The Smart Phone

I am the proud owner of a brand new Smart Phone. It is, ironically, my “reward” for doing something stupid.

Having a mobile device is not new for me. In fact, I’ve had a mobile phone since they were first developed in the early 1980’s. Mind you, my first one was only mobile if you could carry the 50 lb. backpack that allowed you to periodically and sporadically fight through the other twenty anonymous users on your channel. This could only occur a couple of times a day and never when you needed to actually talk to someone. It was best described as “heavy but useless.” A phone booth was still much easier to use and to carry. (For you youngsters under thirty years old, just Google phone booth and ignore the Superman references.)

When the modern cell phone came along you could finally make that all important call to your friend and let him know what you did over the weekend… while everyone in the restaurant glared at you as you screamed into your “flip phone.” But at least now it was small enough that you could put it in your pocket, right next to your scheduling calendar and pen that Harvey Haines gave you and everyone else in Bonita for Christmas. Phones were still just for making phone calls and as a result were just marginally smarter than the people who used them.

My wife and kids were the ones who finally introduced me to the wonders of the “smart phone.” Soon it was doing my scheduling, helping me find my way to unknown addresses, and allowing me to take pictures of my friends in compromising positions so that I could send copies to everyone. It also allowed me to check my email obsessively while trying to convince the phone that I didn’t want to “beat” someone at the office… I wanted to “meet” them there. Having thick fingertips that fit perfectly on three of the silly little keys at once turns out to be a problem.

But despite the frustrations of using it, I am entirely dependent on my phone. If I leave home without it in the morning I am paralyzed. I don’t know what day it is, what time it is, where I’m supposed to be or the phone number of the people that I need to call. To me, Bob’s phone number is… Bob. And although they are technical masterpieces, they are a bit on the fragile side… which brings us to how I ended up with another new phone.

I had just finished working outside and my clothes were particularly filthy, so I stripped them off on the porch, went inside, took a shower and then gathered up my dirty clothes. After I removed my wallet and keys from my pockets I threw the stinky garments into the washing machine. After I got dressed to go back out to work, I was looking around for my precious phone when I heard, “Klunk, Klunk, Klunk…” “NOOOOOO!!!” I ran into the laundry room, yanked open the washer and pulled my only slightly damp phone from my jeans pocket. “It’s still working!” I shouted hopefully to my wife, holding it proudly in the air. It immediately responded by vibrating and saying “Droid”. Panicked but hopeful, I started blowing on it, shaking it and turning it on and off. There had to be some way to bring it back to life. I ran to the computer and Googled how to dry out a cell phone. It said “Don’t blow on it, shake it, or turn it on and off!” (Oh come on!) As I read further, the two best sounding remedies that came up were to either dip your phone in pure alcohol (seriously?) or to put your phone in a bag of rice for 24 hours. (No, not cooked rice! Geez!) The rice method sounded like the best way not to blow up the house, so I tried it. Twenty-four hours later the phone was dry… but completely unresponsive. So, off to the phone store I went.

The store was full of people my age and older with confused looks on their faces, asking questions like “How do I get the pictures of my cat from my old phone onto my new phone?” I shook my head and smiled at these poor hapless, technically challenged people. After all, being an experienced swapper of phones, I knew exactly how to get all my contacts, calendar and other information switched over. I would go home and ask my computer guru/wife Lori to do it for me in exchange for me cooking her dinner. Hmmm… maybe some stir fried rice.

That Special Christmas Gift

I don’t know why this one Christmas memory sticks in my mind, but it’s actually one of my first memories. I can still feel the excitement of tearing open the paper, the smell of the tree… even the comfy feel of pajamas with feet built into them. I was five years old.

When I opened the box and found the blue and yellow plastic wind up seaplane, it somehow immediately cemented itself in my mind as the greatest Christmas gift I ever received or likely ever would. I barely remember anything else about it, how long I had it or what became of it, but it remains a wonderful, comforting memory.

Although the Christmas spirit remains alive inside many of us, that unbridled excitement that we experienced in our childhood is difficult to recapture. As adults we open our gifts politely, casually. Sometimes, it’s an article of clothing that makes us wonder if the person who gave it to you has mistaken us for someone else, possibly of a different gender. We smile and thank them, and then wait while they open the gift we’ve purchased for them. As they unwrap, with politely created anticipation, what is obviously a book, you say hopefully “I think you’ll like this!” Unbeknownst to you, the person you’ve bought it for hasn’t read a book in the last decade, but still they give a cheesy grin and say “Oh boy, Thanks.” You nod proudly, “When I saw that it was about improving ones table manners I immediately thought of you! Merry Christmas!”

