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These 23 short pieces take readers on a journey filled with humor and sadness and sex and death.

from the book

Something Like a Walk

I was savoring my second cup of coffee when hiking began to feel like a promising way to spend the day—you know what I mean, really hoof it, put a few more miles on the old boots. I don’t wear boots much anymore, and something always causes me to postpone my next venture along the trail.

There is one problem with hiking—it makes me tired, and right now, my physical conditioning falls a little short of optimum. It occurred to me that instead of enjoyment, my hike would turn into lumbering along fatigued, like after one of those forced marches in my old Army days. Plodding weariness was not what I wanted to feel at the end of this beautiful spring day.

Mustang Sally

Who can love something intrinsically lacking the capacity to reciprocate?

Not me. And so, I lived, seeing automobiles purely as transportation until one day, shimmering in the showroom lights, the Siren, whose name was Sally, lured me closer until I heard her whisper, “I’ve been waiting, just for you.”

Everything but Sally disappeared. The wavering luminance of her glistening emerald body and vinyl houndstooth landau roof drew me closer, inviting my touch. I caressed her controls, and my heart raced with joy. I settled into the enveloping warmth of her soft interior, and she became my world, the one I did not know I was searching for—Sally, the Mustang I was meant to ride.

Detour to Tupelo

She stood with her arms folded below her breasts, and Danny could not see a ring or any other jewelry. He listened as the driver collected tickets and confirmed destinations. The bus was a local, and most passengers were going to small towns along the way. The driver took her ticket and said, “Hattiesburg, Mississippi, change buses in Memphis.”

The eavesdropper smiled. He knew the route, and he knew a lot could happen between St. Louis and Memphis. Danny had a talent. It wasn’t a moneymaking talent, as his uncle Mike often reminded him. Still, in the mind of the almost twenty-two-year-old photographer’s assistant, it was a wonderful gift, and he used it to make himself a very happy fellow.

Sucker Punch

Rayholds his hand to his cheek, more startled than hurt. He has never heard of a sucker punch. All of the other surprises he has ever received were good things, usually from his mother or one of his grandmothers.

A moment ago, he had been talking to his neighbor. Now, standing in the empty hallway, the left side of his face stinging, Ray stares at the brass 3-B on Eli’s apartment door.

The Last Link

Memories of his mother dying in this nursing home still weighed on him, but he was eager to see Jake. His father’s youngest brother had always been the primary source of laughter and tears for the Donovan family. Now he was Ray’s last living older relative. At Jake’s door, he peered in. “Hey Jake, how’s it going?”

“Well, looky here, my favorite nephew, Raymond Donovan. Come on over here.” The old man lying on the bed grinned at a petite, gray-haired nurse removing a blood pressure cuff from his arm. “Hang on to your panties, Glenda. This is the boy I’ve been telling you about. He’ll be after you straight out.”

Facing the Storm

Ray hands a beer to each of his friends and says, “These are the last ones.” He leans on the transom seat, pulls the pop-top on his beer, and waits for the inevitable argument to begin.

Eddie says, “The last beers. Dammit, Terry, I told you two six-packs wouldn’t be enough. You know being on the water makes me extra thirsty.”

Terry says, “Screw you. You’re always extra thirsty and damn near always complaining.”

“Up yours. You sound just like …

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Just like your wife. Why don’t you come up with a new line?”

Time Goes By

She handed him her ticket, “You look wonderful, Paul. Goodness. I can’t believe it’s been so many years. How’ve you been?” His expression did not change, “Fine. I’ve been fine.”

“I know you’re busy now, but I’d love to talk about our college days together.” She leaned close and whispered, “You used to be such a stud, Paul. I’m living in Roswell. I’m in the book—maiden name. Call me.” Still smiling, he nodded slightly and handed her a boarding pass.

Mike’s partner closes the gate behind Jennifer and grins at her co-worker. “Old girlfriend, Mike—oops, I mean Paul? Are you gonna call her?”

Theron’s Breakfast

Theron says it took him five years to admit he was not cut out to work for other people and absolutely not in the city.

