Sunday, November 26, 2017

Smoke and Memories

                It's interesting how the random presence of cigarette smoke can evoke a memory, an emotion, and transport you to a place in your childhood in such a quick manner.

                I left the front gate of my apartment complex headed the one block separating my home from the beach.  I take a nightly jaunt to ensure my 10,000 pledged steps on my Fitbit, so I can remain honest in my bedtime text to Ben, who asks each day, “How many steps Booboo?”  He calls me BooBoo for reasons neither of us can remember but he asks me about my steps because I told him I am naturally lazy, but can be shamed into exercise simply through a daily inquiry.  It is a promise he made and keeps.

                As I exited, I walked past the maintenance man who was finishing his cigarette, one of the few remaining Californians who continue the habit, and the smell of smoke immediately took me to a motel room in Opelousas, Louisiana, in the summer of 1979.  I assure you, it was nothing seedy; I was eight years-old at the time.  My Dad was working as a rig welder for Tiger Drilling and we (mother, sister, brother, dog) went down to visit him for the summer, back when school children actually got three full months off from school.  He had been staying at the Polka Dot Inn and it was as interesting as you would imagine something with that name would be.

                As he was, at that time, a two-pack a day smoker and, as he remains to this day, someone not known for his cleanliness, the room reeked of stale cigarettes, empty fried chicken containers and, well, loneliness.  My mother did her best to air out the room, but we spent much of the first day at the pool, like you do when you are a pre-teen with no exposure to water other than through a garden hose, a ditch or in a bathtub.  When we made it back to the room to get ready for supper, it smelled very strongly of bleach and Charlie, the fragrance I had saved my allowance to buy my mother for Mother’s Day.  I chose it because I liked the fact that the woman in the commercial was young like my mother, beautiful like my mother and wore pants like my mother.

                By the end of the week, my mother had apparently had all of the Polka Dot Inn she could handle and rented a house for the rest of the summer.  Well, not so much a house as a trailer at Thibodeaux’s Trailer Park, but a nice one with brown leather couches and a pool at the house next door.  The neighbors, with the pool, had a son named Chance and all I remember about him was he let us swim in his pool and once, when he threw a rubber snake into the pool near my sister, she made him get out of the pool and sit and watch us while we swam as she found no humor in his prank.  I don’t blame him for obeying her.  She was almost as tall as my mother even though she was only 11 years-old.  To this day, she is deathly afraid of snakes.  She’s probably mad right now that she just read the word ‘snake’ and if she is reading it on her phone, she probably just threw it.  I promise to tell you if she calls me tomorrow to complain.

                My mother is a great cook and she made meals from scratch most every night, except Fridays.  That was the only day my Dad was able to come home and eat dinner with us and we would either go to a restaurant in Lafayette that served crawfish six or seven different ways, or we would go to the Dairy Bar next to the trailer park where they served pork chop sandwiches, which were simply fried porkchops on white bread.  Delicious!

                The trailer was always happy, just like every space my mother inhabited, and it never smelled of cigarette smoke or burned welding rods as my mother would have my Dad take off his shirt and boots outside and immediately shower when he came home.  He was not allowed to smoke in the trailer, either.  Only outside.  And he never complained; he seemed happy just to have us there.  He typically worked three weeks and was home for a week.  So, seeing us every night, even if we didn’t eat supper at the same time, seemed to brighten his mood.  He wasn’t known for smiling much, but he would each time my mother walked in the room.  He’d grin really big and call her Mama, just like we used to do until she asked us to call her Mother; she liked the sound of it better, I guess.  He loved us and was happy to see us, but he never looked at us with a smile as big as the ones he had when she walked into the room.    

                My mother could usually get my father in good mood, a feat considering his normal personality was grumpy, manifesting as alternately sleepy (from 16-hour shifts), hungry (which was most of the time) and constantly searching for chores for us (mostly me as the oldest son, my younger brother a mere four years-old at the time).  Idle children are one of my Dad’s biggest pet peeves, right along with preachers who smile too much, boys who don’t play football and the smell of Green Apple Jolly Ranchers.  I can only imagine what it would be like to work for him.  I know I didn’t enjoy it, although an employee I was not, as no money was earned; indentured servant would be a more apt description.  I'm not being melodramatic.  "Did you eat?  Did you pay the light bill?", was the response from my father when I ventured to inquire about the idea of being paid for mowing the yard.

When my mother wasn’t around, and he was left to his own devices, it seems the cleanliness stopped, the home-cooked food ceased, and the smell of cigarettes returned.  I don’t know if he just didn’t care that it smelled or that he needed something to fill the space she (and we) left, but whenever I smell cigarettes, my immediate response is melancholy, with the urge to call my Dad, who is at this very minute filled with his version of loneliness, which includes living with his youngest son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.  It seems the only thing that made him happy left us almost eighteen years ago and he wears his suffering as a badge of honor.

Monday, November 13, 2017

When a Belle Robs a Bank

                My son Spencer likes to compare me to Sally Fields’s character, M’Lynne (from Steel Magnolias).  All Southern women have a little bit of each of the characters deep inside, even ornery ol’ Ouiser, but out of the cast, I suppose I am most like resilient and calm, M’Lynne, with one notable exception.  My hair is not a brown football helmet; it is ash blonde, courtesy of Miss Clairol every three months or so.  I can’t afford to go to the beauty shop for anything other than a basic cut these days.  Since my husband, Mac, hurt his back working on an off-shore oil rig, our finances have been tighter than normal, and they weren’t very loose in the best of times.  Those who used to live smack dab in the middle of middle class, is now, in 1993, now reside in the upper reaches of the lower class.  Fortunately, we live in a small southwest Mississippi town where few are visibly wealthy, and people are more apt to not treat you any differently if you seem ‘not poor’.

                We are what I call ‘well’; well-spoken, well-fed and well-dressed, in the sense we are always clean and pressed.  No one really knows we have money issues, except the bank, our landlord, the Treasurer at First Baptist Church (who sees our tithe check) and the secretary at the school where Spencer and Olivia, my youngest daughter, secretly eat reduced-rate lunches.  By secretly I mean, their weekly lunch cards look just like everyone else’s.  My oldest daughter, Catherine, refuses to eat lunch in the cafeteria; instead she uses the money she earns from her part-time job at Prenson’s, the only clothing store in our town of less than 2,500.  Catherine, not a big eater to begin with, subsists on Doritos and Diet Sprite because, and I quote, “Only children and dorks eat in the cafeteria.”  And, yes, she means Spencer is a dork, at least in her world, where the only people that matter are, sometimes me and Jesus, but mostly only her best friend Claire and boyfriend Joel.

                As both Catherine and Spencer are in high school (Senior and Sophomore, respectively) they are unfortunately very aware of our reduced finances and dealing with it as best they can.  Children shouldn’t have to worry about money and Mac and I try to keep it from them but there are only so many times you can hear, “We can’t afford that” before you realize something has changed.  This couldn’t have come at a worse time as Senior Years are expensive and Spencer, my little genius, keeps getting academic awards and invitations to pre-college programs and these require, at the very least, travel and money for food.  It costs money to be that smart and most honor students are from wealthier families, at the very least middle class.  I’ll be the first to admit a welder and a homemaker who didn’t finish college aren’t typically the parents of someone invited to take college courses while a sophomore in high school.

