The Candy Bowl

Today.com recently carried an article which rated eight name-brand candies according to how they impact our health. Only one of them is in our candy bowl, so the information wasn’t devastating. A last place finish for Snickers, however, is rather troubling.

On our kitchen counter is a lovely wooden bowl that was hand carved by Matt Stephens, a former pastor at Vienna First Baptist Church. Filled with a variety of bite-size sweets, Snickers is well represented. I should disclose, however, that dark chocolate Dove requires the most restocking. Several years ago, Jane read that moderate consumption of dark chocolate has been credited with minor health benefits. If benefits are proportionate to consumption, I’m in the best shape of my life.          

Much to my chagrin, the author noted that potential advantages of dark chocolate are adversely affected by significant sugar content. I tend to disagree based on reverse analysis. I’ve had unsweetened chocolate. The taste was bitter and I felt no better. Maybe I should have swallowed.

Snickers apparently provide major health benefits. It was the official snack of the 1984 Olympics in which our country won a record 83 gold medals. Perhaps athletes need a little sugar in their fuel to reach the top spot on the podium. When peanuts, chocolate, and caramel merge, good things happen.

My affinity for Snickers began in childhood at Joiner’s Store. Uncle Emmet kept several choices of candy bars in a glass case on the left-hand side as you walked in. Snickers was my preference with an occasional Milky Way or Baby Ruth for nutritional balance. Since I was family, I could wait on myself. For most customers my uncle would slide open one of the little wooden doors on the back, get the candy out, then ring up the sale, which usually included an ice-cold drink in a glass bottle like God intended.

The store didn’t have air conditioning, just a big fan on a sturdy metal pole that stirred the warm air of summer. Hot weather is when we had to be careful. If candy stayed in the case too long, little white worms would appear. I used to wonder how they got through the wrappers. In summertime, I’d break my candy bars in half to make sure nothing was moving, then check again after taking a bite.

At some point it occurred to me there could be worms which were too tiny to wiggle. So, in July and August, I was mostly a Moon Pie man. Two options were displayed on a rack straight in front as you as you walked in. I rotated between vanilla, to compliment my personality, and chocolate for when I felt adventuresome.

Behind the Moon Pies was the bread rack. Little Miss Sunbeam was quite convincing when she held up a slice of bread and said, “Look Ma, no holes.” Then came the catchy jingle, “There’re no holes in Sunbeam bread.” At home I’d sometimes check to see if the inspectors remained diligent. I don’t remember ever finding any holes, and reporting them to the breadman didn’t seem like a good idea, so I gradually stopped looking.      

Honeybuns were on the bread rack and were one of my regular treats. Thinking about them now makes me wish I had one stashed in the kitchen.  I’m talking about the original size, not one of those two-bite mini-buns that won’t fill up a chihuahua.    

A long counter on the right side of the store had a big glass jar filled with cookies. They were a penny each until inflation hit. Uncle Emmet got the cookies out of the jar for his customers. He’d drop them into a little brown paper bag and roll the top down. There wasn’t any handwashing involved, no tongs or rubber gloves. Cookie germs, it seems, are rarely fatal.  

Uncle Emmett only carried one snack that I didn’t care for, which was Stage Planks. Jerry Clower, the late comedian, told a story about a fellow enjoying Stage Planks topped with sardines at a country store. Like the man observing him said, “Bully done flung a craving on me.” I satisfied my curiosity one afternoon by having that same combination sitting on the porch of Joiner’s Store. My position since then is that ginger flavored cookies with pink icing don’t pair well with oily fish.

The recent report about Snickers won’t affect our candy bowl. We’ll keep filling it with a few of our favorites. Contrary to some research, mine clearly indicates there are advantages to consuming the sweets we enjoy most. That must be right, because every time I eat a Snickers or a Dove dark chocolate, I always feel a little bit better.

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It Sure Feels Good To Win

I’m not much of a sports fan and lack the patience to sit through a whole game of almost anything. Women’s beach volleyball in the Olympics has been an occasional exception. We’ll save that skimpy discussion for a potential future column and stick with the bare facts today. 

Baseball is an especially slow process. Six innings or ten p.m., whichever comes first, is my customary limit. And that’s only in the post season if the Atlanta Braves are playing. I didn’t stay awake past the seventh inning stretch during the 2021 World Series in which Atlanta defeated the Houston Astros. But I’ll have to say it sure feels good to win.

