Practical Thinking

My father was a devotee of practical thinking, a man not easily swayed by societal norms of convention or tradition. One area where that was evident was his approach toward buying gifts.

He didn’t buy dresses for my mother, which she would need to later exchange, nor diamond jewelry, which he understood is not an investment. The two of them had a joint checking account from which Mama was welcome to purchase what she wanted. She shared his conservative values and embraced shopping for herself during their sixty years of marriage.

Daddy’s gift-buying tactics were easily adopted as my own when Jane and I married in 1974. The designated shopper rule should perhaps have been included in our wedding vows, but we stuck with the basics – “in sickness or in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse.” There may have been some other things which I’ve forgotten. I was too smitten to pay close attention.

Jane doesn’t mind shopping for herself because she realizes I’m not adept at picking out gifts. She adroitly handles the purchases of presents with an uncanny ability to find sale prices so low I feel guilty about accepting the discount. There have, however, been a few occasions when I’ve stumbled across something that made my heart beat rapidly in anticipation of how delighted she would be. Like when I surprised her with an exceptionally stout wheelbarrow.

It was for Christmas or maybe an anniversary, or perhaps both, since they’re only three days apart. As soon as I saw that wheelbarrow, I knew it was going home with me. It’s not a run of the mill thin-tin hard-tire model but is a sturdy workhorse with Michelin rubber and a big bucket suitable for commercial use. It’s so extraordinary we secure it with padlocks and have it listed on our homeowner’s policy. And every time Jane fills its giant bowl with sticks and pinecones, she is poignantly reminded of my tender gesture. She doesn’t have to say it. I see it in her smile.

There’ve been other special occasions when I’ve surprised my wife. Among the notable acquisitions are battery-operated hedge clippers, multiple hand tools, and a small Ryobi chainsaw. I’ve considered getting her a bigger saw, but those things can be dangerous.

About twenty years ago, I had to call Georgia Power on a holiday weekend because a felled tree knocked down a power line on our property. I apologetically explained to the man in the lift truck that my wife had been cautioned about cutting the large sweetgums but had been lulled into carelessness after successfully downing several trees. He surveyed the damage then said he figured something like that is what happened.

There’s a reason I’m covering gift-buying today in the off-season. I’ve been recently emboldened by a validation of practicality from an unexpected source. It came about by reading the Valentine’s Day devotional written by Daniel Schantz in the 2021 edition of Guideposts.

The seasoned writer shared about buying his wife of many decades a nice card, which is commendable though not always necessary in my opinion. I gave Jane a lovely Valentine’s card this year that had come in the mail from the American Heart Association with a solicitation for funds. The argument can be made, however, that Daniel’s choice may have been the better of those two.

What got my attention, though, was how creatively he took on the daunting task of finding a substitute for customary chocolates. His wife had decided to cut back on sweets, and he wanted to be supportive. That’s what led Daniel to buy and gift wrap packages of frozen okra and asparagus. What better way is there I mused for a man to say, “I love you,” than with frozen vegetables?

Daniel’s story opened my mind to a panacea of ideas that reach far beyond the food isle. My focus has been on the yard while I’ve ruefully overlooked the kitchen. But now the thoughts of copper pots, knives that slice aluminum cans, and airless fryers at super-special TV pricing have my adrenalin pumping too fast to take an afternoon nap. Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but for me Daniel Schantz has elevated gift buying to another level.

My father was a devotee of practical thinking, and I am my father’s son. That’s all I’ll say for now, as the loving wave of my wife is beckoning. It’s time to empty the wheelbarrow again.

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Fashion

Fashion, admittedly, is not my forte. My father wore khaki pants six days a week and dress pants on Sunday. That’s akin to the path I’ve generally followed through life, simple and practical. I clearly lack any credentials that would justify my commenting on today’s fashion trends among men, women, or those who are straddling the fence. But a lack of qualification has rarely hindered me from expressing an opinion, so here are a few observations.

Body piercings are something I don’t understand, except those in earlobes, which have a long tradition of aesthetically pleasing effects when adorning a lady or lass. On February 11, 2021, Entertainment Tonight featured a young woman who had sprayed Gorilla Glue on her hair, then realized it was a poor choice. They mentioned she has three children, so maybe that’s what the two nose rings and one in her lip represent. If she took a parenting class, perhaps they should give her a refund. The example she’s setting as a mother seems to reflect a pattern of questionable decisions.

