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Joseph E Bird

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jim lehrer, novelist

You’ve no doubt read about the passing of Jim Lehrer, the PBS mainstay and presidential debate moderator. His day job was a journalist, but this, from the Robert D. McFadden writing for the New York Times, tells what Lehrer did in his spare time.

“Writing nights and weekends, on trains, planes and sometimes in the office. Mr. Lehrer churned out a novel almost every year for more than two decades: spy thrillers, political satires, murder mysteries and series featuring One-Eyed Mack, a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, and Charlie Henderson, a C.I.A. agent. ”

He also wrote four plays and three memoirs.

So, occasional writer, what do we learn from this?

i touched her hand

Heather dropped by today.

I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.

She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.

She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.

Tea?

Yeah.

That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.

I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.

Remember Westwood?

She smiles.

And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.

He’s staying with Owen, she says.

Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.

She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.

How’s Owen feel about that?

They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.

I decide not to argue with her.

The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.

Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come.  Good surprise, though.

The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.

Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.

I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.


copyright 2020, joseph e bird

learning charisma

There’re 50 people in the room, all anonymous, more or less, milling around, sipping drinks, chatting. There’s a stir at the door. All heads turn. And there he is. Shaking hands, smiling, calling people by name. He seems taller than everyone else and better looking. Well-dressed, for sure. He makes his way across the room and he’s the center of attention and you see why he’s a Senator. He just has that quality. One of the few blessed with charisma. A born leader.

Maybe. But are leaders really born or are they made?

Let’s start with the fact that leadership is not binary. There are different kinds of leadership and different levels of leadership. Bridgette is a better leader than Antonio, but Victoria is a much better leader than either of them.

An article in Forbes identified eight essential qualities that define great leadership.

  1. Sincere enthusiasm
  2. Integrity
  3. Great communication skills
  4. Loyalty
  5. Decisiveness
  6. Managerial competence
  7. Empowerment
  8. Charisma

The first seven are qualities that can be learned, practiced or otherwise developed. Then there’s number eight.

Charisma – that indefinable quality that makes someone stand out from the crowd, that makes you like them without even knowing them. Either you’ve got it or you don’t.

Not so fast. Let’s take a closer look at the Senator.

First, he smiles. Maybe that come naturally to the Senator. It probably does. But that doesn’t mean that someone who is not a natural smiler (like me) can’t learn to smile more and raise his warmth quotient.

The Senator is friendly and outgoing. Again, it’s probably his nature. Can a person learn to be more outgoing and friendly? Of course. Can you learn to remember peoples’ names? Yes, Nicole, you can.

The Senator is tall and good looking. But when he gets closer to you, you realize that he’s just average height. And his good looks? His features are really kind of bland. Nothing special. But there is something attractive about him. Maybe because he’s always smiling. Maybe the way he carries himself. Head up, shoulders back, eyes forward.

And so on.

Charisma is not something that is oozed through the pores of the charismatic. It’s a perceived quality. We see someone, and based on what we see and how she interacts with us, we say she’s got it. Or if he never smiles, can’t remember our name, walks with his head down, and never looks to engage, we’re likely to think he’s a dud.

To be sure, some folks are born with naturally friendly inclinations and maybe slightly better looks, but so much of what people think of us is what we project.

Experiment: Next time you’re in the supermarket, play the role. Walk confidently. Shoulders back. Head up. Smile, even at people you don’t know. You’ll see. You can learn charisma.

so says john grady cole

There aint but one truth, said John Grady. The truth is what happened. It aint what come out of somebody’s mouth.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

robert's nativity

“I’m getting married over the Christmas break.”

As announcements go in a fourth grade class, that’s a big one. When your teacher says something like that, you first realize that she has a life outside of the classroom and that there are other people in her life besides you. And getting married? That’s a lot for a nine year-old to process.

It was a little school, Lakewood Elementary in St. Albans, West Virginia. Miss Yount was the teacher. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to her as Miss Yount, though Yount was her married name.) As tradition of the day dictated, the students would normally get their teacher a Christmas present. but being the wise young woman she was, Miss Yount asked the kids to come up with something “creative” instead of a traditional Christmas gift.