Jane and I watched baseball with some regularity when the Braves were perennial contenders in the 1990s. We saw the Hall of Fame pitching trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux put on some amazing performances.

We pulled for Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, and a roster of players who became part of our extended family. We knew Bobby Cox’s calm demeanor could get disrupted by a bad call from an umpire. Sometimes he got a warning. At other times he earned another check mark on his ejection tally.

My memory isn’t reliable enough to mention specific moments in those playoff games or the World Series they won in 1995. What I do recall, however, is the optimism which Braves fans had for a long time. Some seasons were better than others, but for a number of years it always seemed possible that America’s Team could get another set of rings.

Sports writers have covered every angle of this year’s World Series, so I don’t have much to add. Diehard fans can tell you a lot more about their road to victory than I can. But even for those of us who boarded the train near the end of the line, it sure feels good to win.

It’s hard to say what the best storyline is from the Braves’ recent accomplishment. There were many, but I only have room to mention a few. Let’s begin with the manager.

Brian Snitker is one of the finest examples of persistence I’ve ever seen. He’s been with the Braves’ organization 44 years, most of it in roles that go largely unnoticed. If he got a headline, it was by a hometown paper covering a minor league game.

He made a decent living, I assume, and apparently enjoyed his work. But being named manager late in his career, then leading the team to a championship at age 66, was too far-fetched to even dream about.

Other men and women have had notable accomplishments during their senior years in various fields. Next time I see a list, I’ll pencil in Brian Snitker. And I’ll reflect on how a man past his prime by some standards, quietly and steadily led a group of young men on a trip they will never forget.

Freddie Freeman, the team’s smiling first baseman, has to be mentioned. He’s been called “the face of the Braves” because of his long tenure, steady performance, and good disposition. The Braves had a six to nothing lead in that final game when Freddie hit a solo homer. The seventh run he contributed wasn’t essential, just icing on the cake.

Having Freddie circle the bases at that point was, I thought, as good as it gets. In the top of the ninth, however, Houston was down seven to zip and only had one out left to try and stage a miracle comeback. Dansby Swanson, another fine fellow and native son of Marietta, Georgia, fielded a ground ball and threw it to first base. Freddie Freeman made the catch, and the Braves were once again champions. A better ending could not have been written.

The tribute to Hank Aaron was touching. I can’t help but believe the Good Lord allowed number 44 to enjoy the World Series. Maybe Hank should get some credit for the hot bats of game six, but I can’t say either way. If it’s not okay to pray for a Braves win, I’m already in trouble. 

It was inspiring to see every player standing respectfully for the National Anthem, caps over their hearts as the giant flags waved. And sportsmanship seemed to be in vogue at each game. It’s uplifting when professional athletes set good examples for kids of all ages who admire them.    

There’s no doubt I’ve left out some important aspects of the Braves’ enchanted season, but I hope you’ll excuse me. I only saw the early innings and next day highlights. I don’t claim to be an expert on baseball or America’s Team, but there’s one thing I can say with certainty. It sure feels good to win.

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Dude Is Still Barking

An October column, “Dude The Barking Dog,” described a pet-induced sleep deprivation issue in our household. I asked readers for suggestions and received a number of splendid responses. Dude is still barking, but I’m happy to report a little bit of progress.

Lanier suggested Dude attend a dog training school, or that we return him to our son who granted us custody. I talked to Dude about school, but he showed no interest. Unless his attitude changes, more education would be a waste of money. Plus, he doesn’t like to be away from home at night. I’m a homebody too, so I’m sympathetic to Dude’s preference for his own bed.

Seth could take him to the country, but there aren’t any fences to keep him out of the highway and he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of traffic. When we walk the dirt road beside our house, Dude can be stubborn about letting vehicles or farm equipment go by. Eventually he’ll allow them to pass, but not until they slow down enough he can sniff their tires.

Judy said his barking shows he’s protecting us, something I had not considered. Now when Dude gets cranked up, I’m unsure whether to fuss or give him a treat. She also mentioned a medication prescribed by her vet because of her Callie Belle’s incessant barking during thunderstorms. We tried it for a week and slept much better but the taste was awful.

Smitty explained that the barking doesn’t mean our dog is afraid of trains. Dude is letting us know he wants to take a ride. Smitty suggested I buy Dude an engineer’s cap and put him on the SAM Shortline for a trip to Plains. Having immense confidence in my friend’s advice, I called to buy a ticket. Dogs and small children, I learned, must be accompanied by a responsible adult. I’ve been trying to think of one.

