My latest column for The St. Augustine Record:
I am thrilled to announce that I am a new regular contributor to The St. Augustine Record, the local paper in the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida, and also the town I am grateful to call home. It has been my dream to be a newspaper columnist since I discovered Lewis Grizzard, the legendary humorist and syndicated columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when I was in the 9th grade.
Please visit the paper online to find my columns:
The gift was perfect.
It came to me, right away, when my mother told me we were only doing gag gifts for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. I’d been saving it for a special occasion since the day it had magically appeared on my bed during a Caribbean cruise with my mother, sister, and grandmother three years ago.
It was an inflatable man.
Nanny laughed when she saw it. I’d written “Gil,” the name of my late grandfather, across his chest with a Sharpie pen. She hugged Gil and then proceeded to make a couple of off-color jokes about her new man.
After the cruise three years ago, I stuffed the doll back into his box and threw it on the back shelf of a deep closet. The morning of Nanny’s party, while my cousin and her husband and their toddler, Sophie, ate breakfast, I pulled him out of the box and began inflating him.
“It’s not a problem that I’m doing this in front of your kid, is it?” I asked my cousin.
“Ha. No,” was her reply. Gil, you see, is only about four-foot-six and, as far as inflatable men are concerned, not anatomically correct.
“He kind of looks like Burt Reynolds,” she said, watching as I huffed and I puffed and I blew the doll up.
The process took quite a while, and I finally realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get Gil completely inflated. No matter how much I blew, he remained limp. Ahem. Gil was leaking. My cousin’s teenage sons joined in to help me at that point by submerging Gil in the pool to pinpoint the leak. Deciding it was around the inflate valve, we blew him up as much as possible and then put a piece of duct tape over the valve.
Still, by the time we handed Gil to Nanny, he had lost quite a bit of air. He was rather limp. But it didn’t matter. She was thrilled. She held him on her lap and posed for pictures. When the party was over, she carefully folded him and put him back in his box.
I would have thrown Gil away. After all, what good is an inflatable doll that won’t stay inflated? He seemed to me to be a metaphor for people in our lives who need our constant attention. These leaky people have several emotional pinholes that keep them in a perpetually deflated state. At some point, they become too draining to be around.
Nanny is part of the generation that endured the Great Depression and World War Two. She learned early in life that you never throw away anything with a little use left in it. Because Gil can still be good for a few laughs, he still has value.
I’m not saying we should just allow the leaky people in our lives to suck all the air out of us. But what’s wrong with throwing them a roll of duct tape and offering to help them pinpoint the leaks? We all have our leaky moments, I think, and I certainly am grateful when someone slaps a strip of duct tape over mine. It’s better than sending the entire relationship to the metaphorical dump, especially when the leaky people are family. What’s more, if you throw away all the damaged people in your life, who’s going to be around when it’s time to celebrate your 90th birthday?
I have no doubt I’ll see Gil again. If nothing else, he will be left for me in Nanny’s will, along with the rusty chest freezer sitting in her garage that still runs and has food at the bottom of it older than I am.
I did not set out to have so many dogs. I used to watch people who had more than one dog and think it was silly, superfluous even. If a dog is man’s best friend, having two somehow seems an insult to those best friends. Then I had three children, and someone deemed it appropriate for each of them to have a dog. When my children went away to college, they left their best friends with me.
What was I supposed to do? Kick the pets to the curb? Find them new homes and forever wonder how they were doing? I must admit that when my youngest left the nest last fall, the dogs made the nest feel not so empty.
I wasn’t surprised when a neighbor introduced me to her son and attempted to describe my house. He nodded in recognition and said, “Oh, the house with all the dogs.”
It was a polite way of saying, “So you’re the crazy dog lady.”
Here’s the question: does the word “crazy” describes me or my dogs? Am I the crazy lady with dogs, or the lady with crazy dogs? Which came first?