A Christmas or two ago I received a gift from my wife that was right on par with that great gift of long ago… something that I had wanted in a very elementary school way for months. I had noticed kids flying around the mall on sneakers that had wheels built into them, and although they seemed to irritate most everybody… I thought, “How cool is that!” You could be walking along and then just lean back on your heels and glide through (or over) the other shoppers gracefully and effortlessly! I tugged on Lori’s arm and pointed franticly at the speeding teenager. “Look at that! I’ve got to get some of those.” “Seriously?” she said. “You really think you can do that?” I watched another teen with his hands in his pockets casually and silently whizz by. “Oh man! Are you kidding? Look how easy it is!” “Suuurrre,” she said…. easy to break your neck.”

So, like a kid, that was about all I could talk about for months, until that Christmas when I unwrapped a present and to my surprise and delight…. THERE THEY WERE. Adult sized “Heelys”. Suddenly I was experiencing the excitement of being a kid again and the world came to a grinding halt. I had to try them out immediately, so I plopped down on the floor, slipped them on and started lacing them up. “You’d better read the instructions first,” warned Lori shaking her head. “Nah…. I got this.” I said standing up on the diamond hard tile floor. I took two steps, leaned back on the tiny wheels and then immediately hit the floor flat on my back, just like I’d been shot. As I laid there like a dead fish I stuck my hand out and asked “Hey… can you hand me those instructions?

Weeks later, despite serious bruising in areas that I don’t wish to discuss… I finally mastered the shoes… by taking the wheels out of them. They’re not very comfortable and they make a weird hollow “popping” sound when I walk… but I haven’t fallen down since, which strangely enough, turns out to be one of my top priorities these days.

So, I suppose that’s the way it is… gifts don’t always hit the mark, but sometimes they can certainly leave a mark, whether in our memory or on our… well, let’s just leave it at that.

Camp Notgonnadoit

The cool night air and the smell of fireplaces burning here and there this time of year makes me want to go camping… until I really think about it for a while. I know a lot of you still enjoy it, but I have to say that I am not the intrepid explorer that I was when I was say… 12 years old. Back then, laying on the hard ground, swatting mosquitoes in a tent packed with other wood smoked kids was actually fun, probably because we didn’t care about sleep, safety, comfort or hygiene.

We would all hop into my dads old four wheel drive pick up, head out east of town to the most isolated piece of dry ground in the water soaked woods that we could find. It was all “Lord of the Flies” from there. Staying up all-night; playing with fire and fashioning spears. The number one rule was “Don’t be the first guy to go to sleep.” Making life miserable for the guy who made that mistake was quite often the highlight of the trip. (Sorry about painting you red Ralph)

The last “boys” camping trip that I’ve been on was just a few years ago. My brother invited my friend George and I to join him and his friends at their camp near the North Canal. Of course by camp, he meant a circle of rocks with a fire in it, surrounded by completely bare ground (mud) and cypress trees with a few rusty nails and ropes decorating them.

When George and I arrived with our tents, sleeping bags, coolers, old guy medication, etc. it was just getting dark. We quickly set everything up and joined the other guys around the fire. It was fun being “young boys” again, sitting around the fire, telling stories, talking… laughing. Then around midnight everyone started to fall asleep… basically in whatever spot and position that they landed in. Soon, I was the last conscious camper, so I stood up, surveyed the body’s sprawled about the camp, stretched, yawned and headed to my tent.

And so began the longest night of my life.

I stuffed myself into the sleeping bag, breathed in the cool night air, listened to the deafening quiet and then closed my eyes. Just as I started to drift off… “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” My eyes snapped open. “PPPFFFLBUT-BUT-BUT!” I sat straight up and listened. “George!” I sneered in a whisper. I peeked out of the tent. Sure enough, the grotesque snoring was coming from his tent and not from some other stinky animal. I looked around my tent and gathered up everything I could find and then waited there with it pulled tightly against my head. “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” I could still hear him! After what seemed like hours of squirming, cursing, cramming socks in my ears and wrapping shorts around my head, I kicked everything off of me. I lay there with my hands clasped over my ears. Finally, I said out loud “That’s it!” I scrambled out of the tent, walked over and kicked my friends’ big feet through the side of the tent. “George!” “PPPPPFFFLBUT-BUT-BUT!” “GEORGE!” Nothing. There I stood at 2am with my fists on my hips, shaking my head. (How could he be dead and still be making that much noise?) I looked over at the truck. “Ah-Ha!” I whispered as I opened the door and crawled inside. I shut the doors, rolled up the windows and squirmed around, trying to get comfortable. Then I lay still for a moment; blanket over my head, listening as my ears rang with silence, until “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” I yanked the blanket down off of my face. “Are you kidding me!” I moaned. It sounded like he was inside the truck! I sat up and buried my face in my hands. “Oh for Pete’s sake… his poor wife… How could he still be married?”

