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A Little of This, A Little of That

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”—Thomas Keller

As the temperatures drop (That is going to happen, right? Summer is going to end? Eventually?), my thoughts turn to comfort food. Something to keep my belly warm and satisfied. Many dishes from my childhood fall under the umbrella of “comfort food,” but one I keep returning to is my grandmother’s cornbread.

There was almost always a pan of cornbread to be found at Grandmother’s house. If it wasn’t just out of the oven and sitting on the stove to cool, it was already sliced and stored in individual, foldover sandwich bags on the counter ready for someone to grab and add to their meal, or have as a snack. To this day, it is not unusual for me to find myself sitting at the wooden table that is situated in the center of my grandmother’s kitchen, eating a slice of cornbread as she pads around the small space, offering up every foodstuff she has at her disposal.

“You hungry? Let me warm up some of these beans for you. How about some vegetable soup? Can I slice up a tomato for you? They’re real good with some salt. Just right. Mary brought me a cake yesterday, let’s have us a little bite of it. It’ll be good with some coffee. I’ll put a pot on. I bet those girls will want a Little Debbie. Let me get ‘em down for you.”

 Y’all, my grandmother has a whole cabinet of just Little Debbies. My memories and thoughts about that cabinet could be a story all on its own. Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling it. For now, suffice it to say that my grandmother, at 90 years old, has a heart of gold and a focused, solitary purpose to feed her people, through their bellies and their souls.

“Sit down!” I say. “I’m really not even hungry, I just want to visit for a minute.”

 The kids basically have their entire upper bodies in the Little Debbie cabinet, and I’m hoping they’re going to choose something that I’ll want a teeny bite of and can later pretend I didn’t actually ingest. I’m still not hungry, but we all know that hunger is not a prerequisite for what is arguably America’s best snack cake.

All the family members and friends that pass through this small, wooden box of a kitchen get the same special treatment. We also get the same cornbread, even though each person enjoys it a little differently. One of my uncles prefers it crumbled in a bowl of cold milk. My cousin wants it drizzled with honey. My mom likes to find the crunchy pieces along the edges of the pan. My personal favorite is to have it when it’s hot out of the oven. I want it cut in a triangular piece, like pie, then sliced lengthwise, so that the middle can be smothered in butter that melts down into the bread and drips out of the sides.

So maybe it’s not the healthiest choice I could make, but it sure is delicious.

The cornbread might be consumed in many different ways, but it is always, always served up in a cast iron skillet. Grandmother had several of these pans, in various sizes, shapes, and ages. She recently started thinning out her collection and gave a few of her pans away. My sister and I are both recent recipients of one of Grandmother’s cast iron skillets.

When she first gave it to me, I admittedly didn’t know what to do with it. It looked like a clunky relic stacked in my cabinet among the many smooth and shiny non-stick pots and pans. Since all I’d ever seen cast iron used for was cornbread, I sort of had the idea that maybe that was all anyone ever made in it! I’m not much of a cook, and I consume carbs sparingly, so whipping up a pan of cornbread wasn’t really a priority. But when my sister brought a pan of heavenly skillet brownies to a family get-together (totally worth the carb count, by the way), it opened my eyes to the idea that the cast iron skillet might be capable of more, much more.

The benefits of cast-iron cooking are pretty considerable. In an era when many of us are trying to eat clean and return to a more natural way of preparing food, cast iron is right in line with this movement. Cast iron is a naturally non-stick material and needs minimal cleaning. The material is basically indestructible and will last for generations, never needing to be replaced. But if you did need to replace it, it’s an incredibly low-cost choice. A well-made 10” cast iron skillet should only set you back about $30.

As long as you give it enough time to heat up, cast iron cooks very evenly, and can go from stovetop to oven and back again. Just be sure to use a hot pad to transfer it, because nothing puts a damper on a loving family meal quite like 3rd-degree burns. A cast iron skillet can even improve your health because it actually adds safe amounts of iron to your food. Many of us have iron deficiencies, but last time I checked, no one is suffering from lack of Teflon in their diet!

Another benefit of the cast-iron skillet, and I haven’t tested this out just yet, is that this thing would be an excellent weapon, should you ever find yourself in a situation that you need to knock someone out, or defend yourself against a rabid animal that has wandered into your kitchen. The pan I have is heavy as all get-out, which is about the only negative I can find when it comes to cast iron cookware. When I think of skillets, I have a vision of a pioneer woman with a skillet held overhead, chasing a man around a campfire to teach him a lesson about something offensive he’s done. All I have to say is that pioneer woman is way more woman than I am because I don’t think I could make it one trip around that campfire before my arms turned to jelly and I dropped the darn pan on my own head. Seriously, they should add a cast iron skillet to the Workout of the Day at CrossFit.

When my grandmother gave me her skillet, she handed it over and said, “I’ve already seasoned it for you,” a comment that scared me a little bit. “Great,” I thought. “Something else for me to do.” It is true that cast iron needs to be regularly seasoned to retain its non-stick properties. But the seasoning process doesn’t have to be evocative of Martha Stewart with a jar of naturally derived animal fat, massaging a skillet and then placing it on a spit she constructed over a fire in her backyard. Really, all you have to do is wipe the skillet out when you’re finished cooking, then, using a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil, wipe it down once more and put it away. Done. You’re seasoned and ready to go for the next use.

With my initial reservations of cooking with cast iron a thing of the past, I was ready to create my own cornbread tradition with my family. I asked my grandmother if she would mind sharing her cornbread recipe with me. She looked at me, and then set her gaze on a point in the distance. I wondered for a minute if she maybe didn’t want to share the recipe with me, but that’s not really her style. She would give me the slippers off her feet if I complimented them, so I knew she wouldn’t be a hold out on a recipe. While she paused, I asked, “Is it one of those things that you’ve been making for so long you don’t really have a recipe? Do you just sort of eyeball everything you put in there and maybe don’t know exactly how much of what goes in?” Remember, I’m no cook, but I’ve heard that there are people who can do this. They just know what ingredients to use, and how much to mix in, and how long it needs to cook. It all seems like magic to me, a person who needs a recipe to boil noodles.

“Well, no… It’s not that,” her words trail off a bit. “I just get the recipe off the back of the bag of the cornmeal.”

 Well, how do you like that? A constant element of some of my most special moments with my grandmother is just out there for the taking for anyone who picks up a bag of White Lily cornmeal. Who knew?

But don’t you think for one minute that I believe that cornbread is created solely from a rote recipe found on any grocery store shelf. The recipe on that package is missing some key ingredients. The smooth wooden table. The sound of the furnace rumbling in the hallway as it tries to keep up with the high temperature set on the thermostat. The window above the sink that looks out onto the sloping backyard and my grandfather’s barn. My grandmother’s hands, opening cabinets and rooting around in the refrigerator (which she calls “the icebox”) so she can feed us more. The phone that she lets ring because she doesn’t want to interrupt even one minute of our visit.

A little of this, and a little of that. It all adds up to something I’ll never be able to recreate, but I’ll also never forget.