                This is where I find myself today, a reliably normal Wednesday, but normal only in the sense that in our town everything closes at noon on Wednesday, so people can attend night services at church.  I am unsure of the percentage that actually does this, but it is a tradition and we will stick by a tradition whether it makes sense or not.  I have to figure out how to pay for this program at Mississippi State University to which Spencer has been invited; Mac calls it a 'Smart Kid Camp'.  Even though he received a partial scholarship due to his grades and extracurricular activities, we still have to pay for room and board as he will live in the dorm in Starkville for eight weeks and that is around $500, a lot of money in 1993.  My excitement for him has been tempered by the knot in my stomach that any talk of money continuously tightens.  Spencer didn’t want to tell me he got accepted but he was too excited.  When he did tell me, the look on his face was painful to see; like he was waiting for me to dash his hopes and tell him we couldn’t afford it.

                I’m a Christian and I pray every day and I know God provides for our needs but it’s something I struggle with especially since Mac is pessimistic and angry at our circumstances and blames himself and even God.  Trying to keep him on an even keel and putting on a smile for the kids saps my energy and normally optimistic outlook, leaving me with a lessened faith.  As my Daddy would say, “It’s hard to put lipstick on a pig”, but I am as determined as a Mary Kay consultant trying to get her pink Cadillac.  That pig will wear this lipstick, voluntarily or otherwise; not unlike my tomboyish cousin Willadean on her wedding day.  I told Spencer his Daddy and I would take care of it, telling God in the same breath, “You’re up!”

                Mac and I discussed the situation, behind the closed door of our bedroom, and decided we would have to go to the bank to ask for a small loan.  Even though I wasn’t experienced in doing this, we agreed I would handle the possibility of a “No” better than Mac, who might revert to his heathen ways and try to fight someone.  With his back injury, his bark is definitely worse than his bite, but that bark might make you hurt yourself trying to get away.  Mac is scary to other people, but I know how to handle him.  I have the gift of 20 year’s practice and the knowledge that he loves me and would never hurt me.  I said a prayer, got in the car and drove to Magnolia Savings and Loan, where we bank.  Even in a town of less than 3,000, there are multiple banking options.  Besides Magnolia Savings, we have Walker County Credit Union and Merchant’s & Farmer’s Bank, which is one more finance option than we have for food.  Sonic and Sharla’s Burger Barn are the only places to eat in this town, unless you count the truck stop or the Kwik Mart, which I most certainly do not.  I will admit to eating my fair share of Frito Pies from the concession stand at the football field, but we're getting off track.
               I don’t remember why we picked Magnolia Savings when we moved here 15 years ago, but we did, and we have stuck with them.  Even though we have been in town for 15 years, we are still considered ‘new people’; more a part of the community than actual new people, but still considered ‘not from here’, which doesn’t help the situation.  Family histories, like credit histories, are long and permanent here in the South, and both of ours are populated with embarrassing stories and mistakes that are difficult to overcome.

                I knew this as I headed to keep my 10:30 appointment with Doyle Vanderlin, the loan officer at Magnolia Savings.  I don’t know him well as he attends the Methodist Church and we are Baptists from way back.  It’s not that Baptists and Methodists don’t socialize, but we truly don’t, as a rule.  So much of our free time is involved in church-related activities, outside of sports and the occasional event like Homecoming or Christmas parade, we tend to cluster in our respective religious circles.  That may be a metaphor for something; what it would be, I can’t begin to tell you.  It shouldn’t make a difference but when you have a connection, some commonality with another person, it’s easier to ask for help.  Then it’s more a favor than a handout.  It takes the stress out of it, or at least reduces it.  Anything related to money or credit scores, in the last few years since Mac got hurt, has induced anxiety.  And, yes, I know stress supposedly means a lack of faith in God but I’m not perfect, so I do worry.  This is an important event in Spencer’s life.  It could possibly alter his future.  He deserves to enjoy the results of his talent and hard work, doesn’t he?  He’s already had so many money-related disappointments.  I have to do this for him. 

                As I walk into the bank, I hope I’ve hedged my bets and Mr. Vanderlin will be right in the middle of the shortened work day; not sleepy at 8 when the bank opened but also not ready to leave around 11:30, right before they close.  I’m not scared or nervous, really, just apprehensive.  I guess that’s roughly the same thing, but I just want everything to go well, which is a hope more than a fear, so that’s different, right?

                I say a quick ‘Hello!’ to Audrey O’Quinn, who is one of the tellers and in my Sunday School class at First Baptist.  She is one of the sweetest ladies and her 1,000-watt smile gave my attitude and outlook a boost.  Audrey is such a kind soul, five feet and ten inches of Jesus coming at you, typically armed with a hug and smelling of fresh-baked goodies, from her perfume, Vanilla Fields.  I was so uplifted I was able to smile at Ramonica Dalley, who work for Mr. Vanderlin and is the only unpleasant Pentecostal I have ever met.  Pentecostals are usually the kindest people this side of the Amish and I always assumed they were happy because they were ‘God’s Chosen People’ (according to their church sign).  Ramonica, on the other hand, is the exception.  When she says, ‘God Bless You’ it sounds like a stranger begrudgingly interacting with a homeless person after a sneeze.  I braced myself as I approached her desk, about ten feet from Mr. Vanderlin’s door, not remembering if she was a Secretary or Assistant or whatever people call themselves these days.  The last time I worked in an office was in 1971, right after Mac and I got married and I was a stenographer at the Courthouse in West Carroll Parish in Northeast Louisiana, right across the river from Vicksburg.

                I smiled my sweetest smile and said, “Good Morning, Ramonica.  How are you?”

   “Well, hello to you, Mary Ellen McAdams,” she said with the formality of a judge or substitute teacher, with no prior knowledge of who I am, as if she only knows my name from Mr. Vanderlin’s appointment calendar.  I can’t count the number of times we’ve bought meat from her husband’s butcher shop near our house.  I mean, I turn down Butch Dalley Road on the way to town, literally every day.  It’s named after her husband, a fixture in our community.  Unnamed or numbered roads were named after the most important or longest-living residents in small Southern towns, once they instituted the 9-1-1 system, in the late 80s.  It is a testament to our limited means and lack of local family history that we now live on Travis Fairchild Road.  If they had named it Mac McAdams Road, most people from around here would have said, “Who?”  Well known we are not.  But it's 1993, and the South remains the South at least in our little corner of the Bible Belt.  While we are not exactly sitting on the buckle, we are at least in the vicinity of the first belt loop, responsible for holding up those Christian pants ensuring nothing untoward happens on our watch.

                Looking away from me and back at her typewriter, Ramonica said flatly, “He’s not ready yet.  You can sit over there.”  She pointed to a chair as far away from her desk as possible to still be considered sitting inside the bank.

