Sunday, December 25, 2016

Put your hands in the air like you do care

Christmas Eve, 2016.  Vicksburg.

Kathe and I went to the candelight service at the church we have been attending.  It was a packed house, and we stood against the back wall.  Several people made moves to allow us to sit together, and we shoehorned our way between the end of the back pew and a lovely couple from Colorado Springs, who had just arrived on the steamboat between New Orleans and Vicksburg.

The service was lovely.  There were kids everywhere, and the joyous laughter rang out throughout the service.  There was no shushing, there was no embarrassment that the kids were not sitting silently.  And there certainly were no trips outside, with the stern promise of a more severe spanking when we get home.

But I digress.

There was lots of beautiful music - organ, violin, solo, piano.  The old, familiar carols.  The children's choir, singing one I did not know.  Then a  children's sermon, with fifty children all joined at the front of the sanctuary.

And then Sharon Penley got up to sing.

Sharon is our choir director, and she has a passion about music that is very nearly unrivaled.  When we first spoke, she told me that when she sings, it is like she gets transported to heaven.  And when she directs the choir, it is like bringing her best friends to go there with her.

I believe her.  She is amazing, and lets us be amazing with her.

She has a beautiful, powerful mezzo soprano voice.  And when she stood up, and the organist began the opening arpeggio of O Holy Night, I got excited.  This was going to be special.

It was.

I closed my eyes, savoring the beauty of the full sound, all the way back in the back of a church designed for acoustics.  And just after Sharon got to "Fall on your knees. Oh! Hear the angel voices" I got a nudge from Kathe.  I opened my eyes and looked at where she was indicating, and saw the most amazing scene.

About six rows up, there was a darling little girl - maybe 18 months.  We had admired her earlier during the children's message - how beautiful and well behaved she was.

When Sharon's voice reached its powerful crescendo, this tiny girl stood up in her mother's lap, and reached her hands to the sky, as if to make herself bigger so she could hear the notes better.  Her entire little body became an antenna for the sound Sharon was making, and this child was giving it back with every thing she had. Hands up in the air, then clasping them together as if to hold on to the sound, keeping it from escaping.

Oh night when Christ as born.  Oh, night divine.  Oh, holy night.

Without question, it was.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Two Days and a Wake-Up

Counting down to Christmas was always fun.  Mom would come in and say, "Only ten more days and a wake-up until Christmas morning!"

Nine more days and a wake-up.

Eight more days and a wake-up.

With each day, the anticipation would build just a bit more, culminating in a fever pitch on Christmas Eve. The 23rd was Grandmama's birthday party at Charlie's Steak House, with the most incredible steak in existence, followed by a single sample of Dad's annual gift (the 23rd was his birthday, too) of a box of Andes chocolate mints.  And polished off with the free Tootsie Roll at the door.  The 24th was Christmas Eve party at Grandmama's house.  All of the sugar and candy imaginable, and the first salvo of opened presents.

Then the ride home, where we would watch out the window for any chance sighting of Santa.

Finally, the glorious wake-up.

The countdowns are fewer these days, with more stress piling up as I strike through items on my ever-expanding list.

Present for wife, check.
Rake the leaves that fell since I last raked, check.  Kinda.
Plants on the porch for the winter, check.
Visqueen up on porch to help protect plants (especially important with the coming 70 degree temperatures), check.
Report draft, check.

The countdowns are now about getting things done before, rather than looking forward to something with anticipation.  Work lists that are getting ticked off, gift lists that are getting ticked off, me getting ticked off, and the countdown to a Merry Christmas just seems to lack some of the anticipation of days of yore.


But this year, my sister and my mom are coming to spend Christmas at my house.  They are flying on Christmas day, and will be arriving in Jackson around noon.  I then get a week of showing them around my town, doing all of the things I love.  Things that usually get put off, because I am making these lists, and checking the items off.  Sometimes twice (those thrice-blasted leaves!)

And I have found myself excited for Christmas.  Looking forward with great anticipation for the time when at least part of my family is together.  Counting down the days.

Texting my sister each morning, "Three more days and a wake-up."  And today:

"Two more days and a wake-up."

May your Christmas be filled with the love of family, and the joy of advent.  The excitement and anticipation of the arrival of the babe in a manger.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

You Gotta Squint to See Better

A year ago, I had traveled to central Massachusetts to attend a conference for work, and when it was over, stayed an extra day to visit with my sister.

While I was there, she had her Christmas tree delivered.  It was a lovely spruce tree, and it immediately made the room smell divine.  Later that evening, she began a slow waltz of placing lights on the tree, stepping back, then stepping in again to adjust, and then placing the next swoop of lights.

Confession:  I have never enjoyed the decorating part.  I love having the tree, but the act of decorating has never given me joy.  But I love my sister, and so I helped.

My helping normally involves handing the lights around the back of the tree, and then pulling the slack.  The idea of adjusting is so foreign to me that it had to be explained.

The real trick, explained Caroline, is to squint.  If you step back for a second and squint your eyes almost shut, you can see the areas of the tree that are still dark. Then you can adjust the lights to fill that void.
Tree by James Wade


"Try it", she said.

Now my family has a long history of telling one another stories with the sole purpose of making the victim do something and look ridiculous, so that we can mock them.  It was definitely not out of the realm of possibility that I was being set up.  But I was also curious, so I tried it.

And I gasped.  "Are you kidding me?  Where did you learn that?"

Thursday, November 24, 2016


It was that time.  I went to the ATM, and withdrew the appropriate amount of cash.  I walked into my barbershop and spoke to my barber.  "G'mornin!"  He mumbled something in return.

As I went to sit down to wait, I couldn't quite put my finger on it... but there was something very much out of place.

Ah.  That was it.

A young woman, in her early twenties, clad in a blue smock, was standing behind the third chair in the shop.  "Do you need help?  I...I can help you, if you'd like."

Um.  Sure.

As I have written before, the barbershop is a male place.  It is not specifically exclusionary. Women are welcome, but....

