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Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Dad

Sometimes I wonder if I would have become a writer without my father’s influence in my life.  I certainly wouldn’t have developed the skill and desire to read at the level or quantity that I do.  When I was seven, my dad read Tom Sawyer to me every night after supper.  Second-graders didn’t have much homework in those days.  It’s a nice early memory I have of him.

Now that he’s retired, he has time to read several books a month.  He also refinishes antiques, paints houses, and keeps an immaculately landscaped lawn.  Did his joy of working with his hands contribute to my artistic ability?  Hard to say for sure, but that craftsman’s eye influenced me for sure.

One reason why I write humor is because I inherited the smartass gene from him.  From what I’ve gathered, I come from a long line of them.  From Dad I get the ability to find the humor in almost any situation.  That’s a trait that has served me well in dealing with vision loss, failed kidneys, organ transplants, cancer, and hundreds of less serious situations I’ve faced in my life.

This past winter—one of the coldest on record—my dad had his hair cut to a very short buzz cut after chemotherapy caused most of my hair to fall out.  It showed me that I wasn’t going through it alone.  Not that I had any doubts of both my parents’ love and support through that crisis.  I ended up staying with them for several weeks because I was just too frail to be on my own.

I took over the recliner in the den—“his” chair—though he’s never been as territorial about it as Archie Bunker was.  It’s where he reads, watches TV, and naps (sometimes all at the same time).  But, it was the only piece of furniture in the den I was comfortable sitting in for any length of time, even sleeping there when congestion from a never-ending cold kept me from sleeping in bed.

He shared it willingly, never complaining, and kept the fireplace next to it roaring and stocked with extra wood on the coldest days. 

And when I’d gotten so weak I could barely walk, Dad literally caught me when I fell. 

The most impressive accomplishment of his took place over several decades.  He worked, supported his family, didn’t drink too much, and made sure my brother and I had a stable environment while growing up.  Those are all things he wasn’t fortunate enough to  have as a kid.  When it comes to fathers, mine did a much better job than the one he had. 

Somehow, he gave us so much more than he was ever given—but not too much.  He taught me that I couldn’t expect the world to just hand me everything I wanted, that I would have to work for what I wanted out of life.  So, when the health problems began, I’d already experienced enough hard to work to keep trying, no matter how much of a struggle it might be.

Thanks, Dad, for being part hardass and part smartass.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Surviving Youth

Today it’s been 10 years since my friend Joe was killed in a motorcycle accident.  It’s so hard to believe it’s been an entire decade.  In that time, 9/11, two wars, a severe recession, a devastating oil spill, and a bunch of other things—good, bad, and mediocre—have occurred.  I guess if there was a decade to miss out on, that would have been the one to pick.

But, of course, he didn’t get to pick.  No one does.  He was the image of health and had only been married less than a year.  He’d turned 30 a month before.  He had every reason to stick around.  A collision with a pickup truck on a rural highway killed him instantly.  I still remember that punched-in-the-gut feeling I had when I found out.  Of all the people I knew, Joe was the last one I would have predicted death at an early age.

He had a positive attitude.  We would work out together and at the start would say, “Tell me something good.”  Sometimes I had to think for a minute, but Joe could always name half a dozen right off the top of his head.  I learned a lot from him—about the right kind of attitude as well as how to lift weights to my best advantage.  A positive influence like that leaves a huge hole in your soul when it’s suddenly taken away.

In last ten years, I’ve had a kidney transplant and cancer.  There have been a few other non-life-threatening health issues mixed in with all that as well, including emergency surgery to save a badly-damaged eye.  But I’m still here.  The randomness of survival boggles my mind, even at my age.  I guess it always will.

A few years before Joe died, a buddy from high school was murdered at a fast food restaurant where he was a manager, closing up at the end of the day.  Someone cut his throat so deep it nearly severed his head.  But he survived a few more days and required dozens of units of blood. 

My first experience with death of a friend near my age was in 1985.  My friend, Terrance, was killed in a car accident.  He was riding with one of his fraternity brothers after a party.  They were drunk.  It was his 24th birthday.  And it happened only two weeks after my grandfather died, so for me, it was an extra layer of death.  But, my grandfather was 70 and had fought cancer for six months.  It was expected.  Someone told me Terrance had been killed over the weekend while some of us stood in the hall at the U of A before class started.  I just walked away and wandered around campus for a while, not able to think.

It’s hard to imagine Terrance at nearly 50 years old.  I’ve known others who died at a younger age than I am now.  They’re in suspended animation.  One will always be 36, another 39. 

Yet here I am, in spite of the odds.  I’ve been told more than once, “You’ve already dealt with more than most people do in a lifetime.”  I think they mean an average lifetime lasting 75 years or so.

What is it that causes males to check out early?  At conception, more than half of all fetuses are male.  From then on, males die at a higher rate than females.  Maybe testosterone makes us crave danger and leads us into all kinds of risky behaviors.  Being male means dodging bullets—literally and metaphorically—while watching our buddies run out of luck.

My luck has held out longer than I thought it would.  I wish I could have shared that luck with all of my friends.  Here I sit, in middle age with surgery scars I wear like medals of battles won.  Those friends I mentioned will always be young in my mind, because youth wasn’t something they survived. 

Funny thing about youth is we rush through it, sometimes so recklessly some of us don’t survive it.  Then it wears off and we’re wiser and more cautious.  We wish for the chance to be young again, knowing that if we experienced it a second time, we might not live to see the end of it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Austin Revisited

Twenty years ago this week, I started a new job in Austin.  There was only a 3% vacancy rate on rental property at the time, so I had to stay with my friend Randy and his roommate, Peggy, until I found an apartment.  They lived in a small house near the airport.  Every day, dozens of jets flew over, making the whole place vibrate.  Conversations were put on hold.  Parts of TV shows went unheard.

