This is my feature op-ed piece in The Tenessean on Friday
This is my feature op-ed piece in The Tenessean on Friday
I recently discovered a link on the newspaper's website that has every column I've published in the Herald. Beginning with the most recent and scrolling down to my first one back in 2008.
My column in this week's newspaper
If you’re reading this column then you are one of the unfortunate and sulking county residents who is stuck at home while it seems all your friends, neighbors, co-workers, complete strangers, and people you don’t even like are at some exotic location for Spring Break. And yes, if you have to work the entire week in town, then even Mobile, Alabama sounds exotic. The line for the Stuck-Here-in-Spring-Hill support group forms at the rear.
Oh sure, tell yourself that a shopping spree at Lowe’s and a week’s work of back-breaking landscaping is more relaxing than reclining with a mindless novel by a Destin pool. The truth is you’d settle for sitting in a metal chair by a bucket of water if it could just be anywhere in Florida.
While you’re singing the Numb in Nolensville Blues, every family on your son’s travel soccer team is traveling where there is no Gatorade served at concession stands—only those drinks with the tiny umbrellas at the tiki bar. Oh sure, tell yourself that you’re glad you’re not fighting the crowds at Myrtle or Maui, or fighting the crazies in Lauderdale. Why stand in line for overpriced fresh grilled mahi mahi when you’ve got coupons and there’s no wait at Captain D’s?
It might be helpful to actually remind yourself that some people drive hundreds of miles to come HERE for spring break. I know; I couldn’t believe it either. But there are entire regions of our country that could be featured in those Southwest commercials that ask, “Wanna get away?” Places where the Saturday night highlight is a trip to Walmart and a promised stop at Dairy Queen if the kids are good and don’t have a meltdown in the toy aisle…like last Saturday night.
I know, I know, you are sick of reading those Facebook posts of people you’ve never actually met that feature a photo collage of their family horseback riding in Lake Tahoe. And you deleted the comment you really wanted to leave on Melissa’s twenty-seventh post about her cruise. Something about wishing she would stay down indefinitely during her next coral reef dive. A co-worker who sends out Twitter Tweets every hour from Laguna Nigel stands a good chance of finding all his office supplies super-glued to his desk when he returns.
The way to rid yourself of the Floundering in Franklin Funk and to release the discontentment and resentment of being held hostage in Thompson Station is to make the most of the captivity.
Pretend this is your last week in middle Tennessee before an unexpected move relocates you out of state. What is a place in our area you have been intending to visit or have been wanting to experience but have never gotten around to it? It’s sad, but after nine years in West Palm Beach I waited until the week we were moving to sit on the beach to watch a sunrise. Speaking of sunrise, having grown up in Winston-Salem, NC my entire life it was not until shortly before we moved that I attended the magnificent sunrise service at God’s Acre in Old Salem, a historic site that hasn’t skipped an Easter sunrise since 1772.
What historic place have you been planning to visit? What music venue has been on your list for years? What local color restaurant has eluded you season after season, excuse after excuse? What area of natural beauty like Radnor Lake, Cheekwood, or the Natchez Trace have you skipped because…well, it’s always going to be there? There are many ways to enjoy your spring staycation; you just won’t have a sunburn and huge MasterCard bill on Monday to show for it.
On Saturday I unplugged. Disconnected myself from the wall outlet and all things wireless. No internet or e-mail, no Facebook or Twitter, no texting or blogging. My laptop case zipped its mouth shut. No television or iPod. I was going Amish. Not really. At my pastor’s recommendation I entered a 24-hour technology fast, a 1-day abstinence from gadgetry and hyper-connection. Following are some of my notes from the day:
I’m actually writing this with a #2 pencil on lined paper. Yo dog, I’m goin’ old school. Actually I feel caveman-esque. I sense the urge to make fire and etch drawings of a wooly mammoth hunt on the dining room wall. My wife says no.
In the early stages of this tech-diet I feel a sense of freedom—freedom from checking and checking in and re-checking in; freedom from responding to the responses of my original response. I feel the liberation experienced from clipping the leash, cutting the electric umbilical cord which is really more like a bungee cord in that any distance I create from my laptop and smart phone is short-lived and in a moment I will be yanked back to the bridge. I am a great fish with a hook in its mouth and technology is just playing me.
There is also an exhilaration in the fast as if I’m doing something new and daring. I am Lewis & Clark entering uncharted territory, the wild untamed land west of Verizon and Sprint, a place uninhabited by the white man and Steve Jobs, a barren wilderness where no Apple or Blackberry can grow.
There is also a slight uneasiness, a slight anxiety which is always the case in addiction withdrawals I am told. What am I missing? What cans of e-spam are sitting unopened on my shelf? What Groupon offer for micro-derm abrasion facials am I missing? How do I know what’s happening in Egypt? Surely there has been one more scientifically proven weight-loss breakthrough involving the use of acai berries since last night!
What about Facebook friends who depend on me for their daily feedings of witty lines and clever observations? I feel like a terrible cardinal mother who is not bringing food back to the nest. Without a single status update, blog post, or Twitter tweet in a 24-hour period will my friends and followers not think I’m seriously ill, kidnapped, dead, or worse…finally out of material? If someone tweets in a forest and no one hears it does it really exist?
Someone should come up with a Facebook medi-alert bracelet, so that if you fall down the steps and break your spine or your iPad, with just the press of a button all 1,427 people in your social network can immediately be notified not to worry and given the address where to drop off the casseroles.
My wife has her Dell Inspiron on her lap and the rapid tapping of the keys is weakening me. Many years ago during an actual food fast a fender bender accident (not my fault) had me standing outside my car in front of a barbecue joint that was intentionally sending out adulterous aromas into my air. I think I may have drooled on the officer’s clipboard (not my fault). Right now I’m craving a rib plate with a side-order of YouTube.
She continues to type and click her mouse. This is like drinking in front of an alcoholic or lighting up a Winston in front of a smoker on their first day of a Nicorette diet. I forgive her. I should send her an e-mail and tell her so.