At daybreak I was still leaning on the steering wheel looking through baggy eyes at the smoldering fire, my brother and all his friends. They hadn’t moved all night and were still sleeping soundly, sprawled in every direction around the camp. Then, just like the rising sun… it dawned on me, and I slowly started bumping my head on the steering wheel. When you’re all over age 50, it’s no longer the first one to go to sleep that suffers… it’s the last one.

The Wrong Pair of Shoes

As I hurried home one evening from a Council meeting, I had a hundred things going through my head, none the least of which was trying to figure out if I had packed everything for the Orlando vacation that my wife and I were going to leave on as soon as I arrived home. Lori had the car ready to go, so when I got home we left immediately… me still dressed in my suit and tie. Although we were going to arrive late at the hotel, the plan was to have a good nights sleep, head out the next morning and then walk way too much, eat way too much and spend way too much money at the “House of the Mouse”.

After completing the three hour drive, we were checking in at the resorts front desk when suddenly it dawned on me that I hadn’t packed any shoes other than the black dress shoes I was wearing. Now, I know that I’m getting a little “long in the tooth” but I’m not quite ready to go out in public wearing short pants with black socks and black dress shoes… yet. “Is there a store open in the hotel where I can by some sandals?” I asked the clerk. She paused typing for an instant and motioned towards the map of the huge resort. We found the store just as it was getting ready to close and although they had mouse ears all over them, I found a pair of forty-dollar flip-flops. They looked comfortable, so we paid the nice young lady and went to our room for the night.

The next morning we got dressed in our tourist garb and headed out, hand in hand towards the “happiest place in the world”…. or at least a hundred yards down the long hallway to the elevator. After I pushed the lobby button I looked down at my feet. Lori was looking at me. “What?” she said. I made a face and wiggled my feet. “I can’t believe this but, I already have a blister between my toes. These shoes obviously aren’t going to work out.” She shrugged. “No big deal…There has to be somewhere in this place where you can find something better, right?”

We began by stopping at every little shop in the resort until we found a really expensive looking store that had beach apparel and other outdoorsy stuff. The closest thing that I could find that looked like something a grown man would wear was a pair of opened toed sandals made of black rubber. (No… they weren’t “Crocs”) They looked more like bedroom slippers but, they felt like heaven compared to the flip-flops that were eating my toes… so for another fifty dollars, my feet were happy, the offending flip-flops were in a bag and we were on our way to Epcot.

After we got off the bus we walked briskly towards that giant silver ball at the entrance, anxious to finally get started having fun. (Flip, flip, flip, flip…) Lori looked over at me and frowned. I looked down at my comfy, yet noisy bedroom slippers. Little repetitive noises make Lori crazy, so I curled my feet up tight like a bird on a perch as I walked and the noise stopped. But within 60 seconds, I was concentrating so hard on keeping my feet scrunched up that it was causing me to walk like I had mashed potatoes in the back of my pants. Lori, being like every other understanding and compassionate wife, started laughing at me, “What in the world are you doing?” she giggled. “Is there something you want to tell me?” “Oh, you’re funny!” I said, throwing my hands in the air. I relaxed my feet and kept walking. (Flip, flip, flip…) “See! I’m just trying to stop them from doing that!” (Flip, flip, flip…) “Well…” Lori said frowning down at my noisy feet as we walked. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not that bad.” Ten minutes later. (FLAP, flip, FLAP, flip, FLAP, FLAP…..) Lori stopped dead in her tracks in front of a dinosaur and spun me around like I was one of the other ten year olds at Disney World. “What!” I whined. She pointed at my rubber feet. “Those have got to go or we’re going to go!” I looked down. “But… They’re so comfortable!” Lori was already walking towards the giant souvenir store. “… and it feels like I’m walking around in bedroom slip-…” “Don’t care… Let’s go!” She said dragging me by the hand. (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP…) “Mannnnn…!”

