Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tebow's Theatrics

I don't normally blog about sports, but I have a few things I need to say about the media darling that is Tim Tebow. I'm fully aware that doing so may get me excommunicated from both the church AND the South. I'm only half kidding. There are many in the South who equate any hint of criticism of Tebow with heresy. How can you say anything bad about a guy who wears biblical eyeblack? I must have forgotten how I was raised, because here it is.

I have a hard time buying Tim Tebow. I want to like him, I want to believe he is all he seems to be. No one can dispute that he puts his faith out for public consumption unashamedly, and an athlete of his age who will make that kind of public stand is both rare and commendable. But the cynic in me finds him just a little too studiously polished. Take, for instance, his crying jag at the end of the SEC championship game. I found it unnecessarily dramatic and self-consciously showy, like much of the rest of what he does, especially since the outcome of the game wasn't really in doubt for most of the fourth quarter. I don't begrudge the man some tears--it's a tough way to end an exceptional college career. I have an issue with the public spectacle of it. He's played on national television enough times to know what grabs the cameras. It looked to me to be one more opportunity for him to draw attention to himself. Look at me, ESPN, I'm man enough to cry on national television! Thank ya, Jeezus.

And since I'm on a tear, I'm also not quite sure why the media raves about Tebow's leadership. If leadership consists of screaming, double fist pumping and head butting, then yes, he's the second coming of Nelson Mandela. But forgive me if I'm less than impressed by the theatrics. I've seen televangelists who were calmer. Maybe it's a personal preference, but I've always been drawn to leaders who exude a quiet confidence. There's no disputing that Tebow has picked his team up and put them on his back more than a few times. His improvisation, his tough running, his clutch plays--all very impressive. But let's not confuse performance with leadership. If I'm an NFL coach, do I really want my quarterback bursting a vein in his neck screaming at his teammates on the sidelines? Or giving himself a concussion when he head butts a helmeted player? Or would I rather have the calm, confident field general who lets those around him jump around and do the flashy stuff while he directs the winning drive? I think I'd rather have the latter, and I think Tebow's Sundays in the future will probably be best spent in church.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Snuffleupagus

The older I get, the more I realize I'm turning into my mother, a woman who has been known throughout my life to launch into a full waterworks display faster than you can say emotionally manipulative Internet chain letter. Case in point, the drive to Midlothian yesterday. I was listening to NPR and Renee Montagne mentioned that it was the fortieth birthday of the seminal children's show Sesame Street, and I got a little emotional.

I got to thinking what a groundbreaking show it was and how, for generations of poor rural kids in pre-Internet days, it was our first exposure to multiculturalism. I thought about how brave the producers had been to push the envelope and insist on a representative cast and crew. I thought about how the program had shown kids like me regular Hispanic and African-American people interacting in perfectly normal ways with those around them at a time when television characters were overwhelmingly WASP. In fact, the show was banned for a brief time in Mississippi because the state thought its audiences weren't ready for the integrated crew and the presence of so many strong, single women.

The show has addressed ethics; emotions; and real-life situations of love, marriage, birth and death. It discussed the 9/11 attacks and featured an HIV-positive character. It found a way to talk about child abuse and disabilities. It adapted and stayed relevant even with the technology boom of the 1990's. Oscar the Grouch may have gotten a cell phone, but he keeps on teaching millions of kids not only ABCs and spelling and basic math, but how to grow up to be better adults. So happy birthday, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and many more returns.

Friday, November 6, 2009


The more I've come to understand my new job and all it entails, the more I've come to realize that there is little, if anything, new under the sun. Case in point: the Commonwealth of Virginia's LMS or HelLMS, as I've come to think of it. LMS stands for the Learning Management System, and it is at once the bane of my existence; the source of all budget shortfalls in the great state of Virginia; the weapon of mass destruction smoking gun from Iraq and the underlying reason for the Republican sweep into office last week. Its connection with global warming has not yet been proven.

About a year before I arrived at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to begin my new job as a training resource coordinator, the HelLMS train started making preps to pull out of the Richmond station, bound for all points Virginia. By the time I arrived, it was at a full chug, belching and bellowing and picking up speed, and I was left with little choice except to get on board, or get run over. Or, in some cases, a little of both. Now, HelLMS is not unique to Virginia, nor is the concept even new. Virtually every training entity of any scale has it or a system like it: to manage course and facility information, track student enrollments, generate course-associated documents and provide a single repository for training records. Because my office manages, schedules and tracks all Emergency Management training for the state, the title of LMS content administrator was written into my job description and my fate was sealed.

Here's the rub: until October 1, people were accustomed to a certain low-tech ease in signing up for courses and receiving documentation of their completion. What used to happen was this: people would find a course they wanted to take in a location that was convenient for them, get a form from Frank or Bubba or the office file, fill it out and fax or mail it to my office. Alternately, they would fill the form out online and an automated system would email it to an address in my office. The office schmucks before me would then take each form and force feed it (manually re-type all the information) to the doddering and barely functional old Training Management System, which was the predecessor to HelLMS. At the end of the course, some poor schmoe would have to manually print out single certificates of completion for each student and mail them to the location where the training was held. Lather, rinse and repeat...about 4,000 times over the course of a year.

To further complicate matters, the old TMS system was designed to work with Windows 95 and was never upgraded past the point of a few software patches. The system is almost 15 years old and tech support for it had long since run out, so there are all of two computers remaining that will actually still RUN the program (and those only if you're holding your mouth just right). Divide the number of hours in the day by the number of vacant positions by the amount of manhours it takes to nurse the old system along. Throw in a 30% budget cut this year alone. And all that added up to: past time for a change.

I came in right in the middle of all this and inherited the job of, for example, selling the concept to the good ole boy volunteer firefighter out in Buchanan County, whose chief told him he has to take an Incident Command System course next weekend so the County can keep getting its federal money. Firefighter Jones probably has only a vague idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia is operating under budgetary constraints that make the frugality of my childhood seem like a hedonistic Vegas splurge. He probably would not care, if he knew, that yours truly was reduced to scuttling along behind departing conference attendees after this week's Blacksburg Coordinators Brief, stealthily picking up leftover Dasani bottles like some Dickensian street urchin. He is not the slightest bit affected by the fact that, as a schoolhouse, we cannot print manuals without the express written permission of the Secretary of Public Safety. He only wants to sign up for his required course with the least amount of hassle possible, sit through the damn thing, get his piece of paper, and then get back to his day job, his family and all the other pressing concerns of his life. I can't say that I blame him. It's hard for him to see a connection between fighting fires and the Internet. He does not want some yahoo in Richmond, however well intentioned, telling him he's got to make an account in LMS, enroll for the course through the Knowledge Center, negotiate to a certain screen, reconfigure his print settings and print out his own certificate for a course that is already an imposition on his time. And all this on dial-up access. So it's a hard sell.

The other harsh reality is the data migration process from TMS to LMS. This is an ugly for which there appears to be no cure. The TMS system is replete with corrupt data: duplicate accounts, incorrect social security numbers, fake social security numbers, no social security numbers. The state gets two data uploads for free each year. But in eighteen months of trying, even with accounts that seem to be "good" accounts, we have yet to successfully upload a single user account from TMS to LMS. We finally started manually inputting archival information into the LMS from hard copy rosters, but it proved so labor intensive that we were only able to get through about eighteen months before we had to put it down and pick up the current rosters that were piling up around us. Even this system wasn't perfect, as there were names that could not be read on the rosters, line-outs, changed names and email addresses.

All that to say this: it's become apparent to me that the government teat ain't nearly as ample as it used to be. And it's become further apparent that you'd better be prepared to take the rest of the ugly body that comes with it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Korean Experience

For the past couple of weeks, I've run headlong up against the realization that, for all my railing against the homogenization of the world community, global diversity is alive and well. The boys from Seoul left for home Friday and with them, my previous assumptions about the shrinking world and internet-induced culture cloning.

For each of the past three years, Emergency Management personnel from the Republic of Korea have made the long trip to Virginia for a training exchange program of sorts. I say "of sorts," because the Commonwealth has yet to actually send anyone to Korea to complete the exchange and, given the austerity of the current budgetary climate, probably will not. The group typically stays a couple of weeks and wedges as much sightseeing and shopping in between the training as the schedule will stand. In other words, the schedule is little more than a point of departure for a whirlwind tour of as many points U.S. as can be logistically managed. This year, it was a fateful day, indeed, when new girl Kristy volunteered to be the point person for the visit.

The trouble began when the Korean coordinator from the previous two years was pulled for another project. She spoke very good English and had a firm grasp on the cultural differences and their implications, so her loss was a blow to communications. Without her, the coordination conference calls between Seoul and Richmond became two hour ordeals that stretched late into the night. After a time, we were able to establish tenuous communications with the translator from the previous two years and she ran a kind of long-distance interference in between other translating jobs. After one particularly long call in which nearly everything had to be translated to Hangul to English and back again, I thought we had an understanding on a schedule and a way ahead for the visit to proceed.

It turned out the schedule was not firm, the group wasn't happy with the hotel arrangements, and they were not at all enamored of the rate they were getting on a translator. We met Na Song, the translator, in person for lunch on the Thursday before they were due to arrive on Tuesday and (much to my relief) clarified most details of the visit. By Thursday night at 9:30, there was no more Na Song. Instead, the Korean-based travel agency found a guide over the Internet based on his Korean-language blog that said he lived in Midlothian. This and his day job as a shoe store manager was apparently enough to qualify him. The new guide, in turn, hired a new translator who was all of nineteen and had been in the U.S. for most of her life. There were no contracts, there was no money exchanged ahead of time, and the group had never met either the guide or the translator. When the group of twelve angry men arrived after a day on the west coast and an all-night flight into Richmond, the scene was set for a heavy-duty culture clash seen previously only in a Ha Jin novel.