Since then, he has been an independent handyman and works on a schedule and terms he sets. He also provides unique insights about life as he sees it.

When the Occupy Wall Street protesters dominated the news, I asked Theron what he thought of the protests.

Continuing his work, Theron said. “Ought to vote.”

Can We Save November?

politics-bierceIt is only September, and it may be a bit early for such a concern, but November, which generally is a fine month, promises to be terrible in 2020. As our traditional month of national Thanksgiving, November has terrific things going for it. And the colors in North Georgia are magnificent.

Personal reasons make November delightful for me, and foremost is a wedding anniversary. We are disappointed that we likely will not celebrate at the location we hoped, and it may not be as golden as we anticipated. At the same time, we continue being grateful for making it this far together.

Another good thing about November is birthdays—mine and my oldest child’s. Each birthday is special, but after a certain age, the likelihood of making it to the next one diminishes. My chances have been decreasing for many years, making each one more special. I hate the idea of something spoiling the upcoming celebrations.

And there are too many spoilers lurking.

Those are selfish thoughts, but as my face-to-face contact with other people has diminished, that kind of thinking creeps into my mind. But less contact also increases my thinking about the importance of friends and neighbors, particularly those who do not have a loved one living with them—someone to talk with or give comfort during this unusual period.

Optimistic is my preferred term, but more than one friend has called me Pollyanna. Simply put, in my mind, most people are good people and will cooperate with and help others unless they believe helping others will, in some way, cause harm to themselves. And the possibility of harm is increasing.

The pandemic is amplifying my concerns about a terrible November. Don’t tell me how well we may be doing compared to other nations. What good does it do to compare how America deals with the virus when so many, many people are dying? The death toll exceeded “too many” months ago.

And we continue to politicize it—shame on us.

And politicization is my other big fear about November. The pandemic and the complications it will bring to voting and vote-counting mechanics make November 2020 potentially more indecisive, and therefore scarier than any other in America’s recent history. Politically driven divisiveness stoked by both parties reduces the likelihood of conclusive election night, week, or month, or worse.

Indecisiveness is not a traditional American characteristic. How we grew so divided that we cannot move forward is a good question, but it has no value unless we use the answers to solve it. And we are not going to solve it if the people we elect continue focusing on reelection. And they will continue doing that as long as we, the people, continue to let them tell us that people who look or think differently from us are our enemies.

September 2020

Click-bait is killing serious reading

One of the most intriguing articles I have read lately is “The death of reading is threatening the soul” by Phillip Yancey. “Books help define who I am,” He says. Yancey is a professional writer and blogger whose office holds his personal books, more than 5,000 of them, well read and marked as potential references in his work.

Yancey’s title got my attention, but the opening lines held me: “I am going through a personal crisis…. I used to love reading.” He is not necessarily reading less, but he is spending less time and effort with deep reading. Yancey blames the omnipresence of technology for the decline in the time he spends with his personal serious reading. “The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.”

Oh, how Yancey’s comment resonated with yours truly. In maintaining my schedule of reading at the end of each day, online is not an option. When I read in a web browser, it is difficult—at times almost impossible—to concentrate if click-bait and advertisements are in my field of vision. It is impossible if the ad is one those blankety-blank blinkers.

Another problem is gauging the length of the piece. How much longer is the article? To get the answer, I look at the scroll bar on the right edge of the screen—where the ads and click-bait loom. I buy so few things now that advertisements no longer tempt me, but teaser headlines are hard to pass by. My real downfall is underlined links within the article. I am a footnote reader and I struggle not to click. Of course, if I had more patience or greater powers of concentration there would not be a problem, but I don’t. And neither does Yancey. We click.

The click takes me to something mildly interesting, that has another underlined link that takes my attention somewhere new. What was the original story about? I’ve forgotten. That may be reading, but it is not serious, or deep reading.

Yancey quotes a 2016 Nielsen report, “… the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming (electronic) media … 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.” It is the loss of concentration that concerns Yancey. His thesis is that continued interruptions are killing our powers of concentration and making it more difficult to focus for extended periods. He refers to scientific studies for supporting evidence. I am proud of not looking for the studies, but if Yancey had underlined links in his article. Who knows? But I likely would have clicked.