If you’re interested, I did actually come up with a cornbread recipe that seemed to please my crowd of picky eaters. After they each found their own personal tweak, of course. 

Skillet Cornbread pdf

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In the Path of a Storm

“Every storm runs out of rain. Every dark night turns into day.” — from “Set You Free” by Gary Allan (click to listen)

A little over 2 weeks ago all eyes were locked on televisions and devices, watching intently as a monster of a storm named Florence brewed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Many projections showed the storm slamming into our beloved Charleston at a Category 5, rolling like a freight train through Columbia and then eventually slowing down over Greenville to bring about “catastrophic flooding.”

It was early still, in the life of a hurricane, and this was an unusually slow-moving storm. So, we watched and waited. We made minor preparations. We implored our loved ones on the coast to pack their essentials and shelter with us. We bought snacks. Lots of snacks. We discussed whether or not schools might be closed, and what we would do with the food in the freezer if the power went out. We made sure our outdoor furniture was secured. We watched more news reports while eating the snacks.

The storm crept along, taking its sweet time, as if we all weren’t just sitting here, waiting impatiently for its arrival. So terribly inconsiderate! Meteorologists predicted that the “monster” was shifting its trajectory further north, and maybe we wouldn’t be quite as affected. But we were warned not to let our guard down just yet; there would likely still be strong winds, heavy rains, and don’t forget all that catastrophic flooding heading down the hills from our already-sodden mountains.

We went out for more snacks. We replenished the wine.

The weekend arrived, and the storm sidled up to the Carolina coast; definitely formidable, but mostly a shadow of the former “monster” it once was. By this time, most of us had stopped watching the projections; we were weary of all the chatter, the slowness of the storm’s approach, and the media’s embellishment of events. I went for a walk, and the day was as lovely as they come. The most beautiful blue skies were above, dotted with the prettiest white clouds, puffy as bolls of cotton. The wind was blowing, but at a level that was just slightly above “breezy.” If it hadn’t been for the constant news coverage, I would have never believed that there was a storm of any kind within the distance of an afternoon’s drive.

It seemed as though even the storm had grown weary of the anticipation of its own arrival. All the time it spent idling away from land, slowly determining its target actually drained it of most of its strength, rather than feeding it. Like a child who stayed up well past her bedtime, the storm crashed clumsily into our coastline, quite a different scenario from the barreling locomotive landfall maneuver that so many had predicted.  Certainly, the storm was devastating and catastrophic for many areas. The effects are still being felt now and will continue to be felt for several months. But the first predictions were wildly different from the final reality. Most of the preparations made in response to those first predictions ended up being completely unnecessary. And even though the people hardest hit by the storm had as much advance notice of their fate as possible, I’d be willing to bet that they were still caught unaware by the harsh reality of weathering a hurricane.

But, life goes on and for most of us who were spared damage from the storm, as soon as the snacks ran out, so did our worries over what would happen.

About a week after Hurricane Florence’s landfall, with several days in normalcy on the books, there was an early evening gathering of dark clouds. I didn’t think much of it, as it only makes sense that the drawn-out Indian Summer we’ve been experiencing would easily stir up a thunderstorm. The next time I looked up, half the sky was covered in thick, dark clouds, and I could see a wall of rainwater several miles in the distance. A few minutes later, I felt heavy raindrops plop, plop, plopping on my head as I walked briskly into the grocery store. A half hour later I left the store and had to run through the parking lot with my sandals in my hand. Maybe not the best idea, but they were too delicate and slippery bottomed to wade through what I estimated to be a good 2 inches of water on the pavement. Rain pelted me from all sides of the tiny, inadequate umbrella I’d thrown in my purse at the last minute.

As I drove away, the dark clouds that had been so far off in the distance had closed in all around me, blocking the last of the early evening light. In some places, the roads were covered in rushing water. Traffic lights were out, and a few minor accidents were on the road’s shoulder. The thunder boomed so loudly in my ears that I just knew it had to be in a cloud directly over my head. Lightning streaked across the sky, adding palpable electricity to the air. Power was knocked out in places, and the wind blew down branches and tossed debris.

No warning. No preparations. No watching other than what we did with our own eyes, estimating the distance of the clouds. No waiting other than sitting in the place where we were upon the storm’s arrival, lingering there until it passed and we felt safe to be outside again.

Two storms. Very different in their origins, their size, and their strength. But they ended much the same, causing minor inconvenience to many, and major devastation to a few. A storm causes everyday life to take a pause so that we can sit and wait for it to pass. And, pass, it always does. Whether it moves on to a new location or dissipates and falls apart, it can’t sustain enough strength to stay in one place, churning with intensity for very long.

And so it is with the trials in our lives. Rarely do the storms we prepare for end up being the ones we have to ride out. It’s the ones that materialize from nowhere that knock the wind out of us.

We batten down our emotional hatches to protect our hearts, only to turn a corner and run right into the one person that broke us. We stock up on healthy habits to ward off disease, then find out that our genetics had the deck stacked against us from the start. We work long hours and say the right things to the right people to create job security and build empires, just to see it all decimated by conditions that are completely outside our control. We plan, we prep, and we worry, all in an attempt to stay a step ahead of the things that we predict will bring us down. But in the end, the worst of times we have to weather ride in like a summer storm: loud and blustery, obscuring our vision and scaring the hell out of us. All with little to no warning.

As a child, I was terribly afraid of storms. My childlike mind placed my fears in the tangible features of the storm. The rumbling and shaking that accompanied thunder made me think the walls would fall down around us. Flashes of lightning always felt too close, and I was sure someone would be struck down.

My parents tried many things to calm my fears, but the thing that worked best was to have me count slowly between the thunder crack and the lightning flash. Each number represented a mile’s distance between us and the storm.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi… I peered out the window, searching for the lightning, closing my eyes tight when it flashed.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four… Until the spaces between the numbers grew further still, and all that was left of the storm was a rumble in the distance, and steam rising from the hot ground.

I still count the seconds and miles during storms, but now it is to calm the fears of my daughter. I know now that the seed of the fear doesn’t come from the actual thunder and lightning, but rather the unpredictability of nature and the helpless, untethered feeling that comes when things are out of our control.

As an adult, storms don’t scare me as much as they used to. My childhood fear has been replaced with a buzzy kind of nervousness, along with awe and respect for what God can do.

Many of us see storms as a sign of God’s strength and might. We cling to the childlike image of Him above us in the clouds, glowering down on creation, flexing his Godly muscles and loudly proclaiming His superiority. I see storms more as a sign of His promise. Less of Him saying to us, “Stand back and see what I can do,” and more of Him showing us, “Look here, see what you can do with Me by your side? Don’t waste your time preparing anything, because the preparations have already been made. I’ve given you your portion. You have all you need. This storm will leave you, and I will still be here.”

Preparation is good, but worry is fruitless. No one can truly predict a storm’s outcome, except to say that it will eventually burn itself out. But God’s provision is constant, and He will never leave us unprepared.

Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
–Matthew 6:34

 

 

 

 

Featured post

Pool Parties and Peach Queens

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired… jumping, running—that’s the way to live.”—Jack Kerouac

Aside from a brief period of time when my children were small and hadn’t yet learned to swim, pools have always held an alluring quality for me. As it generally goes, the things you don’t have are the things you want the most. My family didn’t have a pool, nor were we members of a neighborhood association that provided one. This meant the only time I got to dip my toes in a pool was either when we were on vacation, or some kind soul invited me over to their home for a swim. I spent most of my summers paddling around in murky lake waters. I yearned to be in water which was clear enough for me to see my feet; and, to be able to plant those feet on a surface that didn’t squish up between my toes. Bonus points for the feeling that there wouldn’t be any unidentified creatures sharing my swim space. It didn’t bother me a bit that the chlorine in those pools turned my hair green and plastic-like, resembling some sort of radioactive straw. Never mind that my eyes were red and scratchy for days after hours spent in a pit of chemicals, giving me the look of a pre-teen meth-head mermaid. Also of no concern to me? Those pools that had the rough concrete bottoms that worked on my feet like a meat tenderizer. By the end of a week of vacation, I could still find that one spot of uninjured skin on the corner of a big toe, and I would use that to bob up and down when I couldn’t just tread water.

Dive competitions, Marco Polo, handstands, breath-holding contests, balancing on floats, you name it, I was ALL IN FOR IT. Drop me at the pool and drag me out when it’s time to eat dinner.

In high school, many of my summer days were spent sweating it out at my summer job, but every now and then, a group of us would all have a day off. I can see myself now, having spent the entire morning in pajamas, watching MTV and eating peanut butter out of the jar, just waiting for the phone to ring. (What must it be like for kids these days, to have all their friends just two thumbs away right there in their phones? I think of all that time I spent staring at the phone at my mother’s house, willing it to ring.) Some days, the call I was waiting for would finally come in.

drew barrymore scream
Actual photo of me being super excited that someone finally called me.

“Hello?”
“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“What’re you doin’?”
“Nothin.’ What’re you doin’?”
“Nothin.’ (pause) A bunch of us are goin’ over to Lotie’s. You wanna come?”
“Yeah, let me get my bathing suit on. See you in twenty?”

That was cool, right? It didn’t sound at all like I was dying to get out of the house and go somewhere, and that I would actually be ready and watching the driveway through the blinds in approximately 7 minutes, right? On the other end of the line was my friend Libba, and she was talking about getting a group of our friends together to go to her great aunt Lotie’s (a nickname for Lois, and pronounced “low-tee”) to swim in her pool.

shag girls
“Get in, loser. We’re going swimming.”

There was a pool. There were friends. There might not be diving competitions, but there would definitely be laughing. Actually, there probably would be diving competitions. Whatever it was, I was ALL IN. Libba, usually accompanied with a couple of our other friends, would pull up to my house in her gigantic, late-model baby blue Bonneville and lay on the horn. I would practically skip down my front steps and jump in for the outing. It wouldn’t be unusual for us to make a stop at the nearby Clock restaurant for cheeseburgers and fries. Not necessarily because we were all that hungry, but because it sounded good, it was on the way, and we were 16, blessed with the metabolism of caffeinated squirrels.

crazy squirrels
“Anybody got a Diet Coke I can have?”

Soon after we arrived at Lotie’s, a slow trickle of friends would start showing up for the impromptu get-together. Libba’s cousin would almost always be there, too, with a pack of his friends, and before we knew it, a small party would be underway.

Lotie’s house was an oasis hidden in plain sight in the middle of residential downtown Greer. It sat on the corner of two well-traveled streets; a modestly sized house with a backyard that was almost completely enclosed by a decorative brick wall. I wonder how many people passed it regularly, having no idea what a beautiful secret garden, sparkling pool, and quaint pool house were in that backyard. It was built in the early ‘50’s, and it is believed to be the first pool in town, and for a short while, the only one. I didn’t know Lotie personally, but she and her husband must have been quite the entertainers back in their day. For several years, they opened their home and pool area as hosts of parties celebrating the contestants of the Peach Queen beauty pageant during the South Carolina Peach Festival, which was held for many years in Greer. One year, they filled the pool with peaches for a photo shoot with the beauty queens, who had traveled from all over the state. In the pool house hung several black and white photographs from those parties. Smiling beauty queens, with perfectly coiffed hairdos and makeup, wearing modest bathing suits. Some floating blissfully on pool rafts, while others sat on the side and dangled their long legs into the clear water. I imagine an invitation to one of Lotie’s pool parties must have been a pretty hot ticket back in the day. Those gals must have primped and prissed all morning long to get ready to strut their stuff at literally the only pool in town.

My friends and I arrived at Lotie’s pool party about 40 years after those beauty queens, and while there was certainly no primping and prissing on our parts, I imagine we enjoyed it every bit as much as they did. I also like to think that Lotie still enjoyed the art of entertaining. She almost always came out to greet us and make small talk (before her afternoon nap, naturally). Ever the gracious hostess, she would have her housekeeper, Imogene, bring us fresh chocolate chip cookies. Imogene was like an angel, dressed completely in white, and those cookies were undeniably heaven-sent. Even if we were still full from the cheeseburgers, we devoured those cookies as if we hadn’t eaten in days. Lotie was from another time: the summer after our senior year she asked some of the girls in our group if they had their hats and gloves ready for going off to Clemson in the fall. Her mannerly demeanor and dedication to keeping up her home had a way of making us feel special. Knowing that she thought highly of us kept us in line. We would have never wanted to disappoint her by acting like a bunch of hooligans. Now, that’s not to say that we abided by royal protocol every time we went over. There may have been some jumping off the roof into the pool during Lotie’s naptime. Probably a fair amount of foul language was batted around. But for the most part, I think we highly respected this lady who showed us that she thought we were worthy to share in her lovely oasis and partake in the Lord’s cookies.

For a hot minute, back in early Spring, I fell under the swimming pool spell and thought about having one installed at my own home.

At first, I thought it would be easy. I stood in the backyard with a very friendly and motivated contractor who told me, straight-faced, that we could be swimming by July. Sure, there would still be decking to be done, but we could work around that, right? I was like a female Clark Griswold, staring out the window at my crystal clear blue pool, with my smiling family and friends waving back at me, singing my praises for making all their dreams come true. A hero for the ages, I tell you.

cousin eddie in pool
“We love you, Mom!!”

