "Ma'am, your button again," Angela politely interrupted. This time the lady put down her things on the desk and used both hands to re-fasten her shirt. She began once more, not undone by this continued problem.

Wouldn't you know it? The button popped the blouse open again. I stifled a chuckle as I noticed a grin play at the corners of Angela's mouth. This time the customer didn't even need us to tell her that her button had once again come undone. Frustrated, she grabbed both sides of her blouse, pulled them together, and clamped her fist over that devilish button as if she were smothering it.

Angela and I had a nice chuckle over the incident after the customer left. Then my own fiascos with zippers or buttons came to mind.  Poor lady, I thought. I began thinking of that time in fourth grade when I had to be in front of the classroom. Fourth graders are so honest to their peers. A resounding "You're fly's unzipped" reverberated around the room. This was too much for my easily embarrassed fourth grade self; I cried. We had a substitute that day, and she tried to comfort me by telling her own story of her unzipped fly at a ball game filled with tons of people.

Of course, all the comedy or concern with buttons and zippers has to do with what they are keeping hidden, so we use metaphor to talk about them. "You've left the barn door open." The unspoken part of this metaphor is that animals who have wills of their own are kept in barns, so I we tend to think of certain body parts in the same way.

And sometimes things we wish were hidden, aren't. Like what people think or say. We sometimes want to tell people who gab annoyingly to "zip it!" or "button it!" So the fly itself become a metaphor for the mouth, or more precisely how we wish the mouths on other people were under our control with a simple fastening movement.

Yet, many things in life remain hidden except in certain circumstances. And that can make all the difference when something is revealed. Zippers and buttons are emblems of our hidden lives. But, unlike many tools of best kept secrets, when zippers or buttons fail, it's cause for a good laugh or commiseration.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Night My Parents were My Scientific Subjects (StoredStory # 10)

The Ghostbusters movies and cartoon left an indelible impression on me. I used to watch the movies regularly and would never miss the Saturday morning cartoon.

I loved everything about Ghostbusters. The humor, the ghosts, the goblins, the spirit worlds, and the scientific feel. In fact, seeing Egan be so intellectual inspired me to experiment. And, indeed one night I did do an experiment because of Ghostbusters II. This was the night my parents became the subjects of my scientific experiment.

In the second movie, it's five years later, the Ghostbusters are out of business, and we see each Ghostbuster doing his own thing. Ray and Winston are making appearances at the birthday parties of over privileged children, Egan is doing scientific experiments, and Peter is hosting a TV show called World of the Psychic.

It was Egan's experiment that got my juices flowing. In the scene where Dana visits Egan because her baby carriage supernaturally ran away, Egan is testing how human feelings might affect the surrounding environments. In particular, he observes a married couple who believe they are waiting for couples' therapy. He has made them wait a long time while also incrementally increasing the temperature in the waiting room they are in. They seem explosively and deliciously angry.

Hmmm.  In my ten-year-old brain, I wondered if raising the temperature would affect my parents. So, one night, I inched up the thermostat a little. Then, moments later, I went back and edged the arm toward 85 just a little more. It was nearing bed time but, with clipboard in hand,  I began observing the parents. "Uhh hmmm!" I would say to myself as if I were on to great discoveries. But, that didn't last long.

I didn't notice any flaring tempers, which was odd. Maybe heat had the opposite effect on them. At some point, sleep overtook me, but when I woke the next morning I remember asking my dad if he felt mad. I then explained my experiment.

"You know, I thought it was a little hotter in here!" He seemed rather amused about the whole thing.

Even though this experiment was a bust,  it had still been fun trying to see if I got the result I wanted to get.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cats in Red Wagons (StoredStory # 9)

Children are quite impressionable. They also like to act. We call it playing or make believe or dress up. But, kids reenact what they see.  I know I did.

Being raised in the Church of Christ, I saw many baptisms. They dunk you in all the way, too. I also heard many sermons that seemed to last whole afternoons, right during the best play hours on the day before school started again. But nonetheless, I often emulated the things I saw.