I’m trusting Yancey here: “Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up.” Opening emails and clicking on links to satisfy our curiosity apparently lights up our pleasure centers. The argument appeals to me. It gives me a plausible explanation for clicking on those links. Most of the time, I am not happy about having clicked, but it felt good at the time. Like so many things that make one feel good, yielding to the click temptation is habit forming. It is also destructive.

Most of those clicks lead to what Yancey terms mental clutter, exposure to information but not to a depth of understanding. He believes that mental clutter is hurting us. In his article, Yancey gets more deeply into its threat to the soul. I did not need to be convinced, but reading his article was time well spent. Even though it was online, it has no embedded links.

Yancey is among a chorus of serious thinkers and researcher who advocate a regimen for reading because will power is not enough to resist the distractions. Set aside a specific amount of time, preferably at the same time each day for serious concentrated reading—meaning not in a web browser. Then, stick to it. Make it a routine part of your life. In effect build a wall against the distractions.

It is easy to say that everyone has the time to read seriously. “Everyone” is a generalization, but if we change it to everyone who spends more than two hours a day browsing the web or watching television, then I say yes, everyone has time to read. In the September issue of “Smoke Signals,” Olive T Reed demonstrated how a reading regimen of only one hour each day is enough time to finish more than 50 novels per year. It is worth noting that Reed’s reading speed is much slower than other advocates of concentrated reading.

Yancey quotes reading advocate Charles Chu: “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books. It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”

We tend to allow the urgency of television, or the dopamine rush of the internet, to keep us from deep reading.

We must not rush

While the Mueller investigation proceeds, the public does not know whether there was collusion. Despite polls that show a strong desire to end the investigation, justice and the security of our nation’s future require that it come to an end only when the work is complete. Public opinion must not guide the conduct of investigations into criminal or constitutional violations. Every American has a vested interest in wanting all investigative and any subsequent trials to go forward to the full extent necessary to assure that we remain a country ruled through law.

Russian interference in the American election process was an invasion, and we should treat it as such. Our national response is the responsibility of the officials we have elected and the people they have chosen to assist them. They either have the facts, or they must gather them. They are privy to information to which we, the public, are not privy. Public opinion is the wrong way to determine the appropriate national response to invasion.

The same is true of suspicions and allegations of collusion with the invaders. They must be investigated by the appropriate officials, however long it takes to complete. Public opinion is a precarious way of determining the length of time the investigation should take, or what the outcome will be.

We should remember with trepidation the years between 1947 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We shuddered at the threat looming over us of annihilation by atomic and then the hydrogen bomb. We also shuddered when Senator Joseph McCarthy and others warned that Communists and their sympathizers had and were infiltrating our government.

We were taught to fear the subversives working to facilitate a takeover of our magnificent land of the free. A takeover by people who hated freedom, who hated religion and would make us slaves of the State. Our fear had a name, and it was Communism, and Russia personified it. The formal name was the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics, but Russia was the name everyone knew.

The Soviet Union is no more, and an oligarchy has replaced communism in Russia. Russia may no longer want to destroy or enslave us to their ideal of communism, but the leaders in Russia have not lessened their desire to destabilize our government. Today they have different, less deadly but more powerful tools, and a more powerful reason: economics.

Smart rulers do not attack a superior military force. They use intelligence to achieve their goals—both secretive spy-oriented information gathering intelligence, and the intelligence that recognizes the value of understanding history and politics and how money works—all of which fewer and fewer people know about, and fewer and fewer Americans are willing to invest the time and effort to learn.

The Russians have used intelligence to attempt to disrupt how our government functions, by distracting our attention and affecting our confidence in the electoral system. If people lose confidence in elections, they will lose confidence and trust in government, including law enforcement. It is a simple concept.

There are two issues: Did the Russians interfere? And did any Americans do anything to help them?

