Lessons from a caster of community shadows

My dad never missed a funeral. I can still picture him, dropping everything to bathe, shaving his everyday farmer facial stubble, setting out a white dress shirt and dark suit (except for a couple of wretched 1970s years, when my mother had him wearing an uncharacteristically trendy blue, polyester leisure suit with a pastel-colored shirt – an overly vivid memory I’ve tried to banish), and shining his black wing-tipped shoes.

Such a sight might not have stood out to those who regularly saw their fathers dress that way for work, in the years before business casual attire had been invented, or for church, but funeral dress-up occasions stood out to me, as my father rarely left the overalled orbit of his farm and didn’t attend church.

Dad would either skip or go lightly on the aftershave. “People aren’t going to the funeral to smell me.” He’d also take the time to subdue his hair, brush his teeth for longer and put on a less-battered watch from the special place he secreted it between special occasions. There was a ritual to all of it, the paying of last respects. My father believed nothing conveyed the lessons of living more succinctly than someone’s dying. And he was a rapt pupil.

Ironically, while my dad was always sure to attend the funeral, he rarely found the time to visit people while they were still alive. Possibly he viewed funerals as a “deadline” for one last encounter, albeit a one-sided one; an opportunity to catch up, secondhand, on what he’d missed. I learned indirectly from him to not make that mistake. My visits are not reserved for funeral visitations.

Curt Knowles

Curt Knowles

I recalled those things recently as I donned a skirt, jacket and pantyhose on the hot Sunday afternoon of the funeral of longtime family friend, Curt Knowles, of Athens. I knew to leave early because everybody knew Curt and funeral seats might be a hot commodity. His funeral was predicted to be so large it needed to be held at the high school. Curt had been bigger than life for the majority of his lifetime, which necessitated a bigger final venue.

Outside the school, I armed myself with a handful of Kleenex, carefully folding them and putting them in the pocket of my jacket for easy access. This wouldn’t be an ordinary funeral because we weren’t sending off an ordinary man. Remembrances of Curt, who’d lived his life to the nth degree, were likely to stir up emotions to the nth degree.

In hindsight, I should have taken the whole tissue box with me. Five speakers memorialized Curt. It’s hard to say whose words affected me the most: those of a long-time co-worker and friend; his granddaughter; or his three children. They each attested to a different dimension of Curt, opinions overlapping on the topics of family loyalty, generosity and humor. “Curtisms” abounded; laughter echoed; tears flowed. It was the kind of funeral my dad would have cherished.

Pastor Daryl Dexter batted clean-up with his eulogy. “I don’t think Curt was ever fully aware of the size of the shadow he cast,” he stated, challenging the 500 of us present to think about the size of the shadow we are casting through how we impact others’ lives.

Curt had a large sphere of influence as a teacher, coach, excavator, relative, friend and community builder. Rabid enthusiasm, storytelling, humor and volume were his chief methods of making a point. Anyone who’d been on the receiving end of one of his deliveries knew the wallop they packed. “Get the lead out, Smitty!” he’d yelled at me at a conference track meet when I was already running the race of my life. His comments rolled encouragement and admonishment into one, if that’s possible.

Politically correct? Only accidentally. Welcome? Occasionally. Effective? Absolutely! Though few would consciously seek wisdom from a gym teacher on a backhoe, it never stopped Curt from offering it – free and unsolicited. He wasn’t happy until we stepped up to the plate and swung our hardest.

You always knew where you stood with Curt because he knew where he stood – behind the people and the community he loved. His funeral was one last shadow cast lesson in living.

It’s really not the principle of it, it’s the price

I trudged downstairs really, really early the other morning and wandered into the bathroom. It had been too short of a night sleep-wise. I’d been up until 11:30 pm on a work night, trying to put a dent in my undone to-do list. Unknown to me, someone had allowed one of the cats, Molliver, upstairs: an accident waiting to happen. Sure enough, at 3:30 AM he decided I needed to get up and play with him. This was indicated by his biting the crap out of my fingers.