                “Of course,” I said, still smiling as hard as I could, “I’m a little early.”  I’m glad to have a minute to gather my thoughts and organize my arguments, although I hope it’s not too long.  I don’t want to work myself into a tizzy as anticipation is often worse than the actual event.  I need to stay positive yet here I am thinking of arguments and he hasn’t even said no.  He might say yes.  I don’t know off-hand what our credit score is but I’m guessing it’s not great; lower than Mac’s cholesterol level.  I’m not sure what the lowest number you can have is but I’m betting we’re pretty near there.  When Mac got hurt, his Worker’s Comp checks were significantly lower than his paychecks and we got into a hole and we haven’t quite been able to get ourselves out.  I say a quick prayer, reminding Jesus He is needed in the bank at this very moment.  I look for a magazine to distract my mind but don’t see any.  Not having sat down in a bank before I don’t know if this is normal or not.  Is it different from the doctor’s office, I wonder?  It could mean that no one has to wait long so there’s no time to read or it may mean Magnolia Savings doesn’t think they’re necessary.  If they don’t spend money on magazine subscriptions, they have more money to lend mothers of smart kids of limited means.  Yes, that must be it.  See, I knew I liked this bank and Mr. Vanderlin.  Oh, his door is opening.  Maybe it’s just that people don’t have to wait.  Either way, it’s show time!  This will work!

                Seeing me, he bypasses what I imagine is protocol with Ramonica, based on her facial expression, and extends his hand, along with his very own 1,000-watt smile (hopefully also filled with Jesus) and takes my hand saying, warmly, “Hello, Mrs. McAdams.  Welcome.”  He leads me toward his office, asks me to have a seat in one of the comfy chairs in front of his desk, rounds his desk to take his own seat and asks, “What can Magnolia Savings and Loan do for you this fine morning?”  Such a nice man.

                “Well,” I began, suddenly realizing I haven’t done this before; ask for a loan, I mean.  I’m not sure how this works.  Why didn’t I ask Mac?  He got the loan for the car and the house and my Daddy got the loan for my first car.  It never occurred to me to practice.  Do you just come out and ask?

                “So…I, uh, we, I mean, Mac and I, would like some…money,” I manage to stammer.

                He chuckles and says, “Wouldn’t we all.”

                Startled, I laugh suddenly and say, “I mean, we would like to borrow some money.  A loan.  A small one.”  And then, remembering my upbringing, hastily add, “Uh, please.”  I laugh again and try to smile.

                “A loan?  Well, we do offer those.  What sort of loan are you requesting?  Auto?  Home?  Signature?”

                “Um…well…not a car loan or a house.  It’s only for a little bit.  My Spencer.  I mean, my son Spencer was accepted into an academic camp and even though he got a scholarship there’s still the room and board and books and we just don’t have the money.”

                ‘Ah, yes, Spencer.  He’s in the same class as my daughter Victoria.  From what I understand, he’s a very nice young man.  Very smart, it sounds to me.  Where is this camp, if I may ask?”

                It’s at Mississippi State.  This summer.  He’s going to take two classes with actual college students.  He’ll already have six credits on his transcripts when he starts college in two years.”

                “That’s wonderful.  Mississippi State is my alma mater.  I sure am glad it’s not at Ole Miss.  I’d have to turn you down flat,” he says and chuckles again. 

                Something fires in my brain and I say, “That’s right.  Go Bulldogs!”  I hope I’m right.  I started to add something about a cowbell, but I must be mis-remembering that.  Do they use cowbells?  Is that a thing?  I don’t watch college ball.  Mac does all day on the weekends and I guess it seeps into your brain simply by being in the room.  The TV is on non-stop sports and even though I spend my time reading and thought I was tuning it out, thankfully I didn’t completely ignore it.

                It must have worked as he’s still smiling.  He pulls a folder from a stack on his desk and says, “I pulled your accounts to have a look-see.  You and your husband have been loyal customers for a number of years.  We appreciate that.”

                “Oh, yes,” I replied, “Magnolia Savings is a great bank.”

                He silently smiles and then says, “Your credit score isn’t strong, however.  How much of a loan did you say you needed?”

                “Only $500.  That’s all.  Not much.”

                “Hmmm.   For that amount, we usually do a signature loan.”

                I interrupted and said, “Yes, that’s what Mac said we’d need, a signature loan.  What is that exactly?”

                “Well, we don’t require collateral.  A signature loan means you simply promise to pay us back.”

                “Oh,” I said, “Of course we’ll pay you back.  Um, how long would we have to pay it back?”

                “Normally, we give you six months. The interest is typically fairly low depending on your credit.”

                “Oh, great.  No problem.  Of course, you’ll need your interest.  That’s fair. That would work.  Thank you!”  This was much easier than I imagined.  Why do people get so nervous about asking for a loan?  I never realized it that simple.  Thank you, Lord!

                He sits back in his chair and looks at me and then at our file again.  This time he grimaces.

                “What’s the matter?” I ask, afraid to know the answer.

                “Well, Mrs. McAdams, to be honest, with a credit score like yours and without a positive loan history, it would be a risk for us.  My job is to mitigate risk.”

                “Risk?  How is it a risk?  I told you we promise to pay it back.  I’m a Christian.  Do you think I wouldn’t pay it back?”

                “It’s not that we don’t think you would pay it back.  Its…”

                I interrupt him and say, “What is it then?” a little more loudly than I wanted.

                “Mrs. McAdams, can I call you Mary Ellen?  Mary Ellen, my job is to make sure my employer is safe from losses on risky loans.  I am simply trying to decide if you are a risk worth taking.  I’m unsure.”

                He sits back again, this time steepling his hands, looking at me like my old English professor, Dr. Watkins at Louisiana College my freshman year, before I quit against Daddy’s wishes and married Mac, against Mother’s wishes.  Not so much condescending as unsure of my character; like he was deciding if I was worthy, if I could be trusted.  Rude is what is was!  I guess I had worked myself into somewhat of a tizzy because before I could stop myself I stood up and practically yelled, “I said we’d pay you back!  I wouldn’t lie!  I’m a Christian, Mr. Vanderlin!  I’m a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist.  I cannot believe you don’t trust me!  That you think I would steal your money!”  

                “Mrs. McAdams, please don’t be upset.  I haven’t said no, I’m simply trying to work with you.”

                “Oh, you’ve already decided.  It’s in your face and in your hands!  My Spencer will go to that program!  He’s smart and he deserves it and it’s not his fault we’re not rich!”

                “Mrs. McAdams, please sit down and let’s talk about this,” he pleaded.

                “Look, I already talked to God about this and He is on board, so unless you want to me to rob this bank, you need to get out your checkbook and give me that money!  Do you want to go against God’s wishes, Doyle, can I call you Doyle?  Do you?  You'll have to answer to God, I hope you know!  I’m going back out to the lobby and I’ll wait for my check!”  I turned and ran right into Ramonica who had opened the door and asked, “Is everything all right in here, Mr. Vanderlin?  Should I call someone?”

                We both looked at him and he stood there, open-mouthed and said, “Uh…no…Mrs. Dalley.  Everything’s fine.  I’m just going to complete the paperwork for Mrs. McAdams’s loan.  She has offered to wait in the lobby.  Can you get her a glass of water or something?”

                Looking at me like I was crazy, Ramonica said, nervously, “Sure, Mr. Vanderlin.  Mary Ellen, would you like some water?”

                Still flustered and red-faced, I answered, “Yes, Ramonica, that would be nice.  Thank you.”

                I walked out to the lobby, sat in the chair, ashamed that, apparently, the Steel Magnolias character I most resemble is Ousier.  I absent-mindedly looked for the magazines I forgot wouldn’t be there and pretended no one was looking at me and that I hadn’t just threatened to rob a bank.  Oh, I'm gonna have to pray for forgiveness tonight.  

                Mr. Vanderlin quickly brought a check and some paperwork to sign and I left very quickly, telling Audrey, “I’m fine, thank you” when she asked if I was okay.  Lord help me, I have made a fool of myself, but it was worth it.  Spencer can go to his smart kid camp. 