Allergies have always bothered me, but apparently that’s not the case with people who sport nose rings. And a lip ring it seems would be hard to keep free of ketchup and other condiments. It could, however, provide a convenience by attaching a tiny reusable toothpick.

Some people have rings in their eyelids, cheeks, and places which shouldn’t be mentioned in a family friendly column. They set off beepers on airport scanners and avoid giant magnets which could ruin their day.

Without doubt, however, the worst placement for a piercing I have personally seen was a tongue ring, or maybe it’s called a stud. In a contest of bad ideas that young lady would have a good shot at a blue ribbon. If having a hole punched in your tongue didn’t take first place, I wouldn’t want to know what won. Some things we can’t unsee.

The most unusual decorative body alteration I’ve heard of was spotted a few years ago at Borum’s Service Station in Unadilla. A young man passing through on I-75 had car trouble and was towed there for repairs. The fellow had two protruding horns which were implanted beneath the skin in his forehead.

What the horns represent may be subject to speculation, but I would hate to share a tent with that guy on a camping trip. Adding horns to the head must be an intricate procedure. No doubt the devil is in the details. Thank goodness many of the restrictions on military service have recently been lifted. That lad should now be eligible to enlist and be all that he can be. God help his fellow soldiers.

Tattoos are another fashion area I don’t understand. I’m not referring to the small renderings which represent something significant or have artistic appeal. It’s the massive portraits that cover arms and bodies and even faces that seem a bit excessive. I will admit to once admiring the ship anchors tattooed on a young man at Mock Springs, the ice-cold swimming hole of my youth.

I was a kid of maybe ten or so, and he was probably in his mid-twenties or beyond. Perhaps he was in the Navy or had been at some point, because he had a blue anchor prominently featured on the calf of each leg. What first drew my attention was his girlfriend, a beauty queen who surely had a bookcase full of tiaras at home. It occurred to me those anchors may have kept her from drifting afar on the ocean of love, so I made a mental note that if I ever got inked to follow his lead.

Since I’ve managed this long without anchors, I’ll probably just stay the course. But I mention them to acknowledge the charm of some tattoos. I just don’t understand going overboard in using human flesh as a canvas. The man at the fair had ink everywhere, but at least he got paid for it.

Space won’t allow me to cover hair styles, attire, or figure reshaping so here are some quick thoughts. I don’t understand buying new jeans with factory tattered knees, how to get shampoo out of dreadlocks, adding fillers to emulate a Kardashian derriere, or Lady Gaga’s inauguration dress.

There is one personal fashion decision I look back on with a tinge of regret. My long-ago choice to part with a 1973 light blue leisure suit with dark blue trim was not fully thought out. Had I kept it, someone today would likely marvel at its odd splendor and pay a premium to have it in their wardrobe.

I could, however, be mistaken about that. Fashion, admittedly, is not my forte.

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Points to Ponder

George Bailey is a name which brings instant recognition. Jimmy Stewart played that memorable role of a small-town banker in the 1947 Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t let another year go by. It won’t hurt a thing to watch it out of season.

There’s another George Bailey, a real one, who hails from Dooly County. He was born in Vienna in 1939 and grew up working with his father at H. H. Bailey Grocery. Unlike the movie character, Vienna’s George left his hometown and headed to Atlanta in 1957 after high school graduation. He moved away the same year I turned five, but we’ve gotten to know each other through my column.

George reads my weekly musings online and sometimes posts a comment for one he’s especially enjoyed. In January, after reading “Wish List 2021,” he credited me with providing some good “points to ponder.” That struck me as a great name for a column, so I generously rewarded him with 100 points.

Now, however, I’m in a bit of a quandary. He wants a catalog.

My friend George is suspicious that the points I gave him aren’t on par with S&H Green Stamps. Just between us, they’re not even close to Blue Horse Notebook Paper coupon prizes. For the sake of full disclosure, my rewards program is not an original concept. It was copied from a television series which ran a number of years back, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Jane and I enjoyed that weekly show which featured Wayne Brady, Ryan Styles, Colin Mochrie, and other notable comedians doing impromptu skits before a live audience. I’m not sure an audience can be anything other than live, but maybe that’s a point to ponder. It was filmed in California so I shouldn’t make assumptions. Drew Carrey, the host, would describe a situation then shove the comics out an open plane door to fly or die. It was amazing how quickly they sprouted wings.

Drew opened the show by saying, “Welcome to Whose Line Is It Anyway, the show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.” That’s the same system I diligently adhere to. No matter how many points you accumulate, there’s no need to secure them in your safety deposit box. Redeeming points at Joiner’s Corner is harder than finding an Amish electrician.