Actually I’m doing pretty well. I only have 22 hours and 17 minutes to go…according to this archaic thing on my wrist called a watch. Not that I’m counting or anything. 16 minutes…
Bent forward with my focus on
a sticky stain on the kitchen counter
I raised up and caught my head
on the corner of an open cabinet door.
At first I thought I had been hit by
a sniper’s bullet in the cranium, but
realized that was stupid. No,
it was definitely a flint arrow
filed to a deadly point,
dipped in poison, and fired
from the bow of an Indian warrior,
a tribe enraged that the white man was trying
to take over their ancestors’ subdivision and clubhouse.
Perhaps I was delirious, or
maybe I was thinking clearer than ever,
clearer than before the moment in the 6th grade when
I walked into Russ Queen taking a practice swing
in the batter’s box.
I vaguely remember the impact of
wood and bone colliding at the intersection
in a sound that made the third base coach throw up.
My mother was working the concession stand
so she missed seeing my head
pull out in front of a Louisville Slugger, but the screams
of “Frances, Frances, it’s Ramon!”
catapulted her over obstacles and onlookers.
The slight scar under my right eye
is from the stitches. Healed pretty well, I think,
which may be more than I’ll be able to say
for this new hole bore into my skull.
Perhaps I’m delirious but I’m thinking
that if the doctor has started this pioneer surgery
on my cerebral cortex without benefit of anesthesia
he might as well finish it, because I’m quite comfortable
lying here on the linoleum, though it’s hard to hold still
while our fox terrier is licking my face, and
I’m walking through a field of daisies in
hippy clothes, singing a Joni Mitchell song
to a caterpillar stretched out on my index finger.
I’m just a little delirious, but the dog
thinks I probably have a concussion,
but what does he know??
He probably just wants me out of the way so
he can have the chew toys all to himself.
for a client
Just off Critz Lane the posts have been in the ground
for months now, maybe twenty of them,
evenly spaced, tops level,
awaiting the horizontal planks that will
make them a fence.
Rebecca insists that her heart is open
to love, but I see the posts
jammed into her soil, historical
markers without words, high reaching tombs
without names or dates, wooden
spikes driven into her own heart
but still that is not the death of her.
Hers will be one of suffocation when
love again approaches her property,
as she will rush to her posts and
nail into place the horizontal slats
that will fortress her heart and
fence in its breath.
Tonight I misplaced my glasses somewhere between
the gas station on 31, a pizza pickup down the street,
and hitting a few aisles at the market for basics.
First, I took the car apart like a narcotic agent
looking for cocaine embedded in the upholstery,
then methodically retraced my steps beginning
with clerks at all 3 establishments but none had
collected a pair of clear glasses with thin silver frames
(although the assistant manager at Kroger did offer me
a pair of black frame readers
that had been in lost & found now for weeks.)
Like a detective looking for clues at a crime scene
instead of $70 glasses among bags of baby carrots,
I left no wheat loaf unturned, the twist being
the inspector is secretly also the prime suspect.
Truth is, I often retrace the steps of my journey,
sweeping the emotional equivalent of a metal detector
along the ground, looking for relics of my past
like some here in Franklin turn the soil
looking for arrowheads or civil war bullets.
And sometimes I revist my more recent navigations,
usually at the end of the day-- retracing decisions,
actions and conversations, often
wishing I could re-enlist sounder reasoning,
launch fewer regrets, and
re-draw the outcomes.
When the night mind
won’t release the curtain, the
sleepless stage becomes a playground
for hyperactive children with undisciplined
imaginations and disorganized reasoning,
littering the platform with strewn toys and
games, discarded dolls, and puzzles with
vital pieces scattered, turned
upside down and colorless, that
plea for reconciliation
and appeasing resolution.
The open fire is small and contained,
inviting a close chair, a pipe
and a glass of wine,
the flames casual and hypnotic,
an orange glow in the timber cellar,
throbbing, making the wood
crackle and hiss, a faint whistle
from inside the grain.
I’m grateful for this slight breeze north
that leans the smoke back; and I don’t know
how long I’ve been staring into
my tiny arson.
Then with an iron tool and gloved hand
I poke the embers, maneuver the kindling, and
adjust the planks though they are ripe
right where they are.
Why is it so hard to just
let a really good fire be?
As the blood from the cut
trickles down the right side of my palm
it finds the etched lines of my handprint,
discovers them open like dry creek beds
and rides them like streams and
tributaries where they join forces
and forge a blood river down the
prominent groove that runs
like a crescent from above my thumb to
the shore line of my wrist;
and just past those faint carvings
the underside of my forearm is smooth
as slate and does not divert the flow
anywhere but straight down toward my elbow.
I want to see how long it takes the spring
to clot and close its mouth, how long it takes
a wound to say enough,
how long an offense will pride itself open,
how long it takes for an artery to
make amends with its cover.
I woke just as dawn was peeling the day,
and with my eyes closed tried to guess what
t-shirt and boxers I was wearing
beneath the covers pulled to my neck.
I guessed the medium blue boxers with
the gold diamonds and the grey t-shirt
with the gym logo on it.
I was wrong—black & grey boxers with crosshatches
of thin maroon stripes, white t-shirt
from a half-marathon.
That’s OK, I’ve been wrong before when
my eyes were closed, thinking
something was one way
when in fact it was another.
My newspaper column coming out later this week.
“Snow crystal formation is very sensitive to local conditions. If you consider the life of a snowflake, you find that its shape is determined by its history . As the crystal blows about inside the clouds, a developing crystal experiences ever-changing temperatures and humidity levels along the way. Each change in its local environment causes a change in the way the crystal grows. After numerous twists and tumbles, the final structure can be quite complex. And since no two snowflakes follow exactly the same path, no two are exactly alike."
( from Ken Libbrecht's "Field Guide to Snowflakes", Voyageur Press )
Today's personal & spiritual shape is influenced by my history--experiences, people, relationships, conversations, books, decisions, even the most seemingly insignificant events. In fact, everything since my birth has collaborated and conspired to influence my current formation. 1/100th of a degree in temperature sculpts an unduplicated snow crystal as does passing through an imperceptible change in humidity. Likewise, the smallest changes and movements in our daily life are molding us, usually imperceptibly, as though the earth’s rotation were a potter’s wheel, we being altered and smoothed in each day’s turning.