                I got home and told Spencer “I took care of everything, sweetie, you can go to MS State this summer.”  I didn't tell Mac anything.  He doesn't know anybody in town and rarely leaves the house, so he'll never find out, thank goodness.

               Spencer was so excited, hugging me and repeating, “Thank you Mama!”  I couldn’t help but smile and get a little teary-eyed.  He will make something of himself, I just know it.  And in the end, it will be worth the gossip and embarrassment and all manner of things said behind my back.  At least I still live in a place where no one says anything negative to your face.   At least they better not;  apparently I have a temper.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Is Pennywise a Fashionista?

                It’s October and my friends and neighbors of the heathen variety have begun decorating for their favorite pagan holiday.  I’m kidding, of course, but I always say an extra prayer or two for these particular sinners this time of the year.  Namaste, or whatever.

                Talk of Halloween always leads to talk of fear – what scares people, why, how can (you) scare someone without getting beat up, etc.  I have some very specific but not uncommon fears:  clowns, small dark spaces, white people in large groups, flip flops and jeans.  Wait, that last one is a pet peeve more than a fear, but it’s awful nonetheless.  Other pet peeves include forced small talk in social situations, people who laugh at their own jokes, wasted potential and vegan dishes with the single exception of the Vegan Chocolate Cake from Whole Foods.

                The reason I was thinking of scary things was I noticed the storm drains while walking to my favorite breakfast place in my neighborhood, Chuck’s Coffee Shop.  I am consistently hyper-aware of storm drains ever since I watched Stephen King’s It on VHS in college; it messed me up, y’all.  That was in 1992 and I still cannot walk past a storm drain at night without moving to the middle of the street.  Even in the day time I am loath to walk directly by them, ever alert to the possibility of a clown, balloon or both. 

                It occurred to me that you could scare many people by simply tying a red balloon to a storm drain, not to mention if you placed a clown mask just inside the drain itself.

                I have seen the commercials for the new, updated movie, It.  I have also seen numerous photos of the restyled Pennywise the Clown, sent from my thinking-they-are-funny-but-they-are-not friends.  Of course, he’s terrifying at first glance.  However, one thing caught my eye the last time I quickly scanned the photo before screaming and throwing it across the room.  When I am frightened, I do not freeze in fear.  My first instinct, when scared, is to hit/throw and then run, like if Mike Tyson and Usain Bolt had a child, except pale and out of shape.  Okay, maybe not like Mr. Tyson and Mr. Bolt.  How about if Lord Grantham (from Downton Abbey) and Beverly Leslie (from Will & Grace) had a son?

                What I noticed was Pennywise’s outfit.  It’s an odd mix of styles.  It’s King Louis XIV meets Moulin Rouge meets Gene Simmons (from Kiss) preparing to sit for a portrait by Vermeer.  I mean, who decided mid-calf ruffles and bows would inspire terror?  And wouldn’t a cotton or lace ruff (that fluffy cravat-gone-awry) inhibit you from properly unhinging your jaw like any self-respecting creature intent on killing and/or maiming?  Not to mention, who wears white in the sewer?  Even the proud lineage of wash-n-wear polyester has its stain-resistant limits.

                The ensemble looks very specific, almost as if it were custom-made.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting design consultation?  Did he and the designer argue whether or not three red puff balls down the front of the outfit was more menacing than four?  Was he attempting to use the high waist and peplum as some sort of treatise on the torturous rule of French Royalty or did he simply think something so fashion-forward would frighten the tacky masses?  Suffice it to say, whatever Mr. Pennywise wanted, he got.  You would be forced to say yes to that particular style of dress or have your soul eaten or whatever he does to people, I’ve purposefully forgotten.

                The original Pennywise dressed like Bozo the Clown.  It was frightening in its familiarity underscored with malevolence.  He looked like any other random creepy clown at a circus, birthday party, driving a panel van for kidnapping purposes.  This new couture Pennywise is entirely something else, and I wonder if It’s actually scary.  If your entrance into a room would cause Tim Gunn to question your level of taste, as opposed to, say, flee in fear, you may have miscalculated your 'look'.

                Is Pennywise from the past?  The future?  Are flounces making an unwelcome comeback much like acid washed denim?  I love a turtleneck but I am not prepared to embrace the ruff, lace or otherwise.  And no one can pull off a peplum, y’all.  Seriously, no one.  Maybe Portia DeRossi DeGeneres, but even then I'm unsure.

                I am assuming his ensemble was a risky choice designed to lull his victims into an initial lack of fear so he could kill them more easily.  I don’t know if Pennywise was overthinking it or if I am but it feels like someone was trying too hard and that’s more sad than scary.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Just a Normal Wednesday at Work

          From time to time there are those who ask, 'What exactly do you do at work every day?"  It's an interesting question and I understand not everyone has an idea of what the Assistant Director of the VA Long Beach Healthcare System would do on any given day other than attend meetings, wearing a suit.  Truth be told, I do attend a lot of meetings and I do wear many beautiful suits with coordinating ties and pocket squares.  I sometimes attend pre-meeting meetings, which are actually a thing; luckily they are the exception rather than the rule.
          One of the things I get to do and one I enjoy is speaking to groups of people whether to support, inspire, educate or simply entertain.  The Dad says I should be thankful I "get paid to talk" and I am very thankful.  Days like today, I relish the opportunity to offer demonstrable support to the remarkable people who do wonderful work for our veterans.
          This morning, I was honored to represent VA Long Beach at the Annual Community Behavioral Health Summit in Orange County.  It is a collaboration between VA and our community partners to address mental health issues among our veteran population with this year's emphasis on ending veteran suicide.  I thought I would share with you my opening remarks.
          "Good morning.  It is my privilege to welcome you to the Annual Community Behavioral Health Summit.  This event is an integral part of our ongoing journey to end veteran suicide.  This year's theme '22' is a number with which we are all familiar and one we want to improve.  It's the number of veterans who commit suicide every day.  It's easy for people to say to us, "Let's end veteran suicide"; it is difficult to do, especially considering more than 60 % of the veterans who complete suicide are not receiving care at any VA medical center or clinic.
          Recognizing we cannot address this challenge alone, we seek to collaborate with you, our community partners, to develop creative, meaningful solutions to get our message of help and hope to our veterans wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.  We want to ensure those who need our services are helped in a timely and comprehensive manner.
          While VA has made strides with presumptive diagnoses for PTSD and TBI (in those returning home from the most recent conflicts) and expansion of tele-mental health programs.  Department of Defense is beginning to partner with us to share medical histories of those leaving service, but there are still gaps in reaching those who needs us, especially considering the veteran population is seemingly wired to believe that asking for help is a weakness.
          My father is an Army vet from the Vietnam Era and has suffered for years with depression and what seems to be undiagnosed PTSD.  He refuses to address his need for mental health services because he has said many times, "I'm Airborne.  I can deal with anything.  I don't need no shrink."
          We want you to know we know your work is an uphill battle and we applaud your willingness to tackle this challenge.  We also want you to know our support for your work will not waver and our trust in your ability to end veteran suicide is steadfast. 
          We truly thank you for what you have and will continue to accomplish.  We wish you Godspeed in these life-saving endeavors which continue here today and throughout what we know will ultimately be a successful collaboration to end veteran suicide in Southern California.
          But we need you to remember to practice self-care.  You are too important to forget about taking care of you.  You must do everything you teach others to do to ensure you are in peak fighting form every day.  This is a battle for the lives of our heroes and you are the key component in our strategy to win this battle.
          You are the deliverers of exceptional mental healthcare and if I can leave you with one thought, it would be this:  Never forget you are not alone in this fight for our veterans' lives.  We are here to support you so you can be there to save them.
          Thank you."