Today, there appears to be general agreement that the Russians did attempt to influence the 2016 election. That is a critical issue for the future of our country. It cannot be ignored and to make it partisan puts our future stability at risk. From the first, indications of interference or possible collusion should have been a matter for our intelligence and defense agencies, not political parties.

Proof as to whether the Russians had any preference in the election outcome or if there was collusion may or may not exist, but most ordinary citizens do not have access to it. The question certainly is a legitimate matter for news media. But individual opinion —and by extension public opinion— is swayed (intentionally or not) by the news sources individuals trust most. Every attempt to make the investigation partisan contributes further to the success of the Russian effort to divide and destabilize our government and our economy.

We have spent untold investigative and broadcast hours and tons of print on the question of collusion with the Russians. We have intelligence and law enforcement agencies to investigate those matters and to prosecute where appropriate. If we are to retain any trust in our government, we must insist on completeness and accuracy in the investigations. Such investigations often take a long, long time. For the layman, and for politicians, they often take far too long, especially when the elections draw near.

Recent indictments and pleas may indicate the probability of collusion with Russian agents, but it is still an unresolved question. If history teaches anything, it is that self-serving and partisan—even presidential— allegations and denials mean nothing.

We must not rush. There is too much at stake.

by Ken Reynolds

Words Do Matter

Even though I am old, I am neither a fogey nor a prude. There are many things I miss about my personal “good old days,” but I do not want the country to be like it used to be. I am perhaps a tad more prudish than fogeyish. Despite my attitude, I still believe civility is important.

As a social norm, civility helps societies function. Those norms change, but for the past couple of hundred years, certain words were not for use in public. They are words we collectively identified as vulgarities, obscenities or profanities. We do use them, but there are situations where we do not. There may, or may not, be consequences for people who do, but the offense is disruptive.

We use words to convey what we think and want others to know. In mid-January, we experienced a vivid example when the president used, in his words, “rough language” while talking about immigration.

The media and diplomatic uproar his word choice caused illustrate that what we say and how we say it matters. His supporters want to deemphasize the significance of his word choice, and they accurately say his language is how ordinary people talk in barrooms. Some have said locker rooms.

But, the halls of government are neither locker room nor barroom. The White House is America’s home. The president is not an ordinary American; he is America’s representative to the world.

I do not believe ordinary Americans use such words in their churches or supermarkets or their homes, except for dramatic emphasis—or they have no other words at hand. Such words are not ordinary, and when they become ordinary they lose emphasis

Obscenities and profanities are omnipresent and loud in locker rooms. Locker rooms are places where competitive demonstrations of prowess and superiority are common. In locker rooms, people boast. They ridicule opponents. They taunt fellow competitors, and teammates. In locker rooms, people express their frustrations, most often vocally but sometimes physically. Locker-room-talk is social in a specific environment.

Barrooms are less competitive places. People go to bars to relax, socialize, argue, commiserate and share intimate thoughts. Yes, some people boast or pick fights. There are people for whom a bar is a place to get drunk or to get into a fight. Those people are not the norm, and they make other patrons uncomfortable.

The free flow of obscenities and profanities and outrageous opinions in locker rooms and barrooms is integral to making those places refuges from the rest of the world, but the atmosphere makes them alien to those who disapprove.

There is a critical element common in both environments. People are speaking for themselves, not for others. Unless someone makes it known he is a representative, those around him can be confident they are hearing an individual opinion. No one expects the talk, especially the specific language, to go beyond the room. Only in recent years has the language of locker rooms and barrooms, and the military moved beyond those places. It was not a language for public places, and certainly not something you would want your mother or your children to hear you utter.

I have vivid memories of my father’s reaction to words I used on my first leave from the Army. He convinced me that what we say, and the words we use to say it, are indicative of who we are. With each decade since his lecture, I have come to believe his argument more deeply.

Although we have loosened our standards for acceptable language, there still are places where barroom and locker room talk are out of place. Meeting rooms are one example. In meetings, everyone represents something or someone beyond themselves. Being a representative includes the burden of decorous behavior and speech. Otherwise, meetings devolve into chaos.

Behavior and language in a business meeting are of concern to the business, not the public. Government meetings are different.

