Adventures In Busing.

Special Delivery.

When I came home I thought I saw a package on the front porch. Up close there was something on the porch but it wasn’t a package. I was still glad to see it, though. There are a couple of stray cats in the neighborhood. Even though I love cats, as well as dogs—I don’t think anyone has to be exclusively a Dog Person or a Cat Person, because I’m firmly Team Both—we can’t take in a cat right now. Among other things all three of our dogs are on special diets and having a litterbox around would just be an invitation for them to treat it as the world’s most disgusting buffet tray. And while I wish all strays could find good, loving forever homes there are risks to taking in a feral cat, even if it can be tamed enough to become a house cat. A friend of mine regularly tries to rescue stray cats in his neighborhood and, well, his success rate is about fifty-percent.

When I met my wife she had two cats, and after they passed away we were catless for a few years. During that time we were also down to one dog, a wonderful boy named Baxter. When the owner of a farm where my wife would go for dog training sessions occasionally had a cat who had kittens we decided to adopt one. We named him Hugo—after the author of Les Miserables.

Even though the farm where Hugo was born was also home to a horde of Standard Poodles he seemed completely unprepared for life with a dog and, for three days, hissed and spat and swatted his claws at Baxter. Finally on the third day, cornered in the kitchen, Hugo flopped over on his back and exposed his belly, saying, “I give up! Please be mercifully quick!” Baxter sniffed him and licked his ears. They were good friends after that.

We’ve had some extremely cold weather lately. It’s been cold enough that I worried about the stray cat. They’ve survived coyotes and cars but weather is harder to escape. Now that it’s warming up again I was relieved to see the stray cat still around, hiding behind the concrete planter on the front porch, not a package for me, but better.

Driving In The Dark.

My wife wanted sushi. She’d had a hard weekend at a dog show—not just running two of our kids but also working, doing her part to make the event fun for everyone, which meant getting up early and coming home late. Even doing something you love can be exhausting, so when she said she wanted sushi I responded with an unquestioning and positive, “Okay, sure, if that’s what you want, feel free to change your mind, I mean, there are other options closer and it’s kind of late already, but, hey, if that’s what you really want…”

Because the sushi boom of the 1990’s is over, because the place that was less than a mile from us closed—the one we went to so often they only had to see my name on their caller ID and they’d start preparing my regular order—getting sushi means a long drive. Fortunately for most of it I could take back roads, even if the sushi place itself is right in the heart of the congested Green Hills neighborhood.

It was traversing those back roads that an interesting thing happened. I found myself in darkness. The old money homes sit well back from the road on expansive lawns, and the streetlights are far apart. For long stretches my headlights were the only thing that illuminated the road ahead. I realized the last time I’d gotten sushi, the last time I’d driven to that part of town for anything, had been in the summer, and, I think, earlier in the day. The winter solstice may be more than a month behind us but the sun still slips below the horizon in the late afternoon and the winter clouds blocked any light the waxing gibbous moon might have offered.

I fell into a reverie, still conscious enough to keep my eyes and thoughts on the road, but feeling I could be anywhere, anywhen, the only person in the world.

Then the bright lights and cluttered stores of Green Hills broke the spell. Coming out of the sushi place I looked up at a new apartment building, lights glowing from all windows, active, frenetic life going on. There was also the blinking neon sign of the Donut Den, still serving up pastries to a few late customers.

Then, in just a few minutes, I was back in the dark, back in that reverie, glad for the long drive.

Snake On A Plane.

A friend shared the recent story of a woman who tried to smuggle a four-foot boa constrictor onto a plane by saying it was “an emotional support animal” with me, adding, “More proof of what you’ve always told me about snake owners being a bigger threat than snakes themselves.” He hates snakes and while we’ve known each other long enough that I’ve given up trying to convince him that they’re really wonderful creatures I do take this as a sign of progress.

Admittedly this isn’t really a case where either the snake or the owner was really only a threat to people who depend on emotional support animals, which is something I realize is an easy target for jokes and criticism, but I’ve seen how an emotional support animal can help a person. It’s a wonderful thing that shouldn’t be misused or abused.