In the store we found actual shoes… well, close to actual shoes. They were “Crocs” with closed toes, heels and of course… mouse ears everywhere. They were also comfortable, quiet and “only” 60 dollars. But all four of us; my lovely wife, me and both my feet, were happy for the rest of the day…all for just under $150. (Well, not including admission, food, lodging, travel expenses and Excedrin.)

To this day the shoes stare at me from a dark corner in my closet, reminding me that you can never be too prepared. But if you see me at the grocery store some day, walking rather oddly, it’s just me trying to get my moneys worth out of the wrong pair of shoes.

The Stranger

In 1975 I took a trip to Kentucky with a friend who wanted to visit with his relatives. Before the Dukes of Hazard, before I decided to cut my shoulder length blonde hair…bell-bottom jeans and all, I spent a week in Hazard, Kentucky.

Despite my apprehension, when we got to my friend’s aunt’s house it was all hugs and kisses. And although her house wasn’t fancy and was missing an indoor toilet, it was clean and charming. Soon after we arrived, as the grandfather clock patiently ticked off the time, Tommy and his relatives sat in the living room and began catching up. As I listened to the conversations, I noticed that they all seemed to revolve around relatives that had passed away from various horrible diseases. “You remember Uncle Billy?” “Sure…He’s a great guy! How’s he doing?” (Tick, tick, tick…) “He’s dead. Died of the consumption last year.” (Tick, tick, tick…)

Before they could kill off another relative, I excused myself and went out for a walk in the sunshine through the tobacco fields. It wasn’t long before I ran straight into an old man hunched over, hoeing between the rows of tobacco. He looked up at me like he had been expecting me, wiped his brow and gave me a nod. “Howdy!” I suddenly felt like a trespassing stranger that was about to be shot and held up my hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” “Where you from?” he interrupted. I turned and pointed cautiously. “Well, I’m staying with…” “Nooo!” He spat on the ground and then pointed at me. “Where YOU from!” “Oh! I’m from Florida, south of…” “FLORIDA?” he said, amazed. “Yep!” I said nodding my hippy head. He threw his hoe over his shoulder, turned and began walking away. “Will you go with me?” he said without turning around. I had no idea what he meant. “What?” He turned towards me and pointed down the hill. “Will you go with me?” “OH!” I said, pausing at the thought of what might be in store for me. But then… “Yeah, sure!” and I ran to catch up.

Soon, we came upon a colorless old wooden house with a pleasant looking older lady in a freshly pressed dress on the porch. “Margret… we got company! From FLORIDA!” the old man yelled proudly, propping his hoe against the porch. “Ooohh!” she marveled. “I’ll get some lemonade.”

We sat there for a bit, them smiling at me (maybe a little too much) until finally the lady announced matter-of-factly. “So, Florida is an island!” My eyebrows popped up. “Umm… no. It’s a peninsula.” They looked at each other then back at me. “You see, it’s only surrounded on three sides by water, not four.” I said making a U in the air. They looked at each other again. The old boy scratched his chin and asked slowly. “So you can look in all three differnt’ directions and see water?” I shook my head. “No, It’s big… I mean… when you’re near water and you look out at it, you can’t see anything but the water. And when you’re not near it you can’t see it… the water… that is.” I rubbed my neck. (Why was this so difficult to explain?) The nice lady leaned forward as if to help. “So, when you look out ‘cross the water, what place do you see on the other side?” I leaned back in my chair and rocked a bit. Having lived in Florida my entire life, it never occurred to me that some people had never seen a horizon. I shrugged. “Well… all you can see is a line.” Her hand went across her mouth, and then she almost whispered. “A line of what?”

An hour later, after describing what a horizon was and why you couldn’t see Mexico from Florida, they told me that they had never been out of the valley, never watched television, and had never been to school. This beautiful valley was the only world they had ever known.

As evening came and the shadows grew long, the couple graciously thanked me for the conversation, hugged me, gave me a generous portion of cornbread and pointed me towards home. I often think about them and the stories they must tell about their encounter with the skinny young stranger with the long hair, who appeared in the tobacco field one day. But more often it reminds me that although we are all products of our environment and preconceived notions… it’s never too late to learn from each other.

My new friends in Kentucky learned a simple lesson in geography that afternoon… I learned how a simple act of kindness and acceptance can make our fear of others fade, turning strangers into friends.

