Tag Archives: Texas

Of Vice and Virtue

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” This maxim from Abraham Lincoln has a ringing truth but the ring is hollow.  A comment about human nature that lacks commentary.  A sound-bite that is easily remembered, but does not speak to the whole truth.

I, myself have a number of vices.  Some suggest they are harmless, near typical activities for an adult male my age.  Others find them repugnant and offer a scolding rebuke behind my back.  I drink too much.  I carry a pistol.  I frequently discuss so-called unpatriotic ideals such as Texas secession from the union.  Admittedly, such things can hardly be compared to other less socially acceptable activities such as using heroin—but they certainly can promote antisocial and unlawful behavior when they are not properly controlled by the practitioner.

I once knew someone who apparently had no vices.  He was a man—a native Texan in his 50s mind you—who shunned weapons, didn’t drink, drove a hybrid automobile, and generally lived a quiet life of reading books.  This despite his job, in which he entertained scores of calls each day assisting finance managers at GM auto dealerships with the endless maze of financial software and paperwork they were required to use.

Now I suppose reading could be considered a vice, depending on the content.  And I further suppose that avoiding weapons while caring about the environment is considered socially conscientious.  But the apparent lack of any discernible relief valve is disconcerting from my vantage point.  I fear he might one day snap and go on a shooting spree or fly a plane into a building.

The opposite side of that coin, however, is that vice without virtue has no value; if you accept the first premise, (in my opinion) you must own the other, and while vice is tolerated and notable, it is always the unnoticed virtue that wins the day.  That virtue is not an act, but virtuous behavior is born out of a desire for decency—a drive to leave the world better than you found it.  Most of us embody both.

Witness my oldest progeny and only son.  I didn’t know quite what to make of his travels as I watched him grow into manhood, always seeming to choose the road to perdition.  He was just released from prison on parole from a 10-year sentence, for a meth-induced crime spree.  A convicted felon multiple times over, I simply breathed a sigh of relief that his crimes were not violent and that his life was spared.  Instead of college and a job, or military service he chose drugs, debauchery, and crime.  The stranglehold of drugs tragically asserted the outcome.

Vice.

Yet as a child he was profoundly sensitive and frequently put his younger sisters’ welfare ahead of his own.  I still recall a particular day when his mother told me that she took the three of them to a McDonald’s drive-through for lunch, an exceedingly rare treat at that time because we were poor.

When they made it home his mother realized they had shorted the order by mistake, and in that circumstance he gave up his burger to his sisters without hesitation.

Virtue.

I have a very dear friend for whom I worked about three years before her manager fired me.  For most of that time she was a punitive tyrant during work hours and I was frankly a little relieved when I lost my job because walking the line between friendship and work was nearly impossible.  Only one of many casualties of her wrath, the terrible jaws of obsession with a thing being done “the right way” compounded by the need to punish offenders tested our friendship to its limits.

Vice.

Juxtapose that reality, however, with a poignant moment of loss—the death of a loved one.  Last December this same friend escorted her Jack Russell Terrier to Rainbow Bridge.  She talked at some length about the difficulty of making that decision, and how she felt like she was playing God, and the heartbreak of watching her beloved pooch take her last breath.  Last Monday at lunch she sat across a table from me and grieved yet again a year later—but she never left her companion’s side seeing her through to the very end.

Virtue.

Then there’s my friend Tom who mentioned some time ago that his kid brother Frank who suffers from multiple sclerosis was admitted to hospice.  He spent Thanksgiving with distant family members entertaining repeated questions about Frank’s well-being as they trickled in one at a time.  Over and over he was asked the same question: “How’s Frank?”  And over and over he had to explain that his brother was dying.

Last Saturday he was supposed to meet my friends and me for brew and pub grub.  He chose instead to spend the day and the subsequent evening with his two Border Collies, while he drank to stuff the pain.  He succumbed to the temptation to temporarily anesthetize the pain of the impending separation from a loved one, which ultimately and cruelly prolongs the suffering.

Vice.

And then there is the matter of my wife’s 96 year-old grandmother, Maxine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is functionally blind and deaf.  I’m told that Maxine is coming to the end of her journey here on Earth.  That although no one is willing to say how much time she has left with us, she is winding down at an ever-accelerating pace.  A metaphorical tailspin, if you will, from which there is no escape and is ushering in both certain and swift demise.

My sister-in-law who lives with us has spent countless nights with Maxine in her bed, many of them ending any hope of blissful slumber, being awakened by her at 3:00 a.m.  My wife has tirelessly changed countless diapers and ministers to her though unending trips to the bathroom, nearly a thousand baths, and even more questions as Maxine tries in vain to ascertain her current circumstance.

Virtue.