The story also reminded me of my first up-close and very personal encounter with a boa constrictor. It was at what was then the Cumberland Children’s Museum, now the Adventure Science Center. Back then it had a collection of animals that included possums, hawks, owls, a two-hundred pound snapping turtle that sat in an aquarium on the second floor, some small local snakes, a tarantula—my friend hates spiders even more than snakes, but that’s another story–and a boa constrictor.

Most of the time the animals were kept in their enclosures but one Saturday when I was there one of the handlers was doing a demonstration with an antique camera and kids were invited to get their picture taken with an animal of their choice.

I was the only one who picked the boa constrictor, whose name, I learned, was Betty. Betty White, Betty Grable, Betty Davis, Betty Boop, my aunt Betty, Bettie Page—all wonderful people but there will always be a special place in my heart for Betty The Boa.

Betty just lolled around my shoulders and I had to hold her head up so we could both mug for the camera.

After taking each picture the woman would return the animal to its cage and turn out the lights so she could develop the film. Except with me she just left Betty hanging around my neck and turned out the lights. This didn’t bother me and it didn’t seem to bother Betty either. She just stayed where she was.

When the woman turned the lights back on she picked up the snake and said, “Oh, she must really like you. Betty doesn’t fall asleep for just anyone.”

Which, now that I think about it, sounds more than a bit menacing. Maybe I shouldn’t tell my friend this story.  


A Seat For Everyone.

Some Nashville buses installed this plaque after her death in 2005. It’s true on every bus but I like that you never know when you might encounter it.

It’s been almost three years now since I last rode the bus,  but this still seems relevant—maybe even more so now, since we’re seeing the dangers of, if not forgetting history, then outright ignoring it.

It was standing room only on the bus. I’d gotten on earlier so I had a seat, near the front, and a woman who’d just gotten on was standing next to me. She was holding the overhead strap with one hand and a cane with the other. I stood up and offered her my seat.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a very polite young man.”

“It’s the way my grandmother raised me,” I said, and then felt ridiculous for saying that. I never rode the bus with my grandmother. I can’t even remember riding the bus with my parents. They may never have taught me public transportation etiquette but my grandmother and parents did teach me basic rules of courtesy, and so did teachers and a lot of other adults around me and other people.

The point is there was no single person who influenced me, something I think about whenever I think about the story of Rosa Parks. She helped prompt major changes, but she didn’t do it alone. Before she took a stand on a Montgomery bus she was already working with civil rights leaders. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and met Martin Luther King, Jr. Her decision to defy an order to give up her seat to a white passenger wasn’t spontaneous; she was deliberately acting on principle, which, I think, is even braver than a spontaneous act.

The woman whom I gave my seat on the bus was African American, and, as I said, she had a cane. I thought she needed the seat more than I did, but I also thought about how, not that long ago, within her lifetime, she would have been required to give up her seat if I, a white man, had asked her to move. I thought about how, right then, she didn’t ask me, or anyone else, to give up a seat so she could sit down. I don’t want to be presumptuous; I don’t know what her story really is, but it’s possible, even likely, that experience had taught her not to expect someone like me to give up a seat on the bus for her even if she needed it more. I wonder if, if I’d been brought up in an earlier era if I would have been willing to give up my seat on the bus. I wonder if I would have realized it wasn’t “my seat” but really a seat, open to anyone, but that in the interests of a better world it should be available to anyone, and priority should be given to those who need it most.

It’s difficult for me to talk about this even though these are things I think about a lot, and not just on days like today. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, a day when people remember and celebrate his legacy. And it deserves to be remembered and celebrated, and the work he did should be continued, and, as part of that, I think all those he influenced, all those who worked with him, also need to be remembered.

Back To Work.

The start of a new year always seems like it should be different. After all I’ve been, mostly, away from work, since mid-December. The one exception was last Wednesday when my boss asked me to come in and take care of a few things that couldn’t wait five days, and even then I worked from home and had to sign out early to go to a doctor’s appointment. In spite of getting a lot done it didn’t really feel like working.

