As I Was Saying…

Chatter, memories and rants. Please, don't stop me if you've heard this one before.





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Confessions from the new New Frontier

Artemis: a few years (not quite millenia) late

Sunday, July 21, 2013 - 4:38 am - I found this poem tucked in the diary I kept during my sophomore and junior year of college. I’m not sure when exactly I wrote it; in fact, I have no clear memory of writing, only of having written it. But it is definitely from sometime during those years. It owes a lot to Billy [...]

Seeing Red

Monday, July 8, 2013 - 8:42 pm - At the end of every school year, I spend a week or two at my parents’ in Portland as a reboot, and to that end, my mother and I got our nails done yesterday. It’s not the kind of thing I do often, since I never like to give the impression that I fuss over [...]

Accidents Will Happen

Monday, June 24, 2013 - 3:18 am - From: gregory hunter <hunterg166@xxxxx.com> To: Elizabeth Sampson <ebef12@yahoo.com> Sent: Friday, February 2, 2007 1:31 AM Subject: Re: God Only Knows sorry for the jaunty note. i (for some reason) figured the note would be returned to me. you were gone, i surmised, off writing some arresting novel elsewhere. teaching, studying… away. a different address. i [...]

Exercise:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 4:30 am - Write a lyric essay about one of the 50 states in 15 minutes. It’s July or August or Christmas Eve and that means it’s time to eat lobster. We pretend that it’s actually cheaper for us than for the rest of the country, and when we can’t do that, at least we can say that [...]

Archive for June, 2008

Staring Down Ten Years’ Worth of Mistake Purchases

June 30, 2008

If you have a mistake purchase or two tucked away somewhere in the back of a closet or a box in the attic, you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you. We’ve just spent a couple of days looking at every single mistake purchase we own. Most were pretty easy to deal with, once we got started. Most have already gone to Goodwill, and a few are headed for a consignment shop. But I have one item I still don’t know what to do with.

It’s my L.L. Bean Flying Tiger leather jacket. I was supposed to look cool as hell in the thing. I tried my best to convince myself I looked cool, but in the end there was no way around the hard truth. What I looked like was somebody trying to be Indiana Jones for Halloween who’d lost his damn hat. I wore the Flying Tiger about four times, and I will never wear it again.

As a jacket it is neither warm nor comfortable. I wasn’t happy when I wore it, but on those occasions I didn’t want to take it off either because I was afraid someone would steal it. Here’s the dilemma: if you followed that link above, you know what the Flying Tiger cost. Yikes. It is theoretically valuable but, in reality, may be worth next to nothing. Such jackets are all over eBay, $39.99 and up.

For now, unworn and unloved, the jacket ties up closet space while I, dog-like, chase the same old philosophical tail: Do I own the jacket, or does the jacket own me?

Posted in Memories | 2 Comments »

The Turkey and the Toe

June 25, 2008

You might feel a little discomfort here…
—Thor Miller, M.D.

Donna’s comment yesterday about breaking a toe reminded me of my own broken toe story from 40 years ago.

As a newlywed in 1968, I worked for about six months at the A&P warehouse that was located on Kennebec Street here in Portland. Here I was, a new college graduate, joining the Teamster’s Union for an entry-level job lifting and lugging. But the whole idea of the job was for me earn a few dollars while I waited for the day when I would leave home for Air Force basic training.

Most people don’t know about the A&P anymore. The full name of the company was (and I guess still is) The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. The company’s days of continent-spanning dominance of the grocery business are over, I think, but the A&P basically invented the supermarket.

The Portland warehouse supplied stores over a wide area, and my job was in the meat department. In October, with the approach of Thanksgiving, we started dealing with frozen turkeys, lots and lots of frozen turkeys. The turkeys arrived by truck and by train. The big warehouse freezer was filled with them, and still they kept coming.

One day I was assigned to work in a freight car filled with frozen turkeys packed two to the carton. The cartons were stacked seven feet high in the freight car, and unloading them involved handling each carton individually. The work was hard and repetitive. After a while, I fell into a mindless rhythm: reach up and grip a carton; turn and place the carton on a handcart; repeat until the handcart is fully loaded; wheel the handcart out of the freight car and stack the cartons on a wooden pallet; wheel the handcart back into the freight car; begin again.