Pancho, the three-legged Australian shepherd, and the smaller dachshund, Laverne, were scheduled for their annual checkups and vaccinations. The appointment went well, and I was especially proud of Laverne, who usually likens getting her nails clipped to an encounter with one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I paid for our visit and then stood in the lobby next to the exit while I waited for a technician to bring me their medications.
An old guy who was picking up his dog and the front desk receptionist were the only others in the tiny lobby. The veterinarian and another couple were in an adjacent room with the door open. I stood holding Pancho’s leash in my left hand. Laverne lay in the crook of my right arm. All was well in my world until I smelled something and looked down just in time to see a large turd emerge from Laverne’s behind and land on the floor behind me.
“Are you shitting me?” I hissed.
The dog was, quite literally, shitting me. I looked up to ask the receptionist for help (this stuff happens all the time in a vet’s office, right?), but her head was bent over the desk. The old guy’s back was to me. Neither one of them had seen anything. I looked around and spotted a box of Kleenex on a small end table about four feet away. I walked over, pulling an unwilling Pancho behind me, grabbed a couple of tissues, and cleaned up the mess. And then, just as I straightened back up, she did it again.
Laverne weighs less than eight pounds. She usually craps Tootsie Rolls, but these piles were bigger than she is. Pancho, who usually looks on while the dachshunds do their business and always seems to be thinking the line from City Slickers, “I crap bigger ‘n you,” looked at me as if to ask, did that just happen? Again, neither the old man nor the receptionist noticed. And again, I walked over, pulling Pancho, grabbed a Kleenex, and cleaned up the mess.
At this point, I had a Kleenex full of poop in each hand and no idea where to dispose of them. Against the far wall of the lobby was a table with a coffee machine on it. A small plastic trashcan about eight inches high sat on the floor next to it. I crammed it all into this container meant for used coffee filters and stirrers and turned back to my dogs.
We had just gotten settled again when Laverne started heaving. “No, no, no,” I whispered to her as the contents of her golf-ball-sized stomach hit the floor. This time, when I yanked on Pancho’s leash, he groaned and laid his body in front of the door to the office. We gotta get out of here, he seemed to be saying. I let go of the leash and grabbed the last few Kleenex in the box. I cleaned up the vomit and threw the mess away.
As I turned around, the technician emerged from a back office with our prescription. “Thank you,” I said. You have no idea what just happened in here, I wanted to say, but I decided some things just don’t need to be told. Instead, we left that office so fast you’d have thought our collective tails were on fire.
I had to change clothes when I got home. It took six hours, a nice dinner, and a glass of wine before I could find the humor in the scene. As for Pancho, he might never be the same. How is it that a tiny dachshund can so thoroughly traumatize a person who’s raised teenagers and a dog who’s suffered limb loss?
“I’m still pissed at you,” I said to her right before I left to take Pancho for a walk. We weren’t gone more than fifteen minutes. When we walked back into the house, the dachshunds looked up from where they were perched on the back of the sofa. Laverne’s little face was swollen to twice its normal size. I finally realized that my poor little girl was having – had been having — a severe reaction to her rabies vaccination. I raced upstairs and found a Benadryl. I slept with her right next to me so that I could make sure she was breathing through the night. And I apologized to her for my unkind comments.
I might complain about my dogs at times. I will freely admit that I have too many and that they frequently wreak havoc in my life, havoc that I do not need. But here’s the deal: now that my babies are grown, these are my babies, and I love them.
So who’s crazy, the dogs or the lady? I suppose the answer depends on how many legs you have to stand on.
I received a text from my sister last week that said, “Granddad’s grumpy because his tomatoes are turning red but they’re not big enough yet.”
You don’t have to be a farmer or even a backyard gardener to know that the problem is not the color of the tomatoes. The problem is that they look mature when they’re not. (Ask any parent of a thirteen-year-old girl, and they’ll tell you what a frightening concept that is.) Combine the idea of biting into a hard, sour tomato that looks ripe with the thought that, at ninety-one years old, this may well be the last batch of tomatoes you ever raise. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any for a grandfather to be grumpy.
