Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little Girl And A Ladybug

From today's Times and News-Star

Do you remember your mom telling you when you were little to “get out of the house”?

She wasn’t throwing you out. At least not for good. She was just telling you to get outside where the action was. In the sunshine. With the grass and the trees and the sky.

If Walt Whitman was right in his poetry -- if a child goes forth every day, and the objects he looks upon, that object he becomes, and that object becomes part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, or for many years or stretching cycles of years -- then we need to be vigilant in the sorts of molds we offer our children, in the kinds of objects and experiences they take in.

Common sense, we would think. But parenting’s not for sissies. It’s such a fulltime job that it’s easy to take a day off. Or a week. And by then a new habit is formed and our boys or girls have lost interest in what we knew was good for them and gained interest in something that will hardly benefit them at all.

Maybe springtime is a great time to establish or re-establish a beachhead, one that’s familiar to the older crowd. It sounds corny, but The Great Outdoors really is.

When you’re little, your whole job is to play. You learn through playing. How things work. How other kids work when they’re playing. How you get along with them and still have fun.

The problem with video games is that, most of the time, they end up playing you. And often it’s just you and the couch and the TV set and the game. And potato chips.

Too much of anything is bad for you, so this is not picking on video games. But I hope they never take the place of a dog or a bike or a jump rope or a baseball glove.

It seems these days that you see kids playing outside less and less. I wonder if we’re telling our kids enough what our moms told us. “You kids get out of the house!”

Motherly music.

Most of the time when kids play outside it is an “organized activity.” Which is good. Soccer and basketball and all sorts of youth league things. But where the rubber meets the road is just kids supervising themselves in play. Pick-up games. Made-up games. Knocking around until you invent something. Breaking a sweat.

Playing is like beauty. It’s its only excuse for being.

My friend Weeds sent me a picture this week of a little girl, about three, flying a kite. Her grandmother had gotten it for her, and kites for her big brothers too. The boys got a green turtle and a purple cat to fly. (There is no rhyme or reason to grandmotherly kite choices.) The little girl got a giant red ladybug, helped a bit aerodynamically by yellow semi-wings.

In the picture the little girl holds the stick and string, and the ladybug is high above the trees, looking down at her with her big black and white ladybug eyes, and far behind the little girl is the ladybug’s shadow on the grass in the field, following her, just as the shadow of all this little girl does while she’s so young will follow her, even until that day, years and years and years from now, when she buys her granddaughter a kite.

Sometimes, somebody telling you to “go fly a kite” is a good thing.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

'Sarah, Get Me Aunt Bea Please...'

From today's Times and News-Star

There is no such thing as “texting and driving.” You can’t do one and the other simultaneously. There is texting and TRYING to drive. But not texting and driving, at least not driving as they teach it in driver’s ed.

The phone. I’m afraid it’s like the Super Bowl, LEAP and ACT testing. We’ve taken a wonderful thing and let it get way, way out of hand.

You’ve got to go back a few years for the best telephone commercial. It featured Bear Bryant in his Alabama football office, telling the world not to forget to call their mommas.

“I sure wish I could call mine,” the elderly Bear said, and in such a way that you felt guilty as sin if it had been longer than five minutes since you’d spoken with your mom.


No question that A. G. Bell scored big when he invented the telephone. But in this final of three essays on our hang-ups with the modern telephone, I stress that Mr. Bell would have suggested this device be treated the same as pain medication: use only as needed, and keep away from children.

Many of you have told me that poor phone etiquette drives you crazy. Trying-To-Drive Texters are Public Enemy No. 1; I counted the first 12 cars that came by my house Saturday morning, and 10 of their drivers were texting. Seriously?

Second, you’ve got your people who will answer their phones in the show, in the movies, in church, and even – this was in “Annie’s Mailbox” in Sunday’s paper – during a funeral. The guilty woman actually took TWO calls.

Boy, if ring tones could kill…

You know those things that hook onto the back of an ear and look like half an Oreo, and people wear them and take phone calls? I guess that part is the ‘hearing’ part. Once during the hymn of invitation at the close of a church service, I saw a guy wearing that thing as he approached the pastor. Sothis guy was going to interrupt his conversation at the altar with the pastor if he got a call? Unless he was expecting to hear straight from heaven on his cell, I’m not sure the guy was terribly sincere. If there is one time you do not need your phone, it is when you pray. If you can’t connect, the phone is not what will help you.

Below are the times you take a phone into church for the purpose of receiving calls: when you are awaiting a liver transplant. That’s it!