At some point in the middle of the day, I pulled a defective carton from the top of the stack in the freight car. One of the bottom flaps came loose, and a 22-pound frozen bird slipped out. The turkey fell like a cannonball, and the frozen stump of its neck landed directly on the toe of my shoe.

Now, this is the reason people who work in places like warehouses are supposed to wear steel-toed boots, but I couldn’t afford to buy such boots.

When the turkey hit my foot, it hurt like hell. I immediately began to wonder if something was wrong, but I kept working. I could feel some swelling inside my shoe, but I didn’t take the shoe off to have a look because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to put it back on.

That fear proved to be well-placed. By mid-afternoon, I could no longer walk on the foot. I left work early, limped to my car, and drove home. At home, I took my shoe off. There was clearly no putting it on again.

Through the rest of the afternoon, my strategy for dealing with the toe was basically to sit and hope for the best. By early evening, I had to admit the strategy was ineffective. Marge called Dr. Miller, the family doctor I had always gone to, and he agreed to see me if I could get to his office.

Dr. Miller looked at my foot and quickly determined that the bones of my big toe were broken in three places. He explained that the pain I was experiencing came from pressure building up beneath the toenail. He said the pressure had to be relieved or else the pain would be worse and worse.

By this point I felt I was ready to agree to just about anything, particularly since I thought I had a good idea of what was going to happen. My assumption was that I’d get a shot of some sort of local anesthetic and that the doctor would drill through the nail (or perhaps melt through it with a heated needle).

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Dr. Miller, nearing retirement in those days, spent most of his career practicing medicine in an era that calibrated pain from broken bones differently. The ragged end of a snapped femur protruding through the skin; that was pain. A woman having twins who suffered sacral fractures 48 hours into unmedicated labor; that was pain. A broken toe? Not so much.

So, for me there was no local anesthetic. There was also no drill or needle. Instead, Dr. Miller stood the point of a scalpel on my toenail. Slowly, slowly he turned the scalpel so that the blade would eventually scrape its way through the toenail. “You might feel a little discomfort here,” he said.

When this sort of thing happens in a cowboy movie, the victim gets a shot or two of whiskey and then something to bite down on. Once again, I got neither. I sat on Dr. Miller’s examination table, gripping the edge of it so hard I was practically tearing off the upholstery.

The twisting scalpel went on and on and on. After a minute or two of it, I began fantasizing that my hands were around the good doctor’s neck. In my dream state, I choked the life out of him until he confessed himself to be a quack and a sadist.

After three or four minutes, I could no longer sustain fantasy. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. My goal became simply to remain conscious and to resist the urge to shriek at the top of my lungs. I no longer cared what happened and was perfectly at home with the notion that death might overtake me at any moment. What a relief it would be…

Finally, the scalpel made its way through the toenail. I felt a moment of truly amazing pain and saw a tiny spurt of watery-looking blood. Then the doctor bound up the wound he had inflicted.

I missed a few days of work, but the toe slowly and steadily healed. At Thanksgiving, Marge’s mom served a 22-pound turkey she had bought frozen at the A&P. I ate with relish, convinced that I was wreaking vengeance on THE ONE.

For a long time afterward the toe I broke was flatter than its counterpart, and for about 25 years its occasional twinge predicted changes in the weather.

Now, astonishingly, I can’t tell or even remember which foot was involved.

Posted in Memories | 3 Comments »

Happy Birthday to Me

June 24, 2008

Today I am 62. This is the age my father was when he retired. He basically sat around the house and drank endless cups of coffee while playing solitaire. I’ve followed his lead in many things (no one is more surprised about that than I am) but not here. For one thing, it is impossible for me to think of myself as “retired” (see any number of my previous posts).

I have, however, put my feet up today. I’ve spent a lot of time with friends, I took a lovely nap, and I haven’t crossed one damn thing off the “to do” list. This evening I’ll rehearse with the a cappella group I belong to, but now I find myself so paralyzed with sloth that I can’t even write a decent length blog post…

Posted in Chatter | 2 Comments »

Goodbye, George Carlin

June 23, 2008

George CarlinI would never have called myself a Carlin fan, but I was surprisingly affected by today’s news that he is dead. His classic “Seven Dirty Words” routine was a cultural contact point that worked across the last two or three generations.

