Monday, March 28, 2016

The Boys in the Band

There’s an old Henny Youngman joke – ok, they’re all old, at this point – that goes something like this:

A violinist in an orchestra was playing a solo when a member of the audience stood and yelled, “Tell the sonofabitch to stop playing!”

The conductor turned and said, “Who called the violinist a sonbofabitch?”

And the man answered back, “Who called the sonofabitch a violinist?”

Anyway, I half-expect someone to yell out something like that whenever I tell anyone that I’m a guitar player. I’m just not very good. I try. I enjoy it. I know many of the chords. I could knock out “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” at a campfire. But that’s about it.

However, recently me and the boys have been getting together to play music. I use the term “boys” loosely since I’m often the youngest one there, and I’m about as old as the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the other hand, I’m not nearly as old as any of the Beach or Oak Ridge Boys.

It’s a pretty eclectic group – some of us have facial hair, some of us don’t. But we all have guitars, a passion for music and free time on Friday nights, at least until about 10, when we all start to get sleepy.

Our friend Millard hosts the party in his converted garage that has enough equipment to take The Who on tour. That’s the beauty of your kids growing up – disposable income.

We play a pretty wide range of music – anything recorded between the years 1973 and 1974 is fair game. Just kidding – we go back into the 60s sometimes.

Here’s how it works. Someone will suggest a song, and then someone will ask the key question – “How many chords does it have?” If the answer is 4 or fewer, then we give it a shot.

There’s a large screen TV, and the words and chords will scroll by as we play along. If it’s a song I don’t know by heart, I’ll sometimes forget to put my glasses on, which means that I can’t really see which chord to play, which means that I’ll just guess or try something, which means it will sound like badgers fighting because I almost always guess wrong. And the beauty of it – we don’t let it stop us. We just keep plowing through. Every now and then one of the better musicians in the group will look over in my direction with the same facial expression you get when you’re trying to figure out who just farted. It was me. I emitted a guitar fart. I’m sorry.

I’m thinking we should give this musical enterprise a name. I’ve suggested “Below Average White Band” but it hasn’t caught on.

I’m having a ball. It’s a healthy mid-life crisis activity that doesn’t carry the risk of jail time, barring the passage of a new noise ordinance. Some times I’ll even jump behind the drum kit for a song or two and bang away, until somebody yells, “Who called that sonofabitch a drummer?”

I own a very nice guitar, which I realize is not unlike Helen Keller owning a Coupe De Ville. But I don’t care. I’m going to show up on Friday nights and bang that sucker and play the wrong chords and sing like a cat in heat, until the cops shut us down or I just fall asleep. Rock on!

Friday, February 20, 2015

One Shade of Gray

I turned 50 last year, and one thing I noticed, other than the fact that I got irrationally indignant over receiving an AARP card in the mail, is that people start responding to you differently. You say certain things you’ve said for years, and suddenly, you get different responses.

Here’s an example. About the time I turned 40, I would punctuate some statement by saying, “But what do I know, I’m old.”

And the person would inevitably respond, “Hush, you’re not old!” Which is exactly what I wanted them to say. As each year passed, though, the responses changed. They would say “You’re not old,” but without the exclamation point in their voice. Then they would just kind of laugh. And finally, when you hit 50, the response is, “Well, that happens to everybody.”

Similar thing happened with my hair. At 40, gray hair started creeping in, so I would jokingly say, “I should dye my hair.” And the response would be, “No! It looks good.” Over the years that changed to “I like men with a little gray hair,” to “You look distinguished,” to what I get now, which is, “Yeah. You probably should.”

Speaking of hair, I was at the Fancy French salon where I get my hair styled – Le Fantastique’ du Sam’s, or as we call it in Henry County, Fantastic Sam’s – getting my voluminous locks shorn by my favorite stylist, Whitney or Lindsey or something like that. They have a lot of turnover there.

Is it a coincidence that the cute young hair stylist is the one who cuts my hair the best? Perhaps, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, she was talking to me, and admiring how much hair I have, and wisely avoiding mentioning the color, and I jokingly said, yeah, you’d hardly know I was an old man from looking at that.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m 50,” I said, with the pride of a 3-year-old holding up fingers to show his age. This is where the young hair stylist is supposed to say, “You’re 50? No way are you that old!”

Instead she says, “Oh, my mother just turned 50. But she doesn’t act old.”

Clearly, this girl was not interested in getting a big tip.