I think there’s a bigger problem with maturing too quickly than just turning out hard and tasteless. My friend Andrew Johnson of Triumph Training in Atlanta says this: “If more parents understood the detrimental effects of placing a child in an upright/axial loading position before they’re fully ready to endure the demands of gravity, we’d see longer phases of crawling encouraged and fewer physical/mental/emotional/spiritual pathologies affecting our kids once they become adults.”
In other words, a baby who learns to walk without ever crawling will experience developmental difficulties in every area of life – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
In 1990, the Atlanta Falcons acquired a young wide receiver named Andre Rison who had been a first-round draft pick in 1989. Rison had a great career as a football player, but what I remember most about him is that while he was an Atlanta Falcon, his girlfriend, the late rapper Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, burned down his Atlanta mansion after they got into a heated argument. Rison lost everything in the fire, and I remember thinking at the time that they sounded like a couple of young people who got too much too soon and simply didn’t know how to handle it. Sadly, it seems he never did learn how to manage the wealth. He figures prominently in the 2012 documentary Broke about professional athletes who squandered their fortunes.
The crawling metaphor has certainly held true for me in my writing. I had to crawl my way through an undergrad degree in English, baby-step through an MFA, and learn to stand by earning a PhD in Creative Writing before I felt confident in my writing. Certainly, I’m in awe of those able to crank out a bestselling novel with no formal training. Still, there’s something about waiting for success that makes it that much sweeter.
Come to think of it, that may be what is really bothering my grandfather. You don’t get to ninety-one without learning a little patience, I don’t think. And you don’t grow backyard tomatoes for half a century without understanding that trying to speed up nature can be disastrous.
I’m getting there myself. I drove to Atlanta this week to see Granddad. Since his tomatoes aren’t quite ready, I had to stop by a roadside stand outside of Macon on my way home for some vine-ripened glories. Normally, I’d throw together two slices of bread, mayonnaise, and a couple slices of one of those tomatoes for a quick lunch. But like I said, I’m learning patience and the sweetness of waiting for the good stuff. So today at lunchtime, I put several slices of cherrywood-smoked bacon in a skillet and fried them until they were just starting to get crispy. I rinsed and patted dry a few lettuce leaves and sliced into one of those dark red tomatoes. I toasted two slices of white bread, resisting the urge to pop the toaster prematurely in order to hurry the process. When they were a lovely golden brown, I slathered Duke’s mayonnaise on each one. I plopped a half-inch slice of tomato on one piece of toast and sprinkled it with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. The lettuce went on top of the tomato. I curled a slice of bacon onto the other piece of toast, allowing some of the drippings from the pan to soak into the bread. Then I folded the two sides together and sliced the sandwich in half. It was a slow process, but I’m learning that much of the pleasure is in the journey and not the destination.
It was the most perfect BLT I’ve ever eaten. And then, because I’d taken so much pleasure in those slow, deliberate steps, and because I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and because I’m working out twice today, and mostly because I’d fried an extra piece of bacon, I repeated the entire process.
My cousin forwarded me an invitation the other day for the annual Smith family reunion on July 4 in Armuchee, Georgia. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was a Smith. She was one of eleven children, and her family’s reunion has been happening since before I was born. None of the original Smith brothers and sisters are still alive, but the surviving spouses, my grandfather being one of them, and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren still honor that tradition.
When I was a kid, the family gathered at the old homeplace, the house where they were raised. Grandmom’s brother, Ralph Smith, and his wife, Thelma, still lived there. It was a frame house that had never been painted. It had, however, seen some improvements over the years – electricity, running water, and an indoor bathroom. It sat on land that Ralph still farmed in Texas Valley, about twenty miles north of Rome, in northeast Georgia.
