jimowenswrites

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

Category: South

Born on Third Base: An Excerpt from Staring into the Abyss

I’d welcome your feedback–especially if you find any humor in this.  It’s an early chapter from my forthcoming work–Staring into the Abyss:  One Man’s Journey from Faith to Freedom.——————————

Let’s face it, being white in America is nice.  In fact, it’s pretty much the best, especially if you’re a dude.  And it’s even better if you’re tall.  No.  this isn’t a book about white privilege.  Nor is it about virtue signaling.

But, it’s clearly being tall, white, and male, is the backdrop against which I’ve lived my life—if you don’t count the fact I was a fat pre-adolescent kid.  After eating my body weight in Ho-Hos and Twinkies in the Maine winter of 1968, I was fortunate the gene pool from which I sprang launched me out of the husky pages of the Sears catalogue into the athletic (tall and skinny) section by by the time I was thirteen.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What’s really important for you to know at this point is that I wasn’t born into a particularly religious family.  Although my parents tell me, much to their chagrin, I learned to whistle during the middle of a sermon at McIlwain Baptist Church sometime in the middle 1960s.  I’m sure I was bored and wanted to make the best use of my time given the fact I’m a bit of a (reformed) Type A kind of guy. Before I was seven or eight, I think we went to church regularly, but I’d say we had more of a God and Country sort of belief system rather than an evangelical one.

I do know we were members of what a friend of mine, the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, called the C and E Club.  Our most consistent church attendance after 1968 was on Christmas and Easter.  Although I do think I went to Vacation Bible School as a kid.  My guess is I had as hard a time sitting still there as I did just about every where else.   And I suspect my teachers felt a compulsion to pray for my parents’ patience and wisdom.  They should probably have done a bit of fasting too.

As a child, we said the blessing (what Southern folk call giving thanks) before our family meals.  My go to blessing was, God is good. God is great.  Let us thank him for our food.  Amen.   Not very original, I know.  But better than something that begins with good food, good meat…

At bedtime, I said my prayers.  Now I lay me down to sleep, If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.  Looking back, that’s kind of a spooky thing for a kid to pray before nodding off.  And on one occasion, when I was around five or six, I remember being terrified over the notion I might die in my sleep.  It’s my first recollection of any existential angst, that is, if you don’t count the times we ran out of Ho-Hos.

Fortunately, my mother comforted me, somehow assuring me I wouldn’t die.  She was, of course, bluffing inasmuch as she couldn’t possibly have known I wouldn’t succumb to some mysterious contagion during the night.  I think bluffing is a skill she developed at Gulf Park College for Women in the middle 1950s where she learned to play poker well enough to come home and “clean out” her father and other men in a game, leading her father to lament, “I didn’t send you to college to learn how to play poker.”  (Although, I’m sure he was secretly proud of her.) Now, you’ll note there wasn’t much mention of Jesus in my prayers. But they were said with the sort of childlike sincerity and reverence you’d expect of a boy and his family in the Bible Belt.

Such reverence was particularly on display whenever paternal expectations called my father into the role of offering a prayer. There were a lot of thous and thees, and wherefores and arts when he offered thanks before a meal or on some other occasion.  He prayed in The King James, so to speak. Which, makes sense given the fact that was what the Bible he was raised reading and probably heard quoted in his experience at the New Canaan Baptist Church.  And, as I once heard an elderly woman say eschewing newer translations of the Bible, “If the King James Bible was good enough for the Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

We moved around a bit during my childhood.  And as we did, we tried out new churches along the way.  One was the Penny Memorial Baptist Church in August, Maine which my Dad described as one that looked for reasons to keep people out rather than offer much grace to sinners.  Jesus may have hung out with them, but not these Baptists.  And I’m guessing my Dad may have suffered same harsh judgment of Biblical tax gatherers as he was still in his first decade of employment with the IRS.

Another church we visited, this one in Louisville, Kentucky, was in a drive-in movie theater turned house of worship—which gives a whole new meaning to church theater, I suppose.   But this was the early seventies, the age of facial hair, wide ties, and novel approaches to sharing The Word was just taking root.  On chilly Sunday mornings, we would drive in with other worshipers, romping over the asphalt humps, roll down a window and hook the speaker into our door.