I once (probably more than once if we’re realistic here) gathered all my babies, as I called my stuffed animals, in a throng of adherents around the coffee table. Upon the coffee table, I placed my dad’s vintage (Elvis style) microphone and stood before it as I began to preach to the masses. The pound puppies barked their “amens,” and the cats meowed up songs of praise. If I had a pig, I’m sure he oinked.
A year or so later, after a rainstorm, I saw that my red wagon was full of water. The outdoors were still gray and damp, and the air was full of moisture as if ready to seep tears.  Two of our cats just happened to be walking by, and as I gazed from them to the red wagon, I decided they needed to be baptized. So I took up one, and began, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, (Meow) and the Holy Spirit (Meooow!!).” The poor cat clearly was not ready for such a shocking bath of rainwater. He tore away from my hands, and reached a safe distance where he began shaking the water from his feet.   
My parents used to love to tell this story to people. This story -- one among many embarrassing stories--evoked laughter and smiles. Perhaps pride. Pride in the idea that I (this little boy) would be part of a continuing tradition. But, when I think of this story now, I often feel bad for the poor cat. Now I can think about how it must have been for him, which I wasn't able to do yet as a little boy.
Play-acting continues for a lifetime, I think. We perform the lives we see every day, the ones we have internalized, and the ones we envision. Cat-baptism is not part of my script anymore, but remembering it is. Our lives are wagons of reflecting rain water that hold onto old scenes. And, the instant replay is perhaps one of the most defining traits of being human.

Monday, March 17, 2014

F-Bombs Bursting in Air (StoredStory # 8)

My parents protected me from the F-word for as long as they could. My dad considered it the nastiest word a person could possibly ever utter. Although, he didn't particularly care for "sucks" either. I remember when a band playing at a music awards show wore black t-shirts with "War Sucks" in white lettering. Dad was not amused by the choice of wording.  Oh, and that time Stephen King's The Tommy Knockers was supposed to come on TV, Dad thought it was the Tummy Knockers and wondered in horror at the audacity of network TV. The common denominator here is all these words have a sexual element in their etymologies and common usages. Except for Tommy, but you get how replacing the "o" with a "u" changes things up quite a bit!

During my childhood, the F-bomb kept me from being able to watch a lot of movies that I heard other kids talking about. Like Child's Play. In fact, it was Child's Play that introduced me to the concept of the F-bomb before I had ever heard it said. I had seen the VHS boxes on the rental rack at Billy's Grocery. (Nope, I didn't have Blockbuster where I grew up, but the little country grocery store had a two-sided shelf with current titles). Plus, my friend Matthew had told me all about Chucky while we watched the glowing red embers of a camp fire glare menacingly at us during the crisp night. My imagination being what it was, I was scared to death of the idea of a man entering a doll's body via some satanic ritual. But, I was so utterly fascinated and curious. I wanted to see Child's Play.

I needed to see Child's Play. Since I hadn't seen it, I imagined all sorts of horrors. I began having dreams of Chucky being in my room at night. One night in particular, Chucky was climbing up my bed covers at the foot of the bed. With knife in hand, he was pulling himself up, but the covers would slide off of me, and he would land back on the floor. I woke from this dream just as the covers slid over my feet and went off onto the ground. I was paralyzed with fear. I lay there not knowing what to do. In a burst of animal flight or fight, I hopped to the end of the bed, reached and grabbed my covers, and threw them back over me. I don't remember falling back to sleep.

A while later, we visited my aunt and grandmother. My second cousin stayed there a lot, so he had a lot of movies to watch. Looking through the VHS collection, I came across Child's Play. YES! I could now watch this damn thing and get it over with. So, in my coy, childlike way of asking, I began dropping hints that I wanted to see this. All the adults must have had a consultation. I'm sure they went down a list: he's still scared of the dark, he'll want to sleep with someone, what's this movie about anyway?, and oh it has the F-word. In fact, I saw my aunt whisper in my mom's ear about this last detail. That decided it. I could not see it.

