Embarrassing Myself

This tiny story is a perfect illustration of how adept I am at embarrassing myself. You will soon know what I mean.

            I booked an apartment for Ellen and me for a week in the lively Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. Oakwood Worldwide, a company that specializes in temporary housing primarily for corporate clients, owns the building.

Sign in a cupcake shop in Portland's Pearl District.

Sign in a cupcake shop in Portland’s Pearl District.

            Shortly after I made the reservation by phone, I received helpful follow-up emails from a young woman named Ty. She invited me to call if we had any questions. Since this would be an apartment stay rather than a hotel stay, I called Ty to ask about cleaning services, directions from the airport by light rail and streetcar, and related logistics. I could tell by her voice that she was a young woman, very friendly and customer oriented.

            When we arrived at the building early on a Friday afternoon, we let ourselves in using a code Ty had provided. No one was at the front desk, so we waited a bit. Momentarily a young, professionally dressed woman walked into the lobby.

            I stepped forward and said, “Are you Ty?”

            She said in a lovely voice, “No, I’m Chinese. But you’re close!” Then she disappeared around a corner too fast for me to apologize or explain.

            Ellen, not knowing Ty’s name, said to me in a heightened whisper, “Why on earth did you ask that woman’s ethnicity?” I said I didn’t but only wanted to know if that lady’s name was Ty!

            I was instantly embarrassed. Quickly I explained to Ellen that Ty’s name is spelled T-y. Ellen immediately got it and we both broke into sidesplitting laughter, though I still could feel my embarrassment burning my face.

            A moment later a young woman walked into the lobby and greeted us as she walked behind the front desk. I said, “Are you Ty?”

            She replied in the affirmative with a broad, room-lighting smile. We identified ourselves as the Russells checking in. Ty welcomed us warmly and I immediately told her this little story.

             As Ty laughed heartily with us, she said she thought she knew the young woman I had greeted moments earlier. If so, that young woman also knew Ty, so Ty was surprised that the woman did not realize whom I was referring to when I said, “Are you Ty?”

              Ty was so adept at putting me at ease after my blunder. This was the start of a lively, fun visit to Portland. 

              Later this story reminded me of the famous Abbott and Costello baseball skit, “Who’s on first?” But neither Abbott nor Costello was embarrassed about that. 

Inside Powell's Books on a lazy Thursday morning.

Inside Powell’s Books on a lazy Thursday morning.

Rarity of the Commonplace

We returned to visit New Mexico recently after being captivated by it on every previous trip to the State. New Mexico has a rare quality that nearly everyone has trouble articulating, and that nearly everyone experiences when they go there. It is similar to many other parts of the American West, but at the same time no other part of the region is like it.

            One of the most common attempts to explain this uniqueness about New Mexico are expressions such as, “There’s something about the light.” But no one I know has been able to describe it in a way that makes it understood. It has to be experienced.

            Ellen and I were in Albuquerque several years ago for a few days. One evening about a half hour before dusk, the western sky appeared to be on fire. We had never seen such a sunset and we were so captivated by it we jumped in the car, headed west on Interstate 40, and tried to drive into the blazing sky. We drove in waves of awe of the changing reds, oranges, and yellows of the most spectacular sunset we have ever seen.

            There was something about the light on our most recent trip of about a week that we spent mostly in Santa Fe. We saw it repeated in countless ways, at various times of the day. The light in New Mexico makes it a rarity among the United States, while so many dimensions of its landscape, its people, its food, its history, and its culture remind us of similarities to other places. But there seems to be an indefinable quality of these dimensions taken together in New Mexico that makes it like no other place on earth. 

            A less mysterious but nevertheless rare experience met us on the afternoon we drove into New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle. For about fifty miles we kept seeing large billboards along Interstate 40 advertising the dizzying array of items for sale at a well-known store ahead called Clines Corners. One billboard touted their gifts and souvenirs. Another their restaurant. Another their candy store. Another their video games. Clines Corners has been a stop for decades along the old Route 66 that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, but long since broken up by the Interstate Highway System that began in the mid-1950s.

            We took the Clines Corners exit and stopped at the Phillips 66 gas pumps, fittingly along old Route 66, in front of the large store. As I put gas in the car, a friendly man named Paul Caillier walked up and told us we were the first customers to buy gas at the newly constructed gas station! Paul was the contractor for the yearlong project. He said they had just cut the ribbons down seconds before we pulled into the pumps.

            This was indeed a rare occurrence among the estimated 4,000 stops I have made at gas stations in over a half century of driving. Never on any of the previous stops had I ever been the very first customer to buy gas at a new gas station. Unfortunately we were not awarded a free tank of gas as first customers. Paul was the construction manager, not the store manager.

