Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Ned, Fred, Ted, and Willy were all cousins from South Carolina that came to work for me when I was a superintendent for a large bridge building company in the 1980’s. They were hard workers that rode to work together, ate lunch together, lived in the same house together, partied on the weekends together and showed up hung over on Mondays together.  They were as close as a southern family could be, so when you hired one, you hired them all.  And when you fired one, you fired them all.

Being a working superintendent, I did whatever I had to do to get the job done so after we drove some pilings out in the middle of the wide canal and the large concrete cap was poured around it,the forms had to be removed including two 60′ long steel beams, one on each side of the pilings.  It was a tricky procedure and before sending the entire clan out over the deep water on the small 10′ x 20′ floating work platform, I made sure that everyone knew what to expect and what to do if something went wrong.  “I’m going to keep tension on the beams until you remove the bolts and then when you’re all ready, I’ll lower it down a bit.  But keep your eyes open! Both those beams are going to spring out towards you about four feet!” The entire family nodded in unison, so I walked up the bank and crawled into the cab of the large crane that was hooked up to the beams in the middle of the canal 100 feet away.

After the cousins had removed all the supporting braces and bolts, I reminded them all one more time.  “Now remember, keep your hands in front of you… I’m going to let the beams down a bit and their going to pop out towards you… so be ready!”  Again, four nodding heads let me know it was time and I eased the giant beams down.  And just as predicted both beams swung towards the crew on the tiny barge and just as planned the men simply put their hands on the beam, stopping it from swinging.  Except for Ned.  When the beams swung towards him, he panicked and in text book “Wile E. Coyote” fashion he turned and ran the same direction that the beam was traveling.  This may have worked had he not been on a small barge in the middle of a canal.  So Ned found himself running like a cartoon character in mid-air as he plummeted into the water.  After splashdown, all his cousins casually walked over to the edge of the barge, leaned over and looked at the place where Ned had fell in.  All that was visible was a hard hat, slowly spinning there on top of the brown water.  This was briefly hilarious and after a good laugh I shut the machine down and yelled at the remaining family members.  “HEY!  Where is he?!”  They were still looking down.  Fred looked up at me, pointed down and said slowly in a very southern accent… “He went in the watta!”  I jumped out of the crane and started towards them. “Yeah, I know!  Can he swim?”  They all looked down, then back up and shook their heads. “No sir… not a lick.” said Ted casually.  I freaked.  “WELL DON’T JUST STAND THERE, JUMP IN AND GET HIM!” They all looked up at me and shook their heads. “We can’t swim either boss.” Said Willy shrugging.  Now I was at a dead run towards the canal.  As I slid down the steep bank I heard Ted say calmly “There Ned is, comin’ up the bank over yonder.”  Sure enough, there on the opposite side of the bank, 50’ from where he went in, was Ned, crawling out of the water like an alligator on all fours.  Fred called out to him. “You all right Cuz?”  Ned rolled over on his back sucked in some air and yelled “No I ain’t all right!” He pointed without getting up. “Ya’llwere goin’ let me drown!”

Don’t get me wrong, I was really happy to see him alive… but I couldn’t figure out how he got way over there.  “How’d you get all the way over there if you can’t swim?” He propped himself up on his elbows and said matter-of-factly. “I just sank to the bottom and walked over here.”

The rest of the day the group entertained themselves with all kinds of theory’s regarding how Ned had been able to take on enough ballast to stay on the bottom and where he had stored it.  But later on as I was showing them how to put on their life jackets, I had one simple question. “Why didn’t you guys tell me that you couldn’t swim?”  As Ned fiddled with the strap on his jacket he said “Cause you didn’t ask us boss. And I wasn’t plannin’ to go in the water.”

Guess what the first question I ask employees now?

The Quest for Ice

When my wife told me that the Rotary International Convention was going to be in Montreal, Canada I just shrugged and said “hmppph!” I thought… (Well, I know lots of Canadians… It hardly seems like they’re from another country.) So, for the next few weeks I went about my day-to-day business, not giving the trip much thought at all while my wonderful wife made all the arrangements.

When we got off of the plane in Montreal it immediately became clear that a bit of pre-trip preparation would have been wise. “Everything’s in French!” I said staring up at the signs. Lori shook her head as she walked past me. “That’s right Mr. Obvious! What did you think it would be?” I grabbed my suitcase and began following her, mumbling quietly. “I don’t know… English?”