But why? I pressed them about it quite a bit. My dad always seemed to try to give a rational answer. "Because it has a word, the most disgusting word in the world in it. It ain't fitting to watch!"

Okay, well this opened a whole new set of questions, and replaced my interest in Child's Play for a hot minute. Ever inquisitive, I wanted to know what word it was. Can't you just tell me? How do you spell it? At least what it starts with? What does it mean? Why is it so bad?

Time went on. I tried at different times to get the word out of my parents. I needed to know. Knowledge was and has always been my way of dealing with the world. Maybe if I knew it, I could go ahead and see Child's Play. No such luck. My parents would not tell me the word.

One day in fourth grade, a couple of us went into the boy's bathroom. Our bathrooms had light blue tiles on the wall. Scrawled  high up on the shiny tiles by the last stall was "FUCK" written in this rather pointy font, kind of like Chiller. As soon as I saw the word, I knew that was the one my parents had remained so tight-lipped about. This was the word they didn't want me to know. Now I knew it. What was so vulgar, I wondered. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew I had better never say it in front of my family. Part of my curiosity had now been settled by an accidental discovery in the field research called life.

And perhaps this is part of the beauty of innocence, and how we try to protect it. We discover the world bit by bit because we are gently released over time into the world. It's like decompressing a scuba diver.

I wouldn't see Child's Play for years to come, but when I did, I don't even think the F-bomb really registered.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Shock in the Yard (StoredStory # 7)

It was a sunny day, but the cool shadow of the house covered me like a damp towel. Mom was working several feet away. I was squatting while running my fingers through blades of grass.

“Little Chuck!”

The cells in my five-year-old  body shook a little at hearing the serious tone in my mom’s voice.

“Stand up, walk into the house and get your daddy.”

There was lawnmower deck propped against a tree near where mom was standing. She had somehow pulled a ligament around her knee while twisting around near the mowing deck to get to me.
I automatically did as told.
 “Tell him to get the hoe.”
Dad was on the couch reading a magazine. He came out side.
“There’s a copper head over there,” mom urged. The snake had been just behind where I was squatting. Later, stories told would go like this: "He almost sat on the snake!"

Dad chopped at the head of the snake. He extracted an oozing white liquid from the snake’s head and explained that was venom.

Mom ended up having surgery, and I’ve always been highly afraid of snakes. I would like to make my peace with serpents, but I find it hard. I respect them, and I don’t believe in killing them. But every time I see one, my cells feel like they’re going to leap from my body in escape.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Knocking Richard - The Anti-Climactic Ending (StoredStory #6)

And, this is the rest of the story. So, after the drunk man named Richard tried to forcefully (yet unsuccessfully) enter my home, I wondered if I'd ever see him again. It's not like I wanted him to come back any time soon, but I feared he might just haunt my neighborhood for a while.

As fate would have it, Richard reared his ugly head again. Well when I saw him again the next day, he was actually reclined, head and all. I came home from work and saw, to my surprise, the neighbor who lives to the left of me and a police officer standing out in the middle of the street. They moved aside as I pulled in my driveway. I went over to see what was going on. I had a slight inkling they might be there because of my new acquaintance. Sure enough, the police officer explained that there was a man on the deck of the neighbor who lives to the right. Not only was Richard on the deck, he was passed out cold on the deck. The officer asked if I knew "that man" or if I knew whether or not he was staying with the neighbors next door. My left-hand neighbor said he had seen the man stumbling around in their yard. "Nope, I don't know him. And, I don't know if he's theirs," I said pointing over there. "But, I've seen him wandering around the neighborhood before." "Well," the officer said, "we'll have to wait for your neighbor to get home before we can do anything.

We all stood waiting for my neighbor to come home. God, why didn't I just call the cops yesterday? Do I tell them what really happened? Do I just keep my mouth shut? At least Richard hadn't hurt anyone. Or had he? Nahh, he's just a drunk guy who probably has no home right now. At the same time, I was kind of relieved. Richard would now be taken care of. Or so I hoped.