The reunion picnic took place in a shaded area about thirty yards from the house’s back door. “Down by the spring” was how they said it in the Valley. While moms and grandmoms set out the covered dishes, including Aunt Ruby’s fried apple pies, Thelma’s fried chicken, Ralph’s homemade Brunswick stew, fresh sliced tomatoes from a Valley garden, an assortment of Jello salads, Uncle Pop’s homemade yellow cake with chocolate icing, and fresh-squeezed lemonade, all the children played in the spring. The water was as cold as the inside of an old highway grocery store ice chest, the ones you had to dig deep into for a purple Nehi cola, and when we came out, our feet were lobster red. It was cold enough that the grownups set the watermelons in the spring to chill. But I don’t ever remember hesitating before yanking off my shoes and wading into that water. It was always hotter than the hinges on Hell’s front door on July 4. Plus, there were crawdads to catch in that spring.
The one hard, fast rule about that spring was that we were not allowed to put any body part in the side designated for drinking water. Around the time the house was built, and God knows it was located next to that spring for a reason, a section was dug out and big rocks were smoothed and set around the place where it bubbled out of the ground. All they had to do was walk down to the spring with a bucket to get water for drinking and cooking or washing dishes. In fact, there was always a tin cup hanging from a nail in the tree next to the spring. If you needed a drink, you just helped yourself. Have you ever had a drink of cold spring water from a tin cup? A plastic bottle of Dasani doesn’t compare, much like a grocery store tomato isn’t the same as one plucked from a grandparents’ backyard vine.
Uncle Ralph, who was in his sixties by the time I was old enough to remember those reunions, mostly sat in a lawn chair during the festivities. But if you wanted to see the man jump out of his chair and move faster than a cat with his tail on fire, all you had to do was look at that drinking water pool and pretend to think about sticking a big toe in it. In my life, I saw many a cousin nearly hung from a tree by his overalls for looking like he might contaminate the drinking water.
I guess it wasn’t technically poisoning the well, but it was tainting the source to rinse off a finger that had just picked a booger or pulled a tail off a crawdad, wasn’t it?
Receiving that invitation to the Smith family reunion reminded me of that spring which, to my knowledge, was always pretty abundant. I’ve taken to picturing Uncle Ralph’s spring as I ask for the creativity I need in my writing. You see, as a writer, I’m kind of at the mercy of creativity. The last thing I want to do is mess with that source.
What poisons the well of creativity? The term “poisoning the well,” of course, comes from the ancient wartime tactic of putting poison in the enemy’s water source in order to hurt them. As a rhetorical device, it means disseminating information about someone in order to pre-emptively discredit him or her.
Deepak Chopra, in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, says that in order to access unbounded creativity, you have to go “beyond the turbulence of your internal dialogue . . . ” (20). How do you get beyond that turbulence? According to Chopra, it happens when we practice non-judgment. When we stop needing to categorize situations or people as either good or bad, our minds begin to relax, and that’s when creativity begins to flow.
Criticism destroys creativity. A negative thought about another person, ourselves, or even about what it is we’re trying to create is like sticking a muddy hand into the spring and swishing it around so that every drop of water is contaminated. If he could see us doing that, Uncle Ralph would grab us by the scruff of the neck and say, “Now, don’t go wading’ in the spring of stoopid.”
Somehow, when I hear it with Uncle Ralph’s voice, it’s not judgmental. It’s just the truth.
Brian Doyle, an award-winning author and the editor of Portland Magazine, says, “Bad personal essays are about the writer. Good personal essays are about all of us.” His point, of course, is that good writing touches something familiar in us. It makes us nod our heads and say, “Uh huh, that reminds me of Cousin Bobby,” or “Yep, I did that once.”
In this month’s Southern Living, Rick Bragg, one of the best personal essayists alive today, writes about Southerners and fireworks. While this particular essay might not be about all Southerners, it is about all Southerners with a Y chromosome. As I read the column, called “When Fireworks Go South,” all I could think about was my uncle Gerry. For starters, Bragg’s opening line, “Southerners, I believe, should not be trusted with fireworks,” could have opened this way: “Gerry Adams cannot be trusted with fireworks.”
