Entries from November 2008 ↓

Low Profile Works So Far

Not doing much these days to change the world.  Talked with Tim Luckadoo in the wake of his father’s passing, and we shared a belief that each of our fathers worked to leave the world a better place and succeeded.  Bob Luckadoo and Allen Jobe, both N.C. State graduates, both politically active, although in different parties, both sons of small town life who liked the scale of personal relationships found here, each did, in most ways, what he came here to do.

So their sons now struggle for a foothold from which to finish the race, maybe another 40 years of working to leave this place better that we found it.

Tim, a vice chancellor at State, has a resume that stretches handsomely.  Mine looks like something the cat dragged in.

For the past 17 months, I have lived in another man’s house, driven another man’s car, and done my best work subbing for preachers who were out of town.  I did write a book I like a lot, which I really believe is going to be in my hands and in some of your hands very shortly, but the wait is driving me a little nuts.

Waiting is nuts.  25 years ago the late great Wilma Swofford ran into me in the grocery store.  She asked the news from my life.  I told her I had a novel in front of an agent in New York.  She mused, “You’re always waiting on something.”  It stung then, and it stings now, although I honestly believe Wilma meant no harm.  Wilma could be a pain, but she had a heart for leaving the world a better place.  Those kinds of people can be a pain.

And how many of us are there?  (Yes, waiting is nuts, and yes, I am always waiting on something, and yes, that is nuts.  I get it.  I understand it.  That doesn’t mean I will change.)  How many of us oppose the death penalty, work to end world hunger, give a hoot about families falling apart because of violence, oppose the war, work for gay and lesbian equality, plant a garden, volunteer in the local shelter, raise money or raise hell or root for those who do?

Cranky, frustrated, whiney, edgy, rough around the edges, and maybe have been that way all my life, and to what end?  Has it done any good?  Yes, it has.  I worked briefly in the Obama campaign.  We won!  I’ve had five women coming out of violent relationships say I helped save their lives and the lives of their children.  Nice work if you can get it.  Some of the books are good.  Some of the blogs and columns are good.  Sure, sure, sure, I should take some consolation in having seen the effects of the good I’ve done.  Don’t bring up the bad.  I am painfully aware of all that.

For now, the low profile works.  I get to see some nice kids at church and offer them a little encouragement.  Last Sunday a perfectly gorgeous three-year-old named Anna looked up at me from beside her mama’s knee and said, “I don’t like that man.”  He mama laughed easily, and I did, too.  She and her husband barely managed the wiggling and squirming of two children.  I loved the freedom in their lives, and told them so.  She told me they had come out of the Catholic church, where such freedom was not encouraged.  We, of the Unitarina Universalist Church of Spartanburg, are delighted with spontaniety and freedom, at least in most cases.

The new book is “Falling In Love With Everything.”  I asked a young man at the self-publishing house if that sounded like a good idea.  He said, “Yessir, it does.”  So now my job is to fall in love with a low profile and waiting on my books to arrive.  May I have this dance?

I love that anybody reads this stuff

Blogging is going to be a passion.  I can just tell it.  I got off to a slow start, maybe took myself too seriously, but now that I know there are a hundred million of us, and that means each of us can only have three or four readers tops, I have arrived in a realistic expectation of what this thing can and cannot do, and I am commited to giving it my all, maybe even what Lincoln called a “last full measure of devotion,” although I hope not.  You never know.

Michelle Smith’s comment on my last blog is a thriller, although I have not yet heard from Doug Ellis on what he thinks.  Who cares?  Oh, hell, I care.  God knows, I care what perfect strangers think.

Bill is one of my favorite customers, not because he spends the most money with me, but because he loves to talk.  He will talk about anything, any body, you know the type.  And he is pushing 80.  Men in the late 70’s and early 80’s have a crankiness about them that can be off putting, and yes, Bill can be off-putting, but not mostly.  Mostly he is charming, witty, caring, has a grip on the values that hold the world together, loves his wife, grandchildren, great grandchildren.  He’s magnificent.