I watch as my wife and sister-in-law lose their patience with her, an adult child who is no longer capable of being responsible for even the most basic tasks of eating, bathing, and using the restroom.  I listen as they each raise a voice while speaking to her in part to overcome her hearing impairment and in part out of frustration.

I sigh and respond with annoyance as she unendingly interrupts conversations with family over morning coffee, attempting to comprehend the most basic of information such as where she is and what she is supposed to be doing.  These are the moments of fierce impatience that prevent charity when it is most needed by a loved one.

Vice.

One weekend not long ago, after my friends and I disbanded our weekly Saturday outing with beer and bar food, one of them, Fran, followed me to my house.  Three women had gathered with my wife and sister-in-law to spend a few hours with Maxine as she continues her journey into the unknown, believing that the end is at hand.

We sat in the living room and listened as Maxine complained of a sore lip from a fall two nights ago, cramping joints, and a general discomfort caused by a near-century of time here on this spinning, blue orb.  And then, without any apparent context, my sister-in-law began to speak.  With a sense of the inevitable nature of Maxine’s circumstance, she began to talk about how she awoke early that morning to find Maxine crawling on her hands and knees toward her bed.

I watched as her eyes became glassy and she tried in vain to hold in the grief as reality once again overtook her like a swelling tsunami.  I placed my glass of Maker’s Mark on the table top next to my chair and crossed the room to sit with her.  I placed my hand on her back as she briefly wept, unable to contain the emotion any longer.

The moment passed and I returned to my seat as Maxine began to speak again:

“My feet are cold.”  From across the room Fran replied “Your feet are cold?”  Maxine repeated her assertion: “My feet are cold.”  He set his beer down and stood up.  With a sense of purpose he crossed the room, knelt at her feet and began massaging them through her terrycloth slippers.

“That feels good; your hands are warm.”  Fran silently continued.

The symbolism was blinding.  Emblematic of the good in each of us, an able-bodied man bowed at the feet of an elderly woman and ministered to her comfort as her season was drawing to a close.  A simple act of kindness that cost him nothing but that did require humility.  Maxine smiled.

Virtue.

Guy-o

2 Comments

Filed under Life or Something Like It, Marriage

A Letter in My Absence

I can’t believe I’m posting this the day before Memorial Day.  That’s because this entry is not about Memorial Day.  Yet as we are so temporally close to the moment when we, a grateful nation, bow our collective head in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, I am compelled to offer an acknowledgement.

My wife, who is my greatest critic (other than me), frequently complains that I do not come to the point quickly enough—kind of like I’m doing right now.  While I believe I am a master of the parenthetical, wielding it as a Samurai wields a sword, my wife believes that I waste her time with unnecessary verbal clutter.  To you, dear one, I say, a) be patient and b) what follows is more of an obligatory nod to those we honor tomorrow than a paragraph flanked by parentheses.

If you have a loved one who served and was lost in the line of duty, I salute his or her sacrifice with all the sincerity I can muster.  Please know that the smart-ass who sits behind this desk and uses a keyboard to express opinions and tell stories is also someone who deeply respects and greatly admires the sacrifice of your loved one.  God bless you both.

In addition to Memorial Day, I have also been thinking a lot about two other things that happen at about this same time every year: graduations and class reunions.

In June, my high school class is hosting its 35th class reunion.  I will not be attending, but my FaceBook feed has been rife with buzz about the upcoming event.  The coordinator, Mary Jane, has been hounding people to RSVP to the invitations she sent out.  She has also been heavily promoting the event by posting high school portraits of my classmates.  I sit by, lurking in the shadows and watch the comments, occasionally making an appearance to offer a trivial but thoughtful tidbit about some interaction I had with a few of these individuals.

This behavior is fitting, because it is emblematic of my high school experience.  My dad moved us to the tiny berg of Mineral Wells, Texas when I was 15, during the first semester of my sophomore year.  Here’s the thing about small towns in the South: they are a living dichotomy.  Southern gentility requires a soft politeness that embraces you and makes you feel welcome, which is at odds with their organic mistrust of outsiders.

I was speaking with a high school friend named Danny who had recently become reacquainted with another mutual friend.  He sent me a photo by text message and I replied “Who’s that?”  He refused to tell me so I called him.  We talked for a few minutes before he spilled his guts explaining that the photo he sent me was our hot-rod buddy, Terry.   Hot rods.  You never hear that term anymore.  If you’re in your 20s you might not know that hot rod is a term for a car that has been tuned for high performance.

Now Danny and I did not own anything that could be called a “hot rod.”  We each owned a Mustang, but were also broke and could not afford to tune anything except an old guitar.  Terry on the other hand was the son of a mechanic who restored vintage cars, and that proverbial apple did not fall far from the tree.  The point is we were close friends because of a common interest.