But few women come through the door.  If they do, it is mostly to bring their boys; it is not normally a hangout place where the genders are mixed.  I now get to benefit.... I get to jump the line because men don't go to the barber to have their hair cut by a woman.

I don't care about my hair particularly.  I am not vain about my hair.  Hair always grows back, right?

I sit.

"I am pretty new to the area, but I have been here a few times, and I have never seen you.  Are you a recent arrival, or just been out of town?"

"Oh, no, sir." (I grimace at the way she says 'sir').  "I have been coming in here since I was five years old.  I am now living in Raymond, well, actually I am going to barber college there."  She is trimming the hair on my forehead in an odd arc as she says it.

I am trying to relax into the chair, and she is not making it easy.

But then she gets into a rhythm of snip, snip, and I work to not pay attention to her for a bit, just focusing on looking around.  At the deer antlers on the wall.  At the conversations going on around me.  At the fidgeting kid in the next chair.

I come to attention only when, after twenty minutes of trimming (it has been twenty minutes?), she steps out from behind me, surveying her work.  And frowns.

The poor girl did everything but say "oops" out loud.

And goes back to snipping.  All the while, I am sitting, looking away from the mirror.  A few minutes later, she comes back out in front of me to survey the damage.  And says 'hm'. (Hm, apparently, is barberspeak for 'oops').

And she goes back to snipping.

Fifteen minutes later, I have now been in the chair for long enough for two people to come and go.  She starts to finish up, combing my hair from the wrong side, and finds it tougher than she thought. So she wets down my hair.  And combs it forcefully down, making it stick.

Now comes the big reveal.  Turn the chair...

"Do you like it?"

It's um, great.

"Do you like it?  Cause I can do something different, it you'd like."

No, ma'am.  It is great.  Thank you.

"I am sorry it took so long."

No problem, ma'am.

I simply could not get out of the chair fast enough.  Made it outside before running my fingers through the ruins of my remaining hair.  And then rolled down the window, and left my head outside the window, dog-like, to get the hair dried and blown out of the slick-down that I had just gotten.

 The hair is fine.  And it will grow back out.   The back of my hair, my wife tells me, was very nicely done.

I might just have to scope out the parking lot for Misty's car before I go back for my next trim.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


When I gaze into the night skies and see the work of your finger
The moon and stars suspended in space,
Oh, what is man that you are mindful of him?

I broke down and wept today.

Crying is nothing new for me.  In 4th grade, I received a grade of 'N' under the behavior heading of 'Self Control'.  'N' stands for 'Needs to Improve'.

It was true.  I did need to improve.  I was a wreck, re-integrating into a society from which I had been absent for two years while we lived isolated from everything on the Amazon.  I did not understand the rules of society, and any rules that I knew had changed since I left, halfway through the second grade.

My response to all of the stress was tears.  Crying because I did not know about a rule to one of the sports in recess.  Crying when I realized that show-and-tell had fallen by the wayside while I was out of the country.  Weeping in frustration, in fear, and out of uncertainty.  I remember particularly an incident where I wept over the request/requirement that I cut the edges off of the homework assignment before turning it in. Sobbing as I used my blunt-tipped scissors to cut the ragged edges off of the paper.

Over time, the tears became more infrequent.  By the end of the year, I no longer got an N, and it ceased to be a problem.  Mostly.  The truth is, I now no longer define myself by my tears, as I did that year.

When the tears start, though, it is far more memorable.  Failing my oral exams, and having David Anderson walking with me as I broke down.  An embarrassing moment in Yucatan when I had carefully laid plans for extended family waylaid by a parking attendant.  A moment of terror when I heard what I thought what I thought was my wife crying out in distress after her cancer surgery, and the scalding flood of tears that followed.

My tears don't come often, but come as a surprise when they come.

So today, when I walked into choir, and picked up the music, I was unprepared.  I was out of state this week for rehearsal, so I was going to be sightsinging the music.  The music - a piece by Tom Fettke called The Glory and Majesty of thy Name - was one that I knew, having heard it a number of times before.  It is based on Psalm 8, a lovely song attributed to David, that captures the amazing beauty and enormity of the night sky.

The story that I heard was that Dad had been on the USN destroyer vessel in the Black Sea, keeping a late night watch, looking at the enormity of the night sky, and found himself reciting the psalm.  Every time that his church choir sang this particular song, he flashed back to the unspeakable glory of that night.

The Easley First Baptist Church choir sang that song in the chapel after my dad died.

I had not heard the song again until the moment that I opened my mouth to sing it in the choir room. I made it about half way through, before I closed the music and cried.  The soaring Alleluias were what finally took me down.  It is a glorious, joyful, powerful piece, and I was helpless in its wake.

Music has done it to me before.  One week last year, it was a hymn: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I Survey was a tune we sang every year in Glee Club at Wofford, and it was always one of the most intense songs in my emotional repertoire.  Singing the words, in unison, with 60 of the most powerful men I have ever met, blending my voice in full-throated harmony:

Were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
demands my life, my life, my all.

The words are powerful; the context even more so.  So whenever I sing the song, I am reminded of that setting.  Until....

Until I got into the middle of the song, and, like today, the tune hits the emotional center of my brain. The tears come before the memory of singing that hymn at my dad's funeral does.  And suddenly, I go from singing properly, with supported diaphragm, deep breaths, in my most powerful baritone (the tenor having long ago fallen into disuse) to being unable to catch my breath for the heaving sobs.

Worse, still, I had read the lectionary for the day.  So I was not only weeping in public, but I was weeping in front of the congregation.  Some odd/alarmed/concerned looks later, I had mostly gotten myself back under control.

So, today, after rehearsal, I explained to the choir what had happened.  The choir director, in total sympathy, offered to let me sit out if I needed to.  But I didn't.  Although it remained a powerful song that resonated with me on numerous levels, I sang with the choir, joyfully singing a song that had left me crying just moments before.

I think of my dad with joy and pride.  There is not a lot of residual sadness remaining there about his death.  But there are odd times when it does show up; when music serves as an emotional trigger.  When music has power over me that I can neither deny or defy.