Reeling from that shot to the jaw, I went down to see my dad, and his friend was there, and she said “Your daddy told me you’re 54. Is that right?” Of COURSE it’s not RIGHT! Surely you misheard him, I said. So then he got in the car and I said “How old am I?” And he said “You’re 54.” I looked at him and said, “Are you sure about that?” He looked sheepish and said, “You’re right. I forgot. You’re 56.” I said, “You know, THIS is why we’re moving you into assisted living.”

People! What is wrong with you? I mean, heck, come on, I don’t care. I’m not sensitive about my age. I don’t care that people know that I AM 50 YEARS OLD! And yes, my doctor did tell me I should not get excited like this, but I just can’t help it.

My day got worse. An aunt I haven’t seen in a long time stopped by to visit. She’s 84 herself, but I marveled at how sharp she still seemed to be mentally, even though she was breaking down physically. She looked at me at one point and said, “What are you now, about 60?”
Did I mention that she appears to be losing it mentally????

I don’t know when you cross that threshold from being younger than you look, to looking your age, to just looking old. Short of buying a Corvette, there’s not a lot I can do about it now, anyway. I will go gracefully into that good night, be proud of my experience, impart wisdom to younger folks, and embrace my status as a seasoned citizen. Just after I get through burning that @#$^%W@%^ing AARP card I got in the mail last week.

Friday, January 16, 2015

There really is no place like home

I remember being a teenager, and my dad drove me and my mom out to this God-forsaken piece of land in the middle of nowhere in Lamar County to show it to us. I don’t remember the details exactly, but I’m pretty sure I was acting bored and petulant and pouty, because, as I mentioned, I was a teenager.

We got out of the car and all I saw was trees and undergrowth and no signs of civilization. I said, “Why are we here?”

Daddy said, “I bought this land. I’m going to build a house and we’re going to move here.”

Well, I thought, this poor man has gone insane. We already HAVE a house. Who in the world would want to live out here? This is not the boonies. You can’t even SEE the boonies from here. This is like the suburb of the boonies.

Anyway, he decided not to build there, but soon solid that lot and bought some more land nearby, and set to work building a house.

Did you hear what I said? He BUILT a house. I can’t fathom doing this. The last time I opened something from IKEA I cradled a bottle of whiskey and sat on the floor crying for 30 minutes.

He didn’t totally build the house by himself – he contracted some of the work out – but the nails were hammered in by him, the bricks laid, the concrete poured. And did I mention he did this while still working at a real job at General Motors? He built cars all day, then went and built a house. Oh, and he built a barn. And he built a fence, to hold in the cow that he bought.

Ok, so the fence wasn’t so great. The wily cow managed to escape enough that it earned an early trip to the freezer. We ate steaks for quite some time after that. The message to other cows – remain content.

I helped build the barn. By help I mean, I scrambled up and down a rickety wooden ladder and toted his tools to him, while he tried to ignore the fact that I didn’t seem to know a socket wrench from a flugelhorn. And I helped build that fence. By help I mean took post-hole diggers and dug holes and whined it was too hot.

That house is still standing. The barn is still standing and full of farming implements that we can’t identify. The trees he planted have grown tall and provide shade over the impossibly large lawn that he has insisted on maintaining himself, even though he will turn 88 in May. Did you hear me? 88! This man served in the Navy and witnessed atomic bomb tests. He sweated in the foul air of a textile mill and then went to work building cars and trucks until he retired.

He has lived in that house for 35 years, the last 9 of them alone since my mother died. Other than his little dog Daisy, there’s been little to keep him company other than the crickets singing at night and the incessant crowing of the roosters from the nearby neighbor who decided to raise chickens (not many zoning regulations out in the country).

And now, he has decided it is time. It is time to stop driving his car everywhere. Time to stop sitting alone in that house and waiting in the driveway for the mailman to come. He has decided it is time to move into assisted living.

I promise you, this is not easy. After a year of driving dangerously that involved more than one accident, my brother and I had to tell him that we felt it was in his best interest – and everyone else on the road’s – if he discontinued driving. He took it about like you would expect a very independent man to take it. I think he knew we were right, but he also knew that he was having to give up a vital part of himself. It was heartbreaking.

I honestly think he will move into assisted living and take the place over. He’s never met a person who didn’t become his friend. The ladies will find him charming and the men will find him to a good fella. He may not always remember my name, but he is still sharp. He may not get around like he used to, but he is nowhere near feeble. I’m quite sure he could still kick my butt.