Perhaps I should have made a list of points to ponder in today’s column, but instead I’m only covering the first one that came to mind: Why did Arnold George Dorsey change his name to Engelbert Humperdinck?

I’ve read that when Arnold was struggling to launch his music career, his manager suggested a rebranding. That same manager had been successful in steering Thomas John Woodward to stardom, the singer better known as Tom Jones. Success is hard to argue with, but also hard to define at times. 

Some name changes are easy to understand. John Wayne seems ideal for a big fearless guy on a horse. It evokes an image of boldness which was perhaps lacking as Marion Robert Morrison. But he’d have probably become The Duke under either name and would have sounded just as convincing when he said, “Drop that or I’ll blow ya straight to Jesus.”

And Roy Rogers clearly has more melodic appeal than Leonard Franklin Slye. My father grew up when Roy was King of the Cowboys on the big screen. My memories are of watching his television series and admiring how he would shoot the gun out of another man’s hand instead of killing him. It can’t always work that way in real life, but it’s a worthwhile approach when circumstances allow.

Roy was a man of faith and character, a professing Christian who tried to set a good example for others. An old quote of his still rings true. “Today they’re making pictures that I wouldn’t want Trigger to see.” Roy died in 1998. I don’t know how far back that quote dates, but the trend toward trashy entertainment keeps gaining momentum on big screens, stages, and remote controls.

Whatever name we remember Roy Rogers by, he left another quote worth pondering. It seems a perfect way for a singing cowboy to bid his friends adieu, so maybe it’s okay for a rambling columnist too. He said, “Until we meet again, may the good Lord take a liking to you.” And many years later a gray-haired kid with a small corral of words added a heartfelt, “Amen.”

Hopefully, you’ve found a few points worth considering today. Now it’s time to do some pondering of my own. I don’t have a clue what to tell George Bailey about that catalog.

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Silver Linings – Part 2

I ran a column in February which explored the veracity of an old saying, “Behind every cloud there’s a silver lining.” Working on that piece led me to think about a couple of Bible stories which can be used to further consider that adage. Both of my regular readers know these accounts better than I do, so I’ll give a condensed version.

Joseph was the first character who came to mind. He led a charmed life as the youngest and most loved son of his father, Jacob, but that caused his brothers to hate him. One day, while wearing a coat of many colors Jacob had given him, Joseph went to check on his brothers who were grazing the family’s sheep. Joseph’s jealous siblings threw him into a dry cistern and discussed killing him, but instead sold him into slavery to some merchants traveling to Egypt. Joseph’s brothers dipped his special coat in goat blood and took it to their father, deceiving Jacob into thinking his beloved son had been killed by a wild animal.

The merchants sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials in Egypt. Joseph fared well as Potiphar’s slave until falsely accused of trying to seduce his owner’s wife. While imprisoned, God kept him safe and eventually provided a way for his release. Joseph went from prison to prominence as he became the second most powerful man in the nation at the young age of thirty. He answered only to Pharaoh himself. Years later God used Joseph to rescue his father and large family, including the brothers who had betrayed him, from a seven-year drought and likely starvation.

Revenge is what Joseph’s brothers expected, but grace is what they found. Genesis 50:20-21 helps us understand how he was able to respond with merciful love. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” Joseph wasn’t tempted to get even. He saw the silver lining behind the cloud.

Jonah is the next biblical character I thought about. The Book of Jonah is not big but it’s a whale of a story. It begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach. Jonah, however, despised the Ninevites, so he went in a different direction to Joppa and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.

God sent a great wind, a terrible storm that threatened to split the ship apart. Jonah somehow remained asleep below deck until the frightened sailors awakened him. The crew cast lots, which indicated Jonah was to blame for the raging seas. Those mariners tried diligently to row back to land but it was useless. Jonah told them they could save themselves by throwing him overboard.

A more heroic approach would have been for Jonah to have offered to jump but he apparently wasn’t quite up to that. So, the men counted to three as they swung him back and forth, I’m guessing, and tossed him as far as they could, probably hoping he wouldn’t try to swim back. And that’s when Jonah met the big fish God had prepared to take him on an all-inclusive three-day oceanic adventure.   

Confined inside that great fish, Jonah found the inspiration to pray. When he asked for forgiveness, God told the fish to spit him out on dry land. Once again God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.  This time he obeyed, but his heart wasn’t in it. He reluctantly proclaimed the ominous message God had given him to that city of over 120,000 people. “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.”   

