Monday, November 26, 2012


Mom's stroke woke up a lot of people. I don't guess I'd really ever known how many people really loved and respected my mom, but I should have. Mom was a high school math teacher for 30 years. Some of the people she'd worked with she'd worked with for decades.

 Around town, she'd taught generations of children. Some of the kids she met as teenagers later sent their own kids (and maybe once or twice, their grandchildren) to her classroom to learn quadratic equations and geometry, among other things.

Many of them remembered her long after they'd graduated. Every year or two mom would tell me about getting pulled over for speeding just outside of town (Pearisburg is kind of a speed trap). The cop was always someone she taught, who knew her name without ever looking at her driver's license. They always told  her, "Miss Lynch, please slow it down."

She never got a ticket.

Mom was a fixture at the high school. She chaperoned winter dances, sold tickets for football and basketball games and went to the prom more times than my sisters and myself combined (I sort of blew the curve on that. I skipped).

My mother was a cheerful club and activities booster, a begrudging, but faithful school bus monitor and a regular foil for whoever the principal was, but she was also one of the ladies called on when they needed food for a luncheon or a meeting. She was also quick to send flowers and make a casserole when somebody lost a husband, a wife or mother.

Her life wasn't entirely the school. She was president of the local Woman's Club, active with the town library board and dabbled with the local historical society. Since she retired, she'd been volunteering at the Senior Center, spent a lot of time assembling puzzles with widows 20 years her senior.

Support for Mom came pouring in, really. My sisters and I received emails and phone calls from people we probably hadn't spoken to in years. Within hours of her being admitted to the hospital, friends, colleagues and the occasional nemesis started coming by to check on her. Her room filled up with flowers, balloons and cards.

It was all very humbling and affirming: the love so many had for my mother.

It was also very sobering. I will never receive this kind of acceptance or affection. The career I've chosen doesn't lend itself to these kinds of attachments. The people I work with will mostly move along, take jobs in larger markets or else get out of the business entirely and try to make a living. Nothing feels permanent here.

Only a few of us will stay on for the long haul (if we're even allowed to) and we are by nature so scattered by our interests, ages and socioeconomic status. I work with a lot of strangers and I remember that writing is a solitary pursuit.

There is no extracting me from my occupation. The occupation is a vocation. I am a writer who works for a paper. If I were to give up "news" I'd be a writer who works at a convenience store or a writer who digs ditches for a living. 

To be a writer at all, you have to want to be alone more than other people. You have to like your own company.

And so I envied my mother for her friends and the well-wishers that rallied around her. I felt guilty, but not guilty enough to regret never having become a teacher. My mother has had, I think, a wonderful life. She's done much more than survived. She's thrived. I don't know that I would have.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Here Now Then

I was fumbling with my tie when I missed the call. My phone buzzed next, a message from my sister: "call me."

I did. Her words came out quickly, not in a jumble, which surprised me. Susan sounded so calm.

"Mom fell," she told me. "This morning, she fell down in the kitchen about six o'clock."

I looked at the microwave. It was 10:30. Holy shit.

"Laura found her," she added. "She and Mom were going to bring the girls and come up for a couple of days."


"Around nine."

My mother on the floor of her kitchen, unable to move for three hours. Dear God, it was a wonder she was still alive.

And then Susan told me what we all suspected: mom had been taking falls for a while now, for a couple of years. Her hip, we thought, was bad. She had trouble getting up stairs and walking or standing on hard surfaces for substantial lengths of time. It was hard on her knees and her ankles, too. She had arthritis and I figured it was the pain more than anything that drove her to retire. I think she'd have taught Algebra for another couple of years if her body would have allowed her.

Instead, she took retirement a couple of years ago. She seemed to like it. Mom visited my sisters every couple of weeks, spoiled her grandkids and in the last few months had added my home to the tour circuit. I loved that. I wanted my kids to know her better.

It helped that I had a home that didn't make me want to burn it to the ground just looking at it. It helped that my house doesn't have a lot of steps, just a couple to get onto the porch.

The driveway is misery, though...

Susan said she and my aunt were headed to Pearisburg and that she would keep me informed. There was little question that I would not be along shortly. It was serious, but not life-threatening, apparently. Both of my sisters and my aunt were going to be there.

I said I'd be up in a couple of days and that was what was expected. I'm the least useful of us and seemingly the most obligated. I'd be in the way.

I went to church, arrived, as usual, late, sat in my sinner's pew toward the back and waited for my girlfriend to finish her set with the choir.

"What's wrong?" She asked right off and I told her.

"Why are you here?"

 I had no idea.

"I needed to go somewhere. I needed to feel like everything was ok."

"You're not ok," she said. "Let's get out of here."

And as the preacher marched through the opening words of his sermon, she pulled me out of the room. She stared straight ahead and I found myself looking up toward the pulpit. The pastor's eyes, slightly puzzled, tracked our movement.

We went into town, ordered food and I tried to explain that it was OK. It was all OK. None of this was entirely unexpected. Mom had never really taken care of herself. She tended toward being healthy by default, didn't get sick very often, but she took shit care of herself. She ate garbage, didn't exercise and had diabetes --plus, she wasn't young.

I was still kind of rattled, but talking about it helped and then the phone rang.

This was Laura, who told me that I shouldn't worry. She was at the hospital and Mom was resting.

"But she's had a stroke," my sister told me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Midgets on mainstreet

Two midgets were on either side of the street; red buckets in their little hands, out begging for change. Occasionally one of them shook a sign explaining who it was they were collecting money for, but it was hard to read in the harsh, midday sun. Cars leaving the parking lots of local churches, on their way to lunch, slowed to gawk or to read. A few stopped. One or two rolled down a window and dropped handfuls of coins or a little folding money into their pails.

I'd just come from a church myself and thought I might stop, if only to ask if they were really there. A couple of hours before I'd swallowed just enough cough medicine to make the light coming out of the sky look funny. My cough was mostly gone, but the world looked phony and I was filled with dread and fear. The service had been a strange one.

I've been going to church again now for a while. I seldom miss a Sunday, except when I go to visit my Mom or when my girlfriend tells me she's skipping. I go to see her and to try to fit into her life a little more.

That hasn't been entirely easy. Twice married with kids (plus I'm a a decade and a half her senior), there aren't that many who are openly and unreservedly supportive of me. I'm this goofy freak that represents all kinds of things that go against their beliefs, but everybody likes her so they only condemn me in the gentlest of terms.

It wears on me a little. She has friends who spend a little too much of their time coming up with new and novel reasons why I'm around.

It always works out to I'm using her. What I'm using her for changes every couple of months. So far, it's been sex and different kinds of emotional stability. Pretty soon, somebody will suggest that I'm after her money. 

Anyway, I like going to church with her. It feels good and right to sit next to her in the pew and everyone is nice, though I'm not really part of the congregation. Of course, everyone knows why I'm there. I'm not there for the weekly message or to worship. I'm not even there to impress her folks or the preacher with my fine churchgoing credentials. I just go to see my girl, which sounds vaguely blasphemous, except I do pay attention. I listen to every word that comes out of the preacher's mouth and when the choir sings, I don't join them, but I read the words in the hymnal.

I don't know if it counts. I'd like to think it does, but there are some days when nothing I do counts for much, but I still do the work, still do what I feel like I have to, even if I don't know how it will all work out.

It might be that one day, I'll feel something: the spirit will move me. It might be that it already has and I'm just as I'm supposed to be.

I saw something of myself in those two people collecting change. They were a pair who might not measure up well against others more perfect, but they were still willing to do what others wouldn't. They were brave enough stand out by the side of the road and ask for donations ten minutes after most people had already given all they planned to give to anybody for the entire week.

It might have seemed foolish by some, but I marveled at their faith and their courage. I want to be like that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Storm: moveable feasts

I'm not entirely sure why I'm blogging about the aftermath of the storm now. That was months ago, but maybe I need to get it out of my system to move forward.

I was without power for nine days. At the time, I remember that I bitched about it almost non-stop. I remember feeling helpless and angry and frustrated. I remember being pissed off a the neighbors for keeping me half awake night after night and how the dog wouldn't let me sleep past daylight. I remember being hungry and sick of eating food out of a can and stale bread.

I also remember being invited to sleep in the spare rooms of friends or to share their garages, but I declined them. I was a little too proud. I hate feeling weak. I hate asking for help --or accepting it as only help.

During the power outage, I went to Lewisburg. Those were the shit sandwich posts. I still have a hard time believing that actually happened --not the part about the helpful racist or the asshole rent-a-cop --but the rest of it. I was pissed.

But that happened after the meal at the church gym in Sissonville and I'm still thinking about that.

I am no stranger to soup kitchens. A few summers ago, I ate at Manna Meal off and on for a couple of weeks. I thought it might be fun to write about. I was also dead tired of eating pinto beans twice a day every day and sick to death of where the money from the plasma center was invariably going --mostly into the tank of my car or for groceries.