To be at any peace with who I am and where I am today is to recognize the sculpting influence of my entire life up to that moment, including the things I might wish away or prefer had happened much differently. That doesn’t mean I am to be grateful for tragedy or applaud evil (mine or someone else’s). But it does mean that I am not immobilized by despair, regret, or resentment.
And please note that the sovereign shaping of the journey does not remove my personal responsibility. I am often amazed by how passive we can be and how much we underestimate the influence we have in our directions and outcomes. Control is always an illusion, but influence is ever-present and vital. Too often we watch influence sit in the driveway with the engine running, waiting for a driver, while we are by the side of the road with our thumb out, ready to hitch a ride with any experience that will pick us up. That is not contentment or peaceful living—that is complacency, laziness, and irresponsibility. “Que Sera Sera” is a song by Doris Day, not a verse in Proverbs.
Last year I was struck by a segment of an interview with NFL running back Ricky Williams who by most measures squandered his incredible talent and potential. He had neither emotionally healthy parents nor a nurturing childhood. But in response to whether he blamed his later and present troubles on his parents and upbringing said, “If I place all the blame on my past for who I am then I’ve given away all my power. If I make this all my parents’ fault then I’m trapped because I make them the only ones who can fix me. And they can’t.” The spiritual and emotional maturity of such words could not be more gripping if they came from a prophet or priest.
In conclusion I’m inclined to see the wisdom in the simple Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Few people are aware of the remainder of the sage prayer penned by Reinhold Niebuhr:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
As you watch the snow falling, think of the shaping journey of each flake, and consider your own life. Accept and even honor the journey that has helped form you, and welcome the invitation to join in the further influence.
My client told me
what her husband said to her
three years ago
with people around
in the Nashville airport
on the way to Aruba
for their honeymoon.
I don’t know why she got on the plane,
handed him the room key, or undressed
in the bathroom with the anticipation
of one facing the gallows.
She doesn’t remember agreeing
to the move to Tennessee, to
selling her stock options, or passing
babies through her womb while
he passed through other ones.
She doesn’t know why she said yes
to buying the house, though Westhaven
was certainly THE neighborhood at the moment,
and the hardwoods in the spacious foyer
made her think of an oak pond and the
jeweled chandelier above an
upside down fountain
She can’t make sense of saying yes
to any house, even this utopic one zoned for
the best schools, with resort-like amenities
that inflame envy in all guests, who
first marvel at the decorated interior straight out
of the pages of Southern Living, and who comment
on the exterior brick façade of a perfect marriage.
The landscaping—they have a guy for that. Pool
maintenance, a guy for that too. Protection when
Robert pulls a kitchen knife from its sleeve
in the mahogany block
that rests with great poise
on the granite-top island?
She doesn’t have a guy for that.
Let’s pretend there are 2-ft drifts up
against the door and it’s still coming down
with the temps in single digits and
a wind chill of only-God-knows-what
instead of the mere inch of powder on
the sidewalk that has closed the schools
and sent even the lactose intolerant sliding
off into ditches racing to the store for bread and milk.
How about we cut out all the lights
and put a blanket & pillows
by the fireplace, the wine within reach
and open the doors, lift the windows
and let the snow flurries
blow in all around us and melt
on our bodies.
Huh? OK, more blankets, yea I
guess we could do that. An electric
blanket? I don’t think so but…
What? Close the doors and windows?
But what about the romantic image of
snow swirling around our bodies,
warm as embers, practically hot stove tops
that sizzle and simmer the melt?
OK, doors and windows closed. Can I
pour you another glass of...say what?
Yes, I suppose a bit of the warm air does
escape up the chimney...
Excuse me? A candle and a
space heater by the couch
in the TV room upstairs? And what?
Um, sure I can make coffee.
This is next week's newspaper column
I think it would be a great service to holiday shoppers if the county hired football and basketball referees to blow the whistle and throw the flag on shopper and driver violations, enforcing standards of appropriate behavior, and thereby making Christmas shopping more pleasant for everyone. Here are some violations which should be penalized.
Delay of Game: Waiting until the sales clerk announces your total purchase before you begin digging through your purse for your wallet. Tack on 5 extra yards for use of checkbook or any slow and thoughtless action that causes the train of frazzled shoppers behind you to reach for pepper spray.
Lane Violation: Continuing to turn left on Mallory Lane despite the stoplight turning red five minutes ago.
Illegal Shift: When the last person in line leaps in front of everyone else when a new register is opened.
Double Dribble: Any dividing of items while at the register so as to use two different credit cards or methods of payment for separate transactions. Also a delay of game.
Technical Foul: Called on any customer who is rude to a store employee who is paid a minimal wage and has been on his/her feet since the store opened at 8 a.m.
Illegal Procedure: Flagrant attempt to use an expired coupon, attitude often resulting in technical foul and delay of game. Three penalties for the price of one.
Personal Foul: (Over the Back) Someone reaching over your shoulder to grab the sweater or Chia Pet you were eyeing.
Intentional Grounding: Man dropping the Victoria’s Secret bag behind a display at Belk when he sees someone he knows from church.
Taunting: Man being caught with Victoria’s Secret bag before he could ditch it.
False Start: Walking to your car merely to deposit packages while another car has been trailing you in order to get your vacated parking space.
Illegal Substitution: Trying to execute an item exchange or refund without a receipt. When this violation occurs at register instead of customer service desk tack on delay of game penalty.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The tantrum or meltdown of a child in Toys-R-Us. Parent is actually the one penalized… for wisdom failure. (What did you think would happen if you brought a nap-needing 4 year-old into a toy store?)
Back Court Violation: In mid-transaction, the paying customer suddenly realizes he forgot an item from the sporting goods department which is in another zip code. He dashes off toward the store’s horizon and pledges to “be right back”. Tack on delay of game penalty.