Alone Under the October Moon

“Come on Joe… Let’s go camping this weekend,” I pleaded over the phone in my preadolescent voice. But Joe couldn’t. He was in trouble from our last camping trip. I was determined to go anyway, so I went downstairs into our family’s hardware store and asked my Dad if he would drop me off with my camping gear east of town and pick me up in the morning. He didn’t look up as he worked with a torch, rosining a new tip onto a fishing pole. “By yourself?” he asked, a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Yep!” I said proudly. He nodded at the truck outside. “Alright… load it up!”

As we drove through the woods that evening I kept waiting for some advice, parental or otherwise, like “Don’t get eaten by a panther!” or “Don’t set yourself on fire!” That’s why my buddy Joe was in trouble. He had a habit of over tending a campfire by casually kicking the logs around with his bare foot. So when he returned home last weekend with one leg of his pants burned off, his mom seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. Anyway… Dad didn’t say a word as I unloaded my camping gear next to a dry creek bed. He didn’t even shut the truck off! “See you in the morning!” he said and then… he drove away.

I looked around and immediately felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. It was the first time I had ever been truly alone. It was just me, versus my busy little imagination. (Whoa… I’ve got to shake this feeling off. It’s OK… I’ll feel better if I get busy.) So I began setting up the tent, and starting a fire under the watchful eye of a huge yellow October moon rising in the east.

Before long it was dark, my belly was full of fried Spam and I was trying to keep myself busy, poking at the fire with a stick while I sat on the ground, my chin propped up on my knees. It was unpleasantly quiet and as I sat listening to my ears ring, my bored ten-year-old imagination decided to run amok. (I wonder what time it is? How in the heck did I get sand in my… Are those eyes over there?) “SNAP”! I froze. I couldn’t see past the light of the fire, so I crept off to the side to take a peek. The moon made everything look… suspicious. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my heart beating. (It’s nothing… Just quit thinking… Quit thinking? How do you do that? I’ll just go to sleep.)

I climbed into the tent, zipped it up and lay there watching the spooky shadows of the fire dancing on the walls. The more I tried to calm down and distract my thoughts, the more anxious and alert I became. (Maybe there’s something wrong with me… no, I’m fine… but what if I‘m not?) I didn’t know it at the time, but I had worked my way into a full-blown panic attack. Fortunately I was still capable of making a calm, rational decision. “I’M GETTIN’ THE HECK OUTTA’ HERE!” Even though I was certain it was around three a.m., I decided to put out the fire and walk… well actually, run like a wild man towards Jones Mobile Village, where I could find a phone. When I finally burst out of the woods, I saw that the lights were on in the Jones’s mobile home. Surprisingly, when I knocked, Mrs. Jones opened the door immediately. “Ben Jr.?” I was out of breath but puffed out a “Yes ma’am.” She clutched the neck of her housecoat. “What in the world are you doing out here?” I skipped the details, “Can I use your phone?”

To my surprise, when I spoke to my dad on the phone he didn’t say much of anything. And on the ride back to the house he didn’t ask any questions… He didn’t even tease me! But the strangest thing was that when I got home… It was only 8:30 pm! I had only been in the woods for three hours!

My parents never said anything about my humbling experience under that October moon. They didn’t have to. Snug in my bed that night, I listened to the comforting sounds of family and home I had taken for granted, and that just a few minutes ago had seemed so far away… the television, my parents voices, dishes clinking, the humming of a fan… my dad burping loudly from the couch to the delight of my little brother who giggled from his bedroom. I smiled, closed my eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Patience with a Purpose

As I was walking out of City Hall after a particularly prickly Council meeting a gentleman patted me on the back and said “Mr. Mayor, you have the patience of Job!” It was a nice complement and I thanked him, but it is not a virtue that comes naturally to me, nor one that I am always able to access. But the patience that I do demonstrate is purposeful and calculated. A result of a great many life lessons; observations, successes and failures, quite often delivered by what I like to refer to as the “Hand of God.”

Now before you get all worked up… let me explain. What I’m referring to are simple little incidents when it appears that a “giant invisible hand” (possibly belonging to a being with a particularly wicked sense of humor) has rather abruptly interrupted something that I’m doing, simultaneously delivering a lesson in humility. For example…

More than a few decades ago, I was a young, energetic, demanding, impatient superintendent for a large construction company. I wanted things done… and done now. If there was a problem I wanted it fixed… now! I was a hard and tireless worker that believed that anything could be fixed by working even harder and bulling straight through to the conclusion. I was wrong. Fortunately, when I needed it most, I received “guidance.”