And a most amazing thing happened – “The Ninevites believed God.” They fasted and wore sackcloth, gave up their evil ways, and called on the Lord for help. When God saw their repentance, He had compassion and spared them from destruction.

It seems Jonah would have been thrilled with such an awesome response to the message God chose him to share. He was, however, so angry he wanted to die. Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved God’s mercy. Their demise would have suited him better. The book concludes with God questioning Jonah about his hateful attitude. Scripture doesn’t record his response.  

Joseph and Jonah each faced challenging ordeals. One man saw the silver lining and rejoiced. The other was bitter. He didn’t approve of how God had used him. There’s no doubt God provides silver linings in abundance, but He leaves it up to us to claim them. He leaves it up to us to look past the clouds.   

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Entomology

In the fourth grade I became a card-carrying member of the Dooly County 4H Club. My affiliation came about when Mrs. Carolyn Cromer visited the Unadilla Elementary School cafeteria on a recruiting mission. When she mentioned we would occasionally be excused from class for club activities, the sign-up line quickly expanded beyond the metal lunchroom doors to our foot-powered merry-go-round. The roundabout’s speed was limited only by how fast one could run before jumping aboard.  

During the enlistment frenzy Miss Carolyn sat at a table where we could discuss options for individual projects. Some of my friends chose areas which seemed rather mundane, while I scanned the list for something impressive. That’s why I selected entomology.

“Are you interested in becoming an entomologist?’ Miss Carolyn asked. 

“Yes ma’am,” I confidently replied. “It seems like an interesting field.”

As I proudly recorded my name and choice, she handed me a brochure which described the entomology project. It was a terrible shock to discover entomology involves insects. I had thought it sounded like a specialty field in medicine, something a family physician might determine was needed. “There’s nothing more I can do for you, Mr. Smith, but I’ll refer you to our esteemed entomologist. I feel certain Dr. Joiner can provide the help you need.”

I considered changing projects, but my name was on the dotted line and the eraser on my pencil was already down to the metal. As soon as I got home, I walked up the road to Joiner’s Store and asked Uncle Emmett for a couple of cigar boxes. He gave me a King Edward and a Swisher Sweets.

On Saturday, Mama and I went to the Harmony-Smyrna Cemetery where we salvaged some green Styrofoam from the discarded flower pile. I carefully carved it with my Barlow pocketknife to fit snuggly into the boxes, then began my insatiable quest for bugs.

The hunts were quite productive the first few days. I trapped or swatted a house fly, horse fly, blow fly, dragonfly, yellow fly, and butterfly. The only one I felt a little guilty about was the butterfly. She was a beauty, orange with black spots and a wingspan twice as big as the common yellow variety. I felt a tinge of remorse for ending her life prematurely but was reconciled by the way her bright colors enhanced my bland assemblage. Featuring her in a centerpiece role helped temper my regrets about her demise.

My insect collection efforts soon transitioned from relentless to sporadic. Over the next few weeks, I only added a grasshopper, cricket, and June bug. Thankfully, my mother and grandfather supplemented my lackluster approach. Granddaddy Hill bravely captured one of every winged insect which God armed with a stinger. A bumblebee and hornet ranked near the top finds of that group with a common wasp and honeybee for variety. He also somehow snagged an elusive water bug and a rare praying mantis who died peacefully with his arms folded.

Mama contributed multiple spiders and a ladybug, which she explained with intensity was a beneficial insect that normally should not be euthanized. She also caught a daddy long-legs, a unique addition that looked splendid until I closed King Edward’s lid too forcefully. Elmer’s Glue allowed a reattachment of his skinny limbs but two of them somehow ended up pointing toward heaven, an oddity which I suggested during my presentation to the club might be due to a rare mutation.   

Thirty-seven insects were precisely arranged and secured with pins from Mama’s sewing box. I cut tiny strips of Blue Horse notebook paper for labels and realized too late it was impossible to write legibly on those little slivers. The bug names should have been penned before the paper was cut, but I stuck with the originals rather than wasting another sheet. My efforts were clearly reflected in the completed project, for which I was awarded a prestigious “Certificate of Participation.” 

When I first realized entomology’s connection with insects it bugged me. But I learned new things on that unplanned path, so the next year I again ventured beyond my comfort zone by registering for public speaking. As my sweaty hands nervously gripped a podium on an Americus stage, my stomach winced from the flutters of a thousand butterflies. And I knew that a once lovely monarch centerpiece had been amply avenged.             