Illegal Screen: When a shopper straddles the path of two checkout lines rather than committing to one line and staying in it.
Chop-Block at the Knees:What will happen to any man who buys his wife another gift with the words “As Seen on TV” on the package.
Off-sides: When drivers of large SUVS don’t seem to know what the white lines in a parking lot are there for.
Pass Interference: Mall shoppers who walk slower than a monk with a migraine and don’t stay to the left.
Holding: Walking around store carrying the last available unit of an item (Cheez Whiz Cookbook) you don’t really want and probably will not buy. Also hiding any item in the store (such as Math-Whiz Barbie behind a row of paint cans ) in order to check price at store across the street.
Excessive Celebration: Bragging that you snatched the last unit of an advertised item, of which the store only had four in stock to begin with. Penalty is doubled if item is a 6 a.m. door buster special where several shoppers are being treated for hypothermia and frostbite.
There is an Indian tribe whose members
ration their words and choose them carefully
because they believe we are appointed a
certain number of words to speak during our life
and then we die.
I, on the other hand, seem to treat
letters and words
like coins and currency, filling
some bottomless account with
deposits that are not even kept
and cannot be spent.
What if I'm struck down in mid-sentence, poised
with poetry or prose, describing a mountain stream
or declaring love from my death bed that
I thought was a chair in a coffee shop?
why does everyone have to make
so much noise at 6 in the morning?
with their bare feet on the hardwoods, doors
and drawers opening and closing, clothes hangars
scraping on the rod, spoons clanking in cereal bowls,
shampoo bottles falling in the shower, hairdryer
on low, books being stacked, papers shuffled,
backpacks zippered, school bus striving up the hill,
a bird singing under the awning.
will everyone please get to the
places where they need to be;
I need everyone to be quiet so I
can lie here in my dark room
and listen to the rain fall.
it’s not enough to know it’s raining,
or even see it. I need to hear it--a steady rain,
not aggressive but firm,
not a flooder but a cleanser,
to wash out the dust and leaf pollen
in the air, the bird droppings off the car,
rinse grief off the sidewalk, disappointments
and lingering hurts off the steps,
get at resentments stored
deep in the wood on the back deck.
let the downpour loosen lofty goals
and ambitions from the roof, collect
in the gutter then pass through
the downspout into the ground.
let the pooling run down the street against
the curbs toward the storm drains,
taking with it regrets and humiliations,
defensive pride that rises up
when I feel foolish or underestimated.
and by all means let the streams converge and
boil in their meeting, and let them swirl all around
the pitch of earth they would trap in the center, but
be assured they will find Hope there to be a
most stubborn and sturdy island.
I wish I was writing this today from my Florida room,
not the airy solar-warmed addition on the back of
the house, walled by glass, fused with natural light,
ceiling fan moving slow enough to count the blades,
hanging baskets of ferns taking the soft
sun of morning, one African violet that thinks
it has found paradise next to a
bowl of pears on an end table,
strong coffee in a china cup sweetened
with brown sugar cubes from
a tiny bowl with matching lid, a yellow
pencil reclining on a white bed of paper,
a finished poem resting by my arm
like a satisfied lover.
No, I mean an actual Florida room—a room in
Florida, preferably south Florida,
specifically Palm Beach,
to catch the morning sun and
then Naples in the late afternoon
when the sun lies down on the ocean
and dims the day.
Actually, almost any room in Florida will do,
just a warm room with a window, or
maybe one overlooking a stand of palms
and a tree of Honeybells where I plucked a perfect orange for breakfast.
This is my newspaper column for next week:
Being a marriage therapist and a Titans fan I offered to donate my services for couples counseling to Jeff Fisher and Vince Young. Though a clear violation of client confidentiality I’m publishing here a partial transcript of our first session on Wednesday.
Counselor: Thank you both for being here today. Do either of you have questions as we begin?
Vince: Is it OK if I Twitter during the session?
Jeff: What time does this end; I have another Saint Thomas commercial to shoot.
C: I can see reconciliation is high on your agendas.
J: I’m not high. Why would you say that?
C: No, I meant…never mind. Jeff, I understand that you didn’t invite Vince over to spend Thanksgiving with your family. Why is that?
J: You’re kidding, right?
C: Vince, if Jeff had invited you, would you have gone?
V: I don’t know. Did they have fried turkey or just oven roasted? Actually, he’s never invited me over for Thanksgiving. I bet Kerry Collins has been there.
C: That sounds like a resentment with some history to it. I think we’re getting somewhere.
V: I bet Coach & his wife and Collins & his wife are all just real cozy friends.
C: Jeff is divorced, Vince.
V: Oh, well… Coach has never really wanted me. I know he really wanted Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler in the draft.
J: Maybe. OK, so Vince wasn’t my first choice. But Mr. Please-Bud-Out Adams wanted a new toy. And one from Texas.
C: Hmmm, another clear vein of resentment. We’re making progress. Please continue…
J: Aw c’mon, the owner is 137 years old and is in bed before 6:00 SportsCenter. He doesn’t know what goes on in the real world of football.
C: Jeff, would you prefer to work for an owner who is more knowledgeable, but stalks the sidelines, and gets involved in everything like Jerry Jones?
J: Is the Cowboys job open?
C: Wow, your face really lit up there, Jeff. But I think you probably have a better shot with the Bears. But that’s not important right now. Back to the rift between the two of you. Jeff, I understand that Vince sent you an apology on Monday after the game. An olive branch of sorts.
J: Yes, but it fell short just like most of his passes.
C: That’s really cold. How does that make you feel, Vince?
V: I think Coach is glad I’m out for the season, that my thumb is messed up.
J: Yea, now you can just sit at home and suck your thumb like a b…
C: I think that was uncalled for…
J: He makes Randy Moss seem like a mature Scout leader by comparison.
C: I think this spiraling down…
J: You mean, like a tight spiral, on target to a receiver? That might be a first.
C: Alright, I think we’ve done enough damage here today. Vince, anything you’d like to say before we go?