We listened as the pastor shared the gospel from a scaffolding below the giant white movie screen. It was like listening to an otherworldly voice crackling through space and static.  “Oww –ett—us—ray.  R –faddah—ooo—rt’nnn—evan—owl-lowed—eee—thy—ame.”  I suppose my parents liked that place since any attempts at whistling in the back seat of their Pontiac wouldn’t disturb others or embarrass them.

After that attempt in Louisville in the early 1970s, I don’t recall any serious attempts at churchgoing.  When we moved to Buffalo, New York, though, we lived in a largely Jewish neighborhood, save for a large Catholic family down the street.  When those kids came filing out of the house, it seemed to me, an only child, like one of those tiny clown cars at the circus from which a dozen clowns emerge.  There were seven kids.

Paul was the oldest, followed Mark, John, Mary, Ruth, and, wait for it, Bruce.   Poor kid.  One wonders if they took a look at this pink and screaming newborn and thought, “you know, he looks doesn’t really look like a Biblical name kind of kid.  Let’s call him Bruce.”  Being Catholic didn’t seem like much fun to me.  Those poor kids couldn’t come home and watch Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows.

But Judaism, now that looked cool. We lived in Buffalo about the time most of the young men were turning thirteen and having the Bar Mitzvahs.  I thought conversion might be a good idea given the wonderful parties and amount of loot my buddies were hauling in, but the thought of learning Hebrew after school fairly well dampened my enthusiasm to convert—I wasn’t gonna give up Dark Shadows, not even for the promise of gifts and parties.

At some point in my adolescence, our Sunday mornings became a time for the three of us to have a leisurely breakfast and for my parents to read the paper while I caught up Peanuts and The Phantom in the funny papers and Parade magazine.  That time was something of a ritual for us—a time for being together, catching our breath from the week’s activities, and to let the redemptive smell of freshly fried bacon, baked biscuits, and percolated coffee permeate both the air and our souls.

Such rituals, I learned, were important and I keep many today, beyond what I learned from my parent’s practices.  As I’ll share later, I think they’re a part of a familial and cultural fabric which pay rich dividends for us all.

*****

Regardless of our church attendance or how my father prayed, my childhood was idyllic.  I was afforded all the opportunities of being male child with loving, white, middle-class parents who valued getting a good education.  I got my values from them in a sort of Ten Commandments kind of way.  Our version of Christianity was the sort that focused on not lying, stealing, or harming others, as well as on helping other people. I don’t recall much coveting going on and we were big on not committing murder or taking the Lord’s name in vain either.  Though I will tell you my Mom had a knack for PG-rated profanity.

Both of my parents held Master’s degrees.  My mother’s in education, my Dad’s in business.  Which is pretty remarkable given they were raised in a mining community in rural Alabama. My Dad plowed behind a mule as a child, drove a school bus on dirt roads, and delivered groceries from my grandparents little country store.  And I’m the first male in many generations of my family to have never worked a day in a coal mine.

Unlike many other children, I’ve always known my parents loved one another and that they loved me unconditionally.  When I celebrated my 59th birthday my Dad was in the hospital.  My mother felt bad about not having a gift for me or providing any kind of acknowledgement I’d made another trip around the sun.  I’m her favorite child, you see.  So she took the time to right a handwritten note to tell me how much my birth had meant to her.  But Mom is a straight shooter who added, “Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when you were a real pain in the ass.”  It’s a note I will keep the rest of my life and smile in the memory of her big heart and personality.

It was these parents who taught me to be honest, to be kind, to study, and to work hard. And when I said I’m my mother’s favorite child, I was being honest.  I’m hers and Dad’s only child—as far as I know.  Given the fact I’m 6’7’’ now and was a rather large baby at birth, I’m not sure Mom could have endured another set of shoulders like mine passing through her birth canal.  The fact that I was a colicky baby probably had something to do with their decision not to have any more children too, as I’ve recently learned my cranky infancy made her search out whatever tranquilizerswere available in 1960.