I was so bitter and I was lying to everybody. 

I remember at Manna Meal, most of the people serving food were nice, but not all of them. Some of them looked at us all with real contempt. The cringed if our trays got too close to their hands. Admittedly, a few in the crowd of strays making their way through the line for slightly dated and kind of bland food were in need of a bath or something a bit stronger. There were ex-cons among the diners and no doubt, some of them had done things that no amount of time in a jail would actually atone for, but that wasn't the majority of us.

Most of the people I saw at Manna Meal were old or just poor. I sat next to people who brought their kids, others who walked using crutches and even one or two who watched the corners of the room like they thought something was looking back.

The community at Manna Meal was very different than the community at the church. The folks in Sissonville were neighbors and friends. Everyone belonged. We were all one.

At Manna Meal, there was "us" and the "other." On the one side were the Good Samaritans. On the other side were the strays. One side was superior to the other.

It wasn't that way at the church. The people behind the counter there didn't have power in their homes either. They weren't any better off than the people they served and had no reason to think otherwise. The serving of food wasn't a chore. They did it with joy and enthusiasm. They sweated and slaved and seemed to be glad to do it.

Those served also seemed grateful.

At Manna Meal, some of the folks took their meals with something approaching humility, but not everybody. After a while, I guess, you get tired of saying thank-you for something you're eating because you can't do better on your own. You might take the charity for granted and after a while, the people who serve, despite their better intentions, maybe sometimes feel a little slighted and unappreciated.

Maybe charity in small doses makes everyone feel better: the giver, the receiver and the observer. Perhaps charity as a way of life leads to bitterness and resentment, again for the giver, the receiver and the observer.

It's only an observation. There is no solution. People still need to get fed, even if we get tired of doling it out and they get tired of eating it.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Storm: food and lodging

There was a kind of giddy thrill to the outage and at first I was kind of a tourist. I didn't really feel all that involved. The power was off at the house, but I had running water. I had hot water and I also had a comfy job Saturday night in town, where the power was on and the air conditioning was fine. The television was out and so was the internet, but so what?

I didn't really mind. I had my books, my long suffering novel and coffee. I could plug my laptop and my cell phone charger into the wall and keep in touch --at least, while I was in town. Outside of the city limits, cell service became sketchy. To text or call my girlfriend, I had to climb the hill behind my house, stand over the downed apple tree just to get the meanest of signals.

The first couple of nights weren't that bad. I broke out the camping lanterns and the candles. We went to bed when the sun went down and got up as usual. My four-legged alarm clock was good to remind me when it was time to be up in case the battery powered clock failed.

But it was hard to sleep. The house trapped heat and even by opening the windows, there was little resembling a breeze to be found. At night, I sweated on top of the sheets and woke up thirsty. Then the neighbors brought out the diesel generators. They cranked them up at dusk and ran them all night. The machines growled endlessly. It was like bedding down next to a truck stop --but without the hookers.

Meals were bitter times. As long as I could stand it, I ate fruit, Nutella and banana sandwiches, and choked down cans of cold ravioli. When I couldn't, I bought hamburgers and pizza and hated myself for being weak. I drank warm, peach/mango Kool-Aid.

One night, I drove to Sissonville; took my son and we ate an awkward dinner with my girlfriend and her parents. The meal was at a local church that had turned their gym into a shelter. Lined up outside, generators the size of Uhaul trailers noisily generated the power for the lights, the stoves, the freezers and the air conditioners.

Inside, it seemed like half the town had turned out.

The food came from restaurants and grocery stores and was served by volunteers as quickly they could get it out. I ate whatever they gave me, except the chicken nuggets, which must have been meant to be deep-fried. Baked, the meat came pink.

Regardless, I was glad to get it. The pasta and ham wasn't Nutella or peanut butter or ravioli. They had salad and vegetables. The drinks were cold and there was this fragile sense of community, something that had shown up as unexpectedly as a spiderweb hanging from a tree branch in the front yard, something that was beautiful, but wouldn't last.

It was good to be among others struggling.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Storm: Saturday

We loaded up the contents of the fridge, stuck them in a cooler and drove into town. I figured the radio station where I do my weekend work would be fine. They've got a generator and anyway, I figured power would be restored from the center out.

My modest cooler full of perishables (a little meat, a dozen eggs and several bags of frozen veggies) would be safe until the electricity came back on in a day or so --if it came to that. It seemed just as likely that I'd drop the stuff off that morning then take it home with me after my evening shift.

In the beginning, I had no idea how hard the state had been hit. I thought it was just a particularly ugly storm that had blown through. Judging from the damage in the yard, I figured it would take the weekend to get things back on.

I had no idea.

We drove into town, soaking in the air conditioning and marveling at the destruction. Trees had fallen across the lines half a dozen times I could see. A blackened transformer laid crushed underneath the wreck of a tree and a power pole. I wondered if the fire department had put the thing out or if it had simply burned out while the homeowners watched from their front window.

Along the drive, we watched for "signs of life," any hint there was power. Traffic lights hung limply from the line, their red, green and amber eyes dead. Hand-printed signs explaining the situation as best they understood it were posted in gas station windows, while cars, perhaps a few of them left by hopeful customers, dotted the lot.

I wondered about that. I'd filled up two days before. I was good for the weekend and maybe a day or so later, but not much beyond that.

It seemed like only about a third of the city had power by the time we got there. The radio station did and after talking briefly to the guy running the board, he told me the indication was that a lot of the state had been pretty hard socked: hundreds of thousands of people were without power. He'd heard about Greenbrier Street and the road leading to my house getting hit pretty hard, but he didn't have a lot of information.

The internet was down. We couldn't figure out which stations were on or off.

I packed my few frozen and refrigerated goodies into the company ice box, placed my name on them then figured it might be a good time to get something to eat. Everybody was hungry and getting restless.

Outside, it was a beautiful day. We had blue skies and nothing but sun, but nothing much was open, and there were ugly lines at every gas station able to offer service.

Just over half a tank.

We ended up having breakfast at a Chinese Buffet. The place was packed.    

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Storm: Friday night

The Derecho that passed through the region at the end of June shook me to my core. It reminded me how fragile everything really is.

The power went out that Friday, just after dinner, and I felt like a genius that I'd both been too busy to go to the grocery store that evening, as planned, and that I'd remembered to stock up on batteries a couple of months back.

Coupons: Buy one get one free.

Both of my little camping lanterns were loaded and ready to go.

I expected the power to be out until morning. The wind alone, I thought, would have shaken loose branches and thrown them onto power lines. At worst, if the storm was really bad, I figured I might be without power for the weekend --a couple of years back, the power on my street had been out for about three days just before Christmas. The power company scared us about spending the holidays in the dark.

The lights had returned in plenty of time.

Still, to be on the safe side, I made plans to take the food into town. The city would come back online first and the radio station where I work was on the same part of the grid as the hospital --at least, that's what I'd heard.

It seemed vaguely pathetic, but I didn't feel like I could afford to lose even the scrawny pork roast, the couple of bags of frozen broccoli and the seven of eight eggs I had.

It's all money.

We went to bed early and were grateful the air coming through the open windows was cool. There wasn't even any rain.

At first light, the damned dog sniffed and snuffed at my hand hanging over the side of the bed then whined to go out.I've learned this is a courtesy on his part. If Rudy, the damned dog, is not taken out when he first asks, he pees in the doorway to my bedroom, while staring directly at me.

I grabbed a pair of shoes, slung a shirt over my head, found his leash by the door and took him out. I thought I might check the garden while I was out, see if the wind had done anything to my tomato stakes or the ill-conceived bean trellis I'd assembled with local (and very green) bamboo.

The tomatoes were fine. The trellis was squashed and at the top of the yard, an apple tree had been yanked out of the ground like a ripe carrot. Roots that had never seen the sun were now exposed and the tree was irreparable. It was dying.

Down the road, two other trees laid on their side. Another had been ripped down the middle. Branches were cast everywhere and my little neighborhood looked battered.

An eerie silence seemed to hang in the morning mist.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cancer Man: Mirror

She sounded older on the phone and right away she reminded me of somebody's mom --like the mom of one of my old friends, one who maybe did shift work at the local plant and spent her days off in the summer lounging on a lawn chair in the backyard, drinking budget cola spiked with budget rum and burning the up the afternoon with a dime store paperback.

That might even be more or less who Suzie was before she got sick. She told me she had a son, a little boy who was just starting school.

"I haven't worked in two years," she told me.

Her occupation before she got cancer was assistant manager at a convenience store.

"There was a lot of lifting," Suzie said. "I spent all day on my feet, on a concrete floor. The doctor said I had to quit that, that I was done with that."