Soon we found ourselves in line at the customs station waiting to talk to an agent who was tucked away in a glass booth. I was busy people watching, when over the intercom I heard an impatient “NEXT!” I stepped forward dragging my bag and handed all of my paperwork through a slot to a pleasant looking young lady in a uniform. As she studied my passport I started looking around at all the other activity around me. “LOOK AT ME SIR!” The agent yelled. All of a sudden I felt like I was in elementary school, so naturally I started acting like it. I thrust my face forward and stared at the agent with wide open, bugged out, unblinking eyes. She and my wife were not amused. “Stop it!” Lori whispered through her clenched teeth. The agent looked at me, then down at my passport several times thru narrowed eyes. Then she asked, “Have you brought any gifts for the people of Canada?” That snapped me out of my bug-eyed stare and my head cocked to the side as I thought (clearly not long enough) about the odd question. “No.” I finally said and then wrinkling my nose. “Was I supposed to?” Again, neither the agent nor my wife was amused and without her eyes ever leaving me the customs officer rather firmly stamped my passport… and we were on our way.

Instead of staying at a hotel, my wife had arranged for an apartment in the downtown area so that we could better experience the city… and our inability to communicate. But despite the language barrier, we managed to find our way there. As we began unpacking and exploring we discovered that the apartment was comfortable, the area was beautiful, and the neighbors very nice. Of course… I went straight to the very modern looking refrigerator. “Hmmm… that’s weird!” I said, as I stood there with the door open. “There’s no ice machine and no ice cube trays. Oh well. Add a bag of ice to the shopping list!” Our quest for ice had begun.

Now, you would think that a city that was completely frozen for a good portion of the year would have vast storage bins of ice… everywhere. But no! Apparently, after ten months of everything being frozen, they didn’t want to see or even talk about ice. And to make matters worse, as we wandered through the city, we couldn’t tell from the outside what a store actually sold. So we wandered in and out of stores for hours, babbling to confused retailers, grunting and using sign language. When we would find a cleverly disguised grocery store, we would first wander aimlessly around the store, then ask for ice with a combination of bad French and sign language. We would blow on our hands, fake shivering until they would finally nod and send us to the sweaters or the heater department. Finally, someone directed us to a liqueur store where we found a lone, drunken, English speaking Canadian who sent us to a Shell gas station. We couldn’t believe it! Only five blocks away, and there it was! It was beautiful! It looked like… AMERICA! Guarding the front of the store in an identical glass cubical as the customs agent was a fellow who, after I handed him five loonies, gave me a little plastic bag of ice the size of an IPad.

I really liked the people of Montreal, so when I go back and they ask me if I’ve brought any gifts for the people of Canada… I will proudly show them a box full of ice cube trays.

Reading What We Want To Believe

Years ago we were visiting my grandparents at their home in what is now Cape Coral. As the adults sat talking out on the porch, my sister and I wandered off to rummage through the old newspapers, pictures and antiques. Their house was old, dark, dusty, cluttered and for two kids… an archeological adventure! On this particular outing we found a magazine with advertisements for patent medicines and inventions that years ago could have been purchased through the mail. The claims that accompanied these treasures were fantastic. Mere spoonfuls of a tonic could cure hundreds of ailments. Another ad claimed that simply wearing a mysterious device could make weak men strong and women more womanly. Always the young skeptic, I shook my head and wondered out loud to my sister, Julie. “Why would anyone have believed this stuff?” Julie pitched the magazine back in a pile of papers, creating a poof of dust in the dim light. “I don’t know… I guess they needed to believe it.”

I was recently reminded of my sister’s words, when a friend sent me an email of a giant 20 foot long alligator eating a moose. The title block said “THIS IS REAL… SEND TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!” Well, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so even though this was a real hoot, it was obviously fake. Yes, a genuine giant moose-eating alligator would have been amazing, but the fact that there is something inside of all of us that actually wants to believe it, is equally amazing.

As innocent as these Photoshop pranks might seem, there are also a great many harmful, patently untrue and just plain mean pieces of misinformation that are constantly being spread and promoted as factual. Again… such serious theories and accusations should require equally serious critical analysis and proof. But instead, it seems that the simple act of something being broadcast on TV or being published in a blog, email or newspaper, automatically gives that something the weight of truth. I think it may be because as humans, we are all subconsciously prewired to look for information that fits in with or validates our preconceived notions, fears and desires.