But even with all that, as a child, my dreams were their dreams and so when it came to whether it was chauffeuring me back and forth to summer basketball camps or going off to get a private liberal arts education, they sacrificed for me in profoundly Christian ways.   Looking back, I realize hardship and fear weren’t really a part of my experience.

I was born on third base.

In Praise of Butter and Bacon

Anyone who doesn’t believe there is a God should consider the following: bacon, butter and batter. Such epicurean delights can come from heaven alone. They are the holy trinity of Southern “cookin” without which life, or at least food, becomes a dull thing. I’m confident that Thoreau wrote “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” shortly after a meal of baked chicken, steamed broccoli and unbuttered brown rice. Southern cooking fills both the belly and the soul like nothing else, especially when consumed with family and friends.

My earliest memories of family involve fried chicken cooked in skillet atop my Grandmother’s stove. She fried it in Crisco as God meant for chicken to be fried and the smell and sound of it cooking was almost as delicious as eating it. “Mama” Owens, as she was called by many of her Grandchildren, would prepare a meal for my family to take with us on long journeys back home to Maine, Pennsylvania and New York as we returned from Christmas or Summer Vacations in Alabama. She would also fry apple pies to place in a paper “poke” (that’s a brown paper bag for those of you raised in odd cultures) along with the chicken. And because a meal should be balanced, she’d either toss in some white bread or some rolls. My parents would always want to wait to eat when we were several hours down the road. It was torture, verging on abuse, but I have worked through it and forgiven them.

In my high school days a New Year’s Day tradition began to include inviting the Marshall High School basketball team, along with a select few others, to my house to watch College Bowl games and eat fried chicken prepared by my mother. One by one guys with names like “Mac,” “T,” “CJ,” and “Murph” along with others would show up to break bread and watch Alabama play in the Sugar Bowl. Our friendships grew as we guzzled Coke, ate, and laughed together. If the chicken had been baked or we’d had a nice vegetable tray with dip, I’m certain New Year’s day would have been quiet as polite regrets were the response to my invitations.

But let us not forget butter and bacon. For who would enjoy green beans without these? What would the biscuit be without butter or bacon? Or both? My wife has mastered the preparation of the pot roast. And though I am unclear of means of her alchemy when I see a pound of bacon, a pot roast and a red Dutch Oven on the counter I start looking for my “fat pants” and hide the scales. The meal will also usually include something like mashed potatoes and rolls since we need something to hold the butter. The experience is made complete in that it normally includes my adult children’s presence around a holiday table.

Sugar and cream are also essential ingredient for truly Southern cooking. Without sugar the ever-present chocolate, coconut or lemon pie that was always on “Mama” Owens’ kitchen table would never have been there. There would have been no coconut cake under the cake plate cover at Mizz Bishop’s either. None of my wife’s cakes, cookies or pies would be here to tempt me either. Their absence evokes thoughts of Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic world in the The Road. Bleak. Desperate. Hopeless.

Sure I know we are to “eat to live, not live to eat.” In this day of measuring triglycerides, blood pressure and cholesterol, I know that butter, bacon, and breading, are bad for my health. But as I hear the wheat mill turning in my kitchen , I know that homemade waffles will soon be ready. And I will top them with butter, syrup, and maybe some confectioner’s sugar (just a little). Tomorrow I will do better. I will go to the gym and pay for my sins. But for now, I’m just going to be thankful for God’s gifts and the fact I’m a Southern boy.

Now, where are my fat pants?

Just a Few Lessons My Mother Taught Me

It has been said the only difference between the person you are today and the person you will be in five years are the books you read and the people you meet.  So if you consider I met my Mother 53 years ago, she’s had 10 cycles to make a difference in my life.  Along with my wife and father, and a few others she’s clearly a difference maker in my life.  So I can forgive her for never being quite sure if I was born on 18th or 19th of October, even if I am her only child.  After all, I’m 6’7” now and was a “big baby.” So the process of birthing me was probably something she’s tried to forget.  By the way, there’s no truth to the rumor the nurses said, “Oh my Lord, would you look at the size of this kid” when I was born.

