Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Breadbags and Sneakers


Some of you, especially those of you who grew up in South Carolina, will recognize the significance of this image instantly. 

For those of you who don't, let me explain:

We'd get snow about once a year in SC, and it usually didn't stick around.  A lucky schoolchild would get a single snow day every other year.  And even with the snow days that they get, the main activity for the day would be wishing that there was enough snow to go sledding.  The warm blacktop just didn't often allow the snow to stick, except in the higher altitudes in the county (where the buses simply couldn't safely go if there was ice).

So approximately every three or four years, there would be enough snow for sledding. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

OC-Don't

I am the antithesis of OCD. Those lovely tasks that require the attention to specific details done over and over again?

Those jobs make me reach for the bourbon earlier and earlier in the day.

This past week, I got asked to do some problem solving. My church has an emailed daily devotional; the associate pastor had taken it on as part of her responsibilities. She is now gone, and we are working to get the replacement text up. I agreed to be on the committee because I like looking for good material.

We found the good material, got permission to use it (temporarily), and one of the committee members started to transcribe it - pulling it from Kindle format into Word.

The church's web person set up a template, and then she went home for the holidays, with the deadline fast approaching. Nobody else knew how to do it, and the staff member in charge of the committee threw up his hands.

Crorey, can you figure it out?

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Nieces Elsa and Anna


My niece is the most wonderful creature ever.

Riley Claire is the middle child – the second of three stairstep girls.  At two years old, she has already understands that in order to have something of her very own (that is, something that her older sister does not take away from her and claim as hers) that she has to ask for items that do not appeal to Molly Emma.

Items like, for example, Anna dolls.

Every little girl out there has explained to her parents the importance of the Elsa dress, the Elsa wig, the Elsa lunchbox, the Elsa bedsheets, the Elsa sleeping bag; you name it, and the Frozen marketing department has put an Elsa on it. 

Molly has claimed every Elsa item in existence as hers….and has gotten very nearly the full set.

Riley Claire decided that, rather than fight for every Elsa item, she liked Anna best.  As a result, she has laid claim to everything Anna related.

She has also come to realize that Anna doesn’t have magical powers, so she requested an Elsa doll of her own.

Fast forward to Christmas morning. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Milestones ii

45 years ago today, my dad rocketed the '67 Mustang (289 engine replaced with a 429) through the snow, trying to avoid thinking about the mere fifteen seconds between contractions that his wife was having.

I was early.  And since I had given everybody a false alarm earlier in the week, they waited to make sure before dashing across Newport again.

While my dad was checking in the patient, Mom was in the elevator.  The elevator operator smiled at the young mom-to-be, and said, 'Having a baby, huh? How close are the contractions?'

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jazzy

This week, I got to watch my grandkids playing jazz for the first time at Tipitina's amazing Sunday Youth Music Workshop.  They are both hard-working musicians, practicing their craft, getting beats and fingerwork and crossovers and flams and frets and hemiquavers...

...those two, like every musician I have ever met, speak a different language when they are talking music. 

So these competent budding musicians, who I have been admiring  am terribly envious of, got on stage and played with the house band.  The chord progression was simple, and was repeated over and over.  The drum line was not terribly intricate, and the house drummer walked them - all seven aspiring drummers - through the line a few times, and helped adjust them when they were not driving hard enough. 


Gabi and Remi in the all-new G&R.

But this was not learning and practicing a song.  This is not discovering how to play in sync with one another. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Treasure and Lagniappe

A guest blog entry I wrote for a cousin's blog:
 
 
 
A few weeks ago, I found a twenty dollar bill on the side of the road. I can now no longer walk by that spot without scanning the bushes nearby for another that might have somehow escaped. (This is not new with me - I still know a place where I found two pennies when I was four years old, and always look to see if there is more there, even today).
A month ago, I got praised at work. I keep doing what I got praised for, long after it is no longer needed.
I got a laugh at a joke. My wife will tell you that the worst thing possible is for me to get caught in THAT particular feedback loop. Likewise, I dare not go to the casino. I feed off of that reward hit in my brain, regardless of the cost to get there.  For all intents and purposes, I am that rat in the heroin experiment, pushing that lever long after the drug is no longer being dispensed.
 
A wandering rabbi once told his followers, "Wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also." That guy was talking about me, obviously.
 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Joke's on YOU

I remember my first joke book. I know that my parents regretted the day they gave it to me, because I loved telling the jokes over and over, even the ones I didn’t understand.

Q: Who was the tallest president?

A: Dwight Eiffeltower

HAHAHAHAHA!

5-year old Crorey, in a stage whisper aside: (Mom, can you explain that one to me?)