The other issue with a train ride is that only service animals are allowed in first class. When the nice lady asked if Dude was a service dog, I wasn’t about to lie. “No mam,” I said, “He’s never been in the military. I was going to send him to Camp Safety Patrol for a week, but it’s closed and I don’t think they plan to reopen.”

Marlene shared advice that got my attention. She had a problem with her Siamese cat chewing computer wires. After trying multiple deterrents without success, she found that blowing a party horn did the trick. Now she only has to show the horn to the cat to prevent a relapse.  

As I was looking online for party horns, thinking I’d need a supersized one, I ran across a little silver whistle. It seemed like a logical option, plus it came with a decorative chain to hang around my neck. The whistle I ordered, however, was stuck on a cargo ship out from California, so the seller gave me an upgrade for a few dollars more.

It came with two triple-A batteries and a button to press. Kids sure have it easy these days. When I was a boy, we had to blow our whistles. Now it can be done with a thumb. Dude stopped barking the first time I used it, but it has too many decibels and no volume control. The high-pitched tweets shattered a light bulb and caused the garage door to go up.

We asked our neighbor, Ken, if Dude’s antics ever wake him. He says he doesn’t hear him unless he goes outside for a smoke. If Dude is barking, Ken howls like a coyote and says the night becomes quiet. We tried that same approach, but apparently Jane needs to work on her howl. I’d go myself, but my CPAP machine is too much trouble to take off and put back on.

Jane came up with a plan that began with great promise. Dude doesn’t like water, so she hung a hose on the fence and had a talk with him. For a week or so, when he barked excessively, she pointed the nozzle and pulled the trigger. Being tenderhearted, however, she didn’t spray him. She just hit the aluminum downspout to the gutter. It made some noise and got his attention, but he caught on quickly.

So, I’m back to shining the flashlight through the bedroom windows in exchange for brief periods of calm. I am, however, resting exceptionally well between barks, now that I understand the barking is for our protection. Some mornings I’m quite sleepy, but I’ve never felt safer in my life. Dude is still barking, but that’s okay. We’re making a little bit of progress.

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Digging Up Bones

Randy Travis, country singer extraordinaire, had a monster hit in 1986 titled “Diggin’ Up Bones.” The chorus went like this: “I’m diggin’ up bones. I’m diggin’ up bones. Exhuming things that are better left alone. I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone. Yeah tonight I’m sittin’ alone diggin’ up bones.”

The song portrays a man spending a sleepless night as he sadly reminisces about a wife no longer there. He talks to her picture, reads old love letters, and flings her wedding ring across the room. Why she left or who’s to blame we’re not told. We only know that he’s miserable without her.

I should give a disclaimer at this point that my love for traditional country music is perhaps a character flaw. If not for the cheating and drinking songs, there’d be a lot of dead time on the radio. And I’ll admit to being more than a passive listener. I sing along with Randy, Willie, Johnny, and George, although none of them need my help.   

Randy’s soulful ballad came to mind recently and keeps hanging around. I was doing some much-needed work on the house my mother grew up in, when our daughter, Carrie, walked through. I asked what she thought. “It has good bones,” she said. That’s when I started singing that tune.    

My grandparents’ house was built in the 1930s, after their first home burned down. Mama was 11 or 12 when they moved in, which dates it to around 1937. A man named Charlton Locke did the carpentry. I guess Granddaddy and others helped as Mr. Locke didn’t have a crew.

Mama’s older brothers, Emmett and Jack, probably pitched in. Bose Frederick, who worked on the farm back then, most likely lent a hand. But those are just guesses. None of them are around to ask and I didn’t think about inquiring when they were. It seems the older I get the more questions I have. I wonder about things now I didn’t take notice of earlier.

Mr. Locke may have slept on site during construction or found a vacant bed in the neighborhood. My mother doesn’t know where he stayed at night, but says he bathed in the nearby spring on weekends. Those seem rather austere conditions, but at the time a bath in clean running water was surely a step above a washtub, except maybe in cold weather. No telling what the fish downstream thought, but fish seldom complain.

Jimmy and I have spent a month or so tearing out wall paneling, ceiling tiles, and three layers of flooring that were added in the past, some of it 60 plus years ago. What we’ve uncovered is a structure that’s sound and octogenarian lumber which time has hardened like a rock.   

