Friday, May 29, 2009

Coupon Book

Surely you have purchased a coupon book from a niece, a cousin’s son, a neighbor or your own child as part of a fundraising effort for the Brownies, the Little League or the high school band. These catalogs are filled with bargains and special offers on certain goods and services in your community. Coupons typically include a free dessert at a restaurant that has since gone out of business; a 6th tire free with the purchase of 5 others at full retail price; a free entrée’ of equal or lesser value at a chain of eateries you hate; a free oil change every 650,000 miles (oil and labor not included) and 20% off your next dry cleaning bill (expires yesterday.) Whether or not the deals offered in these coupon books are of any value, I still believe the concept is valid and I have chosen to adopt it for another purpose. The balance of this post is a text-only, first draft version of something I am developing called ‘Transcendental Coupon Book for Middle-Aged Children of Aging Parents.’ Each coupon in this book will contain the following statement: ‘In matters related to Elderly Parents, The Bearer of this Coupon possesses the Unquestioned Authority to:
Coupon 1: Turn down the volume on all electronic devices.’
Coupon 2: Demand the purchase of hearing aids.’
Coupon 3: Turn up the volume on all hearing aids.’
Coupon 4: Refuse to ride in a car driven by parent.’
Coupon 5: Garnish car keys.’
Coupon 6: Sell car/s.’
Coupon 7: Disregard all inflexible political positions.’
Coupon 8: Pretend dad didn’t just say that.’
Coupon 9: Hide remote during Lawrence Welk reruns.’
Coupon 10: Turn on some lights.’
Coupon 11: Set thermostat conducive to human survival.’
Coupon 12: Clean out freezer and refrigerator.’
Coupon 13: Make you use your walker.’
Coupon 14: Wipe off your lips and cheeks at the dinner table.’
Coupon 15: Tap you on the shoulder and transport you to a dance hall in Atlantic City where you will dance, unabashedly, to a 20-minute version of ‘Sing. Sing, Sing’ performed by Benny Goodman and Orchestra with Gene Krupa on drums. 
Coupon 16: Exchange the irritation, frustration, anger, anxiety and sadness caused by being in your presence for the memories of your amazing love, tenderness, kindness, patience, generosity and grace.
Coupon 17: Be blessed with whatever you had as a parent and a human being. 

Feel free to add to the list. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Either Way

When I turned 50 my physician demanded that I have a colonoscopy. As it turned out my health insurer would not approve the procedure at that time and opted for a less intrusive exam that was, nevertheless, unpleasant. The results concluded that I was in good shape in the lower intestines and beyond. Good. Today I have read that our government has estimated that Medicare is anticipating a $38 trillion dollar shortfall over the next 75 years based on their projections of life expectancy, disease, an aging population and the growth of our citizenship. The first decision put forth by OMB is that Medicare will no longer cover the costs of colonoscopies. There now exists a ‘virtual colonoscopy’ (not available in stores) that enables trained technicians to view the same delightful sights (and sounds) accessible, heretofore, only to doctors performing the standard and invasive colonoscopy. If, during the ‘virtual colonoscopy,’ polyps or other matters of concern arise, the patient will then be cleared for the real deal. When colon cancer is detected early there is more than a 90% chance of full recovery. When detected late the rate drops to less than 10%. Given the raging waters flowing away from common sense in our country it is obvious what health care will be like in this country within 15 years. Either way, we’re all going to take one for The Gipper.