            After getting gas, we went into the largest gift store in New Mexico, with over 30,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space. Among the myriad merchandise were children’s and adult sizes of red long johns, with the traditional trap door in the back. We learned the store relocated there in 1937 with the opening of Route 66/U.S. 285 and has grown ever since.


Ellen with proud contractor Paul Caillier at the new gas station at Clines Corners, New Mexico.

Ellen with proud contractor Paul Caillier at the new gas station at Clines Corners, New Mexico.


            From there we headed north on a short drive to Santa Fe where we did a home exchange with a young couple who came to Austin for a wedding. The adobe house was a 10-minute walk to the historic Santa Fe Plaza, five minutes to the historic Railyard District, and numerous popular restaurants and shops. Traffic was light at all hours during the day, at least compared to Austin, and people were calm and not rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off.

            Santa Fe is beautiful and peaceful, with friendly and lively people of all stripes. An example of the latter was a Sunday afternoon at The Cowgirl restaurant near the Railyard. The food is wide-ranging and delicious, thanks to suggestions from locals as we sat at the “Community Table.” Great food, engaging conversations, accompanied by the music by the talented Santa Fe Revue—all these made for a rare three hours of very special time in Santa Fe.

Two of the fine dancers at The Cowgirl in Santa Fe, with music by Sante Fe Revue. Great combo!

Two of the fine dancers at The Cowgirl in Santa Fe, with music by Sante Fe Revue. Great combo!


            We made soirées into Taos, our second visit there, and to Angel Fire to visit friends who also have a home near us in Austin. The drive there at September’s end revealed perfectly golden aspen trees on the otherwise green mountainsides. Our friends have a view of those aspens, and black bears sometimes climb up on their deck railings and sit there peacefully.

            Another day we went to Abiquiu, a tiny desert town and the last home of renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She moved there after the death of her husband, famed photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, in New York. At Abiquiu it is easy to see why she found New Mexico so fetching as a place to create art, a place where there is something about the light.

Georgia O'Keeffe with one of her dazzling New Mexico paintings. (Source: PBS)

Georgia O’Keeffe with one of her dazzling New Mexico paintings. (Source: PBS)

            As we departed Santa Fe a few days later, we headed straight south toward the mountaintop town of Cloudcroft. On our way, at mid afternoon, a few thunderstorms passed over, followed by bright sunshine. A couple of hours north of Cloudcroft, as the sky brightened after a shower, we saw the most unusual rainbow we have ever experienced anywhere. Most rainbows we have known were high arched, akin to the landmark Arch in St. Louis.


The low-arched rainbow north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, unlike any we had previously seen.

The low-arched rainbow north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, unlike any we had previously seen.

              The rainbow we saw that afternoon in New Mexico had a very low arch, brilliant, and almost hugging the ground. It was another “Can you believe that?” experience. The sky behind the rainbow was roiling, while the foreground rangeland was a brilliant gold-green.

             There is something rare about the commonplace in New Mexico. There is something about the light.

Football Injury That Lasted

I am an American with a football injury that lasted for fifteen years, physically, and it will remain unforgettable. Many Americans, some of them former professional football players, are having second thoughts about letting their children play football, and I don’t blame them.

            But that second sentence is diversionary, off topic.

            My football injury was to the ball of my foot. I was not playing football, but walking along a street wearing a new pair of heavy-duty, thick-soled running shoes. Ellen was walking with me as we waited for a mechanic to finish work on my son’s balky car the evening before his driver’s license test the next morning. We wanted to be sure he had a fair test without his car dying in the middle of the road test.

            A short distance from the garage near downtown Champaign, Illinois, we walked along a shaded street near the auto repair shop. I stepped on a sharp stone lying on the concrete sidewalk. As I walked over the stone, I felt a sharp pain in the ball of my right foot. The stone was over an inch thick at its tip. The pain did not stop.

            For several days, maybe weeks, I walked with a slight limp due to the constant pain when I was standing. It did not take long before I saw a doctor about my “football injury.” Saying that made me sound like a jock, which I am not. But it was better to laugh about it, and to claim, rightly, that I had a foot ball injury. Listeners could not see the space between “foot” and “ball” so that I could fake people out for a while. Explaining what really happened produced a lot of laughs over the years.

            Several visits to podiatrists and orthopedic specialists, over a period of years, led to my wearing custom orthotics and other padded insoles in all my shoes. Their diagnosis was that I had injured the front of the metatarsal bone where my second toe connects to the ball of the foot. Officially the condition is called metatarsalgia. Every step irritated it, making it extremely slow to heal.