By way of background, the delegation's senior guy was a fellow named Mr. Wan Taek Jung. But the senior guy in Korean culture doesn't actually take charge of anything. The group's coordinator was his second in command, Gil Dong. Wan Taek, Gil Dong, et al, managed to elude our representative at the airport, slip by and get loose on the town before I was able to reach the new translator. They promptly went for Korean food, although I tried to tell them we were having a luncheon reception in their honor not two hours hence. According to Ha Young, the new translator, (see how confusing this could be?), they had been without Korean food for two days and were insistent on having some. I thought it ironic that they'd come all this way to eat Korean, but I shrugged it off and told her to get them to the hotel as soon as she could.

When the boys arrived, the hotel met them with a contract (the same one we'd been trying to get signed for over a month, mind you) and an insistence that they pony up a payment method. The lobby was instantly filled with garrulous Korean men alternately demanding their keys, expressing outrage over the way they were being treated and denying any responsiblity for payment. Granted, I do not speak Hangul and they only speak limited English, so some of this was inferred and some of it was filtered through the translator. Finally, Han Lee, the guide, said he would sign the contract and provide his personal credit card as payment guarantee until he could coordinate with the Korean travel agency to wire money to him for payment.

After this near-debacle, I thought everything was running along fine (famous last words) until one afternoon when Gil Dong came to get me and insisted that I make Han Lee give him his identification. Apparently, Gil had gotten it in his head that Han was not who he said he was, that he didn't have a contract and he was just some guy trying to swindle the group. Some of this was a result of the fact that all prices in Korea are inclusive (tax and tip included), whereas all prices here are obviously not. So when the boys went to a restaurant and assumed that $5.99 meant $5.99, they were extremely displeased when Han went around to collect tax and tip money. Some of it was because one of the money wires from overseas had not arrived and Han was concerned about having money to cover the visit. Gil got wind of this and was more convinced than ever that Han was just some guy bent to make money off of him and his cohorts. It was extraordinarily difficult to get all of this out, as we couldn't go through the swindler guide and his in-cahoots translator. So Gil and I went back and forth in broken English until I thought I understood. I then had to go back and forth between Gil and Han to get both sides of the story. This was taking too long for Gil's taste, so there ensued a huge scene in the hotel driveway that featured fifteen participants: Gil Dong and Han Lee alternately arguing and talking on their cell phones to Korea; me trying to make peace; the translator in a huff because the guys had told her to sit down and shut up; and eleven Korean men standing, smoking and looking off into the distance and trying to listen without becoming involved. In retrospect, it was a fascinating dynamic. The senior guy at some point finally stepped in and tried to calm Gil down, to little effect. Han Lee at some point said he was leaving and a couple of other members went after him and begged him to stay. This caused Gil to lose face with the group so he became even more upset. I finally stepped in when Gil and Beom Sik Kim almost came to blows.

Needless to say, there was no recovering from that. The group retained Han Lee's services just long enough to get to northern Virginia and then they let him go. I heard about this when the new guide called me during my drill weekend to try to get information about the schedule. I gave him the information and told him he needed to call Han Lee, as that was the only contact we had with the group. And that was how Han Lee found out he was being let go.

He sent me an email that night expressing his great relief.

And so the twelve angry men arrived in Hampton for our statewide coordinators briefing on Tuesday with yet another translator and guide. We got them rounded up and where they needed to be for that day and the next. They departed Richmond on Wednesday morning for a FEMA tour and some last minute shopping time in D.C. Their parting shot was a luggage van that was two hours late (the 15 passenger van they were riding in did not have room for luggage). We ended up schlepping their luggage out of our classroom where it was temporarily stowed and onto the tour agency van. Last I heard, my boss was having some difficulty trying to get them into FEMA on Thursday morning. He sent me an email to remind him to tell me about the experience. I replied that I already knew.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jimmy's Right

Last week, Jimmy Carter drew fire from the right over statements that the more viruluent strains of criticism toward Barack Obama were based in latent racism. He was particularly critical of Joe Wilson's "You lie" outburst, and of email strings that continue to be circulated by conservative interest groups that compare Obama to, alternately, an animal and Adolf Hitler. Since I have the misfortune of having a new boss who is fascinated with conservative talk programming, I am force fed Fox News Network and Rush Limbaugh in stereo most days. Somehow, by the time those talking heads finished spinning their revisions of his comments, Carter had said that any disagreement with the President's policies equated to racism. The network even trotted out their usual stable of conservative minority commentators who, to a one, denounced the former President as an unrealistic apologist, wallowing in white guilt.

But was Carter really off the mark? It used to be that a certain level of formal respect was afforded the office of the Presidency, period. There was a sacred and inviolable decorum required of and around our highest levels of government, period. Opponents may not have agreed with the decisions made, may not have even respected the man himself, but one of our country's strengths has traditionally been our ability to debate our differences and then respect the decisions made by the majority of our countryment. Our government has always been one built on civil discourse and compromise. That's why the level of disdain shown our President over the past couple of months has been both unprecedented and unconscionable.

Granted, many of the issues that have been debated recently have been the most divisive in my personal memory. The country faces deep philosophical rifts in many areas, not the least of which is health care. But when the President WE elected to office not nine months ago is blocked from speaking to school children about such an innocuous topic as responsible behavior, ostensibly because certain groups don't want to risk politicizing the schools; when an elected Congressman feels justified in calling the President a liar in a joint session of Congress ostensibly because he passionately disagrees with what is being said, WE have a serious problem the root cause of which no one besides Jimmy Carter seems to want to admit. What other President has ever been blocked from speaking to school children as if he were some common pedophiliac who couldn't be trusted alone with our children? What other President has been called a liar in a joint session of Congress, in front of a national television audience? What else has changed? What other conclusion can be drawn? That these public displays of utter disrespect are somehow justified because the country is facing more challenges than ever before? Please, refer to the Great Depression and World War II See also Vietnam and energy crisis of the 1970's. More likely, it is the 2 ton elephant of a racially divided past that we're still not ready to honestly confront. That elephant may be covered in a cloak of policy disagreement, but it's still a big damn elephant.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I Will Fish No More Forever

Late last Wednesday afternoon, I was hugging myself, knowing that I had just set in place the last of a carefully choreographed series of events that would result in the orderly departure of almost 4,000 used books from my bookcases and, in turn, the bookcases themselves. I congratulated myself on having managed all this with minimal interference to my new job and finessing the details down to the point that I would only need to take three hours off of work (time I had already made up, no less) to get it done. I had spent several nights in a row at the bookstore and had gotten all the new books off the shelves, stacked them in the floor in a way that wouldn't interfere with the removal of the book cases. I had gone to bed Wednesday night wiped out, but with an overwhelming sense of relief that things were finally happening.

Thursday morning at 8 o'clock, the thrift store employees who were supposed to be taking all the used books away decided they couldn't manage it. It was just too much. Never mind that I had very carefully explained the scope of the task beforehand. Never mind that the same guy had vehemently insisted that not only could they do it, but that it would be done in time for the book case people to show up at 10:30. Never mind that he had shown up at the store at 7:45 with two guys and a truck, and I had someone there to meet them as we had discussed. I made it to work at 8 a.m. only to get the call that my carefully laid plan had just fallen apart.

A melee of frantic book and shelf moving, a too-long truck, a busted light on the building across the alley, denials by the truck driver over the light, many hours and much sweat later, I said goodbye to the book cases. It was striking how much care had gone into placing them, just so, into the building, contrasted with how little care had gone into slinging them willy nilly into the back of a semi to jostle across Virginia to their new home in West Virginia. I was left with 6500 books stacked on the floor, so I decided to open the store ONE MORE TIME on that Saturday to try to rid myself of as many of them as possible.

So what does this have to do with fish, fishing, or the price of tea in China? After this flurry of late-week activity, we got up early Sunday morning and went out on the Swift Creek reservoir for some much-needed relaxation. I've never really been much of a fisherman as an adult--somehow it seems kind of self-serving. Who am I to kill worms and inflict pain on a fish just to amuse myself? It doesn't seem fair. So mostly I just lay around, drive the boat, look at the wildlife or swim and let other, less moonbeamy people fish.

But on Sunday, moody thing that I was, suffering from the collective exhaustion of several weeks of doing two jobs, and the recipient of a brand new bream buster pole, I decided I'd do some fishing. My book-weary hands were too stupid to do anything that required manual dexterity, plus I hadn't seriously fished in several years, so it took some doing to set myself up with a rig. By the time I settled down to fish, Beth had already gone around the bend to fish her own spot.

I experienced a minor moral crisis when it came time to put the worm on the hook. I am not a vegetarian, but I have a hard time inflicting pain on any living thing when there's no good reason. I managed to reconcile myself with that concept by promising the worm that his life would not end in vain. I spoke it out loud: I would take any legal sized fish I caught home, clean it and eat it.

I only had a few minutes to wait. I felt a tug, saw the cork disappear, and snatched up a little bluegill about the size of half my hand. I pulled it on into the kayak and saw, to my horror, that the poor bastard had swallowed the hook. An existential crisis ensued. I tugged on the hook. I looked again, it was still buried. I searched my limited tackle for pliers. None. I tried emergency surgery with a fish stringer. To no avail. I burst into tears. The fish stared at me accusingly. I had, after all, promised. I trailed the poor fish behind me and set out across the lake for where Beth had disappeared. It was like the canoe chase scene from Last Of the Mohicans. I was crying and rowing for all I was worth. By the time I reached her, all I could do was sputter and bring the hooked fish (with its accusing eyes) around for her to look at. She shook her head and said she couldn't do anything for it.

I do not recommend having a breakdown in a kayak. After I cut the line and let the fish go to what I am sure was a starvation death, I drifted out in the middle of the lake and cried me a river. Not only for the fish, but for the bookstore, and for the realization that I, like so many others, can't always keep my promises.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Return to Normalcy

Warren G. Harding (who is, to the best of my knowledge, the only President to date who has sported a middle name of Gamaliel) ran for office in 1920 on the "return to normalcy" ticket. The war-weary country swept him into office, along with a Republican majority in the Congress. While I am not a particular fan of Warren Harding, I can understand the attraction of his promise for the country at the time. I've bounced around from upheaval to upheaval over the past few years, and I'm just about ready to sew up the borders.