Too Many Parents

I spend a great deal of my time with young people between the ages of 12 and 22. I hear lots of things as I interact with them in myriad situations and circumstances – mostly upbeat and funny. However, as life continually unfolds before and between us we are visited by events not so lovely. Sadly, these events confront us more than we wish – more than we can sometimes handle. Amidst the vitality, vigor and hope of youth come the dark shadows of car accidents, drug addiction, gravely ill parents, divorce and other forms of grief and pain. This being the season of graduation we keep busy and focused on the near future – a future that will see many leave the fold and wander out into this big old world. There is so much anticipation and uncertainty in the air that there is precious little time for reflection. I, however, was forced into such a space by the words I shared recently with a dear, young friend. A week before her graduation she looked sad and detached. Surely, I thought, this is a natural state-of-mind for a teenager moving through such a monumental moment and preparing for a new chapter. But when I asked about her countenance she gave me a curios response: ‘I have too many parents, Thom.’ I gently asked for further clarification. ‘Well, so many people show up at these events and they want to do nice things for me and they want to claim me but I just get agitated and sad. I guess I should be grateful but it’s kind of hard.’ I told her that I understood and explained what I thought she was saying to me. ‘Yeah, basically that’s it,’ and then she told me some things I already knew – but I didn’t really know. ‘After they got divorced my parents got re-married and then my mom got divorced again and is married again. I loved my first step-dad – he was a great guy but he got married again, too. So, I show up at these graduation events and my mom’s there with her 3rd husband that I hardly know, my dad’s there with his 2nd wife who wants me to call her Mom but I don’t want to and then my step-dad is there with his new wife who I really just met. So, I’ve got like 6 parents with all their advice and then a bunch of my stepbrothers and stepsisters come along and it’s just too much. It’s too much – too many parents.’ 
I condemn no one. But I must ask, oh my, what are we doing; oh my, what have we done? The acceptable term in our oh-so-tolerant society is The Extended Family. But there is a sub-category: The Stretched Children of Tolerance – stretched to the point of breaking. This is a mighty cross to bear.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Judge, The Doctor and The Boy

It was reported this morning that a judge in Minnesota has ruled that a 13 year-old boy must continue undergoing chemotherapy treatments for a recently diagnosed case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma against the wishes of the boy’s parents and the boy himself. The boy and his family had chosen to forgo further treatments turning instead to natural and alternative methods of healing aligned with their religious beliefs. The oncologist associated with this case has suggested that chemotherapy had a 90% rate of success in such circumstances but further stated that without the treatments the young man faced only a 5% chance of survival.
This is tough stuff. Most of us have witnessed the struggles and devastation that accompany cancer and other horrific diseases. Watching a family member, loved one or other friend waste away helplessly from the aggressive attack of bad cells is gut wrenching. The treatments, however – whether successful or otherwise – are also accompanied by powerful side effects often resulting in elevated suffering in the form of nausea, weakness, headaches, damage to other organs and all manner of tag-along problems. After all, it is poison fighting poison.
The judge in this sad case has suggested that this young boy has been ‘medically neglected’ and is in need of child protection services. This is absurd and over-reaching, at best. This is a foreshadow of government-controlled medicine. This is a clear blow to human rights. What would you do as a parent in this situation? I don’t think it matters. Whatever an individual, spouse, child, parent or other caregiver chooses to do in such difficult circumstances is a private matter. I have seen child neglect and abuse face-to-face and from my vantage point – admittedly many mile away – this has no resemblance. May I humbly suggest that this court and this judge turn their attentions to matters more appropriate and remove their noses, gavels and opinions from the lives of these people rather than add more aches to their already broken hearts. 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Open Letter to The Tennessean

To The Editor:

I find it most disturbing and ironic that, in a time when news organizations are closing left and left, you would devote space to a former editor (and his wife) to review the latest wines that have come into the marketplace. Now, in better times I may have taken a moment to look at the pictures and labels of the wines they touted but in these troubled months there are better things – or darker things – to consider. It’s also amusing to me that a man so dedicated to liberal thoughts, words and actions would be engaged in such haughty, class-bashing antics. Why is he not out in the community feeding the poor, teaching the under-class, clothing the impoverished or flying around with Al Gore on his Green Jet? Please remove this toxic and most unnecessary commentary from the pages of your newspaper like you have removed most of the other pages from your newspaper. It is a smalltown outrage.

