This column appeared in the October 5, 2014 edition of The St. Augustine Record. I’m reprinting it here for those who are unable to access it on the paper’s site. I apologize for the inconvenience, and, as always, thanks for reading!
I turned down a marriage proposal last week. Some of the people in my life think it a foolish choice. It was, after all, the first proposal I’d received in over two decades.
I was in Atlanta staying with a friend from my old neighborhood, a nice country club community in the suburbs that is home to several Atlanta-based rappers. I was out for a walk one morning when a very expensive Mercedes-Benz passed me. Its driver waved, and I waved back.
The car stopped. The driver’s window rolled down, and a man stuck his head out. He yelled something, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
I pulled my ear buds out of my ears. “What?”
“ARE YOU MARRIED?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
He smiled, shrugged and said, “I would have married you myself.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.
When I told my kids the story, their responses were not what I expected. I described the young man, and they told me that he is a famous rapper. Then they chided me for squandering a chance to be the next Atlanta “Housewife.”
“Why did you lie to him?” my son even asked. “I heard he’s a nice guy.”
“I’m sure he is, but I don’t want to move back to Atlanta,” I shot back. But that wasn’t the real reason I turned him down.
Although I can’t say his rapper name with a straight face, the greater problem is the fact that this man is in his 20s. I know there are happily married couples with bigger age differences, but I think that being born 20 years apart means we come from different worlds. What could we possibly have in common?
Certainly not music. I can’t understand most rap lyrics. “Bam bam, jam jam, so tan can do a handstand” makes no sense to me. But I knew what the Oak Ridge Boys meant when they sang “Giddy Up, Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow/High-ho Silver, away.”
Rappers are a little too ostentatious for my taste. Yes, Elvis had his Jungle Room, but he never had a giant picture of himself painted on the side of his tour bus.
Today’s rappers are fond of collaborations, which is a big word for “duets.” These duets will never match the greatness of Julio and Willie’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” or even Johnny Carson’s spoof of that duet. Carson. Now, that was great television.
Today, we have reality television. The rapper is part of a reality show called “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta.” If reality television is people dressing in ridiculous costumes and doing bizarre things for money, I suppose “The Price is Right” and “Let’s Make a Deal” were my generation’s versions of it. But those shows just seemed better.
I’ll admit things might not have changed as much as I think they have. Still, what would I have to talk about with a man who wasn’t even born when Elvis died?
Although my sentimentality about the past could mean I’m throwing away my future, I can’t marry the rapper. I’d rather hold out for what Carol Merrill has behind door number three, Monty. I hope it’s not a canned ham and a ferret.
This is why I’m contesting my grandmother’s will:
I’m really hoping it’s Willie Nelson behind door number 3:
My dad and my dog:
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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.