And when it hits, I take a moment, reveling in the rarity of a moment of pure emotion.

Paying homage to the 4th-grade boy who struggled with control.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Halfway through Movember.  And not much to show for it.

In 2004, I received a call from my dad, and after I hung up, I burst into tears in the Elmwood Shopping Center parking lot in New Orleans.  Dad had gotten a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer, and it was a very aggressive cancer.  He didn't provide much in the way of details, but I later found out that he was only given six months to live.

As most of you know, he not only survived that six months, but six more, then more, and more still.  He managed to live - really live - for nine years following his diagnosis.  And inspired so many people in the process, to follow their passion, to respond to a call to service that was meaningful.

Dad's cancer had no telltale signals, no warnings at the first.  It was completely asymptomatic, and was caught during an insurance physical.  And even caught before the first symptom, it was too late.

Once he had been diagnosed, other family members were tested - something that never would have happened without his example.  Cancer - an aggressive form much like my dad's - was caught early for one other family member as a result.

In SC, at the end of November, with my cousins...
For several years, the boys in the family would participate in "Movember".  We put together teams to shave on November 1, and then grew moustaches for a month and raise money for prostate cancer awareness.  Although my personal facial-hair-growing prowess leaves a little to be desired, several of my cousins sprouted some spectacular growths.

After a few years, the novelty wore off a little, and we didn't do it together, and joined other teams.  Fewer of us did it every year.

Every October 31, I decide whether I am going to do it again - whether I am going to join the people who do the whole raising money thing, asking people to donate, going from friend to friend, begging for loose change.  It is not something that comes easily to me, but it is the cost of the platform.

And this year I have decided not to.

I have not decided to avoid the fundraising out of any lack of conviction that the Movember movement is important.  If you are interested in donating, the link is easily available, and there are hundreds of teams that would love the income.  It is a powerful group, and they do good work.

And it is not because I think that the market is saturated with the message.  I see the Today Show and other , and the guys there now do "No-Shave November", but do so without referencing the reason behind it.  The Movember movement has continued, but it has become more of a cultural thing than a messaging thing.

Dr. Andrew Lawton can run, but can't
grow the facial hair, either.
This year, instead, I am throwing my fundraising weight behind my amazing cousin's marathon in New York this weekend, and the two charities he is supporting by doing it.  If you have not read Andrew's blog, it is totally worth it.  And if you just want to donate - either to Fred's team in support of the cancer research that ended up saving his life, or the Housing charity for the elderly that he supports, do that here and/or here (write in "marathon" in the notes section).

Even so, I did shave on November 1, and the result was predictable as always.  I look odd without the familiar goatee.  The double chin has gotten a little more prominent every year, making it less and less likely that I will keep the moustache alone once the month is over.  The facial hair is very patchy, and does not grow fast.  Predictably, I get a little bit of teasing about it.

Each time I am teased, it gives me a chance to tell the story of my dad, Mac Lawton.  Of how he fought cancer with positive attitude.  Of his strength.  Of how he shared hope with those around him.  Of how he inspired young men who did not know what hope looked like.

Of how important it is to be checked.  

It allows me to talk story, to connect with people, and to express my love - for my dad, for my brother and cousins.... and for them.  And ask them to please take the time to get checked if they are of the age (50 years old for most).

Previous Movembers

I turn to you, now.  If you can, get checked.  It is simple enough.  Then take a moment to think of a man in your life with an A-type personality (there is a correlation) and ask them whether they are checked.  Share  information that is available online.  Talk story, share, listen, and love.  

And please, don't forget the love.  It marks you as part of the tribe, every time.  Moustache or no.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Admiring the Cake

There are some times when I find myself wondering if I am ever going to grow up.  

Some things just stick with you a little longer.  When I was little, I wanted to be tall enough to pee in the 'man' urinal.  Ladies, you just have to understand.  It is a thing.  There are an odd set of rules that govern men's restrooms.  This is one.

Even now, when given a choice, I never opt for the low bowl.  It is not a matter of aim, or comfort, or anything else.  And it is not even a conscious decision.  I just can't quite bring myself to revert to being the one who wasn't tall enough.  I have even un-self-consciously allowed others to go ahead of me in line to avoid the kid pot.

Will I ever grow out of it?

Probably not.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paying your dues

When I was a boy of four, I would stop by my granddaddy's Sunday school class on my way to my own, and get a coin for the offering.  I already had mine - a shiny quarter to put in the offering plate when it was passed - but I also hit my granddaddy up for an extra.  (Also for the offering, I promise).

Granddaddy would make a big production out of reaching for his coin purse - one of those old-fashioned squeeze-the-edges-to-open-it coin purses, and pull out a nickel or a dime to add to my collection.  During Sunday dinner, knowing that I was fascinated with both the coin purse and the beauty of the money that was inside, he would let me go through his change, looking to see if there were any wheat pennies or silver nickels.

Granddaddy's coin purse was made of leather.  But it was the same principle as this.

One coin was in Granddaddy's change I never could identify.  It looked vaguely like a large English penny, but had worn down from years of being jumbled and tumbled with other coins in his pocket.

Fast forward a number of years, and dad has tasked me with splitting up some silver coins that he had in his collections - dividing up some old coins among the three siblings.  I ran across the worn blank, and asked Dad what it was.
The coin from Granddaddy's coin purse.
The copper one, that is.  The other is for scale.

"That coin?  Your granddaddy always carried that in his coin purse, but I never heard what it was".

Good internet sleuth that I pretend to be, I decided to find out what it was originally.  I looked up coin sites, used every search term I could think of.  I even decided that the faint outline on what I assume was the obverse looked something like a picture of Andrew Jackson, so I looked up coins with Andrew Jackson.

I mean, why not?  Grasping at straws was no less or more productive than guessing.   I found a number of coins, none of which seemed to fit what I was looking for.  They were either facing the wrong way, or had a different bearing, or were the wrong material..

