Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Moms and Pops

Some of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in are known as Mom and Pops.  These are typically small, independently owned  (sometimes by a family) restaurants, that are usually one-offs (not franchised) and can be found at only one location.  They specialize in foods eaten by the people who live around them and they cook them with secret family recipes that made them famous.

There used to be one such restaurant that specialized in hot dogs with a sign that stated "Famous since 1946".   It must be nice to be able to point to the date of your notoriety.  Fame usually happens so incrementally that it is hard to tell when you got that way.

The waitresses at Mom and Pops all call you Shoog and Honey and Sweetheart, even though you don't know them and have never been there before.  They will encourage you to take your time when you are ordering, and when they bring your ticket to your table they will apologize and say something like, "I'm sorry.  I'm just laying this right here.  Now y'all stay here at this table as long as you want to, I'm just bringin' this so you will have it, but if you want anything else you just holler."

Some of the waitresses even have their own clientele who ask if they can be seated where "Jamie Sue is waitin' on tables".  Once seated, Jamie Sue will come to their table and greet them with a hug.

Some (but not all) of my favorites:

The Dam Restaurant near a dam in Baltimore, Maryland where we had Dam ham sandwiches, Dam french fries, Dam potato salad and Dam iced tea; and where the waitress asked if we were ready for our Dam ticket.

Bob's Grill in Kill Devil's Hill, North Carolina whose restaurant motto "Eat and Get the Hell Out" is on their sign out front.   Nobody seems to pay any attention to the motto.  The restaurant is always full.  Nothing else needs to be said.

The Four Corners Diner in Atlantic Beach, NC .  The name does not come from the owner's love for UNC basketball, but from the fact that the Diner sits at a crossroad.  This is where my father and brothers and I used to go and drown our fishing sorrows in bacon, eggs and lots of hot coffee.

The Shiny Diner in Rocky Mount, NC.  It has another name (The Highway Diner) but everyone I know that eats there calls it the Shiny Diner, because it is shiny, outside and inside.

The Conscious Coffee Cafe in Talkeetna, Alaska.  They advertise that the average person spends 25 minutes to 1.5 hours there.  My wife and I ate there for 1.35 hours several years ago and we spent most of that time talking with the owner who told us her story of moving from Maryland where she was a veterinarian and how much she loves Alaska, and the 35 feet of snow they had last winter and how her home is off the grid and she powers everything with generators.

The Soda Pop Shoppe in Savannah, Georgia where we ate hot dogs and we met a lawyer at the table next to us who told us about meeting Tom Hanks when they filmed the movie "Forrest Gump" and how there was not really a bench in the spot where Forrest sat with his box of chocolates.  And then he told us about meeting Clint Eastwood when he directed the movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil",  and how nice Clint was to everyone and how he got to be an extra in the movie.  Exciting stuff.

You can find these restaurants almost anywhere you travel, but you have to search them out to find them or you have to have luck to stumble upon them, and then you have to be there at just the right time.  But, if this happens, you will never forget it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Walk in the Rain

I went walking in the rain the other day.  I had on a waterproof jacket with a hood, old running shoes that have seen better days but were used to getting wet, a pair of faded jeans, and a T-shirt I got back in the days when I was running in races with the face of a Viking on it.

The rain had turned into a slow, steady drizzle and I quickly realized that my glasses were of no use so I took them off and put them into my jacket pocket.  The world looks different when you are nearsighted and not wearing your glasses; foggy and mysterious, soft around the edges.

The fall rain, combined with fallen leaves has a unique smell that is only present that time of year, that I associate with high school and wrestling season and endless running drills in a sweaty gym.  And on this particular day, I was back in that gym, on those mats; young again with boundless energy.  And I wasn't even aware that the drizzle had turned to downpour and that I was soaked from the waist down.

Despite the rain, I crossed the highway and walked into the park across from our neighborhood. Because of the rain I had the entire park to myself.  I walked the trail that wound through the woods and listened to the sound of the rain coming through the trees, like whispers on the wind.  And then I walked to the small stream that was near overflowing, its waters reaching the top of the bridge.  Rain changes things.

Soon, I found myself in a road near the field that months ago during summer was planted with corn.  This was the field that I had walked to the day before my sister died three years ago and had been followed by a dragon fly.  I had told my sister about it and she said that lately dragon flies had swarmed her each time she went outside.  And now, every time I see a dragon fly, I think of that day and this field and the quiet summer corn, and her.

