Thursday, September 26, 2013

I'm thinking as good as I can

"How do you think of all that stuff?"
That's a question I hear from time to time when I run into folks who read this column once in awhile. In fact, I think it's the second-most common question I hear, right after "Does somebody actually pay you to write that nonsense?"
Well, obviously, a lot of my columns are based on what's going on when I write them. Ergo, I often talk about trips we take, places we see, people I spend time with and the homes where we live. And, of course, there's the fish-breathed attentions of my bad cat Max. But sometimes, there's not much going on and Max is asleep, so I'm actually forced to come up with some ideas on my own.
Often, my first step when struggling to find a topic is to scan the whole archive of columns I maintain on my laptop, especially the really dumb ones that never saw the light of day, thinking that maybe an old idea might be worth resurrecting during those times when I'm kind of stuck.  I took a walk down memory lane the other day and discovered a veritable giant junk pile of discarded topics that failed to make the cut.
Back in the fall of 2008, not long after I started publishing this weekly opus, I was, apparently, all set to regale you with the history of certain colloquial catch-phrases that included the startling revelation that the expression "the greatest thing since sliced bread" had a sort of local connection in that the first bread slicing machine was invented by one Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa. I actually fell asleep while writing that one, so that column never reached fruition, along with one a few weeks later that shared a list of questions that apparently baffle us all, such as:
• "Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?"
• "Whose idea was it to put an 'S' in the word 'Lisp'?"
• "If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?"
Now, I've gotta admit that I think this is pretty funny stuff, which also leads me to believe I must have hijacked it somewhere on the internet and then decided I couldn't honestly claim it as my own. Too bad.
The next year saw me ready to proclaim my brainy idea regarding the U.S. Postal Service's Forever Stamps, whereby I would buy up a gazillion of them, then wait for the price of postage to rise and make me a fortune. How exactly that was going to happen still escapes me, and the column never flew.
A quick scan over the next few years showed a column idea about pop music and "b-side" recordings that might still be interesting some day, plus a series of one-word notations that were apparently supposed to remind me to write about such  topics as Galva Day, my car door, the prom from hell, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, Uzbekistan, political misinformation, my summer reading list, and my all-time favorite worst topic ever...colonoscopies.
I've got to say, looking at this dreary list of mostly bad ideas make me glad I never finished them. And it also provided my best possible answer to that sticky little question about how I manage to think of all this stuff.
Because here's the thing: Who said I was thinking?
September is nearly over, and I would be remiss if I failed to remind you that it is Prostate Cancer Awareness month. This year has been especially poignant, as three of my nearest and dearest have been diagnosed with the disease. Early detection will likely mean a cure for one friend, while the other two will join me in treating a more-advanced form of the cancer, while hoping for a cure in the future. So here's a message for all you guys out there.  PSA.
Thanks to the PSA test, prostate cancer is being detected and treated earlier than ever before. The earlier it’s detected, the more easily it can be treated.
Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education & Support Network recommends that men have annual prostate examinations starting at the following ages:
• By age 40 if you are an African American man, or have a family history of prostate cancer (either are considered high-risk.)
• No later than age 45 for all other men. I, for one, would suggest starting even younger, especially if you are in a high-risk category.
But in any case, just remember, a PSA is a simple, once-a-year blood test that can save your life.  And if “save your life” is a little too dramatic, consider this: Early detection of prostate cancer can give you a much wider range of treatment options and help you avoid a whole host of side effects that--believe me--you don’t want to experience.
Do it for yourself.  Do it for the ones you love.
Do it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The happiest places on earth

They say ignorance is bliss. And I'm living proof, because I'm pretty darn happy most of the time. I attribute at least part of my cheery existence to a daring, down-home approach to day-to-day life that includes a TV-less existence when we stay on the beach in North Carolina and no cable or dish hook-up when we're back in the midwest. I only read news magazines while waiting for doctor and dentist appointments, and generally depend on the Star Courier, the Galva News, and National Public Radio--which is not exactly a bastion of the mainstream media--to function as my primary conduits to what's going on in the rest of the world.
So it was just dumb luck that I happened on a bit of world news that created a bit of a ripple a few days ago.
The Word Happiness Report, which was prepared by a United Nations-sponored outfit called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (whew), somehow managed to rank the happiness of over 150 nations worldwide.
So here's the thing. While I was a little bit surprised to discover that the United States didn't even break into the top ten, I was really startled to find that a bunch of northern European countries, namely Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden grabbed the top five spots, while us Yanks occupied 17th place. Countries like Canada (6th), Costa Rica (12th) and Mexico (16th) all beat us out on the happiness scale, though we were able to vanquish those grumps from the United Kingdom (22nd), France (25th) and Japan (43rd).
I wondered how they came up with these rankings. Did they tell jokes to different national groups to see who laughed first and loudest? Or did they tickle the president of every country to see if he or she would giggle?
Turns out the report is based on how people around the world rate their overall satisfaction with life, not just on how they feel at any moment. It shows that while economic conditions matter, factors such as life expectancy, freedom and social support do, too. The report says human happiness should be a more important part of how we measure nation-by-nation progress.
According to one article I read, the 2013 World Happiness Report comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers to reduce their emphasis on achieving economic growth and focus on policies that can improve people's overall well-being.
Hmmm. So, in other words, it apparently takes more than money to find happiness.
Maybe they made some kind of mistake.
Or maybe not.