If I hear a phone ring in the movie, that’s my first question, audibly: “Liver transplant?”

It’s also rude to take calls when a bunch of you are eating. If it’s not your spouse or mother, just wait. (Unless you are waiting on a liver.) This is why lines were invented, so people can get into them and wait their turn. Nobody wants to wait for their turn anymore, but worse than that, most people want to jump ahead.

No, we don’t want to go back to the party line or having to call Sarah in Mayberry to get connected, although there was a certain amount of charm in that. Best of all, the chance of either of those things being fatal was a lot lower than your fatality chances when texting and trying to drive – or more scary, driving while the person coming TOWARD you is texting and trying to drive.

A phone at a funeral is bad. A phone causing one is worse.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Would E.T. Phone Home Today, Or Just Text?

From today's Times and News-Star

I try to return all my missed phone calls and text messages, simply out of fascination that anyone would want to contact me.

But like you, I can’t always return the call or message Right Then. This is bad because people will begin to worry about you if you don’t get back in touch with them Right Then.

When the phone of your youth went unanswered in your house – it probably hang and rang from the hall or the kitchen; central location was key – people did not worry when you didn’t call them back Right Then. They figured you were gone or just Away From The Phone. It was a simpler time.

But today, you are never Away From The Phone. These modern days, we are about as mobile as the air itself. And most of us have a phone. I mean, you need a phone. But you do not need me to tell you that this is both a blessing and a curse.

For starters, we feel as if we must give a reason these days as to why we didn’t answer.

“I tried to call and you didn’t answer.”

“I’m sorry. I was getting a kidney transplant.”

“Oh, OK. Well, can I borrow your rake?”

Used to, you didn’t need an explanation. You were just Away From The Phone. That covered it all, everything from a nap to a hysterectomy.

But today? Nowhere to run to baby, no place to hide.

Not everyone panics. Guys, in general, don’t worry if a guy doesn’t answer. We have a strict Phone Code we don’t mind sharing with you; we feel it might help.

If I’ve missed a call and the guy didn’t leave a message, I might call back and might not. By not leaving a message, he is telling me he had a window to talk Right Then and might not be able to talk when I call back but that it was not timely or important for Right Then anyway. If I don’t call back, he does not think I’ve been kidnapped.

Phone Code. No harm, no foul.

Now, if he leaves a message, I listen and then attempt to honor whatever request it was, or simply am thankful for the information. This is very important: this message device will not work if you do not listen to your messages. Young people are not big on message listening because they don’t understand that it actually saves time.

“Did you listen to your message?”


“Well then why do you have a recording telling me to leave a message?”

“Well I just thought I’d call you back.”

“And make me say my message again?”

Let technology work for you! I call it the ol’ Leave and Listen Code: leave a message if needed, listen to your message if you get one.

People used to listen to messages when we had those recorders by the phone at home. There’s a technology that went by fast, right? Those answering machines are rare today, but so are home phones, or “landlines.”

But with people texting while driving or taking calls during the movies or even in church (we answer the bell on these subjects next week before getting off the phone), are the landlines really gone?

They aren’t. The phantom phone still hangs in the kitchen and we’ve allowed the cord, though now invisible, to knot and twist around us, to follow us wherever we go.

The phone’s a great invention. But sometimes, we should cut the cord.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Probably Me

From today's Times and News-Star
Do you remember your home phone number when you were a kid?

I just dialed mine, for the first time in years. A mechanical man answered and said in a voice tinny, “The number you have dialed is not a working number. Please check the number you have dialed and dial again.”

Bittersweet. On the one hand, it makes you feel your jersey has been retired, that your number was so sentimentally noteworthy, no one else deserved it.

On the other hand, it was a good number, a number that’s part of the fabric of my youth, a carefree time before I knew how much a transmission cost, or what Congress really was, or that I would have to pass two classes of foreign language before they would let me out of college, even though I hadn’t planned on going anywhere.

Things were simpler then, so simple that my number was only five digits long instead of today’s seven. “9-2240.” Sweet. Look how sleek that baby looks. I don’t know if anybody dials like that today.

(I say “dials,” but I should say “punch.” Old habits die hard.)

The point is, the phone was a happy contraption back then. It was your first steady hookup to the outside world. Sure, a television would talk to you and a record would play for your, just like the radio. But you could talk BACK to a phone.

Talking on the phone was almost like being a grownup. You dad wouldn’t let you drive when you were 6, but he’d hand you the phone – “It’s your grandmother” – and you were operating this piece of equipment that hung from the kitchen wall, just as he was.