I was operating a large crane that was perched on top of a 40’ tall pile of dirt, right next to the water. The crew of men who were working for me out over the water on a barge, were attempting (in vain) to align the large pile driver that was suspended by the crane onto a piling. It was like trying to thread a needle with a sledge hammer and extremely frustrating. After what seemed like an eternity (two minutes) my patience had, as usual, vanished and I was furious. The men were 60’ out into the water and since the crane, pumps and other machinery were screaming louder than me, I slammed the brake pedals down, locked the machine in position and jumped out of the crane on a dead run down the steep slope towards the water.

About 10’ down the slope of clean fresh dirt, I felt something grab my foot and I was instantly airborne, flying just like Superman (without the super powers or good looks) towards the water. Flying along, about two feet above the ground, arms outstretched in front of me, I thought “Oh…this isn’t going to end well!” SPLASH! Luckily, the water was deep and since I had entered the water in Superman position, I was completely unharmed. Once under water, I decided to stay there for a while and take stock of what just happened. As I sat there on the bottom of the bay, I thought… “I wonder if anybody saw me do that…and if not, how was I going to explain to the crew my sudden and apparently “magical” appearance in the water?” This caused me to start laughing and then drowning, so I popped up to the surface.

When I did, the entire crew was still staring intently up at the piling, patiently waiting for the crane operator (me) to lower the hammer. Finally, the foreman turned around to see what the hold up was and saw me there laughing while treading water 60 feet away from the now unoccupied crane. After I told the crew what had happened… we all had a good laugh and as I made my way back up the slope with a relaxed, light heart… the solution to the construction problem suddenly and clearly came to me. I turned and looked at the spot where I had tripped. There was nothing there but smooth, clean sand.

Later on in my young career, building bridges and ship ports throughout Florida, I began to learn more about the art of knowing when to wait, when to act quickly, how to plan for multiple scenarios and how reacting calmly would invariably lead to better, quicker solutions. A year or so later, the owner of the company came down to the job site and found us removing huge steel I-beams that were driven deep into solid rock. A large crane was hooked to one of the beams and was sitting motionless, placing steady tremendous pressure on the beam. My boss, being even more impatient than I had ever been, wanted it out of the ground immediately and insisted on having us tug, jerk, pound and twist on the beam… but to no avail. As he stood there puffing impatiently on his cigarette, sipping on a warm can of coke, I told him “Let me show you something.” We hooked the crane back up, applied steady, intense pressure on the beam and then stood back away from the machine and waited. Five minutes later as we were leaning against my truck talking about the next job, the 40’ steel beam suddenly shot out of the ground all the way to the tip of the 100 foot crane boom, then thunderously crashed up and down like a giant bungee jumper.

Although my emotions do periodically get the best of me, the practice of using patience as an active force has proven invaluable to me over the years. Patience is confidence in the power of time. It encourages us to measure twice and cut once. To look before we leap. To face adversity calmly, with a light heart… because the cooler head will almost certainly prevail. It may be a concept that is difficult to accept for those who are anxious for change, for instant gratification, for continuous signs of progress, but the truth is that real progress often remains hidden from us until the goal is achieved and sometimes… you have to trip and fall before a solution presents itself.

Old Dogs

Our dogs Molly and Winston have become old dogs. Molly is graying, overweight and cranky. She waddles around the house like an oversized stuffed pepper, eating anything she can find. Around 7 pm she stares at my wife and me until one of us picks her up and puts her on the couch so she can watch The Wheel. When she gets tired of our company we set her back on the floor and she slowly walks into the bedroom so she can sleep alone. Our once trim, athletic Jack Russell now seems chronically tired and a little depressed.

Our rescue Winston has become the Old Eccentric Uncle of the house. He is still trim, but he’s stinky, deaf, near blind, and more than a little forgetful. His Terrier courage seems to have left him as he now startles easily and yips at the slightest touch. Quite often at dusk he stands motionless in the front yard, gazing intently for hours towards the western horizon. Lori thinks he’s waiting for his previous owner to come back for him… romantically looking off into the distance for the return of a lost love. But, since I too am becoming an old dog, I know that puzzled look on his face. He just can’t remember why he went outside. Just put a set of car keys in one paw and a grocery bag in the other and he’s me… trying to figure out where he parked at Publix.

The dogs and I occasionally forget that we aren’t young dogs anymore. But, we can’t help it. There are powerful instincts at work here… to chase the rabbit, to lift the refrigerator, to fight the pit bull, to do a handstand on the pool deck… to feel the thrill of getting away with something reckless again. Oh, we old dogs can still accomplish some young dog stunts, but in the end, there is almost always a price to pay.