I finally gave up.  But as I did, I put it out to the hive mind of facebook, and asked if anyone recognized the coin.

My cousin Roxana immediately chimed in, saying that she thought she knew.  Followed up with one of the best stories ever.

Granddaddy, just before he left for WWII, joined the Freemasons.  He was inducted to a guild (lodge?) in Boston, and when he did, he was presented with a coin, and left for Europe the day after his eldest son was born - the 12th of February, 1944.  Riding in the largest armada ever assembled by the US, he arrived in England and then went to France.  Once the trains were opened again, he was in the first group to go to Marseilles, and set up the supply depot north of Marseilles on a canal off of the Rhone.  As a sergeant, he was charged with organizing the freight from there to Patton and the rest of the army.

He used the coin to identify and connect with other Freemasons in the European theater, and used those connections to obtain goods and move supplies. As a fun fact, Roxana also added:

 I know the only French word granddaddy told me  he ever learned was when he was in the war. It was the word for "chicken" because he wanted to trade as they walked through towns. He said they were very underfed. 

When he got home - in late 1946 -  he began living married life, raising kids, working to build the moulding manufacturing business, serving in the church....

...and made a very early decision not to continue with the Freemasons.

He felt very strongly about one element, however.  Because he had benefited from his association with the Freemasons during the war, he felt it important to honor his commitment.  For the remainder of his life, he paid the dues.

So much of what we see in society revolves around the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis.  What do I get out of it?  How much do I get?  What is my portion?  Is that all? When am I due a promotion?  When and how much is my raise?

And maybe it was just a generational thing.  But I look at the men and women of my granddaddy's generation, and I see a different approach.  Instead of looking at what they were owed, they focused on the debts that they owed.  And they were determined to pay that debt.  For as long as it took.  And recognized that some debts you go on paying, even past their due date.

A friend of mine from a previous life got into trouble when his business failed, and he filed for bankruptcy.  It was a rough time for him, and he struggled to have enough money to feed his family and keep a roof over their head. But the whole time, he continued to quietly pay the people he owed.  Every paycheck, he took the first cut - even when it was a small one - and gave it to the people who had trusted him, and who had taken a loss when his business failed.

For decades, he continued to pay on that debt.  And eventually, he paid it all back. Every penny.

The law had told him that he was absolved from paying back the money: filing bankruptcy meant that he no longer owed those debts.  But my friend knew something about debt that the law does not recognize.  There is power in paying.

Stories like that make me suspicious and angry towards people who owe debts and do not pay.  A teacher of mine who decided he did not owe for services his contractor rendered.  The contractor lost everything.  A retirement fund manager who takes, and then watches as the retirees suffer.  The CEO who runs the company into the ground by cutting salaries and staff, then golden parachutes to safety.  the banks that issue predatory loans, and ruin people's lives.

And the businessman who defaults on debts, leaving others to try and pick up pieces of their lives.

But just as I feel that righteous indignation, I have to also look at the other end of that finger pointing outward.

I have been given so much.  I was reared in a family that had enough to provide, and to send me to college.  They bolstered me through the interminable lean years of grad school.  I grew up solidly middle class, with every benefit given to my class, race, and gender.  (Granted, I suffered mightily because I was not popular, a plight I was certain could easily be solved by the purchase of a cool Members Only jacket,)

But I don't know that I ever saw it that way - as a debt that I needed to pay.  That I had benefited from membership in a club, and that I needed to pay dues.

I ave wanted all of my life to be called to a ministry.  But I think just maybe that my calling is to look around me and see the membership that has benefited me all along.

And find an opportunity to pay my dues.  Serving the homeless.  Standing up for those who don't have a voice.  Giving my time, my money, my effort.

Paying the debt that I owe.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Music of Joy - Change Ringing

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved to NYC and joined the Trinity Change Ringers.  When Jeremy told me he had made the change from choir member to church bell ringer, I was a little perplexed.  He had such a lovely tenor voice, and an amazing understanding of music; I did not see any benefit to having him pulling a rope instead.

And I told him so.

He asked me if I had ever heard of change ringing; I had to answer that I had not.  He shared a New York Times article with me and gave me insight into the amazing cascade of ringing church bells, and the difficult nature of making the music.  And of course, I geeked out about it and started reading.

"The 'music' consists of cascades of bell strikes, called rows or pulls.  Variations in the order are introduced according to strict rules.  About five minutes of ringing is called a touch.  A full peal has 5,000 individual sequences.  Skillful ringing is like a steady stream of sand; poor ringing like clumps of earth".

I gotta say, that description does not make it sound much better.  Fortunately, the internets are filled with videos of amazing things (amazing things are not always good, just so you know - don't go looking for good things when you google 'Miranda Sings').  But then I listened to some, and was amazed.  Each of the notes, rung over and over again, with a pattern that defies expectation, and repeating in such a long loop that it is hard to even know that there is a repeating pattern.

Infinite variations. Each note, in isolation, providing just a toll. But together, instead of the expected cacophony, pure beauty.

The bells begin with a descending scale.  But then as the different rhythms for each bell continue, the character of the sound changes.  Listen to a little bit of it (or the whole thing, if you'd like!), but skip to about 3:00 to see how the sound changes.

I found myself thinking about that bell ringing and the beauty of the sound when I was in our church service a week ago.  One of the beloved members of the church was accepting a new job as minister of families out of state.  She had been involved with the children's ministry, and also with a ministry called Jacob's Ladder, which is a service to help adolescents and young adults with intellectual disabilities by helping them develop tools for adulthood.

The children sang.  The Jacob's Ladder youth played handbells.

My first thought was to expect cacophony.  Decades ago I played handbells in a youth bell choir, and quickly discovered how easy it was to botch a piece totally by playing at the wrong time.  Shortly after the first performance, I decided handbells might not be my way to fame and fortune.

As I listened to the bell ringers, however, I was amazed.  The sound was glorious.