She didn't really miss it much. The job sucked, but it was better than being a professional cancer patient.

"But at least I get to spend more time with my son. Before this, I used to work a lot of nights and if I was doing that right now, I'd barely see him. He'd be in school while I was home."

Suzie was definitely a "the glass is half full" type, which was amazing given that the cancer had taken a breast and spread into the bones around her collar and shoulder.

"My plastic surgeon wants to get my reconstruction done before they start chemo and radiation."

She wanted her doctor to take out her uterus, which apparently was what everyone (including the doctor, she said) believed was causing her cancer.

"Just take it out," Suzie said. "Get it out of me and let me live."

Her cancer doctor wouldn't do it. 

She changed the subject, talked about ducks and rabbits.

The rabbits lived across the road. She seemed to think they were pets that had gotten loose, gone wild, but were never brave enough to escape their yard --except when one of them ran out in front of a car. 

We'd passed over the remains of one as we left her driveway.

The ducks lived in her backyard. Her father had run over a nest with the mower some time back, but they'd managed to save some of the eggs, which later hatched. They'd been raising them ever since.

"They just follow us around the yard," she said then told me she'd hurt her shoulder over the weekend while scooping to pick up one of the ducklings.

The doctor, she expected, would give her hell about that.

Eventually, we talked about her illness. She was resigned to it and a life of gradual loss. Already, the cancer had cost her a job and very likely the man who was her son's father.

He wasn't in the picture any more and she kind of missed him. She missed the car he'd given her more.

"It was a gift for my birthday from my son's father and his Papaw. I miss that car. I loved that car."

Before she'd been diagnosed, she'd drove a sporty Mazda, a stick shift, that she said could fly.

The doctor made her give that up. She wasn't supposed to drive unless she absolutely had to and a stick shift was too much for her to manage with her shoulder the way it was.

At some point, she told me the cancer in her bones was stage four. The doctor couldn't really operate on it, not without it causing the disease to spread --and even if they did, could she really do without a collar bone and a shoulder?

She didn't know the answer to that.

So, they were going to contain it --or try. About once a month, she said she'd have to go in for chemo therapy. This would continue for the rest of her life.

"I guess you'll do whatever you have to, to live," she said and laughed.

I wanted to laugh along with her, but couldn't bring myself to do it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cancer Man: Smoker's lament

Almost all of them smell like cigarettes. They get in the car and they reek like an old tobacco barn. I know the smell.

Back when I was a smoker, a real smoker and not a dabbler who hid his habit, I remember that when I was short on money I'd buy the GPC cigarettes at the Feed store next door from the pizza parlor where I worked a couple of years while in college.

For considerably less than a buck you could get a pack of cigarettes that tasted like hot asphalt and smelled like roasted pus. You lit the things, inhaled and felt the smoke walk around your lungs like an evil spirit that couldn't be bothered to wipe its dirty feet. If you were lucky, it only gave you a headache. Usually, they made me want to throw up.

Half a dozen times I almost quit because I'd been stuck smoking those things between paydays and God, how they stank. You could barely get the smell off your clothes, let alone wash it out of your hair or scrape it off your fingertips. You had to scrub and soak to get rid of the stain and stench.

The people who get in my cars these days for our little journeys to and from, I know, smoke the worst of the worst. They still smoke because where they are now, quitting barely matters, but they don't smoke Marlboros or Winstons or even the much despised Dorals. Those brands to them are like cuts of beef to me --something you look at in the store, pray for it to be on special, but seldom actually put it in the cart.

They smoke the stuff that comes wrapped up like old porno magazines, in plain wrappers that don't promise the products they contain will do anything that the name brand versions sometime suggests. They won't get you laid, won't make you seem more interesting and won't contribute to your image as a rugged individualist. They're a suicide pact. The surgeon general's warning is hardly necessary and is more like the contents of a fortune cookie.

The smell clung to Lila. I could almost sense it before she opened the door. I didn't ask what Lila's cancer was, but it hardly mattered. From what she was smoking, I could tell that whatever she had, it wasn't looking good.

Lila and I were supposed to have met earlier. She'd been booked before months ago then called off because the chemotherapy and the radiation terrified her. She wanted a second opinion.

"I don't want to do this if I don't have to," is what she told me over the phone then thanked me for calling. If she needed me, she'd call me later.

I'd just forgotten about her.

Lila lived on the edges of what passes for civilization, in a grubby trailer at the end of a dusty gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track.

"Sometimes they'll have the train on the tracks and you have to walk half a mile just to get around it."

The trains come at regular intervals and usually through the night. I asked her how she slept and she shrugged and said she had no idea.

Picking her up, her grown daughter thanked me twice for doing this and on short notice. They had three vehicles in the yard. None of them were reliable, they said, and besides, the daughter needed to wait at the trailer. Someone was picking her up later to take somewhere else.

"My uncle has esophagus cancer," she said. "He's got surgery today." Lila's daughter shook her head, looked tired and defeated.

I said nothing. That particular brand of cancer is ugly and usually fatal.

She said, "It's my birthday. Happy birthday, right?"

Too late.

I took the woman's mother back down the road and tried to make idle chatter. That's usually better than silence, but she didn't want to talk. She wanted to get this done and hopefully live to see her grandchildren get through school.

At some point, she asked about how I got into this business and I gave her the lame story about the newspaper already having enough people to play volleyball for the corporate cup.

"We needed points and I could get them points by donating blood or becoming a driver for the cancer society. I did both and stuck with the driving because I believe in it. I wish I'd started doing stuff like this years before."

I told her it was a good way to get out of the office. I told her I'd met a lot of interesting people then I lied and said most of them turn out fine.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cancer Man: Lila

The call came out of the blue.

"Do you still, like, help people when they've got the cancer?"

"Um, yes," I said, wanting to explain that this was usually through an agency. They handled everything, but I just didn't feel like explaining anything. They barely call me anymore. The program is apparently on something of a downswing, even though Cancer continues to be popular.

"Well, I need to get to hospital on the 19th," she told me.

"The 19th of October?"

"No, Wednesday. Can you come pick me up?"

I thought about it for maybe a second, then shrugged and said, "Sure. What time and where?"

And then I asked her name. 

Over the past couple of months, I've struggled to connect with Hospice. I have the training. I want to help, yet when I get the cattle call emails requesting assistance, I tend to look at them quickly then disregard.

I don't have time. It's awkward. It's not for me. Somebody else can get this one.

These are the things I say to myself and then my heart sinks a little when I get a note for a call off. Medicine doesn't need to be delivered because the patient won't be needing it anymore. The vigil is called off because nobody needs to sit with someone who has already checked out.

I don't know what I expected and I can't figure out if somehow I've become afraid of dying and death.

But the call on the phone, I couldn't turn that down, not after she worked up the nerve to call.

I have no idea how she got my number.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Seeds from the slacker: End of summer

The garden didn't do all that I'd hoped it would do, but it did a lot of things I didn't expect. I should have planted more tomatoes and put up an electrified barbed-wire fence, dug a moat then filled it with piranhas to keep out the fucking deer (They got my peppers. Oh, yes they did --except, amusingly enough, the ghost peppers which can raise a blister on bare skin. I have pleasant dreams of the deer biting into one of those then doing elaborate ballet in the backyard, unable to quench the fire that is consuming their wicked tongues).

I am not a vindictive man. Seriously.

There were many failures. My eggplant never came in. It barely even tried. The zucchinis performed well then were wiped out by a creepy looking white grub that looked like something out of "Alien." I still managed to get plenty of them before that happened, however.

We will not discuss the okra again.

The watermelons came in late, while the pumpkins arrived so early. I'm still looking at different ways to use the latter and the kids who said they loved the watermelon won't eat it now.

And now, the garden is about done. The tomatoes wither and I do not think my peppers will last much longer. I planted a couple of things that are supposed to do well in cooler seasons, but I'm not optimistic I'll see any spinach or lettuce before the real cold sets in. I'm too late.
The main thing is, I think, was this year was a building year, a learning year. I knew, not a lot about gardening, and now I know a little more. I learned that you need to keep better track of where your plants are and what they are. I could have used the sun better, controlled the space, fertilized and watered with something like regularity.

Still, it was a good year to try something new and stick with it for once. In the past, I'd put in little gardens then given up on them because of distractions, boredom or just because the work seemed too arduous.

And while I didn't get as much food out of the garden as I wanted, the work bore fruit in other ways. It gave me something to do with my hands when I didn't know what I was supposed to do. It gave me a place to go, to meditate and focus my attention back to the world of the here and now and not whatever my current aggravation was.

The garden also gave me something to share with people. I made pumpkin butter, which delighted my son, and I brought it for my friends at work. I gave the 80-something man I work with at the radio station zucchini for he and his wife after he told me the stuff was big in Mexico. His wife is Mexican. I shared tomatoes and a few peppers and talked gardening with whoever would let me bend their ear.