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A Rogue Hen

Some stories evolve until it’s impossible to separate truth from fiction. This may be one of those stories. My first paying job was gathering eggs from a dozen or so White Leghorns who lived in our backyard. That’s how I learned you can’t reason with a chicken.

Our frame henhouse was 16 feet long and 10 feet wide. Wire cages with pine straw bedding and open fronts were mounted on the short north wall. A two-tiered roosting perch ran the full length on the longer west side. In the back corner a small opening allowed access to the great outdoors.

Their fenced yard was about 50 feet long on all four sides, providing plenty of room for the few layers we had. A small peach tree, which never bore fruit, had limbs low enough a hen with even a smidgen of ambition could reach one near the bottom. Occasionally an industrious chicken would make it to the top, escape over the eight-foot fence, then look for a way to get back inside. Chickens can be rather indecisive.

My daily routine was to put ground corn from Giles & Hodge Purina in the round metal feeder, make sure their water bowl was clean and full, then gather the eggs. I was paid a penny per egg, which totaled close to a dollar by the Saturday payoffs. It was easy work and good money for a seven-year-old.

After a few weeks on the job, Daddy began rounding my earnings up to a dollar. I think he realized I was struggling with how much to put in the offering plate on Sundays. With a dollar I knew to give a dime, but odd amounts like 87 cents presented a challenge. I tried not to exceed the minimum requirement except maybe for Lottie Moon or Annie Armstrong.

Those chickens and I got along fine most of the time. In addition to a steady income, I enjoyed the fringe benefit of scrambled eggs six mornings a week. We had cereal on Sundays since that was Mama’s day off. Serving cereal for breakfast allowed her to leisurely cook a big dinner for us and the preacher’s family before she left to teach Sunday School. 

A rooster had lived on our farm until he made a fatal mistake of attacking my older brother, Jimmy, who was six at the time. Although I was too young to remember the rooster, some of the hens had fond recollections. Every now and then one of them would guard a warm egg beneath her in hopes of raising a family. Those setting hens would stubbornly refuse to let me retrieve their unhatchable eggs. 

When a kid is eye level with a chicken, their razor-sharp beaks look like an invitation to disfigurement. They stare intensely with unblinking eyes while erratically cocking their heads in a uniquely disturbing manner. I figured they were hoping to blind me or maybe worse. That’s why I used a little red stick to encourage them to follow the rules.

It was a small round stick that had once been attached to a popper, a toy which made a popping sound as the wheels rolled. The clear plastic bubble had broken when I tried to ride it, but the surviving stick was perfect for sliding beneath uncooperative hens. I could wiggle it around and lift them up enough they would reluctantly stretch their wings and make the short hop to the ground.

That system worked perfectly until one day when a hen went rogue. I explained as reasonably as possible that her food and lodging were a tradeoff for eggs, but she wouldn’t budge. Ever so gently I pried until she finally stood. Rather than harmlessly gliding toward the ground, however, she flew straight at my bare head. I took a step back and swung in self-defense. She squawked one time and died. The very next afternoon I promptly reported the discovery of a dead chicken.

I’ve heard folks from earlier generations say death comes in threes. Well, that’s how it was at our house. After the third casualty from undetermined causes, Mama decided to start buying our eggs in town. She began thinning our flock one at a time, ringing their necks with a windup which launched them skyward for twenty feet or so. It was quite a year for dumplings but took a while for me to appreciate the lessons with which they were seasoned.

Gathering eggs is what helped me understand there are some critters you can’t reason with. Usually, it’s best not to waste time trying. And it’s where I stumbled upon a principle that can be beneficial but warrants great discretion. I learned from those setting hens that even when reason is sure to fail, sometimes a little red stick will prevail.

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Awkward Moments

The February issue of Reader’s Digest included an invitation to share a memory which always brings a smile. I submitted one from late in the summer of 1974. It happened shortly after I graduated from college and had begun working with Burroughs Corporation in Tallahassee, Florida. The occasion is easily recalled because it was a rather awkward moment.

Burroughs was a leading manufacturer and seller of computers. They had an innovative array of products which I would soon be learning to market. Before joining Burroughs, the only computer I’d been close enough to touch was in a programming class at Valdosta State College. It was bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, used punched cards for processing, and required Arctic like conditions to avoid a meltdown of the vacuum tubes. The heat-spawning behemoth was housed in a walk-in cooler amidst cardboard boxes of an unidentified substance served on Thursdays in the cafeteria.