It also gave me an opportunity to clear up a lot of the ten thousand or so junk emails I’d gotten in the time I was away.

This morning I was fifteen minutes late getting to the office. That’s not terrible, and it really just reflects that I’m still getting adjusted to coming back to work in the office. Part of the reason I was late is I forgot the way to get to work. When I started coming into the office I took the same route I’d been taking for years that led to a parking garage that’s approximately half a mile from my office. I don’t use that parking garage anymore, though; I park in a garage that’s next to my office building. So I’d pass by the old garage on the way to the new one. Then, a few months ago, I realized I was wasting time, and that I could take a more direct path—one that’s pretty much the same as my old bus route, funny enough.

Then this morning I forgot to take the direct path. I took the one that went by the old parking garage. I would have waved as I went by but I had both hands on the wheel and was sweating over being late.

The other reason I was late is because time seems to stretch or compress no matter how much I prepare. I got up fifteen minutes early this morning, knowing I’d be groggy and slow because I’ve gotten out of the habit of getting up early and going to work. Somehow, though, in spite of doing almost everything the same way I would on a work day, and moving through at pretty much the same pace, that extra fifteen minutes disappeared and an additional fifteen minutes got added on.

For months now I’ve been arriving at the office on Monday morning at the same time, taking the same route. This morning I went the wrong way, or at least a different way that hadn’t been my normal one, and I was fifteen minutes late. It’s not the most auspicious start to 2023 but at least it’s different.

A Matter Of Time.

It’s Monday, right?

I’ve lost all track of what day it is. Most of my routine consists of daily tasks. Dogs have to be fed, meals have to be prepared. There’s the cocktail of drugs that, thanks to decades of habit, has to include coffee, or at least caffeine, to prevent a headache.

Then there are the tasks that aren’t bound to a specific day but still have to be done regularly: sweeping floors, vacuuming, laundry. 

Once a week the garbage can has to be dragged to the curb. Once a month the recycling bin accompanies it. In spite of being time-specific these events don’t happen often enough to be routine. Sometimes I forget it’s Garbage Eve until I see the neighbors’ cans lined up along the street.

The past two weeks I’ve been on vacation which just made me realize how much structure work provides to my week—the Monday start, the long slog to the weekend. I haven’t missed it but it’s been weird. I’ve been dreaming I was at work which, unfortunately, doesn’t count even though I’m an hourly employee. Making it even stranger is that the return date isn’t fixed. Tomorrow when I go back in several people will still be out; I’ll be there one of the skeletons making up the crew.

I work for a university. It’ll be a few weeks before the students come back. I envy the long break they get but also the specificity of the date. For them things are set, structured. Freshmen will be returning with some college experience; seniors will be going in to face the final push. Sophomores and juniors can breathe easy; they’ve been here before and will be again. The teachers prepare to pick up where they left off. 

My own schedule is more amorphous. Outside of, and even adjacent to, the holidays I have to set my own breaks. But the days slip too easily from one into another. This is the longest time I’ve taken off from work in, well, almost a year. That’s a mistake. The last year was more stressful for me than it should have been. I needed this break, and, with the new year starting, now seems like a great time to be more conscious of time. I need to take more breaks or I’ll end up broken.

Taking Chances.

I took a picture of the snow-covered CRV but for some reason it wouldn’t upload. I like this picture better since it gives new meaning to the term “horsepower”.

Honda has discovered the secret to comedic timing.

Normally I don’t like to endorse a brand or company because there are people who are paid to do that and I’m not one of them, but we’ve got two Hondas—a van and a CRV—and they’ve been better than any other vehicles we’ve owned. We got the CRV in 2019 to replace the previous CRV we got in 1999. We went to the same dealership and bought the new one exactly twenty years after the old one, which was nice enough to stop working while parked in our driveway. The only thing that was different was our sales guy. That seems to be an area where there’s a lot of turnover. They get paid to endorse whatever they’re selling but maybe they aren’t paid enough.