But there was a problem. Well, several problems. The more we learned, the more we wanted, and, as home improvement projects tend to do, the plans outgrew the budget and we had to put on the brakes and redirect. I wonder if this happened to Lotie and her husband as they planned their pool? It must have seemed like an insurmountable task at the time. Not like now, when there are pool companies all over town. They were the very first one! Their neighbors must have thought they were crazy, digging a giant hole in their backyard and building a whole separate house. Think of the traffic they must have created with all the workers. And how did they find someone to help them maintain it? It was the only one in town! Surely, at some point, they had to think they might have been making a colossal mistake, that the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. But at least one of them had the motivation to keep going with it. At least one of them was excited about being the center of the social scene. One of them had a vision of children paddling around in the backyard, growing up and inviting over a new generation of friends. They almost certainly were committed to this being their “forever home,” and couldn’t let resale figures cloud their judgment. But I doubt that even the most visionary of people could have foreseen a great-niece and great-nephew with a pack of restless teenagers still enjoying the fruits of their labors and worries a full 40 or more years after they had the idea to take the risk and make it happen. I guess sometimes in life you just have to shut out all the reasons you have for not doing something, and instead look at what kind of happiness you can create for yourself and spread to others in the process. It’s like thumping the first tile in a line of standing dominoes and having no idea where the line ends.

Lotie and her husband (and probably Imogene and many of the Peach Queens) departed their earthly oasis several years ago. The house went up for sale, and I’ve heard that a lovely young family lives there now, which makes me so happy. I hope they use the pool often and that they love it as much as so many people before them have. There are gallons upon gallons of memories and good times in that treasured pool, each generation adding more, to the point of overflowing. But isn’t that the great thing about memories? There’s always room for making more.

IMG_8223
“Off my raft, sister. I’m making room for memories.”

 

Featured post

Here’s to You, Mrs. Buchanan

“There is nothing so stable as change.”—Bob Dylan

Growing up, I remember a house that stood out from all the others in our neighborhood. All around us were rows upon rows of boilerplate, square homes, shingled in varying neutral shades, all with a similar wide front porch, brown front door, narrow front yard and some form of a brick chimney.

But this house was different. It had the same asbestos shingles as the others, but they were bathed in a sunny shade of buttercup yellow. A gabled roof was perched atop a quaint entrance with a freshly painted white front door. The porch was not the standard issue front-facing variety, but screened in, and thoughtfully set off to the side, under a grove of shade trees. You could see that there was sturdy white ceiling fan turning lazily, offering gentle assistance to whatever breeze was already there, and the puffy cushions on the patio furniture looked positively nap-worthy. The corner lot was meticulously manicured; a stark contrast to the surrounding lawns in this working-class neighborhood where yard maintenance was a low priority for the begrudging homeowners and renters. The house was an example of above-and-beyond smack in the middle of a lot of just-getting-by.

Every Autumn, a tall maple tree on the street corner of the yard would burst into a beautiful blaze of gold that would literally stop traffic as onlookers slowed down to admire it. It was one of those trees that most people would think was more trouble than it was worth. The glorious display would last no more than a week, at which time every single leaf would make the ultimate sacrifice and careen off the tree and onto the lawn to make a thick golden blanket beneath the empty branches. Unlike the other lawns in the neighborhood, whose leaves would remain until they were brown and crumbly and half-blown away, these gilded leaves would be scooped up within hours of when they reached the ground, stuffed into lawn bags that looked like gifts, and lined up orderly along the street, waiting for the City to come and pick them up.

One day I asked my mother who lived in the golden cottage. She replied, “Oh, that’s where the Buchanans live.”

Buchanan. I knew that name. But it couldn’t possibly be the same Buchanan that I was thinking of. The Buchanan I was thinking of was Mrs. Buchanan, the meanest substitute teacher in all of Greer, SC. Maybe even all of Greenville County. And while it would have been hard to prove, I would have bet my whole piggy bank that she was the crankiest, toughest, and downright saltiest sub in all of the great state of South Carolina. Everyone agreed. Kids who couldn’t see eye to eye on anything would unite in synchronized groans when Mrs. Buchanan entered the classroom. In general, substitute teachers were welcome, sometimes even cause for celebration. Maybe because of their ignorance of classroom rules, or their fondness for showing movies instead of following lesson plans, or just because having a substitute was a departure from the ordinary humdrum of school days. None of this applied when Mrs. Buchanan was substituting. It was as if she wanted to be tougher than the teacher for whom she was substituting. She wasn’t about to phone anything in. She doled out plenty of schoolwork and even assigned homework for the evening. She was there to teach, and she expected you to learn; no, master the material she presented. She wouldn’t take any lip, as we said in those days, and in the rare instance that a student dared to buck her authority, it was straight to the principal’s office.

Everything about Mrs. Buchanan was no-nonsense. Her silvery blond hair was coiffed into a perfectly wispy helmet, likely the result of a weekly wash and set. If there was a threat of rain, she would proudly don a clear plastic rain bonnet to protect her investment as she walked through the parking lot to her spotless, waxed gold Buick. She wore small reading glasses that she kept on a golden chain hanging around her neck. When not needed for reading, those glasses rested on her formidable bosoms, unmovable in their WWII-era underpinnings, meant to withstand a bombing with nary a jiggle. Smart, neutral sweater sets paired with polyester blend pants and sensible flats provided her with a uniform that was both comfortable and the height of appropriateness. She was there to do a job. Not to make friends, or to waste time, or to collect a paycheck for doing the bare minimum, and, heavens above, not to merely babysit.

“Class, today you will have a substitute teacher, Mrs. Buchanan.”
All together now: “UUUUGGGHHHHHH.”

So, of course, this house must belong to another set of Buchanans. A cousin, perhaps? There was just no way that that Mrs. Buchanan could live in this lovely house full of goodness and light. It was like seeing the Wicked Witch of the West wearing Glinda the Good Witch’s dress. It was all wrong.

My mother was still talking. “Oh, you know them. Mrs. Buchanan. She used to be a school teacher when I was your age. I think someone at the church told me she’s a substitute now. Couldn’t stand being retired…”

Nooooooooooooooooooo. How could this be??? Mrs. Buchanan (a.ka. Mrs. ButtCannon; kids can be so clever in their mean-ness) was the force behind this lovely home of sunshine and buttercups? You’re telling me that the woman who used wooden rulers to paddle little hands came home to relax with a tall glass of sweet iced tea on that breezy screened porch? The same stoic lady I saw stand like a stalwart captain behind my teacher’s desk by day also stood gazing out the window with the delicate white curtains patterned with sweet little yellow flowers washing dishes by night?

As a child, I could not possibly reconcile the two. So, I blocked this knowledge out of my brain. I didn’t tell any of my friends that I knew where she lived. I stopped looking at the house when we passed it in the car. I don’t know why, but it felt like some sort of betrayal. My imagined story for this place had been shattered by cold, hard truth.

As an adult, however, it makes complete sense. The perfect home doesn’t just happen. You either have a full staff at your disposal, or you have to be a no-nonsense battleax to stay on top of the never-ending tasks. You have to have a Mr. Buchanan who will take orders. And you have to be willing to work. HARD.

Mrs. Buchanan, who was old even when my mother was young, has long since passed away. I think I was in college when I heard the news, and it made me sad. Meanie or not, she made an indelible mark on my childhood, and I think I always knew that deep down she had a soft heart. She showed her caring through discipline, not coddling. And there was always the case of that lovely home. A beautiful and welcoming space can only come from a beautiful and welcoming soul. She might have hidden it from us crass kids, but to those she kept close, she was surely a loving person.

