The Poet’s Journey

I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday who is an award-winning poet with several collections published by a prestigious academic press.  She talks frequently about being depressed and frustrated as a writer, so I finally asked her about the source of the frustration.  Her reply was very intriguing.  She said her frustration comes from knowing that her words never get her quite to the place deep inside herself that she wants to find, explore, and reveal.  She gets close, but never has a sense of fulfillment.  The depression comes from the fear that she never will get there.

Perhaps her work is actually so good (and it is) because she is on a quest for something that will continue to elude her for the rest of her life, and she is not a young woman.  I am not suggesting that she is fighting the proverbial windmills, but I do think she is on a magnificent journey without necessarily knowing the intended destination.  Maybe that is, and always has been, the case with all good artists — the final destination is determined not by the traveler, but by the observers of the voyage after it is over.

Suggestions for the Wait Staff and Their Supervisors

I have a couple of gentle suggestions to restaurant waiters and their supervisors. To the waiter: it does not impress me when you try to memorize my order, thus not writing down what I am requesting for lunch or dinner. It actually irritates me when you attempt to memorize my order and then get it wrong. The irritation is magnified as the number of people at the table increases, and the potential number of mistakes goes up as well. I am perfectly happy for you to carefully write down my order, and even read it back to me to confirm. However, if you are memorizing my order because your supervisor demands that kind of service, then you are clearly not to blame. So, to the supervisors: encourage your waiters to write down their orders for the sake of getting it right the first time, which leads to better customer satisfaction, less incorrect orders going back to the kitchen, and more revenue for the restaurant.

Here is the second suggestion.  Please learn these two important phrases, which can never be overused and are appropriate in a multitude of situations during the course of a dining experience: “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”  I don’t expect you, as a server/waiter, to become ingratiating, and I’m not overly impressed with the exaggerated Chik-Fil-A-style response of “my pleasure” either.  However, when I hand you the menu back after placing my order, or if I hand the bread basket to you when it is empty, a simple “thank you” from you would be nice.  Likewise, I should say the same to you when you deliver items to the table and when you refill my glass.  It’s common courtesy. Obviously, you should thank everyone at the table at the end of the meal, especially when payment is being made and received.

Lastly, and this is most important, do not substitute “you’re welcome” with the phrase “no problem.”  The latter implies that you have gone out of your way to do a favor for the diner by providing service, which is not the case. The phrase implies that your action, under normal circumstances, would have caused undue stress or required a sacrifice, but you were willing to do so out of your generosity and graciousness without expecting any compensation.  That is not the arrangement you have with the diner at the table.  Unfortunately, I am hearing this phrase more and more often in restaurants, even very fine ones.  So, if you have a polite diner who is courteous enough to say “thank you” for your good service, please respond with “you’re welcome.”  Supervisors should make this simple dialogue central to training their wait staff.

Waiting tables may not seem like a career that one might typically aspire to seek, but it is certainly respectable.  In fact, I have had the pleasure of dining at some very fine restaurants where I was convinced the server was far better educated than I and had much better cultural awareness than I could hope to achieve.  On these occasions, dinner was far more than just a meal — it was a rich experience.  I have memories of such a dinner at a restaurant in Carmel by the Sea in California at a place called Casinova. Our waiter was a well-spoken gentleman, probably of Mediterranean heritage, in his mid to late fifties. He never smothered us, gave us just the right amount of information, and made us feel like we were his only customers, which was certainly not the case. He was as polished as any professional you would meet from a wide spectrum of fields.  He took his job seriously, and he was good at it.  He made the evening for my wife and me one to remember and cherish for the rest of our lives. And, he never once uttered the phrase “no problem.”

I Shouldn’t Need a Tool for This

I am getting old and crusty.  I am coming to terms with the transformation, recognizing the clear signs that it is getting more difficult for me to cope with certain circumstances.  No, I am not referring to aches and pains, fatigue, stiffness, or any other physical ailments.  I have them, but they are few and for the most part do not pose any real threats nor create significant obstacles.   My job is complex at times and generates the typical amount of stress that most professionals have to manage, but I certainly have no complaints there either.  From time to time, worrying about my children and their future keeps me awake at night, but considering all the grief some parents face with their kids, I consider myself rather fortunate.  I have the best wife a man could hope for — in that respect, I am the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.

So, what makes my blood pressure rise?  What makes me angry enough to use language that only comedian Sam Kinison would have dared use?  What makes me question if the advanced technology in this country may wind up destroying civilization and leaving us all in a helpless heap of hunger and despair?  Here it is: modern product packaging.  Surely you know what I’m referring to here.  For heaven’s sake, Wikipedia even has an entry for it titled “Wrap Rage.”

A girl is attempting to open a plastic package containing a light bulb.

When I pay good money for a product, I should be able to extract it from its package without undue hardship.  I should not have to hunt for a tool in my house to open the package containing my new screwdriver.  I should not have to look for bandages to cover the cuts on my hands from attempting to open my new box of Band-Aids.  I surely should not have to risk slitting a vein with a sharp object to get to my new pair of scissors.