In my sleepy state, I had tried to fend off his advances by alternately hiding my hands under the covers, depending on which he happened to be going after. That just caused him to be more aggressive. Frustrated, he felt forced to go after a stray toe peeking out near the foot of the bed, which is never good. When I hastily yanked it away, he leaped up near my head and bit the bridge of my nose. OUCH!

That did it. I awakened enough to snatch the playfully ferocious cat by the scruff of the neck and lovingly pitch him into tomorrow. However, he stopped before he got there, his kitty catapult brought up short by a dresser. And it was too late. I knew I was up for the day.

The problem with getting up way too early in the morning is that it makes for a ridiculously long day. It’s not like you can march into your boss’s office at 2 pm and announce that you’re leaving for the day because you need to be in bed by 6 PM and first have to cook dinner. No, the whole day turns into a low-grade suffering marathon where you must keep going through the motions, no matter how foggy your emotions.

I already knew my options were limited that morning. Although there would be no long-term escape from the concussiony feeling, I thought a shower might help forestall it. That’s why I wandered into the bathroom. As I approached the toilet, something odd caught my eye. There was something weird and unidentifiable in it. Homeowners and parents remain unconsciously alert to such things. I half-circled, almost afraid to guess.

It was brown and tan, about an inch-and-a-half long and semi-transparent. It looked to have a pollywog-type of tail, but no feet. I thought it might be some type of a slug, which was less than comforting. Although I pride myself in recognizing insects and most other manner of vermin, the identity of this critter had flown, or perhaps slimed its way under my radar. I went to get my bat tongs. Hey, if they work on other creatures of the night, why not this one?

The upside of the story is that I was so intrigued by what I found in the toilet that I momentarily forgot how exhausted I was. Perhaps the possibility of being surprise rump-nipped on by this one was energizing. I turned my attention back to it. My plan was to scoop it and plop it into a small Dixie cup for further examination and mental categorization. But the latter wasn’t necessary.

“Oh,” I said softly as it slithered silently down the side of the paper cup. I got a closer look and started laughing at myself. It wasn’t a creature at all, but rather the water-ravaged remains of a two-toned iron supplement capsule that had tumbled into the toilet late the night before, when I was struggling to replace the cap on the bottle!

Even in my stayed-up-too late state, I had been able to calculate that with a bottle of 50 pills purchased at 5.49 plus tax, I was looking at roughly an 11.5 cent loss. That’s really not worth sticking my hand in the toilet to retrieve, or the price of the water to flush it out of sight. But had it been one of my dollar-apiece fancy allergy pills, I would have used both hands (and feet, if necessary), then washed it off really well and . . . . Don’t make me say it. You know the rest of the story: fed it to that darned wake-up call cat!