I admire Carlin because he apparently never considered anything like retirement. He was up on stage “tellin’ it like it is” right to the end.

Some of his material seemed a bit obvious to me, but it had a way of speaking truth to power, as the saying goes. That made it important even when it was a little silly. Carlin had a kind of perpetual hippie sensibility that I never shared, but his name is one that I’ve known for 40 years. And now it isn’t attached to anyone living.

There is also the fact that Carlin was only 71. That’s right, I just said “only” 71. Sure, that’s past the Biblical three score and ten, and I’ll admit that until quite recently 70-anything sounded old to me. The thing is, I turn 62 tomorrow. Carlin was something like 9½ years older than I am right now. It’s hard for me to jam the old man hat on Carlin’s head if I’m not ready to wear it myself.

And I’m not ready.

The joke a few years ago was that “60 is the new 40.” Utter nonsense, of course. Nonetheless, 60 isn’t old any more. And if that’s the case, 70 isn’t all that old any more. So the world has lost a very funny, not-all-that-old man.

We’ll miss you, George, but they can’t censor you now.

Posted in Chatter | No Comments »

O Canada

June 20, 2008

I like Canadians.
They are so unlike Americans.
They go home at night.
Their cigarets don’t smell bad.
Their hats fit.
They really believe that they won the war.
They don’t believe in Literature.
They think Art has been exaggerated.
But they are wonderful on ice skates.
A few of them are very rich.
But when they are rich they buy more horses
Than motor cars.

—Ernest Hemingway

I didn’t know that Ernest Hemingway ever turned his hand to poetry, and on the basis of this I’m still not sure he ever succeeded at it. Nevertheless, for everyone who lives in Maine, coming to terms with Canada is a central fact of life. We border only one state, after all, but two Canadian provinces, French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking New Brunswick.

For most of my life Maine and its Canadian neighbors have gotten along reasonably well, and the border has been, as government officials now say, “porous.” I remember family trips 50 years ago to visit relatives in Fort Kent, where we crossed the St. John River into Clair, New Brunswick, with little ceremony. My uncle Carl was on a first-name basis with border guards on both sides.

People tried to maintain that same neighborliness along the border in the aftermath of 9/11, but our government just wouldn’t have it. Poor Michel Jalbert, a Canadian hunter, crossed a border-spanning driveway in order to fill up his gas tank at lower U.S. prices. He had his deer rifle with him, and U.S. border guards went ballistic. Jalbert was jailed and held for more than a month until a suitable plea arrangement could be worked out in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The story got considerable ink in Canada but was effectively buried here in the U.S.

My own closest brush with Canada was when Marge and I were newlyweds. It was 1968, and I had just graduated from college. My draft notice arrived days after the wedding. Marge’s father was born in New Brunswick and retained lifelong Canadian citizenship, although he lived in Maine from infancy.

This fact, as Marge and I understood the law, gave her the opportunity to declare Canadian citizenship. Like practically every other college student in America at the time, we were opposed to the Vietnam War. Her citizenship option would have given us the right to go to Canada legally, to live there legally. But somehow I couldn’t do it.

God knows, I was frightened enough of what might happen to me in the military. And I really did believe that the war was wrong. But a piece of family history stood in the way. During World War II, my father had tried to enlist. In those days, he was a great bull of a man, physically powerful and bursting with vitality. He had, however, suffered from asthma as a child That was all the military needed to hear.

He was classified 4-F: physically unfit to serve. I remember hearing him tell the story of those war years when he walked to work every day (to save rationed gas) and passed by the wives and girlfriends and mothers and sisters of servicemen. In every face, he saw the same question: why aren’t you there?

The story didn’t mean much to me when I was a boy, but by 1968 I felt that I understood it. I tried to imagine myself in Canada, but all my mind’s eye could see was my father—still going to work every day, still avoiding the faces that now said, “Your son is a draft dodger.” Whatever my problems with him were in those days, I couldn’t do that do him—or to myself.