One of her students was Robert Taylor, the fourth child of seven in the Taylor clan. He was a serious student and took Miss Yount’s request to heart. Using a pattern his mother had, Robert fashioned a nativity scene using styrofoam balls and felt. Nine figures in all, including Mary and Joseph, angels, wise men, and shepherds. No phoning it in for young Robert Taylor. Even the face of the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms was detailed. An artistic masterpiece? No. But what is evident is the time and effort that he took to create this seasonal memento for a teacher he would not likely see again after he graduated fourth grade. There was obviously a fondness for her.

And so he graduated, and she married and moved away.

Robert grew up, graduated college and began working as a structural engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite the B in math he earned in fourth grade from Miss Yount. He married, had four kids of his own and now has four grandchildren. He retired from the Corps a couple of years ago, but even after retirement, he has been to Mosul, Iraq five times where he has assisted in the engineering of the stabilization of the Mosul Dam. Miss Yount would be proud.

And then a couple of weeks ago, a message appeared on Facebook.

“I’m in search of a Robert Taylor, Asian-American who attended fourth grade at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Albans, WV. His teacher was Ms. Dale Yount. I believe the year would be 1967, 1968, or 1969. His expected age would be 60-62.”

It was a friend of Miss Yount, helping her try to find Robert Taylor.

After she left St. Albans with her husband, Mrs. Yount, now Dr. Yount, traveled the world. She lived in Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, England, Singapore and several states in the U.S. In all they had moved 39 times. At each place they lived, every Christmas Dr. Yount displayed the nativity scene that Robert had so carefully crafted so many years ago.

And she never quit thinking about that little boy and wondering how his life had turned out.

You can guess the rest. Yes, they have connected via email but have yet to talk to face to face. Her current residence is near the home of Robert’s youngest son so it’s likely a meeting will happen soon. It will be heartwarming in so many ways, and it seems they share the same values and the same faith. Which is one of the reasons the nativity scene that Robert made is so special to her. It’s not just another Christmas ornament, it depicts what Christmas is all about. It speaks of the eternal bonds of love and grace.

Merry Christmas.


copyright 2019, joseph e bird

This story is true, though some of the facts from 50 years ago are affected by fading memories. The author has taken the liberty to create a narrative that expresses the truth more or less as remembered by the participants.

A Christmas Fable: Clint Eastwood and the White Wool Coat

I wrote this story last year. It’s a story I’m fond of so I’m publishing it again.


IN THE MOVIES, it’s called a meet cute.

The boy rounds the corner and knocks the books out the girl’s hands. They bend down to pick them up and before they know it, there’s a spark. There’s an awkward, yet endearing, conversation. She smiles as he watches her walk away. You know right then where the story is going. It will be – eventually – a happy ending.

That’s the movies. Let me tell you about my real-life meet cute.

It was in a coffee shop. No surprise, right? Almost a cliché in itself. But I like coffee shops. I could tell you why, but truthfully, if I have to explain this to you, you might as well stop reading right now. The other day I overheard a co-worker tell someone that he didn’t like coffee, that he would have no reason to stop by the new coffee shop on the west side. I find it hard not to hold his dislike of coffee against him. You’re really missing the point, man. You don’t like coffee? Fine. There are other options.

A couple of years ago my nephew spent the night at our house over Christmas. When he said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, my wife started making oatmeal. We didn’t learn until he was finished eating that he had been lying. He should have said he didn’t care what he had for breakfast, as long as it wasn’t oatmeal. Too late. But the oatmeal he ate that morning was unlike any oatmeal he had ever eaten. If you take plain oatmeal, bland as it is, and add a little brown sugar, some raisins, apples and walnuts, topped with a little cream, what you end up with is a big bowl of oatmeal cookie. Who doesn’t like oatmeal cookies? My nephew did.

So, co-worker man, if coffee is a little too bitter for your still-developing child-like palette, they can fru-fru it up and give you something sweet and mushy. But then again, going to a coffee shop isn’t really about the coffee. It’s about people. Seeing people, talking to people. Just being among other human beings.

Back to my meet cute.

This coffee shop is just a couple of blocks from my office. I don’t always stop there in the morning because they’re not open when I go to work before seven. It’s a quiet and peaceful place. Soft music is always playing. People doodling on their laptops. Quiet conversations.