Borrowing of items trips up parental rules

Once in a while, all the planets align for a family, preferably in good ways. Such was not the case for our family. Late last year, it came to my unfortunate attention that my son, my daughter and I were all wearing the same-sized shoes. How did I find out? Through finding a pair of my athletic shoes covered with mud.
“Who is responsible for this?” I bellowed in a volume and tone that wasn’t confession-inspiring, but let my children know the latest round of family delinquency witch hunt had begun. Even the cats dove for cover, I was that angry.
“Don’t get mad at me, I was only doing what you told me to do,” said my son, stepping forth in an uncharacteristically candid way that suggested he was prepared to do his best to defend his indefensible position. Learning to play a hand poorly dealt is an important life skill, I would give him credit for that, but only after I got done giving him unholy Hell.
“What?!” I demanded. “You aren’t suggesting I told you to wear my shoes outside and get them all muddy, are you?”
“Well not exactly,” he said, “but you did tell me not to wear MY shoes outside in this kind of weather. So I didn’t.” That’s the kind of logic I have had to deal with since my children hit puberty, got too big for their boots and started wearing my shoes.
I find the shoe business especially offensive because I am a shoe horse who takes good care of all five bazillion pair. I make sure they are clean, dry and polished (if they are the kind that require polish) before they are put away. To have my daughter put unnecessary scuffs on the leather ones and my son walk off the lace tips on the athletic ones for the cool, untied look, is an assault on my dignity and an affront to my maintenance system.
The worst insult to injury moment involved walking down the stairs one early morning, opening the door to the dining room and tripping over a pair of my own shoes that one of my children (culprit still unknown) had borrowed without asking and left out where they didn’t belong. Closer examination of the shoes showed the treads were full of dirt. Triple whammy!
Or maybe I should say turkey, as in the bowling term that designates three strikes in a row. In the following case, they were of the negative variety – three strikes against my daughter. Upon entering the bathroom, I discovered she had used my bath towel. How did I know? Well, it wasn’t just wet, but was left in a crumpled heap on the floor by the vanity.
“Kate!” came the now familiar anguished cry from my throat. “Get in here and hang up this wet towel!”
She actually hustled back to the scene of the crime because she knew I meant business. And I would be lying if I said watching her scramble to please me was not pleasing. However, if you’re looking for a happy ending here, it’s not forthcoming. When I went into the bathroom a few minutes later, I noticed Kate had only half-butt hung the towel back over the rack. It looked more like a hasty wadding of soaked terrycloth fabric, just so she could say she had. Speed had definitely taken precedence over accuracy.
This incident followed directly on the heels of the disappearing set of tweezers. Not only the set I keep in the medicine cabinet, but also the set from the make-up bag in my purse, presumably after the culprit could not locate the set he/she had already “borrowed” and subsequently lost from the medicine cabinet.
When I bought a replacement set, one of my co-workers suggested I fasten it to a chain and anchor the whole operation to the vanity counter top, the way it’s done with pens on the transaction preparation counters at banks.
I told her I choose not to live like that, openly acknowledging deceit. Besides, there’s already a chain fastened to the countertop, with a pair of replacement manicure scissors hanging from the end.

Headlines, toothpicks share commonalities

Wow, what a misleading headline. I was obsessed with putting something up as a placeholder before I actually knew what I would be writing about with this column, so I just plunked something up there. In theory, I’d go back and change it once I figure out what I’ll be writing. But in practice, deadline will loom and I will have forgotten about it, so you, the reader, will be put in the middle, struggling to figure out what the heck you missed. When, in fact, I was the one who missed something.

Here’s a dirty little secret about headlines: the process isn’t at all scientific. Copy editors simply make them up, often without fully reading the copy beneath, which explains a lot of the disconnectedness. I’ve learned to supply copy editors with suggested headlines because in a real pinch, they sometimes actually resort to using the words of the person who wrote the story. That’s just the way it goes.

Headlines are a place where copy editors (or anyone higher up on the publication’s feeding chain) can publicly spank writers by saddling us with something cheesy. People assume we write all our own headlines. And that assumption would be wrong. “Hey,” I feel like shouting, “If I want to look stupid in print, I am perfectly capable of achieving it on my own – without your help.” And I often do. But that doesn’t stop them from flipping me the occasional bird via crappy headline construction.

Many times, the chief concern with headlines is coming up with an action-oriented sentence in the desired font size that fits the space. For instance, Different Drum traditionally wears a two-column wide, 24-point font headline. If my suggested headline is slightly longer than that opening, the editor can italicize it into fitting: the equivalent of sucking in your gut to fasten a slightly tight pair of slacks. Anything bigger and you’ve got a problem that requires thought and word substitution. Unpopular with an approaching deadline.

Now that I’ve revealed a highly confidential trade secret, I probably should start fearing for my life. We can’t have readers knowing the way such matters are really settled behind the scenes. So I’ll switch topics. Now we’re gonna talk toothpick.