Homes carry the character of those who inhabit them, and once Mrs. Buchanan left us, the home began to pass away, too. I see it often when I go to visit my mother, and I’m usually disappointed to see how it has deteriorated. The once cheerful yellow has taken on a very tired, almost sickly hue, and all the bright white trim paint is peeling and flaking away. The lawn is full of weeds and almost always in need of a trim. I can sometimes see people relaxing on the screened porch, but I also see that the ceiling fan blades are wilted from humidity, and the screen is torn and stretched out in places. Someone must have decided that the traffic-stopping maple was indeed too much trouble; all that remains of it is a ground-level stump.

I know that Heaven is not a place with disdain or annoyance, so I can’t imagine Mrs. Buchanan as I’d like to: an angel glaring over the top of her reading glasses at these ingrates who have run her haven into the unkempt ground. Instead, maybe she looks down with love on those that are leisurely enjoying the simple pleasure of sitting on that shaded, screened porch without the hours and backbreaking toil of the upkeep. Maybe.

I don’t like change. I never have and, unless something changes, I never will. But, change we must, and if Mrs. Buchanan can accept change, then I guess so can I.

 

Hello, Lovers

“Romance is thinking about your significant other when you are supposed to be thinking about something else.”—Nicholas Sparks

 Love is in the air. I see it on my husband’s face as he tries to decipher if I really mean it when I say, “You don’t have to get me anything.” Love lurks in the stores I frequent, where candies and chocolates taunt me at every turn. Love lies in stacks and heaps on my kitchen table, in the form of cards and treat bags to be handed out at classroom Valentine parties. Love is all we need. That and some calorie-heavy chocolates, dinner reservations, and some refrigerated red roses. OK, so maybe Valentine’s Day is not my thing. Even though I am comfortably rooted in a romantic relationship, and I have plenty of friends and family to love on, the holiday feels contrived and overwrought with expectations. I make a point to tell my dear ones that they are loved throughout the year, so setting aside this one day for something we should always be doing feels terribly insincere, both for the lover and the lovee. (Man, I hate the word “lover.”)

 

IMG_4620
“Is this a test? Because it feels like a test.”

Anyway, all that said, I do plan to participate in the holiday, because I’m not completely heartless. Also, I love all things chocolate, red and pink are great colors for me, and I am a hapless victim of pretty much all marketing schemes. My nearest and dearest, which include my husband, children, family members (the ones that I actually love and not just have to say that I do), and my closest friends, will be showered appropriately with love-themed candy and cards. They should understand that they will have to share any candy they receive. In the case of my kids, I’ll give them a lot of useless junk that I will have to pick up over the next few weeks before finally throwing it away, and some candy that I will secretly eat in the pantry after they go to bed. Because I love them, and it’s not healthy to eat that much candy.

But what about my other loved ones? Some of my nearest and dearest literally don’t know I exist. Still others know that I’m here and may suspect that I love them, but a Valentine’s gesture might be a little weird. So, I’m taking this opportunity to get in the spirit of the holiday and say something from the heart for these beloved ones that might otherwise go unrecognized this Valentine’s Day. This is for you, Lovers. (Ew.)

  1. Target

My dearest Target, you smell so nice.
And everything here is just the right price.
My love for you shall never die,
As long as my RedCard you do not deny.

target-marketing-to-women

  1. NetFlix

Oh Netflix, sweet Netflix, it is so true
I want to spend the whole night with you!
Let’s skip the intro and get this thing started.
If the queue is full, how can I be broken hearted?

netflix bffs

  1. Tamiflu

Kids are so great, but they can carry the flu.
When the test comes back positive, You’re My Boo!
You keep us all well, which makes my heart flip,
Maybe my stomach, too, but we’ll overlook that bit.

kid taking medicine

  1. My Girlfriends

All day long, we’re on the group chat.
Cursing and moaning about this and that.
I just don’t know how I’d make it through
Without a hundred stupid GIFs shared with you.

mom jeans

  1. Seat Warmers

On these cold and dreary winter days,
When the winds like a knife can cut,
I shiver as I climb into this freezing car,
And, in no time, you warm my butt.

seat warmer meme

  1. Justin Timberlake

The way you move, it’s just too much!
My kids are at school, wanna meet for lunch?
You’re clever, you can sing, and we all know you’re cute.
Just give me a chance, and give Jessica the boot.

 

Justin Timberlake
Took this video when I went to lunch with JT.  We’re bringing pie back.

 

  1. Snapchat Filters

You make me a better woman, (or a cat, dog, or bunny.)
You smooth away my wrinkles and make my voice sound funny.
You keep my kids entertained and cause all my friends to snicker.
This mom over 40 won’t take a selfie without her Snapchat filter.

snapchat meme

  1. My Dry Cleaner

Dry Cleaner Man, I have to say, you’re really not that sweet.
But when I pull up in your drive-through, you never miss a beat.
I also want you to know, your plight I understand.
I’m giving you all these shirts, because I can’t do ‘em, man.

seinfeld dry cleaner

  1. Tacos

You’ve been with me through thick and thin.
Mostly thick, because I want you again and again!
Made of crispy corn, or the softest flour,
If it were up to me, I’d have you every hour.

 Notebook Taco

  1. Wine

You can be red, or you can be white.
It doesn’t matter which, as long as you’re here tonight.
And when I feel that I must partake during the day,
It’s perfectly acceptable to lunch with Rosé.

wine poem

 XOXO, all you Funny Valentines. Show extra love to your people today, and don’t forget them the rest of the year. And if you’re feeling a little lonely on this made-up holiday, just remember, there might be someone loving you from afar, or someone who might be pleased as punch to get a quirky poem from you.

i-like-you-funny-valentines-day-card-sexy-valentines-day-card-funny

I Have One Word for You

 Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.—Buddha

 Several years ago, I abandoned the tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions. I reached a point in my life where I knew myself well enough to realize that whether it be a result of unlucky circumstances, low willpower, or goals that were set too high, any resolutions I put forth would likely be shattered before Valentine candy replaced Christmas decorations in the stores. I start my New Year much the same as the rest of the world, puffy and exhausted from the holiday happenings, gently nudging my loved ones out the door so we can all get back to our regularly scheduled programming. I resolve nothing, except to continue being the same delightfully moody, disorganized, running-five-minutes-behind contained mess that I’ve always been.

In the midst of blocking out all the Fresh Start and Resolution propaganda, my attention was drawn to some people who were starting out their New Year with “One Word.” Not a laundry list of resolutions waiting to be broken, but a one-word mantra to give guidance throughout the year. Hmmmmm. One word. I could probably handle this. It’s just one word! But it needed to be a good word. Strong and lasting, as we were going to be partners for an entire year. One of the websites I visited advised, “Your one word will shape not only your year, but also you.” Another person said that when you pick your word, you should ask yourself, “What would you like to be more true about you at the end of 2018 than is so now?”