Danny and I spoke for a few minutes and then he broached the subject of the upcoming reunion, wondering if I was coming.  I responded: “The thing  is Danny, I don’t have the attachment that you do to our high school class.  You grew up with these people.  You’ve known them since you were very young.  I didn’t.  I spent two and a half years there, and it was really impossible to get to know most of them in the way that you do.”  “Yeah; I get that.  I just thought you might want to see Terry.” he replied.  “I’ll pass man; have fun.”

I hung up and thought about high school and how different my experience was from my classmates.  In that moment it occurred to me that, like small Texas towns, your teenage years are also a living dichotomy.  At that age we had insecurities and low self esteem, but we covered them up with bravado or an attempt to insert ourselves into situations that would buy us the precious currency of popularity.  As it turns out, high school is just a continual quest for social capital.  Even the most beautiful girls and the most braggadocios boys are victims of this phenomenon.  The most popular people at every high school face the same insecurities and self doubt as those at the bottom of the social ladder—and that is exactly how I perceived myself at that time.

I dated a very pretty underclassman named Linda during my senior year.  About ten years ago she found me through classmates.com, and I was surprised when I discovered over the course of our correspondence how differently she perceived me than I perceived myself.  She described me as gregarious, courageous, and socially deft, while I saw myself as shy, frightened, and socially awkward.  I suppose somewhere between those two extremes lies objective truth—but we will never know.

With that in mind I’ve been following the FaceBook page dedicated to the Mineral Wells High School Class of 1977.  Yes; I’m that ancient.

I look at the photos and read the comments, and with each new post, I have begun to see these people in a new way.  The veneer of their high school brand has been stripped away and I think I see them for who they really are or, rather, who I believe they have become—and you know what?  They’re really nice people, who love, care, and support each other as they attend college graduation ceremonies and announce weddings of their own children, and post photos of their grandchildren.

I now see them in a way I never did before, and although their high school experience and mine were vastly different, I find myself wanting to celebrate what this upcoming event means to them.

Schools are fertile grounds for cliques, and all schools have them; my school was no different.  They begin with common interest, evolve to account for mutual social and physical attraction, and plateau as a galvanized playmate collective.

In that sense Terry, Danny, and I had our own clique of which we were very protective—but we didn’t perceive our collective as a clique at all.  I’m guessing neither did the cheerleading/athletic clique, the Z club, the drama club, and countless other segments of my high school population.  Everyone was simply trying to get an education and learn good social graces while trying desperately to fit in with everyone else; I doubt anyone was really trying to shun anyone else.

Still, because of my late foray into that small Texas town, I never felt as though I was really embraced in quite the way the other kids embraced each other.

No; I’m not attending my high school reunion.  There’s just really nothing there for me, but I think I would like to write a letter of appreciation to those attending:

“Dear Class of ‘77,

Remember how you tried to hide your insecurities in high school?  Remember how, as you grew and matured and experienced life, you began to cope with them and to teach yourself that you really did have value?  Remember that pivotal moment when you finally began to sense your own worth?  Congratulations; you finally graduated from the school of life.  You’re all grown-ups now and the curve of your evolving emotional and mental maturity has become asymptotic.  Every day you learn and evolve a little more, but at an ever-slowing pace.

I, on the other hand, am still as infantile and as stuck in my teenage angst as I was my sophomore year.  Fortunately, I have the luxury of scotch and therapy.

Have a blast!  I’m celebrating for you in abstentia.”

Guy-o

2 Comments

Filed under Life or Something Like It, Marriage

If Frat Boys Ruled the World

The term frat boy has a universally negative connotation.  To most people it conjures images of the college-age George W. Bush portrayed by the media when he was running for office—and maybe the reputation is deserved; I have no idea.  That’s not the point of my comment.  The point is that such images produce a bum rap for fraternities.  Fraternities while, associated with drunkenness, bad behavior, and a frivolous approach to life, can serve a very noble purpose for men.

I experienced fraternity life not in college, but in the United States Coast Guard.  As I recall, during the nine weeks of hell known as basic training, my most vivid memory was the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie I experienced.  The regimen of physical training, nautical education, and military protocol coaching, while much less stringent than the other branches of the armed forces, galvanized strong bonds with former strangers.

One training exercise that comes to mind was the swimming regimen.  On week two, we embarked on two days of testing, training, and exercise in an Olympic size pool complete with a 25 foot diving platform.  We were all initially asked to swim several laps while observers graded our performance.  They then divided us into three groups: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.  I, of course, made the intermediate team because it’s the hallmark of my brief existence here on Earth thus far.  Intermediate is a synonym for mediocre, which pretty much sums up my life.