When has it become socially acceptable to pick one’s teeth publicly? To me, it’s the dental equivalent of baseball pitchers adjusting their junk on the mound. Yes, I know it’s necessary at times, but I’d rather not witness it. And I especially hate watching diners who pick their teeth at the table. Eewww!

I was traumatized during my early years by my grandparents’ friend, Floyd. He’s long gone, but Floyd toothpick-induced trauma remains. Floyd was a know-it-all who began most sentences with “See,” which indicated he thought himself in the know about everything and if you came over to his side immediately, no one would get hurt. Conversationally, he addressed all females, from girls to grannies, as “sister.”

A perpetual, chewed-to-death toothpick bobbing from his mouth, he’d always admonish me with a, “See, sister, that’s just the way it goes.” My childhood Floyd encounters left me feeling dumb and disrespected, with a flat, sucked-on-toothpick taste in my mouth.

Driving down the highway the other day, I experienced a different sort of bad taste: a popcorn hull lodged between two rear teeth that had bugged me for two days and for the first 25 miles of the trip. In the absence of dental floss, I got creative. Rejecting the too thick corner of a business card and a too thin Post-It note, I settled on the “just right” edge of my allergy pill blister pack. Ahhhhhh! The feeling of satisfaction from dislodging the dental debris was immediate and immense.

“What are you gonna do with that?” my son wanted to know. Good question. He suggested swallowing the popcorn hull because that’s what I’d intended to do in the first place. But two days later, it sounded disgusting. So I wiped it onto a fast food napkin and shoved that into my pocket. Odds were, I’d forget to remove it before laundering the pants.

“Eewww,” grimaced my son.

“See, brother,” I said, “that’s just the way it goes.”

Too many “special days” negate specialness

Happened to catch a short, online blurb that May was designated as “National Recommitment Month.” And it was illustrated with a photo of celebrities Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, who, apparently, have reunited for now, if only so they could become the poster children for National Recommitment Month.
Whose bright idea, anyway, was National Recommitment Month? My best cynical guess was someone who sells commitment-symbolizing jewelry, such as diamond rings. When I Googled the phrase, I found mostly wedding vow renewal ideas and showing the one you love you still care by spending a boatload of money by booking a recommitment cruise. Apparently, recommitment requires money (and a lot of it!) to stick.
Other sources took recommitment to mean recommitting to goals. I liked that idea a lot better. But why not call it “Ask Yourself the Hard Questions Month” and then Shanghai yourself onto one of those recommitment cruise boats to avoid having to answer to yourself? Hey, it’s a lot easier to be accountable to a partner than to yourself.
I didn’t find any websites that purported National Recommitment Month should apply to crime, as in, “Hey, let’s see who can go out and embezzle again from their employer or re-rob a convenience store, but do a better job of it this time!” I noted that if you made self-improvement the goal to which you were recommitting, you should receive double credit for recommitting your crime and also not getting caught the second time around. Would that be reverse double-jeopardy? I wonder.
This is why I shouldn’t think too much. It leads to endless, pointless speculation, including but not limited to this very funny thought: National Recommitment Month might also provide an official timeframe for psychiatric facilities to recall patients who got booted out early for lack of progress or lack of financial/insurance resources. I’ve done enough financial assessments in a counseling capacity to know finances are frequently the primary testing mechanism for determining illness/wellness. You’re crazy if you think otherwise!
Back to our original recommitment couple, I mentally made myself a note to keep tabs on the Timberlake/Biel relationship status via tabloid headlines. Maybe if they decide to call it quits for good, it will be on National Divorce Filing Day and they will once again command poster children honors.
Speaking of poster children, I’m considering getting my kids a contract to pose for “Clean Up Your Room Day.” Maybe out of fear of hypocrisy, they would feel motivated to deal with the personal hell holes they inhabit at home. The website where I found “Clean Up Your Room Day” strongly emphasized May 10 is the day on which it’s ALWAYS celebrated. And just what would that celebration look like? A huge indoor bonfire fueled by the candy wrappers found under my daughter’s bed?
The fact “Clean Up Your Room Day” falls before Mother’s Day gives children an inexpensive way out of making Mom a gift at school or church. Be honest, wouldn’t the sight of a habitable room be far more welcome than glitter-glued tissue paper flowers?
Should your children refuse to observe “Clean Up Your Room Day,” they might be holding out for “Pack Rat Day,” slated for May 17. My image could appear on the poster for that one. Wait, that poster is here somewhere . . . Maybe over near the stacks of National Geographics or among the carefully folded scraps of recycled foil by those books I’ll never have time to read.
If you want to start with small-scale cleaning and build up to the bigger jobs, May 18 is “No Dirty Dishes Day.” And if you save the disgusting old food you find on them, you’ll be equipped for “Learn About Composting Day,” which ALWAYS occurs May 29!
On May 9, I officially celebrated “Lost Sock Memorial Day” with a ceremony where I unofficially acknowledged MIA socks, declared them dead, and unceremoniously threw their remaining mates into the wastebasket while humming a patriotic tune.
The thought of all this work exhausts me. They should move “Fatigue Syndrome Day” from May 12 to May 31, when it’s more needed. I’ll send a formal request on May 21, “National Memo Day.” Good grief!