Finally, the thought occurred to me that the out-of-time rhythm that  each of the players joyfully produced was, in essence, a form of change ringing.  Each of the ringers played their part of the chord in a rhythm that expressed their heart in a new way.  They started more or less together, cut off more or less together, and in between, they rang those bells.

Infinite variations. Each note, in isolation, providing just a toll.  But together, instead of the expected cacophony, pure beauty.

The end result was a beautiful experience.  One that touched me and reminded me of something important - that everyone has their note to play.  That where I expect dischord and tension, there is often beauty. 

And where I cannot find the beauty, it might just be because I haven't waited long enough to hear the pattern, and see the beauty. 

It also reminded me that I can play a melody by myself.  But that real joy and beauty comes from letting my note be joined with others, playing as imperfectly as I do, and with enthusiasm that brings joy with it, and make amazing music.  The music of the spheres.  Music of joy. 

I think I am going to listen for that beauty this week.  See if I can't listen for the change ringing in my life, and bring some much needed change.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Strategic Planning. Yellow Jacket Edition.

Strategic planning has not always been my strong suit.

Chess for me always involved me following my own plan to victory, no matter what moves my opponent made.  I would plot out my moves, eight, nine, even ten moves ahead.  Unfortunately, those moves involved only a single path laid out, so any variation in that plan would lead me to pain, destruction, and death.
Every.  Single. Time.

It was the summer of 1982.  I was cutting grass for extra money, and was 'renting' the lawn mower from my dad by cutting our grass for free.  In the process of cutting the rocky backyard, I disturbed a yellow jacket nest.

Yellow jackets - also known as ground hornets - are the meanest creatures on the planet.  Anyone who thinks the honey badger is the baddest animal in the kingdom has never had to fight off yellow jackets.  They are aggressive, can sting repeatedly, and seem to enjoy doing so.
Summer of '82, and I am cutting the back yard.  I run the lawn mower over an unseen yellow jacket hole.  The scout bees got sucked into the vortex of the lawnmower blades, and immediately were turned into bee hash.

The second set of scouts escaped the mower-vortex, and found themselves between two very skinny legs, clad only in a thin layer of denim.  Vowing revenge on the stick figure for the deaths of SB312 and SB1495, they screamed for the horde to attack.

Had I had known they were there, I would have left the lawn mower running right over the hole, and let them die, one at a time.  But I didn't, so they came out, ready for battle.   And facing only one combatant on the opposing side, they quickly overran the field of battle and won the victory.

Nursing my wounds, I tried to figure out the best approach to finish my task and avoid a reprise of the stings.  I watched for a few minutes, until the bees calmed down and all went back in the hell hole.  And then, carefully, slowly, I crept up to the hole and with a lightning strike jammed a small rock into the hole.


I finished cutting the yard in full strut, feeling proud of myself for the quick, brave, decisive stroke that freed me to do my work.  I had won the battle of man vs. wild, and the rotten bastards would starve to death, trapped in the hole they had dug in my yard.

A day later, I show the plugged hole to one of my friends.  To my surprise and consternation, the bloody bees had dug themselves a new hole, a couple of feet away from the original hole.  Disappointed that my solution had not been permanent, I watched for a moment.

And then made my mistake.

Obviously, the yellow jackets had abandoned their previous hole.  So I removed the rock, to see what the abandoned hole looked like.




I told myself (and my friend, who had almost recovered from the combination of flight and laughter) that I was simply curious about the housing structure of the bees.  (My next study of that will involve molten aluminum.)  I told myself that it was simple biological curiosity.  Once I was a safe distance away, though, I had to admit the truth: I had just been outmaneuvered by a damned insect colony, who had decided to leave scouts at the closed entrance.  Just in case.

When the stupid 12-year old rolled away the stone, they were ready for attack.

Gasoline and a match solved the immediate problem.

12-year-old Crorey resolved at that painful moment to think things through a little more carefully from that point on, seeing the chess game through to its obvious conclusion BEFORE removing the rock.

Sadly, 12-year-old Crorey did not learn that lesson.  Three broken bones (none of them mine), a broken tooth (also not mine) and countless incidents with my car throughout my teenage years speak to an inability to see very deeply into the future.

Sometimes, the future I would peer into would not allow me five good solid seconds of foresight.


Unfortunately, the adult version of Crorey keeps finding himself in similar situations, holding the selfsame rock, surprised that he is being stung.  Not thinking strategically.  Yes, I would LOVE to help with that CFC campaign.  Are you kidding?  Of course I will provide a vat of chili for your party!  No, I can carry that table by myself into the house.  Sure, I would love to try that joloka pepper.  And let me wipe my eyes afterwards.  Or worse.

Hold my beer.  I got this.

Unfortunately, I also love the stories that result.  I have found that nothing is quite like that feeling that I am responsible for my current predicament, and that I can see the exact moment where everything went off the rails.  The result cannot be avoided, and all I can do is laugh and face the consequences.

So partly because I enjoy the laughter that results from silly predicaments, and partly because I love seeing chaos develop, I have spent my adult life happily not learning the lesson of the yellow jackets.

Even so, there are times that I find myself reaching a little earlier for the gasoline.

Anybody got a light?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fool's Gold Rush

I have always been a geology geek.  I have been reading geology books since shortly after I finished all of the Hardy Boys series.  As a kid, I talked about rocks with everyone who would listen.  And with many who fooled me into thinking they were listening.

I still fall into that trap from time to time.

So when I was in Brasil, in the middle of one of the largest deltas in the world (which means NO ROCKS), I had to get all of my .  And one day when we were visiting the metropolis of Belem, my dad introduced me to a geologist from the local university.

He did this to feed my curious soul, but also in some small measure, I suspect, to get a break from trying to bluff his way past an irritatingly insistent 9-year old.

The geologist was wonderful, and spoke English to me, answering questions and talking story about some research.  It was my first time talking with an academic, and I loved it.  At the end of the conversation, he gave me a small piece of translucent, red amber-like material.  He explained that it was volcanic glass, and told me a little about how it was formed.  (Now that I have worked with obsidian for about twenty years, I have my doubts that the piece he gave me was obsidian).

