Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: September, 2013

“Mind the Raccoon” and Mr. H

Mr. H. stands about five feet seven inches and weighs maybe 140 pounds after a big meal.  About sixty, he moves with the ease of a man less than half his age.  His head is always with a cap adorned with the scripted “A” of the University of Alabama.    The cap is less to cover his thinning white hair than it is show his devotion to the Crimson Tide.  His enthusiasm for his team is only surpassed by the love of his family, especially his grandchildren.  There are many things I love about the Deep South, like sweet tea, our barbeque (pork, not beef!), the climate (other than the tornados), and of course, our football.  But it’s the people like Mr. H that I love the most.  He’s what we call a “good feller.”

About six year’s ago my wife brought Mr. H. into our family when a friend recommended him for to refresh the paint in a few rooms.  I say “into our family” not so much because we’ve invited him in as much as he has assumed the role on his own.  He arrives at our house most mornings around 7:30 a.m., whistling to announce his presence and remind us he will shortly be knocking at the door asking “Coffee ready?”  He now brings his own cup as one morning he found he’d finished my cup and his.  He is kind and polite, always addressing my wife as “Mizz” Owens, albeit I am “Chief” or “Cap’n” or “Dude.”  Never Jim.  Sometimes “Mr. O.”

Project days begin with coffee and his need to share his progress and plan for the job.  “Lemme tell ya my plan today,” he begins oblivious to the fact I’m trying to get to work.   We always detour off in to some rich tale of another experience he’s had.  Yesterday it was the story of a woman he’d been referred to.  She cracked the door of her dark home, decided he was harmless and invited him to follow her along a path to the kitchen where several cats stood upon the counter.  She was one part hoarder, one part cat person.

“Knew I was in trouble the minute she opened the door,” he said.  “Big ole woman. Gave me a flashlight when I asked her if we could have some light.”  She wanted him to fix upstairs leak, said she never went up there and told him to “mind the raccoon” that lived up there.  (Yes.  I said raccoon.) “So there I go,” he finished “up the stairs, in the dark, armed with nothin’ but a flashlight.  Raccoons’ll bite you know.  Gotta get them rabies shots in the belly.”  He pinched through his paint stained “Crestwood Hospital Cardiac Center” T-shirt at his tabletop flat abdomen.  And then we were done.  “Well, I gotta get to work.  I’ll see you later, Chief.”

On the days my wife is around the house he might ask for a glass of water or another cup of coffee.  This has little to do with thirst or the need for caffeine.  Though he might want the coffee to enjoy with a Winston Light.  He really just wants to talk a little.  They will discuss his progress, other projects and such.  Often, he will share details about his life and family.  “My wife works at the hospital.  Has to work late sometimes.  Can’t come home ‘till those surgery patients go pee-pee.”  There’s something normal in his saying it regardless of how odd it is to write those words.  He has told her tales of his dog being bitten by a snake.  “Gave it a Benadryl.  Dogs have a different immune system you know.” Sometimes he will share things only family should know.  After re-caulking a tub announced, “You’re not gonna believe it, but there’s nothing I love better’n a bubble bath.”  He once confessed she could not hear him knocking at the every door of the house and that he “had to go Number 1 so bad he went behind the bushes” in our backyard.  The Leyland Cyprus trees and the privacy fence have kept the neighbors from complaining so far.

Mr. H is one of a thousand of characters you’ll find down here.  Yes, we name dogs things like Saban or Bear or Shug and our daughters Crimson.  We have vanity tags that read “15TITLES” and “MOMNEM.”  Down here fish is meant to be fried, the same with chicken and country steak.  These are all great things about Southern Culture. But Mr. H. represents the best of us.  Reliable.  Hard working.  Loves his family.  Honest.  After buying materials for a job he brings me every receipt from the nearby Lowe’s. We leave him alone in the house frequently.  He’s careful to clean up and lock up at the end of each day.  His day actually ends no later than 1 p.m.  Mr. H. works for himself, you see.  He just happens to do that at your house or mine.  So when he decides he’s done for the day, he’s done.  But he’s back every morning, whistling, waiting to tell me his plan for the day, no doubt with some tale to tell when you’re with family.

Summer Vacations: Are we there yet?