At all levels of government, expectations about language and words are higher because participants are not speaking as individuals. Every person present is conducting the business of a constituency, and participants can reasonably expect their conduct and their language to become known to their constituents.

Failure, or refusal, to recognize those expectations and adhere to norms disrupts the exchange of ideas and creates a shockwave of distraction from the problems at hand. It is impossible to address the problems of governing when everyone’s attention is focused on the furor over what the leader’s unusual word choice means.

I am neither a fogey nor a prude. I love the vividness of our language, its softness, and its harsh shock value. The words we choose to convey what we think, and they can convey our deepest beliefs, particularly in emotional moments. I do not want to see the effectiveness of those words diminished by moving the language of the barroom into the living room.

The words we choose matter, but the place and the context in which we use them matters more.


Parade For the Boss

We do not need a national military parade to display our strength. We know, and the world knows our armed forces present the most powerful military in history. Their deeds speak. People in other nations may parade more than we do, but I don’t want to hear about that. Hey, parading is not about competition, is it? Unless you count victory parades.

I love parades. Doesn’t everyone? My gut tells me Americans parade so much and so often, no one can know how many are taking place on any given day—unless there is a secret bureau of parades keeping track via social media posts.

For a brief time, I did not like parades. Decades ago, I arrived in town for a new job. Less than a month later, the boss “invited” his staff to a Chamber of Commerce Veterans Day breakfast. At breakfast, I learned he expected us to walk in the parade, which was to start soon. I was dressed for breakfast—in a restaurant—not for standing around on a cold, wet morning waiting to participate in the parade I had intended to watch—in proper shoes, coat and hat.

Community spirit in that town was palpable. People lined the streets for parades on every special day. Businesses and charities, and service clubs and scouts paraded with school bands. Close order drill teams, ROTC, and units from nearby military bases, national guard and reserve units marched with firefighters, EMTs, and police. But they were not military parades. The closest thing to an exception was a parade celebrating and honoring the first Gulf War warriors’ return home.

Community parades with military units marching along streets lined with stars and stripes are organized displays of love of country, but it is the energy and devotion to country among the people that matters every day.

I know the president admires those grand military parades in other countries, but I hope he will not impose one on our armed services, who must obey orders.

If he is determined to order a marching spectacular, I suggest he look instead to the executive branch. Each of the political appointees is beholden to the president for the job they hold. Surely, it will not inconvenience them to parade for the boss. I did not like it, but I did because I needed my job. I got over it.

If they choose not to—because there is something they want or need to do, like a wedding anniversary, a child’s ball game, or recital—they can say no. Being good Republicans, they can always find other work, especially now that the economy is great again.

Marching is not walking. Marching means cooperating and accepting your place as part of something bigger than yourself. It means working in sync, even with people with whom you disagree—or hate, and at a time you need to be doing something else. Lack of marching experience among appointees may present a problem. But they can learn on the job. Lack of experience did not prevent many of them from receiving their appointments.

If a parade comprising only executive branch appointees is not large enough or doesn’t measure up to the president’s desire for grand spectacle, I suggest he persuade the Senate and the House of Representatives to join in. Of course, they could not manage it without their staffs.

Unlike the current commander-in-chief and Congress, our military has nothing to prove—to anyone. However, both the executive and legislative branches have much to prove to Americans and the world.

Instead of a physical exhibition of our military’s weaponry and organizational competence, presidential appointees and Congress can take to the streets and turn the spectacle they already are into the greatest live TV special ever. Broadcasting it via the Armed Forces Network would be risky—especially the pre-parade activities—because we may not want our warriors to see firsthand how unorganized and uncooperative those two branches of government are, among themselves and with each other.

Senator David Perdue has said, “Personally, I would prefer not to do it. But he’s the president.

Senator, I encourage you to explain to the president why you prefer not to hold a national military parade. Please tell him those orderly, parading arrays of uniformed warriors and machines do not just happen because he wants them. Military parades take dedication to a common purpose, precise planning and cooperation, and a willingness to sacrifice ego and become one among thousands doing your assigned task—without personal glory.