“Good bones” is probably a term Carrie heard on a home-improvement show. It seems quite appropriate for describing an old building with plenty of wear and tear but a sturdy frame under its ragged skin. 

Like the man in the song, I’ve been reminiscing too, except mine is thankfully the pleasant kind. I vaguely remember Granddaddy building a crackling fire when I spent a night there in early childhood. It felt great to wait in bed under the quilts, then warm in front of the hearth. I was too young to realize that tending fires was a regular part of Granddaddy’s day. It makes me appreciate him a bit more now.

Their four fireplaces were sealed long ago, the smokestacks removed when a metal roof was installed. With a little work, however, we’ll have a nice place for some gas logs. Artificial firewood won’t compare to oak lit with kindling, but there’s something mesmerizing about gazing into flames. Gentle flickers of orange can warm a body and soothe a soul. 

There are more memories in my grandparents’ home than a column will hold, but I’ve written about them before, so I’ll only mention the fireplace today. Rather than elaborate on my recollections, I want to suggest we’re all better off by digging for the good bones in our past.

Sometimes, that’s almost impossible. The heartbroken man in the song knows that too well. But it’s mostly our choice which memories we resurrect. We can focus on those that make us sad or embrace the ones that make us glad. I’ve tried it both ways and found the latter is better.

I’ve been digging up bones lately and feel good about it. So, I hope you’ll look for some of your own today. If the weather is cool enough, you may want to sit by a fire and see where it takes you.

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Dirty Jobs

Where is Mike Rowe when you need him? It’s been several years since he worked those “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. Mike has been neck-deep in stuff most of us hope never to touch or go near. He’s spent hours in places I wouldn’t drive past even with the windows rolled up.

Nothing was too nasty for Mike. He just smiled and put on his armor, hoping it might keep him out of the germ ward at the hospital. I needed his help recently, but his number must be unlisted. Thankfully, the worst is behind us. Or maybe I should say the worst is in the past to avoid confusion.

My mother grew up just across the Dooly County line in the edge of Pulaski. The first house she lived in burned when a log rolled out of the fireplace. Nothing was saved except for two rocking chairs off the front porch and a butter knife found in the ashes. She still uses that little knife and is rather fond of it. If I knew how many biscuits it’s buttered, I’d call the folks at Guiness.

Granddaddy had a new house built, which they moved into when Mama was 11 or 12. It’s nothing fancy, a small frame dwelling made from green lumber sawed off the family farm. Some fine people and good friends have rented it since Grandmama’s death in 1978. They took good care of it and left it in better shape than they had found it.

There have also been a few tenants who trashed it to some extent. The bar has recently been lowered, however, setting a new standard. Mr. Clean begged me not to take him inside until the roaches were gone. He’s the one who suggested I ask Mike Rowe to help.

Those of you who have been reading Joiner’s Corner for a while know I don’t mind exaggerating to make a point. But I’m sticking with facts when I tell you that my brother and I have hauled off 57 bags of trash. The first thirteen came from an outside burn pile.

Apparently, the folks had an aversion toward dumpsters. We filled 13 bags with broken glass, cans, bottles, and things I’m probably glad I couldn’t identify. The other 44 bags mostly came from inside. The filth was so bad I apologized to my rubber gloves and offered them early retirement.

 If the woman had been asked to get out quickly, I might have more empathy. But that wasn’t the case. “Take your time,” I said. “Don’t worry about the rent. Maybe a few months off will help you with the moving expenses.” I didn’t mention about leaving it clean, unaware there was any need to.

She left some things in the yard and on the porch that I figured would be picked up later, so we didn’t go in the house for about a month after it was vacated. Opening the back door changed my life. I didn’t realize how many roaches could fit on top of a door. Maybe they were looking for a way out.      

A lot of the piled and partially bagged clothing could have been used by someone. But when cloth is comingled with unrefrigerated food, milk, pudding, and such, it tends to deteriorate. The roaches were thrilled with the cloth and food combination and delicately aged toilet water.  

After four insect foggers, three gallons of Ortho Home Defense, two quarts of roach powder, and several cans of various sprays, I’m excited to report some progress. The roach population has been reduced from the hundreds to merely dozens. Or they’re hiding in places I’ve not yet discovered.

We’ve torn the paneling off the walls and Celotex off the ceiling. Now we’re spraying the original wood with Clorox and industrial strength cleaners. After another month or so of scrubbing and disinfecting, I’ll take my paintbrush out of its holster and give the old house a shot of fresh relief.