I am dreading the day, and it won’t be long, when he says goodbye to that house for the last time – the house he built, the house where finished raising me, the house where he loved my mama, his refuge after hard days of work, his castle. There will be tears shed, and sad faces, but there will be memories, memories of a house that was so much more than just wood and brick and concrete. It was, and will always be, home.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Running a half-marathon after living a half-century

Supposedly, you get smarter as you get older. But in truth, while wisdom does come age, it is sometimes accompanied by a stunning lack of judgment.

For example, in the middle of a nice hike in the north Georgia mountains with my wife Susan and daughter Allie recently, I wasn’t content to just gaze at the lovely waterfall at the end of the trail. No, I had to go walk across the rocks like I was a mountain goat, not realizing that one of them had apparently been greased with Crisco just before my arrival. I slipped and went down faster than Michael Spinks against Mike Tyson, landing on my shoulder, which I sprained, and on my head, which I’m pretty sure I concussed.

Being a man, I told everyone that I was fine, walked back to the car, drove back home, and quietly cried myself to sleep every night for a week until I went to the doctor and he gave me enough muscle relaxers to subdue King Kong.

I wasn’t going to let that little setback get in the way of more bad judgment, however, which is why a week later I found myself on the streets of Athens in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, getting ready to run a half-marathon with a couple thousand other total morons.

What made me do this? I’d run one before, so what the heck, I figured, I can do it again. Never mind the last time I did it was several years before those jerks at AARP had the nerve to mail me a membership card. For one thing, I resent the implication that I’m old. For another, at my current rate, I’ll be 102 years old (roughly) before I’m able to retire.

But 2014 has been a pretty rough year for me. I’ve had some things happen I never would have imagined, made some dumb decisions and suffered from some pretty back luck, so I figured I was due for something positive, thus my decision to train and complete the torture course known as the Athens Half Marathon.

We started running on Clayton Street in downtown before the sun even came up. I used to run the streets in Athens in the dark quite a bit when I was a student at UGA, but that was something different.

When you do something like run a half-marathon at the age of 50, there are couple of ways to look at it. One is, wow, almost everybody else doing this around me is younger than me, so I should feel pretty proud. And the other way to look at it is, wow, almost everyone else doing this around me is younger than me, so I must be totally insane.

I didn’t run fast. I got passed by a lot of people, including college-age girls, which again – I got pretty used to college girls running from me when I was a student at UGA.

My son David and I ran this race together. Well, not together, exactly. We ran it the same morning. He finished predictably well ahead of me. He had time to go home, shower, make a sandwich and take a nice nap before I finally crossed the finish line. But he isn’t carrying some of the baggage I am, like old injuries, 40 extra pounds and financial burdens. So, on a weighted basis, we probably tied, when you think about it.

The good news is, I finished the race, and with a time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, beat my goal by a minute. At the last part of the run, they let you do a lap inside the country’s greatest college football stadium, and when you finish they give you a bottle of water and one-fourth of a banana. OK, maybe that part wasn’t so great, but I also got an incredible sense of satisfaction. I might be seasoned, I might no longer have the body of an underwear model (Did I ever? I’ll let the reader wonder), and I might not be breaking any Olympic records. But for at least one morning, I felt that maybe I wasn’t over the hill quite yet. That alone convinced that maybe this decision wasn’t a bad one after all.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My personal commencement address

So, what advice do you give a brand new college graduate who is about to go out and truly face the world for the first time?

I will soon have one of those in my family. Allie will graduate from the University of Georgia in a couple of weeks. It is so hard to believe. The great John Prine once sang, “Time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps.” It feels like it was just last week when I was dropping her off at the decrepit dorm on a warm and bittersweet August day. It was not the Georgia humidity that caused the wetness on my cheeks as I drove away from Athens.

That is such a wonderful stage of life, a time full of wonder and anticipation and fear and excitement. A time of being on your own, of finding new friends and experiences and eating pizza five times a week. I am so proud of her for how she handled things. I got no phone calls in the middle of the night from the Athens police, never had to post bail or hunt down a male student to deliver justice.

Oh sure, there were some emergencies – a broken foot here, a fender bender there. There were some calls looking for advice, or guidance, or money – well, mostly money – but I don’t mind those. I’ll let you in on a secret about dads, we actually sort of like those kinds of calls. It makes us feel useful.