Summer vacation for a kid from Alabama mostly means a trip to the beach. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s that meant my family would head to Panama City, the one in Florida, not the one with the big canal. My Father considered himself the only member of the family qualified to load the trunk, so he, my mother, and me would drag suitcases, coolers, fishing poles, coolers and bags filled with groceries Solarcaine and Coppertone to the back of car. He would open the trunk, step back and the cavernous trunk and the items destined for it. He studied them like a true believer would gaze upon a relic of his faith. This was a holy moment. The summer vacation pilgrimage was about to begin

Fishing poles went in first, above the spare, right where the back seat meets the trunk. Beach towels next, to protect the rods from damage and pad the grocery bags filled with anything breakable. Then the luggage itself went in, followed by the cooler. A bag of peanut butter, white bread and Chicken in a Biscuit Crackers always went in last so we could retrieve it efficiently if we were unable to locate a Howard Johnson’s, Shoney’s or another place with “clean rest rooms” and “hot coffee” along the interstates and turnpikes we drove. My Dad’s thermos filled with hot black coffee went up front with him and my Mom. Dad drove for maximum efficiency, keeping track of our average miles per hour and remaining time and distance to our destination. Mom was essential to this efficiency and would ham and cheese sandwiches for the road. Sometimes, she would even fry chicken for the trip. Along the way she would hand my father and me a napkin wrapped sandwich or a drumstick hastily snatched from the cooler in the trunk when we veered into a rest stop.

Back then, my Dad was a Pontiac Man, so I had the playground-sized backseat of a Catalina in which I could entertain myself on long drives from Maine, New York, or Pennsylvania. An only child, I took books, GI Joes, comics, and whatever else my parents hoped would distract me from the incessant nagging of an eight year old boy wanting to know, “Are we there yet?” The backseat of those cars became a spaceship, a Conestoga Wagons in the imagination of a boy flying to the moon, fighting as a solider, and crossing the western plains on a vacation treks. It also served as a spacious bunk bed in which to sleep when my Dad drove through the night. I remember lying face up, hearing the hum of the tires on the highway gazing out the back window at the moon, the stars, and neon lights of some small town we passing through. Awaking in the early morning to a slowing car as my Dad we would stop for breakfast. “Are we there yet?”

In the early 1970s my Dad bought his last Catalina. It was Canary Yellow into which he even let me install a CB Radio, a 21-Channel Cobra. Each of us had a “handle.” The Lazy-Daisy (Mom), the Bulldogger (Me. I’m not proud of it) and the Yellowbird (Dad) would mostly listen for reports of Smokies, County Mounties and eavesdrop on the idle chatter of modern day cowboys hauling driving 18-wheelers. By then our trips to the beach were shorter, just from Northern Virginia, on down I-81, which was mostly filled with these big trucks until you hit Knoxville where commuters would delay our passage through town. Most summers we were headed to Birmingham first to connect up with my Aunt Faye, Uncle Luke, and cousins Leslie and Ben. The trunk loading ritual would be completed again but was always punctuated with a late night run to Kmart by my Father and Uncle. As I look back, I’m not really sure they ever really needed anything more than to get away alone and grab some much-needed time together. Though they usually came back with something that was “essential” to a successful week at the beach.

Those trips to the beach were the highlight of my summers. We were going “home” both actually and metaphorically. It’s been said that life is what happens while you are making other plans. Somehow, we forget to enjoy the journey. I can’t say that I was aware of it then but I know now that summer vacations really began the night before we left for Panama City. Rich memories of the journey are as much a part of those weeks at the beach as the times catching “sand fleas,” fishing from the pier, and dinners at Captain Anderson’s. I enjoyed the journey. “Are we there yet?” Yes. Yes we are.


The Fine Art of Storytelling

Among my favorite childhood memories are family trips to my father’s rural home in Coon Creek, Alabama.  Yes.  I said Coon Creek.  It’s a community not far from the Sipsey Fork that ultimately flows into the Black Warrior River.  The house where my father was raised was the gathering place for his two brothers and their families, so it was often filled with the noise and laughter of cousins, along with the smells of pork roast, pecan pie and whatever else my grandmother was cooking.  It is also the place where I remember first being exposed to the fine art of storytelling.