He talked about running for president just a few months ago, and of course, I love a good political contest about as much as I love the breath in my lungs, so I encouraged him to sally forth.  Then I learned his platform, and my enthusiasm grew.  “I’d institute mandatory retirement for everybody at 45, no exceptions.”  My knees almost buckled at the thought.  How wonderful.  Set the whole thing up so that the working life could only drive us nuts until 45, but he added more.  “At 50 you go back to work.”

His eyes twinkle when he’s on to something.  “Because if a man works to 65 or 70 and then retires . . .” he paused, as any good storyteller would at this point, and finished with “. . . what can he do?”

Delicious, delightful.  I intended to write a column about the brilliance of that bit of social engineering, but my column was terminated about six weeks ago and Bill told me this afternoon he’s been missing it.  “I like what you write,” he told me, but added, “of course, you probably don’t care about writing.”

Normally I play my cards close to the chest with my customers because i don’t want to be off putting, but that prompted an explosion of emotion that sounded something like this, “I love to write.  I have three books on the market.  I’m a fool for writing.  Writing is something I have done passionately since my fourth grade teacher told me I was going to be a writier.  Are you kidding?  I love to write.”

He looked at me and smiled, that twinkle in his eye, “You do, huh?”

Yes, I do.  Thanks to any of you who read.  Me or anybody else.

Doug Ellis May Have Changed My Life


Back when I used to protest the Vietnam war, somebody would say, “What about highway deaths?  Lots more people have died on the highways than died in Vietnam.”  Well, that would only be true if you count just American deaths.  But count them one way or another, the toll of deaths on the highways is truly a cause of national shame.

What new technology could make its way onto the market today if it had the potential of killing 46,000 Americans every year, 126 every day?

All this comes to mind because of Doug Ellis.  Ellis is a trainer, a motivational type guy, a teacher, a song and dance man.  He teaches the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving Course for lawless criminals like me who drive 60 in a 45.

By the way, the night before I took the class, I was driving 45 in a 45 between Chesnee and Mayo and everybody was passing me like I was standing still. 

But never mind the gross unfairness of my having to take the course.  Ellis is a whiz bang instructor, the kind of guy who could teach you how to watch paint dry and make it interesting.

He may have changed my life.  The course is taught nationally and has been taught for 40 years.  He says the council has followed people who have taken the class, and only 15 percent are ever involved in an auto crash or receive another moving violation.

Maybe I will be among that 85 percent who avoid both the tickets and the wrecks for the rest of my life. 

If so, I will thank Doug Ellis.  He’s a 76-year-old farmer who lives in McDowell County, where I used to live.  He also teaches stress management, anger management, and relationships in the local prisons.  I could have used all those courses, too, in my sick and twisted life.

He really stirred my stuff in his passion for his subject.  You would have thought those 126 people killed every day in America were personal friends of his.  His caring, as seen through his dramatic cadence and gestures, inspired me. 

But as inspiring as Ellis’s passion for highway safety is, I couldn’t help but think little to nothing is done about highway safety in most theaters of our lives, because of our rabid devotion to the automobile culture.  Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a short story about an alien who observed our culture and was amazed at how this race of steel capsules had bred slaves that would ride inside them, keep them fed, change the rubber circles they ride on, wash them and generally treat them with such care and devotion.

It is that care and devotion that now has us in the clutches of global warming, threatening not just 126 of us as we get out of bed tomorrow, but threatening all of us.

Bottum line is this.  Slow down.  Look out for the other guy.  Don’t tailgate and when you get tailgated, let the other guy go around.  Pause before intering an intersection after a light changes.  One third of all drivers push red lights, and work for a day when we leave less of a carbon footprint.  Doug Ellis didn’t say anything about the carbon footprint, but I’m betting the cows and chickens on his farm will be better off when we get a handle on global warming.

Sure, Obama’s smart, but . . .


Brains are overrated.  Emotions are what move the world.  Brains have gotten overrated, because it is primarily smart people who control information, and by smart, I do not mean wise, but intelligent.


Smart people have done a lot of stupid things in history.  David Halberstam made a national reputation for himself by pointing out the folly of Vietnam in his book, “The Best and The Brightest.”  Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and for that matter, Lyndon Johnson, were among the most intelligent leaders the country has produced, yet they lacked the integrity, the wisdom, the emotional balance to admit Vietnam was a mistake, and more importantly admit it to the people of Vietnam, so that a reasonable peace could be negotiated.