Anyway I had to put some things in the CRV. I didn’t take my keys with me because I didn’t think I’d need them. We don’t keep anything in the car except maybe some umbrellas and  tire pressure gauge and sometimes an old tarp if I’m planning to put raw chicken in the back.

In retrospect I should have known better. The CRV’s automatic locking system kicks in at random times. The van is predictable. Once we get out and walk ten feet away it automatically locks itself, so we have to be careful to always have the keys with us. And the van’s timing is so perfect that I can go in the house, get the key out of my wife’s purse, point the fob at the van from the window, click the “unlock” button, and by the time I get out of the house down to the driveway I’ll be just in time to hear the “click” of the van locking itself just as I reach for the driver’s side door.

Since the CRV’s lock is much more random, though, I also had a pretty good chance of it being open. Except it wasn’t. I guess because it hadn’t been driven for a few days it said, “Well, if I’m going to be left out here in the cold I might as well lock myself up.”

I really shouldn’t have been taking chances in this weather either. The temperature according to the thermometer was in single digits and the wind chill was twenty below—and we’re talking Fahrenheit which means it was fifty-two degrees below freezing. Not that any scale matters when it’s that cold, and, in fact, minus forty Fahrenheit is the same as minus forty Celsius which is a fun fact I learned when my teachers were convinced we might actually adopt the metric system, but that’s another story.

My wife was asleep and I’d left my keys in the bedroom so rather than take a chance on waking her up I got her keys out of her purse. But I didn’t want to carry her keys. I pointed the fob through the window and pressed the “unlock” button. The CRV is closer to the house so it was reasonable to assume the timing on both vehicles is the same and the differential would be just enough for me to get to it and open the door before it relocked itself.

I got to the CRV just in time to hear the “click” of it locking itself.

It’s possible the CRV has the same automatic locking system as the van, but if it does why does it only do this when it’s ridiculously cold outside and I’ve got my arms full?  

The Anti-Scrooge.

I met the anti-Scrooge and didn’t realize it because it was a few years ago and during the summer. It only occurred to me recently because the anti-Scrooge is, or was, a manager at a Taco Bell and I don’t go to Taco Bell that often. Besides it’s a very specific Taco Bell, although it is pretty close to where I live and I pass by it often, which is why I know it’s special. First, though, I should explain that it was a combination of the holiday season and a recent trip to this particular Taco Bell that prompted my epiphany.

About a week ago I went to this Taco Bell because my wife and I didn’t have much food in the house and couldn’t figure out what we wanted anyway, so finally she suggested I go to the store and after that I could grab something from Taco Bell. When I pulled up to the drive-thru there were approximately nine-thousand cars ahead of me, or maybe three, but I still thought, Oh, great, this is going to take at least half an hour because fast food is never fast when you really want it to be and sometimes it’s not even food, but that’s another story. The cars ahead of me moved through quickly and when I pulled up to place my order a cheerful voice came through the speaker.

“Hey, how are you this evening?”

“Fine, how are you?”

“Super, great, wonderful, what can I get you this fine evening?”

I gave him my order and the guy said, “Okay, that’ll be one thousand, three hundred and five pennies.”

I was still laughing when I pulled up and I wished I had a handful of pennies, although handing that much change through a window would just be cruel. The young woman who took my money and handed me my food was smiling and I could see other employees moving around behind her, all smiling and laughing with each other.

This Taco Bell used to have a regular “Champion Of The Week” on its marquee—an employee who’d done an exceptional job that week. One day when I was taking the bus I only had a twenty and since it was right next to the bus stop I went in to get some change. I ordered a drink. The manager came over and handed me a cup.

“Go ahead, have one!”

I laughed and explained I didn’t really need a drink. He opened the register and said, “How’s about a ten, a five, four ones, and four quarters?”

“You’re gonna be Champion Of The Week,” I said.

He said that as the manager he was responsible for picking the Champions. When I said I thought it was a great idea he nodded. “Yeah, they get an extra fifty dollars so they like that.” So it wasn’t just getting their name on the sign and bragging rights. There was a financial incentive too.