From the field I walked back home, and the rain fell steadily all the way back.  And as I unlocked the door to my house, I was thinking about what a good walk it had been.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Stake in the Woods

Everyone knows that nothing stays the same. We are surrounded by change.  When we go back to our hometowns or to places we used to live or visit years ago, we can see visible evidence that nothing stays the same.  It  is a rule of life that things change.  Some changes take us by surprise and some are announced.  How do we live and survive in  a world of constant change?

Years ago I went walking in the woods with my dog near my home.  In the woods, there were places I liked to go; the stream, the large rock, the big tree.  But on that day my dog and I walked past those places and went into a part of the woods that was less familiar to me, further from home.

Near a clearing I found a stake that had been hammered into the ground by someone and stood above the ground about two feet.  On its side were printed the letters DOT.  And I knew that change was coming; that the days of walking in these woods with my dog were numbered; that the deer who lived here would have to find another place; that the sound of cows mooing would soon be replaced by the sounds automobiles on an interstate highway.

Going home that day, being in unfamiliar woods, I got lost and could not find the right path  But I knew my dog could lead us both out so I said, "let's go home" and he ran ahead as I followed behind. And he led us home.

In a time of change, we need someone to walk with us.  A good friend.  A companion.  A partner.  A spouse. And when we come across that stake in the ground announcing a change that will alter the very ground we stand on, we know that they will be by our side and we can count on them to help us navigate the twists and turns that lead us home.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Singing in the Dark

Hurricane Florence just blew through the Carolinas and it was strangely reminiscent of another hurricane that visited us in 1989 named Hugo.  We never thought Hugo would come to Charlotte, NC and although we followed it with the weather reports each night and were concerned for the people in Charleston, SC, we in Charlotte took the hurricane very nonchalantly.

When the weather reports began to say that Hugo would reach as far inland as Charlotte, we all thought that it would dump a lot of rain on us along with some 30 mph winds and would move along and die out somewhere west of us.  We had a beach weekend planned with friends.  Hugo was scheduled to arrive in Charlotte Thursday night or early Friday morning.  We thought that after it blew through, we would get in our car and drive to our long awaited time at the beach.

How wrong we were.  Hugo came through Charlotte with a force we had never seen, blowing down trees, blowing roofs off houses, cutting off power from thousands of homes.  Getting in out of town was nearly impossible because of fallen power lines and hundreds of trees lying across the roads.  Businesses were closed, gas pumps were inoperable, and grocery store shelves were empty.  We were totally unprepared for this.

The first few days were a frantic scramble to find flashlights that worked, water, and food that would not spoil and trying to stay cool in the September heat without air conditioning.  While other homes regained their power, our house and two others on our street were to remain in the dark without water for an additional week and a half.  Our power problem (a blown fuse in the transformer) was a local problem and first priority was being given to much larger problems.

October arrived and we were hoping that our power would be restored before our daughter's birthday on Monday, October 2.  But it was not to be.  My wife's parents arrived (by then the roads were cleared).  I came home from my job (businesses had reopened).  And darkness arrived soon after.

Throughout our time without power we dreaded the night.  Night without electric lights seemed so very dark.  There was no T.V.  Reading or playing games was difficult.  Our problems seemed worse at night.

But the night of October 2 was different.  It was almost magical. The dining room was filled with candlelight including those seven candles on the birthday cake.  And as we wore our party hats and sang happy birthday, the room was filled with joy and love and we had forgotten that we were sitting in darkness, and we were somehow lifted up beyond our situation.

There is a hymn whose refrain is "Love lifted me.  When nothing else could help, love lifted me."

When nothing else could help us, love lifted us that night, out of the darkness and into a joy and peace that surpassed all understanding.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Cresting the Hill

My wife and I have been painting the inside of our our house since June.  Our goal is to paint every room and ceiling and to declutter the rooms and closets as we paint them and to fix things that we find or that we have ignored.

This has been an interesting process.  We have been making good progress, but I have found that painting is one of the easier tasks.  Giving away sentimental but unused things that have been packed away for years has been the most difficult task.

I would rather paint 10 ceilings rather than make the decision to donate or throw away baby shoes, our children's old lunch boxes, or toys they played with.

Now I have found out that I have to have surgery in early September and because of all the doctor appointments related to the surgery our progress has slowed to a crawl.  And, we have four upstairs rooms left.

So, being an old runner, I draw from that knowledge at times like this.

When the road suddenly becomes steep, and your legs get tired and your breathing is hard, do these things:

1.  Straighten your posture (stand tall) and face the hill.  Bending over and looking at your feet only serves to restrict your breathing at a time when you need to breathe.

2.  Shorten your stride.  This keeps you standing tall, and helps manage the steepness of the hill. Short steps, in this case, are better than long ones.