Like most aspects of being in business for myself, the bookstore's denouement has been both more time-consuming and more costly than I anticipated. When I decided to close the doors, I didn't really stop to consider that I could be left with, literally, thousands of books on the shelves. I was too proud to discount the new books any more than 50%, reasoning that I could send them back, and refusing to give the vultures who were circling, waiting for the 90%-off fire sale, the satisfaction. And this is, on a theoretical level, true. I CAN send the books back for credit from my distributor. The question is, when exactly do I plan on doing that? Since I started my new job, I've begun a 40 minute daily commute, dove headlong into a demanding new position, and tried to deal with 9-5 type bookstore issues before 8 or after 6. This weekend, I'm in Norfolk for drill. It reminds me a lot of my shipboard days, during which I grew to resent such normal, mundane tasks as laundry and toenail maintenance. I've got a buyer for the shelves who wants to come pick them up Thursday night, but no buyer for the books. And as much as I would love to recover the money I've hemorraghed over the past 18 months, I'm going to draw the line at dragging several thousand books into our basement.

I called this week to set up a haircut appointment with a woman who used to cut my hair at the Navy Exchange when I was stationed in Norfolk on active duty. She was a lively little Filipino woman who bantered constantly and almost always cut my hair too short. Still, I knew what to expect, and I liked having a regular "stylist." She had left the Navy Exchange just before I left active duty to establish a salon with her sister in a little shopping center in Virginia Beach. When I called, her sister said she didn't work there and hadn't for several months. She wouldn't tell me where the woman had gone, but I already knew where to find her. I got my hair cut by her this evening at the Norfolk Navy Exchange. She'd gone back to her normal, and I understood it perfectly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Closed Due To???

I understand human nature, I fancy even better than most. Extended time spent floating around on the open ocean on a 500-600 foot long hunk of steel with 300 folks of varying ages, backgrounds, education and personal hygiene levels gave me that much (along with really bad habits of wanting to eat pizza every Friday and wear flip flops in the shower). Add to that over a year of seeing ALL kinds of people come in and out of the book store and I pretty much have a BS in, well, B.S. So it should come as no surprise to me, nor should it be particularly upsetting, that my going out of business sale has been like blood in the water. The chum bag shaken into the water from the boat stern. The death throes of the slowly dying animal. To the tune of, the website got 2-3 times as many hits as before, and I did more business in the six weeks between the initial announcement and today than any other six MONTH period to date. I've managed, for the most part, to stay philosophical about this. I reason that people in general are going through economic hard times and want their money to stretch as far as possible. So, while they may not buy a new book at regular cost, they might be able to reconcile one at 50% off with their budget. While they might not be able to find the store for, oh, I don't know, fifteen months prior to the going out of business sale, the big sale might provide the impetus to call or check the website for directions.

But enter the offer of free books for teachers, and things reached the kind of fevered pitch seen only approximately twice in retail America: Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-me-Elmo. Okay, maybe the X-box too. Last Saturday was my first day of the offer, and it was the first time I'd ever had more cars in the parking lot than the tattoo parlor during mutual business hours. If statements to the effect of, "I'm sorry I didn't know about this sooner," were nickels, there would be no reason for me to go out of business. In fact, if only half the people who came in the store last Saturday, yesterday and today had come in even once during the 15 months I was open and bought one or two books, there would be no reason for me to go out of business. This in spite of the fact that I sent multiple emails, flyers and announcements out to all Petersburg teachers through the same channels that I sent the free offer. This in spite of the fact that I offered through those same channels teacher and student discounts, multiple free literacy programs for kids and over 6,000 used books at bargain prices. Either something about the word "free" really makes people sit up and take notice, people regularly ignore emails from the school district's administrative offices, or the what's in it for me factor wasn't high enough before.

I get that opportunism is common to all mankind. It's part of what makes us human, kind of like opposable thumbs. And Lord knows I would do some of the same things--in fact, I did, when I was getting ready to open the bookstore. I scoured the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area for the best bargains, went to all the big sales and loaded up with as much for as little as I could. I know this on a cerebral level. That didn't stop me from having a sick feeling in my gut as people gleefully rummaged through the bargain bins of my children's room, picked out their free books and rolled out, seemingly without a second thought. I couldn't help but wonder if they stopped to consider the cause and effect of, hey, if I had come here a couple of times, maybe this little store could have really made a difference in our community. Not once, as a sort of going out of business swan song, but repeatedly. There are a lot of people in Petersburg who got that. I will miss them as if they were family. But there are a whole lot more who did not. And that's why my doors are closed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Book Store Up For Adoption

Now that I have a job, the process of letting the book store go has ramped up in urgency. I don't know my start date yet, don't even have the formal offer where human resources will presumably draw up a salary and benefits package and I will either accept or negotiate. At least, I assume that's what will happen based on tidbits I've been able to gather from others who have gone through a similar process (and some sheer conjecture). This is unmapped territory for me, as it is my first non-military job as an adult. One thing I've learned during my Navy years about the government bureaucracy bus is that the wheels turn slowly, and sometimes it stops in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. But, I do know that I will be starting a new job, most likely before the planned end of my old one.

So, now that the end is in sight, the need to marry the good books up with good owners has become increasingly pressing. I have no compunction about the only so-so books that make up half my stock. They can go wherever, and I couldn't care less. But the good ones, I consider it my job to find them homes. One of my book club members came in yesterday and said her mother was looking for some specific children's books, and I just about fell all over myself trying to cajole her to tell her mother about two of my favorites. I just can't imagine shipping Giraffes Can't Dance and The Two Bobbies back to the cold, impersonal distribution warehouse. Some kid HERE needs those books! They need to be handled, read, loved, drooled on. So I've adopted something of a used car salesman tactic of shamelessly promoting my personal favorites. So what if he came in for a vampire novel? Surely he has a niece who is starting school next month and will need to have Splat the Cat read to her to help calm her fears. Splat the Cat, by the way, has a mouse for a best friend, which I find very cool. That babygrandmama who came in for a couple of classics? Please, take this interactive Dog book. One of the pull tabs makes a dog lift his leg and pee, for God's sake! Don't even get me started on the art section and cook books.

In the last few days, I've been trying to come up with ways to get people to come down and let me do a psychic reading of their literary tastes and pair them up with books that they need. This may or may not involve a Vulcan mindmeld, and I am only half-kidding. A regular customer suggested that I run a book adoption promotion yesterday. If the animal shelters can do it, why not? Anybody out there have any other ideas?

Ideally, someone from the community would make me an offer on the whole store--inventory, fixtures and all--take it out to the main street and reopen. They'd have to take their lumps for a year or two, but I believe they'd then move on to firmer ground. I think this idea can make it under that scenario, and I do believe Petersburg needs a book store. The combination of main street visibility, historical tourism, a pedestrian friendly downtown and the BRAC influx would eventually stabilize the money in-money out ratio. I just don't have it in me to start over like that. But if anyone out there knows someone interested in that scenario, I'd love to talk with them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Job Hunting

It may be that looking for a new job is the most humbling thing I've ever done. I used to think that I was pretty darned employable: by virtue of prior military experience, what I flatter myself to think has been excellent performance in a wide array of assignments, current location in a military town, veteran's preference, yada yada yada. That was before the wheels fell off the juggernaut of the American Speculation Machine and Starbucks started requiring a Master's Degree to serve espresso drinks.

So it is in this oppressive economic climate that I have toiled over my qualifications and sweated out dozens of cover letters. I've rewritten my resume no less than 100 times, each time in response to a specific set of job requirements. I've carefully culled key phrases from the announcement, dissected the description to the point of splitting atoms, stuffed the application with all the position specific phraseology that's fit to print. For all this, I've only made it through the Army's Resumix computerized system one time, and I have yet to hear from the hiring official for an interview. It occurred to me the other day, after the umpteenth electronic rejection, that the federal job hiring process is vaguely reminiscent of calling Verizon customer service (i.e. I experienced in each repeated failures to find a way to interact with a human). Say two for new hires. I'm sorry, I didn't understand you. Transferring to main menu. Say two for new hires. I'm sorry, you're not qualified for that menu option. Please call again when you have your doctorate.

I've had some limited success with state job applications. I made it to the interview level for two jobs, only to hear a week later that the jobs are now subject to a temporary hiring freeze that may or may not last the rest of the fiscal year. So it's back to the drawing board. The good news is that, now that my job search is out of the closet, I've had multiple offers to help. It looks like I'm gonna need it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Book Pairer

Today I started the process of sending books back to my distributor. Because I'll be open for almost six more weeks, I still hold out hope for many of the books finding a home here in the community. So these were mostly titles I had multiple copies of, or books that I felt there was insufficient interest in to justify keeping around. It's not like I haven't gone through these exact motions before--culling the herd is a necessary and vital part of keeping a bookstore relevant. This was, however, the first time I'd boxed up a couple of cartons of books with no intention of replacing them on the shelves. And it may be that there are many things more forlorn than a stack of paperbacks whose covers have been stripped waiting to go to book heaven, but I'm hard pressed to think of them right now. There they sit, starkly naked reminders of my inability to pair them with a suitable reader. Failure written all over them, in so many words.

In some sense, I don't feel as if I've failed the community or even myself because this endeavor won't last, but that we have collectively failed the books and the ideas they represent. I know that sounds melodramatically moonbeam-ish, but I've spent most of the day today walking through the shelves as I culled books to send back, making mental notes of my favorites. And every time I come across a book that made me think a little longer and harder about what it means to be human, or helped me understand someone different from me, or transported me to another place or time, I feel the little pang of goodbye. These books, the good ones at least, have souls. As one of my older customers tells me every time he comes in, they're old friends. The Watsons Go To Birmingham is a little sassy, "Seriously? Couldn't you have done a little better by us?" To Kill a Mockingbird cajoles sweetly, "Come on, I've got something important to say and I'm relying on you to get me to the person I need to say it to." The Road, in typical minimalist fashion, grumps, "I trusted you" and lapses back into terse silence.