Then the observers donned their training mantle and gave us our instructions.  One of the instructors dispatched Team Beginner to the shallow end of the pool and announced free-time.  He then turned to us, Team Good Enough, ordered us into the deep end of the pool and instructed us in the art of drown proofing.  This technique essentially requires you to impersonate fishing bobbers, taking a breath, submerging, and then resurfacing.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  ”Now you boys practice that until I tell you to quit.”

We all did as we were instructed and he moved onto Team Star, instructing them about something I couldn’t quite decipher as I bobbed up and down with my teammates in the water.  He returned 15 minutes later and barked “Recruits: out of the water.  MOVE!”  Next, he ordered us to sit, which made me feel a little bit like a Labrador Retriever.  I then watched as he ordered the individuals of the advanced team up the ladder of the diving platform.  One by one they walked to the edge of the platform, crossed their arms with hands on shoulders, and stepped off for a vertical freefall into the drink.

“What are they doing?” I asked the guy next to me.  “They’re practicing abandon ship.”  I was suddenly struck by the disparity in the training.  The losers get free-time, the also-rans practice drown-proofing, and the winners are trained to abandon ship.  “Why aren’t we all practicing abandon ship?” I naively inquired.  “Because in the event that a ship goes down, those guys are the only ones who are going to survive.”

Now that doesn’t initially sound like a bonding exercise that would promote camaraderie—but then something interesting happened.  One of the guys froze.  He was JROTC in high school, knew a myriad of cadence calls, and seemed to possess a natural sense of military bearing.  But it seemed he had trouble with stressful situations—and this particular situation definitely qualified.  25 feet might not sound like much, but give it a try.  If you’re even slightly acrophobic, you might as well be standing atop the Chrysler Building.  But the important thing is that after a few seconds we were all pulling for him.

We began shouting words of encouragement—but to no avail.  Then one of the braver members of the advanced team quickly scaled the ladder and hopped up onto the platform.  “Dave!  Get it together man.  It’s just one step and you’re home free.  Come on Dave; take the step.”  Gradually a cheer spontaneously erupted.  “One step!  One step!  One step!”

Now as I write that it sounds a bit hokie to me—but remember—we were functionally just a bunch of frat guys.  The fraternity being Bravo Company of the United States Coast Guard Basic Training Battalion, Alameda, CA.  In our brief time in boot camp so far, we had already learned to rally around distressed individuals who were part of the fraternity for the good of the collective.  Sure enough, Dave took the plunge after only a few seconds of encouragement as cheers erupted from below.  For me, a kid from a small Texas town away from home for the first time, it was a quite a moment.

Fast forward to last Saturday.  Several former co-workers wanted me and my two friends Jeff and Tom to introduce them to pistol shooting.  Very well.  I sent them an invitation to report to my house at precisely 1030 hours Saturday morning for a weapons briefing, after which we would head over to Red’s Indoor Range right here in Pflugerville.

On queue at 1025 Jeff and Tom arrived to unload their hardware on my kitchen island.  Five minutes later two of our students, Curt and Adi, promptly arrived and filed into the kitchen.  Another five minutes and the last of the newbies, Nick, arrived and we began the briefing.

You could have heard a pin drop as we introduced them to the world of self defense weapons that Jeff, Tom, and I almost take for granted.  Laser-focused, they stood riveted by every word of the safety protocol lecture, technical analysis, and weapons operation demonstration.  45 minutes later we were satisfied that they were ready to step up to the firing line and off we headed to Red’s.

As we entered the range, our students seemed surprisingly at ease, despite the noise of discharging weapons and frigid air from the ventilation system that was delivered directly from outside.  For the next 90 minutes the guys went from station to station trying handguns: 9mm, .45, .38 special, and even a big-ass .357 Magnum—that last one being a big hit with the guys.  As we were nearing the end of our outing the guy in the bay next to mine tapped me on the shoulder.

“New shooters?” he shouted.

“Yes sir.” I yelled back.

“I’ve got a Sig Sauer .40 cal if they’re interested.”

“Hell yeah.” I offered up enthusiastically.

I happened to glance over at the ambassador’s girlfriend who suddenly broke into a knowing smile as if to say, “They’ve got the bug.”  Sated, we then headed over to our sports bar of choice, Twin Peaks, a few miles to the North.

We were immediately seated and we placed our drink orders before catching up on the last 10 years.  A few minutes later our drinks arrived and Curt, having the demeanor of something akin to a frat boy raised his beer glass and offered a toast: “To one more kick-ass time with a great bunch of guys.”

My friends thus inducted into our fraternity, a sense of satisfaction swept over my psyche.

Here’s to the Fraternal Order of Middle Aged Armed Guys.  Be polite to us.  We may not rule the world, but we are in charge of our little corner of it.

Guy-o

Leave a comment

Filed under Life or Something Like It