(Originally published in 2009. Hey, I’m only plagiarizing myself.)
When I was a kid we didn’t have air conditioning, just a swamp cooler. On really hot days I just laid on the cold tile floor under that fan and panted like my dog, Rusty. I always figured that’s where the term “dog days of summer” came from: dogs that just lie around and pant in the heat.
As much sense as that might make, I looked it up and here’s the deal:
The Ancient Romans called it caniculares dies (days of the dogs.) It arose from the notion that Sirius, the dog star, was angry this time of year and caused the Earth to get very hot. To appease the star’s rage the Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of Dog Days.
No, I don’t know why it had to be a brown dog.
The Romans, of course, thought nothing of committing carnage upon any creature that moved if it might be even remotely possible that a good screeching, bloody sacrifice would serve some useful or noble purpose.
This is why the Ancient Greeks were considered the brains of the outfit.
You see them in every city and country village. As sure as the birdsong of morning sunrise brings old men to McDonalds restaurants all across America.
Before he passed away my dad was one of them. Most mornings he’d get on his bicycle at daybreak or hop into his old truck if the weather was bad and travel about a quarter mile to the nearest McDonalds. His buddies arrived about the same time and together they would grab a bite and drink coffee while solving the world’s problems for an hour or two.
That’s what Dad told me, “We drink coffee and solve the world’s problems.”
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
— Mark Twain
If you know me at all you know I have a deep respect and love for old people. I’ve been that way since I was a child and asked my grandparents to tell me about their lives when they were young. Most of the time I got a quick smile and a dismissive comment like, “Oh, that was a long time ago. It don’t mean anything now. Go play.” Occasionally I’d get just a tidbit of information like, “We didn’t have TV” or “We didn’t have money for toys”. That’s not what I was asking but I got the idea they didn’t want to talk about it so I left the room to play.
I’ve written often about how old people are overlooked and disrespected these days but as I get older myself, a month away from 67 as I write this, I’m beginning to understand there’s more to it. Sometimes old people just seem to lose the need or desire to be heard. I shouldn’t assume their silence is a sorrowful response to being ignored. Sometimes they’re just satisfied to keep their thoughts to themselves.
A couple of days ago at work a colleague in her late thirties said something to me about how America has changed for the worse since her childhood. She’s entering the age of nostalgia, I guess. I was about to just agree but instead I told her, “Maybe, but I’m not so sure things were all that great 60 years ago when I was a kid. They were probably bad in different ways. Things are a mess now, that’s for sure, but I have faith in my grandsons. They’ll fix the problems we’re handing to them while they create new ones.”
My colleague gave me a look I gratefully accepted as a sign of respect. So, I added:
“The nice thing about being my age is I don’t think these are my problems anymore. I did what I could to make the world better. I tried to help. Now I’m retiring from all of that.”
She smiled and said, “Must be nice.”
“It is,” I assured her. “You’ll get there but not yet. If you retire from all that stuff now it’s just giving up.”
This is another reason people don’t talk to old men, except other old men.
“You mean you want to say Grace?” Nana and I are both surprised but try not to show it.
“Uh-huh. Like at school.”
Isaiah goes to a Christian preschool so the fact that he’s used to a blessing at mealtime doesn’t surprise me but this is the first time he has offered it at home. Normally we don’t pray over meals, except at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter family gatherings but it’s nice. I like this new wrinkle to the developing man who is still our four-year-old grandson.
We all bow our heads and Isaiah begins:
“Thanks for the food we eat….um…the good food and, and…thank you for this beautiful day and….ummm….”
Isaiah has clearly been properly coached in the manners of Grace but he’s momentarily stuck for a big finish. I know the feeling.
“And….and….bless Nana and Grandpa and Daddy,” he continues, gathering steam, “And please make things grow and make things green and make Paige’s mom feel better and make Angela’s dog come back and make Nana’s bottom better! AMEN!”
I think Nana managed to mutter “Amen,” before her head snapped up and I started snickering.
“What did you say about Nana?” she asked with forced and admirable restraint.
He apparently thought she was hard of hearing so he answered very loudly, “I SAID MAKE NANA’S BOTTOM BETTER!”
Wise Grandpa and veteran husband that I am, I try to change the subject.
“Did Angela’s dog get lost?” I asked him.
“Yeah, he ran away.”
“And Paige’s mom is sick?”
Isaiah’s interest in explaining his prayer was fading quickly. I couldn’t drag it out any longer but I did fight back most of the grin as I asked my wife, “Honey, what’s wrong with your bottom?”
“He knows I fell on the stairs months ago. That’s what he’s talking about.” As she said this I clearly saw for the first time the look on a person’s face always described as “chagrined.”
A thought struck me.
“Isaiah,” I said, “Did you say that same prayer at school today?”
My youngest grandson called last evening. He was so excited and so am I.
Tyler Williams has achieved a thrill that eluded me when I was his age; his hero has made amends for mine.