It’s tempting to be angry, but that’s not what I’m feeling. I’m sad, instead, because three young children have been given a terrible example. Lessons of childhood are hard to unteach.

Jesus gave us wonderful instructions in Matthew 7:12. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So, to the lady that trashed my grandmother’s home, I want you to know I’m not mad. But I hope and pray you’ll reflect on what your children are learning. The Golden Rule would be a good place to begin some discussions.  

P.S. I almost forgot to thank you for the cats and fully stocked litter box. Alger and Benjamin are doing fine and gaining weight, but they sure do miss living inside.

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A Perfect Fall Day

Weather doesn’t always take heed when calendars announce the first day of fall. This year, however, their synchronization was exceptional. Remnants of summer have predictably returned at times, but September 22nd was a lovely start of a new season.

Three pm that afternoon was the official beginning, but I can’t say whether autumn came precisely then or not. I didn’t really notice its arrival until Jane and I took a late afternoon walk. Around seven, just after Lester Holt reminded us to, “Please take care of yourselves and each other,” we headed down Coley Crossing toward the railroad tracks.

The air was not the same as the evening before. A slight breeze provided a comfortable coolness. And September’s sky was more stunning than I recalled summer having offered.

It’s hard to say which season has the best clouds, but I’m inclined to vote for fall. Summer is too hot, humid, and gnatty to spend time gazing upward. Winter clouds can be delightful but sometimes the grays dull the blues too severely. Spring is nice but emerging blooms and chirping birds compete with the clouds for our attention. So, fall is arguably the best time for clouds. 

As we began our walk the sky was filled with seventy shades of blue and a thousand intriguing characters. There were the ever-present poodles, who flourish in fluffy cumulus formations. I guess the soft clouds compliment their curly hair and fondness for pillowy beds. Over the years I’ve occasionally spotted a German shepherd on patrol, but poodles are the most populous of the canines.   

A wrinkled old man with a craggy nose and big belly was on his back napping and appeared to be snoring. Thankfully, he was a safe distance from the monstrous alligator sunning on the creek bank. I was glad the man didn’t need a dog for protection. You never see poodles getting out of police cars.

Road Runner, the cartoon character, had assumed a memorable pose. He was in a racing stance with a fake arrow stuck through his neck. His grin indicated he was about to say, “beep beep,” and scamper away. Why he was running toward a dolphin is a mystery I don’t expect to solve.

On the road back home, the view was even more magnificent. Jane tried to capture it in a photo, but there’s no way to condense splendor of that scale. As the fading sun dipped out of sight, a couple of cloud groupings were brightly illuminated. We saw the evidence of light although its source was hidden.

Near the end of our walk, the serene radiance of a sun just below the horizon testified to that same distant glow. An alluring blend of red, orange, and blue highlighted the westward edge of a darkening canvas. There’s only one word I can think of to describe such beauty. Holy.

That first night of fall stayed on course as temperatures dropped into the fifties, a place they had not ventured in a while. A delightfully cool daybreak was greeted by clear skies and sunshine, further affirming autumn’s arrival. And a few leaves were wearing brighter colors as they slowly descended from their summer perches.

Lord willing, there will be more walks with enchanting scenes and the same lovely company. But this walk is one I’ll remember for a while. Headlines in the evening news were quite troubling that day. Sadly, that seems likely to continue. The first sunset of fall, however, helped remind me of who’s in control.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” That scripture has been expounded on by people more capable than me. But those clouds at dusk, aglow because of a hidden sun, caused me to think about that verse in a refreshing manner.

Although the sun was out of sight, I knew it was the source of light. That seems worth pondering during times which are increasingly challenging. Rather than being discouraged by all the wrong we see, faith allows us to embrace what is right even when it can’t be seen. Faith allows us to know God will prevail on His terms and time, not on yours or mine.

My confidence in the future had needed a boost and still does at times. But it’s better than in the summer past. The air felt much different on our walk down Coley Crossing. It was a perfect fall day.

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The Pear Tree

I don’t know how long pear trees live or remain productive, but the one in my mother’s yard has been there as far back as I remember. There’s no telling how many preserves we’ve enjoyed from a tree slightly older than me.    

That old tree has made three score and ten and maybe a few years beyond. I’m not quite at that milestone but I’m knocking on the door. Both of us are showing our age, a bit more than I expected for myself at this point. Willie Nelson was right – “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

It seems like just yesterday there was a kid staring back at me from the mirror, but It’s hard to catch a glimpse of him anymore. One minute I was wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. The next I was thinking about Social Security and Medicare.          