Life Without My Sister

When events both sad and unexpected occur many of us are good at tapping the necessary human resources to help others through the dark valleys. We perceive their immediate needs to be more profound than our own and busy ourselves with all manner of activities to ease their pain and anguish. Although this selflessness is to be commended it has been my experience that this good-deed-doing often serves to mask our own need to grieve and really is not as ‘selfless’ as it may appear; in fact, at times it enters into the realm of selfishness. Once the needs of others are met - when the meals are served and the kitchen cleaned, the notes written and the casseroles returned, when the hands are held and the tears wiped away - we return to our once-familiar surroundings and wander helplessly about in the surreal wilderness of our own, unreleased anguish. This is not a happy destination and if you have landed there I urge you to retreat from it immediately. If we do not allow ourselves adequate time to grieve we corrupt a natural human system as necessary and perfect as breathing. Where does the selfishness come in? We protect ourselves from the pain and it has a peculiar way of manifesting itself in unhealthy ways somewhere down the line. We must ache and ache deeply. 
In my 56 years I have never met a person as pure, innocent and loving as my sister. Her middle name was Joy and it was perfectly chosen. I was not around in the early years as I was a very late arrival – ten years after the birth of my closest sibling. But I know some things. She’s the one that insisted that we have a stereo in our home in 1956. Dad obliged. She’s the one who bought the recordings of Peter, Paul and Mary, Burl Ives, Tchaikovsky and Little Richard. She’s the one who paid for the upright piano that arrived in our home one night in my childhood. She’s the one who paid for my piano lessons. She’s the one who opened a savings account to pay for my education. She’s the one who lifted our family from oblivion. She’s the one.
Last summer my darling sister was vacationing with her beloved husband of 45 years with friends they’d known and loved for an equal amount of time. She died in the middle of the night from a freakish heart attack. We had been planning a special reunion for the following month with our Mom and her 4 children. I have never heard heartache like I did when I spoke to my Mother on the phone that day. Three good sons cannot replace the importance of one great daughter. Oh my – the heartache, the heartache.
Do things ever get better? Well, I talked to my brothers last week about getting together this summer and Dick said, ‘Things just aren’t the same without Beverly.’ And then a little bitty tear let me down. 
With as much love as I can put on this page – Oh, how I miss you.

Small House

When I was a young guy just starting out in Nashville I was fortunate to have carried with me a trade: I could frame a house and use a saw and hammer to do lots of things. It kept me employed. Because of my modest talents as a carpenter and Sarah’s adeptness at teaching art and calligraphy, we were able to buy a house – a small one, indeed – 1,200 square feet – but Sarah’s sweet spirit and eye for beauty turned it into a lovely and welcoming home. Children arrived – two of them within 18 months – so we spent weekends turning the attic into another bedroom. Then the music thing began to come true. I wrote a hit song (or rather, I wrote a song that became a hit) – and then another - and soon another. One day I bought a bunch of tickets for my kids and their friends to go to the circus. I told their parents that I would take everyone and they could have a free afternoon. The only caveat was that they had to bring their children to our house and pick them up there after our outing. They all did and they all came in – except for one guy. He didn’t come into our house. I’ve never gotten over that – he stayed outside. It seemed to me that our home was not good enough or big enough for him to enter; I still think that. I took his son to the circus and he was there to pick him up. He didn’t come in. I’m glad. Our modest dwelling would have made him uncomfortable – he would have been forced to speak with someone. He lived in a big house in which people don’t have to encounter one another. 
Sarah and I have moved up a little, but not much. We like to rub shoulders, ask our kids where they were last night, pass in the hall, eat together, do laundry, wash dishes, share towels, sleep together, talk, yell and hug. We love being a family. Being a family is beautifully dangerous. It’s where and when you learn the best things about life. It’s like a circus where we all get to put our heads in the lion’s mouth. 

Thom's Ten Techniques to Quit Smoking

I admit that I’ve had a lifelong struggle with tobacco – in every form it is legal. I have quit smoking cigarettes 30 times – each time unsuccessfully. I have attempted to woo myself away from the pack-a-day habit by switching to pipes, cigars, dip and chew. It always comes back to those doggone butts. What I have discovered is this: there are a handful of significant moments and environments in the course of a day that seem to beg for a cigarette. So, my simple thought is this: if we can remove ourselves from those circumstances we have a much better chance to kick the addiction. Here they are:
1. Don’t wake up.
2. If you do wake up do not have a second cup of coffee.
3. Never get in an automobile by yourself.
4. Never have a drink.
5. Don’t play golf.
6. Don’t play poker.
7. Never become anxious.
8. Never be in the presence of others who smoke.
9. Do not talk on the telephone.
10. Don’t get married.
That’s it. I believe if you can avoid these very common situations for three years or more you have an excellent chance to kick the habit. Best of luck and enjoy your lives!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lou's Amoco