Similar massive systems were offered by Burroughs, along with a line of desk-size mini-computers for less demanding business needs. Those were the ones I was to be taught how to sell at a company facility in Tampa. Meanwhile, I had a few days with nothing pressing to do.

A staff of highly capable technicians took care of software and equipment matters. The sales force was strongly encouraged to stick with marketing and leave technology issues to the folks who had graduated with honors. Burroughs implemented that policy before my name was on payroll, but there’s no doubt my single venture into the tech world gave credence to their decision.

The Decatur County Sheriff’s Department bought a computer system about the time I began my career. One of the Burroughs’ technicians, an extremely capable man named Denny, oversaw the installation. After he returned from Bainbridge to Tallahassee, Denny realized a data line needed to be connected to the modem. His plate was loaded, so he asked if I’d mind driving up to Georgia to attach it.

“Be glad to,” I said, tickled to have a reason to get out of the office, astutely asking as I headed towards the door, “What’s a modem?”

“It’s a little gray plastic box near the computer. After you take the cover off, you’ll see a small wire that needs to be secured. Call me when you’re done so we can test the system.”

The poet Alexander Pope once wisely wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” An outing to Bainbridge, Georgia, helped me understand more clearly what Mr. Pope meant.  

Sharply dressed in my black suit, white shirt, and silk power-tie, I strolled confidently into the sheriff’s department, knowing they would be impressed by the wet ink on my business cards showing I was a bona fide MARKETING REPRESENTATIVE. The chief deputy escorted me to an office where I immediately spotted the modem on a little table by the computer.

I didn’t have a screwdriver, so the deputy borrowed one from a prisoner, a trustee I assumed. It was a bit surprising to see how many screws were holding that cover in place. My work had hardly begun when the deputy inquired, “Are you certain that needs to be done?

“Yes sir,” I assured him. “It won’t take but a minute to fix this once the cover is off.”

Denny called to check on my progress, wondering why he hadn’t heard from me. I told him a dozen screws had been removed with just a few to go. He paused, probably in hopes I was kidding, then whispered so no one could overhear, “I don’t know what you’re taking apart,” he said, “but the modem cover only has one screw.”

That’s when I saw a familiar pattern of letters that gave me a queasy feeling. Z E N I T H. As soon as I put the screws back in, the deputy picked up the tiny television and spoke in a polite but non-negotiable manner. “I’m going to move this out of your way,” he said, while slowly backing out the room.

I quickly found the real modem, attached the data line, returned the screwdriver to the prisoner, and grabbed my business card off the front desk. Sometimes I wonder what that deputy told the sheriff, but it may be best not to know. I can’t speak for him, but for me it was a rather awkward moment.   

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Following Mug

I followed Mug, our brown boxer, into a field of wheat when I was almost four. She was probably past seventy in people years, but may have seemed older than she was because of her limp. Mug’s hobbled gate went as far back as I remember, the result of having too much success in catching a passing car. Success can come with a heavy cost, especially if we chase the wrong things.    

In the winter months Mug noticeably favored her injured leg. On the coldest mornings Mama would let her come inside to warm by the gas heater in the kitchen. She doctored Mug with Bayer aspirin tucked in a biscuit flavored with warm bacon drippings from her cast iron skillet. Sometimes I wondered if Mug exaggerated her limp just to get a treat.

Warm weather was much kinder to Mug’s bad leg. The sunny spring days of 1956 inspired her to wander into the ripening wheat growing on the farmland beside our home. She was probably tracking a rabbit’s trail but didn’t explain her intentions that I recall. 

Mug led the way far into the field of tall wheat, two adventurers exploring uncharted territory. Even when I couldn’t see her, I knew where she was from the limber stalks moving as she parted them to make a path. But I ambled along too slowly or maybe she ran too fast. With Mug out of sight the wheat seemed less inviting as it towered menacingly above my head. I called her name as loudly as I could, but she didn’t come.

I walked on for a while, hoping to find Mug or the edge of the field. No breeze could be felt in the jungle and once pleasant sunlight became stifling heat. Prickly heads of grain scratched my face and arms and made me wish I had stayed in our yard under the pecan tree. But Mug had grown tired of making mud pies and we already had more than enough for supper.     

The sun grew hotter and the wheat more foreboding as misery and fear enveloped me in a way I’d never known. So, I did what my muddled thinking suggested. I sat on the ground and cried. 