I know that paragraph is raw with oversimplification, but remember this piece is about emotions, not brains.  The challenge here is to write about the overrating of brains without sounding like an idiot.


Another example of what I’m trying to get at is found in the story of Adlai Stevenson walking away from an auditorium where he had just spoken while running for president.  “God bless you, Gov. Stevenson, every thinking person in America will vote for you,” a woman called out.  “It’ll take more than that,” Stevenson shouted back.


Yes, more than that, indeed.  What Stevenson needed, and did not receive, was an emotional wave of support from an electorate that is all over the emotional and intelligence scale.  He needed the votes of working people and capitalists, sinners and saints, people who could see beyond Eisenhower’s mythic proportions as the general who succeeded in defeating the Germans.  My own mother told me years ago, “The biggest mistake I ever made at the polls was voting for Eisenhower.”


As I have floated on a sense of elation at the Obama victory and grieved the loss of my friend, Linda Ketner, in her race for the U.S. House from Charleston and Myrtle Beach, I have come to some pretty simple conclusions.  People vote with their hearts.  We often put our brains on hold for the sake on an election.  Some people are not so much interested in peace as they are making sure the U.S. has a strong enough military to kill anybody who looks at us sideways.  The strength we can wield at the end of a gun is seen as more important, by many Americans, than the strength that comes of co-operation and dialogue.  Many of us don’t care about poor people.  The Biblical quote, “The poor will be with you always,” is misread as permission from Jesus to ignore the poor.  Never mind, that almost everything else found in the Jewish and Christian texts is written in sympathy with the poor and seeking for them the righteousness that comes from justice, not acceptance of their plight.


So justice, educational reform, even environmental reform, few of these issues are seen as important by enough people to make them realities.  I told you these were simple conclusions, and yet they never fail to shock me and send me reeling with confusion and depression.  Will we wake up from emotional grips on such bizarre ideas as “The poor deserve their plight,” and “Our enemies need to be exterminated like vermin,” as one woman in Columbia, S.C. put it to me?


I think we will wake up.  My dear, dear Gabriele, wrote to me that all my dreams will come true.  If that’s true, we will wake up.  Obama is a good start.  Now, let’s elect Linda Ketner in 2010.  

Not Letting Ketner’s Loss Make Me Cynical


Jock Lauterer and I went into business together in 1980.  I was oozing enthusiasm for all of life, believing in infinite possibilities (in fact, used to ask Charles Burgin often, “Do you believe in infinite possibilities?” He would always say, “Yes.”)

Jock told me in the midst of one of my oozing, gushing fits of enthusiasm, “If anything, I hope this experience makes you a tad more cynical.”

What a lovely hope.  No it isn’t.  Cynicism strikes me as a curse 28 years later.  But I feel it in my bones the day after learning my dear, dear friend Linda Ketner was defeated in her bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.  I feel it not so much for myself, although it certainly is leaking and running into my socks right now.  But I also feel it is at the heart of why Linda lost.  Some folks may argue that had she been straight, maybe with a lovely Todd Palin at her side, she might have won.  After all, Henry Brown has enough negatives to be beatable if you could just raise enough money to buy more TV ads than he could, which Linda was unable to do.  Being openly gay and winning 48 percent of the vote in a conservative enclave like South Carolina’s first district is nothing to sneeze at.

But I’m deathly afraid that Linda lost because people are cynical.  I had thought, for a moment, that if people only knew her generous heart, her vision of a world where people help each other, her amazing capacity to see things clearly and come up with problem solving ideas, they would vote for her.  But I’m afraid, scared, horrified at the thought I might be wrong about that.  Maybe people don’t want generosity, problem solving, a world where people help each other.  Maybe there are people who like unfairness, injustice, poor schools for poor people, poor housing for poor people, the kinds of clunky, awful, pain-inflicting realities that drive Linda Ketner nuts.  Wouldn’t that be sad?  Or maybe not?

McIver Watson, another dear, dear friend, told me my cynicism will pass.  As Tiny Tim would say, God bless us everyone.