A very sweet regular customer came in yesterday and thanked me for giving her Garth Stein's The Art Of Racing In the Rain. She and her family had been here a few months ago and had been distraught because they had just put the family dog to sleep. She needed the book, I had the book, so I gave it to her and told her to read it when she felt able and bring it back when she was done. The book's narrator is a whip-smart, witty, wise-souled mutt named Enzo who believes that, once he's learned all there is to learn as a dog, he will be reincarnated as a man. It's a very sweet, well-written story that deals very sensitively with what it means to be human and to have a soul. Anyway, the lady came back yesterday to tell me the rest of HER story. She, herself, had been going into the hospital the next day for treatment of a very serious condition--this on the heels of the poor dead dog. It was almost too much for the family to take. She told me she had been overwhelmed by the simple act of me giving her the book. And I thought, maybe that was why I opened the bookstore in the first place. Maybe it wasn't to build a creative community gathering place or champion literacy or fulfill a childhood dream. Maybe it was because this woman would need this book on this particular spring day, and I needed to be here to pair her up with it. Several months of hard work, a fair amount of stress, a few tears and a couple of buckets of sweat in return for being able to be in the right place at the right time. I think that's a pretty good trade.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Argument For Buying Local

I started reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation yesterday, and, twenty pages in, it already has me thinking about a whole bevvy of issues. In it, Schlosser explores not only the history and make-up of our still burgeoning fast-food industry but, more importantly, what it has done to our cultural landscape. One of the arguments he makes is that the fast food phenomenon has effectively taken the local out of our localities. Through mass production standardization and national (and international) ad saturation, McDonald's et al have created a nation in which an alarmingly high percentage of available food choices wallow in fat-laden sameness from town to town.
Some of this, Schlosser points out, can be attributed to the car-crazy culture that came about as a result of the completion of the coast-to-coast Interstate system during the 1950s. The new transportation paradigm dictated a shift in thinking regarding speed, convenience and cost of food. Gas stations and restaurants sprang up almost overnight to service hungry travelers at exit sites. This, coupled with the increasing tendency in recent years for both parents to work, has created an almost insatiable demand for the kind of cheap, reliable food that fast food restaurants excel in.
What all this has to do with the price of tea in China is this: around the same time the minimum wage pool of workers was growing by leaps and bounds thanks in large part to the explosion of fast food popularity, the world was becoming smaller in many different ways. Lower cost, more reliable international transportation, vastly improved communications networks, unionized labor's consistent demands for higher wages and better benefits, and a less protectionist foreign policy resulted in the gradual outsourcing of virtually all product manufacturing for American consumption. Overseas manufacturers, not subject to the same labor and environmental laws as their American counterparts, essentially bargained American manufacturers out of existence. Large chains with tremendous purchasing power brought in quality goods at low prices from overseas, and small businesses were unable to compete. The average American, struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage or slightly better, saw only the bottom line, and who can really blame him? When faced with the choice of patronizing several local merchants and paying an average of 15-20% more for the family's weekly needs or opting for the one-stop shopping and significant savings of a Walmart, who can blame Joe Q. Public for choosing the latter?
But what is the real cost? At what cost do we continue to short-sightedly sell our country to China and India at the expense of our neighbors? Is it for a $7.99 pair of shorts? A $2.69 gallon of milk? A $150 phone that can tell us where the nearest Walmart is? And what are we doing with all that money we're saving? Assuaging our national guilt by buying bigger houses and more gadgets and the super-sized combo at the drive-thru? There has to be a better way, and there is. It may not be the least expensive or the most convenient way. It takes discipline, commitment and a willingness to see a bigger picture. But not so long ago, back before the Internet and globalization and big box stores, it was the only game in town. It involves people doing business with people. It invokes words like accountability, responsibility, integrity, ANSWERING THE PHONE. It's called buying local. It's not too late. There are still lots of opportunities to try it on, and you just might like the way it feels.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Great New Site

So, I'm not all doom and gloom today. I also wanted to share an outstanding addition to Petersburg's intellectual and cultural landscape in the form of a new website. If you haven't been yet, check out This site was formed by a Petersburg resident to bring "the residents of Petersburg, Virginia any and all news, information, events, and discussions regarding our city." They are accepting websites to link through their main page and plan to advertise local businesses through FREE banner ads in the near future! Email for more information. The site features a main page, an events calendar, a discussion forum and a photo gallery. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook under My Petersburg. I look forward to a revival of lively discussions between local citizens regarding Petersburg's issues and challenges.

Things I Should Know Better Than To Do

When I'm honest with myself, it has always struck me as a strange combination: a bookstore next to a tattoo parlor. But for a long time, I naively thought it would be one of those quirky coincidences commonplace in Petersburg, an idiosyncracy that would, in fact, make it somehow more special. For several months, I shrugged it off when I arrived to find beer cans, empty cigarette packs, discarded food containers, used (yes, used) feminine hygiene products and/or the occasional wrecked car strewn about the parking lot. I may have said a few choice words, but I picked the trash up and wrote it off as the price of owning something used by the public. I lived with the gaggles of tattoo-laden smokers hanging out in the alley cussing a blue streak and apologized to my purse-clenching little old lady customers who braved what they perceived as something of a gauntlet to visit me. I dealt without complaint with the fact that my parking is regularly taken up by tattoo parlor customers who can't park in tattoo parlor parking because there are so many employees and other people who seem to hang out all day WITHOUT pay there. I watched without comment as taxi after taxi full of GIs parked in the driveway to unload and clogged all avenues of traffic flow while they went in to collect their $10 per taxi load reward from the tattoo parlor staff.

Let me digress here for a moment and say that it is not the majority of the folks who frequent the tattoo parlor with whom I have an issue. Most of them are decent, hard-working folks who would no more throw their trash down in the parking lot, as an example, than my average customer. I actually know and like most of their staff, and I do get some cross traffic from their customers, even if the majority of them only come in to get a print out of their desired tattoo.

But today, I'm pissed. A heavyset pair of women just cruised down the driveway in their Pontiac Grand Prix aiming for the choice lower tier of tattoo parlor parking adjacent to the door. When they saw there were no spaces there, rather than hauling their fat but otherwise able bodies back up the hill and parking a little further away, they decided it would be just fine to use my handicapped space. I went out to politely tell them that the space was reserved for handicapped and that if they didn't have a placard or sticker, I would have to ask them to move. One of them muttered something under her breath. I asked her to please repeat it and she reared back and belted out, "I SAID, you ain't doin' no business over here anyway." I stayed calm long enough to tell her that I appreciated the comment but that I would still need them to move the car. She replied that the other woman was "gon' move it." I thanked them both and told them to have a nice day. Then I came inside, went in the back and cussed my own blue streak. I can't say that I was all that angry because of the young woman's sense of entitlement or even the comment itself. I was more angry because I knew it to be true.

So let this be a lesson to anyone out there in cyberspace who is thinking of starting their own business. There are some things that would do well in such a location as mine. You might run a honkeytonk, or a little bistro, an Internet cafe, a laundromat, skateboard shop, a bike and boat shop or even a gym out here in the hinterlands next to the tattoo parlor. You will not do well with a book store, and the attempt will be an exercise in head-banging that will leave you with little more than a headache and a rapidly dwindling bank account.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Would-Be Deerslayer

I don't know if I'll ever understand dogs. Harper Lee is probably the smartest dog I've ever been around, but even she shows no ability to differentiate between a dog biscuit and, say, the flea collar that Dwayne Grubb pulled off her neck only a moment before. We spent Sunday morning in the dog emergency room with a sometimes epileptic dog. Dwayne, as if not to be outdone, would not let us leave him home and insisted on riding along. He suffered a panic attack upon arrival, ducked his collar and ran down the middle of Cary Street for a few minutes before I corralled him and put him back in the car. We ended up spending a few hours and a hundred dollars for the folks at the emergency clinic to tell us, essentially, that they wanted to keep Harper overnight and make her poop.

By this time, Harper was fully alert and acting as if she had not swallowed an unspecified amount of neurotoxin the afternoon before. So, after much deliberation, we decided to take her home and keep a close watch on her. Long story shorter, she had a couple more mild episodes before puking up a big ball of rubberized plastic and getting back to normal. She was more tired than usual that night, but showed no more ill effects.

Fast forward to the next day, yesterday afternoon. We were deep in the swampy recesses of the Appomattox River Trail, picking off scores of ticks and scuffling through the fourth or fifth mile, when the bookstore dog picked up a trail. There ensued a chase scene that would have made Natty Bumppo proud. Harper Lee, fully recovered canine athlete that she was, had scared up a baby deer and was hard on its heels as it emitted the most pitiful, panicked bleating sound I've ever heard. Harper has chased adult deer before, thankfully without success, and we know from experience that we kind of just have to let those chases run their course. She eventually tires of it and comes back empty-pawed and contrite. But this one, we saw, and it was just a baby. Harper was about a foot behind its heels, and the forest was filled with the desperate cries of an animal fighting for its life. All of this conspired to chase away what little bit of prudence I normally have and send me crashing off through the snake-laden underbrush in an all-out attempt to get there before the worst happened. Harper barked excitedly, the deer bleated, Dwayne Grubb ran in bumbling circles trying to track. Beth yelled at me to stop running in deference to my trick back. Suddenly, it seemed all kinds of animals and people were thrashing around in the undergrowth. Then, it stopped.