Whoa. This one-word thing was serious business. What if I picked the wrong one word, and for a whole year every time I needed to invoke my mantra to bring me back to my center, it was the wrong word and all I would think about was how I couldn’t even pick the right ONE WORD? At the rate I was going, my one word was going to be “stressed.”

Words chosen by others filled my screen and my thoughts. Fearless. Obedient. Courageous. Grit. Beauty. Focus. Depth. Strong. All of them inspiring in their own right. It’s true, a lot of meaning can be packed into just one word. I was sold on the concept, but no closer to finding my one word. I tried several on for size, but none felt right. Not trendy enough. Not classic enough. Not insightful enough. Not introspective enough. This was going about as well as making resolutions.

Ugh, ENOUGH already!

Wait… “enough.” “Enough.” While not the prettiest word on paper, nor lovely on the lips, for me the word is just as smooth as a worn river rock, having been delicately honed by rolling around in my head for so long.

When the children are unruly… “That’s enough, now.”

When I push back from a table heavy with delicious food and drink… “Heavens, no, I’ve had enough!”

When someone disrespects me or those that I love… “Well, that is enough of that.”

All those enoughs are empowering. In those times, I am holding the river rock. It is pressed into my palm, cool and smooth as I turn it over and over again, giving me a sense of calm and control over my circumstances.

But what about the times that I feel like I’ve been overtaken by the idea of enough? When the river rock grows to a size that I can no longer hold in my hand? When it grows so big that I have to put all my weight behind it to roll it along with me?

When my husband or children want something from me that I can’t provide to them, whether that be time, or patience, or material things… “I’m not a good enough wife and mother.”

When I’m tempted by unhealthy food, frivolous spending, or idle time… “I’m not strong enough to deny myself.”

When I refuse, ever so politely, requests from worthy people and organizations for my time or talents… “I don’t do enough.”

When I compare myself to others, not knowing their full circumstances, but still in awe of how amazing their lives seem to be… “I don’t have enough. I don’t do enough. I’m not working hard enough. I am not enough.”

Deep down I know those things aren’t true. In my core, I know that I am and that I have so much more than enough. My cup runneth over with love for and from my friends and family. My comfortable home is bursting at the seams with more things than we could possibly need or want. And on the days that I feel like a wandering soul with no lasting purpose, I remind myself that my Heavenly Father put me here for His purpose, and the only person who thinks it isn’t enough is me.

2018, I’ve got your “one word.”

ENOUGH.

I have enough.

I am enough.

I have love to give and love to receive, and that, my friends, is ENOUGH.

 

 

Featured post

Happy Awkward-Days

“Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?”—Clark Griswold expertly navigating an awkward situation in ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

A How-To Guide for Handling Festivity Fretfulness

It’s been said that Christmas isn’t a season; it’s a feeling. Unfortunately, sometimes that feeling is nagging uneasiness. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that most of our holiday get-togethers involve the people we’ve been avoiding all year: distant relatives, casual acquaintances, quirky co-workers, and that one neighbor with the yappy dog that wakes us up at 2 a.m. This mixing of unlike, yet related people for an annual gathering outside the confines of their natural habitats can be, well…awkward. Whether you’re headed to a 3:30 “dinner” at MeMaw’s house, your office Holiday Happy Hour, or your neighbor’s Progressive Dinner / Ugly Sweater / White Elephant Gift Exchange, consider this a primer for identifying where the most common pitfalls lie and how to avoid dipping your sleeve into the awkward sauce.

Respondez, s’il vous plait.

grinch at mailbox
That’s the long version of RSVP, the oft-ignored plea from hosts that you let them know if you’ll be attending their soiree. It sounds more formal than it has to be. Call your mom and tell her to let MeMaw know that you’ll be at Christmas dinner, or lunch, or lupper, or whatever you like to call it, and that you’ll be bringing a friend. Better yet, call MeMaw yourself. She’ll be thrilled to hear from you (if she still hears well), and it will give her a chance to get some of her more probing questions out of the way. For your office party, shoot an email to the organizer letting them know you’re looking forward to the get-together, even if you would actually rather take a razor scooter to the shin than make small talk in the break room with Bob from Accounting. If your neighbor is hosting a gathering, roll down your window next time you see him at the mailbox to say you’ll be glad to pop by for just a little while, but not too late, because you have to go to work early and it sure would be great to get a good night’s sleep without waking up to that darn dog EVERY NIGHT, HOW DO YOU NOT HEAR THAT?? On second thought, leave that last part out, because we’re going to focus on being joyful and avoiding police presence. The point here is, there are people who have extended an invitation to you. They plan to provide you with something they believe to be edible and company they believe to be enjoyable and the least you can do is to let them know if you’re going to show up. A bonus of the RSVP is that it also gives you a chance to get some advance directive on the details of the gathering. Maybe you can even find out what exactly “Festive Casual” attire means. If you do, please share with the rest of us, because I have to admit, I’m feeling less than confident about these bedazzled sweatpants.

Gifting.

gremlin gift
Be careful what you wish for…

They say it’s better to give than to receive, but no one ever said what to give. Gifting scenarios are tricky and rate high on the Awkwardness Potential Scale. Tread lightly here. Show up empty-handed and you risk being typecast as stingy and thoughtless. Overdo it and your gift recipient may feel inferior. This is where your RSVP skills will come in handy because you’ll have already taken the temperature of your host. For MeMaw’s house, first ask if you can bring anything. If she insists that no, she has it all under control and all she wants for Christmas is to see your smiling face, then give her what she asks for…and add a small, useful gift that she’d never buy for herself, like a pretty tea towel. MeMaws just love pretty tea towels. And don’t make a big production of giving it to her, because your sister-in-law will just think you’re sucking up and that you’ve always been the favorite. (WHATEVER, MADGE, just go sit at the kids’ table and quit trying to cause drama.)

The office party will probably have some lame Secret Santa type thing. Unless you know all of your co-workers really well, avoid the gag gift route because you never know who might get offended and plot a New Year’s lawsuit, putting everyone out of a job. (“Why would you give me a Chia pet? Don’t you know my ancestors rubbed dirt on their heads as an ancient fertility ritual?? You mock my traditions and this is a hostile work environment. I am outraged!”) Avoid finding yourself in this awkward spot by bringing a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, perhaps a pleasantly neutral tea towel.

The neighborhood party may include a gift exchange of some sort. Gift exchanges are hard, because your gift is on display, and let’s face it, ultimately judged. This can lead to stress shopping, putting you at risk for picking something awful, which will be super awkward. Keep your wits about you and think of a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, like, I don’t know, maybe a humorous tea towel??

Keep this same level of focus when considering a hostess gift. Don’t be the guest that stumbles into the party with a showstopping but unwieldy bouquet of fresh flowers that requires your hostess to drop what she’s doing to put into a vase, or your delicious but insanely messy Mississippi Mud Cake that she’ll have to cram onto her carefully curated buffet table. No, instead, you should consider bringing a small, useful gift that one would never buy for themselves, such as a festive little tea towel.

The moral of the story is unless given to a small child or a frat boy, the gift of a tea towel is universally well received and rarely awkward. (You’re welcome.)