It gave me something to share with my father and I loved that.

With my meager tomato supply, I made the best marinara sauce I've ever eaten and shared it with my girlfriend. I shared the joy of getting filthy dirty with the dog and we bonded over a mutual distrust of rabbits.

It has been a grand garden and already I can't wait to start all over again bigger and better in the hopes of making new mistakes. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Faith here and now

I attend church these days --I know, quite shocking-- but as much as I try, most of the time I don't feel what's supposed to be in the message. There is no real revelation other than a petty political one that has no business being spoken from the pulpit.

I'm afraid I'm still more Buddhist than anything, just someone who is trying very hard to live by compassion for the sake of compassion, not because it's an expression of love for a divine being and not because I think it will get me into Heaven, but because it makes the most sense to love everyone as you'd have them love you.

As Vonnegut would say, "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

I believe that, even if I don't always get there (obviously).

Still, I think I used to understand Christianity a lot better. I used to pray and when I prayed I spoke to God with a fierce faith. I prayed for those I loved and asked with utter remorse for the forgiveness of my sins. I prayed for assistance, while believing fervently that God isn't one to grant wishes. I begged to understand and to find peace, but peace was slippery.

And I was thinking about some of these things as I was driving along with my girlfriend, discussing the preacher's sermon --I thought the guy sounded good, but didn't much care for what he said.

We were riding along, soaking in the air conditioning. The sun was shining and just ahead of us, we saw a young, dark-skinned man kneeling in the grass and offering a prayer to the east. His long hair was in tight braids tied together like electrical cables right above his neck.

It was just after noon and behind him, he'd dropped the pack he'd been carrying.

He was just a traveler, a weary pilgrim headed somewhere, but this gesture, a prayer by the side of the road in plain sight of Sunday traffic, was easily the most spiritually significant thing I'd seen in quite a while. It didn't make me want to convert to anything, but it reminded me that we're all on our own roads to "Damascus" and most of the time, like this young believer, we're moving against the traffic.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Heavy metal

The muscle guy gave me a strained, bemused look as I ducked my head past the edge of the doorway. He smiled.

"Where have you been? You decide you needed to take six months off or something?"

No, I shook my head and explained about buying a house and trying to save gas and going to the Y, which was just down the road.

"But you decided to come back here?"

I grinned and told him yes, though that really wasn't the reason. It had more to do with getting someone where they needed to be. The Rec center just happened to be along the path on the way back.

He shrugged and nothing else was really said, though he watched me go through my paces. Maybe he doubted me a little and thought I might need a hand when I picked up something. It could be that he wondered if what I'd said was a bandage to cover up another story.

A fair bit of that happens at the Rec center. On an average morning, half to three-quarters of the people lifting weights or hiking mile after miserable on the treadmills are comfortably retired. Some of them haven't worked in 20 years, which is mind-boggling to a man who cannot imagine a day where his presence is not required somewhere at sometime, but the time catches up on everyone. One day, they just stop coming. The old ladies whisper to each other about it. They give it a name: cancer, a heart attack, a stroke, a bad fall.

Maybe they come back after a while. Usually, they don't.

As I took my place on one of the machines, a couple of others stopped by, asked me how I was doing. They seemed concerned, but understood as soon as I explained. We laughed about it, though I couldn't figure out what it was that we all thought was so funny.

Through the rest of the shift, familiar faces watched me. They nodded a greeting or asked me how I'd been.

What an amazing thing: to think of yourself as nobody, as just another pair of tennis shoes, but to realize that you'd been seen all along --and more --to know that while absent, you were missed.

I think we all want to belong somewhere, but we don't always recognize these places when we first see them.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Things lost in the fire

After the split and the divorce, I was accused of not giving myself enough time to heal before I moved on.

Books and magazines (particularly women's magazines, I think) make a big deal about needing time. They said I needed time to grieve, needed time to get my shit together before I was going to be any good for anyone else. I needed to find me, forgive me, celebrate me... blah, buh-blah, bu-blah, blah, blah...

I didn't need any of that. I already knew who was I was, already had my shit together and well... life only moves forward. If you're going to get on with your life, you have to ask yourself, "If not now, then when?"

I chose now. When could have been a long time and besides I met someone who lit me up like a firecracker. So, I took chances. I bolted headlong into the pool and I'm pretty happy with how things have worked out.

But that doesn't mean I got to walk away Scot free. Nope. The collapse of the marriage cost me some things. Some of them were unexpected.

The first casualty was R.E.M. They were a band I liked that my former wife adored. We saw them together twice and I bought her a couple of their latter day albums. I even recorded a live concert available on a restricted satellite channel and gave it to her.

To me, it seemed kind of fitting that they broke up after we split.

The surprise is that I can't listen to them anymore. Nothing. I hear Michael Stipe's voice and I change the channel. I punch the button for the next song. It's not that I hate the music. It's just that it bounces off me.

I lost the ability to appreciate some things I used to have on my wall. Pictures, given as gifts, and thoughtful at the time, seem out of place. I've taken them down and put them away.

Other things, like a quilt, I gave back to her when she asked. It had been sitting untouched in a closet for almost a year.

There are certain foods I won't touch or can no longer imagine me ever eating again. It's nothing important. I didn't lose meat or (more importantly) coffee, but I lost blackberry cobbler, which was one of the special things she made.

I guess I'm lucky I did most of the cooking. Otherwise, I'd be fucked.

There will probably be more things to crop up. Things that are just burned away. Things that when I see them make me feel cold inside or hollow.

I mean no disrespect to my ex, but in a lot of ways, with the break, emotionally speaking, my foot was caught in a kind of trap. I could have stood there and waited for the trap to rust off my ankle (time heals all wounds) or I could chew it off and make a run for it (Geronimo!). I chose the latter, which left me wounded, but alive and capable of thriving again.

Maybe I would feel different if I'd waited. Maybe if I'd waited six months or a year or ten years I would feel differently about blackberry cobbler and the little rock band from Athens that could.

Maybe not.

Either way, I got off pretty light. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Green Acres: slacker in springtime

Some of what I grew took off:

Beets. I chose a variety of blood red Russian beets. I had never actually eaten beets before, but I figured they couldn't be that bad --and they looked cool, like the internal organs of some very weird animal.

Red leaf lettuce. I chose that because I buy it. Red leaf is my favorite, and I figured if I grew lettuce, I wouldn't have to buy it at the store, which would literally save me pennies a day!

Spinach. I eat a lot of that. I cook with it, use it in salads and when I can't find anything more appropriate to snack on will stuff my mouth with that --not because it's sweet, but because a handful of spinach typically kills any desire to eat --and sometimes live.

Zucchini. That stuff is going nuts. I can't keep up with it and nobody wants it. I've tried giving it away. People just glare at it. I've frozen a few pounds of it, will dehydrate some more and may see if I can make a few dozen loaves of zucchini bread.

Pumpkins. Also doing well. I have half a dozen already on the vine, a couple almost the size of a volleyball.

Tomatoes. The jury is out on them. I haven't harvested any, but I have tomatoes on the vine so that goes in the "win" column.

A lot of what I planted did not:

Carrots. Technically, they grew. I picked some variety that was supposed to be able to grow anywhere, but the roots never dug down more than two or three inches.

Eggplant: That flat out failed.

Peppers: I planted four different varieties. What the zucchini plants didn't outright crush, the fucking deer devoured, along with my beans.

Okra --Oh, that's a funny story.

The patch of ground I chose to begin my garden was completely overrun with weeds, mostly poke weed. Back in the winter, on a warm day, I'd spent hours hacking my way through them, digging up roots and filling plastic bags with vegetable matter that smelled like the corpse of a three-day-old possum.

It was lovely.

I'd tried to get rid of as much of the weeds as I could, even though I knew the only way that was possible was by spraying the ground with gasoline and setting it ablaze for several days.

I planned on weeding --the only problem was with my limited experience growing things, I was sure what constituted a weed and what didn't.

With the carrots, lettuce, spinach and the beets, I got a leg up. They liked cooler temperatures and sprouted in neat little rows and by the time other plants started cropping up, I could figure out which was which.

Now, some of my garden (the tomatoes, the eggplant and the peppers) I started indoors, but that left a lot of other things I had to try and feel my way through and as the weather warmed up, everything began to sprout. It started getting confusing as to what was what.

The worst of it was the okra.

I eat some okra. I like it fried and I like it in my chicken stew. I don't buy it often, but I thought I could grow enough to freeze, use all winter long, and it would be a  nice little reminder of what I'd accomplished.

I planted my row, followed the directions on the package and hoped the weather would be warm enough to encourage the plants to grow, to thrive. I babied them, because they seemed like a very southern vegetable. I wasn't sure if they'd actually take, but I kept them watered, weeded devotedly; and made sure the other plants didn't crowd.