          There are many wonderful things happening at the VA every day.  I guess I don't share enough of the great work we accomplish each and every day.  I think I will start by giving you some insight into at least what we're doing here in Long Beach, California, where we have same day Primary Care and Mental Health walk-in clinics, just to give two examples.  It's how we are trying to meet and exceed the expectations of our Nation's Finest and I am so very proud to call this organization and it's many talented and compassionate employees, my home team.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Why on Earth Do They Have Wings?

Recently my church put together care packages for the homeless.  In each package, there were items like a toothbrush and toothpaste, lotion, razors, shampoo, Q-tips, socks and a $5-10.  Along with those we had smaller additional bags with snacks, like trail mix and granola bars.  There were also additional bags with feminine hygiene products, for the female homeless we unfortunately have here in Southern California.  I don’t know why, but it bothers me much more when I see a homeless woman than when I see a homeless man. 

However, I was excited about these additional female-centric bags as I know of several homeless women who spend time in and around the shopping center parking lot, across the street from my medical center.  I go there almost every day to get my iced tea at the Starbucks located just inside the front door of Target.  Full disclosure, I go there six days a week and they make my drink (along with my co-worker Melissa’s drink) a soon as they see us enter the store.  I don’t know whether to be flattered or embarrassed, so I choose to be flattered.  I do not have an addiction to tea, he said defensively.

                I took five of the large packages as well as the snack bags as there are a surprising number of homeless on my drive to work, even though the commute is less than two miles.  I also took three of the female packages as I thought I might be able to help the ladies around the Target.  I refer to them as the Ladies of Target but I realize, as I type this, you might confuse them with the wonderful ladies who work at said Target and I don’t want to upset them, as they hold the keys to my happiness; mostly iced tea and the occasional bag of Pop Chips.

                As the week went by, I was able to navigate the appropriate and safe lane changes to come into contact with the homeless on my trips to and from work, errands, dinner and, let’s be honest, shopping.  However, I ran out of bags before I saw any of the homeless women.  I began to notice that I had not noticed them in the week or so since I became well-supplied to offer assistance.  I am unsure if they have found housing or moved away or something more nefarious has happened.

                Truth be told, since I have been out of town on a whirlwind speaking tour of Central Texas (and by whirlwind, I mean I spoke at one conference, but they paid me to speak so, yay me!) I had completely forgotten about the small bags filled with bags of tampons (and I apologize to my sister Shontyl, for having just typed that particular word) sitting on the floorboard in the back seat of my car.

                Their presence was brought to my attention this morning when Ben opened the back door of the car to place the groceries on the back seat after our jaunt to Trader Joe’s.  He asked, with great concern in his voice, “BooBoo (he calls me BooBoo), what is in this bag?”

                I replied, “Oh, it’s just tampons for homeless people.”

                He asked, “Oh?  Do they require these items?”

                I said, “Well some of them do but I couldn’t find them so I now have a bag filled with smaller bags filled with tampons and I don't know what to do with them.”

                And I truly don’t know.  Do I drive up and hand them, without any other items or explanations, to the first homeless woman I see?  Do I throw them away?  Isn’t that wasteful?  Do I take them back to church and turn them in?  Do I offer them to a female friend?  Is that intrusive?  Is it appropriate?  Wouldn't it be considered a great thing for someone who is cost-conscious? 
                Moreover, I don't even know what kind they are.  Are they the ones that make you ride a bike or go mountain climbing?  If so, do I need to inquire about the intended recipient's activity level before I offer them?  Are they the ones with wings?  Why on earth do they have wings?  Are there different kinds or have I fallen victim to predatory advertising?  Am I over-thinking this and just need to stop?  Am I the only person with these types of problems?  I’m at a loss, y’all.
                I’m up for suggestions.  Thank you in advance for your assistance.


Monday, September 4, 2017

An Open Apology to The Dad

               Throughout my childhood and even into adulthood, there were preferences The Dad had that I found annoying or ridiculous.  It sometimes seemed he was trying his best to be difficult with the specificity of his demands.  Requests such as extra ice in his tea, pockets on all his shirts, the eternal search for biscuits “as good as your mama’s” and irrational cravings for Zagnut candy bars, which I didn’t even realize they still manufactured.

                Now that I am sneaking up on 47 like I’m a ninja, I understand what he was talking about.  Over the last year, I have noticed that I order extra ice in my tea because it’s usually not cold enough.  Iced tea should mean just that; iced.  I have never ordered lukewarm tea.  I don’t think anyone has other than Amy Farrah Fowler in her inaugural appearance in Big Bang Theory, and, if memory serves, she asked for “tepid water”.  God doesn’t even like lukewarm things, like that Bible verse tells us so our preference is, at least, religious in nature.

I also celebrate when I find French-cuff dress shirts or polos with a pocket.  Now, I don’t store crochet needles, reading glasses and false teeth in my shirt pocket like The Dad does, but I do like to have a place to put my phone or writing implement when I need to use both hands.  You’d be surprised how often you need to use both hands.  At least I was surprised.  I also place my glasses there when I am outside and forced to wear my prescription sunglasses because my pupils are too large and my eye color too light according to my eye doctor.  I don’t want to be “blind when (you’re) old, Dustin” so I adhere to her suggestion of sunglasses when outdoors.  I really do wish someone would hurry up and invent tinted, air-conditioned tubes for transporting people to and from important places like the bakery or TJ Maxx.

The Dad also distrusts automatic withdrawals for bill payment and depositing checks via cell phone.  I’m okay with automatic withdrawals as I have only been burned once in 20 years with a double-charge, but I do not like the depositing check via phone.  I received a large check recently and went to the bank to deposit it in person.  The teller asked if the ATM wasn’t working.  When I told her it was fine, I just felt more secure depositing it in person, she looked at me with that mixture of condescension and pity, not unlike the look you give people who can’t operate a revolving door.  I wanted to protest her attitude but realized that would only confirm my “old man-ness” to her and I was already behind schedule for my trip to Starbucks and the thrift store, because it was Saturday and that’s what I do on Saturdays.

I will never find a biscuit as delicious as my mother’s but I, too, find myself ordering them when available and enjoying the treat much less than I should because they don’t measure up.  I should simply be happy I found a biscuit in the land of the gluten-free, vegan hippie bakers.

I don’t crave Zagnuts, but I do crave Oh, Henry’s and they are just as difficult to locate, although I have found a cute little boutique candy store which sells both and I treat us to one every couple of months.  Mine, I start eating on the way home; his I mail in his ‘happy box’ as soon as I have procured four or five books I think he might like to justify mailing something other than a candy bar.  A happy box from Uncle Dusty is one of the perks of being related to me.  Reading and puzzles is what has kept him sharp and ornery, so it’s good for him but not so great for the dynamic duo of my brother and sister-in-law, who have been housing him for the last year.  Their crowns will be large in Heaven, which I hope is a comfort to them.