For decades the tree would be loaded each summer with more pears than the limbs could support. We’d remove about a third of them or sometimes more, usually after Mama reminded us several times. Its sagging arms would rise to celebrate a lighter load, and the pears that remained thrived in their less crowded accommodations.

A few years ago, however, the tree drifted toward unreliability. The once plentiful pears gradually became fewer and eventually declined to almost nothing. In the winter of 2019, my brother decided to give it a major pruning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but in 2020 the tree bounced back with a nice crop.

Pruning had given it a fresh start. I figured that was the end of any cutting, but last winter Jimmy decided to whittle it back a bit more. He said the tree was wasting energy putting on pears that were too high to reach, even with a ladder. So, we cut several tall limbs, many of them growing almost straight up.

The tree won’t win any beauty contests, but we’ve never had a better crop of pears than this year. Some were small, from where we didn’t thin them enough early on. Others, however, were as large as a navel orange. They are the biggest pears that tree has ever made.

As a side note, my friend Mrs. Larue Ambrose has the most amazing pear tree I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t do anything to it, yet it consistently produces pears the size of grapefruits. Whatever genetics are in that tree, need to be preserved. I’m just passing that idea on, hoping it takes root.  

Jimmy nor I have expertise in pruning fruit trees, so don’t rely on this column for advice. The path of severe pruning might not work for anyone else or even for us again. Jimmy’s reasoning was that the tree wasn’t much good as it was, so why not do something to give it a chance.

New growth gave it some long-gone vitality. Its trunk is still wrapped in wrinkled skin, but the pears are plentiful again. It’s caused me to think that a personal pruning might be a good way to approach my own senior years.

In John 15:1-2 Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” I find it tempting to stay the course, even when the fruit is sparse, to let longtime habits and opinions determine the path I follow.

God no doubt sees many areas in my life that need pruning but inviting Him to cut wherever He wants can be a bit unsettling. I tend to offer suggestions as to what might be work for Him while not being too challenging for me. Recently, though, I read something which improved my perspective. The author said, “Spiritual pruning is not punishment. It’s a reward.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about it quite like that, but it seems the best way to interpret those verses. Spiritual pruning may be unpleasant and even painful, but the rewards come through the fruit produced. Rather than dreading the process, Christians can embrace the purpose.

Sometimes I miss the young man that used to appear in our mirror, but I hope the gray-haired fellow who stares back at me now will take a hint from an aging pear tree. A good pruning may be just what he needs.

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Dude The Barking Dog

I’ve written about Dude before. He’s the mongrel of unknown heritage who moved from California to Georgia over a year ago. Dude and Louise, a streetwise chihuahua, shared a house with our son in Los Angeles. Louise and Seth now have their own place at the farm. Dude lives with Jane and me.

Seth’s back yard in Los Angeles was enclosed with a high wooden fence, but Dude barked too much to be left there. Neighbors on both sides had regular sleeping habits that the big dog did not fully appreciate. The animal shelter said if Dude came back again, he wouldn’t be leaving on a leash. They had a three-strike rule and Seth had tossed the third pitch.

The first challenge we faced was convincing Dude to remain inside our fenced yard. It’s a nice area which has been home to three other fine dogs, all now happily roaming in the land of golden fire hydrants. Libby, Freckles, and Lilly were perfectly content with their grassed playground, luxury garage suite, and 24-hour buffet. But not the Dude. He kept climbing the chain-link fence and showing up at our back door.

It took several months for Dude to understand how good he has it and stop looking for escape routes. Except for occasional barking that was slightly beyond the norm, all was well. Lately, however, he’s reverted to his California ways. He barks non-stop for hours, mostly at night. I don’t think he’s awakening our neighbors, but I’m afraid to ask.   

Our current troubles can be traced back to December 8th of last year. Without any warning, Dude suddenly appeared to be dying. Rather than going with us for his usual afternoon walk, he struggled to even stand. Jane and Seth coaxed him into the cab of my pickup and took him to the vet.

An x-ray showed a mass in his stomach and internal bleeding. The vet said he’d probably live a couple of weeks. They discussed putting him down, but Dude apparently understood the conversation. He perked up and trotted out the door with pain pills, steroids, and a new attitude.