I joined the Air Force and spent four more or less uneventful years of stateside duty maintaining aircraft survival equipment. Marge and I visited Montreal a couple of time in the 1970′s, but we haven’t been there since. This past January marked the 35th anniversary of my discharge from the military.

Posted in Memories | No Comments »

Here’s Your Diploma – Now Move Along…

June 19, 2008

The next generation comes surely on,
Their nonchalance baffles my intelligence.

Life is stranger than any of us expected,
There is a somber, imponderable fate.
Enigma rules, and the heart has no certainty.

—Richard Eberhart

We’ve come to the end of another graduation season. Colleges refer to graduation as “commencement,” perhaps as a way to stress the sunny beginning that awaits the graduates as they step (finally) into adulthood. By any name, however, a graduation feels more like an end than a beginning. When the ceremony is over, it is time to get in the car and drive away. In that moment, everything about life as a student may seem trivial in the extreme. A simple illustration makes the point:

Student question: How can I get all this reading done by tomorrow?
Newly minted adult question:
What do I do with myself for the next 60 years?

It’s no wonder the young almost always face the future with nonchalance. The chief alternatives—arrogance, despair, and whatever combination of these is currently in vogue—don’t get much traction in the world of adults. New grads are not slow in figuring this out.

Even so, there is no way to understand or even to anticipate the strangeness of life. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.

Or not.

We keep looking for unifying patterns, keep believing we’ve found unifying patterns. But so often the patterns vanish like movement you think you have seen in the corner of your eye.

In No Exit, Sartre has a character say that Hell is other people. But Heaven is also other people. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when enigma rules and the heart has no certainty.

Posted in Chatter | No Comments »

A Letter to the Last Surviving Boomer

June 18, 2008

June 18, 2008

Dear Fellow Boomer,

I expect you’ll be reading this somewhere around the year 2084. We’ve been told for years that those of us with the greatest longevity will live to be 120. Our generation includes people born from 1946 to 1964. I was born in 1946 myself, and maybe that’s why I’m taking it upon myself to write this letter. I’m guessing that you, as the last of us, were probably born in 1964. One hundred twenty years takes you to 2084.

The odd thing is that if you and I remember our childhoods, we turn out to have more in common than we thought along the way. After all, I graduated from high school the year you were born. That year, by the way, was pretty amazing. I’m sorry that you don’t remember it, although you probably read the books, saw the movies and listened to the music.

The year you were born was just about the time that the generation before us really began to get unhappy with us. No, we didn’t remember the Great Depression. No, we didn’t remember World War II. Our inability to know instinctively about things that happened before we were born somehow made us seem self-absorbed and ungrateful. We were told that we were spoiled, that we didn’t appreciate anything, that we were lazy, that we were going to hell because of the music we listened to.

The reality of our supposedly idyllic childhoods was somewhat different because too many of our parents (the so-called “Greatest Generation”) were emotional cripples. When we were born, child-rearing “experts” advised our parents to ignore us when we cried, to demand rigid conformity and not to be “demonstrative.” They were more than ready to comply. There were so many us, more of us that there had ever been in any generation before, that our parents and teachers must have felt overwhelmed. The result was that too many of us grew up alone because the older generation simply wouldn’t engage with us.

By the time we were in second or third grade, we were being prepped for nuclear attack. “What are these metal name tags for?” I asked. The answer was grim. “The tags will be used to identify your remains in the event you are burned beyond recognition in a nuclear holocaust. Always wear your tags.”

Around that same time Joe McCarthy and his pals started accusing everyone of being Communists. “Commie” hunters of all stripes were in their heyday, pointing fingers and making wild accusations without concern for the lives and careers they destroyed with their paranoid ranting.

When John Kennedy became president, a lot of people told us he would make a difference. But he was assassinated. Worse, his assassin was assassinated on live TV.

Our parents told us we couldn’t tell the difference between phony movie violence and real violence because of the the movies and TV shows we watched, but they were wrong. When Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald, it was real enough; and we all knew it. It was real-life murder, and the TV stations broadcast it again and again.