After weeks of looking every afternoon after work, I finally found a nice place not far from downtown and the Colorado River, which dissects the city on the southern edge of downtown.  The tall buildings were reflected in the water.  To get to work, I took
Riverside Drive
to the western part of town, got on a highway, and then off at
Bee Caves Road
, where I worked.  I thought that was an interesting name for a city street and wondered where the caves full of bees were.

My job was sales representative for the Kinko’s in that part of town.  It was one of five in the city.  At the time, Kinko’s was moving from the college market toward a business-based clientele.  I called on businesses in the southwestern part of Austin, which is where the Texas Hill Country begins. 

I was doing outside sales (again), living in a funky, offbeat college town (again), and best of all, I was in the hills again (though not as green as the Ozarks).  I felt right at home.  It was like Fayetteville, but with all the big city amenities.  I was moving there from Dallas, so that was important.  And after living in Big D, Austin seemed quaint and small by comparison.

Austin and I have been through major changes since then.

Years earlier, Austin had been described to me as a “bigger version of Fayetteville.”  That turned out to be quite accurate—even down to how the city was laid out.  The downtown was closer to the southern—and less affluent--end of town, a street running east-west lined with bars, restaurants, and shops connected downtown to the university campus.  A bypass highway looped around the west side of town.  Farther to the west was a lake, just a few miles out of town. 

In May, I had used my employee flight privileges with Southwest Airlines to fly to Austin from Dallas.  It was only a 45-minute flight, but a three-hour drive.  I wanted to be fresh for the job interview and didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn and risk truck troubles on the way there.

It would be an understatement to say I was optimistic.  It was a base-plus-commission salary, which meant unlimited income and even at the minimum it was more than I was making at Southwest.  I was excited about living in a more laid-back, offbeat place that reminded me of where I spent most of my childhood. 

At the airport, I rented a car.  I don’t remember the make and model.  I do remember it was nice, newer, and cleaner than my truck.  The stereo sounded good, too.  As I pulled out of the airport, I heard a new song by Lenny Kravitz for the first time.  “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” (  And I I thought.  Over?  This is a new beginning.  I’ll get this job.  I’m meant to be here.

They called and offered me the job on my birthday, which was on a Friday.  “Can you start on Monday?”  I told them I could, without knowing how I was going to pull it off.  But, just like I have a tendency to do, I found a way.

While staying at Randy’s those first few weeks, my route to and from work took me past The Texas School for the Blind.  More than once, I patiently waited while teachers helped blind kids cross the street and I felt grateful for not having to grow up blind.

After living in expensive Dallas and making dismally low wages, I was in credit card debt up to my nearsighted eyeballs.  But, I was full of optimism.  My life was on an upswing.  Driving around town, calling on accounts, I often heard a song by the Divinyls titled “Make out Alright.” (  It could have been my theme song. 

Barely a month into my new life, I learned that my kidneys were failing.  I’d known something was wrong because of all the edema (swelling) in my feet, which gradually moved higher until I looked like an overweight guy from the waist down, and a skinny guy from the waist up.  It hurt to walk (more like waddle), but I persevered.

A thin but comfortable layer of denial allowed me to keep from panicking, hundreds of miles from my family and without health insurance until I had worked for Kinko’s three months.  A song by a new artist named Seal titled “Crazy” ( gave me a valuable piece of advice.  “We’re never gonna survive unless we go a little crazy.”

To get rid of the edema, the doctor put me on strong diuretics, which made me tired.  The intense summer heat central Texas drained me ever further.  My sales—and income—increased, but I really pushed myself to make it happen.  The easier life I expected wasn’t happening.  Every day, I hid my terror and called on businesses in my territory with polished fake confidence.

I also noticed traffic signals didn’t look as clear as they should have.  For years, my contact lenses wore out and had to be replaced every September.  With money being tight, I told myself I could wait until then if it didn’t get much worse.  It had gotten a little worse.  I discreetly used the copy machines at Kinko’s to enlarge business cards and other printed material I couldn’t quite see well enough to read.

September rolled around and the eye doctor sent me to a retina specialist, who injected yellow dye into a vein and photographed the veins in back of my eyes.  I went home with skin temporarily stained yellow and worried all weekend.  The diabetes had already damaged my kidneys.  Now it looked like it might have hurt my eyes, too.

The following Wednesday, they called me at work.  “You have retinopathy.  If you don’t have laser surgery soon, you could lose all of your vision.”

Even though I was halfway expecting it, it was still a big jolt.  I ran out of my office, jumped in my truck, and drove home to break the news to my parents.  It was time to stop pretending everything was OK.  We decided I would move back to Arkansas and stay with them while I endured whatever was going to be done to save my sight.

On my way home from work one afternoon with the radio on (as usual), I heard a song by a heavy metal band for the first time—“Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche. (  It was soothing, like it was just for me, with lyrics like “If you open your mind to me, you won’t rely on open eyes to see.”  The main message of the song was about someone or something watching over you, protecting you in the night.  I guess you could say it was a “God Moment.”  It gave me the first bit of peace I’d known in several weeks.  I had been so distracted listening to the song, I looked up and noticed the light was green.  When had it changed?  The driver behind me never honked their horn, and for that I was grateful.  I continued on my way, trying to concentrate on my driving and the lyrics of the song.

I had a sale and sold most of my furniture and some other things I didn’t need anymore.  My time in Austin had only lasted four months and I hadn’t felt well enough to get to know the place like I wanted.  I knew I had found the place I wanted to stay, even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  In a city like Austin, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I felt defeated, that so much was left undone.  There are still times when I wonder what my life would have been like if my health had held up and I stayed in Austin.