That was almost a year ago. Maybe it’s an answer to prayer. Or it could be that what showed up on the x-ray wasn’t what it seemed. Either way, I’m beginning to think we shouldn’t have told Dude how much we loved him. He seems to be taking advantage of it.

His barking has occasionally been annoying but was for good canine causes – motorcycles, delivery trucks, or anything with a loud muffler. In early September, however, Dude transitioned to all-night bark parties. He has shown a special affinity for trains.

A railroad track is about a mile from our home, with mostly open fields between us. We often hear the soft rumble of trains at night, a distant noise that’s rather conducive to sleep. But Dude has a different opinion. He hears the trains long before they reach here and well after they’re gone. He barks the whole time, then celebrates running them off. I’ve tried to quieten him but had no success. 

My first technique was to open the back door and gently reason with him. “Dude,” I would say calmly while looking into his big innocent eyes, “do you remember what we talked about? Remember how I told you that we like to sleep at night? We’d really appreciate your help. You’re a good boy.”

Two weeks later I switched to my firm no-nonsense voice. “Dude! Knock it off! I’m tired of all that barking. I don’t want to hear another peep out of you! Don’t make me come out here again!”

Then finally, I stumbled across something that worked. When I shined a flashlight at him through our bedroom window, he retreated to his quarters. Apparently, his past included a bad experience with a beam of light. I hated to remind him of that but was thankful for a decent night’s sleep. Sadly, it took him less than a week to figure out my ploy. The flashlight trick now only buys a few minutes of peace.

Thinking music might soothe him, I tuned his radio to Willie’s Roadhouse for some classic country. It seemed to be working until they played “Folsom Prison Blues.” When Johnny Cash sang, “I hear the train a coming,” Dude howled along. He didn’t stop until Conway Twitty said, “Hello Darling.”

I don’t know what else to do, so that’s why I’m writing this column. A solution that doesn’t involve shocking, shooting, or bringing him inside is what we’re looking for. You can call most any time, even at night. If there’s a train rolling through Coley Crossing, we’ll probably be awake.                

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Saltine Crackers

Saltine crackers go well with many foods. Let’s start with sardines. I don’t know how I lost my taste for sardines but wish I could find it. A recent health article recommended eating oily fish on a regular basis. Sardines were ranked in the top group and for good reason. They push the limits as to how oily a fish can be.

During my youth, I considered sardines quite appetizing. Daddy deserves most of the credit for that. Watching him enjoy them made me want to join the party. They were his Sunday night after church go-to meal. He’d roll back the thin tin top with the key glued to the can, douse the little fish with vinegar, then sprinkle them with black pepper. Sometimes he’d add onion, but I left that off. My appreciation for onions didn’t evolve until I discovered what they can do for a poolroom hotdog.

It’s possible my taste buds changed when I over analyzed the canning process. As I began wondering how thoroughly those tiny fish had been cleaned, that was the beginning of the end. Plus, I’ve grown increasingly reluctant to eat anything that looks like it could still swim.      

The perfect complement to the sardines of yesteryear was Saltine crackers. That’s probably still the case, but my opinion was formed back when the salt in a single cracker could elevate blood pressure by twenty points. Saltines don’t seem as potent as they were in my youth. Either the crackers have changed, or I have. Or it may be a little of both.

Saltines, it should be noted, are well suited for other fine foods – potted meat and Vienna sausage being in the top tier. It’s been a long time since I’ve dined on either of those once cherished fares also. My menu was downsized after I spent too much time thinking about the meaning of “genuine meat byproducts.” Some things are best not to know unless we want to let go.

Soup is another good fit for Saltines as is chili. Or if you want a great snack just smear a little peanut butter on top of a cracker. Saltines go well with salads too, although they now face considerable competition. Life was much simpler in childhood when the only choices were Saltines or Ritz.

A Saltine’s finest pairing, based on my highly refined palate, may be when it’s topped with good cheese. One of my treasured memories is of eating crackers and hoop cheese on Max Garland’s boat in the Gulf of Mexico. We were fishing for trout, drifting in the flats out from the mouth of the Econfina River. That was probably thirty years ago or maybe more. It’s a blessing that good memories don’t easily fade.

Max was a friend of my father-in-law, Bennett Horne. They fished together a lot of Saturdays and I was fortunate enough to join them on a number of occasions. Max was a big man, well over 300 pounds. He didn’t have a sculpted body like folks who advertise exercise equipment, but he had some serious horsepower in his massive hands.