So I’m at my office on a Friday morning a week and a half before Christmas and I find myself at a good stopping point in my work. The sun is shining and it’s an unusually pleasant day for December so I grab my coat and head out the back door and make my way to Main Street. I’m going to get a cup of coffee, maybe a muffin, and sit at a table by the window and watch people go by. I can just take off from work like that because I’m an important executive and I’m a salaried employee and I come to work early and stay late and if I want to take a few minutes for myself in the middle of the morning I have the moral right to do so. I also have so many weeks of vacation built up that it would be nearly impossible for me to use them all. For those of you who have a propensity for delving into a person’s psyche, this little tidbit about my inability to use my vacation time will tell you something about me, though I don’t think I would care to know what this tells you. Not that it matters.

I get to the shop around 10:30 and stand in line behind a young man, probably in his mid-twenties, and he tells the barista – who is also the shop owner – that he would like a skinny vanilla latte with coconut milk (is coconut milk skinny?) and a dash of cinnamon, and when owner asks if he wants whipped cream the young man doesn’t hesitate and says yes that would be good. Hipster. He moves to his left. It’s my turn and the owner says hello, calls me by name, and takes my order – a medium black coffee. No nonsense. No cream, no sugar, no flavors, no steamed milk, no holiday blend. Because I’m a man. A grown man. Clint Eastwood drinks his coffee black. Maybe. I don’t really know. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, this hipster, and I’m sure not all the world’s problems result from his generation’s socialist leanings, but I’m getting old and my time has passed and it’s the role I must play, the only other option being the teetering, out-of-touch relic from another time. But I don’t teeter (yet) and if I’m going to be an out-of-touch relic, I’m going to be a hard-edged Eastwood-type who the kids actually fear when I tell them to get off my lawn. That’s right. Black coffee. And one of those scones. Cranberry.

I’ve moved down the counter now, standing, waiting for my coffee. And my scone. The hipster stands to my left, looking trim and fit, skinny, really, his jeans rolled neatly up to his ankles. He’s wearing a slim-cut suede jacket and a knit cap. A backpack hangs from his left shoulder. He’s texting on his phone, his thumbs flying. He’ll take a table near the window, maybe my table, and pull a laptop from his backpack and begin to do whatever people do when they have a laptop in a coffee house. Facebook? No. He’s young. Instagram. Or maybe some other app that I don’t even know about. A young girl who looks like she’s fifteen but is probably twenty-five – I can’t tell anymore – shakes a can of whipped cream then squirts a mound of foam on the coconut latte and then shakes cinnamon from a glass jar onto the white foam and the contradiction of the skinny latte and the whipped cream is lost on the poor hipster boy. Or maybe it’s not, because what does he care about calories? She hands him the drink and he goes straight to my table.

Get away from there. I shout this across the room. In my head.

The girl hands me my scone in a paper bag and I’m waiting for my coffee, anxious to find another table and set about the business of relaxing, and then she hands me the cup, my name printed neatly on the side.

There’s a stack of napkins to my left. Had they been to my right, I probably wouldn’t be telling you this story. But they were to my left. I’m holding the scone in my right hand, the coffee in my left. I need my left hand free to grab a napkin, so I transfer the coffee to my right hand, holding it just with my thumb and index finger, the scone in the bag below the cup. Not a good grip at all.

And this is when it happens. My meet cute.

I didn’t see her come in. I didn’t know she had been behind me when I ordered. I didn’t know she had moved down the counter to wait for her order. I didn’t know she was standing so close to my right.

And I turn to go toward the front of the coffee shop, and before it even registers in my mind that she is there, I bump into her and my coffee falls from its high perch, tumbles toward her, hits the front of her coat – her beautiful white wool coat – and the lid pops off and the coffee flies everywhere and I watch as the cup empties itself completely, and a horribly beautiful, artistic, brown stain flows downward to the hem of her coat and drips onto her brown leather boots and finally puddles on the floor.

I hear gasps from the people nearby. Then the entire shop goes quiet, except for me, mumbling an apology, grabbing the pile of napkins on the counter.

She hasn’t moved, this young woman, save to hold out her hands, hot coffee dripping from her fingers. I start there, wiping her hands, apologizing the whole time, and when her hands show no more signs of coffee, I start on her coat, trying to soak up the brown stain, and I realize that I have to stop because my actions are highly inappropriate, even if my intent is plainly obvious.