But a story that he told Dad fascinated me.  This was the late 70s, and a gold rush had started in the state of Brasil where we lived, Para.  There were stories of men who found large nuggets.  LARGE nuggets.  Like 40 pounds and more.  When a particularly large nugget was found, the government confiscated it for the Banco Central Museum. Without paying the miners for the find. After that point, all largish nuggets had shovel marks on four sides.

The geologist acknowledged the stories about the gold rush, but said that a colleague of his had actually been involved early on, and had been given a large nugget.  Thinking that it was a piece of fools gold, he used it as a doorstop for ears, until a member of the geology faculty asked if he could test it.

Once it was recognized as real gold, it triggered a gold rush as everyone went to cash in on the mine.

I have repeated the story through the years.  It is one of my favorites, and I love getting to try and re-capture the excitement and wonder of that little boy, thrilled to be talking to someone who knew everything about a subject.

So this morning, when I read an article from Blanchard on the Reed Gold Mine, located somewhat north of  some very notable locations in North Carolina: (Frog Pond and Locust), I smiled in memory of the first time I heard about a gold mine from someone who had some first hand experience with it.

And yet, as I read further, the story sounded awfully familiar.

The story is of the first gold rush in the United States, dating back to 1799.  A kid by the name of Conrad Reed skipped church to go fishing, and found a yellow rock.  He gave it to his dad, John, who didn't know what it was, and used the 17-pound hunk of metal as a doorstop.  He asked a local silversmith (note that his specialty was, well, SILVER) and the guy just didn't know whether it was gold or not.

Eventually, three years later, John showed it to a jeweler in Fayetteville who knew what it was, and melted it down to a gold bar 8" long.  And then offered to buy it.

Since spot gold prices were not available on the internet yet, Mr. Reed asked the princely sum of $3.50.

He got it.  That much gold was worth about $3600 at that time, so the jeweler made some money off the trade.

This discovery led to a frenzy of activity, as gold mines were quickly opened across NC, and the first gold rush was born, eventually leading to the opening of only the second US mint in existence in Charlotte (which kept the risks of theft during travel to Philadelphia to a minimum).
Gold $1 piece, minted in Charlotte.  (C is on the obverse, center bottom)

I read the story with great glee, realizing that what the geologist had told me almost 40 years ago, in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest in Brasil, was an urban legend that had been modified from a real story from Appalachian history.

I see a trip to Frog Pond in my future.  Anyone want to go with me?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hickory nuts

I collected hickory nuts today and it reminded me of my Dad.

When my family moved to Lockwood Avenue in Greenville, the property came with two important features: a brick grill and a hickory tree. The brick grill ended up being useless - I was eventually paid to break the bricks and haul it away.

But the other feature - the hickory tree, was important.

Before Dad would grill out, he would send me out to collect hickory nuts for the fire.  There was only one tree, and so collecting was pretty easy.  I would come back with a couple of cupfulls from every foraging session.  Dad would add it to the fire, and the result was perfect, smoky meat.

I the beauty of hindsight, there is probably no better way to engage a pyro kid somewhere other than the firepit than to give him a task specifically designed to keep him a safe distance from the fire.

By the time he is back, the fire has started to die down.  And the real work of grilling can begin.

I have a pet theory, that the skill of carving meat and grilling skips a generation.  I honestly believe that the accomplished grillmaster cannot let a child take the job - a task that he has perfected over the years by trial and error - and destroy a piece of meat.  And by controlling the fire, he effectively removes the knowledge from being passed along to the next generation.

By the time the following generation comes around, the grillmaster seeks to share the knowledge and wisdom of a thousand steaks.  The grandchild then becomes the fire-priest-in-training, eventually supplanting the old generation.

Dad had lots of reasons for keeping his little firebug away from the grill.  But the unintended consequence is that I have no idea what I am doing when the coals get hot.  I re-invent the wheel.  Every.  Single.  Time.

 Nevertheless, the lesson of the hickory continues.  And as long as I am grilling, and re-learning the process, I'll be reading, guessing, scorching, charring, dripping, re-heating, and eating delicious failures and scrumptious successes.  And with each one, when it is available, I will be charring some hickory nuts while I do.  And wondering whether Dad was just sending me on a mission, or whether he really did like the flavor.

I am thinking maybe he did.  And that getting the kid away from the fire was pure lagniappe.

This year, Remi, Gabi and I built a firepit.  We grilled on it, and I explained to Remi that I was just making it up - I had no special knowledge about grilling.  And in the process, he and I both started, once again, to learn how to char meat.  This time, we did it together.

So after the kids left. I found myself with bratwurst on the fire, thinking of what Independence Day really means.  I learned a lot about fire, but did so under the watchful eye of my dad.  Even if he was not sharing his grill with me, he watched his pyro develop.  And start fires of his own.

We don't ever really become independent.  We rely on the knowledge of what went before, and break away, trying to make it better.  Sometimes, we burn the brisket.  Other times, we get it right.

And sometimes, we just get to watch the fire, and marvel at how wonderful the smell of hickory really flavors our lives so perfectly.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Is Half-Staff the Norm?

The US Flag outside the Mississippi River Commission building was at half staff last week.


I subscribe to a website that alerts me as to the status of the flag. After working on a military base for a while, I felt like I needed to know WHY the flag was not at full staff.  The website would give me an update.

Most of the time, I would already know.  Head of state died.  Memorial Day.  September 11.  Pearl Harbor.

Other times, we fly the flag at half staff for a presidential declaration because of the death of an official, former officials, or foreign dignitaries. Or the president may order half-staff display of the flag after other tragic events (half mast, by the way, is aboard a ship - thanks, Uncle Google!).

But these declarations are no longer the exception.  They are the rule.

Just since Memorial Day, we have flown the flag at half staff:

- between the 12th and the 16th of June in response to the Orlando killings.
- between July 8th and July 12th for the Dallas shootings.
- three days later, for the Nice incident - July 15 through July 19.