She made a lot of great friends and did a lot of meaningful work through Navigators, an on-campus ministry, in which her brother David is also active. She went to football games in the country’s greatest stadium, went to parties and dances and cookouts, spent long nights writing papers she’d put off doing and lazy days swinging in a hammock and reading. I am intensely jealous.

But, now what? Here comes the real world, the world of payments and commutes and idiot bosses and premature gray hair. The thought of leaving behind those friends and that social scene has to be frightening. I know it was for me, and I didn’t have nearly the collegiate experience she did. I was only at UGA for two years and lived off-campus with a group of fellow slackers and derelicts known as my friends.

I was completely unprepared for life as my college career ended. I guess my strategy was if I didn’t think about it, it wouldn’t be real. I mean, I had things pretty good. I had a lot of friends, I had my own apartment, I was playing drums in a band, and I was living in Athens, Ga., a town blessed by God and populated by lots of pretty girls. Why would I look forward to leaving that?

And then, about two weeks before graduation, I was at home on the weekend and my dad said “What are you going to do when you graduate?”

I said, “I dunno.”

He said, “Well, I know what you’re NOT going to do, and that’s just sit around here and do nothing. Go find a job.”

Thus ended our one and only conversation about my career prospects. I went out, and got a job, and have had one (mostly) ever since. Some have been good, some have been bad. Some paid me a lot of money, some paid me less than a sharecropper. I have had bosses who were great and I’ve had bosses who shouldn’t be in charge of an outhouse. It’s life.

This is not easy for a parent. On the one hand, you want your child to earn money. You want them to be able to support themselves and pay for their own car insurance and life insurance and cell phone bill and..hang on, I need to wipe the drool off my face.

But you don’t want them to make the same mistakes you have made. You don’t want them driving home from work and wondering if what they’re doing is positively impacting anyone, anywhere. You don’t want them waking up with a stomachache thinking about what they’ll be doing for the next eight hours. And you don’t want them one day to be filled with regret, asking themselves “How did I get here?”

So here’s what I will say, to my kids and to anybody in the same spot who will listen – figure out what you love to do, and find a way to do it. That is simple, but difficult – much like losing weight. Don’t take the path of least resistance. Don’t give up your ideals and dreams just because it’s not easy. (This works better if you play inspirational music while you’re reading, like maybe the theme from “Chariots of Fire”).

Will it be wonderful if this career path offers insurance and enough money so that you can live on your own and not have to eat like Oliver Twist? Well, yes. But never do anything just for the money. Keep the faith, don’t quit, and never forget who you are, and how you were raised, and what you have become. I promise if you do that, we’ll all be all right.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Repairing my reputation

I have never really considered myself much of a handy man. Nor has anyone who’s ever known me. I have always enjoyed working in the yard and keep a meticulous lawn, but inside the house, I was useless.

Oh, I would try to fix things. If something broke that was crucial to day-to-day living – toilets, for example -  I found a way to get it done. I have a lot of experience with toilets. (insert your own joke here).

But usually, when something was broken, I would make one attempt, decide it was too difficult to complete the needed repair, tell my wife I’d take care of it later and then hope she would forget about it.

Lately, though, I’ve been on a tear. I’ve been fixing stuff left and right, and I’m learning it’s not as hard I’d feared.

Here’s a case in point. We had a few light fixtures that hadn’t worked in years. I had replaced the light bulbs – that was in my skill set – but it hadn’t worked. So I chalked it up to some sort of mysterious wiring problem and put off calling an electrician, because they charge more per hour than a neurosurgeon.

But on a recent day, after fixing a laundry door that hadn’t closed in years (total repair time – 30 seconds) and replacing a smoke detector that had been disconnected since the Clinton administration, I looked at one of the light fixtures and thought, well, let’s just put a new light bulb in. You know, to confirm that it was a bigger problem.

It wasn’t a bigger problem. There was light.

“I fixed the lights,” I told my wife when she came home.

“What was wrong with them?” she asked.

“It’s technical and I won’t bore you with the details. But I was able to diagnose the problem and make the repairs.”

“You just put new light bulbs in, didn’t you?”

Dang it. How do they do that?

Anyway, I remembered that a repairman had once told me that those fixtures wouldn’t really handle anything more than 60-watt bulbs. He told me that about, oh, 10 years ago, and I had forgotten. I can remember all the words of “American Pie” and “Stairway to Heaven” every time they come on the radio, but sometimes I forget trivial things. It happens.