Even the most common product packages sometimes send me into a tantrum.  I have practically crushed an entire bag of potato chips just trying to open the freekin’ thing.  The same goes for the semi-clear bag inside the cereal box, that must be sealed with glue used on the exterior of satellites.  And who hasn’t wrestled with the package containing those incredibly energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, like the poor woman in the photo?  How much energy do we lose just trying to get the damned thing out of the impregnable plastic?  I have come very close to throwing away a brand, spanking new CD rather than be forced to find a knife to slit the micro-thin, impenetrable covering that was apparently sealed onto the jewel case by magical forces beyond common human understanding.

And so, I find myself at the point in my life when I must ask the question that, sooner or later, all of us who reach the middle years will ask: why does it have to be so difficult?

The Undeniable Evidence for Evolution

When I am asked if I “believe” in evolution, as I have been many times in my life, I am somewhat at a loss with how to respond.  To believe in evolution implies that there is some level of faith required to accept that life on earth changes in order to adapt to the environment and to increase the chances of surviving and reproducing.  The evidence for such adaptation is so abundant that, to my way of thinking, denying it would require an extraordinary suspension of observation and reasoning.

Of course, I am keenly aware that when I am asked this question, the real query is “Do you believe that human beings evolved from lower life forms?” or the less- intelligent and poorly-informed version, “Do you believe we came from monkeys?”  The answer to the former would be an unequivocal YES, and the answer to the latter would be an equally emphatic NO.  Anyone who has taken an elementary course in biology knows the difference between those two premises, so I won’t bother with the distinctions.

I suspect the people who have the most difficult time accepting evolution as a scientific theory that explains so much about life on this planet are those who cling to religious beliefs that somehow run contrary to the evidence.  This conflict is especially true for people of faith who maintain a literal interpretation of ancient, sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran.  Evangelicals in America are so bound to their worldview of creationism by the hand of God that they will not allow themselves to be swayed by rationalism or overwhelming evidence.  I have even met scientists, teaching in universities, who cannot fully embrace human evolution as a fact because of their religious convictions.  The pressure to conform to supernatural explanations of natural phenomenon must be enormous.

Is it fear that prompts such denial?  Pride?  Does science pose such a threat to faith that adherents impose barriers to the most obvious truths rather than accept and embrace them?  I am absolutely baffled by people who can choose to believe the supernatural over the natural.

Exploring Yonah Lake on Kayaks

My younger son and I went out on the Hobie kayaks for the first time this season.  We explored a lake in northeast Georgia that we’ve never visited before: Yonah Lake.  We accessed the lake at Georgia Power Company’s campground, Tugaloo Park.  The lake is more like a very wide river winding its way between the hills near Tallulah Gorge.  The mountain laurel around the shoreline is still in bloom and quite beautiful.  There is at least one brook that feeds into the lake in a great little shady cove that we could reach with our yaks.  We also saw a guy skiing on a device that looked like a ski on top of an underwater blade.  He was obviously training, performing some pretty impressive flips on the wakes.  We will definitely come back to this spot again, perhaps to fish.

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Otoe-Missouria Buffalo Hunt in Silhouette

Buffalo Hunt Silhouette

This metal sculpture is on a hillside behind one of the new casinos in northern Oklahoma, just south of Arkansas City, Kansas.   The Otoe-Missouria Tribe was encountered by Lewis & Clark on their epic expedition of 1804, when the inhabitants were still living in their Nebraska tribal home.  So the story goes, the tribe was on a buffalo hunt, making Lewis & Clark wait on them to return to their village.  There are statues in front of the casino commemorating that “First Council” meeting.  The metal outdoor artwork obviously recalls the hunt.

I find the sculpture particularly striking because it produces a silhouette effect regardless of the outdoor lighting.  On an overcast day, like the one when I took this photo, the effect is quite pronounced.  The individual pieces are large, and in a photograph, you can almost be convinced that they are real.  I gasped when I first saw it and wondered why it was visible only from the back parking lot of the casino.  I think it is magnificent.  I hope that this fine display of art is not offensive to Native Americans, especially those in this particular area near the northern border of Oklahoma.  I hope it is considered a tribute to a culture and way of life now buried deeply in our country’s past, with all its beauty and its scars.

Bad News

I’m not quite sure when it happened, but somehow over the last few decades, news has become a commodity that is invented, developed, marketed, and sold much like a sports drink or a hair product.  The transformation seems most apparent in television network and cable news outlets.  It has been argued that the round-the-clock cable news companies completely changed the way the public thinks about information and how it is delivered.  And then there is the Internet.  Regardless of the origins, so much of our news is now completely consumer driven, and our consumers consist of a whole lot of people who are not so well educated and who crave entertainment.  Sensationalism is entertaining — give ’em what they want!  But what they want is certainly not what we all need to be truly informed.

Americans who get their news from the mainstream sources will likely be able to tell you how many people died in the latest plane crash, the identity of the latest victim kidnapped and/or murdered by ISIS, what Kim Kardashian was wearing at the Grammy Awards, which presidential candidate is ahead in the polls, and how many times a police officer shot an unarmed African-American man yet again.  What they probably won’t be able to tell you is the impact that drought is having on farmers in California that will adversely affect food prices across the country.  It is doubtful they will know anything about the violence raging in Libya and other areas of Africa, which is increasing the number of people fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.  They will likely be unaware of a new type of blood test that is starting to transform cancer treatment, sparing some patients surgical and needle biopsies.