The top five:  Just what do they have to be so happy about?

Denmark: The birthplace of LEGOS.
Norway: They're happy just remembering those halcyon days when the vikings beat the bejeebers out of the rest of the world.
Switzerland: It's gotta be the chocolate
The Netherlands:  Amsterdam, anyone?
Sweden: It can't be lutefisk.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Animals all around

Those who know that I spend a fair portion of my life idling on or near a semi-remote North Carolina beach island might feel I get enough slow-paced relaxation doing the little things I do in that lovely setting.
Well, I suppose they might be right, but that didn't mean I couldn't squeak out a little more laziness on our recent trip from Carolina to our Illinois hometown. So, instead of a headlong rush via the mighty interstate highways that connect just about any two points in this great nation of ours, we chose a kinder, gentler way home; one that would require three full days of easy-going driving and take us to some of our favorite spots along the way.
It is, frankly, what I do best. I was looking forward to it.
We chose a new beginning to a journey that we make often, heading south into South Carolina, then west, then northwest up into the western part of North Carolina, I had been told it was a good way to go, because it avoided the traffic jams that surround the "triangle" cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the line of big towns that follow the westward route, while also skipping some of the hot, slow travel experienced along the dusty rural parts of central North Carolina and the unavoidable cities of Charlotte, Fayetteville and nearby Fort Bragg.
It was worth a try, we thought, and we found ourselves pleased with the easy driving, nice scenery and quiet traffic patterns we found in South Carolina.  We were back in the old north state and at our night's destination even earlier than we expected.
Maggie Valley, which is nestled among the easternmost peaks and dales of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of our favorite places. It is truly a tourist town that time forgot, just far enough off the beaten track, and overshadowed by the lovely artsy/craftsy/touristy town of Asheville and the nearby Cherokee casino, along with Tennessee-side tourist attractions like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.  It is almost utterly devoid of anything resembling big-time entertainment, lodging or dining, surrounded instead by breathtaking mountainside views and featuring a single main street that is lined with 50s-looking mom-and-pop motels and eateries. Even the couple of brand-name hotels that have sprung up are pretty laid-back looking, as if they are apologizing for almost spoiling the mood. Unlike some travel destinations, where the locals seem to maintain an edgy love/hate relationship with visitors, the folks in the valley are downright friendly, and almost seem to be wondering when you're going to wise up and move there yourself.  After a bigger dinner than we needed, plus an ample helping of fresh mountain cobbler, we retired to a motel where we've stayed before, which features rooms opening onto a balcony overlooking a fast-moving mountain stream.  We slept to the music of that rushing water, attended morning mass at an astonishing stone church built high on a peak overlooking the town, and set off on the next phase of our idyllic journey.
"I hope we see some animals," she said, as we entered another of our faves, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"Yeah," I said. "Me, too."
Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.
After a stop at the visitors' center, an arduous climb up Clingman's Dome and a visit to the haunting deserted village called Elkmont, an abandoned vacation community that is in the heartbreaking process of "demolition by neglect" due to the short-sited policies of the National Park Service, we decided to visit Cade's Cove, another settlement that was abandoned when the land that is now the park was bought back in the 1930s. The area features an 11-mile, one-way scenic drive through a beautiful mountain plateau that was once home to early settlers, farmers and a mill. That structure, plus several cabins and churches, still stands, along with dense forest land and fertile mountain meadows that make it prime territory for history buffs and animal-watchers alike. In fact, a ranger I spoke to as we entered the area said that there were bears in attendance that day, requiring several of her cohorts to work the road to help avoid man-bear interaction and to keep traffic from bottling up too much when the bruins were spotted.
Sure enough, after a few miles of oohing and aahing at the bucolic sights along the winding road, we encountered a line of stopped cars.
"Oooh," she said. "I bet there's bears up there."
She blithely hopped out of the car for a look-see, after promising to keep her distance from the furry, well-toothed tourist attractors.  She returned a couple of minutes later with the news that there was, apparently, a bear in the middle of the road up ahead.
"Finally," I thought. "Animals."
Note to self: Again, be careful what you wish for.
She was walking back towards me as I waited in our car, when, suddenly, the peaceful day was shattered by a sound not often heard in those quiet valleys.
Amazingly, inexplicably the guy in a white Dodge just ahead of me was honking his horn.  At who?
At the people looking at the bears?
At the bears themselves?
Thinking, perhaps, that the dunderhead in question had somehow accidently wandered off the Dan Ryan expressway, my spouse gently reproved him.
"Excuse me," she said in her best teacher-voice. "Why are you honking your horn? This is a scenic drive. You're scaring the bears."
"@#%*#^%&!" replied the now fully irate guy in the passenger seat, jumping out of his car.
Now, I am not often riled to the point of wishing to punch someone, but I was so outraged at his tone and language, that I hopped out of our car and yelled back.
"Hey, get back in your car," I grumped. "It's a national park, you jerk!"
"@#%*#^%&!" he answered.
Fortunately, the line of cars started moving at that point, so I was not forced to smack him with the only weapon handy, a half-eaten package of licorice Twizzlers.  Instead, we glared at each other and returned to our cars. I was sorely tempted to rear-end them as we made our way around the rest of the scenic loop. But I resisted, in spite of the fact that they repeatedly tried to zoom around the car ahead of them, even though the road was barely wide enough for a single car, then honked and shouted at the one critter we saw, a startled white-tailed deer who was just minding her own business.
"What are they doing?" she asked. "Are they crazy?"
 I just growled. Then I stopped. Then I thought about it.
I thought about the bears, deer, elk, raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, chipmunks and all the other wild creatures who really belong in that pristine park.
Then I thought about those guys in the Dodge.
"Well," I said. "I think we finally got to see the animals."
Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perfect memories of an imperfect pet