By now the shop owner has made his way from the other side of the counter with a handful of paper towels and he faces the same dilemma I faced but he thinks more clearly and asks her to take off her coat which she does and he lays the coat on the counter and begins sponging up as much coffee as he can. It’s a losing battle.

She hasn’t moved.

I’ll see if I can rinse it out, he says, and without asking, he takes the coat to a back room.

She still hasn’t moved, but she turns to look at me.

She’s a lovely woman, much younger than I, though not so young that I shouldn’t notice her loveliness. She appears to be of Asian descent. And her eyes are filling with tears.

I’m so sorry, I tell her. I don’t know what to do.

The young girl on the other side of the counter hands me more paper towels and I kneel down and start to sop up the puddle on the floor. She takes a step back, allowing me to get to the puddles that have pooled behind her and I see the coffee in drips and runs on her boots and without thinking and without asking I start to wipe off her boots, first the tops of her feet, but they’re boots and they rise over her calves and again I cross that boundary of propriety without thinking and without any intention other than trying to right the wrong and clean up the mess and I’m on the floor where shoes have trod and spills throughout the day have dried into dark circles and crumbs from scones and muffins and cookies are scattered like tiny boulders and my hands are getting dirty and the knees of my executive slacks are wet and gathering grime and I no longer feel like Clint Eastwood but more like Willy Loman and I feel the blood rushing to my face and now I want to stay down among the other shoes that I see gathered around because to stand will reveal my reddened face and expose my shame and confirm my humiliation.

But I rise to my feet and again tell her I’m sorry and she’s not quite crying but there are tears and she is sad. I take off my coat and put it on her shoulders because everyone else has a coat except her and she looks cold and lonely and though she probably isn’t, I don’t know what else to do. I tell her I’ll go check on her coat and I walk to the back of the shop where I imagine a food preparation area but there are only bathrooms. The door is open and the shop owner is trying to dry the coat with paper towels. It looks like the coffee has washed out but I look closer and see the stain, lighter, but still there. The shop owner has done all he can. I thank him and take the coat.

The young woman is sitting at table by herself, her own coffee drink in front of her. She moves it away from me as I approach, carrying her coat draped across my arm, holding it out from my body as if it’s a blemished lamb, because that’s exactly what it is. I shake my head. I lay it on the table and sit at the table across from her.

I’m so sorry, I say again for what seems like the tenth time and she manages a smile and tells me it’s ok.

I’m really sorry. Eleven.

I’ll pay to have it cleaned. And I’m already thinking that I’m going to buy her a new coat because the stain is likely there forever.

She puts her hand on the coat and strokes it lightly. It was my mother’s coat.

The phrasing of the statement is not lost on me. It was her mother’s coat. Her mother has died.

I’m so sorry. Seventy times seven will not be enough.

I don’t actually remember her wearing the coat. Or her, for that matter. She died when I was a child.

I stop myself from saying I’m sorry again.

Old photographs my father had. The three of us. Mother, Father, me. Mother wearing the coat. I thought it looked so sophisticated on her. After she died, my father held on to her things. He died two years ago and it was all left to me. I found the coat in a trunk.

So, I’ve not just ruined a coat, I’ve ruined an irreplaceable keepsake. I’ve ruined the one connection this poor woman has to her mother.

I had it cleaned. Sewed some seams that were coming apart, and then just hung it in the closet. And this winter I thought it would be nice to wear it, to think of her, to let her live a little through me.

I’m trying to think of something to say, something other than I’m sorry, thinking there must be a phrase or an expression of remorse that goes beyond mere sorrow, one that puts me on my knees, not to beg forgiveness, because what’s the point in that, because it’s not about me feeling better, it’s about somehow finding words or actions that can make up for what I’ve done. But it’s done and can’t be undone.

I just shake my head. I tell her again I’ll pay to have it cleaned. I’ll buy her a new coat, I tell her, and I feel stupid as soon as I say it, as if a new coat would have the same connection to her mother. But what else can I do?

It doesn’t quite fit. She was a little smaller than me, apparently.

I’m silent, because there are no words.

It’s only a coat. It was my mother’s coat, not mine. I’ll have it cleaned as best I can. Then I’ll keep it in the closet. I’ll bring it out now and then, and think of her, but really, I have no memory of her to recall. Just a mother and father and a little girl in a photograph. That’s all.