Every one of the jokes, as it was explained to me, opened me up to a new way of looking at words. What I learned from that book (and the hundreds of silly joke books since then) is that there are unexpected relationships between unrelated words, and the result of the comparison between the two is…. is laughter.

Well.... sometimes.

I love analogies. I love metaphors. I love taking unrelated phenomena, finding a connection between them and comparing the two. Sometimes the result is just quirky (today’s effort was a weird combo of the ‘fourth wall’ in theater and the ‘fifth wall’of the Pentagon). Other times the connection is more poignant. But it is the way my mind works, and so if I am not working out a new pun to try out, my creative juices are usually trying to parse out an unexpected relationship between two dissimilar concepts.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I go.

A few years ago, I was taking a busman's holiday from archaeology (you know - taking a trip to an archaeological site as a break from working on an archaeological site).  During the field season in Yucatan,  I drove the crew over to visit a site called Mayapan.  It is a well-known, if not terribly ostentatious, site in the Puuc region of Yucatan, Mexico. 

But the signage to it is not great.

Since part of the fun in taking a busman's holiday is just spending the time getting lost, finding new places, and not being terribly worried about anything.  The people are wonderful in this part of the world, and so when I had my north arrow hopelessly turned around, I stopped and asked a little old Maya lady for directions.

"Excuse me, Senora, I am looking for the archaeological site called Mayapan.  Do you know it?"

"Yes."

"Wonderful.  Can you give me directions, please?"

The wrinkled face beamed at me, and then she turned to face the direction we were to go.  "I go down this road, and then I turn right at Sr. Paco's store...."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Singing with Archangels

It was three days before Christmas, 1979. I had lived in Brasil with my family for 9 months, and had become accustomed to the strange differences between the home I had left and the new home I had made. There was a rhythm to life there, with school in the morning, swimming and canoeing in the afternoon, exploring with a bb gun or a homemade butterfly net. No radio, no TV, no video games. A wall of books (I eventually got bored of all the Hardy Boys, and instead read Dracula and Moby Dick). A tape player, on which we played the tapes of recorded Sunday school lessons from my granddaddy's Sunday school class back stateside.

And then the package came.

Any package we got inevitably contained mail from the States. It usually contained a few things that we were hoping for, to make it feel less like we were quite as far from family, friends, and the home 3100 miles away.

Also included was a recording of music. We ripped the cassette open, flipped it and inserted it into the tape player. Then took it out, flipped it again, because it was at the end of the tape (some of you will have no idea what I am talking about).

Out flowed organ music, so strong that it distorted. Followed by choral music, with sopranos soaring, Jean Hiott anchoring the tight harmony of the altos, Doyle Langley singing improbable tenor notes, and uberbass Ellison Jenkins, the foundation of the choir.

I closed my eyes. I listened to the beauty of music, taking me away from the place where I sat on the old couch in the open air house in the humidity of the Amazonian rainforest.

And transported me to a distant location.

Joy and music

There are moments when you feel your heart is going to burst from happiness.  Last night was just such a moment.

My grand kids, Rémi and Gabi, came in from Dubai. After an exhausting 19 hour flight into Dallas, followed by a nine-hour drive to New Orleans, they finally arrived.

I had been bouncing in my seat all day in anticipation.

They arrived, a little travel worn and obviously weary, but the conversation just flowed.  They loved on my dogs, remarked how small they now seemed (since they last saw our guys, they have adopted two large dogs of their own), and then the magical really started.

Rémi and Gabi are musicians.  They play anything they can get their hands on, and there is almost always an instrument within easy reach (one of the tasks for today will be to go to pick up some drum sticks for Gab, who accidentally left hers behind). Rémi picked up his guitar and started playing riff after riff.  Blues, hard rock, classical guitar... the music just flowed from fingers faster than sight.

Ok, it's true. I am both irritated and jealous.

And then I did something that was outside of my comfort zone.

I picked up my banjo.  And with fat, clumsy fingers, I began to pick. Simple tune, missed notes, out-of-tempo ornamentation.  But I played.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Who's on First

There is an odd linguistic quirk that I noticed when I lived in Yucatan. Lots of words in Spanish end in the letter N. When those words are used at the end of a sentence, Yucatecans close their mouths to close the sentence, making it into an M sound. (Voiced bilabial nasal, for any IPA geeks out there)

Not terribly ununusal, but kinda fun to have identified a regional variation.

So bread - "pan" - becomes "pam" when it ends a sentence. Ham - "jamon" - becomes "jamom." "Yucatan" becomes "Yucatam."

My second season in the field, one of my co-workers pulled me aside. "What is her name?" and tipped her head in the direction of the new member on the project.

"Kim," I replied.

"Her," Soco said, and pointed with her chin.

"Kim!"