By the early part of June, I had a nice row of hearty looking green plants, but they had a funny smell --like cheap perfume, kind of oily and they also seemed to have spread to other parts of the garden, in places they really couldn't be.

At some point I'd pulled all my okra plants up and cultivated an entire row of ragweed.    

My father says every year you gardening is a learning year. Nature is a school.

Apparently, I need to repeat a grade.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

shit sandwich with the crusts cut off -part three

Early afternoon I hit the road for Lewisburg with an audiobook on positive thinking playing in the background. I do that sometimes, particularly when I'm nervous and road trips alone tend to make me nervous. It's soothing to have someone in the background telling me to imagine the best, not the worst. I need to be reminded.

With the air conditioning blaring and Rhonda Byrne giving me advice about imagining a better outcome, the drive was pleasant, far more pleasant than spending much time at the house, which was still without power and beginning to smell like a barn.

Sometimes it's nice to just not go home. I was looking forward to this.

Following my directions, I took the White Sulphur Springs exit. I didn't need to, my instructions for getting credentialed at the concert were pretty specific, but I figured checking in with the media center at The Greenbrier was a good idea --besides, there would be food, which had been described to me in near pornographic terms. Since the power outage, I'd lived mostly on peanut butter sandwiches and ravioli straight from the can; washed it down with warm mango Kool Aid.

Things went south almost immediately after I got off the interstate.

A series of signs led me down a winding, narrow two lane road that seemed to be going nowhere, but this seemed to make sense. The Greenbrier was a resort. Why would you want your four star luxury hotel located propped up right next to the interstate like a Motel 6?

So I followed the signs which led me inexorably back to Lewisburg.

The signs had been meant to lead people from the resort to the concert area. So much for checking in with the main media people, but that was fine. I still had plenty of time to get to the show. All I had to do was get to the fairgrounds, find Old Powell Road and the media tent. Everything would fall into place after that.

The locals had gone fairly nuts about the Classic. Like with the state fair, many had embraced the fun-loving flea market part of their souls. Young women and surly looking black men waved scalped tickets on street corners while fat mothers lounged on chairs in the shade, offering up their lawns as premium parking --meaning parking away from the throng of cars going into the fairgrounds that would eventually all try to leave at the same time at some point before midnight.

In parking lots, a few vendors had set up, selling sandwiches of pulled pork, beverages and snacks. In the air there was the celebratory feeling of "Hey, Rube."

The plan was simple: I'd do my little interview with the concert producer then watch Toby Keith be Toby Keith in all his redneck glory. After the show, I'd grab some space at the media tent and write out the review before finding a place to crash or maybe just go home.

But first Old Powell Road.

I did a lap around the fairgrounds. The concert, it turned out, wasn't being held on the actual fairgrounds, where I'd seen a couple of shows before at the track, but in the vast grassland where people usually parked and often camped like some kind of middle-class hillbilly army. A fenced concert area was set up at the bottom of a hill.

I didn't see a sign for Old Powell Road, just the entrance to the main area. A couple of state troopers with buzz cuts were busily waving vehicles through, but it wasn't where I wanted to go. I passed it by and kept looking for the road.

Pretty quick, I wound up where I'd begun; on the other side of the fairgrounds.

Not a problem, I thought. I must have missed the sign --and there would have to be a street sign, I thought. A lot of energy had gone into putting this together. It was an important detail that people know where the hell they were going.

I drove around again. Saw nothing and completed a lap.

It occurred to me that maybe Old Powell Road was on the other side, down the opposite direction from where I'd turned onto the road in front of the concert. I went further down toward Lewisburg and turned back.

Nope and I noticed the streets weren't marked very well. I began to panic. This wasn't just me dicking around. I was on assignment.

At the main entrance, I rolled the car window down, waved my press pass at a state trooper and said, "Hey, I'm with the newspaper. I need to find the media tent. Do you know where Old Powell Road is?"

He shrugged, disinterested, pointed me in the direction of the dirt road leading in and told me, "Ask one of the volunteers."

I asked just about all of them all the way up to the top of the hill. They were a friendly lot: big, beaming smiles and necks loaded down with lanyards and tags. Some of them had radios in their hands or flags or both. Over and over I stopped, going from polite to pleading, saying, "I'm looking for the media entrance. I'm with the newspaper."

They passed me down the line like a joint at a Ziggy Marley concert until finally, one of them said, "Hey, talk to security at the top of the hill. They'll get you straightened out."

The short, old guy at the very top of the hill did not smile when I explained who I was and what I was doing. He seemed to genuinely hate being bothered.

"You got a pass?" He asked.

I shoved the badge and necklace at him. I tried to hand him my instructions.

He wouldn't touch any of it.

"Well, that's a pass, alright... but it ain't the right one for parking."

"Okay," I said. "How do I get go the media tent where I can straighten this out?"

He had no idea.

"Look," I tried. "I just need to find Old Powell Road. That's where I'm supposed to go."

Again, I tried to show him the instructions.

Without so much as a glance at them, he said, "You're going to have to head back down that way and go around."

He wanted me to go back down the hill and get back on the main drag.

"But where is it?"

He sighed, impatiently. "You'll need to go around."

The black shirted troll told me to turn around; not exactly an easy feat, but back down the  hill I went.

I did another lap around the fairgrounds, returned to the same cops waving cars into the same entrance.

I drove back around and headed toward Lewisburg and stopped at the first gas station I could find.

A lumbering young guy in a greasy, sweat-soaked t-shirt stood near the curb, guarding the ice machine. I must have looked pretty frantic. I was barely out of my car when he asked, "Mister, you ok?"

He stepped slightly toward me, but not too far from the ice machine and crossed his arms. Curious and arcane signs and symbols decorated his beefy, exposed forearms. The words "white power" were etched very clearly, along with a few other lines about the master race, but he seemed genuine and also, I'd recently cut my hair. I looked like a skinhead.

I explained that I was looking for Old Powell Road.

"I think that's the back way into the fairgrounds," he said and I could have kissed him full on the mouth. "But I'm not a hundred percent sure how you get to it."

My stomach lurched.

"Tell you what," the polite young hatemonger said, "Go inside and ask for Dave. Dave knows where all the back roads are. I'd tell you, but I'm afraid I'd get you lost."

He was incredibly helpful and I had nothing to lose.

Inside, the convenience store was doing a brisk business, selling chips, soda and beer. A retired carnie with honey blond hair and a scattering of bad tattoos over leathery skin ran the register and shuffled people out the door with surprising efficiency.

"You keep a hold of that receipt," she told the man in front of me. "Give it to the guy outside and he'll get you your bag of ice."

Apparently, with the power out, we'd reverted to savages. People were now willing to steal ice and the machine needed to be guarded by a friendly racist at all times.

"Can I help you, sweetheart?" She asked me and everything I needed to say came out in gush.

"The kid told me to come find Dave."

The nearly mummified woman frowned then said, "Dave ain't here."

My heart sank, but she looked over my shoulder at some sweaty, pale man three bodies behind me.

"Do you know where Old Powell Road is?"

She never said his name, but it only took half a beat of staring at the ceiling before he nodded and slowly gave me vague directions on how I might get there.

"You want to take a right at the second, maybe third light..."

I only got lost once and not for very long. His directions, while imperfect, were good enough to give me a general idea of what I was looking for, which in this case was a back road branching off from the end of another road and sure enough after about ten minutes, up ahead were a couple of bored state troopers standing underneath a sign that said, "Buses" and "Media."

I'd finally arrived.

Turning into the lot, I rolled the window down and started to ask about the media tent. The cop, not at all interested, waved me through and said, "They'll take care of you at the top of the hill."

Good enough, but then I didn't see what would be considered a media area and the road leading up the hill seemed to be going past the backstage area and instead brought me right back to the grizzled old security guard who'd sent me on this same trip.

He'd been standing in front of Old Powell Road the entire time.

Luckily, another security guy approached the car, and I started in on who I was, what I was doing and how this needed to get fixed now.

"Have you got a press badge?"

I waved it at him and he seemed puzzled.

"I don't know," he said. "Let me call someone."

He got on his radio, asked a couple of questions and waited for a response.

"Sorry," he explained. "I don't know who to actually ask. The people running things are all using code names. I need to find someone named Bam-Bam."

Seriously, Bam-Bam?

"You'll need to move your car off the road," he said. "You're blocking traffic."

That was the traffic coming down the hill, the traffic the other security guy didn't seem to be all that interested in.

But I moved over to the side of the road, discovered I had a cell signal (very weak) and began texting, complaining and ranting at my editor, my girlfriend, at our Lord, Jesus Christ. After a couple of minutes, a middle-aged volunteer approached the car and asked me if I needed help.