A few days ago, my sister forwarded me a particularly scary and divisive chain email she had received and added, “I can’t believe my friend thinks this is true!!” Her friend had set aside her skepticism in favor of the forwarded emails passionate accusations and her own fears. So I sent back a link to a reliable site that debunks such claims and typed below it “It’s clearly not true, but remember… some people will still feel the need to believe it.”

We are generally an intelligent species capable of creating remarkable technologies and solving complicated problems. But if we don’t use the tools of critical thinking that we have learned from the Ancient Greeks, or at least the skeptical skills that we have learned from buying used cars, we risk being trapped by our own fears and prejudices.

But then… don’t take my word for it.

The Tao of Ow

“Bam! Owwwww!” (OH for… I did it again!) In our house in Georgia the footboard of the bed has wooden “ears” sticking out each side, about the same height as my… hip. So when I round the corner to get to the TV or put away some clothes I have about a one in ten chance of catching one in the tenders and then folding up like a lawn chair. This was probably the hundredth time that I’d clipped it on the way by, so even though I was finally beating my wife at something (she was only up to about fifty times) I still howled in pain, cursed the stupid design, the knucklehead that designed it, the tree it was made out of and the people that built it. We’ve plotted several times to just cut the fancy ears off and be done with it… and I’ve even made it into the bedroom with the chainsaw running a couple of times, but Lori always stops me. “No… we just have to be more careful.” But that plan doesn’t work very well… so we’re probably going to keep doing it… until it really hurts.

When I was elementary school age I would go to work with my dad every day, all day, in the summer. He had a small dragline mounted on a truck that he cleaned the farm ditches east of Bonita with. All day long, I would sit on the crane shooting at frogs and snakes with my bb gun until he was ready to move forward. “OKAY!” He would yell and I would scramble into the seat, push the starter button (which cranked the truck up in gear because I wasn’t heavy enough to push in the clutch), drive forward about twenty feet and then go back to whatever I had been doing until he was ready to move again. Believe it or not, even shooting a bb gun at snakes can get a little boring for an eight-year-old, and since I didn’t dare wander off, I was always looking for something else to do, even somewhere different to sit. And so one fateful July day I made the mistake of sitting on a full can of gasoline as I watched my dad throw the cattails out of the ditch with the machine. Yeah… I KNOW! It seems stupid now but I was eight… remember? As the crane shook around and the gas in the can sloshed around, the liquid fuel didn’t get on me… but the 95-degree heat made sure that the gas fumes did bake some pretty sensitive areas.

It took about ten minutes for me to figure out that I had made a serious mistake… and that as a result my butt was apparently on fire or at least felt like it. My dad was always well aware of what was going on around the machine so he immediately saw me running and jumping around like… well, like my butt was on fire. It wasn’t his fault, but his solution to my problem added insult to injury as he made me strip down to nothing and then rinse off in the ditch with my friends the snakes and frogs that I had just been shooting at. Then he shook his head, chuckled, got back up in the crane and worked the rest of the day as I tried to hide in the crane… constantly fanning my naked scorched posterior.

So, the bad news was that my rear end burned like one of those out of control oil wells for about three days. But the good news is that I never sat on a gas can again… and I never will. Ah… who am I kidding? I probably never will!