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Banj-handling

We have panhandlers on Carrolton Avenue in New Orleans.  It is the source of contention for a lot of us, and it makes us mad, because it is the same group, panhandling every day.  I have written before about homelessness and panhandling and about how I am conflicted by it.

But I think I may have happened upon a solution.

I was driving down Carrolton yesterday, and saw something that made me reach wildly, and mostly unsuccessfully, for my camera.  The picture I took was a blurry shot taken out the back window, and it is not even anything that is terribly out of the ordinary here in New Orleans. It was a guy with a tuba (OK, it was a Sousaphone), and he wasn't playing it, just walking down the street.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rubric - words in RED

If I had a tail, I would wag it right now.

I was writing a technical response to an official request for information, looking for just the right word, and thought 'rubric' might work.  It would never make the final editorial cut - this is, after all, a burrocracy in which I work.  But it felt close, and so I started looking for similar words, and in the process, looked up the word "rubric".

Huh.  Rubric refers to the words printed in red to distinguish them from the remainder of the text.

Rubric: noun
1.  a title, heading, direction, or the like, in a manuscript, book, statute, etc., written or printed in red or otherwise distinguished from the rest of the text.
2.  a direction for the conduct of divine service or the administration of the sacraments, inserted in liturgical books.  
Image stolen without permission from http://net.lib.byu.edu/scm/medieval/liturgical.html
 
The third definition was what I was looking for: any established mode of conduct or procedure; protocol.
 
But I loved the first two definitions, and had no idea! 
 
I have written before about a Red Letter Day and how in Korea, signing a name in red is something that is done to honor the dead.  But this one just made my inner lexophile do a dance. I'm going to go find Rufus and redline his document.
 
 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Air France to you, too!"

I am no fan of Air France Airlines. Our family has used the term “Air France” with the force of epithet for almost forty years, now. It is an insult just this side of “Belgium”.

And yet.... the trip we took with them in 1978 left me with a debt I just realized I still owe.

Lemme explain.

While we were in Brasil, we had to leave the country every six months to renew our visas. Now this renewing took place when Jimmy Carter was President of the US. During this time, Carter was supposed to come to Brasil to meet with some officials, to talk about helping the economy. At the last minute a conflict arose, and he was unable to go. Instead, he sent his wife.

If you don’t know about Latin American countries, you probably don’t understand the seriousness of the insult. The result for us was that the Brasilian government decided to act as though they were not particularly well disposed to Americans, and threw up bureaucratic roadblocks to anything we tried to do. Foremost among these was that we were not allowed a permanent visa, which would allow us to stay in the country for the entire two-year stint. Instead, we were issued a tourist visa, requiring us to leave the country twice a year to renew.

Through the hoop we jumped. Grandmama and Granddaddy Lawton came down to “run things” while we were in French Guyana. Neither spoke any Portuguese, so the plant was left to run itself, but there was a figurehead in place while we were gone (and they got to experience the beauty of the country for a couple of weeks).

So after going to Belem (7 hour trip), we boarded a flight to Cayenne, French Guyana. Since we were only going to be there for one hour, just long enough to get the visas stamped and return, we took only what we needed. We arrived in French Guyana on an Air France jet without incident, got the visa stamped, turned around to get on the plane, and… there were about a hundred people in front of us.

By the time we got to the front of the line, we were informed that the flight was overbooked, and there was no room for us on the flight.

“But we have CONFIRMED reservations!” my father explained to the ticket agent.

“I am sorry, but you cannot get on that flight.”

After a number of useless repetitions of the same information, we finally agreed on the point that we were not going to get on the flight that was leaving. So when was the next flight? Seven days.

Did I mention that we traveled light? We were carrying about $200, the clothes on our back, and a paperback – a biography of Sandy Koufax. My dad demanded that the airline provide us with a place to stay. They refused. And as if the problems were not bad enough, the language card was played. “I am sorry, monsieur, but I no unnerstan’ Eengleesh. Mais vous parlez français, n’est-ce pas?…

Portugese? No. Français, s’il vous plaît.”

So my dad was reduced just that quickly to sputtering in a language he had not spoken since college.

“You are responsible for this, and YOU will put us up for the night.”

“No.”

“Then we will sleep here.”

I was not too keen on the idea. The mosquitoes were ferocious, and the seats were uncomfortable.
The issue was made moot, however, when two guards, complete with Tommy guns, escorted us out of the airport, and unceremoniously left us on the curb. 4 miles outside the city of Cayenne. At 3:15 in the morning. In the drizzling rain. Welcome to French Guyana.






So there was a single cab left (everyone else either had transportation waiting or was not surprised by the delay, hailed the first cab and immediately left). Dad approached the cab driver.