It began when he was a kid. He tossed a lit match into a paper bag filled with firecrackers just to see what would happen. After a few seconds of silence, he opened the bag and peeked inside. The bag exploded in his face, and he was lucky he lived to tell it. In his teenage years, he progressed to snapping the tails off of bottle rockets to see what would happen. Bottle rockets without tails tend to chase down the people who maimed them. And don’t get me started on the foolishness of tying a bunch of bottle rockets together and trying to light them all before one goes off.
He progressed to roman candles. The warning label on them clearly states, “Never hold a roman candle in your hand or point it at anyone or anything.” But, I ask you, how can you have a good, old-fashioned roman candle battle unless you’re pointing one at another person? I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Gerry Adams is the reason people in Georgia have to drive to Alabama or South Carolina for their fireworks. (Yes, I know it’s possible to buy some online, but the kind you get online are the starter kits Southerners put in their toddlers’ Christmas stockings).
Despite all his teenage antics, the worst my uncle ever got hurt handling fireworks happened when he was in his forties. He procured a big box of the smelliest stink bombs in the state of Georgia. I was a newlywed, and my new husband and I had just purchased our first car. While my husband stood watching, Gerry opened the driver’s door and bent over to place a stink bomb on the floorboard under the steering wheel. “Don’t do it,” my husband warned. In the South, we all know the words “don’t you do it” are the exact same thing as saying, “I double-dog dare ya.” Gerry straightened his back, grinned at my husband, then raised his foot and stomped that stink bomb right into the carpet of that new car.
At the time, my husband was a 6’3”, 200-pound college football player. Gerry, like I said, was in his forties and was not in the best shape of his life. The punch landed squarely on his jaw, and he hit the ground. The incident ignited a family feud that lasted nearly until my divorce was final in 2007. I don’t condone my then-husband’s actions, of course, but I have to point out that Gerry did fail to heed the warning on the product label: “Caution – Irritant. Break vial and get away.”
Like Bragg, my uncle Gerry is now pretty much out of the fireworks shooting business. But that’s not to say there are no fireworks left in his arsenal. This July 4, I imagine he’ll sit on his back porch with a plate of ribs and a glass of merlot and introduce a new generation of Southerners to the joys of celebrating with pyrotechnics.
Often, it seems, when I meet someone who is not from the South, upon finding out that my daddy was a preacher, that person will ask if I grew up handling snakes. Rather than being offended, I like to go with it. Oh, yeah, rattlesnakes are okay, but I prefer copperheads because they’re just easier to find in Georgia, I might say.
The God-honest truth is that I am terrified of snakes — skeered, as we say in the South. I’ve been known to crawl up the back of my companion if we’re out walking and spot a snake. I think snake handling is just God’s way of pointing out that Charles Darwin is correct in his assertion that the fittest and smartest among us are the ones who survive to reproduce.
My ex-husband’s family owns a company that markets insurance products through financial institutions. One of those products is Accidental Death & Dismemberment Insurance. Years ago, they received a claim from a family in North Georgia whose father, a snake-handling minister, died after being bitten on the lip by a rattlesnake. I couldn’t believe it when they paid the claim. Kissing a rattlesnake on the lips is a game of redneck roulette. What did they think was going to happen? How can you call that an accident?
The snake-handling crowd, of course, bases their whole theology on a verse in Psalms 91 that promises, “You will tread on the lion and the adder.” The passage goes on to say that God’s angels will protect you and that you will not be harmed.
I’ve recently come to realize what that verse is actually saying. I had to replace the tires on my car. I called a local automotive store and asked if they sold the brand of run-flat tires that were already on it. The owner of the shop said, “I can get them, but it will take a day or two because I don’t stock them. They’re more expensive, and they don’t ride as well as standard tires. Why don’t you just switch to standard ones?”
I wanted to say, “Dude, do you want to sell me four tires or not?” Instead, I said, “I’m a single woman, and I don’t need to be stranded on the side of the road because my convertible does not have room for a jack or a spare.”
(Actually, it’s not like I would know what to do with a jack or a spare. Even if I had them, I’d still be pushing the SOS button over the dash and asking Roadside Assistance for help.)