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

I'm always pleased when the cover story of this magazine is something I can relate to. And, in fact, "Finding the Perfect Family Pet" is spot-on in a ironic, twisted kind of way. Because here's the thing: No one has never accused me of having any kind of judgement when it comes to the pets that have ruled my life over the years.
Those dogs, cats, turtles, fish and other lesser species that have shared my space have--each and every one of them--been famous, and sometimes infamous, in their own way.
II could go back in time and tell the eerie story of the identical yapping, snapping squirrel-hating rat terriers that each showed up on my dad's doorstep on halloween night, over 40 years apart.  Or I could hearken back to the infinite, nearly indistinguishable menagerie of black cats named Doobie that harassed my poor feline-allergic mother as if she was invisibly coated with a thick layer of Little Friskies Carp-Head Delight. Or I could jump ahead a few decades and regale you with tales of Roscoe, the soft-hearted pitbull, who I'm pretty sure my older son insisted we adopt because he went well with the SuperFly-style faux-leather car coat he had picked up at a rummage sale. That dog was the meanest looking thing on four legs, yet had such a sweet, retiring disposition that he would creep out the room at the first sign of any kind of argument or unrest, and allowed our neighbor's Shih Tzus to unceasingly paw and gnaw on him as he lay in our front yard sniffing flowers, not unlike Ferdinand the Bull. I could even complain a bit about the recalcitrant housecat named Max, who currently rules the roost, reminding me of that fact every morning with sharp nips on my calves if I fail to rustle up his breakfast quickly enough.
But, the fact is, there is just one pet who deserves the title of most infamous, most quirky and, well, most imperfect.
His name was Whitey.
Whitey had two, and only two, driving forces in his life. Food and love.
Or, more precisely, garbage cans and girl dogs.
This put us at odds a lot of the time.  And if you were keeping score on who got what they wanted, he would have been way ahead.
When we owned Whitey, we lived in a house with a huge back yard.  It was a wonderful place, filled with sunny open spaces and shady tree-filled pockets; a perfect place for a dog to live his life in ease and comfort.
Not Whitey.
He used that yard for a successful base of operations that targeted every trash can and female dog in a 10-block radius. Once we got clued into the fact he wasn’t going to be content to stick around, we began making him come indoors when we weren’t out in the yard to restrain him.
No dice.
The dog was a veritable Houdini, able to slip out of any unattended, unlatched door without detection.  When we responded by locking exits, he began an assault on our doors and windows that kept the local lumberyard and its screen and glass repair business on daily alert for years.  He started with the screens.  I’d walk into a room and find a perfect dog-shaped hole in a door or window screen, letting me know that Whitey was, once again, on the town.  I tried closing windows, and he discovered that glass is only, well, glass, and was easily broken by a determined dog with love on the brain and a high tolerance for pain.  Thinking I’d thwart him by locking him upstairs, he, after stewing about it for a few days, discovered that one of the upstairs windows looked out onto a porch roof.  The jump off that roof was only about seven or eight feet.  Crash. Thump. Gone!
While Whitey’s exploits were many and varied, one of the most remarkable had to do with a neighbor a couple of blocks away, who had, of course, a female dog.  After making his escape late one night, Whitey got that lovin’ feeling, and trotted over for a visit.  It was a warm night, so just a screen door blocked the front entrance to the house.  One dog-shaped hole later, Whitey was in the house and heading upstairs in search of the object of his affections.  As the story goes, the lady of the house woke up just in time to see Whitey peering into their bedroom.
“Wake up, wake up, there’s a dog in the house,” she cried to her sleeping husband.
He woke up, looked, and said, “That’s not a dog, it’s only Whitey.”  Alarmed, Whitey exited by the first means available, a back window, bringing that evening’s destruction count up to two screened openings.  After receiving an early phone call and alerting the lumber yard, I made my way over to retrieve a now guilt-ridden dog, who had, however, been unable to bring himself to leave the home of his beloved.  I took him straightaway to the local veterinarian’s office for a procedure designed to cool his ardor, if not increase his intelligence.
Being “fixed” didn’t really cure Whitey’s wanderlust, it just redirected it.  He still visited girl dogs, as a consultant, I guess, and became even more of a garbage aficionado, if that was possible. He became a kind of collector, as well.  I would find interesting things in my yard: clothing, tin cans, kids’ outdoor toys, and, even, part of a fishing pole one time.  But the highlight was when he discovered an ample supply of pig skulls stored at the hog processing plant that was then on the edge of my hometown.  It must have taken him all night going back and forth, because when I stepped out into the back yard the next morning, it looked like a Georgia O’Keefe desert landscape, with bleached skulls dotting the terrain as far as the eye could see.
The thing is, that despite his many transgressions, Whitey was still our dog, and we loved him.  When caught red-pawed in some petty crime, he would roll over on his side, slowly thump his tail, and plead for understanding with his big brown eyes.  So we forgave him.  Again and again.
As he got older, his lifestyle caught up with him in the form of a heart condition that the vet said would force him to live his remaining days as a dog-invalid, sheltered from noise and excitement by confinement in a quiet, darkened room.  I got that news from my wife while I was at work one day, and drove home worrying about him and thinking about how his weakened state would finally slow him down. It seemed the life-long battle between man and dog was finally over, though I wouldn’t have chosen to win that way.
As I pulled into the driveway, I saw Whitey lying in the back yard under the shade of his favorite lilac bush.  Wondering why he was outdoors unattended and fearing the worst, I walked over to him.
He rolled onto his side, as his tail thumped gently in the grass.  I looked into his big brown eyes, then I glanced back at the house.
There, in the back door screen, was a perfect dog-shaped hole.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The sweet smell of home