On one of our fishing trips Max pulled out a giant hunk of cheese he’d bought at a country store. It was the kind with the red wax coating that was sliced to order before packaged products became the norm. Max set the cheese on the side of the boat and said we’d let it warm for a spell in the sunshine.

An hour or so later, he opened a box of Saltines. As the late comedian Jerry Clower would have said, “That’s when we commenced to eating.” It was the best cheese I’d ever had and always will be.      

I don’t know if there’s less salt in Saltines today or it’s my imagination. It could be that the salt has become rather mellow. Salt can look the same but have no savor. I know that can happen because Jesus mentioned it in Matthew 5:13.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he said. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

Maybe I’m wrong and I hope I am, but it seems to me the salt of the earth is becoming increasingly bland. That’s a troubling thought because salt without savor is useless. But what bothers me most is something I need to work on. I’m finding it far too easy to get accustomed to the taste. 

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Spiders

My wife pointed to a giant spider web as I was about to leave home one August morning. Jane took multiple pictures, trying to capture its remarkable size and intricate detail in the early sunlight.

“You want me to knock it down or leave it there so we can walk into it later?” I asked. My preference was for immediate action, knowing at some point the other option might lead to a series of contorted maneuvers. I’ve done the spider web dance many times. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Let’s don’t bother it,” she said with noticeable intrigue. “I want to see what happens.”

Despite serious misgivings, I made no objection. My approach to spiders is like Garfield the cartoon cat. He rarely passes up a chance to flatten one with a newspaper. I realize spiders help eliminate other pests, but it’s hard for me to let them walk away. Arachnid attacks can be devastating.

According to the research department at Joiner’s Corner, there are two major categories of spiders. A single bite from any in the first group can kill a grown man or a small horse. Getting bitten by a member of the second grouping is not terminal, but the venom causes temporary paralysis. Mobility gradually returns in three to five hours and requires no treatment. A full recovery can be expected, unless the spider begins wrapping you in its fiber. Your only option then is prayer.         

I’m kidding about death and paralysis, but serious about there being two categories of spiders. The most dangerous group includes those that will hurt you. In the other group are the ones that cause you to hurt yourself. Some people, including my mother, contend there is a third category for those that are harmless. Maybe they’re right, but I’m not interested in venturing unarmed into the land of good spiders. They just don’t seem trustworthy.

The massive web that attracted Jane’s attention was magnificently constructed. It measured about three feet across in every direction and had an artistic symmetry of connecting silk threads. The feature which made it unique, however, was the long span of its support lines.

About 20 feet off the ground, the top strand was attached to a magnolia tree. The other end was secured to a shrub almost 40 feet away. That’s a good leap even for Spiderman, so I couldn’t figure out how a little web-slinger with no wings could sail across. That seemingly impossible feat caused me to think she might not be so little. That’s when I decided to head to the farm.  

Later that day I read how spiders make their webs. I’ll confess it increased my admiration for them. They drop a silk line from whatever point they choose and let the wind float the lower loose end to another anchor spot. I don’t know if they check the weather forecasts or just give it a shot and see what happens. Instinct is beyond my comprehension, especially for insects.

It’s amazing that something the size of a fifty-cent piece can generate a fiber light enough to float yet strong enough to stabilize an extensive suspension bridge. To that top anchor line, the spider adds more silk to strengthen it, then adeptly weaves a web below.

Around 8:30 that morning is when I left home. About two hours later Jane was in the yard and saw the spider taking the web down. An insect had been captured, but we don’t know what it was. When my wife began videoing, the helpless prey was already bound up mummy style. The spider pushed the web strands together, like rolling up a window shade, then gathered it along with her sack lunch. Some spiders go through this routine every night or day. They spin a web, catch a bug, then recycle the silk. Those spiders are females, I presume. Men don’t even like to make up a bed.

Our backyard buddy was an orb-weaver, we believe. They have eight eyes, which explains why I’ve seldom had success sneaking up behind them. Orkin’s website said orb-weavers rarely bite and when they do it’s comparable to a bee sting. I don’t know if that means the tolerable sting of a honeybee or something horrendous like a yellow jacket. It probably depends on the size of the spider and their attitude. And whether they recognize you from prior encounters. 

The video Jane took has mellowed my thinking about spiders. Their ingenuity has caused me to reconsider my harsh approach. I don’t claim to have made a complete turnaround. It’s possible, however, I may feel a tinge of regret the next time I swat one of those creepy little crawlers into eternity.

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