V: Hold on, I’m getting a text. It’s from Mr. Adams. He says, “Vincent, what are you doing for Christmas? Love, Bud.”
J: Oh he’s your love bud, alright. Christmas with the Addams Family. I’d hate to miss that comic farce.
C: We’re definitely done here.
V: Yo shrink, this session was really short and not helpful at all. You get paid for doing this?
C: Well, when you’re on a tight deadline and have a 600-word limit, you can’t expect miracles.
Why aren't tears more like October leaves
on the maple, finite in number
that fall but once and pool,
dehydrate and blow away
Why are they the fluid of some
artesian spring cored in the earth,
infinite and eternal in flow, no
discernable beginning or end as
though a golden ring
or the water in a magician's vase
that tips and empties out,
only to be replenished by the supply
hidden in the hollow walls
To protect my heart
I encased it in a ticket booth and
built a parking garage over it, four floors
positioned snuggly between an office high rise
and a condo tower, with a bank and
Italian restaurant at the corners
I changed the street to one-way
traffic, though the road is often closed
for repairs and is completely shut down
on weekend nights and is heavily
patrolled on weekdays.
I erected a detour sign before
the on-ramp and placed orange cones
in the turn lanes.
I restrung the river to encircle the city
like a moat and hired captains in costume
to steer gondolas through the round to
give it a friendly feel.
At the pick-up window the girl with the headset
said they were brewing a fresh pot and asked me to
pull over into this space and someone would
bring my coffee to me.
That was few years ago now.
My son graduated from high school last May
and in August my wife served me with papers.
I heard that I got called for jury duty back in ’09.
The battery died when I was listening to
the Titans-Packers game in ’08 and I’d still like to know
how that turned out. Got word that we
elected a new president. From bumper stickers
I take it that we are still in Iraq.
I could use some new reading material and
I bet I’ve missed some good movies. The holidays
have been pretty forgettable; I didn’t
even put up a tree this year.
I’m wishing now I had backed into this space
so instead of facing the side wall
of the dry cleaners I’d be looking out of
my windshield through the rain at
gray things that have some semblance of
life and movement to them, like clouds
and bare trees, people slumped in
overcoats, tires moving on pavement.
I take my coffee with cream and sugar.
driving into town
in a fog that no sun can burn off
i passed a light-bearded hiker
walking along I-65 with a camping backpack.
no one will ask him to produce goods and services today,
articulate his feelings, or defend a position.
there is something about his passions and ambitions
being hollowed out that I envy and I don't know why.
One of last week's newspaper columns
Saturday Morning in Suburbia
by Ramon Presson
Cardboard and poster board
yard sale signs at every intersection
and subdivision entrance
from here to the Maury County line,
these are the driveways where
we the middle class
set up our flea markets
and let total strangers
rummage through our belongings--
the discarded clothes, toys,
books, music, and outdated lamps,
the artwork, dishes, and kitchen appliances,
clock radios, brass decorative items,
electronics, plaid throw pillows
VHS movies, and exercise equipment
we couldn't live without and
MasterCard said we didn't have to.
Now other suburbanites, like homeless people,
are going through our trash and asking
does this work, and how much
will you take for this cutlery set
when the homemade sticker with the price
is right there on the damn thing
cause everybody wants to talk you down,
as if you should give a further discount for
something that is already on
your entire life's clearance rack
and you want to say, heck just take it, cause
you know she don't want it that bad, but
she's addicted to mediocrity like everyone else,
like the lady there in the aqua warm-up suit,
the one with board games in her arms
who said "I Do"
in the church to a guy she didn't really
have any use for, but he was a bargain and
she had a place for him
next to the curio cabinet.
I’d have to investigate it but I suspect that yard sales and garage sales are a uniquely American experience. I’m not sure how they started but I suspect that perhaps in the 1820’s somewhere out West a woman said to her husband, “This old butter churn is busted. I’m going to throw it away.” And her husband said, “No, wait! We’re in town this Saturday because the kids don’t have travel soccer. Price it at 2 bucks and we’ll put it in a garage sale. I guarantee you some nut will buy it.” “That’s a great idea!” said the prairie wife. “What’s a garage?”
My experience with garage sales is that the oddest things are the first to go. When I was a teenager I correctly predicted that a non-working lamp whose base and shade were made entirely of popsicle sticks would be one of the first items to sell. I was a confirmed prophet of profits.
Several years ago in South Carolina we did one of those combined family sales in our driveway. I told Ron that I was certain that the actual camel saddle from India (not kidding) that he placed on my card table would be a very early 1st-round pick in the Presson-Geyer junk draft. When it was bought by the first person who showed up (45 minutes early while we were still setting up) I
heard the voice of God telling me to go on a mission trip to Las Vegas.
I remember the yard sale on Rushland Drive when I was a kid. People were getting past us and pulling stuff out of our garage and saying, “How much you want for this?” Mom had to say, “Please put our washer and dryer back. And no, the kid is not for sale.” Someone made an offer on our car. I was waiting for someone to say, “I’ll give you 25 cents a piece for these 8-track tapes, and how much will you take for the house?”
I think realtors perhaps should forgo hosting Sunday Open Houses and do yard sales instead. “Jim, look at these cute dresses. Huh? Well, that style might come back. And I could fit into several of these if I ate nothing but sea kelp for the next four years. Oh my gosh, don’t you just love the color of vinyl siding they used on this house? Go see if there’s a price tag on the front door.” I’m thinking a sharp real estate agent could close the deal on the spot, especially if he threw in an authentic Indian camel saddle.
My column in this week's newspaper
Bullying has garnered a frequent spotlight in the news during the past year, with recent instances of children being murdered by bullies or of teen suicides following episodes of bullying. The bullying is not limited to boys being intimidated and roughed up by other boys in the middle school hallway. Girls are bullied by other girls. If art indeed imitates life then consider the comedy film Mean Girls and Stephen King’s not-so-funny Carrie.