During my childhood and adolescence there was a neighborhood gas station about two blocks from our house - an Amoco station operated by a fellow named Lou. It was classic in size, smell and architecture including a small office filled with a counter, cash register and cigarette smoke, a two bay garage and a couple gas pumps always manned by Lou or his assistant. There were also a few older cars perpetually for sale parked at the side of the lot. Lou had lots of faithful customers. But this was more than just a gas station and mechanic’s shop; it also served as a gathering hall for local guys who stopped by for a free cup of coffee, a few smokes and a good chat about The Eagles, The Phillies, The Steel, the dethroning of The King by The Bear, the Kennedy clan or the increase in crime on hot summer nights in The Projects just down the road. These conversations were not at all like those we now hear on The View, The Bill Maher Show or Oprah. Rather, they were raw, insightful, perfectly and politically incorrect – full of hard reality and lower middle class angst. My dad was a regular.
In the years that have passed since the relative innocence of the early 1960s establishments like Lou’s Amoco have slowly disappeared. There are, I suppose, myriad reasons for this alteration of our nation’s landscape: the slow but deliberate mergers of multi-national oil companies (in most states Amoco no longer exists as a stand-alone company,) the concept and proliferation of the gas station/convenience store (an ugly and ubiquitous phenomenon,) the development of national tire, brake and battery stores, drive-through oil change shops and big lot retailers specializing in auto parts and the subsequent difficulties created by these developments thrust upon guys like Lou trying to maintain a small business like a corner garage. For many I’m certain these changes have been welcomed providing goods and services at a reduced price. But consider this: have you ever asked a convenience store clerk for a funnel, a tire gauge or a hose to fill your radiator? How often have you pulled up to a pump and found free air for your tires or window washing solvent and implements? Ask a 17 year-old counter worker directions to this or that high school or church and that’s when you get the Real Big Gulp. Do you know the name of the guy who just did that 6-minute oil change? How often do you really take advantage of those free rotations promised when you buy 4 new tires at the chain store and, if and when you do, how much glee registers on that guy’s face?
There are a few holdouts. I am delighted that there is an owner-operated garage in my neighborhood and I have been dedicated to having all my work done there for the past 30 years. They know my name and phone number. I receive preferred treatment – a reasonable perk for my continued commitment. If I or my wife or children stop there for any reason they drop everything and turn their attention to us. They call me and give me an expected cost before doing any major work. 
But there are other reasons for the demise of the neighborhood gas station with its dank and greasy environs. We, as a culture, have turned our backs on the men and women who have strived to make a living doing an honest day’s work with their hands, their backs, their knees and the sweat of their brow. We have raised generations of young people and urged – in many cases demanded – that they go to college and get an education – in the process even ridiculing the concept of a working class by stating, ‘You don’t want to end up like your father working on car engines your whole life, do you?’ So, as directed, we went out and got educations and made some money and now we are above the notion of hanging out in a nasty gas station office with a dusty fan and a rinsed out mug of coffee when we could be sitting in an air-conditioned Starbucks with a $4 latte or grazing through a posh cigar or wine shoppe spending $20 on a CAO or $120 on a bottle of Lagavulin. We’d also rather talk about the stock market or the new driver we just bought for $450 (it was a bargain) or the new BMW 700 Series we’re leasing with the 100,000-mile warranty (it’s a good thing – you’ll need it.) Our nails are clean and our knuckles are not scraped. We drive late model foreign cars 18 miles into the suburbs 3 times a year for maintenance checks at the dealership and we sit and wait in a room filled with art, stuffed chairs and proper lighting or we are escorted to our offices in chauffeur-like elegance. We have risen above the working class and my intuition tells me my generation has cut all ties to it. This is a sad and frightening development. Yes, we are educated; yes, we are well prepared; yes, we have succeeded; yes, we cannot use a Crescent wrench; yes, we cannot change a tire; yes, we are useless.
Given a modest amount of time I could give you the names of 100 lawyers, bankers, brokers and insurance salesman – some excellent, some not so.  On the other hand, I know one reliable plumber, one honest mechanic and one great housepainter.  So my advice to high-schoolers everywhere: go get an education and while you’re at it learn how to use a hammer, a Skil saw, a paint brush or a set of wrenches.  They will serve you well.  You may even enjoy it; you may even choose to pursue a noble vocation crafting cabinets or re-building transmissions.  That’s good stuff – that’s art - that’s a very worthy way to make a living.  I’ll stop by your shop for a cup of coffee.  ‘How ‘bout them Phillies!’