Last week in Georgia, Winston, inspired by the mountain air, began running around the pond like a young pup. He was going full speed, ears flopping in the wind, tongue hanging out, smiling a big doggy smile. You could almost hear him yelling FREEDOM as he rounded the corner, trying to leap onto the dock. Unfortunately his vision isn’t what it was and he jumped five feet to soon, causing him to plow face first into the side of the dock. After he ricocheted off of the dock he fell into the water, yipping and flailing around, trying to keep from drowning. I know it sounds horrible, but the water was only three inches deep. So as soon as he finally stood up and realized he was relatively unharmed, he skulked over and hid behind the air conditioner for the rest of the morning, his confidence and pride shaken for days.

Molly, on the other hand, no longer runs much. Mostly because she’s shaped like a melon and the slightest bump or rise in the ground causes her skinny little front legs to collapse and her chin to skid on the ground. But also because she’s content to take it easy as she wades around in the pond or rides with me on the four- wheeler. That is, until she sees a soccer ball. Instantly (albeit briefly) she becomes a young super dog again… obsessively barking while she chases and herds the ball like a world champion soccer player, punching it like a seal with her snout. She used to carry on like that for hours, but now she will suddenly stop after a few minutes and walk back to the air conditioning of the house, her Kibble and her blanket. She has become a dog quite aware of and content with her limitations.

As for myself, after 45 years in the construction trade I still cannot resist the temptation to grab the sledgehammer out of the hands of a twenty-year-old and show him how it’s done. Although it feels good to be the big dog, rather quickly my body gives me a painful and not so subtle hint and I casually hand off the 16-pound hammer back to the rookie along with a firm pat on his back. On the drive back to the office I assess the damage I’ve done to myself, stretching out the familiar spasms in my shoulder and lower back while burying my face in the air conditioning.

When I limp home that night I do so with a smile, because I am no longer discouraged by the limitations of my age and the mileage on my body. I’m proud to have earned them… and to curl up on the couch with some kibble and a blanket next to Molly and Winston.

The Scout

Yesterday at lunch an employee of mine told me that all four of his children, all under the age of ten, each had their own IPad. Yep… that’s what I said too! “That’s NUTS!” He put his hands on his hips and looked at me like I was 100 years old and said “You know… it’s not just something to play with. It teaches them stuff too. How to solve problems, how to fix things…” But his voice faded into the background as I thought back to a time when my father gave me a gift that probably elicited a similar reaction. The Scout.

I was 10 years old when my dad gave me the small, green, 4-wheel-drive jeep type pick up truck made by International Harvester. It was good enough to drive in the woods but not legal to drive on the highway. Since I was in elementary school, this described me as well, so we were a perfect fit.

For the next few years I would drive the Scout around and around and around a self-made off road racetrack in the woods next to my parents hardware store on Old 41 (where Stan’s Subs and the Literacy Council are now), until the Scout would break down, catch on fire or get stuck. When it broke down, I would fix it myself, replacing broken axels, springs, the clutch, or whatever else was wrong… learning by doing. When I got it stuck or flipped it over on its side, I would work by myself with a shovel, scrap boards and a car jack for as long as it took to get it moving again. Although at the time I thought I was just having fun, I was actually learning valuable lessons in problem solving, the laws of physics and mechanical engineering, as well as building self reliance and confidence.

It also fed the inventive side of me, like when I attached a snorkel to the Scout, which allowed me to drive it under water when my buddies and I traveled in the swamps east of Bonita. The Scout would bubble along quietly while our grinning disembodied heads glided along the surface of the dark brown swamp water. But, being a preteen boy, I was also inspired to engage in some rather questionable creative behavior (don’t try this at home!) like towing one of my buddies little brothers behind the Scout on a piece of plywood.

In all fairness, I have to give a great deal of credit for this idea to my friend Billy. (You’re welcome Billy!) He came up with the idea and also supplied his little brother Danny as a test pilot for what he believed would be a new sport. Amazingly, while his big brother sat in the back of the Scout as spotter, little Danny managed to stay on his wooden sled, tied onto the back of the Scout with a thirty foot long rope, for over a minute before it plowed through a palmetto patch at twenty miles an hour and became airborne. When Billy saw his screaming little brother flying through the air clutching the piece of plywood, he realized that he had just invented the sport of parasailing, and in his excitement yelled WHOA! Now, I thought that WHOA meant stop, so I slammed on the brakes, which caused little Danny to make a perfect crash landing into the back of Scout on top of his brother. (Let’s see you do that with an IPad!) I thought this was hilarious… until the plywood came smashing through the Scouts back window. And although we had broken the window and possibly a couple of laws, I have to point out that we did not break Danny… at least physically. To his credit, Billy’s little brother never squealed on us. So to show our gratitude we let him ride inside the Scout… most of the time.