There we stood: muddy, scratched up, gasping for breath, filled with the worst possible feeling of sick dread. I managed to get a leash on Dwayne Grubb (he's not much of a tracker, and circled too close to me one time). We called Harper repeatedly, started first one way, then the other, and then resigned ourselves to impotently pulling ticks off until she finally trotted back up, some ten minutes later. There were no signs of blood on her, so we could only assume the deer made it to the river and got away. I could have cried with relief. I understand instincts, I get that dogs were domesticated by man and that their wild ancestry tells them to hunt and kill and eat. I am not a vegetarian. I fish. I don't hunt, but I don't begrudge people who do and eat what they take their hobby or way of life. But a cerebral understanding of all that is a far cry from the immediacy of yesterday afternoon in the Appomattox River woods. I'm not sure I could have welcomed Harper back, walked with her, pulled ticks off her on the way home, if she'd come back with that little deer's blood on her muzzle. Thankfully, I didn't have to find out.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Who Is Renting These Places?

I just read on the Petersburg People's News site that developer Thomas Wilkinson is proposing to develop the industrial property at the corner of Market and Hinton into up to 120 conventional one and two bedroom apartments, with projected rents of $700-$1100. And I had to wonder, is this a case of the if you build it they will come mentality? Permit me a little skepticism. $1100 a month? For a two-bedroom apartment? In Petersburg? Blink. I've rented a house in Virginia Beach for less, and that didn't even include a bonus daily encounter in the parking lot with, alternately, my choice of itinerant panhandler or fake-gun-wielding man in a dress.

This set me to doing a little impromptu research. This is certainly not the first of such projects proposed, nor will it be even close to first completed. You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting the speculator du jour in the mouth while he's spouting details of the latest development scheme. Mayton Transfer boasts 100 apartments, renting for between $800 and $1600 a month. Then there are South Street Lofts and High Street Lofts and Dunlop Street Lofts, oh my! It appears the going rate for all these several hundred luxury lofts within the confines of one of the poorest cities in Virginia is in the range of $900-1400. SOMEBODY with a large amount of disposable income is renting these places. According to South Street's website, there are only two vacant apartments in their complex. So I dug around on some of these developments' sites to try to find the pool from which they draw their renters (I obviously am missing the boat on this), and what struck me was this: Boy do these places sound like they're in another town! To a one, the "neighborhood" sections of the websites include only the best areas of town (not a single one has pictures of their actual surroundings, opting instead for the more aesthetically appealing Court House, Pamplin Park, Folly Castle (the aerial view), the proposed Visitor's Center, etc. I'm all for putting a positive face on the city, but when Pamplin Park is in the same neighborhood as the Dunlop Street Lofts, I'll strike it rich running the bookstore in Petersburg!

In fairness to the loft developers, these apartments, as restored, are undeniably works of art. They boast hardwood floors, high ceilings, exposed brickwork, open floor plans. The list of amenities is impressive, and some utilities are included at some sites. And, all of the sites mentioned within the context of this blog actually have gated parking lots. So an encounter such as the one I alluded to in my first paragraph is unlikely. But I find myself wondering, how much protection is a fence when the predominant threat is a stray bullet from the surrounding blighted 'hood? And why are service members from out of state signing up for these places, sometimes sight unseen, without a little more truth in advertising from the complexes? Is it because the developers understand that, in real estate, location is everything? And if they showed their diamonds in the rough as they really are, potential renters might not be able to see the pretty new trees for the surrounding tangled forest? Is it also just possible that some of the money and energy being spent to wall these high end, palatial developments off from their surroundings might better be used pursuing improvement of the city at large?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Liberty" U.

Heavy-handed tactics. Censorship. Suppression of dissension. Refusal to recognize legitimate political organizations whose ideals are different from their own. Sound like something snatched out of news headlines about the oppressive government of a distant land? Maybe the junta in Myanmar, one of the last Communist bastions of China, perhaps? Try the administration of the ironically named Liberty University, right here in Lynchburg, VA.

This week, the College Democrats club at Liberty U was informed via email that their recognition as a university organization was no more. They were, for all intents and purposes, told "their kind" wasn't welcome on campus. Reasons cited included the national Democratic party's support of abortion, socialism and the "LGBT agenda," referring to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. The email went on to say that, even though the campus club "may not support the more radical planks of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is still the parent organization of the club on campus."

I fully understand that Liberty University is a private school, funded by private money and, as such, has every right to control what organizations it allows to operate under its purview. I can see why the right-wing religious contingent might not sanction a Young Satanists chapter, for example. But, seriously? One of this country's two major political parties? You can't find room at the table of brotherly love for a healthy debate with the party that represented almost 60% of your countrymen's views last fall? Hmm. This kind of insular, head-in-the-sand approach is exactly what a university education is supposed to prevent. Hopefully, by the time a young person has attended four years of college, he or she at least understands and respects opposing viewpoints and is, subsequently, more grounded in what he or she believes. The fact that this university is trying to prevent student exposure to viewpoints that don't coincide with its neo-conservative social agenda is problematic on many levels. It smacks of Big Brother protectionism at best, brainwashing at worst.

Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr, apparently channeling his father who once famously said, "Textbooks are Soviet propaganda," among hundreds of other gems, cited "lots of complaints from parents and donors" about the club in a statement to the Associated Press. He went on to say that he hopes these "great Christian kids" find a pro-life and pro-family Democratic organization "so they can become endorsed." In other words, he hopes that they come to their senses and form a campus organization that is an elephant in a donkey suit. Preferably one whose idea of free speech happens to coincide with the neo-conservative ideal of, "He who is not for me, is against me." It is a mindset that is at once McCarthyist, xenophobic and virulent in its protection of its socially conservative morays. It seems that campus officials have decided to suppress one viewpoint out of fear that the young, impressionable students might not be able to choose the "right" path, when actually given a choice. I have to ask, what are you so afraid of? Liberty means "the right to act, believe or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing." At Liberty U., there's an asterisk beside the word. The fine print reads, "as long as that coincides with what we want you to believe and do."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Khaki Sausage

This week, I finally got my orders to report for Navy Reserve duty this upcoming weekend. Last night was my moment of reckoning: the first attempt to pull on the old military uniform in over a year. The result was not pretty. Picture a lumpy, stubby sausage crammed into a khaki case, with hair. A fair amount of sucking in and reconfiguring was required for buttoning and zipping the pants. Sweat stood out on my brow as I cinched the waistline and tried to breathe with everything fastened. This clearly would not do. I could not report for the beginning of a new phase of my career with my uniform molded around my ass like one of those spray-on pick-up bedliners. The despair drove me to change into workout gear and go for the second run of the day. As I ran, I tried to conjure a scenario in which I could somehow buy a pair of pants from the Norfolk Navy Exchange (the closest Navy uniform facility) AND get them hemmed and pressed before Saturday morning. There were two possibilities: contact a friend with whom I've spoken maybe once in the past six months and impose on her good nature, then take the sewing kit down there and hem them myself by the midnight candle Friday night. OR, I could drive down this morning before opening time for my store, somehow finagle my way into the Exchange without a military ID to buy a pair, drive back and take the pants directly over to the military tailors on Rt 36 and slip them a twenty to put my crap ahead of the soldiers already in line for expedited service. Neither of these scenarios seemed particularly practical.

I'll be the first to admit that I have only myself to blame. Having been raised in the Deep (fried) South, I know I'm genetically predisposed to the tiniest amounts of sugar and fried food addiction. Knowing this, I could have exercised a little self-control, maybe pushed back from the feeding trough OCCASIONALLY. I could have started the workout program sooner. I could have tried the %*#& pants on before three days prior to D-day. None of this was a consideration before Wednesday night. So now I've had to get draconian. I've put myself on a Biggest Loser-esque regimen of two-a-day workouts and a scant 1,000 calories a day. I just had salad for lunch with half a can of tuna spread on it, the tease of a tablespoon of light salad dressing drizzled over it. For breakfast, it was an egg, nothing added, and a banana. This makes THE PROGRAM weight loss scheme from last year look like a hedonistic splurge in Vegas in comparison. It seems to be working--already the pants feel less medieval torture device-ish. But, oh, the humanity! I'm left staring forlornly at the carrot sticks I picked out for a mid-afternoon snack and wondering where my metabolism went.

The Eleventh Commandment?

Thou shalt not circulate virulent chain emails filled with lies and half-truths in the name of furthering your political agenda.

My mother and I went round and round about this during the lead-up to the election. I was, and still am, a staunch Obama supporter; she and many of her correspondents believe he lies somewhere between the Soviet Union and the anti-Christ on the continuum of evil popularized by Dick Cheney, et al. The last couple of months before November's election, the volume and level of sheer nastiness spewed across cyberspace reached a fevered pitch. I couldn't open my email inbox without having my senses assailed by the latest claim associating Obama with terrorism, flag burning and the advocacy of baby killing and doing away with Sunday newspaper coupons. At first, I tried to point out the inconsistencies within these missives, tried to get my mother (who is a smart woman) to apply reason or, at least, Google. I sent her links to or, better yet, to sites where the sources refuted the doctored versions of their ideology kidnapped by the religious right for the alleged greater good. But she took that as the devil quoting scripture for his purposes, and we finally reached an uneasy truce only when the propaganda machine that produces these things wound down, dispirited, after the election.

But now it's back, and revved up. The doomsday predictions from before the election must now be substantiated through a renewed email smear campaign. The latest product can be found in my yahoo inbox, or here: The gist of this one is that it compares our current sociopolitical landscape with 1930's Germany and, you guessed it, President Obama with Hitler. That's right, all the leading eggheads in the country believe we're headed for Naziism. If you don't believe me, read your Revelations. This one is spreading faster than a juicy rumor via the 21st century version of the church phone tree: the email distribution list. The M.O. for these things is always the same: attach some official sounding credentials--maybe a picture--and a shaky attribution. Run spell check and, quick, get it in the hands of those legions of the neoconservative movement who are interested in it only insofar as it confirms their worldview. The alleged author's refutation can be found here:

I can't help but wonder in all this: what would Jesus do? Why is it that the religious right in this country, seemingly so anxious to create a theocracy with Christianity at its center, regularly disregards the very core tenets of Christianity? Or was that little admonition not to lie only applicable when it's politically expedient?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Morning After The Anniversary

This morning, I'm dealing with the aftermath of our Giant Hootenanny Paper Anniversary Customer Appreciation Poulon Weedeater One Year Anniversary Party. It was more wonderful than I could have hoped. It was a gathering of the best possible combination of smart, literate, funny friends and well wishers. It left me with a certain level of disarray in the store and a bout of the kind of torpor that comes from working at a frenzied pace to pull a big event together and then having it come and go.