The man didn’t argue. But the next day, when I went to pick up my car, he felt compelled to again mention the fact that a car doesn’t ride as smoothly on run-flats as it does on standard tires. The reason, he explained to me, is that run-flats have reinforced sidewalls to keep the tire from going completely flat. That means they have no “give.”
I just smiled and said, “Safety first.”
But those reinforced sidewalls also have another built-in safety feature. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve come upon two really bad snakes, a rattlesnake and a moccasin, while driving through my neighborhood at night. Whereas the standard tires on my SUV would just run over those fat snakes like they’re miniature road bumps, sparing the snakes because of their “give,” my little run-flat tires with their very hard reinforced sidewalls kill those snakes dead. In fact, if I line up my shot exactly right, my tires will decapitate the serpents. In fact, if those snakes had insurance, the policy would be paying for both accidental death AND dismemberment.
And that, my friends, is what I believe the Psalmist means when he uses the word “tread.” He’s talking about the kind called Michelin, not your bare feet. Because that kind of treading is just plain stupid.
Booker T. Washington, the educator and author and president of the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama, gave a famous speech in 1895. In the Atlanta Compromise Speech, he told the story of a ship that was lost at sea for several days. The crew had run out of fresh water, and they were dying of thirst. No land was in sight. Then they spotted a friendly vessel and sent a signal to indicate that they needed water. The other ship immediately sent back this message: “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
The desperate crew sent a second message: “Water, send us water!”
Again, the response came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
Four times this exchange occurred before the captain of the first ship lowered a bucket into the ocean. To his astonishment, that bucket was full of sparkling, fresh water. They were in the Atlantic off the coast of northern Brazil, where the Amazon so powerfully propels its water nearly one hundred miles into the ocean.
Washington concluded his speech with these words: “To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of preserving friendly relations with the southern white man who is their next door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down, making friends in every manly way of the people of all races, by whom you are surrounded.”
I was in Ireland last summer, traveling with the Spalding MFA in Writing students at their summer residency and hoping for a shot of encouragement and inspiration as a writer. An hour after I’d arrived and settled in, I headed out for a short guided tour of Dublin, and within the first few minutes of that tour, I met a couple of writers who would do just that – inspire and encourage me. The funny thing is that they live in Orlando, about ninety minutes from my home. They were, so to speak, from my own waters.
Darlyn Finch Kuhn is a poet known for her saucy style and engaging readings. Her poems have been featured on Poetic Logic on WMFE-FM, and read by Garrison Keillor on the Writers Almanac. She was a Kerouac Project writer in residence in 2006. Her first book, Wax Rose, a poetry and short story collection, was published in 2007. Her second book,Three Houses, is a collection of love poems with collaborator Brad Kuhn, her husband. Together, Brad and Darlyn own Brad Kuhn and Associates, a stellar PR firm in Orlando. I have had the pleasure of being an advance reader for her new novel, Sewing Holes. It is a lovely story of a young girl who feels responsible for keeping her family together after the death of her father. Please check out Darlyn’s website: http://darlynfinchkuhn.com.
Another friend I found by casting my bucket in Florida is Jenn, also known as “Scraps.” She’s an artist, a writer, but my favorite thing about her is that she’s a genius amateur bartender. Her website, Scraps of Life, is full of great writing, and if you ever need a great drink recipe, check out the “Nibbles and Sips” section.
I spent last week in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Spalding MFA Homecoming celebration, partly to see old friends and partly in search of more inspiration. The MFA program director, Sena Jeter Naslund, told the Booker T. Washington story at graduation to explain that inspiration is everywhere. And it’s available to each of us if we’ll just lower the bucket. I just finished a manuscript that is the history of Community Bible Church, the ministry started by my parents, Buford and Babs Adams, in March 1965. That book will be available at the church’s 50th Anniversary celebration next year. With that finished, I am beginning work on a novel. To date, my work has primarily been in non-fiction. It’s a scary proposition to jump genres, yet I think it’s time to branch out. I expect to be lowering my bucket daily as I start this new adventure.