The last thing I noticed is something which might surprise people.  My father and I are both introverts.  I am an extroverted introvert; he is simply an introvert.  I have no problem talking to people but as I’ve gotten older, it tires me much more quickly and I find myself, like him, with the overwhelming desire to be left alone (except Ben and/or my sister) but still privy to all information concerning available activities or outings should I decide I want to participate.  It’s an odd thing to try to explain.  Suffice it to say, I get it now.

So, I apologize, Old Man.  I thought you were just old and crazy when I was younger.  Now I realize you were simply requesting things you felt made sense because they made sense to you.  Now that I am older,  I am right there with you.  To say you are crazy would be to admit I have crazy tendencies and we are not getting into that discussion right now. 

For those who don't know, Ben’s native language is Cebuano, as his family is from the Philippines.  He has been teaching me random words and phrases.  One of the first words he taught me is buang.  Full disclosure, buang means crazy.  It’s a coincidence, right?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

To Sleep, Perchance to Snore...or Kick

              I recently read the optimal sleeping position is on your left side; something to do with internal organ alignment.  I was pleased to know this as I have been sleeping in this position since I lost all my weight and stopped using my CPAP.  For those not in the know, a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) is a device which forces air into your nose to keep you breathing while you sleep.  Sleep apnea is a condition which causes you to stop breathing when you are asleep.

                For many years, I had no idea I had sleep apnea.  From my junior year in college until I became roommates with my best friend Christopher in 2002, I lived mostly by myself.  My brother and I shared a tiny house for one semester when we both went to Ole Miss, but he never complained about my snoring.  Maybe he was a heavy sleeper, snored too or was simply too polite to say something.  I don’t know.  All I knew was I was exhausted all the time.  I feel quite strongly it had nothing to do with my diet.  Chicken strips and Dr. Pepper at midnight can’t possibly be bad for you, right?

                The morning after the first night as roommates, Christopher asked me, very politely, if I was able to vanquish the wildebeest from my bedroom.  When I asked what he meant, he said, “I assume you were wrestling with some animal last night.  How else would you explain those noises?”  I was appalled.  The only person I knew who snored was The Dad and I was not about to be lumped into any category with him.  The only clue I didn’t have a restful night was the fact I woke up with all the covers wrapped around my face and neck and the pillows on the floor.  This was not uncommon so I gave it no further thought.

                Upon the accusations of snoring, I was insistent I made no such noise, especially loud enough for Christopher to hear as our bedrooms were on opposite ends of the apartment.  When he shared a recording of what sounded like a group of lumberjacks with their chainsaws at full throttle, I decided to see a pulmonologist who didn’t even wait until the end of the test to prescribed a CPAP. 

                Use of a CPAP requires you to sleep in a supine position as you must wear a mask for the machine to work properly.  I quickly mastered sleeping without moving as I was thrilled with getting a proper night’s sleep and reducing my chances of dying in the night.

                Having traveled on vacation with my sister and her children every year since at least 2005, I am used to sharing a Queen-sized bed with her.  She says I freak her out as I don’t move at any point while I’m asleep.  “Like a dead person”, she says.  All I know is making the bed in the morning for me takes, literally, three seconds.  When my sister recently visited me for her vacation, I found she now sleeps on her stomach splayed across the bed, sheets covering only her feet, looking every bit like a crime scene recreation without the blood or number placards used by detectives to document clues.  Oh, and she snores.

                I would complain about her snoring but as a former snorer myself I try to cut her some slack and simply wear earplugs.  I already have them in my bedside table as Ben snores, too.  Earplugs provide a peaceful sleep, y’all, not just protection while swimming.

                You can understand how I was expecting an uneventful night’s sleep when I was rudely awakened by her kicking me in the butt.  I turned over to protest and saw she was on her side moaning.  As she is my older sister (she is 49; I am a pubescent 46) I was concerned she might be having a medical event.  As her favorite food is carbs, my first thought was ‘heart attack’.  As her second favorite food is tomatoes, my next thought was ‘indigestion’.

                I said, or rather shouted, as I forgot I was wearing the ear plugs, “Are you all right?”

                She managed to squeak, “Pull me.”

                “Pull you?  Like back from the light?”  I was confused.  Was she dying?  “Stay with me girl!” I yelled.

                She said, “Ugh.  Catch me, I’m falling.”

                I grabbed her arm and pulled her back onto the bed.  It turns out she had woken up, checked her phone for the time, realized she didn’t have it plugged into the charger and was reaching for the cord when she started to fall out of bed.  That’s when she kicked me.  I never ascertained if the kick was accidental or purposeful and she’s not saying.

                Responsible phone usage is a real thing with real consequences.  Mostly just embarrassment in a blog post, but still.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