Of course, you didn’t operate it for long, not if it was Long Distance.

“Hurry up now, it’s long distance.”

“But daddy you just handed me th…”

“Hurry up! It’s costing money!”

Somewhere along the line – maybe by haunting memories of the Ghost of Long Distance Past – my feelings toward the phone began to shift. Either I turned against the phone, or it turned against me. Not a big phone guy today.

A couple of points for you to ponder:

Have you noticed that when the phone rings now, it’s usually somebody wanting something? Seldom does someone call you and offer to do something for you or give you something. Calls are usually disguised as favors requested. Information needed. Orders given.

Today’s phone scares me.

The other thing is that, on the other end, it could be someone who Likes To Talk. See, I don’t think Alexander Graham Bell meant for it to be this way. If memory serves, the first conversation – Bell to his assistant -- was something like, “Mr. Watson, I need to see you. Who do you have in the Knicks-Celtics game?” That was it, or something similar. True, he asked for something, but it was to the point.

If you get caught on the phone with a Professional Talker – and they are legion – you can call in the dogs and pour water on the fire. Party’s over. The best thing you can do is listen, because without seeing them, you are at the mercy of Oral Pauses, which usually means the other person is just gathering air.

Phone conversation is a test of patience.

Thank goodness, there is a solution. I call it Honoring the Phone Code. I’ll explain next week because unfortunately, right now you’re starting to brea…


Sunday, March 3, 2013

NASCAR: Wil It Go 'Round In Circles?, Or Will It ...

From Sunday's Times and News-Star

Grateful all my NASCAR friends returned safely from Daytona Beach after the 500 last week. As the old saying goes, it’s always fun until the first tire and engine  block flies into the stands.

I hail from old-school NASCAR country. My home county in South Carolina is less than a quarter tank from Darlington. Cale Yarborough is from up the road at Timmonsville. Even as we speak, I am looking at a Richard Petty-autographed “Cheerios/Betty Crocker” cap given to me by my friend Buckets, a man whose father was a racer and who grew up in little grease-streaked britches and with oil-stained hands.

NASCAR fans surround me at every turn. You can likely say the same. We live in the metaphoric infield oval around here.

But while I can hear the cars zip by and smell the rubber burn and am genuinely happy for the Junior and Johnson and Martin fanatics I call friends, I am far from sold out to car racing. All I’ll invest is encouragement for those who live for the thrill of the backstretch and the checkered flag -- and who’s drafting whom.

Just not interested. Look under my hood and you’ll see a Baltimore Oriole or a college football or basketball game. I’ll wear a Goodyear hat if you want me to, but not to a race.

Sure, I get it. I understand fanhood, perfectly. For this reason, I begged a store manager for his life-sized Tony Stewart display on Aisle 6, was patient for a year, then was allowed to pick it up the day before ol’ Tony was headed for the dumpster; I gave it to a friend who has a “Tony Stewart” room in her home. She wept.

I was proud to help another friend, Chief, get his satellite radio all hooked up and punched in. He wanted it for three reasons: Willie’s Roadhouse, the Elvis channel, and NASCAR. Car racing on the radio? Couldn’t you just roll down your window, drive fast, yell, and listen? For free? Same thing.

Some of us just aren’t NASCAR fans. That in itself is a tough thing to admit around here. “YOU MEAN TO TELL ME YOU DON’T LIKE JUNIOR!?” People have had their butts whipped for far less.

I don’t invest in car racing for the same reason some people don’t invest in spinach: they like other stuff more. No reason. Oh, they’ll eat spinach dip. A casserole with spinach in it. But they’ll make no investment in full-out spinach. No reason. That’s just their tastes.

I’ll watch a few minutes of NASCAR if the timing is right. I’d even go to a race with you, as long as I can walk around. I’ll listen to you explain the strain on the left-front tire and how cars “take” to the different surfaces on different tracks. And I’ll enjoy it. For a time. Say, 20 laps.

I’d invest my passions in horse racing before stock cars, simply because the horses, the “vehicles,” are alive. But I wouldn’t try to tell a NASCAR fan “The 24 Car” wasn’t alive too, not if he felt it was. “She’s running rough today…” See what I mean?

We will agree on this: You NASCAR fans are tougher than my crowd, the Ball People. We get the jits if a bat or ball or whiskey bottle comes flying into the stands. Y’all are dodging wheels and line-drive lug nuts. That’s out of my league.