Good Decisions

I was sitting in my good friend Dan’s office having our usual Friday after hour’s “meeting” when he leaned back in his leather chair with his hands behind his head and said in his slow southern drawl “Benny… If I could give my kids one thing… you know what it would be?”
Dan was from Birmingham Alabama and had made a really good living and life for him and his family as an attorney. A REALLY good one! In some sense I suppose we were unlikely friends; the well-educated attorney and the, well… marine contractor, but a mutual racquet-ball friend of ours decided to introduce us because on the court we were both “Kamikazes” who spent most of our time sliding on our bellys and crashing into walls, innocent by-standers and our hapless opponents with no regard for anyone’s health or well-being. Tom put a hand on each of our shoulders and said “Ben, this is Dan. Why don’t you two go smash into each other instead of me for a change!” So we did… every Sunday for the next three years.
Since we were both having some of the typical challenges associated with raising sons and since I was always ready to derail a perfectly serious conversation with a smart alec remark, I slouched into the comfy clients chair and took a shot at Dan’s profound question regarding the ideal gift for his teenage boys. “I don’t know… One way plane tickets?” He didn’t bat an eye, but his gaze went from the ceiling straight to me. “The ability to make good decisions!” I can’t remember if we discussed it any further, but that simple statement has stuck with me ever since.
A few years later I was visiting another friend of mine when he proceeded to get into an argument with his son over his college plans. As the conversation got more and more heated I decided to try to do what any good supportive friend would do… get the heck out of there! “Wow… look at the time! I’d better go… uhhhh… water my… driveway?” My friend wouldn’t let me. “NO! Listen to this! I want him to be able to choose whatever college he wants, but since I’m the one paying for it, I should be able to set some ground rules.” (His son and I both rolled our eyes… but for different reasons) “I told him that I would contribute the same amount of money no matter what college he chooses… but in turn, he has to give Florida State (yeah, he was an awful huge fan) a good look!” His son wasn’t amused. “Yeah? Well I told YOU that I’m NOT going to go to Florida State!” His father stepped forward and they were now nose to nose. “You’re not listening!” yelled his dad. “I’m not saying that you have to go there, I’m just saying that you have to give it serious consideration! Just visit the school, listen to what they have to offer and then, if you still don’t like it… you can go someplace else.” The angry young man stuck his arms straight out at his sides. “You’re the one that won’t listen! Why should I waste the time even looking at a school that I’m not going to pick? Right Mr. Nelson?” (OH… PERFECT! Now they’re both looking at ME!!)) I held my hands in front of me and said “Hey, I don’t want to get into…“ but then I thought about what Dan had said years ago… and I started over. “OK look… the WAY we make decisions can be just as important as the decision itself. Your dad just wants to be sure you have every opportunity to gather and weigh all the information fairly so that you can make this important decision based on REAL facts… not on what you think you know or what your friends have been telling you.” Then I looked at my friend. “But after he’s done that, YOU have to understand that, as much as you may want to, you can’t give someone the ability to make good decisions, you can only give them the opportunity…” (then I grabbed the young man by his shoulders and said to him slowly ) “…AND THE MONEY!”

No Experience Needed

No experience needed?

As we walked in through the registration tent at the “1984 Case Backhoe Rodeo” with the hundred or so other men, my father, myself, and our good friend Bob noticed that there was no vetting process. No proof of experience required! Anyone who walked up with twenty dollars and signed in could compete in a competition that consisted of proving how quickly and precisely you could complete a series of nearly impossible tasks with a variety of extremely large, dangerous machines (backhoes and hydraulic excavators) whose controls had been reconfigured in a random, crossed up fashion. This was really exciting for my father and me because we were both professional equipment operators with decades of experience. Bob, on the other hand, was excited because he had always wanted to operate a piece of heavy equipment and now he was finally going to get to!

I think that most everyone would agree that although we remain blissfully unaware of our own limitations, we are almost always delightfully aware of our friend’s limitations. That’s what friends are for… to tell you when you’re about to do something incredibly stupid. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked Mike as he gave twenty dollars to the person at the table. “I’m signing up to compete!” he said with a big smile on his face. I rolled my eyes, shook my head and looked over at my dad. He was grinning from ear to ear. As usual he had his own priorities and right now he was very interested in seeing his good friend provide some entertainment and years of great stories by displaying his complete incompetence in front of hundreds of people. I leaned over and whispered slowly and clearly into Mike’s ear. “You… are… going… to… kill…someone.” Mike proudly placed his official entry lanyard around his neck and announced “Hey… I’m a commercial airline pilot! How hard could this be?”

Well… here’s how hard. The first task began with a 20-ton backhoes bucket hovering over a small but sturdy metal table. On the table there was an empty and rightfully terrified one-gallon beer pitcher. After you climbed into the seat of the already running machine, an official poured a little over one gallon of beer into the machines gigantic bucket and instructed you to fill the other container completely… with beer. “You spill it, you’re out! You take longer than 30 seconds. You’re out!”