It strikes me that this 24 hour period is fairly typical of the reason a move must be imminent. Last night, the store was full of people and music, life and activity. People were eating and talking, grooving to the music, running around with their little scavenger hunt sheets in hand, gloating over door prizes. This morning, the inevitable letdown of, welcome back baby, to the po' side of town. No money coming in. Bills in the mail. Tattoo parlor bursting at the seams, book store not so much. The combination of these factors, along with the introspective affliction that strikes me around any anniversary, have thrown me into a strange mood. Be forewarned. This will be some indication: I decided almost subconsciously I'm in a vintage country state of mind and have been listening to George Strait on auto play for over three hours.

This morning, unlike most second Saturdays in which the town sleeps off its collective Friday For the Arts hangover, I had several people in and out. A lady from the library dropped off a book that had been delivered to them by mistake. Another lady came by and picked the book up (she had paid for it in anticipation of the dropoff). A woman who works at one of the local antiques places stopped by to kill time because their business was also dreadfully slow. The merchant organization secretary dropped in to confirm some information. And a woman came in with her young daughter while the husband kept an eagle eye peeled on the tattoo parlor door for any sign of opening. There's kind of a rock concert flavor to the parking lot sometimes. People start showing up an hour or so before the tattoo place opens, and then they tailgate and jockey around for position until the staff throws open the gates and starts handing out numbers. Sometimes the would-be ink-ees go in search of food or a bathroom, while the designated anchor man holds down their place. This particular family showed up at 11:55 for a 1 p.m. opening, the better to be first in line. I watched them run through the standard routine of: check the door (locked), look at their watches, gaze bewilderedly up at the sun, check the hours sign, try the door again (still locked), check the second entrance (also, if you can believe it, locked) and finally resign themselves to the fact that the place was, indeed, still closed. They sat in the car for a few minutes, got out and smoked, walked down the alley and back and finally, the woman brought the kid (who had been staring in this direction since they arrived) in my store.

The kid reminded me of myself at 10 years old--beside herself with excitement at being in a bookstore, exclaiming over title after title, begging her mother to let her get a book. The answer? "You should have brought one from home if you wanted something to read." This woman had dragged her kid out on a Saturday morning to hang out with her for a couple of hours at Petersburg Ink. She was about to drop a couple hundred bucks for a new dragon in a bed of roses tattoo (this is a guess based on historical precedent) but couldn't find $2.50 in the budget for a used kids' book. It's not like the kid was begging for the latest shoot-em-up video game. At any rate, the man called the woman on her cell phone from across the parking lot to tell her that the doors were open, and that was the end of the kid's bookstore excursion.

The same little family JUST left the tattoo parlor and piled back in their car, the kid still staring forlornly in my direction. They were there for over 3 1/2 hours. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to just give the kid a book. It wouldn't have changed anything substantial, but it might have made us both feel better. In that same span of time, I've made exactly $38 in sales and seen over forty people enter the tattoo parlor. In keeping with my nostalgic music theme: We gotta get out of this place.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Selling Houses In the HGTV Era

God save us from the current real estate market. We have just been through the purgatory of what those in the biz and, thanks to HGTV, millions of others now call "staging" a house for sale. If you've not had the pleasure, take it from me: it is the housing equivalent of girdle wearing--of squeezing your protesting, cellulite pocked, middle-aged ass into that pair of pants that were made for the version of you that was two sizes and two decades ago. Only in this case, you're actually doing everything you can to make things look BIGGER, and it's your stuff that's bloated and out of control instead of your gutbuttthigh corridor.

This past weekend was the yard sale on Saturday, frantic preparation Sat night, and an open house on Sunday. In preparation, we frantically removed all the trash from the trash cans, took down all the pictures from the walls, removed all traces of personal memorabilia (read, liquor bottles--that was all that was left from the last round of showings) from the house. We cut fresh flowers, carefully removed all evidence of pet habitation. We trimmed the hedges and weed-whacked. We lit candles and put on soft music. We baked cookies. Well, okay, WE didn't bake cookies, but the realtor manning the open house did. In the end, I couldn't tell if we were trying to seduce the people, or sell them a house. I guess it was a little of both.

This is what people have come to expect. They want fresh paint and curb appeal. They want spacious bedrooms, grandiose baths, amenities, pristine yards, quiet neighborhoods, home warranties. They want guarantees. They want instant access on multiple occasions to see how the light looks in the living room. They want to shop around, and then shop around some more and then come back to the places they originally visited to compare notes. As exhausting as it is to get up every morning and make the bed, pick up all the dog toys that have been strewn about the living room, keep the dishes washed and the clothes put away and the shades at that precise angle that allows the most light to penetrate--as tiresome as it is to have to remember to hide the sweaty workout clothes and keep the cat litter and dog hair swept up, it must be that much more so for the poor realtors. It's like having Leona Helmsley as a client, every time. They are wanted, they have power, and they know they can afford to be high maintenance. HGTV has created a generation of real estate monsters, and some of them will be looking at the house this weekend.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Still Gullible, After All These Years

File this one under the category of I can't believe I didn't know better. Apparently, the scam du jour in Petersburg is to make the rounds of the local businesses, telling the proprietors a sob story of the teller's recent release from incarceration out of state. Of the recent, lonely, dusty bus trip down as far south as he could afford, to The Burg to make a new start. Stop me if you've heard this one.

A young fellow came by the other day and gave me his version. It was actually the second recently incarcerated story I'd heard, which should have sounded some warning bells. But he was clean cut, neat, well-spoken, normal looking. He introduced himself with a handshake, came in and looked around for a minute, then left without buying anything or making any demands. I took him at face value, thinking that Petersburg, with its double the state's unemployment rate, was one heck of a place to pick to make a new start, but whatever. I wished him well, and he went on his way. A couple of weeks later, right after I opened that morning, he was back. He was trying to get on his feet and, cue the foot shuffling embarrassment, he hated to have to ask, but he had just gotten a job and a car, and lo and behold, he knew he shouldn't have parked it there, but, golly gee it was an honest mistake. It was towed. And he was short a very specific $17 to get it out of hock. He was exceptionally polite and earnest. He was deferential and respectful and willing to work for the money. He was also full of shit. I put him to work weed-eating in the mass of weeds that is my parking lot. Five minutes later, the weed whacker was conveniently out of string. I couldn't leave the store to go get more, so I told him he'd have to come back the next day. But he had to get his car out of impound today, he whined, or it was going to cost him an extra $25, which he, of course, wouldn't have. So I gave him $20, took and verified his phone number and told him to come back the next day to finish up. See it coming? It's like a horror movie. Groan now, and brace for gratuitous predictability. Of course, he didn't show up the next day, and he was unreachable by phone. I finally got ahold of him yesterday and told him I was bringing the weed whacker in today and expected him to come do his job. He showed up today, but because it had sprinkled a few drops and was threatening to rain more, begged off until tomorrow.

I had told this story earlier this week to my friend who is a fellow business owner here in Petersburg. Interestingly, she had already made the young man's acquaintance. He had insinuated himself into her business by asking to use the bathroom a couple of times, telling his prison story in the process. Today, she called me with a crazy happenstance. Mike came by and told her his car was towed again last night! He needed $18 from my friend to get it out of hock! Can you believe the coincidence? I can't. Especially since I've been in this downtown every day for over a year and have yet to see anything resembling parking violation enforcement.

So, shame on me. I've been all over the world and half of Georgia, and I still can't tell when I'm being had. But these kinds of incidents always lead me to wonder--is it better to be cynical and undupeable? Or is it better to trust and believe the best about our fellow humans, in spite of repeated incidents of evidence to the contrary? I have a theory called the Theory of Universal Justice. It states very simply that people DO get what they deserve, whether good or bad. We may not get to see it, but it happens every day. We don't get to be in charge of that, so we might as well not get our drawers in a wad about it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Sinatra Garden

As I've previously written, I plan to move the store to a more visible location as soon as I'm able to sell this building. So logic dictates that I don't spend a bunch of (okay, any) money on physical improvements at the store at the moment. This makes sense to me on a cerebral level. On a more visceral level, I decided a few days ago that I can no longer take driving up to the industrial wasteland of my storefront. I can live with the fact that there are bald spots around the door from my last ill-advised attempt at decorating (duct tape was involved). I can handle that the bathroom has all the monotone personality of Ben Stein. I can deal with the dust bowl of the adjacent parking lot...well, on most days. I cannot take the bland wilderness of white grass and weeds staring at me as I walk down the hill to start my day of bookselling. So this past week, I planted the Sinatra Memorial Garden in the front center flower bed. I call it that because, if those plants can make it there, they're gonna make it anywhere. In spite of a solid couple of months of strenuous preparation last summer, the bed remains a curious hodgepodge of dirt, rock, peat and old car parts. Couple this with my general tendency to mess up anything green that requires the remotest level of care, and we may have herbal homicide before the summer. The petunias are already looking mighty peaked. If they come back around, I'll post some pictures.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Subject of My Latest Rant: Piracy

Anyone who has been breathing air for the past couple of weeks now knows that there is an epidemic of modern-day piracy off the coast of Somalia. Anyone who has been there knows that this is not new. Pirates have been operating with impunity in the lawless waters off the Horn of Africa for many years. It's only with the seizure of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama with its all-American crew that the problem has blipped onto our national radar scope. Cue the knee-jerk response, preferably one flavored with a gunslinger mentality more suited to the wild west. The sleeping giant of national righteous indignation has awakened and, boy, is he mad! He's slobbering, lashing out, ranting. I can't BELIEVE the most powerful Navy in the world can't stop a few third-rate thugs in dinghies with outboard motors. We've got Aegis missile destroyers on station, helicopters, large caliber guns, hundreds of sailors and special forces operators. They've got a couple of RPGs and machine guns in boats that are barely seaworthy, and we can't take 'em out? Jesus H. Christ. It makes me wish for George W. Bush. I may be putting a few words in his mouth.