Monday, May 11, 2009


A friend recently pointed out a wonderful bit of irony that I pass on here. You will recall the brouhaha that unfolded following the Miss USA pageant and the response Miss California – Carrie Prejean – gave to a question asked of her during the contest regarding the definition of marriage in this country. Here answer, of course, was ‘I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman…that’s the way I was raised.’ One of the judges – Perez Hilton – had a complete breakdown at this response and subsequently referred to Ms. Prejean as a bitch and a c&%$ - you know that nasty word. On the heels of Hilton’s despicable remarks he was joined in the fray by two other pillars of intellect – Keith Olb&%$#@! – you know that nasty lapdog for all things liberal and Michael M&%$# - you know that nasty little mousey-faced ‘journalist.’ Keith said on his lightly viewed television show: ‘Perez Hilton looks like some intellectual titan and some sort of civil right’s leader…’ Sweet Michael added these astonishingly fey and adolescent comments in reference to Ms. Prejean: ‘She’s dumb and twisted. This girl’s a ding-dong. I didn’t even like her earrings.’ (This is excellent and erudite commentary, indeed. Why do these people have jobs?) So, Miss California and her definition of marriage have been sliced and diced, maligned and ridiculed and treated as so much slime and ignorance by these and many other spewing heads (except, of course, for The National Organization of Women.) So Thom, where is this precious irony to which you refer? Here: comment made by then-candidate Barack Obama – a candidate much supported by the geniuses quoted above -during the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on August 16, 2008: ‘I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.’ Draw your own conclusion.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Brief and Mythical Tale of Terror and Torture

I was just awaking from a restful sleep and preparing for a typical Tuesday. I could hear the delightful scurrying of my children throughout the house jumping into the shower, finding their clothes and getting ready for school. My sweet wife, as usual, was in the kitchen making coffee, breakfast and lunches. And then I heard a huge crash and raced to our dining room. Something had happened but I couldn’t tell what. The house caught on fire and there was thick smoke all over. I heard gunshots and screams and when I reached my children they were not breathing; my wife, too, had succumbed to the heat and smoke. They were gone. I called 911. In a rage of anger, grief and fear I began searching like a madman for the perpetrator. I cornered him in a bathroom, wrestled his gun away and began beating him with everything I could get my hands on: a towel rack, a hand mirror, a glass bottle of mouthwash. When I got control over him I held a piece of the broken mirror at his throat and started screaming in his face threatening to kill him. I covered his eyes with a towel, kicked him five times in the crotch and twice in the head. Then I stuck his head upside down in the bathtub and turned on the spigot so as to produce the sensation of drowning. I screamed louder, ‘Who the hell are you? Why did you do this? Where did you come from?’ As my interrogation reached its manic crescendo the police and firemen arrived. I am in prison now.

I, Simpleton

Let’s say I earn $40,000 per year and I send $6,000 to the government, another $6,000 for the mortgage, an additional $6,000 for groceries, socked $4,000 into savings and so on including paying for utilities, gasoline, home repairs, clothing and other typical odds and ends in this life that require money. It is very likely that I will have nothing left at the end of the year. It is even more likely that I probably spent a little more than I earned I have incurred some debt in the process. The point is, most of us have a pretty good idea where our money went and why (even though we can’t believe how much we spend!) Our money is making its natural cycle through our economy passing through bank accounts, cash registers and the hands of tradesmen, dry cleaners, drug stores and movie theaters. Now, imagine that a government prints a trillion dollars out of thin air and distributes it to a limited number of banks, brokerage firms, insurance companies and a handful of other huge corporations. Something tells me this money is not making any natural cycles through our economy – at least the part of our economy that impacts a guy that makes $40,000 per year. Where is this money – seriously, where did it go? Someone received it – it still exists – but where is this money? This question must be answered.