I love to ride.
I love to ride and look and wonder and learn and remember.
When some folks look for the fastest, shortest road, I seek the prettiest, the windiest, the most interesting way, filled with the treasures of small-town squares, noontime diners and teenagers circling endlessly after dark. If I were a dog, I would wait and wag for the swirling, whirling sensation of windswept freedom as it wrinkled my snout and ruffled my ears.
It's time to head home to the midwest for awhile. There are things to do. Places to go. People to see. And while it's hard to leave our young grandsons behind, school has now started and they will soon be so crazy-busy with new teachers and friends, homework, soccer games and all the other stuff that seems to fill their little lives to bursting, that they might not even know we're gone. 
So it's time to ride.
When we go from east to west, from new home to real home, I watch the land wrinkle and ripple and flatten and change in ways that are both too obvious to miss and too subtle to notice. The coastal plains turn into rolling woodlands, growing fields and hilly hints of the soaring, foggy peaks and valleys that will come soon. Then back to the rolling, sweet-green fields of Tennessee and Kentucky, and then to the flat, fertile countryside that, now and forever, will spell home to me.
Nowadays, most folks seem to use TomToms, Garmins and other gadgets to find their way from A to B. But I continue to rely on badly folded highway maps, atlases missing pages, and bent, torn and worn gazetteers detailing the states I love the best.  In other words, it's often dead reckoning and her best guess. 
If I were a dog, I would probably be my dad's old Prince, who slept soundly on the floor of our family car for miles and miles and days and days of family trips, withstanding and resisting  stray kid-kicks, quick stops for gas and lunch cart hamburgers, only to awaken, suddenly, when home approached. We would watch him, dozing his old-dog dreams, his nose buried among shoes and wrappers and scattered, tattered souvenirs of where we'd been and what we'd seen.
Suddenly, he'd stir.
"He's waking up," we'd whisper. "He knows! He knows!"  
And he did. No matter how far we'd come, that wise old dog would rouse himself, climb onto the seat and poke his greying muzzle into the breeze. 
He smelled the sweet, sweet smell of home.
Me, too.