Ironically, it was on Bush's watch that the problem grew to these proportions. That's not to say it's his fault. He certainly had more than enough on his plate to keep him busy. When the city is burning around them, most folks don't worry about what color to paint the living room. But now that we've had our attention grabbed: Piracy off the Horn of Africa is a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-pronged approach to solve. I've talked with a lot of people recently who can't get their brains around why the U.S., in particular, can't do something about it. But here's the thing, Somalia's coast line is approximately the same length as the eastern seaboard of the United States. Unclassified source documentation has chronicled attacks over 300 nautical miles from the Somali coast. Do the multiplication, and you have several thousand square miles that would need to be patrolled consistently to even make a dent in the pirates' habits. Even if a merchant ship can get a call out to a patrolling warship on VHF radio, there are a couple of problems with that as well. 1) the warship would have to be within 20-30 miles to even hear the distress call and 2) they'd have to be considerably closer than that to do anything about it in a timely manner. Add all this to the chameleon acts of the pirates themselves (the same guys who were pirates on one outing may have been fishermen on the last one, and may well be fishermen again on the next one), and you have a real time-distance problem. Somalia is the end of the food chain logistically, so any military action is complicated by replenishment and basing issues. A couple of years ago, shipping authorities responded to the increased piracy threat by issuing warnings to stay at least 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates responded to this by working out a new tactic that enables them to reach ships further from the coast. Then there's the minor inconvenience that most of the ships that have been hijacked recently have been BOUND for Somalia, which also makes it difficult to stay well off the coast. All that to say this: If Iraq didn't teach us anything else, it should have taught us that military action is not the end all, be all. Without the creation of a strong central government, without proactive engagement on the land side, without an economic strategy that brings Somalis out of the abject poverty that makes piracy so attractive, nothing done on the sea will have much effect. It's a big problem that, so far, has not been deemed worth pursuing. A few million paid out by shipping companies to get their ships and crews back unharmed has been considered the price of sailing the seas off of Somalia. Now the ante has been upped. It will be interesting to see how, and indeed if, the new administration responds to the groggy giant of national consciousness.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Occupational Hazards

When I got out of the military and opened the bookstore, I thought my days of living dangerously were over. I reflected with gratitude that I had survived brushes with ebola, Hezbollah and Saddam Hussein to embrace the bookish, professorial lifestyle of a book maven. I thought the worst hazard of this job would be an occasional papercut. Oh, to have the halcyon days of pre-bookstore naivete back.
Last weekend, I cleaned up after my first toilet accident. I don't mean the toilet overflowed. If you've followed this blog from back in the Myspace days, you know we should be (knock on wood) immune from that for quite some time. I mean, yes, worst case scenario--activate the hazardous materials response team. Well, it just so happens that like most other titles associated with this business, I am also captain and sole member of the Hazmat response team. You might think that a bookstore is a strange place to have any need for a Hazmat response team. You might think this a more likely scenario in a bar, or even a restaurant. At 11 am last Saturday, I would have thought the same. At 12, I was dry heaving and cleaning up the big nasty. An elderly gentleman had apparently taken the military slang name for the trash can literally and relieved himself all over it and the surrounding area, and with a most unfortunate constitution to boot. I'm not telling this story to put his business out there. I know he didn't know what he was doing and, more than anything, I felt great empathy for him. But the younger woman who was with him, who went in there after him and made only a single swipe at the mess before heading for the hills, now she could have done a little better by the old KBster. As embarrassing as it would have been, if she didn't want to or couldn't clean it up herself, she might have at least told me and spared me the ten minutes of wandering around the shop, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from (and worrying in the back of my mind that, somehow, my sewer problems were back). Regardless, there I was, alone in the shop, and the buck stopped with me. So I worked through it. Unfortunately, I had also had a few drinks the night before, so it was doubly painful. I managed to avoid adding to the mess, but just barely. Fast forward a week...

This morning, I came in early to sweep and mop the store. Because I'm situated next to the Dust Bowl (the tattoo parlor parking lot is unpaved--a combination of gravel, dirt and trash), this is a fairly frequent occurrence that I've pretty much gotten down to a science. So I finished that up in short order and went out on my deck that juts out over the creek out back to give it some much needed attention. I noticed that I had some impressive weeds growing from the wall at one end, an eyesore my patrons surely did not need to see as they sat out and enjoyed their coffee and the sound of running water. Tree hugger that I am, I dismissed the idea of coming inside and grabbing my herbicidal sprayer. I congratulated myself on my environmental stewardship, crouched down to reach through my wrought iron railing and commenced to pulling weeds. First one, no problem. Second one, cool. Third one, oh my God, is that a snake? I won't keep you in suspense. It was. A little juvenile SOMETHING coiled up tight under what had formerly been its private green room. My mind always goes to worst case scenario, so naturally whatever it actually was became the meanest individual of a poisonous species lying in wait. So the strange blend of National Geographic, Man vs Wild and the Crocodile Hunter started playing in my head. Yep, the juveniles, they're always the meanest ones too. Blimey! He's a beaut! Their venom is concentrated because they don't know how to control the dosage. He has a small mouth, but he could bite me in the space between my fingers and kill me! Oh Lord, what to do? I don't want to hurt him--he's a beaut aint he?--but one wrong move and... So I ended up taking an ashtray off a nearby table and carefully raking him into the creek below. I watched him swim off before shakily retreating to the store to retrieve my herbicide sprayer. I love all of nature but, hell, it ain't worth DYING over.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Here's My Sign

One of the more tedious aspects to my current situation is that everyone who reads the gaudy For Sale sign out front with the Business Relocating attachment comes in and asks the obvious question of where the business is relocating TO. Well-intentioned people who aren't satisfied with my stock answer of shrug/"Don't know yet" will ask further questions that proceed inevitably down the same line, and I invariably give up little chunks on information at a time, until I run through the same spiel several times a day of, "Well, I have to sell this building first and then see what's available. I can't afford to pay a mortgage and rent at the same time. I'm looking for a place out toward the main drag, where I can have better visibility and some foot traffic. Probably somewhere on Sycamore St." After several dozen cycles of lather, rinse, repeat, this has almost become verbatim phraseology...and a Pavlovian response. I hear chimes (like the ones that jangle when someone opens my door) and automatically launch into it. I'm thinking of recording it and just hitting play when someone walks in. Or posting a sign on the door. Or wearing one around my neck like the little bus-shaped signs the kindergarten teacher hung around your neck with yarn that reminded you of which bus to get on, in case you forgot. I'm brainstorming here.
Not that I'm complaining. Okay, yes I am. But I at least recognize that I shouldn't be complaining. That counts for something, right? What is a blog, really, except a personal electronic bully pulpit? If I really wanted to complain about something, I should raise hell about the fact that, with the warmer spring weather, has come a return of Crap Alley. I picked up one fresh pile not four feet away from my Dog Relief Station the other, only to step in another fresh pile buried in a pile of weeds. I finished weedeating, left that pair of shoes on top of my trunk to air out, forgot them and only remembered when I looked up to see only one of the pair in my rearview mirror. I retrieved the other one from the middle of Sycamore Street. But I digress. I wish I could say the question and answer scenario plays out several hundred times a day, because that would mean several hundred people are walking in the door (or that I'm on reality television). But the fact that I haven't yet had to make a sign is further testament to the fact that I need to relocate.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

First, Kill Yourself

I am bone tired of the seemingly constant stream of malcontents who go on shooting sprees because their girlfriend left them, or they got fired from the meat packing plant and their Dungeons and Dragons group kicked them out on the same day. I am exhausted with a society that keeps churning out members who think of lives, theirs and others', as a cheap medium for making a personal statement. To those who think that violence will finally free you from a life that is disproportionately harder than everyone else's, that shooting multiple someones will quell your anger at the world and give you the power no one has yet bestowed upon you, I say this. How about doing what the rest of the world does when faced with a crisis? GET OVER IT. Ask for the help you need, talk to someone, pop off a few rounds at some beer cans, hammer a couple hundred nails into scrap wood, take up an exercise regimen, whatever! Stop wallowing in the idea that your particular set of woe-is-me's are any worse than anyone else's, or that your latest bout with mediocrity entitles you to anything other than dusting yourself off and trying again. This is a novel approach for a professed liberal, I know, that of individual responsibility. And I'm not so naive as to not understand that most folks who are prone to violent rampages lack some critical coping mechanism to deal as the rest of the world does with disappointment and despair. So here's the corollary to the "deal with it" maxim. If your life is so hopeless, so miserable that you don't have any belief in redemption, if you are so sick of everything and so angry because no one in the world understands you, if you cannot face that you're no longer the high scorer in HALO or that you were picked on in 9th grade for not having the right kind of tennis shoes; rather than go out and indiscriminately spray bullets at a bunch of innocent people, and then end with yourself, try this. Show a little courage. START with yourself. Shoot yourself at point blank range in the head. This is all but guaranteed to cure any urge you have to shoot someone else.

Before anyone thinks I've lost what little stability I had before, I don't normally advocate suicide, even if it's for the greater good. And I don't really think what I ranted about in the first paragraph is the answer. But I'm so angry about the blame game and the recurring mantra of questions around these incidents that are never adequately answered. Alabama, Michigan, Colorado, Germany, Arkansas. The accents are different, the questions are always the same. How could this happen? Someone should have known. Someone should have done a background check at the gun show. Why didn't the teacher who read the fiction story he wrote in 2006 see that it was a cry for help? The National Rifle Association, it's their fault--assault rifles are the root cause of all this! Please. This is not a gun control problem. This is a society control problem. This is the function of a couple of generations of people who have been raised by electronic surrogates that are violent and desensitizing instead of parents who are involved and unafraid. This is the function of absentee authority figures and even more absent moral codes. When one of these incidents goes down, the scene is always the same, instant saturation news coverage, constant images of the shocked townspeople who can't believe that quiet guy could do this. We're outraged, we're least for a few minutes. We pound our fists and demand that someone be brought to justice. We content ourselves with burying the dead and looking for clues in hindsight. Maybe we scratch around in the trailer dirt and figure out the specific string of triggers that set our latest shooter off. We are missing the big picture and missing the point. We never get down to cause and effect. To do that would require holding a mirror up to ourselves, and that has never been this country's strong suit. Instead, we shake our heads in disbelief, shudder a little as we run off to the next obligation. Meanwhile the kids take the shooting game off pause and "kill a few more guys."