I’m not sure that my father intended the Scout to be a teaching aid, but as I type this story on my IPad… I do remember him nodding his head and smiling as he watched me crawl out from under the hood, turn the ignition key and bring the Scout back to life, one more time. Thanks Dad.

The Thanksgiving Cruise

The Thanksgiving Cruise
copyright 2012

“I don’t think I’m going to have Thanksgiving at the house this year… It’s just gotten to be too much work.” I took the phone down away from my ear and looked at it suspiciously. My mother, on the other end of the phone was apparently offering to surrender the family tradition of Thanksgiving Dinner to someone else. Thanksgiving at my parent’s house has evolved with our family. Through the years this holiday has ticked off the changes in all our lives. My sister and brother and I had become adults, of a sort, adding spouses, kids and grandkids of our own to the list. And although the circumstances of our lives have changed along with our cast of characters, once a year we still sit down together and marvel at each others well entrenched quirks while Mom provides us with the same delicious dinner, the same sides, the same way, year after year at the same house.

“Are you sure Mom?” I asked. She sighed. “Yes… I think so.” I thought for a moment… just not long enough of a moment, and then suggested “Hey… how about we all go on a Thanksgiving cruise!” Long story short, the entire extended family was soon booked on a 5-day cruise to Mexico or somewhere… I don’t know. (As it turns out, that part wasn’t important… what was important is that it was my fault.)

Months later, there we were aboard ship. And at our appointed time, all thirteen of us met in the main dinning area at our carefully pre-assigned table for ten. For a long moment, we just sat there, elbow to elbow, awkwardly squirming in our formal wear and looking at each other. Then “it” began. I picked up a small cup of whipped butter, smelled it and made a face. My very proper and polite sister, Julie was predictably concerned. “What’s wrong?” she said sweetly. (Excellent!) I smelled it again… then held it out to her. “Does this smell alright to you?” Julie, with her perfect little pointy nose, bent over to take a whiff. As soon as she did, I shoved the cup straight up…cramming butter in her nostrils. “ARGGGH!” She yelled as she searched frantically for the napkin that I had hidden from her. The kids and I all laughed hysterically as Lori calmly handed Julie a napkin and looked at me with that “really?” look.

My mother though, was busy checking out the arrangements. She looked back and forth a little nervously and for a moment I thought she was going to go back into the kitchen and take charge. “Are you all right mom?” I asked. “Oh… (she paused)…yeah.” It hadn’t occurred to me, but this was probably the first Thanksgiving in about 45 years that she was sitting instead of cooking. She was obviously feeling a little out of place.

But then, without missing a beat, my brother Tim came to the rescue. He finished off his fourth piece of bread and then explained in detail how he had made the origami towel creation that the cabin attendant had left on his bed… anatomically correct. Tim chuckled as he watched everyone around the table react to his famous brand of “shock and ugghh…” humor. “As usual my mom just giggled and said “Oh Timmy!” I could tell that we were almost in full Thanksgiving mode. Then my Dad called the waiter over. “Buddy!” (His name wasn’t Buddy) “Yes Messier?” the very French waiter replied. Dad proudly looked around the table at the family that he had created and provided for…his living legacy. Arms outstretched, he proudly ordered… “Bring us a bottle of your cheapest wine!” Thanksgiving was here at last.

On the way out of the restaurant that night, my Dad and mom hugged us all and as we were heading off to our rooms my Dad took me by the arm and pulled me close. “The turkey wasn’t as good as your moms. Next year… our house!” My Dad loved Thanksgiving Dinner, but he loved it “Mom’s way.” And that was that.

Our lives have continued to change since that Thanksgiving Cruise. My Dad has passed on and we’ve all taken on different jobs and different responsibilities in our lives. But at my mom’s house this year… she will work all day cooking, my brother will tell stories and jokes to his nephews and niece; my sister will dutifully help mom with the dinner and I will try to get her to fall for the butter in the nose trick again. And as laughter fills the house we will sit down together and remember Dad’s Thanksgiving Blessing…”For what we are about to receive may we truly be thankful… Pick up and eat!”