My dad and I watched as Bob climbed into the machine. With his CAT baseball cap tilted just so and his calm, confident demeanor, he certainly looked the part. But my dad and I knew better. As I looked around, I thought it was interesting. Terrifying… but interesting. Why would everyone assume that he knows what he’s doing? The official backed up (thank god!) and held a flag in the air. Bob calmly reached down and pulled the throttle wide open, which caused my dad to start laughing hysterically and me to utter a phrase commonly used on construction sites. Then… Mike stretched and calmly gave a nod to the official.

Now, you can’t fault Mike’s reaction time. Because when the flag dropped he instantly shoved both controls forward… simultaneously vaporizing the hapless beer pitcher, driving the small table deep into the ground and shooting beer about 20 feet into the air. And then, just like a water skier that falls and can’t let go of the tow rope, Bob froze… causing the giant machine to continue pushing down until it lifted itself about 5 feet into the air.

After Mike was finally coaxed down out of the groaning machine and the crowd had finished laughing, he was promptly disqualified and asked the one simple question that should have been asked in the first place. “Have you ever run a machine before?” I mean… no one would ever consider a complete and utter lack of comparable experience or knowledge to be a positive trait or a qualification for something so important? Would they?

Law and Disorder

Although a home security system is good to have, there is no substitute for a good neighbor.

Years ago I walked over to my neighbor’s house after work to ask him for a typical neighbor favor. “Hey Jim! I’m going to the Keys for the weekend. Could you keep an eye on my house while I’m gone?” Since my friend Jim is a one-man neighborhood watch, he was really happy to take on the responsibility of doing what he does all the time anyway. Just ask any pizza delivery person… no one (not even me) gets down our street without an I.D., passport, note from their mom and a thorough questioning. So I always feel secure about leaving our house when we go on vacation.

That particular night, after packing our bags and doing last minute preparation for the next mornings road trip, I put the kids to bed, and then walked around the house checking all the doors and motion lights before I set the alarm clock and settled into bed for the evening. I was just starting to doze off when I noticed a light outside, shining through the curtains. I sat up in bed, completely awake. (What the… There’s someone outside with a flash light walking around the house! Wait… there’s TWO people!)

Moving like a ninja, I slipped silently out of bed, crept over to the window and slowly peeked out through the curtains. It was pitch black outside, so all I could see were flashlights. Then… I heard the screen door open. (Holy… they’re trying to break into the house!) I was ready, because I’d been through this situation a thousand times. Well… in my head. I slowly backed away from the window and then deftly moved through the completely dark house like a cat. BAM “OWWW!” I quietly cursed as I hopped on one foot after stubbing my toe.

Limping quietly and quickly, I made my way over to the sliding door to the porch and then leaned back against the wall. The lights on the porch swept back and forth; searching… but they could not see me because I was like a shadow… camouflaged in (I looked down) my bright white underwear? (OH GREAT! Too late to put some pants on. Wait… I’m going fight two burglars in my whitey-tighties!?) As I started feeling more and more vulnerable and my adrenaline fed ninja powers began to fade, the intruder’s flashlights crossed each other’s bodies and I caught a glimpse of them. (They’re Sheriffs Officers?) I was really relieved, so without thinking I turned the porch light on, shoved the sliding glass door open, jumped out of the door onto the porch and said “Hey guys!” This was a REALLY bad idea. In the blinding light both officers completely freaked out, spun around and began frantically trying to get their guns out of their buttoned down holsters. Luckily for me, before they could get their guns drawn I said “Soooo… what are you guys doing on my porch?” I have to admit, their next response was completely appropriate and I suspect, by the book… they both started laughing hysterically. OK, it might have been the sight of me in my underwear, but maybe they were relieved that they weren’t going to be involved in a gun battle with a crazy half naked ninja!

After about thirty seconds of them laughing uncontrollably, holding their chests and trying to get their breath I had had enough. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. “OK, OK… very funny! Now… what’s going on?” The one officer sighed a deep breath. “We’re sorry sir, but your neighbor called and said you were gone for the weekend and that he heard noises at your house and that the lights were going on and off. So, we came by to (he snickered) take a look.” The other deputy choked back a laugh, put his arm around his partners shoulder and just before they turned to leave said “Well, I think we’ve seen enough here!” They both laughed again. “Goodnight Sir. Sorry to disturb you!”

On second thought… Although a good neighbor is wonderful, thank goodness for excellent sheriffs deputies with a sense of humor… And our new security system!

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.

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.