The other security guy had abandoned me.

She told me her name was Lynn and I told her who I was, why I was here then I showed her the badge.

"I don't think I know who you are," she said, which didn't seem especially relevant, but still kind of hurt. "Let me check with somebody for you."

While she wandered off, I sat in the car and fumed. This had turned to shit. I just wanted to get out of here, but Lynn came back and told me, "You can just park over there and go in."


"Just park anywhere you can and go in," she repeated. "Your badge is good here."

"What about the media area?" I asked. Where was the media tent? Where was the wi-fi and what about the food and beer?

She shrugged.

"WJLS is over there." She pointed toward a radio station remote tent. "You can go hang out with them if you want."

As best I could manage, I said thank-you and found a place to park about a hundred yards from the main gate. I hung the media badge around my neck, grabbed my notepad, a couple of pencils and started for the main gate.

Other than being asked to put my very dangerous (and dull) Swiss Army knife back in my car, there were no more problems with getting inside to the concert.

Nothing had gone right, but at least I was there. I could get the review done and the rest would work itself out.

My phone rang.


"Where are you?"

"What?" It took a second for me to place the voice. It was the concert rep who'd emailed me the paperwork, who'd started this mess in the first place. I took a breath, then said, "I'm in the venue."

"You're where?"

"I'm at the concert and looking for a place to sit so I can review the show."

"But Lionel Richie is here."


"For pictures and media."

She thought I was here to interview Lionel Richie. This entire thing was about me getting a picture of Lionel Richie, something I hadn't asked for. 

"I'm not here to take pictures," I told her. "I didn't bring a photographer. I was hoping to talk to Gary about the repairs to the stage, but..."

"But Lionel Richie is here," she repeated.

"I'm just going to review the show. Thanks."

I hung up on her.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

shit sandwich with the crusts cut off --part two

It didn't seem like that big of a deal to find someone to talk about what the storm had done to the stage. All that was needed was about ten minutes with someone saying, "Well, it was pretty fucked up right here and right here, but we all pulled together and..."

No one would ever call this a think piece. It was straight up filler.

To get the ball rolling, I called the number I'd been given, explained what who I was and what I was coming to do.

"That's no problem," the voice on the other side said then added, "but I'm not overseeing that. Let me get your number and I'll have someone call you."

My stomach made a quick bow knot. I didn't like being handed off, not on the day of the show.

The call came about an hour later. A chipper woman told me she'd heard I wanted to do a piece on the stage. We talked for a minute. She gave me the name of the producer and asked if I wanted to talk to him on the phone or in person.

"I'm headed down today," I said. "I'd love to just talk to him for a couple of minutes before the show."

I promised to stay the hell out of the way.

"Hmm," she said. "He's really busy today with the show."

"Just a couple of minutes," I repeated. "Real easy stuff."

She committed to nothing in particular, but said, "I've got to send you some paperwork for you to get your credentials for photos and stuff."

Credentials? I already had credentials and I wasn't bringing a photographer.

"Uh, OK."

The rep got my email address and told me to reply just as soon as I'd read the terms, conditions and instructions.

A few minutes later, a two page document arrived in my "in" box. It told me to turn onto Old Powell Road where there'd be a media tent. There was information about parking, about getting into the show and oddly, about meeting and photographing the performers. There was also a note about locking my gear up in the car while I was in the concert.

I yelled over a the city desk, explaining that I'd just received a lot more than I expected.

"I think with this I can take pictures of Toby Keith."

I didn't have a photographer, but I did have a cheap, point and click in the car. I am not good with a camera.

My editor just looked at me.

"Just say thanks, Bill." 

So I told her I'd received the packet, reminded her about the show producer and promised I'd see her in a few hours.

I left mid-afternoon, thinking this could be pretty cool. There was a certain amount of drama here. The Greenbrier had brought in a major act (Keith) and a former major act (Lionel Richie). Keith was red-meat mainstream country music, a guy with a bouquet of flag-waving country songs and an unrepentant corporate shill, but... he's also strangely authentic.

Toby Keith is probably the closest thing to a modern-day Waylon Jennings there is.

People forget that people don't go into pop (country) music because they're looking for pure artistic expression, because they want to speak to the hopes, dreams and despairs of the average person. Nah, they want to get rich. Finding a way to speak to those hopes, dreams and despairs in a way that's novel to the average person is just the way to do it. 

Waylon was a corporate shill, too. People forget but, arguably, his biggest hit wasn't any of the outlaw country stuff, but that theme song to a CBS television show --you know the one.

"Just some good ol boys..."

You wouldn't believe how many contemporary country singers have cited that song as major inspiration for going into country music in the first place. It kind of boggles the mind.

Anyway, Richie was the weird side dish on the menu. He'd done a well-received country record, but I didn't see much indication that he was touring as a serious country act. He was straight up Motown funk, soul and 80s pop.

My high school band director, I remembered, had a huge woody for the guy. We must have played half his catalog in the three or four years I was part of the marching band.

Hell, I liked him. Like everyone at the time, I had the "Dancing on the Ceiling" record.

I thought chicks would dig me if I listened to sensitive pop music.


It was an odd pairing, but not impossible. The 80s have never gone out of style in West Virginia. Mountain Stage could probably sell out the Culture Center simply by hosting reunion shows with people like Flock of Seagulls or Simple Minds.

This is not a suggestion.

Anyway, I was fascinated with how the whole Toby Keith, 'Good ol boy' on the Fourth of July with special guest aging-former-hit-maker-turned-Cherokee-casino-regular Lionel Richie might play out with this crowd --plus backstage, the hustle, the bustle, people serious about getting shit done on the Fourth, while a lot of people were watching. It seemed like an awesome opportunity and a great setting for my interview with the producer, who might just be distracted enough by all his responsibilities and concerns to be honest.

I could hardly wait to get there and... I'd been brainwashed. For days, maybe weeks, I'd heard about the media room, the media tent for the Greenbrier. I'd heard they kept it well larded and well-stocked. Dreams of fried green tomato sandwiches, sweet potato fries and cold bottled beer danced in my head.

After a couple of days of sweating at home with no power, living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as choking down overstuffed ravioli straight from the can, the mere hint of properly prepared meals and ice cold, tasty beverages was like the promise of sexual favors and free HBO.

It seemed magical. 

My entire plan was I'd do the interview, catch the show then write about it at my leisure in the media tent while everybody piled out during the fireworks at the end of the show. Traffic would be snarled for at least an hour, which was plenty of time for a review --not that there was a big hurry to get it turned in.

After that, we'd see. Maybe I'd find a place to crash --I'd been told we had a room somewhere --or maybe I'd drive home and finish the other assignment back at the office.

Time was completely on my side.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

shit sandwich with the crusts cut off -part one

The assignment was straightforward: go to the Greenbrier, watch the concert, write about what I saw. But just going to the show was a huge investment of time: two hours down, two hours back. I'd bill for mileage.

My editors wanted a second story out of me, which seemed fair, and we agreed I'd talk to some of the people who'd helped put the concert series together about dealing with the aftermath of a series of storms which had blown through a few days before. Thousands were still without power --yours truly, included --and the Greenbrier golf course had sustained damage. The wind uprooted trees, downed lines and made a huge mess of things, which was a problem with the PGA coming to town.

But a couple of hundred volunteers lent a hand. They cut trees, dragged debris, raked and swept and restored the course in not much more than a day. It was a feel good kind of event --ordinary people pulling together to help millionaire athletes play a televised game at the state's most posh resort --uniting for the common good.

Repairing a stage, on the other hand, seemed more complicated. Dealing with sound and light would tend to require more technical knowledge than how to hold a chainsaw.

We agreed this was a pretty good story for me to do.

But there were problems right off. Something was up at The Greenbrier with getting my credentials. Weeks before, my name had been part of a list submitted for press badges. The badges came in a week before the Greenbrier Classic --mine was not among them.

An oversight. Not a big deal. The sports guy overseeing our coverage said he'd already talked to someone at the resort. They were sending it.

A few days passed, he said he wasn't sure what happened, but they were supposed to be sending it. He told me he'd check.

Still nothing.

Calls were made. Assurances given and my press badge was going to be FedExed, then they said a courier would bring it to us. Neither happened, then the storm hit and I began to think I wasn't going anywhere, which didn't seem like such a bad thing. Power at my house was out and my planned interview with Lionel Richie had tanked. His publicity people had gone from being encouraging to being evasive.

They'd been proper passive aggressive assholes about the whole thing, stopped returning e-mails and phone calls and really just refused to give an answer.

Finally, another reporter brought the badge back from The Greenbrier after she'd gone down to do an advance story. It arrived the night before I was supposed to leave.

Just to be on the safe side, I was given a contact name and number.