“Listen; I have almost no money. I have a wife and two small kids (we were 8 and 4) and need to get them in out of the rain. Can you take us to a motel to stay the night?”

The cabdriver was sympathetic, but could not do it. He did know a guy that could, however, and when he dropped off the last fare, would get him to come out. Sure enough, some time later, a cab drove up and out steps an enormous man. Mac Lawton was a big man; this guy absolutely dwarfed him. The look on Dad’s face was clear – he was totally convinced that the other cabbie sent a buddy to rob us.

And then a huge grin broke across the cabdriver’s face.

Turns out that the cabdriver’s daughter had been stranded in New York, and a couple had taken care of her while she was there. Since that time, he had looked for an opportunity to repay someone else for the kindness of strangers. So he took us downtown, met with a lady he knew that was willing to put us up in her motel, and promised to come back and drive us wherever we needed to go.

Now everyone back in Brasil expected us to return immediately; worse still, the lumberyard has no communication with the outside world. The closest thing to communication was a radio (with intermittent reception) a couple of miles upriver. So not only did our lawyer in Belem not know where we were, but my grandparents were equally in the dark, with no way of finding out what had happened after we left the plant.

Meanwhile we are stuck penniless for a week in Cayenne, where we do not speak the language, owe our shelter to the kindness of a new friend, and have no way of getting money. The owner of the motel went each day to Air France, argued for a half-hour about whose fault it was that we are there, and departed with money “for just one more day”. Her response every day was the same:

“Fine, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

In the meantime, we ate daily in the motel restaurant. The Museum of Natural History has nothing that we did not see on the menu (tiger, by the way, has a very sweet taste). Flies were terrible. We had contests to see who can trap the most flies in a bottle of coke. Twenty-four remains the record. And we read and re-read the Koufax book. We bought a t-shirt each, and washed everything every day, so that we didn’t have to buy an entire wardrobe.

Finally, after a week of killing time, trying to find another way to get back to Brasil, the time finally arrived to go back. We headed to the airport early (oddly mistrustful of our Air France tickets that are "confirmed reservations"), and the cabdriver turned to us and says “For one week you have seen all the things in this country that are ugly. Let me show you some of its beauty.” And he drove us around through some of the most beautiful houses, gardens, and subdivisions I have ever seen.

He took an experience that had been negative from start to finish, and made it lovely.

It might be about 36 years late, but seems like I could do something similar. I can find somebody in a bit of a bind, and help them out.


Maybe I'll look for that chance today.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ellipses

My name is Crorey Lawton, and I am a mid-level bureaucrat with the Federal government.
This is not how it was supposed to be. This is not the dream.  Even when I started down this burrocratic pathway, I recognized that I was selling out; at least it seemed like that. Listen to how it sounded at first:
My name is Crorey Lawton, and I am a mid level bure‎aucrat....and I am finishing my dissertation in Maya archaeology.
See the difference? The first one has a sense of finality‎. The second has an ellipsis. Those three dots are so important to the ego. They define who we are in ways that let the dust mote scream to the universe.
So when I got ‎booted unceremoniously from the PhD program at Tulane, I could no longer use that ellipsis. I was surprised at how much I missed it. It let me tell people that there was more to me. That I was worthy of consideration. That I was of note.
Losing the dots was harder than losing the three letters I had hoped to put behind my name. I had lost an essential part of who I defined myself to be, and its loss was something that I mourned deeply.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the key to 'who we are' is held in those three dots. 
But....
But there is great joy, and even fun, in finding the ellipses in those around us.
Suzanne, a friend of mine, is a master at seeing the ellipsis in others.  She is a novelist, and so she is always looking at the cast of characters around her with an eye for what makes them unique. (Chicken/egg problem - does she see the unique, and is therefore a writer, or is it a developed tool?) So she speaks to the homeless guy outside her office, asking his opinion on last night's game, and the blossom of his personality opens like a flower under the sunlight of her questions.  
That, right there, is a magical moment.  He is no longer just the homeless guy.  Clyde is defined by his ellipsis, by those unspoken parts that make him special.
It makes me want to look carefully and see those around me in a different light.  That Tea Party co-worker that makes me grind my teeth every single day?  What does he do when he goes home?  Does he volunteer to coach little league?  Does he give every extra dime to feed kids at a foodbank?  Is he a novelist, or a closeted clarinetist?
The cashier.... the gas attendant at Costco.... the people around us all the time that we don't see.  What are their stories, and what are the pieces of their lives that make them special? Those who are closer have ellipses, too. 
Go, find out about somebody's ellipsis, because that is where their life is being lived. Finding that special-ness in others means that you get to share with them the wonder of who they are.
And it brings us closer together.