Here’s the story:
A few nights ago my son and daughter-in-law took their son, Tyler, to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV starring Tom Hanks. Though he’s only 13 Tyler loves Tom Hanks. He told me he’s been a big fan of Tom Hanks his entire life!
Well… since he was three.
While looking around before the show a stagehand apparently asked him if he was a Shakespeare fan, or words to that effect, and Tyler said yes, but mostly he’s a Tom Hanks fan.
The guy said maybe he could arrange for Tyler to meet Tom Hanks after the show. You can’t imagine how excited my grandson was.
And you also can’t imagine how disappointed he was when the show ended and they couldn’t find that stagehand. Tyler and his parents headed toward the parking lot but then the miracle happened:
A large, black SUV pulled up alongside my family. The driver rolled down the window and said, “Hey, Kid! Did you like the show?”
Tom Hanks had found him.
Tyler was over the moon!
They talked for a few minutes. Tyler told his superstar hero that he, too, was an actor. Tom told him to keep practicing and offered some funny suggestions about how to enunciate properly.
A personal autograph followed and then, a big hug.
Tyler will be walking on that cloud his entire life. And how much time did it take Tom Hanks to give a kid a thrill and maybe some lifelong inspiration?
Five minutes, maybe.
When I was about Tyler’s age I had a chance to talk to my hero, too. I was the only kid there when Willie Mays left the San Francisco Giants clubhouse following a game.
“Mr. Mays,” I stammered breathlessly, “will you sign my glove?”
I looked at him as if he was a god. But he didn’t look at me, not even a glance. He ignored me as if I didn’t exist. Without breaking stride he walked straight to his car.
It took me a lot of years to forgive Willie for my crushing disappointment. As I got older I did forgive him but I never forgot the pain of thinking my hero was not a nice man. It shattered my feelings for him.
But now, more than 50 years later Tom Hanks has made up for it.
I guess you could argue that I learned a valuable lesson that day so many years ago. Maybe. All I know is it hurt real bad and some of that stayed with me for decades.
Tyler will never feel that way.
God bless you, Tom Hanks.
Above is the program that Tom Hanks autographed for Tyler. Kinda hard to read here. It says, “Tyler, speak the speech. – T. Hanks” It’s a line from Hamlet in which Shakespeare tells actors to speak as real people do, not with florid exagerration as actors frequently do, especially while reciting his works. That’s my interpretation, at least. It is an amazing gift from a wonderful actor to a greatful young fan.
I have an office in our home that was originally a guest room. After we’d lived here for a couple of years it had only hosted two guests so CarolAnn decided I should put it to daily use. If anyone else comes to visit we’ll cross that bridge.
My room has family pictures on the walls and one very special photo in its original 67-year-old cardboard frame parked weirdly in a desk paper organizer. We’ll get a frame for it sooner or later. For now I get a warm, secure feeling from having my dad and mom smiling at me as I sit at my computer still trying to make something of my future.
They’d like that future planning, even at my age. They taught it to me.
It’s their wedding picture, taken August 6, 1950. I was born exactly one year later. As a young child unacquainted with the social implications of the times I always proudly told people I was born the same day they got married.
The Valentine’s Day card is from my CarolAnn from this past February as we started our 30th year together. It’s one of those just-perfect cards that seems like it was written specifically for the two of us. It allows me to be with her even when I’m alone in my room.
The smaller photo is our youngest grandson Tyler in a Christmas pose from a couple of years ago. He reminds me of why I want to keep learning and growing.
Oh, and the Snow White lamp? It used to reside in our Disney themed room in Southern California. We don’t have one of those here so it stays with me. I love the warm light, the bright colors and the constant reminder that we’ve invested a good portion of our time and fortune to the Disney Corporation. We feel it has been time and money well spent.
I love our home, every bit of it, but this is my favorite corner. It’s a snapshot of a small piece of my happy life.
The world can be a brutal place especially for the very young and helpless. Occasionally such a life is delivered to us. We do what we can.
This baby bunny was taken from its nest in our yard by one of our beloved pets, probably Cora, the cat.
Cora is a predator. She can’t help it, she’s a cat.
There were two babies to begin with. One was convinced to drink kitten formula in CarolAnn’s hands. In this very short video you can hear us cooing and worrying as if we were its parents.
When the feeding was finished the babies were put in a soft bed we made in a small box. The box was placed in our backyard flower garden with hope that the mother rabbit would retrieve them during the night. She did not. By the following morning one had died. CarolAnn took the other to a professional wildlife rescuer who specializes in rabbits.
Seems like a lot of effort to save a tiny wild animal, doesn’t it? Especially by people who routinely celebrate when our pets kill a rat in the same yard.
I can’t make sense of that. I just know I’m still worried about that bunny.
Mother’s Day makes me happy, a little sad and very proud.
I’m happy because my mom, Nancy Laura Webster Williams, is still alive at 86. I’m a little sad because she’s living in a total care facility in Sacramento which is too far for me to visit when I want to. And as much as I’d like to describe her as still being as lively and funny as she was at 30 or even 50 that’s just not the case.