In 2007, nearly one in three students between the ages of 12-18 reported having been bullied, up from one in seven in 2001. But it doesn’t stop in high school as recent university tragedies testify. Neither is it limited to face-to-face intimidation. A recent federal study determined that more than half of 15-16 year olds say they have experienced a form of cyberbullying ( threatening e-mails, public ridicule and humiliation, posting of private information, photos and even videos).
But bullying is hardly limited to youths harassing their peers. Parents bully children while older siblings bully younger ones. Many of us have witnessed or even experienced being bullied by a teacher, a coach, or by some other adult with power and authority. And here I’m not even flicking the tip of the iceberg of physical or sexual abuse.
But adults are well- accustomed to bullyhood as well. Because bullying is not just physical intimidation, both husbands and wives may act as terrorists in more subtle ways. Yelling, cursing, threatening, name-calling, accusing, blaming, guilting and shaming, mocking and ridiculing, are all forms of marital bullying. I often see couples pointing the past in each other’s faces like invisible guns and knives. Controlling one’s spouse is also a form of marital bullying.
And who among us hasn’t felt bullied by a boss or a company that dangled job security over our head like a spider over a flame? Who hasn’t wondered if their employer or supervisor wasn’t reading and employing principles from Attila the Hun’s Guide to Leadership ?
But neither is it confined to bullying by an individual. Corporations bully others into forced mergers and buyouts. Nations bully other nations. People groups, nationalities, and religions bully those they don’t like.
Bullying is possible when one can intimidate and create a fear of one or more of the following….
* being physically harmed
* emotionally abused
* neglected or abandoned
* verbally attacked
* publicly humiliated
* professionally/vocationally hindered
* financially damaged
By and large we are seldom successful at bullying our friends because unlike family or co-workers we instinctively know that friends won’t tolerate our behavior and can/will just walk away (temporarily or permanently). But co-workers or employees may feel trapped by job security and financial pressure. Family can feel trapped by commitment, obligation, and nowhere to turn. There are multiple ways to black-mail people we work or live with and there be no mention of a suitcase full of cash.
In sports a player or a coach cannot just say anything to an umpire or referee without risk of technical foul or ejection. But in homes and offices across America there is bullying in measures of frequency and severity that could make getting chewed out by a drill sergeant seem like a pep talk in comparison.
We certainly need to provide programs and guidance in schools to educate kids how to respond effectively to bullies whether on the playground or in cyberspace. We need measures of protection for the innocent and measures of accountability for the perpetrators. But we must also recognize and confess that as adults, both in small private moments and on grand global stages, we have regularly and shamelessly modeled bullying to a generation looking to us for cues in how to succeed in this life.
After my father died I asked his widow
if I could have the 8-ball from his billiards table,
not the mahogany table itself with its green felt bed,
not the pine setter, not his favorite ash cue stick,
and not the entire set of stripes and solids,
just the 8-ball, the sinister black solid
that disqualifies on a scratch, that
anoints a winner by outlasting its comrades,
surviving as the sole soldier on the battlefield.
I considered placing the 8-ball in my father’s coffin,
polished oak with brass accents and white satin bed,
the ball not clutched in his hand, but
tucked in the far left corner pocket
where he would have called it.
Instead I kept the ball, possessive with it
as a portion of my inheritance along with
his car, a journal of his rhymings, the
bent of introspection, and the
ability to laugh and breed laughter even
with infertile subjects.
One of my current newspaper columns
Three Little Words
by Ramon Presson
While there was a delay
up ahead at the counter
I offered the lady in front of me a spare
copy of a 30% Off coupon.
She looked at the coupon and then back
at me while her face imitated a sunrise.
“Oooh, I love you,” she said.
I wish years ago I had known it was this easy.
Decades now lost, invested in offering
attention and affection, the currency of
quality time spent along with kind deeds,
thoughtful questions, interest in the answers,
romantic poems handwritten in calligraphy,
candles and arranging moonlight to
hit the window just so,
miles upon miles of garden walks,
handfuls of fresh cut flowers,
picnics with expensive cabernet,
four seasons of conversation
and now, only now, do I learn
that a bookstore coupon offering
a third off the highest priced item was
all that was needed.
Of course, my poem above is tongue-in-cheek, an exagerrated (and untrue) pronouncement that love requires very little expression in order to be convincing. Authentic love doesn’t look for loopholes and discounts. It doesn’t seek and settle for minimum effort in the vein of “What’s the lowest grade I can make on this exam and still pass the course?” To the man who furrowed his brow in rows deep enough to plant seeds and said, “Why do I have to tell her I love her?” I wanted to reply, “Why does she have to refrain from poisoning your food?” Instead I made my stunned silence appear as a pregnant pause that could give birth to him answering his own question. He didn’t.
As a counselor I am often amazed by spouses who treat marriage as though it were a government job in Cuba, where according to Cuban officials just showing up is enough to keep your job. I’m not suggesting that we constantly have to perform, jumping through flaming hoops like circus dogs or juggling swords while riding a unicycle on the high wire. But authentic love seeks opportunities to care; it welcomes chances to delight. Marriage is not a cactus.
A few years ago a cheap cactus became mine after an impulse buy at Publix. I don’t have a green thumb. I’ve managed to kill silk plants. I set the cactus atop a cluttered book shelf near a window in my study. About a month later I suddenly remembered I had the cactus and actually checked on it, expecting to see it drooping like a willow. On the contrary, it looked green and as succulent as the day I brought it home. However, it was less forgiving of subsequent months of neglect and was ultimately deemed beyond reviving. Neither marriage nor parenting is a cactus designed to thrive despite minimal attention and care. Close relationships are more like a flower bed that requires a thoughtful gardener.
I know of a husband who has for years not given gifts to his wife for Valentine’s Day, her birthday, or their anniversary. His reasoning: I’m just not a gift-giver. I couldn’t pull the legs off that excuse and it be any more lame. I know of another husband who tells his wife he loves her and compliments her appearance but undermines that admirable effort by regularly burying her under an avalanche of raging profanity. And he wonders why she doesn’t feel loved. Here’s something to keep in mind lest your words contradict themselves or your actions impeach your words: Regardless of how sweet the iced tea, battery acid always gives it a bitter taste.