She’s smiling now. A sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She reaches for her coffee and I move her coat away from the table and lay it across the back of a chair. She laughs a little. We talk.

Her name is Janine. She lives in New York. She’s an accountant in town performing an audit of the local bank. She travels a lot and likes to explore the towns she visits. She’s traveled to Japan twice to visit the families of her mother and father, but there are fewer of them now, and in Japan she is a stranger in a strange land. And here she is, in a small town coffee shop, with a coffee stain on her mother’s coat.

She needs to get back to the bank.

I apologize again and I’ve lost count of how many times, and she assures me again that it’s ok, that I don’t have to pay for dry cleaning or buy her a new coat or in any way try to make things right. Because we both understand that I can’t.

How can you be so gracious after what I’ve done?

She offers no answer. She stands and realizes my coat is still around her shoulders.

I believe this is yours.

She hands me my coat.

And this is yours.

I help her into her mother’s coat. The front is still damp and she looks at the stain and sighs. It’s all I can do to keep from apologizing again. Instead, I thank her, and in the moment, I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for except that the kindness and understanding she showed to me was so undeserved.

We walk out of the coffee shop together, our conversation now just the usual chatter that people who really don’t know each other make as they’re about to leave each other’s company. The ordinary, the forgettable. Nothing witty, nothing charming.

It wasn’t that kind of meet cute. Meet truth is maybe a better description. She’ll go back to the bank, back to New York with a story to tell.

And me? I’m still here. Still drinking my coffee black. Still imagining I’m Clint Eastwood. Still working too much.

But this Christmas is a little different. I understand a little better. I’ve experienced grace.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

copyright 2018, joseph e bird

A Christmas Story: Fight

I wrote this a couple of years ago. It’s a story I’m fond of so I’m publishing it again.


I DIDN’T WANT TO HIT HIM.

I had nothing against him. No malice, no hard feelings of any kind. He had done me no harm.

It surprised me when he took that first swing. His eyes wild, hopped up on something, sweat running down his forehead and into his eyes.

I leaned back a little, dipped to the right and easily dodged his looping attempt to take my head off.

It surprised me even more how quickly he took his second swing, this one coming from his left. It caught me in the neck and knocked me back. It didn’t hurt, but I knew right then I’d have to hit him.

He kept coming at me, wailing away as I covered my head, his punches landing on my arms. Then he stopped.

I peaked out between my arms and saw him standing there, his hands by his side, gasping for air. Some of the crazy had left his eyes. Sweating more than ever. I was hoping he’d just quit.

I dropped my hands. He picked his up and came at me again.

I was ready this time and started to move around the ring, slipping and dodging punches. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to hit me anymore. There was no way he was going to hurt me. But I also knew that because I hadn’t even thrown a punch, he was ahead on points.

I tossed out a gentle jab, tapped him on the forehead. He threw a wild right. Another jab, square in his face. And another.

Then he charged me. No pretense of boxing, just an all-out street fight. I tried to fend him off, but he ran right through my gloves and into my chest. He grabbed me in a bear hug and tried to wrestle me to the canvas, and in the process, he head-butted me and busted my lip.

So much for a fair fight.

I stepped to my left and swung my torso while I pushed him in the same direction. He stumbled away and almost fell out of the ring. My eyes were watering from the head-butt but I could see clearly enough. He got to his feet and glared at me, readying himself for another charge.

Before he could take a step, I stung him with a jab. A real jab this time, not just a friendly tap on the noggin. It stopped him dead in his tracks. Another one and he wobbled a bit. One more, with feeling.

And he was down.

.

I already knew what I was going to tell Kari. In fact, the lie had already been started.

I told her they needed me to work the second shift, which actually happens now and then. Of course I wasn’t working the second shift, or the first shift, or the hoot-owl, for that matter. I wasn’t working any shift. Demand was down, so production slowed and they had to let some of us go. And not just at Maysel No. 2. All the mines were down. So it wasn’t like I could just go somewhere else.

But I was doing what I could. I managed to get a few hours at the prep plant down in Boomer. Even filled in for workers on a road crew in Mingo. But work’s hard to come by right now.