"If you have any trouble, give them a call."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4

Happy 4th of July.
Blogging will resume once the power kicks back on. Otherwise, I guess I'm back to leaving cryptic political and vaguely sexual messages in restrooms.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Scene for a roadside death

A short woman sat on the guard rail sobbing; her face as bright as a raspberry. Leaning forward, gasping for air, her swollen, over-ripe breasts were just shy of tumbling out of her nearly invisible bikini top.

She probably shouldn't have worn the swimsuit in the first place. She wasn't a small woman and later on, the details of the afternoon might come back to her in electrified flashes --but she didn't mind be stared at. Men like curvy women and what was wrong with liking being stared at on a sunny day by the river? Why not be looked at? What was wrong with feeling warm all the way through?

The woman's hair was wet and hung down the sides of her head, flat and oily. A friend, a sister maybe, had an arm latched around her shoulder. She held her stiffly, even fearfully, as the woman gasped out of grief and horror. The friend, the other woman, her face grim and ashen, her head turned away, mumbled something like prayers: things of no use to the living, things that could not be heard by the drowned.

A small crowd clumped around them, some, like the women, perched on the guard rail, near their vehicles. A few milled around in a schizophrenic shuffle; rocking one step here then one step there but never really going anywhere.

This was just the waiting around for news already lying on the doorstep.

The deliverers of that message, a small army of uniformed professionals, waited in the wings. They stood by polished, red trucks, leaned out the door of predatory police cruisers and watched with curiosity the drama unfolding without their help. They're only apparent purpose, the bulk of them, seemed to be to  separate the crowd of family and friends, soon to be mourners, from those working unseen, underwater, looking for a body.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Feed your face, feed your soul

Growing up, I remember going to my grandparents' homes and really being overwhelmed by their kitchens. On my father's side, my grandmother kept a refrigerator full of deli lunch meat, cheese, soda and snacks (not much on the veggies, however). Her cupboards always had cookies and chips and crackers.

My mother's mom had a fully stocked refrigerator, two huge chest freezers, a second old-style ice box fridge and a pantry --plus a smokehouse out back. You could always find a gallon of ice cream somewhere, plus just about anything else. Granny could feed an army and occasionally did --particularly around the holidays.

We ate like kings when we visited my grandparents. 

My folks stocked up much more modestly. We had plenty to eat, but Dad quit smoking and became a health nut, a manic long distance runner and a crazed gardener. Somehow, he talked my mother into canning tomatoes, corn and grapes and baking loaf after loaf of zucchini bread --I don't think it was her idea.

We had lots of that stuff, but not no much cheese; no crackers, usually, except saltines and cookies were something we saw sporadically at best.

Later on, after my folks split, things got a little tighter. Mom started buying the good cereal instead of just Raisin Bran, but there wasn't the sense of plenty we'd had before. However, even so, it was still a lot more than what I became used to as an adult.

In the dark, dark days, I remember getting by on cheap bags of black beans and medium grain rice. Sometimes, I'd buy cans of Mexican salsa to pour over it, to give it flavor. Other times, I'd get bottles of salad dressing with Arabic labels.

Whatever was less than a dollar.

Sometimes, the only thing in my refrigerator when I opened that door was my shadow and that scared me.  I worried about not having enough, but really, truthfully, I was never remotely close to going hungry --at least not for very long. There were times I felt like it was close, but I always had the beans and rice. I had friends willing to feed me from time to time and my mother lived just 30 miles away.

But I also had my pride and I kept my mouth shut about it. Most times, nobody knew how I was living or that I was just squeaking by. 

Still, when I panic about money, when I worry about how I'm going to get through a month, it always comes back to having enough to eat. The rest can be managed. Utility companies and lenders can be negotiated with. You can beg them to cut you a break, forgive some of the extra fees and charges; buy yourself a little time. If the worst happens, you can go to bed when the light fades and wash up in the employee restroom. You can catch a ride to and from work. It's only temporary.

Food is different. Everybody has to eat and you cannot negotiate with your stomach. It holds you hostage. The best you can do is trim back. When you're a little short, instead of the apples, you get the bananas because apples are $1.69 a pound and bananas are only 55 cents a pound --or you can buy jello. If you're a lot short, stick with the beans then raid the condiment packages left in the fridge at work to make another bowl of pintos seem palatable.

Most of the time no one even notices they're gone.

The fear creeps in when you're not sure if you can afford the beans and I've seen that. It's left a mark on me. I've probably written more about being afraid of going hungry as much as anything.

So, while I was planning my garden, I did something else: I bought shelves, nothing special, just inexpensive, but sturdy shelves. I also began collected canning jars and I started turning a little nothing space without much use otherwise into a pantry.

It's nothing special. Every time I go to the grocery store, I pick up a couple of extra cans of something, a box of this or that. I put it on the shelf. So far, it hasn't come to much --just a dozen or so cans, a couple of boxes of pasta, some powdered milk, two or three pounds of dried beans, a few packages of noodles and a 12 pack of diet soda. It's enough for a couple of days, but my stock will grow and I take nothing from those shelves unless I replace it with something new.

Every once in a while, I go to this little room in my house, just to look at it. I think about what else I should add. Canned meat has come to mind, but I hate tuna and canned chicken sometimes smells like cat food. There should be spices and tea, loads of things, but there's not a terrible hurry. The shelves are filling up slowly, but surely.

These days, I'm not so worried about where my next meal is going to come from or what form it will take. With this little gesture on my part, maybe I never have to worry again. If so, that's kind of a comfort --and one that's long overdue.   

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Green Acre: Seeds from the slacker 2

I never got a tiller, never was even able to borrow one for an afternoon. A friend of a friend offered to bring his and come cut up the ground for me, but his schedule never coincided with mine or the weather's. The weeks dragged on, but I was already working on planting.

I started hitting the flea market in February, looking for a shovel, a rake and a hoe --these seemed to be the minimum I'd just to plant something.Winter was mild and I was antsy to do something with my hands.

The only patch of ground that looked remotely likely for being something I could work without a tiller was a strange square protected by a rusted and sagging fence.It reminded me of a pet cemetery, forlorn and half forgotten, a place where countless goldfish of another generation had been laid to rest along with a couple of good dogs and maybe a cat.

The soil was dark, but the whole patch was overrun with poke weed. It looked deliberate, like the previous owner had planted the stuff, but nobody does that. In all likelihood, the land had been prepared, but never used. The old man's wife had become ill. The whole house is a living document to her decline, with little changes made to accommodate her growing frailty and immobility.

Birds probably took the land over. They'd brought the seeds and weed the weed had thrived unchecked.

I decided I could make my stand here or at least try.

I got a shovel and a pickaxe from my mother's basement; the same tools my father had used to dig and maintain his garden when I was a boy. I remember watching him and being part of the whole excavation of the lower quarter acre. He'd used the pick axe to pry out rocks, some of which had become part of the low stone wall at the bottom of the yard.

Pieces of that wall still remain, but not many.

The garden patch was worse than I imagined. The poke weed had grown deep. I spent half a day pulling up dessicated stalks and cutting and digging up swollen roots that looked very healthy. I pulled out chunks the size of basketballs and tossed them in a stinking pile on the other side of the fence. I filled something like ten leaf bags full of debris from the plot not much bigger than a couple of parking spaces.

I was a little too pleased with the job and on a whim decided to go ahead and plant a couple of rows of greens, carrots and some beets.

My father suggested I hold off, but he lives about an hour or so from Canada. His winter and growing season are very different than West Virginia.

I'd already started tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in little peat pellets indoors. What would be the harm to go ahead and try to get an early jump on things?

The back of the packages swore they'd grow in the cold, that they loved the cold and I hoped they were right. To be honest, I was kind of counting on them getting a head start on the weeds. The weeds would return. All the books said they would and when the new plants grew, I wouldn't know which was which. I had no idea what spinach or lettuce or beets looked like when they first came out of the ground.

I hoped it would all turn into something I recognized before I yanked them out of the ground.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Turn on, tune in.

I started attending church, mostly, because my girlfriend attends regularly and it's a nice place to see her. She dresses up for services and I love the way she looks at me as I come through the door --occasionally late. What I like is she never completely expects me to be there, but is glad I showed up just the same.

She's been attending the same church for as long as she can remember and probably before. My attendance at church prior to the past few months might be considered spotty at best. Oh sure, I was the vice president or secretary or something for a Methodist church youth group in high school --but I was mostly recruited, I think, to help mow the cemetery plot the group maintained.

I never joined the church, just attended youth group meetings and went to services maybe three times in two years.

I also became a member of the Southern Baptist congregation about a dozen years back. At the time I was in emotional free-fall. A friend suggested I come along with him to church and I was desperate enough to give it a try. The message was soft-soap Christianity with a heavy dose of general counseling --plus they served donuts in the morning. As I was broke and hungry almost every weekend, the donuts were kind of nice. I always had two --even if they were invariably stale.