When bedtime would draw near my cousins and I would often ask one of “the brothers,” my Dad and my two Uncles, to tell us a story. Often those tales involved a boy named Tom and some adventure in the deep in the woods of Alabama.   I now realize those stories were probably rooted in their own experiences as boys. I also realize that it wasn’t the story that mattered as much as it was the ritual of settling in to the quilt-laden bed and the hearing the calm reassurance in Uncle Luke’s deep voice, draped in his elegant Southern drawl.

Great storytellers, like my Father and Uncle Luke, know that a well-told tale requires a basis in the truth, but isn’t bound by it. They start with the truth and improve upon it.  No one is more aware of this than fishermen and hunters. The best stories of a missed catch or shot require the addition of pounds to the fish and yards to the target.  Regrettably, it seems this is also in the “Candidates Guide to Success” and required reading for most politicians.   Would-be storytellers are bound by the truth and torture us with tales that are punctuated with “So she said….and then I said” and “No.  Wait.  We were at the Wal-Mart.  Not the Winn-Dixie.  And it was 1983.  Or was it 1984?”   They have missed the point, believing that a good story requires only accuracy rather than simple believability.

Like any good southern boy, I own several pocketknives, including a Swiss Army knife.  That’s true.  But when my children wondered where I got the knife my response was “Well, when I was in the Swiss Army all of us were issued one.”  Not true.   Believable to my children? Yes. But not true.  For years my children were never quite sure if Dad had really learned how to survive for three days in the Swiss Alps with nothing but the knife, a piece of twine and a bag of Gummi Bears.  They were willing participants in the fiction until they simply found it annoying.  I finally told them I wasn’t in the Swiss Army.  It was the French Foreign Legion.

I’m not sure if its nature or nurture, but it seems to me that great storytellers run in families.  My son, Trip, got it from someone.  While riding along in the truck with his grandfather one day, he said, “You know, PaPa, I’m not of this world.”  My father in law avoided laughing long enough for my young son to explain he was from “another planet.”  Believable? Maybe.  But not true. At a parent-teacher conference, one elementary teacher noted Trip’s skill for what she called “telling tall tales.”  Trip had told her that his Dad was a firm disciplinarian.  True.  He added “He spanks me with a bull whip.”  Definitely not true!  Fortunately, the teacher knew my wife and I well enough not to call the authorities.  Though she had little appreciation for Trip’s eight-year old storytelling skills and seemed to wonder about our parenting skills.  True.

There are several other things great storytellers know about “tellin’ tales.”  They know things like how to “borrow” the experiences of others and why telling what people said in the first person is so much better than “he said” and “she said.”  But there’s also a code amongst storytellers not to “let on” too much about the art.  There’s a special handshake for those of us in the SSOS, the Southern Society of Storytellers, and yes.  There is also a ritual initiation involving Snipe Hunting as well. But, I’ve already said too much. So I will stop for now.   Besides, I’ve got to pack for my next mission with the French Foreign Legion.

Bird Dogs, Guard Dogs, Yard Dogs and Damn Dogs

One thing you will rarely hear in the South is “Naw, baby. We just don’t need another dog.” This is especially true if you have the privilege of living in places like Dora, Alabama (pronounced Doe-ruh for those of you who aren’t bilingual) or Kosciusko, Mississippi (Koz-zee-esko, Miss-sippee) or Vidalia, Georgia (Vy-dale-ya, JawJuh) or any other small town in the Deep South. We love our dawgs. My family is no different. And though as a child I found myself living in places like the suburbs of Buffalo and Philadelphia, my love of dogs followed me across the country. Now if you understand the canine species, you will realize there are really only four breeds. They are Bird Dogs, Guard Dogs, Damn Dogs, and Yard Dogs. I know. I’ve had plenty of experience with one or more of each.

As a kid, my great Uncle and several other family members raised bird dogs. Pointers mostly. I remember bird hunts when my Dad and Uncles would command the pointers to “hunt d’em birds” as we roamed across the hills and hollows of North West Alabama. My great Uncle Chet had a bird dog named “Jocko,” who, as I recall, was something of a prize. Someone offered Uncle Chet a sum of money with a comma in the number. He turned it down which he claimed proved he “was a fool, cause if someone offers you more money than a thing is worth, you oughta sell it.” The thing is, a good bird dog, or any working dog, can’t have a value placed on it to the man who bred it, raised it, and trained it. Jocko, like many others could hold a point in a majestic way until instructed to flush a covey. He could retrieve a bird with the gentleness of a lamb and release it into his master’s hand solely for the pleasure of doing what God meant him to do.