I took that tiny seriated knife
from the pumpkin carving kit
to fix the way my frown forms a rainbow arc,
both ends depositing gloom into my chin.
So I sliced upward, a northeast curve
through the Orbi Oris which is no ordinary
sphincter muscle, not when
the strata of fibers weave a web high up
into the face and down into the lips.
Unfortunately I sawed into the Buccinator set which
every at-home surgeon knows NOT to do,
so I said what the hell
and plowed on through the Modiolus
and the Maxilla like a pizza cutter.
I wish I hadn’t severed the Orbi Oculi because
it snapped like a tense rubber band, knocking out
the support system for that side of my face.
My cheek sent an avalanche of puffy flesh
slipping down the mountain,
a sight which caused my right eye to panic
and almost jump out of the window.
I really thought my nose might go at any moment.
The mirror is telling me I made a big mistake.
I should have practiced on my left side first.
I was honored to be invited by poet Stellasue Lee and the editor of Rattle literary journal, Timothy Greene, to write a review of Stellasue Lee's book Firecracker Red, her second Pulitzer nominated collection of poetry.Stellasue is my writing coach and mentor so I was certainly surprised by the request but thrilled (and nervous) to do it. I'm delighted and relieved that both she and Tim really like the review. It will appear November 10th. (Posting poems inside prose paragraphs in Typepad is truly maddening with floating margins and line breaks that have a mind of their own. I apologize for the difficulty in reading the poems selections below.)
Reviewed by Ramon Presson
by Stellasue Lee
Cardinal House Publishing
5001 Fremantle Court
Spring Hill, TN 37174
2010, 117pp., $19.95
If Stellasue Lee were a storeowner and her poetry the products, hers would be a most inviting shoppe, the kind that quickens the pulse with anticipation upon entering while simultaneously quieting the heart. Lee’s poetry is generous in its hospitality. It invites browsing and sitting with the piece for a while.
Honestly, I’ve grown weary of rambling or disjointed verse that hopefully has some special or at least discernable meaning for the poet but is a labyrinth in the dark for the reader. I am not willing to go on a scavenger hunt inside a poem with senseless clues. A friend of mine said to me after reading a long poem in The New Yorker, “It must be good; I didn’t understand it.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who invented monotone speech, once remarked, “If you’re famous and you bore people, they think it’s their fault.” Many poetry aficionados applaud elitist poetry for the same reason that we clap during an opera—we don’t understand a thing that was said, but these singers have amazing voices and apparently a good command of Italian.
Lee’s craftsmanship, however, invites you to pick up the piece, hold it, turn it over, examine the colors, feel the texture. In a recent interview with her local newspaper Lee said, “If there is any phrase in firecracker RED that’s not understandable I’ll fall on my sword. I wrote it so people could know me and be with me.” Lee knows how to serve her readers. Consider “Bits of Flying Glass”, where Lee writes,
At last we realize that there’s
no one but ourselves to sweeten
the torrent of days, stacked
one against the other,
with no proper bookends
to keep them together…
There is a both a gentleness and an edge in this new collection of poems, most written following her move from Los Angeles to middle Tennessee. Lee proves to be a keen observer of the landscape and moments around her (the way the wind blows off the Pachaug River, Christmas lights taken down in February, a man blind in one eye welding without goggles) as well as the movements within, and she displays a remarkable ability to connect the outer and inner worlds. The poet holds light-heartedness and sadness in her two hands, a reflection of both her positive and hopeful spirit as well as her grief (for her parents and especially Jillian, her daughter tragically killed as a young adult in an auto accident).
Love and loss—the actual experience, or the inescapable risk of it—are present in many of Lee’s poems. And the risk of loss is also about the encroaching realization in later years of inching closer to one’s own finale. But that acute awareness does not gloom Lee’s poetry. Consider the delightful “For This, For Everything I’m Almost Out of Time”:
I-65 North going into Franklin, I pass by a family of buffalo.
The bull positions his hugeness between the freeway,
the cow and the calf. That offspring almost as large as his sire.
Just to the right and beyond the buffalo, a white cross stands
in a ditch, stabs upward toward infinity. The name, John Lunn,
clearly visible written in black on the shoulder of the cross.
I always wave, Hi John, as the car speeds by at 75 mph.
This has been going on for eleven months now, ever since
we arrived in middle Tennessee. I have caught a speeding
train. It races toward a birthday that is considered by most
rational beings to distinguish middle age from old age.
So plain is it to me that I am moving through these last years
at an accelerated speed. It’s time I start making some contacts
you understand, who have already passed over to the other side.
While she is certainly attentive and responsive to the natural world around her as evidenced by affectionate nods to a gaggle of geese, a feasting squirrel, a beloved cat, or a female cardinal that flew into her glass window, Stellasue Lee is most insightful about the human heart and its longing for relationship. (While many know that her PhD is in literary studies, few are aware that Lee’s Master’s degree is in counseling.) Her honoring of the rhythms of life, the delicacies of the human spirit, and our core yearning for love make regular appearances throughout firecracker RED.
Reading this collection of poems reminds me of the angst I feel when enjoying the first tastes of an exquisite dessert. At first I’m so thrilled I’m inclined to devour the heaven in one sitting and suck the spoon clean. But then I’m conflicted because I know that the last bite brings its own grief. To indulge and devour or to sip and savor is always the dilemma when engaging great writing.
The final poem on page 117 is a master poet’s bow to an appreciative audience before slipping off stage. I was disappointed that she did not return for encores on subsequent pages. But I trust that Stellasue Lee will interpret the lingering applause as a plea for more in another book, another performance this grand.
You think I’m just an ordinary couch,
don’t you? Just another sofa
in this (or any other)
wrinkled second hand store
with one dim-lit employee
who doesn’t know squat
about fabrics or wood grains.
OK, so you sat one family for a lifetime
of T.V. shows and rented movies,
faces aimed straight ahead on parallel lines
that rarely intersected, voices muted
by a universal remote, hearts unplugged,
knees that didn’t touch.