I’m not trying to unfairly pick on CNN, but they are the leader in world news.  Yet, they have fallen into the sensational trap of providing shallow news.  A quick look at today’s headlines on their website reveals these tasty stories:

  • Johnny Depp’s dogs face deportation or death
  • Ex-NFLer accused of murdering prison cellmate
  • Rock singer discloses mental disorder
  • ‘Simpsons’ stalwart rejects $14M deal

And the top three stories are about the Amtrak train crash, which will probably dominate CNN and the other outlets for several weeks, leaving behind the search for more clues in the German airline crash into the Alps a few weeks ago — old news now.

Checking out other outlets like FOX News, CNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC will result in much the same material.  In addition to giving us bad news, the providers are also constantly trying to test the political, ideological, moral, and religious climate of their viewership.  Since the country is so deeply divided along those lines these days, we find the media organizations making choices about coverage and slanting their editorial content accordingly.  On top of sensationalism, we are also fed a steady diet of partisanship and divisiveness.  This isn’t comprehensive news — it’s very carefully selected information designed to keep the customer happy and coming back for more.  It’s like abandoning fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and meat for fast food and convenience-store snacks.  Some of like burgers while others like fried chicken, but none of it is very good for us.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.


Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.

My Grandmother’s Raunchy Side

I was raised in a morally-conservative Southern Baptist home.  Most of the cousins that I knew best were all Southern Baptists, as well as many of my friends, mainly because my circle of friends largely came from our church.  Drinking alcohol was a sin, plain and simple.  Dancing was frowned upon but tolerated by the time I was a teenager in the 1970s.  My mother was not fond of playing cards, unless they were game-specific like Old Maids, and much later, Uno.  She was suspicious of regular playing cards because she associated them with gambling, another sin of the infidels.  Most of all, sex was something extremely private and reserved ONLY for the sanctity of marriage — end of discussion.  There was no wiggle room on this point at all.  And it was not a topic of conversation in our home, instructional or otherwise.

My maternal grandmother was also a strong Southern Baptist and beloved by many in our church.  She lived with us through all of my childhood and most of my adolescence.  My mother worked outside the home, so my sister and I were largely raised by our grandmother.  She held many of the same convictions that my mother did; however, there were times that her rural upbringing emerged, sometimes in irreverent ways.  She had some wonderful little “sayings” that verged on being nasty, which made her giggle to the point of losing her breath.  I always thought they were rather inconsistent with our family’s moral code, and I loved them.  Here are a few examples.

If someone in the room exclaimed that somebody “tooted,” she would rattle off this zinger: “The fox is the finder, the stink lays behind her!” Of course, this is an old variation of the later line: “The one who smelt it is the one who dealt it.”  Coming from my sweet grandmother, it was hilarious.  Speaking of farting, she did it quite often in our home and found it to be quite entertaining.

Another even more priceless example to me was what I heard my grandmother say one time when she saw a very tall woman with a very short man.  I will never forget it.  “Well, when they’re nose to nose his toes is in it, and when they’re toes to toes his nose is in it.”  Now that’s mighty raunchy humor coming from a Southern Baptist grandmother in the 1970s.  I have so many more wonderful memories about my grandmother that I intend to document in this blog at some point.  She inspired a song that I wrote and have performed many times, mostly because it has been requested so often, especially by seniors at gatherings where I have entertained.  It never fails to bring laughter, just like my grandmother did for us so many times.

The Little Girl in the White Dress

Isn’t it odd what scares us?  Oh, this is not to be a discourse about death, doctors, dentists, or dogs (some folks seem to be horrified of them).  I am fascinated and quite intrigued by the unusual things that scare us, especially harmless ones that, under just the right circumstances, can be bone chilling.  You know what I mean.  A perfect example?  Clowns.  What could be more cheerful and fun than a clown?  Unless, of course, the clown has daggers for teeth and lives in a neighborhood sewer.  Even the most innocent clown can be frightening, particularly to small children at birthday parties.  Must be all that makeup.  There are plenty of full-grown adults who shiver at the sight of a clown.

Then there is the terror that is invoked by certain elements of situations, environments, or settings.  An illustration is the best way I can describe what I mean here.  A colleague and I were riding home one night through the dark countryside.  It must have been overcast, because the only thing we could see was the portion of the road illuminated by his headlights.  For some reason it occurred to me that seeing something on the side of road in the headlights for a brief moment could be terrifying, like a little girl in a white dress, all alone, just standing there watching us as we pass by her.

Why should a little girl like the one pictured here in this 1935 oil painting by Rose Trellis Caracciolo be so frightening, standing on the side of the road on a pitch-black night, perhaps with even a faint smile on her face?  I asked my colleague, the driver, that very question.  I will never forget his answer, and it is as good an explanation as I have ever heard for the situation.  “Because you know she ain’t supposed to be there.”