Catulence and Dog Nation

I always said when I was younger that if I ever got out of that animal-hating, penny-pinching, cleanliness-obsessed house where I was raised, I would have a whole HOUSEFUL of animals when I grew up. Well, I'm all grown up, and I do have a house full of animalia...and a new appreciation for why my mother always resisted my efforts to populate the house with every stray thing that wandered up.

Typical morning: I get up and start getting ready to exercise, almost stepping in a hairball puke pile on the way to the bathroom. Now anybody who has dogs knows that this is not really a problem. You call the pile to the attention of one or both of them and, HOOVER, problem solved. Except that they aren't having any part of this particular pile, probably because The Bug (our girl cat) always makes it a point to find the one narrow strip of carpet in the house and puke all over it, rather than the nice, easily cleaned hardwood that covers 99% of the floor. So far, I'm taking it in stride. I clean it up, get my tennis shoes and running stuff on, go downstairs, and find that the cats have gone off their litter. Little SPCA veterans that they are, they steadfastly resist any effort to refine their tastes to a more gucci (read, less disgusting to the primary pooper scooper--me) version of litter and can only be coaxed to pee and crap in a litter box filled with the most vilely cheap and dust contaminating stuff ever known to clog an air conditioning filter. They have also recently adopted a policy of refusing to drink after the dogs, preferring instead to alternately drink from the tub, toilet or any glass that is left uncovered. Let's just say, for example, that I forget and leave the bathroom door closed. Catulence, as the two cats are collectively known, has no qualms about breaking a glass to get to the inch of water left at the bottom. But I digress. Now that I have my running stuff on, the girl half of Dog Nation, as the dogs are collectively known, thinks she's going on a walk, so she's apoplectic. She's thrashing around like she's lost all sense of muscle control and spatial perception. The boy dog, whose given name is Tucker but who we call Dwayne Grubb, couldn't care less about going for a walk or anything else that involves a leash. So I thrust Harper, the girl dog out the door long enough to put his electronic transmitter collar on him before I saddle Harper up with her harness for a run. I'm just hitting my stride when I hear the clicking of toenails behind me. I should stop here and explain why Tucker is also known as Dwayne Grubb. It's because he's an old country good-ole-boy dog, who looks like he ought to be wearing a grimy John Deere cap and slugging a Budweiser while simultaneously working over a plug of Red Man. In short, he's a good fellow, the kind that if he were human, would throw his shoulder out a la Tim McGraw trying to win you a teddy bear at the fair, but he ain't the sharpest tool in the shed. He will not ever be called a pretty dog. The best way to describe him is he's kind of a dog centaur: he has a torso that is at least as long as his legs and it's all the same width from his chest to his neck, all the way up to his preternaturally large dog head. So he's clicking along behind me, unnaturally large head swaying dody-do, to and fro. And he doesn't have any interest in going back to the yard, especially since he's made his break, and I dont have a leash to use on him. Finally I manage to corral him by his transmitter collar and drag him back to the yard, along with Harper, who is pissed because she was short-changed on her run. By this point, I am late in my morning schedule, and I haven't even had a run, although I HAVE had a workout of sorts. Fast forward to the part of the morning "routine" where I leave.

Now, Dwayne Grubb spent the first 7 months of his life in a 10 x 10 kennel so when he became a house dog, it wasn't just country come to town, it was country come to a whole other country. Ole Dwayne has gotten used to the lap of luxury and no longer feels the call of the wild (or the outside). To the tune of, once he hears me making motions to leave, he trots his happy butt upstairs and lies down on the dog bed. No amount of coaxing, cajoling or threatening will get him up and out the front door. So I end up picking his 55 pound ass up and hauling it down the stairs and outside via the side door. Then I quickly grab my stuff, cursing because I'm late, open up the front door, and there he is. If I'm lucky and quick, I make it out before he scoots in past me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

313 Troy Street

313 Troy Street

I don't know how to commemorate a life
except to show a snapshot of it
exactly the way it was
at some point in time
or, at least, exactly the way I remember
The poets say to be concrete, specific.
So I've turned my lens to their house
that weathered old nondescript place
across the street from the mill
I've tasted peanut dust and machinery hum
in mid-summer afternoon haze
watched a little white-haired woman
brush off the porch with a sage broom,
cuss horse flies under her breath.

I have racked my brain for details
I have gotten most of them wrong
The color of the carpet is fuzzy
I do not remember the neighbor at 311
the wall where the deer heads were
blurred subjects of yellowed pictures
or the yawning black maw of the fireplace.
But this much is vivid and true
and bathed in blazing technicolor:
There lived in that little old house
the greatest love story I've ever known.

I was fourteen, an eye-rolling know it all
when Granny told the story of their first date
the bumbling bumpy ride to Snellgrove's Mill
the dashing, daring figure he cut
when he dove headlong from the bridge.
I imagined the girlish squeal, the flood of relief
when his head popped up, turtle like
far below.
She said she could have killed him
instead they were married
for more than fifty years
clinging together through
poor and crumb-scraping poor
through ruddy health and the last stages
of time-shifter disease
and everything in between.

This, I believe, is where she is now.
They are on their first date
young and strong and beautiful
She has leaped off the bridge to join him
without fear or pain or hesitation.
He is waiting
and the water is fine.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Writing For Granny

There is probably nothing harder than writing a poem on demand. As one who has sat in the seedy dive bar of my poetic thoughts with the three ton elephant of a love's birthday breathing down my neck, I felt sorry for Elizabeth Alexander. You remember her, the Yale professor who was tapped to commemorate Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African-American President? How could she possibly come up with anything to say that was more profound than the moment itself? It couldn't have helped that she was writing it for probably the finest orator of his generation. Poor, poor Maya Angelou, who broke a 30 year moratorium on poets by performing a piece she wrote for the event at silver-tongued Bill Clinton's inauguration. No pressure there. And Robert Frost, who not only had the difficult task of writing something for Mr. Ask-Not-What-Your-Country-Can-Do-For-You, but then he lost half his pages in a gusting wind and had to wing a different poem from memory. By all accounts, the winged poem was better than its more pedestrian counterpart.

My sister sent me a terse little email about three weeks ago that said only, "Granny is not doing well. Machelle (our aunt) asked me to contact you about writing a poem for the funeral program." At first I got mad. I was mad as hell because she told/asked me in what I thought was a callous way. I was angry because something seemed inherently wrong with talking about Granny as if she was already dead, as if we'd given up on her. But the truth is, she's been waiting almost 20 years to get back with her husband, who died way back when I was in high school. And after thinking about it a bit more, it struck me as somewhat disingenuous and maybe even dishonest to have spent the entirety of my adulthood away from Alabama, only to criticize my relations' handling of a difficult situation from afar. So I shut up and got to work. I sat in the seedy dive bar of my poetic thoughts and dredged up memories and tried to figure out how to come up with something so profound that it adequately captures the magnitude of her life and all the spiraling circles of those it touched.

Now, I probably spent more time at Granny's during the school year than I did at home. We lived in Clio, which is 30 minutes from where we went to school, so my sister would drag me over there to hang out with the grandparents while she did her myriad after-school activities. She kept a schedule in high school any medical intern would be proud of, and I, being a year young for my grade, was an unintended beneficiary. Looking back, Granny ALWAYS made me feel welcome, even during play season, when the practices stretched until 9:30 every night. I know there were probably times when she wanted to go to bed early, or wanted a little time to herself, especially since she was spending every minute of her days taking care of her ailing husband (who we called PawPaw--that's grandfather, for you non-Southerners). But she smiled and welcomed me, fed me, asked me what I wanted to watch on TV. I grew to love The Addams Family and The Monkees and Andy Griffith, and I was fascinated with the cable channel that showed local weather and announcements. Granny taught me to cuss (she would deny that she ever did, but she was a champion cusser, and I learned through osmosis). To love the old folks' network (CBS). I'm still partial to it to this day. To pour sweet tea out of a two gallon jar without spilling it. To be content with the slow sweetness of sitting on the porch swing and talking. To swat flies with deadly efficacy. That the kind of love worth having stuck around through poor and really poor, through good and bad, through ruddy health and the last stages of Alzheimer's and everything in between. That little 110 pound woman all but singlehandedly cared for PawPaw at home as he forgot where he was, who she was, who he was--almost everything except that he constantly wanted to smoke. When he died, she wanted to go, too, but it wasn't her time yet. What's that old line from Byron---"The heart will break, yet brokenly live on."

I decided a while ago that everyone gets their own brand of heaven. Everybody who makes it gets to stay forever in the place where they were happiest. For Granny, she will be on her first date with PawPaw. They will be young and beautiful and strong, and she will ride in the rumble seat to Pea River at Snellgrove's Mill. The air will be sweet and cool and heavy with honeysuckle and anticipation. She'll see him climb up the tressle bridge and walk out to the middle. He'll look back to make sure she's watching, and she'll squeal as he dives off into the murky water below. She'll think he's gone for sure. Then his head will pop up and he'll laugh and call her to join him, and she will. So that's where she is now, up on that tressle, inching out to the middle. And she's about to join him, about to leap off without pain or fear or hesitation.

So yeah, the Alexanders and the Angelous and the Frosts might have had more folks listening, but Granny's story is at least as profound. And I'm trying to make sure I tell it right.