Me? I listened to a thousand stories
from a single file parade of the soul starved
who waited their turn, held their place
in line with their teeth, gripping their
in this deli queue for the disordered
like it was a winning lottery ticket.
I’ve kept the secrets of villains and
victims, filed between my cushions
the case notes of betrayals and addictions,
longings and lostings,
body sins and head wounds,
and the heart explosions which I muffled
and absorbed with no telling stains.
My current newspaper column
A patch of sparse grass on level ground about the width and length of a driveway is the perfect runway playground for preschool children. Especially at a city park. Especially when their parents are listening to a concert and don’t wish to concern themselves with supervising restless children up past their bedtime, their tiny adrenal glands buzzing with Dr. Pepper.
However, when that noisy game of chase and tag is taking place with a dozen children right in front of the ground-level stage during and throughout an entire concert by a serious group of musicians, I must ask a question: Parents, what are you thinking?!
It is Saturday evening at Thompson Station Park, site of the October 9th festival. Kelsey Muse, a local and extremely talented young singer-songwriter (think Avril Lavigne meets Taylor Swift) is playing a set of her poignant tunes with her band in the park’s small amphitheatre. Note that I said small amphitheatre, not mosh pit. Granted, nobody reasonably expects small children energized by vibrant music to act drugged as if watching an episode of Teletubbies. But seriously! Kelsey Muse and her band did not sign up to play background music at Chuck E Cheese.
I found myself applauding not only Kelsey’s mature songwriting and solid performance skills which are far beyond her tender teen years, but her patience and graciousness, her focus and professionalism while Romper Room was literally taking place at her feet. As a minor Kelsey is too young to play in bars and honky tonks, but Saturday night was good practice and preview of playing among rude and noisy patrons.
But it is not with the children that I find fault. I expect fun-seeking and fun-loving children to be themselves. But I also expect parents to be adults and adults to be parents when children need to understand what is appropriate and acceptable behavior. A dozen parents were fumbling their responsibilities on the field as if they were an entire team of UT Vols fielding kickoffs.
No, we weren’t dressed in formal attire to pensively listen to the Nashville Symphony playing Beethoven at the Schermerhorn. The setting was casual and the mood relaxed, befitting a festival. But that provides no blank check to write in continuous discourtesy to musicians. Parents, would you mind if I came to your daughter’s ballet recital and sang along loudly with my iPod from my seat in the front row? Would you object if I attended your son’s school play and started the wave during his 3-sentence monologue? While you’re playing a round of 18 at Legends is it okay if I follow your foursome with a jet engine leaf blower? Can you imagine the explosive reactions of these same parents if other parents’ children had been ricocheting back & forth in front of a stage during their daughter’s tiny troop performing something resembling Irish dance combined with hip-hop and clogging?
The parents of the dizzy dozen were not only insensitive to Kelsey and her band but inconsiderate of the audience members who actually came to enjoy the show versus a kid-led rodeo without ropes and animals. Parents, let me highly recommend a book entitled “Boundaries with Children” by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. Just as adults need help with the same boundaries so do children need guidance in recognizing and adjusting to reasonable boundaries regarding attitude, language, behaviors, choices, property, physical contact, handling emotions, to name a few. I am anything but a kill-joy law-giver who wants to bury your child (or mine) under an avalanche of rigid rules and unrealistic expectations. But as a community that needs no reminders what happens when rising waters ignore their banks and boundaries, so too must adults understand their own need for healthy boundaries which allow them to grow and their relationships to thrive. And adults (as parents, teachers, and coaches, etc.) must assist children at all stages of development to recognize good boundaries and adjust to them, whether they be teens facing a moral dilemma or preschoolers facing a concert stage.
Another “misdirection” poem
Sipping my convenience store coffee,
pumping gas into a 11-year old white sedan,
I see the low-lying fog burning off in the
recesses of the cemetery across the street,
an endless lawn of granite markers
and weathered plastic bouquets.
With my debut into the fifties still quite fresh
and the march less than bold, I’m suddenly struck by
the collective voice of the deceased who’ve
become sages through decades of removed
and elevated perspective, and
in this moment the whispers of these ancestors
mingle with the mist and they say to me,
“Gas is 3 cents a gallon cheaper down the street.”
A foundational principle that makes comedy work, whether written or stand-up, is “misdirection”. The (straight) set-up has you leaning one way and then the punch line abruptly yanks you in another direction and to an unexpected ending. I wanted to experiment with misdirection in this poem. Although telling you beforehand partially spoils the surprise.
With the aroma of coffee beans freshly ground
pledging a soothing brew,
I’ve lined the couch like a nest
with sections of the Sunday New York Times.
Several paragraphs into an article
about early onset Alzheimers
the next thing I know… I’m on a dairy farm across town
trying to milk a tractor, with no idea how I got there
or how to get home.
I’m so thankful Ramon Presson has written this book. I can only imagine the authentic hope and real help each person will receive through reading this book. It’s the kind of book we all need to read over and over! What a gift.
Author of Plan B
When Will My Life Not Suck is, in Ramon’s own words, “an exercise in perspective”. Walking with Paul, he ushers us into the presence of the Living God and confronts us with the truth: The birthplace of Authentic Hope is pain. Spiritual transformation is discovered in a journey of suffering, brokenness, and perseverance. When Life sucks…God is at work. Ramon opens the door. I beg you to walk through it with him.
Author of Painful Gifts
Sorry Mom! I know “suck” is an ugly word! But I just had to endorse this book. The insights in this book have personally helped me. I laughed out loud on some pages. And if I could have hugged a paragraph or two, I would have because I felt like Ramon understood me. Lots of writers can tell you what to do, Ramon shows you through his life what he does to live a vital life that doesn’t…um…well, you know! If you’ve ever had that uneasy feeling that you’re stuck in a life that’s just plain hard, you need this book. It will lift your spirits and challenge your perspective.
Author of Self Talk, Soul Talk and Lessons I Learned in the Dark