Utility players can be more useful than specialists

When I last gave blood, I felt slightly depressed that all I had to give was plain old, run of the mill A positive stuff, like the generic, no-frills black and white packaged groceries that are labeled “suitable for everyday use.” Good enough, but not great. Suitable for many everyday uses, but certainly not sharing the rarefied air of some of the more rare blood types the American Red Cross and other blood collection agencies run short on and would like to be able to siphon from donors.

But what I lack in bloody specialness, I make up for with my special ability to show up regularly to donate. Health rules allow me to give a pint of blood once every 56 days, so I try to donate five or six times per year. Work travel, pregnancies and the taking of donation-prohibitive medications for a couple of years have been my only obstacles. They were all external factors over which I’ve had no control. Fortunately, personal drive, has never kept me from a blood drive.

The reason this is in the forefront of my mind is twofold. First, I am gearing up for the eighth annual blood drive I will have coordinated for Fredonia Grange for the Calhoun County East Relay for Life (12 Noon-5:45 PM on Friday, July 18 – for eligible and interested donors).

Second, my seventh-grade son is running middle school track and trying to find his niche. He’s somewhat frustrated that he lacks a specialty. In his mind, good runners should have a couple of favorite events they perfect over time. Like my blood, he is feeling suitable for daily use, but not extra special. I can empathize.

Back when I was in track, there was one event at which I excelled: the 440-yard/400 meter dash. I loved it, trained for it, and consistently won it, with the exception of when I occasionally encountered the 440/400 runners with equal passion and training, but who also possessed longer legs and more natural ability. Hey, it happens. And I’d have to concede their superiority in that event (as if I had a choice!).

What two years of middle school and four years of high school track taught me is that with surprising frequency, I COULD compete beyond my innate ability through extra training and a winning spirit. What I lacked in genetics, I made up for with heart – within reason. That’s why two of my favorite sports movies are “Rudy” and “Seabiscuit,” two tales of overcoming toward unlikely success.

In addition to tenacity, I have been gifted with what I now appreciate as a more powerful asset than long legs: a natural curiosity that attracts me to unlikely subjects, activities and possibilities, where most people simply won’t allow themselves to go. Once there, I pay rapt attention and absorb all I can. I mine situations and people for principles I see as having potential value to me, as often turns out to be!

My self-cross-training started early, before the word cross-training became a part of the modern lexicon. My track coaches figured it out and put it to use. They realized that while I wasn’t great at everything, I could put in respectable performances in most areas (except the 100-yard/meter dash!). I became the team’s utility player, able to pick up much-needed second- and third-place points in events as diverse as high jump, hurdles and the two-mile/3200 meter run.