I sent flowers and candy to mom for arrival on Mother’s Day. I’ll try to phone her Sunday but she doesn’t usually pick up the phone unless my brother has been there just a few minutes earlier and she’s expecting my call.
When I do talk with Mom she doesn’t seem depressed or sad. She’s not exactly happy, either. She’s in a bit of a fog though still present and responsive, if somewhat confused. She still tries to project enthusiasm and optimism though it’s not entirely convincing. Not to me, anyway. I know her; I am her.
She had a lot of roller coaster emotions in her life and seems to have smoothed them out.
She’s always happy to hear my voice and tells me so several times during each brief call. Then when we run out of things to say say too soon I tell her I love her she tells me she loves me too. She says it with the lucid fire of a mother’s heart.
Then she says goodbye and calls me Jim (my brother).
I always laugh about that. She sees my brother frequently so she gets us mixed up just a bit.
(Besides, when I was still a child and Mom was barely in her 30s she frequently called me Rusty, our dog’s name. So, brother Jim, you should feel honored.)
Mom has always made me laugh. She still has a sharp and sophisticated sense of humor that stabs through the fog of her slowly fading existence.
My late dad taught me to be confident, proud and respectful. Mom gave me my sense of humor and optimism.
“This can be a good day or a bad day, it’s all up to you.”
— Nancy Williams
I don’t know when she first told me that but it stuck. I’m sure she said it when I was a very young school boy lying in bed on an early school morning in North Highlands, California. I have never forgotten it.
When she passes I will cry but I’ll also have a huge, stupid smile on my face.
“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
— George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”
Leave it to an ill-tempered playwright and social activist to intentionally twist the words of a master.
The original quote was:
“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”
Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day / Week.
I’ve been out of school for nearly 50 years but there isn’t a single day in my life that I don’t remember at least one of my school teachers with deep gratitude and affection, not only for my education but for the inspiration that shaped the person I have become.
And, I like me.
Teachers have never been called upon to be and do more than they are today. We’ve gotten to a point where they’re not only asked to be educators and know something of child psychology, they also need to be part family counselor, part lawyer and in an increasing number of school districts and states, part law enforcement officers.
At the same time teachers still get a ton of grief from hyper-critical parents and local communities living in fear from an increasingly complex and violent world. We’re scared and confused.
Regardless of our age we have always looked to teachers to make sense of our world and lead us in the right direction.
Work days for teachers usually begin before sunrise and never really end. They go home long after the class day is over to try to balance the needs of their families while correcting papers, making class schedules and answering emails from parents.
Teachers deserve more yet receive much less pay than most of us who have more forgiving and less demanding careers. They do it because they are passionate about their calling.
To teach is to create a better world one child at a time.
As we celebrate teachers we need to go beyond smiling and saying thanks. Ancient cultures revered teachers equal to spiritual leaders and healers. We need to get back to that level of appreciation and to provide teachers with the salaries and benefits they richly deserve.
Remember your teachers with love and gratitude, even the ones you didn’t like when you were just a dumb kid.
And thank your children’s teachers at every opportunity. They’re helping your kids create their world in ways you cannot.
It’s raining today in North Texas. I love rain and dark, cloudy days.
Most people I know worship the sun. They seem to like summer best of all and the hotter it gets the better. I don’t get it. Summer was great when I was a kid, impervious to sweat and grime, running barefoot through neighborhood lawn sprinklers and slurping from any old hose lying around because that’s what they were for.
We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid. We had a swamp cooler on the roof that blew semi-cool, very humid air directly into the middle of the hallway between the living room and kitchen in our house. I used to lie my bare tummy on chilly asbestos tiles right under the swamp cooler, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts fashioned by my mother’s scissors applied to an old set of blue jeans.
I stayed there for hours on the hall floor with a stack of Dennis the Menace and Sad Sack comic books for entertainment.
Sometimes I took the pillow from my bed and put it on the floor next to my comic books. That was “the life of Riley”, as we called it in those days.
(I still don’t know why.)
Mom had to step over me to hang wet laundry on the clothes rack She didn’t mind. Sometimes she gave me my lunch there, peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder white bread. I had to eat it fast so it didn’t dry out from the wind.
I wish I had pictures of all these things: me, my pillow, PBJ and comics. Sometimes my collie, Rusty, would lie down with me for a couple of minutes. He liked the cool floor but I don’t think he cared for the overhead wind.
For the past fifty or more years I’ve been able to enjoy and expect indoor air conditioning.
Now in my mid-sixties I don’t need to strip down to my shorts and lie on the floor under a swamp cooler.
I still like summer for its memories of all-day baseball, ice cream trucks, slip ‘n slides and hot days that wouldn’t end until bed time. I loved childhood.
These days I prefer old man comforts, winter and the temperate yet crazy weather days of spring and fall in Texas.
Dark skies and rain feel cozy to me. They call people like me pluviophiles.
I’m glad they have a name for it. I just thought I was weird.