I was hoping I might come out of the fight unscathed, but I had a lie ready for that, too. It’s dark in the mine and it’s not at all unusual to get a few bumps and bruises. A busted lip is a little different, but I could sell it. To Kari, anyway. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to lie to the kids.

She bought it. I think. She didn’t ask any questions when I told her I was off to work the next evening. She even packed my lunch pail.
.

That first night had been like a wild carnival, but those first round fights eliminate most of the drug-crazed loonies. But it was Saturday night and like the old song says, Saturday night’s all right for fighting and there was still enough crazy to go around.

Back in the locker room the handler slipped my gloves on and started to lace them up. The card said I was up against a guy from McDowell County. I asked the handler if he knew him and he nodded toward the guy at the other end of the room. He was already laced up and shadowboxing in front of the mirror.

I knew then that there was a real possibility that I might not make it to the money round.

Not that I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from my grandfather. Learned about footwork. Learned how to use leverage to throw a punch. Timing with combinations. Defense. And reading an opponent. But that was a long time ago. Gramps had been dead four years now, but it had been even longer – fifteen years, maybe – since I used the skills he taught me.

Gramps fought until he was in his late thirties, just a little older than I am now. He was good. Black Dynamite, they called him. Never made much money. Never could fight his way out of the hollers.

He taught me because he knew I’d need to know how to fight. I wasn’t quite black, which would have brought it’s own challenges, but I wasn’t white either. Got just enough of my mother’s fair skin and my daddy’s brown to put me in my own class of outcast. Half-breed, they called me.

Gramps started training me early and when I turned sixteen, he signed me up for Golden Gloves in Charleston. I did ok, but more importantly, word got out that I was a fighter. Once I survived a couple of challenges by rednecks who just had to see for themselves, everybody left me alone.

.

Turns out the guy from McDowell is more style than substance. We both start out deliberately, because we both think we’re boxers. Proper stance and footwork, moving around the ring in slow circles. He throws a soft jab, not really meaning to hit me, just trying to get things started. He throws another one and his right hand is already dropping. He’s an easy target. He tosses another soft jab. I can see he’s scared. In over his head.

I sting him with a jab and his eyes water up. Another jab and he rocks backward and covers up. I give him a chance to get his head together. Then he tries another jab, this one with a little more velocity, but not nearly enough. I come in over his his right hand with a left hook and it’s all over.

I hear the crowd. A collective ooh. I walk back to my corner, my head down.

I’m in the money round.

.

Gramps killed a man in the ring.

He told me about it after I had quit fighting. Boxing’s supposed to be a sport, but it can get you killed. All it takes is one punch.

I don’t want to have to live with that.

I want this night over. Never again.

.

My next fight was an hour later. If I win, it’s worth $500. That’s why I’m here.

This time I don’t ask about my opponent. I know he’ll be tough. You don’t get to the third round without knowing what you’re doing. I see him for the first time when I step into the ring. He’s at least two inches taller than I am.

Now I’m the one who’s scared.

This fight starts like the last one. Circling, jabbing, but when he throws a jab, he’s not tentative. He’s meaning to hurt me. I slip the first two but the third catches me on the side of the face. I throw a couple of my own but they don’t connect. He throws two more then follows with a right, which I barely duck. I felt the leather skin across the top of my head and I know I’m going to have a burn.

He peppers me with more jabs, each one coming closer to a square hit. He tries the combination again but I’m ready for it this time and have no problem avoiding it. But I can’t get through his gloves. My jabs just meet leather. I try a right cross with the same result.

He flicks another jab. This one on the mouth. He breaks open the cut from last night. I had told Kari that John Boy had poked me with the wrong end of a shovel. I could tell she didn’t believe me. She sure won’t believe John Boy poked me again.

This is not going to end well.

I didn’t see him load up his right hand and it catches me square on the side of my face. The next thing I know I’m looking up at the ref, who’s looking down at me counting. He reaches six and I start to get up and I hear the bell.

I make it to the corner and reach for a towel. Not to wipe my sweat, but to throw it to the ref. I’m outmatched and I could get hurt, really hurt. And if I get hurt, I can’t work.

The second hands me a water bottle.

Go to the body, he says. His hands are so high, you can pound his body all night.

How did I not see that? I wipe my face with the towel.