19 Years and Counting...

     When I answered an ad in the Biloxi Sun Herald for part-time summer work at something called The Department of Veterans Affairs, I had no idea it would completely alter the course of my life and point me in the direction of a career I had never imagined.  It was 1998 and I had just moved to Mississippi.
     With my BS in Journalism and PR and being six credits away from an MA in Education Administration, I had never considered healthcare administration as a career option.  It was simply not on my radar.  I applied for a job in the Insurance Billing department and had plans to complete my degree by Christmas and pursue my intended career in collegiate student services with the ultimate goal of becoming a Dean of Students.
    I didn't get the job but Rebecca (Becky) Gustin recommended me to the Chief of HR and I was offered a position in their department.  My first day in HR, I met four wonderful ladies who would become my 'Mamas', help me navigate the unfamiliar territory of federal government and take care of me especially when my mother died.  Elaine Cooper, Nita Gross, Pat Finnegan and Belinda Corley may be just names to you, but to me they are a part of my heart.
     At the end of the summer, another 'Mama', Diane Sicuro, placed me into an internship program for college students which put me on a path for a permanent position once I finished my Masters in December.  A quick note about what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it and have supportive family and friends:  during the fall of 1998, I worked 40 hours per week at the VA, 30 hours per week as Assistant Manager of a McDonald's and completed graduate school on a campus more than 10 miles from my home without a car.
     In 1999 I met Jackie Collins (not the author) when my boss assigned me to help her get ready for an inspection.  We immediately clicked and she became my mentor and helped bring about some of the most significant changes in my career.  She hired me to be her Administrative Officer (like an Office Manager) for Prosthetics in 2000.  She then helped me get prepared and gave me a sterling recommendation and a big push to become the Chief of Prosthetics (like a Department Head) in Alaska at the teeny-tiny VA in Anchorage.  As a note, Prosthetics in the VA is more broad than the private sector.  Prosthetics provides everything patients use in their home (hospital beds, eyeglasses, computers, wheelchairs, iPhones, home oxygen, shoes, braces, walkers, environmental control units) as well as programs that will remodel your house and place adaptive equipment in your vehicle.
     Once I was in Alaska, Jackie was promoted to VISN Prosthetic Manager (like a Regional Manager) for VISN 10 in Ohio.  She recommended me for the Chief's job in Cleveland, Ohio.  I showed my thanks by turning that department around and making it into a well-run, efficient operation.  I always show my gratitude for someone giving me a chance and hiring/promoting me by being an exceptionally hard-working and creative employee.  Your boss doesn't need to hear you say 'thank you', they need to see you say 'thank you' every day by being awesome.  A little tip from me to you.
     While in Cleveland, Jackie told me they needed my voice in Washington, DC.  She was adamant I apply for a Policy Analyst position so I could go help them 'fix' Prosthetics at the national level.  I agreed to apply for the position just to stop her from bugging me about it, feeling confident I would never be selected.  To my surprise, but not hers, I was chosen to move to DC to help shape the policies for the Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Department.  Country was about to go to town, y'all.
     When I got there, I found policy writing and program management was something I truly enjoyed and at which I excelled.  I would never have imagined it would have been possible my redneck tail would have been allowed to shape this particular section of healthcare.  After two years, an opportunity came for me to become the VISN Prosthetic Manager in VISN 1 which encompassed all six New England states.
     I ventured into the frozen tundra of New Hampshire and completely revamped their operation from a systems redesign perspective.  My work was recognized by the Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operation and Management as Best Practice in my VISN and then ultimately Best Practice for the nation.  I graduated from the Leadership VA program as my goal is always to be the best leader I can be.  I also oversaw the Togus, Maine Prosthetics Department's transformation and award as the first national Prosthetic Service of the Year.
    After my presentation to every muckety-schmuck in DC, I was asked by Dr. Billie Jane Randolph to come back to DC to create an oversight program mimicking the facility reviews I completed in New England.  She and I had met earlier in the year in Manchester, New Hampshire, during a taping of a 60 Minutes episode on Prosthetic innovations.  We bonded while avoiding the cameras as we weren't cleared to be on TV, so we hid out and ate snacks and shared our stories, both of us being from the boonies; she much more fancy than I.
     My 90-day detail back to DC stretched in an 11-month detail and she became my mentor and 'Mama' and we found we worked wonderfully together.  The program was extremely successful and we re-shaped Prosthetics across the country.  I accepted a permanent position in DC placing me in charge of Education and Training for Prosthetics for VA.  In my element, we had numerous successful educational conferences, all within the proper guidelines, unlike those people from GSA who got in trouble (see previous blog, April 14, 2012 "Is a Clown at a Conference Really Kidding?").
     The opportunity came to move to Palo Alto and fix their failing Prosthetic Department and Dr. Randolph encouraged me to think about what was best for me as I had grown progressively unhappy living in DC.  I can only take so much politics before I become jaded.  Moving to California was the best decision for many reasons; one being having room for my father to move in and for me to start this blog.
     Revamping the program in Palo Alto, my team and I received the national Prosthetic Service of the Year Award in 2012, showing again standardization and accountability are always the path to success.  I also got a new mentor in Palo Alto, Tony Fitzgerald, who helped mold me into the executive I am today.   In addition, I completed the Excellence in Government Fellowship in 2013 which helped prepare me to be a high-functioning and successful executive.  I have been in my role as Assistant Director in Long Beach for two and a half years and I couldn't be happier.  My work has shades of being a Dean of Students as I oversee all the Employee Engagement and Development programs in addition to various administrative functions like Education, Environmental Management, Police and Emergency Management, Occupational Safety and Health, Prosthetics (of course), Veterans Travel and Transportation, Volunteers and Food Services.
     The best part of my job is I get to do what I love and help veterans like The Dad every day.  It almost feels unfair I get to earn a living and feel good about what I do.  It's a win-win situation, which aren't common, I know.
     19 years, 10 jobs, 9 states, 8 mentees, 7 mamas, 6 hospitals, 5 cars, 4 awards, 3 mentors, 2 leadership programs and always 1 goal:  Awesomeness.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Stephen Curry, Bad Football and Tiaras

                Now that the NBA Championships are over and the Golden State Warriors won (insert team chant here), there has been a lot of drama and sadness and other negative emotions for those who supported the Cavs.  I was happy Stephen Curry and his team won.  He looks like a nice person; like someone who loves his mother and helps the disadvantaged. 

                The year before I enrolled at Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit, MS (Go Bears!) their football team was ranked #6 in the nation for junior college football; in the nation, not the state.  That’s some pretty good football playing right there. 

                My Freshman year, their record was 0-9-1 and the one team we tied was Coahoma Community College, which at the time hadn’t actually ever won a game, possibly in the history of their school.  The fans and team members were disappointed in the season and as a member of the marching band and Student Body President, I, too, was appropriately saddened.  It wasn’t until my Sophomore year I found the upside to losing.

                As most people know, the one game you want to win in the school year is Homecoming.  It’s the most attended game of the season.  In order to do well in front of your largest home crowd, you try to play the team with the worst record.  Coming off our poor record, it began to dawn on me as the season progressed there was something special afoot; something magical involving tiaras and convertibles.

                Football is not very interesting to watch; poorly played football even less so.    As a dedicated trumpeter in the marching band, I attended all games and was thrilled to notice a trend of playing multiple schools at their Homecoming games and this meant seeing all the Homecoming Queens and their Courts.  Royalty, sparkly dresses, pageantry; these were my kind of football games.    Of course the Queen-related hullabaloo was interspersed with actual football which was fine because any time I wasn’t tooting my own horn (literally), I occupied myself by going to the concession stand for nachos and/or Frito Pie or talking to the dance team who loved them some Dusty, mostly because I was funny and overweight and therefore a consistent source of heat.  These poor beautiful ladies were always cold in their tiny sequined bodysuits.

                Our record improved to 2-8 the next year and I saw at least four Homecoming Queens including one who was over 6’ tall at Pearl River Community College.  Oddly enough the two schools we beat were the worst team in the state (again, Coahoma) and also the State Champions (Gulf Coast).  I’m unsure if Southwest has been better or worse in the intervening years.  I admit I don’t follow football unless it’s the New Orleans Saints or Ole Miss and then only via Facebook posts. 

                So, take heart LeBron and all the other Cavs (are there other Cavs?), there is an upside to losing.  For me it was momentary glamour in the boonies.  For you it’s gazillions of dollars, so quit crying you big baby. 

                And that’s all I’m saying for now.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Assigned Seats

This is my first try at short fiction.  Like always I write in false author voice.  I hope you like it.

                “Hurry up Bailey!”  I yelled just like I do every Sunday morning and Monday morning and Tuesday morning; you get the picture.  “We’re gonna be late!”

I know I shouldn’t yell since we’re on our way to church and I should be more, well, Jesus-like, but I yell all the time.  No need to fake it just because it’s Sunday.    It’s usually Bailey who’s yelling for me, since I’m late for everything and I don’t necessarily feel bad about it but for some reason I feel guilty being late for church. 

I didn’t grow up being late for anything, my Mother made sure we (my brother Spencer and I) were always on time, which to her meant 15 minutes early.  Since my divorce, I’ve had to start a routine of new apartment, new church, new school (I’m a teacher) but the one constant in my life is I’m always running late.

I know you’re thinking Baptists don’t get divorced and that’s usually true.  I didn’t have a choice.  My selfish ex-husband simply walked out after 22 years of marriage because he “didn’t get a chance to enjoy my 20s”.  I guess he didn’t enjoy the time we spent moving around the country while he served in the Navy.  I thought we had a great life; sure, we fought sometimes, but I can’t imagine doing that with anyone else.  Just goes to show you should never marry a pretend Baptist; he never went to church with us, leaving me to be the spiritual leader of our family.  I guess you can pursue a noble profession without being a noble person.  And why would anyone want to re-live their 20s?  No thank you.

I’m not bitter.  I’m just irritated and a little embarrassed.  We just don’t talk about it.