In 1964, much of America was segregated, and the Jim Crow laws were in force. Interracial marriage was illegal all across the South. American industries fouled our air and water with impunity. Women were second-class citizens. Gays and lesbians were reviled. The handicapped were on their own. Among the poorest Americans, people were starving to death in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” With all of this going on, we just couldn’t understand why our parents were more concerned about the way Elvis Presley swung his hips or how the Beatles went around in need of haircuts.

Of the births that took place in 1964, at least two were to girls in my high school senior class. Those Woodstock Postergirls were hauled out of school summarily and sent in disgrace to what were called “homes for unwed mothers.” The only way for a girl to avoid this humiliating confinement was to break the law with an illegal (and possibly lethal) abortion. Meanwhile, the boys who fathered the babies suffered no consequences at all. They stayed in school. They even received admiring looks from older guys who shook their hands and called them “real he-men.”

The comeuppance for the boys was the absurd horror of Vietnam and a war that no one could explain or defend conhesively.

The details of your experience on the tail end of the Boomer generation may have been a bit different, but as a Boomer you were still subject to endless criticism and disapproval. You were too young to go to Woodstock. The truth is I didn’t go either. Maybe at the time you didn’t pay any attention to Dick Nixon and Watergate. Whether anyone else likes it or not, however, we Boomers did change the world. Others are busy deciding whether the changes we made were good or bad, but the world that was handed to us needed to be changed in so many ways.

In the year 2084, or thereabouts, you are the last Boomer still alive. The events I’m calling to your attention happened more than 100 years ago. Probably no one around you even remembers what the term Boomer stood for. When you pass on, it will mark the end of an amazing 140 year run for our generation, from the first baby’s cry on January 1, 1946, to your own last breath. I hope you think it was worth it.

Frankly, I wish I were there with you.

Posted in Memories | No Comments »

A Ruby Wedding Anniversary

June 17, 2008

Two days ago, Marge and I marked our 40th wedding anniversary. When I think about all the things we’ve said and done through all those years, it seems like an impossibly long time. From other points of view, however, the time has passed in the blink of an eye.

Our Wedding DayOn our wedding day in 1968, I was about to turn 22. Yep, that’s me in the Buddy Holly specs and the ill-fitting jacket.

As my birthday approaches again, I’m about to turn 62. If you don’t remember 1968, take a minute to read through that year’s timeline of events. It was both wonderful and frightening to be young then, to dream dreams and make plans for a future that we feared might never come.

I have two memories in particular of our first apartment, one trivial and one momentous.

On the trivial side, I recall that the sewer pipe for the toilet upstairs came down through our kitchen. The landlord, in an attempt to conceal the pipe, had covered it with the same ferociously cheerful wallpaper he had used on the walls. Every morning as I ate my breakfast at the kitchen table, someone upstairs would flush. The pipe was noisy, and the sound was appetite-killing in the extreme.

On the momentous side was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Marge and I sat holding on to each other in sorrow and horror as the television showed us Mayor Daley’s riot police clubbing our people on the streets of Chicago. We wondered how the generation of our parents (the so-called “Greatest Generation”) could hate us so much. It was a question we never were able to answer.

A lot happened during the first ten years of our marriage. I served four years in the Air Force. Marge worked for a spell as a telephone company service rep. We went to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. We taught high school English for a year, then moved to Oklahoma.

In 1978, Marge and I were still living in Tulsa. Marge’s dad passed away. She was in her third year of teaching ESL at the University of Tulsa, and I had just completed my first year of law school. We desperately wanted to have children and had redoubled our attempts to solve our infertility problems.

During the next ten years, everything in our lives changed again. Elizabeth was born in 1980. We moved back to Maine, and Marge became a stay-at-home mom. I began practicing law. We joined the church we still belong to and bought a modest home here in Portland.

By the time of our 20th anniversary in 1988, Elizabeth had finished second grade. Marge was teaching ESL at Portland High School (where she still works) and I had opened a small law office of my own.

In our third decade together, we experienced more life transitions. By 1993, I had had to admit that I couldn’t go on trying to practice law. I took me a year to close down my practice. I tried to remake myself as a computer scientist by going back to school full time in the spring of 1994. I gave it up after that semester because it was just too difficult for me. I had interest and enthusiasm, but the math brain cells I once had seemed to have died.