Image of selected bones of the foot. My injury was where the circle is. (Source)

Image of selected bones of the foot. My injury was where the circle is. (Source.)


            Long story short, the pain diminished gradually, and as I said it took about fifteen years before I noticed that the old injury did not hurt anymore. My son nearly doubled his age while the pain lasted.

            I still like to tell people about my old football injury. It still produces laughs. I’ll do just about anything for a laugh. 

Music in the Cemetery

From a distance it appeared as though a bearded, bushy-haired man in a tuxedo was walking through the far side of the cemetery carrying a beautiful upright bass. He stopped in front of a tombstone, stood still for a time, and began to play his instrument.

            Ellen and I could not hear the music. We were sitting in a sunroom of the landmark Tadoussac Hotel, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, regaining our bearings after a three-hour whale-watching trip. We had accompanied about twenty other people on a sometimes high-speed Zodiac boat on the St. Lawrence and its nearby tributary, the Saguenay River, in Quebec, Canada. Our pilot resembled a young Tom Cruise, and he handled the boat with a “Top Gun” type of derring-do that sometimes had us flying into the air above our seats, while being sprayed with cold salt water from that part of the St. Lawrence.

            But back to the story.

            In a moment developments with the musician in the cemetery took another twist when we saw a man and a woman accompanying the musician as they carried sophisticated lighting and other photographic equipment. Was this a photo shoot for a magazine spread or a TV commercial? Was the Tadoussac Hotel developing a promotional piece? But in a cemetery? Probably not.

            After a time our curiosity got the best of us. Dozens of people had walked past as we sat in the sunroom, several noticed the musician and photographic crew, and no one had approached them. But we did. 

            As we walked up to the threesome in the cemetery, while mindful of the graves we passed, the woman asked me, “Would you like to take a picture?” I replied that I would if that was okay with all of them. Each eagerly gave me their permission, with welcoming smiles.

Alex the bassist, playing in a cemetery in Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada, August 1, 2014.

Alex the bassist, playing in a cemetery in Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada, August 1, 2014.

            It turns out that this whole idea was the creation of the Montreal-based photographer and videographer, Alexandre Claude. He and his partner Nika were vacationing and this music-in-the-cemetery shoot was, according to Alexandre, “a personal project.” While crouching on the hillside, peering up through his camera at Alex the musician, he continued, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this, but I have an idea.”

            Nika interjected with a laugh, “He is a professional photographer. We go on vacation and what does he do? Photography!” Something about this remark seemed familiar to me. Ellen sometimes expresses puzzlement that we take vacations to various places and I have to carve out time to write, as I am doing at this moment in Quebec City. Oh, well, Alexandre and I can’t help it.

            No one knows what this music or musician in the cemetery idea will become. Alexandre and I exchanged cards and I hope one day to see the end result. It clearly is a creative work in progress. Alexandre’s website impresses with the scope and quality of his work. My guess is that he will give this personal project the same care he gives to his professional projects.

            But Alexandre said this is a personal project. It really is none of my business. The project may never appear on his professional website. After all, it is personal.

            Before Ellen and I left the hotel sunroom to talk to Alexandre, Nika, and Alex the bass player, I mulled over the idea of a musician playing a piece of special meaning to the dead. The special meaning could be for the musician, or for the deceased. Music in the cemetery could be a way to cherish a memory.

            I began to wonder, if I were a musician, who I am most definitely and unfortunately not, what would I play for Mother, Daddy, and my older brother Nolen Robert. Would I play their favorite song? But I don’t even know their favorite song. Most likely, they had many favorites.

            Or, would I play one of my favorite pieces of music that I think they would have enjoyed? Would it be somber or cheerful? I think it would be cheerful, something that reminds me of a special time with each of them.

            I am grateful to Alexandre Claude for triggering such a line of thought. Music in the cemetery is not part of my experience. Somehow it strikes me as a good idea, but implementing it would obviously require some forethought—or it should.

            For example, music in the cemetery should not, it seems to me, be a place to continue nursing a grudge. Think of a wronged surviving spouse visiting the grave of a deceased partner and singing “Your Cheating Heart” at the foot of the grave.

            Also, a violin or a flute may be a better instrument to play in a cemetery than a drum or a cowbell. An instrumental may be more soothing to the senses than a vocal piece. So much depends on the choice if the idea of music in a cemetery has lasting merit.

            While these thoughts reveal some of my personal musical biases, and some of my biases about death and the lives of survivors, I have enjoyed this mental exercise and hope you have, too.