 The manager was a young guy, which just adds to him being the anti-Scrooge. Though Dickens gives us bits of Ebenezer’s past he’s old when he’s visited by the three spirits. The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come doesn’t specify how many years into the future it’s taking Ebenezer. Even if he didn’t change his death could be in one year or ten years hence; he’s a changed man by the end of the story but he’s still gonna die eventually. The only difference is he becomes a benefactor to Tiny Tim and improves the lives of the whole Cratchit family, and his generosity will have ripple effects.

That brings me back to the Taco Bell manager who was obviously a good guy and a good manager—generous, friendly. He treated the other employees with respect. I don’t know if he’s still there. The sign out front doesn’t name a Champion Of The Week anymore, but it still seems like a good place to work. As I pulled around there were three employees standing outside by the back door talking and laughing, blowing clouds of smoke in the cold. Three spirits, I thought.

Under The Lights.

There was a segment on the news the other night about how much daylight we’ve lost since the summer solstice, which was June 21st. It’s almost five hours. And Nashville is not at a particularly high latitude. Further north the days are even shorter. Although, technically, the daylight isn’t “lost”. It’s simply flown south for the winter.

I remember when I was a kid watching winter sunsets from my bedroom window and realizing the sun doesn’t really set in the west. At least not exactly west. It moves in the analemma, rising and setting at slightly different times and in slightly different positions from one day to the next—or rather only appearing to move as the Earth makes its orbit. Being taught that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as though this was a fixed fact, seemed to me like lazy thinking. The truth was more complicated and any time I realized something was more complicated it became much more interesting. I started to realize that the cardinal directions are a convenient fiction. While they’re useful for finding your way to a specific place I realized that if you travel far enough north you’ll eventually start going south, just as east easily turns into west. And I had a friend who, any time a teacher would tell us, “Two wrongs don’t make a right” would yell out, “But did you know three rights make a left”

All this contemplation of direction started rolling through my mind this morning as I was rolling out to work and passed under a string of lights some of my neighbors hung over the street last year around this time—lights against the darkness. Then, apparently having decided it was too much trouble to take them down, they left them having over the street. For much of the year they’ve been invisible in the darkness and barely visible against the sky in the light.

Now after the sun sets they’re illuminated and remain that way all night, one fixed point in the darkness, a marker I passed under on my way, and will continue to pass under in darkness until the winter solstice passes and the days are long enough that I start each day after sunrise.

A Perfect Plan.

So I have a doctor’s appointment. It’s not anything major—just one of the many appointments that have become part of my life. In fact this one is even less significant than most others. I just need to go in and have some blood drawn. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tell the nurse who does it a stupid joke like, “Hey, instead of drawing my blood why not take a picture?” Or maybe I won’t. Medical professionals are like everybody else: sometimes the jokes work, sometimes they don’t. Almost eight years ago I had to go in for major surgery, and before I went in one of the doctors asked me, “Do you have any questions?” So I said, “Yeah, will I be able to play the piano after this?”* The doctor just shook her head and said, “I’ve heard that one.”

Maybe it’s just as well. Surgery requires a steady hand and I wouldn’t want my doctor to start laughing while they were getting ready to slice me open.

Anyway my appointment was scheduled for late in the afternoon. It would almost be time for me to leave work, even after factoring in the drive time from home to the doctor’s office. But, even with the holidays, I’m about to hit the limit on my accumulated leave time. I realize this isn’t something to complain about and that most people aren’t so lucky. Anyway I thought, hey, why not just leave work at noon? Then I can hang around the house, maybe get some laundry done, and try to be at least a little less nervous before my appointment. It doesn’t matter how simple or routine it is. I get nervous before any medical appointment, especially one where I know going in I’m going to be jabbed with a needle.

Then I remembered it’s Monday. Monday is the day I go into the office. My office that’s just a few blocks from the office where my appointment is.

Well, at least that cuts down on the drive time and gives me time to take a walk and try to relax before I go get jabbed with a needle.

*If you don’t know this one the joke is a guy about to go into surgery asks his doctor, “Will I be able to play the piano after this?” The doctor says, “I don’t see why not.” The guy says, “Great, because I can’t now.”

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