Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Story Time

If you know my Dad, you know he’s a story teller. If you’ve spent more than five minutes with my Daddy, you’ve heard a story. I’ve heard hundreds of his stories and some of them, I’ve heard a hundred times. But it’s OK, because I find them riveting and funny and touching. As he tells me these stories, he’s sharing a part of him. It’s not just living history, but it’s personal history. If I’m an extension of him, these stories are an extension of me. 

My favorites include:

  • There was the time he was in the Army and stationed in France in the early 1960s and he and some buddies decided to sneak into and hang out in an abandoned WWII French bunker, complete with rations, unexploded artillery, and some 20+ year-old smokes.

  • In our attic, among some of his belongings, is a beret belonging to a solider of the Armée de Terre (the French Army) in the early 1960s. He has explained that this was a souvenir from his time in France and has offered few details concerning a night of pub crawls, a drunken brawl between some American and French soldiers, a bridge, and some exchanged slurs. Politically correct? Nope. Badass? You betcha.

  • “The ‘Potato’ Story.” This story is infamous in our family. It involves a family we grew up with who had several children, all boys, all fairly close in age, and about as wild and mischievous as they come. The toilet was clogged and the Mom called the plumber, who proceeded to get to work on the pot with an audience of all of these boys. He says while working, “did you all flush something down here that you shouldn’t have?” One nodded and said something that made the plumber’s hair stand up on his neck. “Kitty.”  He went to the Mom and said, “m’am…do you…ahem…did you…have a cat?” Much to his relief, she replied, “no, we don’t have a cat.” Relieved, he returned to the job and finally retrieved the source of the clog. It was then that he uttered these now famous, if not off-color, words:  “it’s a G**-damned potato!”

  • The last one is about a neighbor I don’t remember and a dog I never knew and whose name Daddy doesn’t recall. For the sake of this retelling, we’re going to call the dog “Guvnah.” Across the street from the house in which I grew up lived a comely older divorcee named Cora. Now, we moved when I was nine years old and I only saw Cora a few times in those first nine years of my life, but when I think of her, I picture Anne Bancroft from The Graduate.  Cora apparently had a dog named Guvnah. Daddy came home from work one day and saw Guvnah lying in the road, struck dead. Doing the rational thing, he hid Guvnah in some bushes until Cora got home and he could break the news to her. Imagine his surprise when Cora answered his knock and there beside her stood Guvnah. Daddy then had to retrieve a dead dog from her bushes.

What I love maybe most about these stories is they give me insight and glimpses of the Dad I didn’t know. I’ve known him and am part, big or small, of the stories from the last 41 years of his life. It’s the stories from the first 32 years that he was here that interest me most. And I feel an obligation to protect these stories and pass them on.

You know, for hundreds and thousands of years, families’ and communities’ histories were passed down verbally. Your parents told stories that you then shared with your kids and those were living history lessons. Cavemen weren’t boring their kids with old home movies. “Look, kids, wanna see the trip your Mom and I took to the Tar Pits?” No, there was a long time back then when there were no physical mementos, no tangible souvenirs. We had only stories to remind us of where we’d been.

So, last week, Daddy told me this story, which I’d either forgotten or had never heard. As a bank branch manager, he was involved with the building of a new branch here in Nashville from the ground up. As the bulldozers were grading the lot, they ran into a grave. It held a simple, wooden coffin so old that it contained nothing. No creepy skeleton, no bones whatsoever, no clothes, nothing. This was not enough to derail construction and so it continued until they hit a second grave. It was then that the experts had to be called out. I’m sure there were representatives from historical societies, archaeologists, historians, forensic pathologists, and a whole host of people in hazmat suits with tiny brushes and magnifying glasses. After an intense examination of the property, they ruled that it was just the two graves, construction could continue, and that the bank merely needed to mark the two graves in some way. Since there was no way of knowing the deceased, a standard tombstone was not possible. Plus, that doesn’t really say, “come on in and open a checking account.” Instead, he explained that they put these two, small marble or granite markers in the ground to mark the spot of these two graves. Interest piqued and enthralled by this, he read my mind and said, “you want to go see them, don’t you.” Of course I did.  So we drove out there today.

As we pulled in, I asked, “does it look the same?” and he acknowledged that, despite the bank having a new name (probably one of countless in the last four decades) and the area around the bank having been over developed, the actual building and parking lot remained pretty much the same.

We got out of the car and he walked right to a small patch of grass in front of the building. And we looked. And we looked some more. And there were no little markers. We moved to another patch of grass. Nothing.

There was a bank employee out for a smoke break so he struck up a conversation with her, partly so they didn’t call the cops on us and partly to see if she happened to know about these two graves. He told her a short version of the story. She listened but offered no insight. And it occurred to me how fragile our history and our stories are. How many people are alive right now who know about these two graves. Four? Maybe five? And of these four or five, how many of them care, to be honest? I’ve found there are two types of people — the history buffs, such as myself. Those who thrive on the stories, the characters, the people, the lives. And then there’s the rest of the world. The “here and now” folks. The “are we really destined to repeat it if we don’t learn from it?” set.

And there you have it. My plea that you listen to stories when someone offers one. And that you share your own before they’re forgotten.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11: Remembering Whitney

When I think about 9/11, I think of Whitney Houston. I’ll tell you why in a minute. No, I don’t have emotional incontinence or Pseudobulbar Affect (it’s a real thing…Danny Glover wouldn’t lie).  