Even though I am late I always have a seat near the back row on the left at the Friendship Baptist Church in Yellow Finch, a small church in a sizeable city in the panhandle of Texas.  Small enough not to make me nervous but big enough to keep most relationships at the surface level.   It’s not that I don’t want new friends, it’s just…well, I guess it is I just don’t want new friends.  New friends want to do stuff and go out and drink and eat and other than Taco Tuesdays at Rosa’s, I just want to go home after work and curl up with a book or an episode of The Bachelor or Pretty Little Liars or something else Spencer judges me for watching.

At Friendship, I can give a quick nod or a ‘Good Morning’ and keep on going; a ‘God Bless You’ if it’s required.  It usually isn’t.  Even though we’ve been going to this church for almost a year, I don’t know very many of our seat-neighbors, at least by name.  Bailey and I refer to them by description.  Sweet Old Couple (SOC) sit to our right. I make sure I sit on the outside edge for escape purposes, bathroom or early exit in equal measure.  Jeanine Leather sits directly in front of us.  It’s an inside joke.  Our first Sunday there, I noticed her name engraved on the cover of her Bible.  When I mentioned it to Bailey after church, she burst out laughing saying, “Mama!  It said, ‘Genuine Leather’.  Oh, my gosh, that’s hilarious!”  She will not let me forget about it, laughing long and deep, pointing at me standing uneasily in her high heels and designer dress her Uncle Spencer sent her from California, where he’s been for the last five years.

Bailey is 5’ 11” at the age of 16 and still getting used to her new form like a more graceful but still stumbly-limbed baby giraffe.  She’s determined to master her long legs quickly and she sometimes trips and stumbles as much as she glides.  She is embarrassed by nothing it seems; I am embarrassed by everything, including my bangs which I can’t stop trimming at home with toenail scissors because they don’t look ‘right’ about a week after each haircut.  I try to explain it to the lady who cuts my hair and she nods and mmm-hmmms me, but it’s the same every time and I just gave up. 

My weight, which I exaggerate, according to Spencer, but I don’t feel emotionally equipped to manage.  I always said I felt fat when I was skinny in high school and college but more out of a sense that I was supposed to say it than actually thinking I was fat.  Now, I just avoid mirrors if possible.

My divorce, which was unplanned and this move to the Panhandle, also unplanned, has left me feeling a little bit lost.  I moved here to be closer to Bailey when she started college and I have no nearby family for the first time since the beginning of my marriage.  Bailey skipped her junior year of high school after her Dad left; it shook both of us to our core, although we haven’t really discussed it much other than to vent when he forgets birthdays or graduations.  He always was selfish, now that I think about it.

The last of our immediate seat-neighbors, The Mayor (he isn’t the mayor but is well-dressed and very polite like politicians used to be) always makes a point to tell Bailey how pretty she is and then tells me he can tell where she gets her beauty, which is a lie but one I always accept because he’s just so nice, like someone’s Grandpa from a Hallmark movie.

I really don’t know what I look like from the neck down.  I wasn’t kidding when I said I avoid mirrors.  Even in photos I make sure I stand behind Bailey or am only photographed from above.  Bailey picks out my clothes and does my hair and make-up most days.  I trust her and I just don’t care anymore.  She is as stylish and tasteful as Spencer.  I don’t know how I missed that gene from my mother but I did and I’m scared to make a mistake so I don’t try.

Bailey tells me, “You look pretty Mama” and I choose to believe her.  She is stunning, like a model from a magazine.  I don’t know how my husband (I guess I should call him my ex-husband but I don’t like that phrase – it sounds vulgar somehow) and I did it, but we managed to produce a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, all long legs and confidence.  I don’t know where she gets that.  I never had any confidence and Spencer didn’t until he left the South but he and I have told Bailey how amazing she is since she was a baby and she believes it.  She is fearless and sure of herself and I am glad.  Her life will be much different than mine.

We finally squeal into the parking lot and rush toward the door, slowing to the appropriate speed when we get to the front doors, which is one of the reasons we sit so far back.  When we open the door to the sanctuary something feels off.  Something’s not right.  Bailey stops short and then whispers, “Someone’s in our seat!”

“What?” I say, thinking I misunderstood.  I can’t see around her because I’m only 5’ 7”.  Someone in our seats?  How?  It’s our seat.  Didn’t SOC say something when they sat down?  Did Jeanine Leather sit there with her monogrammed Bible and allow them to sit unaware they were in a reserved spot? 

I see it’s a young couple with an almost newborn baby so I’m pretty sure they were so distracted they simply sat in the closest available seat with the clearest exit path.  Why don’t they take the baby to the nursery?  It’s going to start crying as soon as the pastor, Brother Charles, starts his sermon.  Friendship Baptist is one of those fire and brimstone Baptist Churches that I grew up in.  Spencer stopped going to Baptist Churches about 10 years ago.  He says we’re too hateful.  I know people can be mean about gay people but I’m not hateful and I’m Baptist.  But I understand fire and brimstone isn’t for everybody.  I’m used to it and I don’t think I could go to a different church.  I went to Spencer’s church when I was in California last year and it was a nice little church but I just need to be kept on my toes.  I sometimes feel bad about myself when I leave but God wants us to strive for perfection.  Most days I don’t make the cut but I try.

Bailey and I scanned the pews and I try to quickly figure out a new seating plan before the ushers get concerned and we cause a scene.  I mentally ran through everyone I could remember in our section of the church and tried to remember exactly where the habitually late Stressed Out Mom with Cute Teenage Son and Overweight Couple sit so I wouldn’t cause them any issues when they finally arrived after the announcements but before the special music.  

Seat assignment is something dear and true to Southern Baptists.  It’s like the Christian Flag at Vacation Bible School; you don’t really pay much attention to it but you definitely notice it when it’s missing.  

I decide the best place is behind Weird Shoe Guy where no one sits because the sun streaming through the stained-glass window will make you sweat no matter how cold it gets outside.  We made that mistake our first Sunday here.  SOC told us to move behind them that next Sunday, which was sweet and how we got their name.  I call them old not being rude but because they are really, really old.  I don’t know how old, but they are at least in their 80s.  If they’re younger than that then they look terrible for their age.  I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine, I’ll bet.  Everyone knows me as Bailey’s Mom.  Bailey’s hard to miss in any crowd especially a small church with a tiny youth group.  The first Sunday, it was like someone from Hollywood was visiting or someone had a new baby, the way everyone oohed and aahed. 

Once we settled in, I immediately begin to regret my decision as a trickle of sweat ran down my back.  However, right on cue, as soon as Brother Charles stepped to the microphone, he startled the sleeping baby and the wifely member of SOC whispered to the parents of the newborn that we had a nursery and they left following her directions, giving us stress-filled, apologetic smiles.

As soon as they cleared the doorway, the husbandly member of SOC waved us over and Bailey and I moved as quick as a misbehaving child trying to avoid a parental thump to the back of the head to our assigned seats.  Once we got situated, we and our neighbors visibly relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief.  All was right in the world again.

Now to listen to the sermon.  It’s about Moses and Zipporah meeting at a well and then getting married.  Apparently, in Biblical times, a well often served as their version of Starbucks because Isaac and Rebekah and even Jacob and Rachel met at a well when the women were there drawing water.  One more reason to get my water at the Sonic.  I am not about to try and meet some man for a date who is going to start trying to tell me what to do.  I ain't got time for that. 
I almost said Amen out loud.