Mama looked for me in all the likely places. She checked both shelters and the barn and the pasture with its ancient persimmon tree. She shouted my name, but I didn’t hear. It’s hard to listen while crying I’ve since learned. But when Mama paused to pray, she heard my distant sobs.    

She carried me to our backyard faucet and washed my face and arms. Mug lapped at the dripping water, not waiting for it to fall into her bowl. As Mama dried my face with her apron, I scratched Mug gently behind her ears, knowing she wasn’t to blame. 

Daddy later taught me what to do if I ever got lost again. He said to look up and fix my eyes on something in the distance, like a treetop, a light pole, or the shiny tin at the top of the barn. He told me to walk in a straight line toward the place I wanted to go, that if we focus on what’s close to us, we can end up going in circles.     

It took a while for me to realize the tall wheat wasn’t the cause of my woes. My problem was looking at where I was rather than where I wanted to go. I’d been staring at ground level obstacles instead of searching the sky for direction. And even though I now understand that’s a foolish approach, there are times it still happens.

When my focus is on troubles more than solutions, I sometimes think about Mug and the lessons from that day. And I find comfort in what a man after God’s own heart wrote long ago.    

King David, in Psalm 121:1, said, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” I hadn’t yet memorized any scriptures back when Mug led me into the field, and I can’t quote many verses today. But I know the One who inspired the psalmist to look upward, and I’m thankful He knows me.

Several decades ago I wrote an early version of this story. That’s when it first occurred to me that getting lost in our wheat field was a blessing. I’m glad an old dog with a limp reminds me of something I find tempting to ignore. The best way to stay on the path that leads home is to keep looking upward. Perfect guidance can only come from above.    

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Silver Linings

A January column, “The Blessing of Light,” reflected on how the overcast days of winter are pleasantly interposed by the radiance of sunshine. Cynthia, a good friend since grammar school days, aptly related that sentiment to an old adage: “Behind every cloud there’s a silver lining.”

I don’t know if that saying is always true, or if like the wisdom quotes in Proverbs it’s a premise not a promise. Either way, the concept of searching for silver linings seemed worthy of a closer look.

Everyone who reads today’s musings probably has a silver lining story somewhere in their past. Sometimes, though, it takes effort to see it. Silver, I suppose, is just a lighter shade of gray. I’ll share one of my personal stories with you that’s still evolving. Then I’d love to hear one of yours.

My sense of direction is nil, a word which I believe is not coincidentally pronounced almost like my name. If you’ve read Joiner’s Corner for a while, you know I’m not opposed to exaggeration, but when I say I have no sense of direction, that’s quite factual. And in my case, it’s not a problem which is confined to unfamiliar highways or walks in the woods. It accompanies me wherever I go.

When I leave one of the exam rooms at Dr. Ricky Stevens’ office, I’m usually unsure whether to turn right or left in the hallway. If they blindfolded me and spun me around a few times, I could be trapped there forever. And if I am compelled someday to take a cognitive test with directional challenges, I may as well wave the white flag of surrender. Or run for the exit and pray I can find it.

Several years ago, my brother, Jimmy, and I went to see a resident in a Perry nursing facility. Our longtime family friend, Julius Bembry, was in the memory care unit at Summerhill. We punched in the passcode on the keypad to access that secured part of the building.

After our visit we headed to the same door, positioned near the nurses’ station, which we had entered through earlier. I tapped in the passcode, pulled the door wide open, then motioned for Jimmy to walk ahead of me. Our mission would have been successful had we been sent for fresh towels.

It took a moment to fully register I was staring into the linen closet. A few feet to our right was the door with no prizes behind it. “We better run,” I said to Jimmy, “or they’ll try to keep us.”

Highways are even worse than hallways. I’ve been lost in more places than I can remember. Back in my days with Burroughs Corporation in Tallahassee, I sometimes turned in less mileage than I’d driven. My thinking was it might appear I was padding my miles for extra reimbursement, so I’d shave off what I estimated was due to my own faulty wiring. That practice cost me a few dollars as my gas guzzling Malibu only got eleven miles per gallon. To break even I would have needed an Allstate moped.

One of my more memorable detours came in 1989 when our triplets were ten years old. Our family of five flew from Georgia to California and back by way of Atlanta. After we returned to Hartsfield International Airport, Jane and our daughters, Erin and Carrie, stayed with our luggage. Seth backpacked with me on the long hike to the ultra-low budget parking lot to see if our van still had wheels.