That summer, just days after Elizabeth’s 14th birthday, my father died just before midnight on July 15th. Six hours later, my mother went into massive congestive heart failure. Her life hung in the balance for several days. On the evening of July 16th, my father’s brother died. Marge and I stood in our living room holding each other and saying, “What next? Why us? How long, O Lord?” Nothing bad came next. It hit us because sooner or later everybody gets a turn. And it didn’t last long.

Also in 1994, Marge was diagnosed with celiac disease (gluten intolerance), and that has changed the way we do just about everything in the kitchen.

In the spring of 1996, we moved to our present home, and my mother (identified by then as a dementia patient) moved in with us. I began working for the Maine State Bar Association and drove 120 miles every workday.

In 1998, Elizabeth graduated from high school. In the fall she left for college. The day we drove her to the campus was awful. We cried half the way home. A few weeks later we moved my mother to a nursing home because she could no longer be left alone, even for a few minutes. Our three-generation household had completely collapsed, and just the two of us remained.

Mom lived until the following March when she died gently and peacefully. The cause of death was her 13th episode of congestive heart failure. I think she died when she did because she was no longer able to remember why previously she had fought so hard to survive.

Our fourth decade has been filled with most of the transitions and challenges people our age typically face. I left the bar association in 2001 and became, for a while, a freelance tech writer. In February of 2002, we went on the Caribbean cruise we had talked about for 20 years.

The following May, Elizabeth graduated from college. She lived at home with us for the next year as she worked on a U.S. Senate campaign and planned her next move. That turned out to be teaching ESL in New York City, where she has lived for five years. She’ll be with us again for much of this summer, however, as she prepares to begin graduate school in Boston in the fall. She has been a joy to us from the day she was born. We’ve always considered it a privilege to be her parents.

This is probably why we had unreasonable and unreachable expectations when in the fall of 2003 we became the foster parents of a teenage girl named Ashley. The relationship lasted until last summer when we all had to agree that our differences had become so great that we walked on eggshells around each other all the time. Ashley has now completed her junior year of college. We haven’t heard from her for almost a year. She is probably as sad, angry and hurt as we are that in the end we just couldn’t make it work.

But the wheel keeps turning. Last December, Marge’s mother moved in with us. Unlike my mother, Betty doesn’t suffer dementia. She’s glad to be here, and we’re glad she’s with us because we don’t have to worry about her.

Over the last four or five years, death has begun to claim some of our friends. What was once impossible has become inevitable. Yet as we grow older and aware that the time left to us to be together grows shorter, we also become closer. Our love for each other broadens and deepens.

Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, wrote that marriage isn’t just about love. It’s also (perhaps mostly) about memories and time. The incredible richness of a long marriage arises from shared memories and shared experiences.

As of today, Marge and I have been married 14,613 days. Have we been deliriously happy with each other every single minute of all those days? Well, of course not. You don’t build and maintain a successful marriage by checking your brain at the door. The road we have traveled hasn’t been any smoother or easier than anyone else’s.

I think what separates us from couples who drift apart is that we have never seriously doubted the importance and value to each of us of being a couple. Like everyone else, we have worked to preserve what we value.

I never wanted to be married for the sake of being married, but for more than 40 years I have wanted to be married to Marge. That’s what I wanted on June 15, 1968 and what I want today. Tomorrow will be day 14,614. I’ll want the same thing then.

Posted in Memories | 2 Comments »

The Witness Index of Mellowness

June 16, 2008

DISCLAIMERS:

  • Not a single one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends and acquaintances I have made through the years has been a Jehovah’s Witness.
  • I have no knowledge of (or interest in) the inner workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses who have come to my door have never interested me in or convinced me of anything.
  • The “Witness Index of Mellowness” is a product of my own imagination.

So, what’s my point here today? It’s pretty simple, really. A couple of JW women came to the door at about 9:00 this morning. I didn’t want to listen to them, and I managed to end their visit in less than one minute. I did it without insults, threats or rudeness and without agreeing to give them my name or to buy their magazine. The conversation went basically like this:

JW: Good morning.
ME: Good morning.
JW: (holding up copy of The Watch Tower and pointing to a headline about Noah) Have you ever wondered why God would want us to know about something that happened thousands of years ago?
ME: Oh, The Watch Tower. You folks are Jehovah’s Witnesses. You should know that I have my own church.
JW: Do you read the Bible in that church?
ME: (closing door and waving cheerfully) Oh, yes. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great day.