Eating.

vegan santa

‘Tis the season to eat, drink, and be merry, not to eat, drink, and preach to others about your strict dietary regimen. The holidays are about spreading comfort and joy, so if some folks find their comfort in a plate stacked high with homemade fudge and their joy in two cheeks full of sausage balls, they don’t want to hear your views on the addictive properties of sugar or the irresponsible swine production industry. Every party has a quiet corner with some celery, carrots, and cherry tomatoes, and that is where you will find your people. You may even find someone who plans to run a Jingle Bell 5K tomorrow! Of course, the exception to this would be if you have a serious or life-threatening food allergy. That would be pertinent information for your host to have. You could address it in your RSVP and then offer to bring a gift of food that doesn’t have the potential to kill you. Best of all, your host will not have to stop entertaining to comb the house for an epi-pen or have the party flow interrupted by EMS, all things that would be incredibly awkward for everyone involved. And while we’re on the subject of “eat, drink, and be merry…”

Drinking.

drunk uncle

During the holiday season, almost all events become an Occasion with a capital “O.” Everything is a little more sparkly and it feels natural to loosen up a bit with a celebratory cocktail or four. Here are the Cliffs Notes for boozing it up at the holidays: If you’re normally a drinker, then drink as you normally would. If you have a tendency to drink to excess, take it down a notch. If you rarely drink, now is not the time to start. To expand a smidge on the subject, the irony of alcohol is that it starts out as a means to cringe less and laugh more, but it often causes us to take a hairpin turn straight towards a steep ravine of awkwardness. The holidays are filled to the brim with stress and sentiment. We spend large chunks of time in confined spaces with people we love, people we hate, people we used to love, and people we just plain don’t understand. Pouring alcohol into this mix creates an environment that can turn a cozy hearth into an all-out dumpster fire. This is not meant to be an intervention (we’ll save that for the dessert course at MeMaw’s house); rather, a reminder to recognize and abide by your limits when the drinks start flowing. Don’t seek solace in the bottom of a bottle once Uncle Bud starts spewing his political views. The last thing you want to do is toss your cookies on MeMaw’s antique Persian rug, even if you do plan to inherit it one day. (You think I don’t see you eyeing that rug, Madge. Back off.) How awkward will it be when MeMaw has to clean up your mess with her new pretty tea towel? Although it would certainly make a memorable story. Which brings us to our next topic…

Small talking.

small-talk
Our society seems to be in a perpetual state of taking offense, so the act of making small talk is kin to walking through a minefield. We all know to avoid the big three: sex, politics, and religion, but now even our safeguards can be misinterpreted. Don’t talk about the weather, because it will spawn a discussion about global warming, which points a finger at our elected officials, and the next thing you know, the environmentalists won’t leave the living room because there are real estate developers over by the food table. Take caution when complimenting another guest’s appearance, as they may prefer that you see their inner beauty instead of their snappy take on “Festive Casual.” A decent opener is, “How do you know <host name?>” However, this won’t work at MeMaw’s house, or at the office party. You’re kind of supposed to know the answer to that already. Another icebreaker is, “So what are your plans for the holidays?” This question puts legs on your conversation and leads to helping you find out what holiday they celebrate, what sort of family connections they have, their vocational commitments, or in the case of unbearable silence, if you need to find another person to entertain with your sparkling conversation skills. At a family gathering, they’ll want to know about your work. At a work gathering, they’ll want to know about your family. Speak respectfully about both those subjects, as it’s called “small talk” for a reason. Save the “big talk” for your therapist. Think of your small talk as little hors-d’oeuvres that are meant to be consumed in bite-size pieces, giving the other person a chance to easily move on to speak to other partygoers if they feel the need. For example, tell a quick story about your entertaining Uber ride to the party instead of the endless wonders of your two-week Alaskan cruise.

Wrapping it up.

byefelicia-sq2

All good (and painfully awkward) things must come to an end, so keep your eye on the prize and don’t let your departure leave you or your host cringing. You may be tempted to pull an Irish Exit, which is the act of “ghosting” from a party without telling anyone you’re leaving. This is only acceptable when the party has clearly gone on too long and most of the guests have ignored the booze guidelines. It would be simply unforgivable to ghost on MeMaw, and in the best interest of your livelihood, you need to make a special point to thank your boss for that ah-mazing gift of membership to the Jelly of the Month Club. The best practice here is to thank your host personally for their hospitality, wish them a happy holiday season, and make repeated empty promises to get together again sometime soon.

Congratulations! You’ve made it through your holiday gathering. Now it’s time to treat yourself. Go out tomorrow and get something nice, something you’d never buy for yourself. Might I suggest a lovely tea towel?

treat-yo-self.jpg

 

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!

 “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting it is.” –Arnold Palmer

 

“Nah nah nah nah. Nah nah nah nah. Hey, hey, hey. Goo-ood Bye!”

So many Friday nights of my teen years included the sounds of our high school’s marching band blasting the popular song that bands play when they’re confident that their team’s opponent has been put away. The nails were in the coffin, so we linked arms and sang at the top of our lungs to mark the occasion. There was nothing left to do but watch the clock tick away those last useless seconds and make plans to meet up for a celebratory chicken finger basket.

Football in the South is more than just a pastime, it’s a way of life. Being part of a team with a winning tradition makes life all the more rewarding. During Fall in the South, a week no longer has 7 days. It’s divided into three parts: Getting Ready for the Game, GAME DAY, and Reviewing the Game. 7 Day Weeks will resume after State Championships and Bowl Season.

Many, many years after the fact, I am still proud to say that I played a small spectator role in the long-time winning tradition of the Greer High Yellow Jackets. I enthusiastically filled a spot in the student section almost every home game during my four years there and even traveled with friends to nearby away games. While the players did warm-ups before the game, we played our pre-game warm-up songs on a portable CD player. When the cheerleaders held up their spray-painted banner for the players to run through, we lined up on either side to get high fives from those boys who were about to play their hearts out for the next three hours. When the band played, we pumped our arms in time with the drums and shout-sang snippets of brass-fueled tunes that gave our team the momentum they needed to get that next first down.

Winning isn’t everything, but it sure is a lot of fun. The four years I spent at GHS, our record was 42-10. That means that we won over 80% of the time. Losing a game was a surprise. On the rare occasion it happened, it left us with an unsettled feeling of, “what just happened here?” A feeling that didn’t last long, because a return to winning was always just around the corner. My last two years at GHS we didn’t lose a single regular season game. During our senior year, my friends and I road-tripped to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia to watch our boys easily and rightfully claim the State Championship.

All we did was win, win, win. It was exciting, it was exhilarating; and, here’s what makes it a tradition: it was expected.

I spent my college years at Wofford, attending games every now and then, and also going to Clemson and Carolina games with my friends who were students there. For those four years of my life, football was admittedly in the background of my studies and social schedule.

That is until I met a boy. At a football game.