As a young man, I came home one day to find my wife concerned about the misplaced attentions of a local utility worker who had come to our home. It was then I learned the value of guard dogs. She agreed that since we lived off the beaten path we should get a scary big dog. Since I no longer did any bird hunting, I could hardly contain myself. Our first guard dog was a 70-pound slobber factory we named “Angel.” This 70-pound Rottweiler never needed any true guard dog training; looking scary was all we needed. The same dog that would bark herself silly when a stranger drove up our long gravel driveway also wanted to sit in my lap. Or yours once you were cleared as a “friend.” She was as gentle as a kitten with my then 5 years old as she followed my daughter through the woods in her dresses and rubber boots. To be clear, the dog did not wear dresses or rubber boots. But we knew she was doing the job when the phone rang one day and a bricklayer we had hired was calling from his truck in our driveway asking if “that devil dog you got in the pen can jump that fence.” The answer was always the same. “Only when she’s called.” By the way, the bricklayer finished the job in record time.

Yard dogs are all over the South. They are the ones that barely look up when you walk by. They generally look tired and will slowly beat their tail on the ground if you are willing to walk near enough. They are immodest, rolling over to let you pet them on their pink bellies making clear whether they are Momma Dogs or otherwise. Jake was the first and only yard dog I’ve ever owned. He came to live with us after Angel, but before Biscuit. (Biscuit was housedog. Housedogs are not really animals. Thus, House Dogs do not get their own classification as a breed.) Jake rarely left the yard and could not be bothered to bark unless he was out of food or water. One day did wander off. I drove all over place trying to find him, shouting from the windows of my black F-150. No luck. After a few days I gave him up as lost only to have him wander up the driveway the following day. He appeared not to have missed a meal but had a look on his face that seemed to say “I don’t know what I was thinkin’. Never, never, never let me do that again!”

As for damn dogs, well, generally, they belong to other people. My neighbor has one. He’s look like he’s part Boston Terrier and part Yoda. He barks incessantly and sounds like he’s smoked two packs of unfiltered Camels for most of his life. Apparently, his owners are deaf since they seem unaffected by the barking. I don’t know what his name is, but it should be “Dammit.” As in, “Come here dammit,” or “Dammit, be quiet!” I must confess I had a damn dog once. Her name was Trixie, a beagle. My Dad and I brought her home from the shelter when I was about eight. My Mom was horrified, expecting we’d come home with something fluffy and wanted to be held. But Trixie was a mix of damn dog and yard dog. She was prone to slip into the neighbor’s back yard and sip on adult beverages left by lawn chairs near the pool. One day she came into the garage making terrible racket. My Mom sent to inspect the situation. Trixie had a T-bone steak she was trying to dislodge from the plastic wrapper and paper tray it was in. I helped her without regard for why one of my neighbors might have been shouting about someone’s damn dog ruining his cookout. My mother instructed me to close the garage door quickly.

At one point, my family owned three dogs, three cats, two birds, and a floppy eared bunny that seemed unable to hold her bladder when I held her. My kids loved those critters, especially the dogs. They seemed to make our family more of who we are. One day I called my wife from the pet store when my daughter, who reminded me of Ellie Mae from the Beverly Hillbillies, wanted a Ball Python. I was ambivalent but had a hard time telling my kids no when it came to critters. Thank heavens I called first. Because it turns out while you can’t have too many dogs, one snake is one too many!


In Praise of Uncles

There’s something special about Uncles. Being one is like being a Dad without the burden of responsibility for your niece’s or nephew’s grades, character or safety. Okay, the safety part was an exaggeration for the sake of the point. When you’re the Uncle you can let the kids stay up late, load them with vast quantities of sugary foods and caffeine, tell them things like, “Uncle Jim would buy you that but your Momma will get mad,” and then return them to their parents with feigned innocence. My Dad’s two brothers were the best of what Uncles can be. But for now, I find myself reminded of the influence of one in particular.