The bell rings and he thinks he has me. More jabs, which I knew were coming. And the right. This time I go under and step forward. A right to his gut. Then a left and another right. I hear him grunting, trying to push me away. I step back, throw a couple of jabs, then here he comes again.

I step inside and start pounding. He cusses and I know I’m hurting him. I get maybe five or six really good punches before he pushes me away again. Now he’s mad.

Before I can get set he catches me again with another right and down I go. But I don’t feel it like I felt the first one. I’m back on me feet at three. The ref dusts my gloves and I wait for the barrage.

Here it comes. Jab. Jab. Right.

Again I duck under and go to work. His elbows drop to his side and I move toward the center of his stomach. His sweat is dripping all over me, but I keep hitting before he finally clinches and holds my arms.

The ref breaks us up and I step back. His arms are down. He doesn’t want me to hit him in the gut anymore. And I know he can’t throw his jab with his arms down.

I fake a punch to his stomach and he covers up. I launch a left hook. Then a right cross. He’s reeling and I follow up with a perfectly leveraged left hook to the head. The best punch I’ve ever thrown in my life.

And he’s down. He’s not moving. Out cold.

I’m caught up in the sport of boxing, enjoying the moment of victory, the successful strategy, the physical triumph. The crowd is roaring. It feels good. No, it feels great.

He still hasn’t moved.

The referee is kneeling beside him. The ring doctor is there, too. Someone is fanning him.

He still hasn’t moved.

I start to pray. I didn’t even know it at the time, but when I replay the scene in my mind, I was praying.

He still hasn’t moved.

How was I going to tell Kari? How was I ever going to be able to face my kids?

Then I see his eyes flicker, then open slowly. He looks around and they pull him up to a seated position. A couple of minutes later, he’s on his feet.

But that’s it. Five hundred is enough for Christmas presents. I forfeited the championship match.

.

I got home after midnight. Kari was waiting on the couch, the television on, the tree in corner, no presents underneath.

Junior called, she said.

Junior’s my boss.

Said to come back to the mine on Monday night if you want to work the hoot owl.

She knew all along. I could tell. She looked at my bruised face.

Did you win?

I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and handed it to her.

For you and the kids.

We got to do something else, Jimmy. We can’t live like this.

I nodded. There weren’t a lot of options. It wouldn’t be easy. But she was right.

I sat on the couch beside her and she leaned her head on my shoulder.

Somehow we’d figure it out.


copyright 2017, joseph e bird
Photo Credit: iStock

wisdom

from Sharon Lyn Stackpole.
Thank you, Sharon.

Confidence. Most people only feel confident when they’re sure of themselves. The rest of the time, and generally the majority of the time, they’re faking it. It is impossible to tell the difference. Especially if you say less instead of more. Stand as straight as possible, and look people in the eyes during conversations.

Explaining. Don’t make explanations: Anyone who expects one has already come to his own conclusion anyway. Or, to quote a fortune cookie I got in Sacramento in 1992: Never explain. Your friends would never demand it, and your enemies will never believe you.

Be shrewd. Never go into business with a friend, or loan money if you expect it back.

Friendship. Very few friends last a lifetime. This is because people always change. This is the natural progression of life. When the shared experience is removed (school, work, community, club) there becomes no link or mutual appreciation. Expecting the friendship to retain the old mold will end in heartbreak. Move on and expect nothing. Appreciate the honor of glimpsing another human being’s life for a time – but keep growing.

Giving. A gift is not a gift without both hands open. If you expect something in return for a gift or favor, don’t give it. Give only for the good feeling of being able to share something. Anything else is usury.

Love. People are becoming afraid these days to make commitments and allow themselves to love others because they know the other person will either leave them or die. This is true. All the more reason to love them now. Change is the only thing we can depend on.

Reputation. Your name is the one thing no one can take away from you. It will be your most valuable resource. Make sure that when people hear your name they associate it with honesty and decency. This is more important than I can say here. Your word must be your bond.

Promptness.  Always be on time, if not early, for any appointment little or small. Keep no one waiting. It is rude and presumptuous. It implies that your time is more important than theirs. Which is not so. All time is equal.

Courtesy. Look people in the eyes when you talk to them. Smile and mean it. Make it a point to remember the name of everyone you meet. Everyone likes to be known and remembered.