My neighbor came home and gave us all a questioning look. "Ma'am, there is a man passed out drunk on your deck. Do you know this man or is he staying with you?" the officer asked. She looked like a bee had just stung her nose. Then she just looked plain amused. "No. Oh wow, I'm surprised the dogs didn't go crazy!"

"Alright, I'll have him removed. It's gonna take some help; he's kinda a big guy. I'll radio it in." The left-hand neighbor and I went back to our respective homes. I ended up making  a few calls. "You won't believe what's going on." As a country dweller who'd moved to the city, I felt so urban all of sudden. My first almost-home invasion. My first time talking to the police because of my almost home invader now squatting his drunk ass on my neighbor's deck. I get oddly celebratory about strange firsts.

"You cannot tell your parents! Your mom'll freak!" my friend Brandon said. True. So, I let my tongue be silent on Richard, even though I usually like to confess such oddities of personal experience to my inner circle.  I finally did tell my parents years later after the freshness of it had worn off.

After leaving everything to the hands of the capable cop, I took a long nap. When I woke up later and made my way to the bathroom, I heard the rhythmic pinging of a diesel engine outside my house. Peaking through my bathroom blinds, I  beheld a fire engine with a passel of firefighters all there to remove a drunk man still obviously passed out.  Relieved, I went back into the quietude of my home. After this Richard experience, I now peak through my door's window anytime there is a knock.  Luckily, I've never seen Richard again, but there's plenty of pesky sales people. And, now I'm more prone to call the police if I see or hear someone or something who might need to be tended to.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Knocking Richard (StoredStory #5)

It was late afternoon when I heard a knock at the door. Being a generally trusting twenty-something at the time, not to mention that I was expecting a possible love interest to pop in any time, I waltzed right up to my door and opened it. I didn't even ask, "Who is it?" The charming prince who I was expecting and who I could just "see" standing on the other side of my door was .... (cough)... a smelly old drunk man with a Santa Claus beard and a cigarette perched in his right ear. Now, in the ten seconds I stared at him, I somehow couldn't get my limbs to close the door. I think I was too stunned, confused, perhaps saddled with that oh-shit feeling when presented with unexpected circumstances.

The man began to push his way in. An invisible acrid cloud of alcoholism wafted over to my nose. I grabbed the man's arm and said the only thing I could think of. "Who are you, sir?" Now, I don't imagine too many people would stop and make room for pleasantries whenever a strange drunk man is trying to bulldoze his way into their houses. But, no, my pleasant personality just can't be overcome even in a crisis. "Richard!" he replied. He grunted as he tried to shove past me. "Well, Richard, you are not welcome here!" I pushed back at the man like a cat who's had it and doesn't want to be held. My  strong-arm maneuver managed to work; I got him back just outside the door post and slammed the door shut. I locked the door and ran for the hallway. Richard began furiously pounding on my door. "What's-a-matter with you!" he roared. I covered my ears fearing I had now entered the scary movie scene of my life. This is where you get killed, Chuck, I said to myself. Thoughts raced through my head. I could just see him breaking a window, bursting in, and taking over me and my house. He'd hold me at knife point, and then he'd light that sweat stained cigarette and stink up my living room. I shuddered. 

All of sudden, the pounding stopped. Oh crap! Was the kitchen side door unlocked? He would go for that next. I ran to it and made sure it was locked. All was quiet. I stepped stealthily through the kitchen, into the hall, back to the living room door. I peaked out. There Richard was falling over in my yard. Then, he got himself up and walked away. Now, normally I would call the cops, but for some reason, I just let Richard go. He could have been a danger to me, to others, and to himself. I swore to myself that the next time I was presented with such a situation, I would call the cops. What if he had chopped up my neighbor down the street? It would be my fault because I could have stopped this whole thing right then and there. But, no, I failed that night, and the problem didn't just go away. But in the spirit of Paul Harvey, I must say there will be 'the rest of this story' I'll tell in #6. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beautiful Skin (StoredStory # 4)