We made three loops around the airport in heavy traffic as I tried to maneuver our blue Chevy Astro into the right lane. On our third pass I managed, without effort or intention, to leave the Hartsfield property. Twenty minutes later a big green sign was pointing us toward South Carolina. Seth, his eyes brimming with unshed tears, inquired rather anxiously, “We’re lost, aren’t we Daddy?”

Feigning all the confidence I could muster, I answered cheerfully, “Oh no, Son, we’re not lost!” Then I pointed toward the sky and asked if he could see the plane that was passing over us. He nodded he could, so I continued. “We’re not lost,“ I assured him again. “All we have to do is figure out where those planes are landing and drive over there.”

You may be wondering how a silver lining can be found in having no sense of direction, and I’m not certain I can readily explain. But I know that a flaw, which can be frustrating at times, has taken me down some roads I’m glad I traveled but would not have chosen.

I believe it’s true that behind every cloud there’s a silver lining, but I can’t say for sure. A single story that’s only mine doesn’t really prove anything. That’s why I’d love to hear your story too. 

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A One-Winged Angel

It’s hard to know what to do with a one-winged angel. She’s just concrete molded into yard art, but I don’t feel right about discarding her. The serene young lady faithfully watched over my wife’s flower garden for years, standing with her head slightly bowed and hands pressed together in prayer.

How she lost her right wing has escaped me if I ever knew. Maybe she was toppled in a storm and had an awkward landing. Or there may have been a hairline fracture which time and weather exploited. A tiny crack left unattended can become a gaping hole.

Last summer I took the angel to the farm, planning to toss her into a gulley which rain has patiently dug. But I changed my mind and put her under the shelter instead. I’ve left her there because she helps remind me that we’re all broken to some extent. Sometimes the breaks are insignificant and only minor inconveniences. In other situations, they’re severe and not always repairable.

As I was writing this column three areas came to mind where brokenness is frequently manifest. The first and sometimes most obvious is physical. Just like the one-winged angel, health issues can leave deep scars or even wounds that won’t heal.

COVID-19 has viciously demonstrated how quickly life can change. Countless other illnesses, diseases, and physical problems were here long before this pandemic and will be around after it’s no longer front-page news. Physical brokenness ranges from the invisible to being highly pronounced.   

In the latter part of 2020 I had some sporadic foot pain that was quite annoying for a few months. Then I saw a picture of a group of ladies who had lost one or more limbs while serving our country. Despite their tragedies they were all smiling. I don’t know the stories behind their smiles, or how readily they cope with ongoing challenges, but that photograph helped remind me I don’t really have any problems, just small nuisances that don’t merit complaint.

Emotional brokenness is another area that’s common yet sometimes unseen. Jane and I have been reading daily devotionals in Guideposts for decades. She read them several years before finally convincing me to give it a try. One of the longtime writers is a lady whose husband and children suffer with depression and other mental health issues. I read her short biographical sketch in the 2021 book which said she enjoys the “solitude” of taking the subway to a new job. Finding gratitude in subway trips to work is almost more than I can fathom. I hope on the days when there’s standing room only, someone will offer her a seat. Opportunities for much-needed kindnesses are all around us just waiting to be claimed. 

A third area of brokenness is spiritual. It continues to worsen, even though a cure is available to all who will accept it. A primary difficulty in resolving spiritual brokenness is our tendency to put our own desires ahead of everything else. Some say there is no God, so self-gratification in the present moment is all that matters. Others acknowledge the possibility of God but have no interest in knowing Him personally. 

But perhaps the most troubling are those of us who comfortably tread in lukewarm water. We believe in God and may even profess Christ as our personal Savior, but then we settle for the tepid waters of personal preferences, offering God only a small part of ourselves.   

In Revelation 3:15 Jesus told the church at Laodicea, “I wish you were cold or hot, but because you are neither cold nor hot, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Spiritual brokenness comes in many ways, but a half-hearted approach to our faith is among the most problematic. Lukewarm water is inviting. It tempts us with the allure of temporary comfort and safety.   

Someday I’ll probably do something with that one-winged angel, but for now I’ll just leave her under the shelter. Her missing wing reminds me to pray about the brokenness around me and within me, especially about that which is of my own making. Too many times I’ve chosen the lukewarm water, venturing only to the edge of unfettered service.   

I don’t know what to do with a one-winged angel, but my faith is in the One who does.

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