Tact. Life is full of petty irritations – people who say and do rude things, forget your name, seem to exclude you in or from gatherings, or generally fail to remember your own humanity. Let it go. Things are not always what they seem. People often have problems going on in their private lives that we know nothing of but would explain their apparent self-involvement. Try not to judge. Let it go.

Diligence. Bosses never want to hear why something didn’t get done. They are only interested in what has been accomplished or how soon it will be.

Responsibility. There is no one to credit for your successes or failures but yourself.

Clarity. Fear exists to show us where we need to improve ourselves.

Foresight. You can follow your heart if you want to, but be sure to pack a survival kit. Millions have already perished believing they could live on passion alone. It does not hurt to be practical.

cuckoo's nest for the social warrior

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I try to wait until I finish a book to see what other readers have to say about it. So when I finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I went to goodreads. Most readers agreed with me. The book is 5 stars.

I also like to go to the 1 and 2 star reviews to see what people didn’t like about it. And there I found one reviewer, who though they admitted that while Ken Kesey’s literary skills were great, his attitude toward women and minorities were despicable.

As I noted yesterday, the novel is set in a mental hospital, more specifically, in one specific ward for men. The antagonist of the novel is none other than the cold-hearted Nurse Ratched. As she controls the men on her ward, she does everything she can to destroy their self-esteem. As the reviewer noted, she is emasculating. Well, I can see that. That’s pretty much Nurse Ratched’s modus operandi.

Then there is the other woman who is a principal figure in the novel, Candy, who is referred to unflinchingly by the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden, as a whore.

Other women are referred to as being the root cause of patients’ illnesses. There’s Dale Harding’s wife, who is never satisfied with anything he does, and there’s Billy Bibbit’s perpetually disappointed mother, who, in tell-tale character development, is close friends with Nurse Ratched.

So, yeah, there’s quite a few women with less than stellar qualities.

Then there’s McMurphy, the free-spirit, selfish, abusing protagonist. He’s a brute, but is loved by everyone. He treats women like objects and they love him for it.

So the goodreads reviewer takes all of this evidence and declares McMurphy and his creator, Ken Kesey, misogynists. The reviewer is not the first to do so.

I don’t buy it with McMurphy. To me, he’s just selfish. I’m not saying he treats women with respect, but some he likes (Candy) and some he doesn’t (Ratched). Ok, so if you delve deep into his psyche there might be more evidence of his hatred of women, but the book doesn’t do that.

As for Kesey, who the heck knows?

Just because he crafts a novel where the antagonist is an emasculating woman, does that mean he’s a misogynist? Or because McMurphy fools around with loose women? One could argue that because he has created such an animal in McMurphy that he is a misandrist. And then there’s Turkle, the boozing, pot-smoking womanizer orderly who lets Candy in the hospital because he thinks he might get in on the action.

Here’s a question. Could the novel have worked if Nurse Ratched were a man? I think it could have, but part of the dynamic is not just McMurphy against the system, but man against woman. There is a sexual tension that confounds the patients, including McMurphy. She’s a woman, but she’s immune to his charms and they both take the battle to new levels. Nurse Ratched ultimately wins.

And let’s take a look at Candy. Candy is who she is because it’s who she wants to be. She was Candy before McMurphy and will be Candy after McMurphy. Again, we’re given little backstory on her and maybe there is a man in her past that drove her to the choices she has made. But we don’t know.

And what if, in fact, Ken Kesey was a misogynist? After reading the book, my respect for women hasn’t changed. As my respect for nurses and mental institutions hasn’t changed. Nor my respect for orderlies and technicians who administer electric shock therapy which, by the way, is a legitimate medical treatment for certain conditions.

A word about the offensive cultural references. In today’s world, they probably wouldn’t make it through editing. But it’s the 60s and not everybody was woke. Chief Bromden’s perspective and descriptions of the orderlies shows a level of disrespect, but McMurphy lays down lines that are purely racist in any age. Do you put that on Kesey, or is he just giving us characters with flaws? Everybody in the book is flawed, some worse than others.

And there is the moral lesson of the book. It’s easy to say the system is broken, but the system is only as good as the people within it. When the people are flawed, the system is flawed.

It’s McMurphy, it’s Ratched.

It’s me. And until we achieve perfection, it’s all of us.

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