Our house is nearing 20 years old and was apparently built by the first two little pigs, so it’s been in need of some repairs lately – and by some, I mean a lot. Our house needs more maintenance work than Dolly Parton. And she’s much better built.

My wife watches these crazy TV shows where people (aided by an army of off-camera workers) take an old house and within the space of a 30-minute show, they’ve transformed a shotgun shack into the Playboy Mansion. These shows are clearly not real. They may as well have David Copperfield serve as host.

But my wife will watch, mesmerized as some male model makes it look like installing kitchen tile is as easy as fingerpainting, and then she says, “We should find an old house and redo it.” I either pretend I don’t hear her or I fake a heart attack until this madness passes.

The concept of buying a dilapidated house eludes me. You wouldn’t buy a rusty car that’s up on blocks and has holes in the floorboard.

My recent binge of repairs was prompted by a series of catastrophes in January.  A pipe froze and then burst when the temperature dropped to (approximately) minus-50 degrees one night, turning our entire downstairs into a kiddie pool.  As a result, we had to replace all the flooring and kitchen cabinets and a good portion of the drywall downstairs, so a demolition crew came over and ripped it all out, leaving us to live in a crack house for two months.

A local plumber/extortionist came out and repaired the leak, but apparently fixed the pipe with a piece of chewing gum, because two weeks later I came home to find water pouring out from under the front door. Now I’m not Bob Vila, but I knew that meant something was wrong.

Luckily with this break, nothing was damaged, since no actual repair work had begun. Which came in handy a week later when the damn pipe froze again, in large part because the wall was torn out and it was exposed.  This time my wife was home and has become well-acquainted with the water shut-off valve, and we weren’t even fazed.

“Well,” she said when she called me, “The house has flooded again.”

“Ok,” I said. “What’s for supper?”

Eventually, we got nice new floors and cabinets and drywall and fresh paint and something called a “backsplash”, all of which only served to illuminate the shabbiness of the rest of the house. So old Mark “Tool Time” Williams went to work, and now the house looks good enough for company, as long as we don’t let them go upstairs. Some of the lights up there don’t work.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Made in America

Made in America

October 25, 2013 at 4:39pm
For no particular reason the other day, while looking around at an interstate choked with Nissans and Toyotas and Hondas, I proclaimed loudly, “I am never buying a Japanese car.”
Why, my wife asked? (Apparently, I’d forgotten she was in the car).
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “My father fought against that country and died in World War 2. How could I in good conscience buy one of their cars?”
“Aren’t you taking your father to the doctor next week?” she asked.
“Well, yes. Men of that generation were a lot tougher than those today. You had to kill them more than once.”
This was in my mind because I had to buy a new car recently. My sporty 2000 beige Chevrolet Impala with the cracked windshield and functioning cassette deck was totaled in a hit-and-run accident. I settled on a nice new Buick, which I know takes my coolness factor from 1 to minus-20.
I decided early in the process that I would buy an American car. This commitment to the red, white and blue has not always served me well. I once bought a Dodge Shadow, which appears on just about every “Worst car of all time” list you can find. It had an engine built by Briggs and Stratton and was less reliable than George Jones in the '70s.
My father worked for many years at General Motors, so I’ve always been loyal to those brands. However, it is probably here that I should point out that two of my dad’s most recent vehicle purchases were a Dodge truck and a Ford sedan. So clearly, I’m the only one who cares.
Well, whatever. I yam what I yam.
As dad and I were driving up the interstate on the way to the doctor, I was expounding on my theory that it was a dishonor to his memory, even though he’s still alive, to buy a Japanese car. So the World War 2 veteran pointed to an Altima just head of us and said, “That’s a nice car.”
“Daddy!” I said. “That’s a Japanese car. I would never buy one of those.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Me either.” I also got him to agree that neither of us would ever buy any damn Korean car, though they never attacked us directly, and they came off as pretty decent people in all the M*A*S*H episodes I saw. Then I saw a nice Mercedes-Benz and said “Now, if I had the money, I wouldn’t mind one of those.”
“You know, the Germans were involved in World War 2, as well,” he said. Well, nobody’s perfect.
Now, I know plenty of people would accuse me of being small-minded or jingoistic or just behind-the-times when it comes to not buying foreign-made cars. Maybe so. Maybe I was too affected when I watched “Tora! Tora! Tora!” as a kid. But for me, I guess it will always be baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet – or at least a cool Buick.