            Again, I’m grateful to Alexandre Claude, his partner Nika, and the bassist Alex in Tadoussac for being open to my writing about this unexpected travel experience. They’re good sports, fine human beings, and maybe people who will start a movement of music in cemeteries, thereby bringing life and death into closer harmony.

            Sounds good to me anyway. 

Writing Change of Pace

Long mulling led me slowly to today’s musing. Just writing that sentence caused a little chill to go up my spine because of a rising giddy feeling. This seems right.

Today begins a change of pace in publishing my blog posts. Since April 2011, I have posted a new story, short essay, commentary, or bit of humor mostly on Fridays. There are about 175 of them. Readership around the globe over the past year has risen steadily, a highly rewarding thing.

Gustave Flaubert discovered in the 1880s what I discovered in recent years. (Source.)

Flaubert discovered in the 1880s what I discovered in recent years. (Source.)

A few months ago I started my second book. It will be another book of nonfiction, but it’s too early to classify what type. Over the coming months I will devote more time to completing the manuscript and finding a publisher. Some of what many of you have read in my blog over the last two years will become part of the second book.

This blog was also instrumental in completing my first book, Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child. It continues to gain readers far beyond what I had reasonably imagined when published last year. Reader feedback has been most gratifying. My publisher chose it for special exhibition at the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 8-12, 2014, in Germany. This is the largest publishing industry event in the world, so my memoir’s selection for it is highly gratifying as well. 

I may publish new blog posts when a special urge bubbles up, but my main priority will be on the second book. Further, I will continue to tweak previous posts to keep them relevant and in tune with new developments, as well as continue to respond to comments posted about them. They will remain dynamic, not static. Most importantly, I hope they will continue to interest and benefit others in some way. 

In addition, I will repost previous posts, often revised ones, on various social media sites. Some have been popular enough to warrant getting them out to new followers, and some are often read more than once by regular readers. It’s unclear to me whether these re-readings are because the posts are good, confusing, dumbfounding, or what.  🙂 

So stay tuned!

P. S.  Join me on one or more of these social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.

Hot Flash from Texas

Was anyone really surprised that Rick Perry dropped out of the GOP presidential stakes? Well, I wasn’t, but I can be a bit nostalgic about it. 

For good or bad, Texas occupies an out-sized role in American public life. This may be due to its geographical scope—large enough to lie over and cover many other states, or its large population and consequent congressional representation, or maybe still its huge role in Western legend and lore, or more likely, a combination of this and other factors.

Some months back, a relative in the Great North said to Ellen and me, “You have a good governor down there.” We paused, shaken a bit, and I said, “Well, he has really nice hair.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, wearing his nice hair. My baldness makes me really jealous. (Source.)

Texas Governor Rick Perry, wearing his nice hair. My baldness makes me really jealous. (Source.)

So with the little hint of my views about Texas Governor Rick Perry, I took special note of a quote in an Austin Sunday paper when we lived there, before we escaped Texas politics to move to Arizona, where it seems less crazy. I’m not the first to find Rick Perry quotes amusing.

Writer Daniel Kurtzman has published “Dumb Quotes and Gaffes by GOP Presidential Candidate Rick Perry. Here’s one example: “Juarez is reported to be the most dangerous city in America.” –Rick Perry, referring to a city that is across the Texas border in Mexico, February 28, 2011. BuzzFeed posted a collection of what it calls “34 Deliciously Ridiculous Rick Perry Quotes.” One of their examples is, “There’s nothing wrong with America that an extra dose of freedom won’t cure.”

Anyway, the Austin American Statesman, the top-ranking newspaper in Texas over the major papers in Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio, quoted Governor Perry on June 22, 2014, in a comment he made recently to Mark Leibovich, a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Perry was quoted as saying, “I’m more Jewish than you think I am. I read the part of the Bible that said the Jews are God’s chosen people.”

That comment struck me as more than a bit odd, as it may have appeared to the paper’s editors. When I read something about a group of people, does that somehow make me more similar to them? Don’t most religious groups feel in some manner that they are God’s chosen people? Does not the religion-referencing Mr. Perry, an avowed Christian, feel that he’s a member of God’s chosen people? Maybe his remark was just a type of pandering that is common in political candidates.

So Governor Perry has actually decided not to seek the presidency in 2016. If he had not, probably someone would have asked him to explain that comment during the campaign so we can all better understand his thinking.

Now he probably won’t be asked to explain some of his other quotes that are a matter of public record. Like, what’s the third department of the federal government that he would eliminate? Maybe he decided that question is just too difficult to face on national TV. 