We didn't even get through the mourning period for Nice before we had another proclamation:

HONORING THE VICTIMS OF THE ATTACK IN BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA - - - - - - - BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION As a mark of respect for the victims of the attack on police officers perpetrated on Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by the authority vested in me as President of the United States by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, I hereby order that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and upon all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset, July 22, 2016.

In total, 69 proclamations have been made during the Obama presidency, and 170 days that the flag has flown at half staff in the past year.  When you add in the proclamations by the state governors (who can also issue a flag proclamation in their state), 336 days of the past year have I went through the list, and it is not an Obama thing - not as if he is making proclamations right and left. It is just a shocking level of violence that

Take a look at the list just in the past year: (Nancy Reagan and Antonin Scalia are added in, as well).

Fort Hood.
Roseburg, Oregon.
San Bernadino.
Baton Rouge.

Which one had you forgotten, off that list? (For me, it was the Umpqua shooting.  I suspect that our hearts can only hold a certain amount of violence at a time).

The issues are complex.  The list does not just represent terrorism.  Or police deaths. Or victims of hate crimes.  Or school shootings.

It is all of this and more.  And I am finding my heart broken anew, every day.  And worrying that I am developing scar tissue, where that raw emotion used to be. Am I getting jaded?  Do I just expect violence to be part of my society?  Have I given up on a hope of a peaceful society, where we expect our citizens to die of, oh, I don't know.... old age?

Am I accustomed to seeing the flag at half staff?

Can I afford to be?

Everyone is passionate about their answer. 

More guns are the answer.  Stricter gun laws are the answer.
Police sensitivity training is the answer.  Increasing police budgets is the answer. 
Getting rid of all foreigners is the answer.  Embracing a multicultural society is the answer.
Being polite to the police is the answer.  Revamping the idea of police is the answer.
Being liberal is the answer.  Being conservative is the answer.

I lived for more than a year in a country where the violence was completely out of hand.  Murders, domestic violence, assassinations, drug wars, violence against indigenous peoples... Guatemala had it all.  I am not unfamiliar with what it is like to live in a battle zone.

But as the violence escalates around me, and as I hear my friends on social media all echo the same refrain - STOP KILLING PEOPLE! - I worry that I am beginning to accept the violence in my world as background noise.  I worry that I am living my life expecting the flag to always be at half staff.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

Richard Hansen, the Commander of New Orleans District, is headed to his next deployment in Afghanistan for his next assignment.  I wish him good luck and godspeed in his work. And I pray for his safe return. 

A few years ago, I watched a fascinating bit of pageantry within the Corps of Engineers, as the Hurricane Protection Office - who oversaw the building of the levees following Katrina - changed their leadership in a Change of Command Ceremony.  I wrote up a quick overview, and laughed about it with some friends.

I saw another CoCC this past week, as the New Orleans commander was replaced with a new Colonel.   It was different.  But some of the elements remained the same.

From the original:
It was a lovely service, with a retired Lieutenant Colonel singing the national anthem (beautiful voice), a good, stirring speech from the Brigadier General, and brief remarks by the outgoing Colonel (he is going to lead the Corps effort in Afghanistan) and the incoming Colonel.

But I found the actual ritual of change of command fascinating as an anthropological insight into Corps mentality.

As a narrator (a captain whose public reading skills had definitely not figured into his promotions) described the scene from the podium, the highest ranking Noncom in the Hurricane Protection Office approaches the flags on the right of the stage, removes the corps colors from the stand, and performs a smart about face.  He then marches to a spot in front of the assembled crowd, and turns to face the small group at the front of the room.  With his arms extended holding the colors, he makes his presentation to the civilian in the middle of the huddle.  The civilian turns to his left and hands the flag to the outgoing Colonel, who turns and presents it to the Brigadier General, who turns and presents it to the incoming Colonel, who extends his arms to give it back to the Noncom.  The Noncom marches back over to the stand, forcefully places the flag into the stand with a "HOOOAH!", and everyone goes back to where they were before the ceremony.

OK, let me see if I have this right.  The guy reading from the script gets lost, repeatedly, on the page.  The General flies into New Orleans on the government jet (the one I made turn around because I stole the pilot's computer) to pass a flag from one officer to another.  A civilian, looking uncomfortable in the whole mix, acts as an intermediary between the Noncom and the outgoing Colonel, but is not involved from that point forward and never interacts with the General.  The Colonels do not actually interact with one another.  And the end result involves the Noncom enthusiastically putting things back the way they were before any of this happened, and shouting out that the task is complete.

Synopsis of the synopsis: we got fired up to do something nobody wanted done, involved a bunch of brass with pomp and circumstance, shouted that we did it, and when we were done, everything was exactly the way it was beforehand.

Some days it seems like that ceremony is a perfect metaphor for what we are doing.

2016 New Orleans Change of Command Ceremony. 
Because outdoors in June in New Orleans is the best.

 The ceremony this time around was a little more tame, and a little less a metaphor for the work we do.  But I am keenly aware of how much the change of command disrupts the way we do business.

Two months ago, I was deployed to help the communities in Louisiana recover after flooding took out much of the states (this time, not from hurricanes; YAY!), and was gone for a month. It was a critical time that I was gone; we bought a house and moved, the job got very intense, and the class I was taking reached a fever pitch.

The initial agreement was that I was to get a replacement that would go down at the same time as I was there, we would talk about how we had done the work last time, and then I would leave.  And from home, I would provide remote support for the replacement, coming down to help when we have public meetings, writing, reading, and researching.  But I would not have to be there for the day-to-day.

Two weeks after I arrived, there was no sign that anyone was going to back me up.  My boss was a little nervous, and I was under some pressure to get home. 

Finally, Jeff joins me.  He is brilliant, hard working, and has a great attitude.  That is, his attitude is much like mine - a little snarky, a little funny, and hiding a thoughtful demeanor behind a happy-go-lucky outlook.

He also makes a mean sazerac...

Anyway, we worked together in Baton Rouge for a couple weeks more, and I handed the reins over to him, with a promise to help him any way I could.