3.  Have faith. Draw on your resources.   Trust that your previous experiences and training will carry you upward.

4.  Walk if you have to.  Things slow down when you walk and you can collect your wind.  Sometimes this may be the only way to get up the hill.

5.  Take a rest if you have to.  There is nothing wrong with a time out in order to gather your strength.

5.  Stay in the moment. Feel the wind.  Smell the autumn air.  Rejoice in the movement of your body, and know that the pain of this movement causes growth and endurance.

So, onward and ever upward, to the unpainted rooms upstairs, whose closets are full, where decisions will make me ponder the years, and I will rejoice in the wonder of it all.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Light We Share

Standing in my driveway at night, I look around my neighborhood. Most houses are filled with light that shines out into the darkness.  And I know that in those houses, life goes on.  Dinners are being prepared and eaten, families gather around televisions, books are being read, people are talking, family pets are being snuggled.

In the houses that are dark, I always feel that something is wrong, that a light should be shining there. These dark houses seem abandoned and sad.  I wish those who live there had left a light on when they left.

I find that some people, like houses, have light that shines out from their inner being into the darkness.    Their light brightens every room that they enter.  My sister was such a person.  People felt better when they were around her.  She passed away three years ago, but her light still shines in me whenever I think of her and I am filled with her presence. Through her light she lives.

Astronomers and scientists tell us that the light we see from the stars is millions of years old, and when we look into the night sky we are actually looking into the past.  Some of the stars that we can see no longer exist.  They burned out before the earth took shape, before life existed on this planet. The light from these non-existent stars will continue to come to earth millions of years after life ceases to exist here.

The light from our sun and the reflected light of the earth and the moon will continue to shine out into space long after the sun has burned out and collapsed on itself, saying to those alien beings billions of miles away who look up into their night sky, that we were once here.  We lived.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Journey

Running gives you a perspective about things.  Running was never about running from point A to point B.  It was about the in between; the way running made me feel; the weather; the hills; the landmarks that I passed; other runners on the road.  In college I met one of my professors while running.  He asked why I was running.  I told him I was running for fun.  He looked at me in disbelief, like there had to be something more, some goal, some endpoint to my running that I wanted to achieve.  Running was never like that.  For me it was always the in between, the journey.

A professional football player was recently quoted as saying “Not winning the Super Bowl makes you wish you never played in it.”  Everyone wants to win.  If you play a sport, the goal is to win.  If you play cards, the goal is to win.  No one consciously wants to lose.  

The problem is that no one wants to exert the effort if they cannot win.  People who try their best and come in second place are regarded as losers.  The Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl four years in a row.  No other team has accomplished this feat.  This means that they were the American Football Conference champions for four consecutive years.  They owned the AFC.  But, because they lost four consecutive Super Bowls, they are regarded as losers, not as the winners that they certainly were. 

I read that Jim Kelly, the only quarterback to ever start four consecutive Super Bowls, has never watched those games, because the memories of losing them are so painful.  After the fourth Super Bowl loss, people in Buffalo were actually calling radio stations and pleading with the team members being interviewed not to take them back to the Super Bowl.  Apparently it was not worth the effort if they could not win.

There is a quote that is attributed to Henry Grantland Rice in the early 1900’s that ends, “It is not that you won or lost, it is how you played the game.”  Martina Navratilova, a tennis champion of the 70’s and 80’s, after hearing this quote, said “Whoever said that probably lost.”  

Winning has become the only thing that matters.  Not how you play the game.  Not how you conduct yourself during or after the game.  Not how you handle defeat.  Winning is the only worthy goal, and it overshadows sportsmanship, and courage, and honesty, and fellowship- everything.  This is why people cheat, or play dirty, or lie.  To win at all costs. Even at the cost of our souls.

In 1925, Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer (and some would say the greatest golfer), who ever played, was winning the US Open when he accidently touched his ball with his club while setting up for a shot.  The ball moved slightly.  No one else saw it.  But Jones assessed himself with a penalty shot.  This penalty shot cost him the title.  When he was praised for his honesty, Jones said “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”  To Jones, not giving himself a penalty shot was the equivalent to stealing, and he could not do it.  He would rather finish in second place than destroy his character.

At the end of our time on earth, what will matter will not be how many games we have won, but how we won them.  It will not matter how many degrees we have earned, but what we learned along the way.  It will not matter how much money we earned, but what we did with that money.  It will not matter how many people we employed, but how many of them we knew and cared about and lifted up.

If we are to be a people of substance; if we are to keep our souls, winning at any cost cannot be the way we play the game. Winning, in fact, will be secondary to the process of playing the game; a process in which we will find that it is not the end but the journey that matters most.