What I have, thank God, is something 2,977 (at current count) were robbed of — I have my life. And I have a sense of humor. And I’m committed to live every day that I’m given - however many there are - doing my damnedest to be joyful and to get out there and live

And along the way, I want to sprinkle seeds of goodness. I want people who know me to know God’s love. I don’t feel the need to leave my mark here on Earth. If I leave my mark on a few people’s hearts and souls, then mission accomplished. If I’m given the chance, I will lighten the mood and I will make you smile. Because here’s the stark truth:  life is short. Whether you live to be 116 or you end 47 years here in a smoke-filled office building stairwell, you should be able to look back at whatever is behind you and feel like you did your best. You gave it your all. You worked hard, but you played hard, too. When someone reads your book, I hope it has all the elements:  romance, drama, action, comedy. My wish for you is that it is a real page-turner.

So, when someone like my sweet daughter, who was still three years from the beginning of her book, asks about my personal 9/11 experience, here’s what I share from that day 14 years ago.

It was a stunningly beautiful fall morning. Not a cloud in the breathtakingly blue sky. And for a short period of time, a small group of people thought we'd lost Whitney Houston.

Yes, there were the news reports and then the endless media coverage and speculation and reporting. There were the images forever imprinted in the minds of those of us who are old enough to remember….the planes, the smoke, the people waving and then jumping from the buildings, crumbling skyscrapers, the brave rescue workers, the sense of “what in the world is happening?” and the stunned numbness that followed.

We were huddled in a conference room at my office, all crowded around a small TV someone had brought in, but none of us really watching any longer. It was the afternoon and the emotional and physical toll had set in from being on edge all day, from going through motions but being frozen at the same time. A woman ran in and yelled, “did y’all hear?!” Oh no, we thought, and someone asked aloud, Has there been another plane

“No,” she answered. “Whitney Houston just died.” And even though Whitney had faded from the headlines and her stardom was fading, people were just on edge enough to take this alleged passing really hard. Someone broke out in tears, openly sobbing. Someone else, a man I remember, said in a loud, melodramatic tone, “what else is going to happen to us?!” It was all very surreal. For a few minutes, a group of eight or 10 of us sat there with, literally, the world going up in flames around us, but we were mourning someone who was not actually dead. Later that afternoon, a retraction was provided for us in that conference room when the woman said she’d misunderstood a news report and that Whitney was, in fact, alive and well.

This is why, when I think of 9/11, I chuckle to myself. Certainly I will not forget. I won’t forget the senseless tragedy of that day. The terror. The evil. I also won’t forget the acts of selfless heroism, the patriotism, and the goodness and kindness that emerged that day and the days that followed.

Your book is not over until it goes off to the giant printing press in the sky. So, no lame cop outs about “I wish I had” or “If I was younger or thinner.” You grab that pen and start writing. Do it for yourself. Do it for those 2,977 souls and their survivors whose stories were forever altered that day. Just do it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Scarred But Smarter

Drivin' n' Cryin's song "Scarred but Smarter" has a good line in it: "I think how foolish I must have looked/To think I could be down for good." It's true. We're all down at some point. But does that mean we're out? 

We had parent open house at school last night. It was long and tedious and overwhelming and I can only imagine how the teachers and staff who had been at school yesterday for 12+ hours felt. But I love our head of school and, in his opening comments as he welcomed us, he shared this anecdote. He said one year when he was at another school, he was speaking with a parent and made the comment that he wished he could walk behind every, single student every day and ensure that they had a perfect day. 

Later, as he reflected last night, he realized that this wasn't exactly true. He wanted his students to fall so that they could learn to get back up. He acknowledged he wanted kids to experience small failures as its in these challenges where character is built and shaped. As he spoke, it occurred to me how broken bones can actually make you stronger. How scars can make you prettier. 

I know first-hand that the sweetest victories I've experienced are ones that didn't come easily. Now, this is easy for me to tell you, adult-to-adult, but when I think about my sweet daughter, you better believe I want to walk behind her. I want to ensconce her in bubble wrap and walk ahead of her, looking for cracks in the sidewalk, bullies, and bees. I want to and would protect her from any and all assaults, injustices, and injuries (physical, emotional, and otherwise). Except I don't. 

I want her to fall (a little). I want her to trip. I want her to work hard and realize the disappointment when it's ultimately not hard enough. I want her to be betrayed (just a smidge). I want her to totally flub something up. I want her to wish for something. Pray for something. To want something really badly and then it not happen. I want her to learn and know the value of unanswered prayers. I want her to learn not just to get back up but to leap up and yell, "I'm OK!" 

I remember going on a big pitch with my boss one time. We'd worked tirelessly on this PowerPoint presentation, getting it just right. The right slides, in the right order, and the right length. We practiced. We rehearsed. It was locked and loaded. We got to the clients' place, got set up in their conference room, exchanged pleasantries and then got ready to wow them with this presentation. It didn't work. Something wasn't working. The computer wasn't talking to the projector or the projector wasn't talking to the screen. I don't know what happened but there was failure to launch. Houston, we have a problem. I was silently, inwardly panicking and I'm not a panicker. As my boss fiddled with cords and restarted computers and checked connections, I watched as the clients grew increasingly restless. There was sighing and shifting and a general "what's going on?"ness. 

After a minute or two, my boss said, "the best laid plans, right? Well, let's do this old school." And then she talked. She closed the lid of her laptop, she leaned across the table on her elbows in a way that said "let's do this" and drew them in. I watched as they subconsciously leaned into her, physically drawn in by the conversation. By the end, the deal was sealed. Hands were shaken and a contract was signed. Done. I was astounded. 

Life lesson learned: things don't always go as planned. You adapt. You keep your head about you. You have a "plan B" and you use it. 

So, the next time something doesn't go your way, look for the opportunity, the silver lining. And embrace it.