Slam that flag down into the stand and shout "HOOOAH!"

While I was deployed, I had several projects that had been nearing the hot seat.  They got there while I was gone. 

Two of my teammates, Mincer and Sarah, picked up the baton and kept running, even while other stuff was piling on their plates.  But they saw the need to get stuff done, and without ceremony (see what I did there?) they took on the tasks and got them done.  Even when the burrocratic Vogons were standing in the way ("You need two spaces after the header, not one.  Print it out and bring it to me") they got the job done.

Hoooah.  (Less enthusiasm, perhaps?)

After I returned, the heat kicked up on a number of my projects, many of which were getting started before I came on board.  One particular project requires me to identify participants across the Division, and ask them to make time for the work I have for them to do.  With no compensation.  And no reward for doing the job.  No incentive at all.  My predecessor had managed, but all of the people on his list have taken jobs elsewhere - some elsewhere in the Corps, and some outside of government service.  So my job now is to convince some bosses that the work is important enough to dedicate someone to do it, who will do a good job and do it gladly for nothing but an attaboy. 

Never mind.  Just hand me the flag.  hooah

Best of luck to Colonel Clancy.  Looking forward to working with you, sir.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Happy as my dog

I want to be as happy as my dog.

Lucie is a simple creature.  People are always talking about how smart their dog is, how great an instinct for hunting it has, what great championship lines he claims, how obedient she is, what a great protector she is...

My dog has none of these things.

She is not gifted with great intelligence.  She looks blankly at me when I give her a command.  And it is not defiance.  She simply does not understand.  She cocks her head to the side, trying to figure it all out.  And then happily goes back to what she was doing.

She is no mighty hunter.  She is very excited about chasing dust motes and sunbeams.  She will spend hours jabbing her snout at a sunbeam in the house, and get very excited when her ID tags sparkle in the light.  She will chase a laser until she drops from exhaustion, and there is little that gives her more joy than going into the back yard and looking for worms.  But she has not a single idea of what tracking is, or even what to do when she sees a squirrel.

                                  Lucie, entertaining herself by hunting the mighty sunbeam.

But the moment you spray water from the garden hose, especially when the sun is shining, and the kaleidoscope of the crystal sparkles everywhere, that is the thing that just sends her into ecstasy.  Nothing gives her greater pleasure than the hose.  She hunts droplets, flashing in the sun, with all of the fire and passion that most of us reserve for football games.  At the end of any hose romp, she returns, exhausted and muddy and with the waggiest tail you can imagine, thumping tail so hard against the furniture that she risks injury.

Lucie, watching the hose from inside.

Lucie has no papers.  She was one dog of many that a friend had in a couple of litters that her dachshunds had.  There is no championship line there.  

There is also no urge to protect.  She will sound the alarm, and she is brave (even when the vacuum monster comes out).  But she does not seem to sound the alarm to any purpose.  It is just an alarm.  And when it is done, she goes back to doing what she was doing before she barked.  Which usually involves chasing sunlight, somewhere in the house.

Lucie is none of the things that you brag on your dog about.  

What she is, however, is happy.  Joyful.  Loving.  Sweet.  Gentle.  

I go through my life with complicated interactions.  I am pretty good about not taking it personally, and very rarely hold grudges.  But there is complicated math going on any time there is a favor requested or performed.  Shifting allegiances as work that needs to be done competes with personal relationships.  Temporary alliances where I hold my nose and work with someone who angered me last week.  

But my dog does none of that.  She loves you.  She loves me.  She loves Kathe. She loves visitors.  She loves the postman.  She takes joy in being fed.  She loves being petted, but only for a minute, because she has important work to do, chasing and killing those light sparkles, over and over again.  

Tail wagging like mad.

Paul Simon wrote a song called 'One Trick Pony' (the album was immortalized in Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe credits), and the lyrics from the song are the best part of the album:

He makes it look so easy
He looks so clean
He moves like God’s
Immaculate machine
He makes me think about
All of these extra moves I make
And all this herky-jerky motion
And the bag of tricks it takes
To get me through my working day
One-trick pony

Lucie is that one-trick pony.  Tail wagging like mad. Compulsively licking the hand of whoever is holding her.  Loving with everything she has.

And then jumping back down in search of the sparkle.

I think I'll find my sparkle tomorrow. ....Or maybe I'll decide to find it tonight.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


You know that feeling, when you are a passenger in a car being driven through the mountains, and you lean into the curves just a little too early, or a little too late?  As a driver, you never get the sensation -  you know exactly when the car will respond, because you are in control.

But as the passenger, you get all of the thrills of a roller coaster ride with none of the built-in security features that roller coasters are required to have.

I was surprised to find myself thinking of being a passenger in the mountains this weekend.  When we bought the house, it came with a lovely piece of lagniappe (see my blog entry on that term here).  In addition to owning a lovely house, we now also own a baby grand piano.

Yes.  The house comes partially furnished.  No, they did not leave the refrigerator.  No washer/dryer, either.

But we got ourselves a baby grand.

Our new piano.
It is an Ellington piano, which is was manufactured by Baldwin in the 1920s.  It has a lovely brown mahogany body, and was clearly in dire need of a little TLC.  One of the first things I did when I came into the house during our recon visit was to sit down and surreptitiously check out the tuning.

It was bad.  It was fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.  I grew up playing a piano that had been moved - twice - without being tuned.  So somewhat out-of-tune pianos are not such a big deal to me.  But this?  I have uploaded the video of the chromatic scale to youtube to show how awful it was.

Kathe ended up calling The Piano Man, a local piano tuner out of Jackson, MS.  I was there for some of the tuning (I had bought tools so that I could try and tune it myself, and Kathe wisely - and sneakily - called for a professional to do it before I could do any irreparable damage.)  And it was a pretty amazing process. (I still maintain I would have done a decent job, and I really, really, really wanted 'piano tuning' on my Renaissance Man Resume).

What I discovered after fifteen minutes of listening to him tune the piano