With the Baptists, I was good up until the pastor actually delved into the nuts and bolts of the religion. The preacher and I exchanged many e-mails on why I didn't agree with the contents of his sermon either on Biblical grounds or because it just sounded like thinly veiled political bullshit.

Periodically, he would tell me I should have been a preacher, too. I don't know that he really meant that, but may have been looking for a way to shut me up.

I was never a very good Christian. This isn't to say I was out looting and plundering or sacrificing goats to obscure Byzantine gods on the side. I lived a pretty good Christian life. I prayed a couple of times a day. I attended every service I could. I read my Bible and whatever was considered the hot new religious text of the moment --"The Prayer of Jabez" was popular, as was stuff by Rick Warren. I watched Kirk Cameron in "Left Behind" and was sober --at least the first time through.

The second time, I realized it was too damned silly to take seriously without something to help suspend disbelief.

Quite frankly, I think the rapture is bullshit and about as likely as the world ending because of the return of a flying winged serpent.  

Anyway, I walked the walk --at least as best I understood it. I tried to live by what I read and what I was taught in church. I believed, but then the belief system I'd established was challenged and my faith collapsed like an empty aluminum crushed against a frat boy's forehead.

I was never a really good Christian, I guess. When the real trials showed up, my belief in a benevolent god withered. As much as preachers and pundits talked up the idea of spiritual trials, I could never wrap my head around what was served by making even one child autistic or blind or born with a broken heart.

So, I began to look elsewhere. I wound up reading a lot about Buddhism and a few self-help-y new age books (just not the stupid ones that promised to connect me with dead people, put me in contact with my guardian angel or help me decipher my fate from water). I even called myself a Buddhist for a while, not that I really was.

I liked the idea of letting go of attachment and the notion of responsibility in Buddhism wss very attractive to me. Part of what I didn't like about Christianity is that there was a vein in it that tended to turn everything over to God, including the stupid things people do just because they can, like screw each other for money or dump poison in the water. 

I liked Buddhism's pretty specific, though very broad, code of conduct, but the concept of reincarnation sort of stalled for me, as did the complicated system for determining karmic merit. It seems unlikely that the universe was created by an accountant.

I'm not entirely sure the Buddha believed that either.

I've been hot and cold on religion. These days, I think, I'm moving toward warm. It's been a while, but I'm interested in spiritual things again. 

Attending church is odd for me. I'm not really there for the message, though the man giving the sermon is a nice, earnest and plain-spoken kind of preacher named Mike. Earnest counts a lot in my world. I appreciate having an honest intention and Mike seems like he's in this for all the right reasons. Of course, he also reminds me ever so slightly of Glenn Beck, but without seeming like he drinks gasoline straight from the pump.

Mike is also smart enough to know I'm there for the girl, not for the guy he's talking about. There are times I feel a little bad about that. It's a very nice church. The people are thoughtful, sweet and kind --just very decent people who don't seem to do a lot of grandstanding or chest thumping about how swell they are because they're Christians. I feel a real sense of humility in the bunch as a group.

They're warm and welcoming, but I'm an "other," a visitor, a tourist and an alien. It's not them, of course. It's me. I hear the words, but they don't really move me. I feel nothing much beyond the warmth of my girlfriend's hand and the joy from watching her smile at me, but I wait to see if there's anything else. I never stop hoping there is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Green Acre: seeds from the slacker

While I wasn't writing, through the spring, I kept busy with a garden. The old guy who'd had the place before me had been one of those "alpha" gardeners when he was younger. The back yard was still furrowed and dented from where a tractor had passed over it many times.

In my mind, I can see the tall stalks of corn growing neatly, the perfect turnips poking up out of the soil, peppers and tomatoes practically bursting from the vine. 

His garden would have looked just like the slick pages of a seed catalog.

But that garden would have been many years ago, before his wife became so ill, before the old man, himself, grew tired of the leisurely work of growing food for fun and began talking to real estate agents about selling the place.

The garden was gone, but a kind of scar remained covered by a green overgrowth of thick clover; clover, that choked my mower and left me sweating and swearing under the mid-day sun after I'd worked the whole morning; clover, that made me regret every footfall by the end of each wasted Saturday and wish for something like napalm.

Starting a garden seemed like my only option. If I couldn't cut the grass, I'd carve it out and replace it with beans, beets and watermelons for the kids. I'd make the garden so big and massive, the neighbors would think I'd turned Amish.

I had no idea where to start. My few attempts at gardening had been typically sad and depressing. It always sounded so easy: just scratch some ground, put in a few seeds and cover them up. Remember to water them and let the sun take care of the rest.

It is not that easy.

Too often, I'd wound up with sickly plants with slick, black roots that looked like they'd been drenched in motor oil. They bore little fruit and their lonely, wilted foliage always suggested unspeakable abuse. In a good year, I might get a handful of tomatoes and a couple of pencil nub carrots. The rest would go to weeds or to seed and become bait for moles.

Through the winter I poured through books --some of them I read --and I looked for advice on how to plant, what to plant and when. I glanced through catalogs like I teenage boy with his first porno mag and gazed with something approaching lust on weird, Russian tomatoes and exotic African gourds. What was the point of even trying if I was just going to grow what I could buy at Foodland?

Everything looked amazing. I chose half a dozen varieties of this and that, sent off an order then did it again with another company. Some of this was bound to grow, I figured.

But I didn't have much in the way of tools: a couple of plastic hand tools generally used for flower gardening (purchased from a dollar store and probably meant for a child) and a snow shovel (bought at an auto parts store and not especially good at removing snow).

Pretty clearly, I needed a few things.

For months, I told myself I needed a tiller: front tine, rear tine; some kind of tiller. It would solve all my problems. It would chop the ground up like hamburger, reduce the weeds and grass to rich, organic confetti and I could just cast my seeds out over the perfectly sculpted rows like rolling dice. All I'd have to do after that was get a watering can and remember to make sure to dampen the ground every once in a while.

Yeah, that was the plan...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seven and the Ragged Tiger

I remember when I started this blog –I thought it was over: writing. I’d been writing for what was then The Beat for maybe a year. My section of the paper was just about the change when the editor bought me lunch and told me that maybe me blogging for the newspaper wasn’t really working out.

At the time, I thought this was just the first step toward me being cast out of the writing circle I’d worked so diligently to become a part of. I thought I’d have to go back to just writing for the free papers again or –heaven forbid –those fuckers at Graffiti. 

Losing the blog wasn’t that big of a deal, actually. It had never really caught on. I had never really figured out what to do with it and I wasn’t especially happy with what they thought I should do with it. Basically, I think, they imagined it as some kind of cross between the Huffington Post and a Twitter feed –but at a cost to them of $35 a month.

I didn’t update the blog as much as my editor wanted and very shortly after the blog began, I started resenting having to turn in loose blog posts to be edited.

It just wasn’t a good fit for anyone, but just the same, I was being let go, turned loose and that stuck in my craw.

I started this blog because I didn’t like being shown the door –not that that was what really happened. The truth was the newspaper was just getting into blogging. They had no idea what they were doing. Blogging was part of that new electronic media stuff. They're still working out what to do with it.

Anyway, the basic idea for this blog was simple: I’d write about the things I wanted, not just the stuff I was assigned. I’d do it in my voice without an editor demanding that I try to be cooler or hipper or whatever. I didn’t have to be any cooler or hipper than I already am, which isn't particularly cool or hip. I could grow on my own terms. I was free to be weird, profane and stupid.

The audience was only briefly considered most of the time, but I developed one --even if I didn't always know who was out there. I was never more proud than when someone knew me from here and not from what I wrote at the paper. It was kind of perverse, but I enjoyed having a quiet "grassroots" following.

This blog has had its ups and downs. There have been periods when I wrote a lot –and periods when I’ve taken breaks for weeks or even a month or so. I think I took a break this last time partly out of sheer weariness --having your marriage collapse and starting over will wear you out –but also because I didn’t really feel like writing about where I was. Unexpectedly, I'd fallen in love and had no idea what to write about that. I wondered how much was too much to talk about and whether flying my freak flag too high would screw things up with her. 

These are serious things I considered.

I also didn’t feel much like writing, in general. This was burnout. For a while stringing more than two words together in print was tough. My head was in a fog. Whatever I did come up with kind of sucked and I told myself I should save up whatever I could for the people who pay me to write. 

Anyway, some of the fog has lifted. I want to write and I think I have things to say again. In fact, there are things I can say here that I can’t say with my newspaper blog (the word “fuck,” for example) and for sure, there are things I can say here that would and, likely, should never go into print.

This is how it should be.

Somehow, in the past few weeks, I’ve stumbled back to the beginning. It finally feels right to write again, to write like this again at any rate.

Welcome or welcome back, but read at your own risk.