For a guy like me, this was a pretty darned mellow way of handling the situation.

Witness Index of Mellowness: 10.

I was especially struck with the contrast between my behavior this morning and the way I handled a similar situation 30 years ago, in the days when no one ever described me as “mellow.”

It was Memorial Day Weekend 1978, and Marge and I were visiting our friends Clay and Judy in Beaumont, Texas.

Clay and I had spent Friday evening methodically working our way to the bottom of a liter bottle of Jack Daniels. We had finally called it a night and staggered to bed at about 4:00 am. I didn’t sleep well because it was hot. Beaumont sits on the Gulf, and Clay and Judy had no air-conditioning. I woke up at about 8:30, dripping with sweat. The light from the window hurt my eyes, and there was a green lizard hanging on the screen.

At 9:00 I was still the only one up. I felt bad and probably looked worse. I had bloodshot eyes and greasy hair. I hadn’t showered, shaved, or even brushed my teeth. My breath could have killed that little lizard.

I was sitting on the living room couch, holding my head and smoking a cigarette, when the doorbell rang.

I looked out the window and saw two women and a little girl on the doorstep. All of them, despite the heat, wore extremely modest and slightly old-fashioned dresses. I had a pretty good idea who they were and why they were calling.

A wild thought came into my mind, and I opened the door. The conversation went basically like this:

JW: Good morning, we’re…
ME: (interrupting and looking at my watch) I know who you are. You’re right on time. Come in.
JW: (looking nervously at her companion) Well, I don’t know that we…
ME: Aren’t you the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
JW: Well, yes, but…
ME: Then you must know who I am!
JW: I don’t think we…
ME: Of course you know! I am Satan’s emissary sent to test your faith! Now come in so we can get on with it!

Their eyes got big, and they backed away. One of the women picked up the little girl, and they ran down the walk back to the street.

Clay later told me that for as long as he and Judy lived in Beaumont, Jehovah’s Witnesses never came to the house again.

Witness Index of Mellowness: 0.

I used to tell this story with great amusement, but I don’t find it so funny anymore. Had I actually been anywhere near as superior to those women as I felt on that hungover morning, I wouldn’t have wanted to humiliate and terrify them. I would also have understood that, as a simple matter of civility, I had no right to do those things to them or anyone else.

The truth is that things like civility and mellowness come hard to the natural-born smartass. I’m thankful to have lived long enough for it to start to happen.

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All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir

June 13, 2008

mr youse needn’t be so spry
concernin questions arty

each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party

gimme the he-man’s solid bliss
for youse ideas i’ll match youse

a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues

— e.e. cummings

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have sung in the choir at our church ever since Elizabeth was born in 1980. Through the years, I have often wondered about the expression “preaching to the choir.” The words seem to suggest that choir members are likely to be the truest of true believers and the most pious folks in the congregation.

That hasn’t been my experience.

For example, several years ago all of the U.C.C. churches in the area got together to hold a combined service at Merrill Auditorium in Portland City Hall. In the combined choir seated on the stage there were more than 100 singers. In the tenor section, I was surrounded by singers from other churches. I didn’t know any of them.

The service itself was not exactly my cup of tea and included things to which I have trouble relating. It began with what was called “liturgical dance.” Please believe me when I say that I am a hopeless philistine when it comes to dance of any kind. Yet in retrospect I have to admit that the dance was the highpoint of the morning.

The fellow sitting next to me seemed to find the dance riveting, and he followed one dancer in particular. The dance went on and on, and my mind began to wander. Soon I was wondering why the hell I’d ever gotten involved in such New Age hokum.

As the dance finally neared its conclusion, my neighbor leaned toward me just a little. He continued to watch the dancer and, without moving his lips, said sotto voce, “She has a nice ass…”

He was right, of course. About some things guys are never wrong.

So maybe I’m not the only one who joined the choir because it’s too hard to sit through church without something to do.

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