Or maybe Governor Perry was having trouble concentrating on the race with his lingering indictment on two felony charges alleging abuse of power by a Travis County grand jury. These are in connection with the April 2013 arrest of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg on drunken driving charges. In response, Perry tried to force her from office and vetoed state funds for the Public Integrity Unit run by the District Attorney’s Office. 

Of course, opinion is divided on the merits of the case against Perry. Time will tell if he’s the real deal in that case.  But for now he’s a Texas hot flash just exited from the national stage. 

Related posts: 

League of Women Voters or League of Informed Voters? 

Shutdown: Ineptitude at a High Level

Climate Change and Political Paralysis 

Heaven and Hell—Been to Both

Life events made me a questioner. A doubter. No doubt about it.

What I took for fact in my youth and young adulthood looks far from it today. While different faiths use different ways of referring to heaven and hell, my early experience included fiery sermons during summer revivals, Sunday school classes, scripture, and some family conversations. All of these drilled into my head the blissful heaven above the sky and the burning hell below the earth. Heaven was signified by sweet utterances of blissful everlasting life and an upward pointing index finger, and hell was signified by a jabbing finger pointing down to the inferno of writhing sinners, signified by damning words and voices.

Visions of Heaven and Hell by John Bunyan, a 17th century English author.

Visions of Heaven and Hell by John Bunyan, a 17th century English author. (Source.)

Such formulations were part of my life, even as their intensity waned as I entered my early thirties. The waning began irrevocably with the tragic death of my mother at my father’s hands and the hell on earth that befell our family. Hell began for me when I picked up a newspaper late on the day she died, and continued the day after her death when I entered the home in which my older brother and I were born. Hell was kept alive by my brother’s accidental death a few years later. While some construed these tragedies as “God’s will,” neither of them was the will of any God I had worshipped. I could not believe in such senseless reasoning.

Now, decades later, I almost chuckle at the formulations of the heaven and hell of my youth, meant to govern my behavior, my thinking, and my being. What were foisted off as words to save souls were nothing more than attempts to control people, gain power, and build status. Maybe the proponents of heaven and hell thought they were doing good, improving humanity, and feeling proud of their place in it all. After all, that is what they were taught to believe in seminary.

Proponents of heaven and hell today really miss the point of life, in my view. They diminish humanity rather than enhance it. They promote denial and suffering in this life for the reward of a heavenly afterlife.

What’s Changed?

Life experiences have changed all those early conceptions of heaven and hell in my mind. The realities of life replaced dogmas of the past. Here’s what I now believe about heaven and hell, and why I believe it. No, my beliefs aren’t facts, except that they exist in my head and life.

  1. Heaven is happiness; hell is anguish. Heaven is the smile on the face of a happy child; hell is the stricken face of a child with a broken heart after parents divorce. 
  2. Heaven is feeling worthy and useful to others; hell is feeling helpless, useless, and depressed. Heaven is making a positive difference in the lives of others; hell is dragging others down and tearing them apart.
  3. Heaven is love for others and from others we care about; hell is being ignored and treated as invisible and worthless. Heaven is feeling whole in the presence of people we care about; hell is feeling rejected by those people. 
  4. Heaven is being free to think, speak, and live in comfort and safety; hell is a stifled spirit, a muzzled existence, and a life of grinding poverty and insecurity. Heaven is freedom in a world that values other lives and other ways of living and thinking; hell is oppression, hunger, and looming death at any moment.
  5. Heaven is a good life on earth; hell is misery and suffering on earth. Heaven and hell are not the old conceptions of sages, but the real life experiences of each of us.

Early conceptions of heaven and hell were centuries old before the age of science. Earth was conceived as the “only world,” and it was believed to be flat. In humanity’s grappling to understand life then, it seemed logical that heaven was beyond the sky and that evil resided in the hell beneath the earth. 

Now we know that what is often called “the heavens” refers to planets, stars, galaxies—billions of them, and the universe. We are surrounded by the heavens above our heads, below our feet, and in all directions in between.

Today I live what I view as a heavenly life. Love is abundant in my marriage, family, and among my friends. I enjoy the freedom to think, say, and write what I like. I live in ample housing, have needed clothing, and plenty of food. My health permits me to have an active life. All of this is heaven and I am grateful every day. But hell could return at any time. Accidents, disease, natural disasters, and violence are part of life the world over.

All any of us can do is our best, take each day as it comes, and deal with whatever happens. Life does not come with a guarantee. 

Related posts:

Birth of a Memoir

Skepticism—Up and Down Sides


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