Some people have linear careers where they are promoted up through the ranks. They may not care if they make a difference in the world, but their trajectory is straight, smooth and financially rewarded. It’s been the opposite for me: I’ve traveled some rough roads in multiple fields, called by God to resolve specific problems, only to be sent elsewhere afterward, to start over and make a difference there. Early retirement won’t be happening.

Of the various job titles I’ve had printed on business cards, I think “Utility Player for God” might fit best. Although it comes without a job description, it reflects versatility, hard work and being “coachable” (willing to follow His game plan). Sometimes the best niche is no niche, but unhesitant obedience.




Alumni causes in need of community CPR, lifeblood

Spring means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But to me, springs over the past 11 years have meant, “Oh crap, it’s alumni banquet season!” While most people are exchanging winter sweaters for T-shirts, planting flower beds and praying for April showers, I’m drowning in the details of preparation for the annual scholarship awards banquet.

Why? Because I am secretary of the alumni association, as well as president of the alumni foundation, the group that handles the scholarship funds and awards process. And this time of year is when it all comes together, kinda sorta.

But the bigger answer to the why is this: BECAUSE I CARE! Some days more than others. And because I have remained local. After living in a couple somewhere elses, I returned to my hometown in 2003 and rolled up my sleeves. Actually, I became involved in alumni business 14 years ago through the officer succession process.

Those of you who actively care about our community and who have never moved away or who have moved back, and those of you who have voluntarily moved here and adopted our community, know the unwritten expectation we maintain the local sense of Mayberry nostalgia for former residents to enjoy when they return for holidays and special events. We also show hometown hospitality to visitors.

It’s similar to the movie “Funny Farm,” where Chevy Chase has the whacky residents of his town behave like Norman Rockwell picture characters come to life for the prospective buyers of the real estate he needs to unload. Everyone lives happily ever after. But my real-life scenario still has me knee-deep in questionable clover and headed to a hospital-operated funny farm, clad in a white jacket with eight-foot wraparound sleeves.

Since some of you will be too busy doing similar logic-defying feats of community service to come and visit me after my official break from reality occurs, let me give you an accurate, behind-the-scenes breakdown of my annual breakdown. For column purposes, I will remove the automatic flight-attendantlike “thank you for coming to this year’s annual alumni banquet” smile from my face long enough to show you the darker reality of my reality.

Ask any volunteer organizer who is trying to do good for the greater: it ain’t easy! Youth sports program don’t materialize out of thin air; maple trees don’t tap themselves and deliver their sap to the condenser; harvest dinners aren’t on auto-bake; blood drives don’t spring up without cultivation; parades don’t form on their own and holiday food drives require a huge amount of drive!

And it’s not like my single-parenthood, ordinarily butt-kicking life of home ownership, multiple jobs to keep the wolf from the door and other volunteer work and church responsibilities suddenly comes to a screeching halt so I can be in charge of all things alumni. Hey, maybe I should try to get that wolf to help! Surely, he could lick stamps or something.

Speaking of stamps, my alumni association role has me monitoring a post office box I can get to only on weekends. Saturday mornings begin with my doing association and foundation banking before I even think about my own banking or to-do list. I am also keeper of 10 boxes of alumni records. Yippee!

I’d complain more, but there’s not time. The most frequent refrain I hear from the armchair quarterbacks is, “Why don’t you just get someone else to help?” When I last checked, a line of volunteers wasn’t exactly forming. Those who are already doing are way too busy, while those who never do are doing just that.

Each year, alumni association members beat the bushes to get alumni from successive classes to assume officer roles and a few hours of annual work. We still don’t have representatives from the high school graduating classes of 1990, 1991 and 1992 to help. A134-year tradition is at stake due to alumni apathy.

To quote sociologist Robert Putnam, this “bowling alone” mentality is discouraging when we need a league of support. Alumni association officers are talking about opening things up to non-alumni community members to strengthen participation. Nothing funny farm about that. Lack of community caring is the real craziness.

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