He was born Chester Leon Owens, the middle son of Chester and Evola. He was “Chester” to business associates and Leon to others. But to our family and me he was simply, “Lon.” He was smart and funny and a little irreverent. He had a bit of a rebelliousness that gave him a kind of country boy charisma that I loved. My Dad tells the story of Uncle Lon skipping school one day and being passed by his father driving by a Walker County road. My Grandfather kept driving after glancing at his truant son. It was clear he had seen him. Yet Granddad drove on.

When Granddad got home every shoe he owned had been shined, buffed to perfection. Every chore of Uncle Lon’s was complete, along with a few things he threw in as sign of his repentance. I’m told my grandfather never said a word to his son about the event. Granddad, like my father, didn’t rant of raise his voice that I can ever recall. Perhaps that is what bred the gentleness I saw in Uncle Lon and his brothers. But it was the same stuff that made him skip school that made him so much fun for a nephew.

I recall sitting at my grandmother’s house, where he and his family had moved after the death of my grandfather, sitting in the “TV room” as we called it. A sudden explosion outside the window produced several screams and a few blurted profanities by those of use gathered there. We all turned to look outside to find Uncle Lon laughing heartily. He’d dropped an M-80 firecracker just outside the window. He was probably in his mid forties at the time. He had a paper bag filled with firecrackers, sparklers, and other incendiary contraband that sent me my cousins and me racing out the front door to see what we could blow up.He gave each of us a lit Winchester cigarette, along with an admonition to be careful, to light the firecrackers. The cigarette was for our protection. He didn’t want us to burn ourselves. How cool is that? And yes, you have to take a pull on a smoke now and then to keep it burning.

Uncle Lon “taught” me to operate several pieces of heavy equipment. In the spring of 1980 he hired me to work in a railroad yard loading timber onto flatbed cars. My first experience operating the loading equipment came as he tossed me the keys, said to go “bump up” that last car and “don’t turn it over.” Bumping up the car was the process of making sure the logs didn’t hang off the car beyond a certain distance. The trick was to drive the loader fast enough so the impact moved the logs but didn’t knock the railroad car off the tracks. I’d seen it done by the men in the yard but had never done it. Had there been a mishap, I’m fairly sure there would have been no insurance coverage available and that we violated more than a few OSHA regulations. But after several attempts I got the hang of it and found myself beaming with pride as the cars left the yard that night. Uncle Lon treated me like a man before he should have. I was 19 and grateful for it. Along with the $8 bucks an hour he paid me, a small fortune in 1980. And oh yeah, it was in cash.

One fall afternoon, Uncle Lon and my Dad decided an impromptu dove shoot was in order. We headed down to a field and did what men do at dove shoots. We waited on the dove to fly in. We waited. And waited some more. I was only 10 or so and every time anything with wings came near, I asked if I could shoot the 20 gauge Remington Pump Shotgun I’d been given. But apparently Robins and Bluebirds are not game birds and the few dove that flew buy were far out of range. We left the field without having fired so much as a single shot. Uncle Lon could sense my disappointment. He saw the injustice of the day and set about to rectify it. He pointed to an old dead try at the edge of the field seeing a large bird roosting in it. He told me to “ease own up there quiet-like,” directing me to shoot. I can’t recall whether it was a crow or a blackbird or a woodpecker. But I’m sure the game warden would not have approved. I tipped up the heavy gun and fired. I staggered, with ringing ears, and shouted, “Did I get it?” Not even close. I look back on it now realizing Uncle Lon knew the chances of me hitting the bird were so bad he was willing to risk the consequences of a visit from the game warden.

My now 80 year-old Father taught me many things about life. He’s the best man I know. But his brothers taught me things about being a man that only Uncles can teach. Uncle Lon helped me realize there are times when breaking the rules is the right thing to do. He helped me see the value of taking calculated risks and trusting myself. He helped teach me how to have fun, even if it meant scaring the bejeezus out of somebody. He taught me a lot about being an Uncle.

I’m told by his oldest daughter, Carmen, who is more like an older sister to me than a cousin, that Uncle Lon was a bit rebellious even late in life. As his body began to betray him, Carmen had to have the conversation with her father that all children must have with aging parents. She tried to tell Uncle Lon that he needed to be careful, care for himself better. Maybe she told him he should stop smoking or something else. He told her in no uncertain terms how he felt. “I’m not having any of this role reversal stuff.”

Though he didn’t use the word “stuff” the word did begin with an “s.”  Yeah.  There are some things only an Uncle can teach you.