The list of things, both profound and useful, Mom has taught me is far too long to be completed here.  For now I will just only expound on the following: sometimes only profanity will do, how to drive, be fiercely loyal to your family, the facts of life.

I remember the first time I heard my mother cuss.  She was removing something from the oven and inadvertently grabbed the edge of the pan.  Unbeknownst to her, I had walked into the kitchen to hear her remarkably skillful use off several words, spoken as if they were one, I’d never heard her use before.  “You okay, Mom?”  I asked.  She was fighting back the pain and it hadn’t quite hit her that I’d heard her.  Once we’d established she was okay her mea culpa included “I guess if that’s the worst thing I ever do as a parent, then I’m okay.”  I agreed with her and proposed we use butter on the burn, which is what you did in the late 1960s.  After all, butter makes everything better if you’re from Alabama.

My mother, like most Southern women, is fiercely loyal to her family.  While she reserved the right to “straighten me out,” no one else was allowed such a privilege.  On more than one occasion, I recall “She-Coon” coming out in her.  Once it was with a teacher I felt had been condescending.  I was struggling in a math class and claimed I was bored to tears and wanted to be placed in a higher-level course.  With Mom’s intervention, I was moved into another class where my grades improved significantly. Although that may have been from the absence of an adolescent distraction named Debbie missing from my new classroom rather than my mathematical genius.   Nonetheless, her defense of me made the world a safer place.

I’m not sure what the standard for learning to drive is in this country, but my father and mother shared the chores.  But my mother started me early, at about age 14.  Since I was a “big boy,” she once offered to let me behind the wheel of a 1964 Corvair on a winding country road.  I jumped at the opportunity.  I did a fine job too and had I kept driving no one would have been the wiser.  But as I pulled into the edge of a cornfield on a fall day one of Fairfax County, Virginia’s finest pulled in behind us.  As we exited the car to swap sides, he figured us out, and asked for my driver’s license.  He then wrote my mother a ticket.   She politely accepted it but muttered something about “sunny beaches.”  I think she was wishing him a good vacation or something.

Having now had the privilege of explaining the facts of life to my then 6-year old son who asked me “Daddy, what does ‘gay’ mean?” I have gained great appreciation for what my mother was faced with when we were waiting for the school bus one morning.  Somehow in less than 10 minutes she was able to clarify things sufficiently when her 8 year old asked the meaning of a particular gesture involving a middle finger.  One thing leads to another, as the song goes, and just as I had to address the much of human sexual behavior in one sitting, she had to cover a lot of ground.  Notably, my son’s response to how a man and woman “make a baby” was “ Eeeeew!  I’m never doin’ that!”  I told him I thought that was a good plan.

Soon, I want to pay homage to several other lessons my mother taught me including: money isn’t everything, how to ask a girl for her phone number, and don’t let college get in the way of an education.  But for now I will close with this.  Mom always taught me that when you are with family, wherever life takes you, you’re at home.  My father’s career moved us all about the country and though it was difficult, my Mom always told me that as long as we were together we were home.  Sure we cried some when we moved about.  But for the most part, it was a great adventure. Because of her attitude and support of my father and me it wasn’t really that painful.  You might think attending three schools in the eighth grade would have done permanent damage to an adolescent boy.  But thanks in large part to my Mother, it didn’t.  Yes, I talk to myself a lot and my brain is a noisy place.  I’m not really like the “other children.”  (Then again, who is?) But I think it would be all the more so if Mom hadn’t had the attitude she had.  It’s a trait my wife shares with her, along with a fierce loyalty to her family.  She has chosen to support the gypsy wanderings of her husband just as my Mother did.  She’s not too bad at the colorful language from time to time either. Though I think I’m mostly the cause of it.  Someday, I suspect both my children will reflect upon lessons their Momma taught them.  Like me, they will have more to share than a mere thousand words or so can contain.

 

“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.

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