The metallic tray gave me a cold, shiny stare as I surveyed its contents: long-handled swabs, alcohol pads, bandaids, measuring instruments, and a thirty-two ounce jar of Vaseline. "Style your Smile," the poster to the left of me said. Before and after pictures of wrinkle lines around a woman's mouth promised wrinkle erasure. On the wall directly across from this poster was a poster warning about sun damage. It showed pictures of four different skin cancers along with artistic renderings of what happens at the cellular level. Directly across from me hung a two-dimensional peacock with various curvy patterns reminding me of a busy wall-paper. One blue-green feather broke away from the flat pea-fowl surface at the bird's head, hinting that this thing might just tear itself away from the frame and enter into real life. Waiting in only a thin gown for my dermatologist, I had too much time to think about skin. "You have beautiful skin," a guy in a bar once told me. He had done Tori Amos' makeup, or so he said. Hmm, maybe my milky pale tones are pretty? It had to be true since since it was coming from a make-up artist, right? Who am I kidding, he was probably just being flirtatious and lying about Tori Amos'. Still, I took the compliment (and kept it); I think I needed it. This is the only time anyone has said this. Usually it's, "Look at THOSE white legs!"

I looked over at the woman styling her smile and felt bad that she couldn't just accept those wrinkles. I think smile lines are beautiful. Mart, a friend of the family who laughed all the time,  once declared proudly that she liked the lines around her eyes. It meant she had had a happy life full of laughter! Laugh lines, she called them.  I kept looking back and forth between the posters like I was at a tennis match: wrinkle erasure, skin cancer. Skin cancer, wrinkle erasure.  Commercial advertisement, medical information. Medical information, commercial advertisement. Society's  pressure to be "young and pretty"and to defy the beauty of aging had entered the sacred space of the doctor's office. I stared ahead at that pea-cock and hoped he'd peal the rest of his body off and get away. I was ready to help him and get the hell out of there.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Grocery Tale (StoredStory # 3)

I used to work at a grocery store. One slow morning, I was having a conversation with Janice, the Assistant Customer Service Manager, while she was standing at a register during dead time. A lady wearing a striped button shirt with snugly fitted brown denim pants pushed up to the register with a large cart of groceries. As the customer began to put groceries on the surveyor belt, Janice and I continued our conversation in hushed tones. Meanwhile, the lady got on her all fours as though she were about to pay homage to the grocery cart. This didn’t really grab my attention as I realized she was pulling out a large bag of dog food from the lower level of the cart. As I soon learned, timing makes all the difference in the world. Just as Janice finished her tale, I exclaimed rather loudly in reply, “Oh wow!” The lady, who was tugging at the large dog food bag with her back side raised in the air, turns her head and gives me a scorching gaze. Janice chuckled, and I … well, I can think of a number of things I probably wanted to do (like flee the scene), but I just kept my mouth shut and my eyes down and bagged the damned groceries.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Grandpa Breakfast (StoredStory #2)

It was still the dark side of the morning, during that moment when the silence wants to tell you something if you just listen close enough. My 90-year-old grandfather was up at 5:00 am probably just as he had been up for most of the thousands of mornings of his life. I don’t even remember why I was visiting. Only the kitchen light was on. He was bent over the stove frying an egg in a cast iron skillet for his breakfast. “Junior, do you want some breakfast?” “Sure.” That was the only time my grandfather ever made breakfast for me, but it’s enough to last the many thousands of mornings I hope I ever get to live.

Excess (StoredStory #1)

The darkness had just begun to soften the long, hot late summer day. His Trappist habit almost touched the floor, the fronts of his shoes barely poking out from underneath the snow white tunic. We began with the sign of the cross, and he uttered words with his deep bass voice, a thick Bostonian accent, from pages of Modernist poetry. He loved Pound and Yeats. At some point in the talk, Fr. Kelty said, "Ne quid nimis." This was the first time I heard these words from Terence. "Nothing to excess," he explained. I think of this often, and it has been dancing around in my head since yesterday as I had begun to think that even well-intentioned principles can be taken to excess and become damaging. Perhaps, Aristotle's Golden Mean is something to think about.