Wofford was hosting the Citadel in Spartanburg for the first time in 50 years. It was an historic event that filled our stadium, inspired parties at every corner of campus, and brought alumni from all years and locales to the Sparkle City. I don’t remember who won the game, but I do remember letting all my girlfriends leave me at an unfamiliar fraternity house so I could have more time to talk to this really cute guy. Now, here I am, almost 18 years later, and I get to wash that cute guy’s socks every week. True story.

I’m here to tell all the young ladies of marrying age that wedding vows are really so much more than just the simple words that you mindlessly repeat in front of God and everyone while your mind is actually fixated on worrying about what exactly is an appropriate kiss when in church. For example, what you’re really signing up for, is, “To have and to hold, and to adopt his college football team as your own, from this day forward.” You’re also committed to, “For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, in winning and in losing. (Especially in losing.)”

My husband is a tried and true, die-hard, Forever to Thee, South Carolina Gamecock. He is an Unconditional Fan. From what I can deduce, he’s been this way since he was a child, and although from time to time it is a painful condition, it’s not something I would change about him. And since his passion is so strong, it only made sense that when we joined hearts and homes, that I would join him in supporting his team, as well.

In the beginning, it was easy. We were newlyweds at the start of the Lou Holtz era and Gamecocks all over the state had a sense of hope. There were more wins than losses. We were young and in love and we had no kids dictating our schedules so we could tailgate every weekend. We fattened our bellies with chicken fingers and brownies and beers, and it felt like the party would never end. Sure, there were heartbreaking losses, but there were also promising wins. And did I mention all the chicken fingers? Looking back, it was the Jazz Age of football for us. As it turns out, the party did have to come to an end, and we weathered a few losing seasons before climbing back up the roller coaster when Steve Spurrier took the reins of the team. But even that was rocky terrain, and my unfailingly loyal Gamecock husband took the losses hard. By now, we had small children, so the tailgating part (my favorite) was removed from the equation, leaving just us at home to watch the games, which became increasingly tense with each passing week. (This would be a good time for me to insert the fact that God knew what he was doing by not letting me meet my husband until after the Gamecocks’ 0-11 season in 1999. I would have never made it. But, I digress.) My husband could easily be a sideline coach. Each week, he strategizes with a good buddy, also an Unconditional Fan. After the game, they talk again, to figure out what went wrong, and where they need to improve the next week. As for me, I could not be any sort of coach whatsoever. I can’t remember the lineup and I’ve always got questions about the rules. I’m more interested in figuring out what sort of alternative methods the team needs. Should we get them a team therapist? Some essential oils? Is hard liquor allowed? Oh wait, those are all the things that I need…

I’ve determined that since I married into this Gamecock legacy, their record has been 105-84. Victorious 56% of the time is technically a winning record, but it’s a far cry from that 80% winning ratio I enjoyed with the Yellow Jackets. In this realm, very few wins are assured, and almost all come with a fair amount of anguish. It can be hard to watch. Literally. Sometimes I have to put my hands over my eyes it makes me so nervous. Sometimes I don’t watch at all and just go to another room, and decide to find out the outcome once it’s all over. As hard as it is, every experience is a chance to learn, and after so many years of watching this team through the eyes of one of its most ardent supporters, I’m able to see the benefits of being what I call an Unconditional Fan.

A true Unconditional Fan has to maintain a certain level of humility to make it through the lean seasons. It’s no secret if your team is having a down year, so you just have to own that fact and deflect the trash talk. By the same coin toss, an Unconditional Fan knows that winning seasons can’t last forever, so there’s no need to be overly boastful when your team is in the winner’s circle. An Unconditional Fan has a keen sense of gratefulness and humility when their team is the conqueror.

The Unconditional Fan always has hope. This is a must. Without hope, every team would be fan-less at the first whiff of a bad recruiting class. The Unconditional Fan is full of hope every season. A friend of ours put it best during a long ride on an at-capacity RV, westward-bound to watch the Gamecocks play at Vandy for a season-opener. He looked around appraisingly, took in a deep breath of stale RV air and said, “This is the best time of the year to be a football fan. Nobody’s messed anything up yet.” His actual words were a bit stronger than that, but you get the gist. So, what happens when the season goes off the rails? The Unconditional Fan is already looking forward to next year. Hope. It’s what brings the Unconditional Fan back, year after year. Hope is also what gets a girl like me on an RV traveling from Columbia to Nashville; because, let me tell you, that was really not one of the best ideas.

To me, the most impressive mark of an Unconditional Fan is loyalty. This brand of loyalty is a type of steadfast devotion that is hard to find in these times. The Unconditional Fan supports their team no matter what the predictions are, or how much they disagree with the coaching staff. They wear their colors with pride, even in a sea of opponents. The Unconditional Fan rejoices in the team’s triumphs, but they also agonize in the defeats, with a resolve to come back stronger. The Unconditional Fan is a lifelong member of the team. They might throw their hat, shout choice words, and sulk for days on end, but they would never fully walk away from their team. The Unconditional Fan knows that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you come back for the next year.

I haven’t earned my wings to be Unconditional Fan yet, but I do love one. And I appreciate all the others I’ve encountered over the years. I think I might even be raising a couple more gals to join the League of Unconditional Fans. I hope so. What better way to teach life lessons of humility, hope, and loyalty? All that, AND a tray of chicken fingers? Sign us up!

 

Beating the Bully

“Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can’t. A bully wants to beat somebody; he doesn’t want to fight somebody.”–Andrew Vachss

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Greer, SC. 1986. I’m wearing my favorite Rainbow Brite t-shirt, and my head is pressed against the cold metal of a bathroom stall door. With one eye, I’m squinting through the crack of the door at Cheryl Hawthorne, who is propped against the painted cinderblock wall by the dirty porcelain sinks. Cheryl is the meanest kid in all of the third grade. She has close-cropped black hair, a loud laugh and she cracks her knuckles constantly. She is in trouble with the teacher every single day. This moment is the most patient and calm I’ve ever seen her to be, waiting for my stall door to click open. I’ve assessed all my options at this point and I see exactly zero ways that I can get out of this bathroom without Cheryl turning me into her personal punching bag. We are predator and prey, and I am about to be eaten for lunch.

You’re thinking, how did it come to this? Well, my dears, Be Kind and Rewind, and let’s go back to three hours before this restroom standoff. Back to Mrs. Fowler’s third grade classroom at Woodland Elementary. Back to morning reading groups, when someone was talking when someone wasn’t supposed to be. Insert a teacher who was fed up at 8:30 that morning; who was probably fed up 20 years before that morning even dawned. A teacher who said, “If someone doesn’t tell me who was talking, you’ll ALL be inside for recess!” Enter Stage Right a pale blond little girl with a Rainbow Brite t-shirt and a penchant for people-pleasing. Willing to fall on my sword in order to get the entire class outside for recess, I spoke up.

“It was Cheryl.”

Cue the ominous music and gasps from the audience. With a satisfied half-smile, Mrs. Fowler sauntered over to the chalkboard and added a check beside Cheryl’s name, which rarely ever left the board. It was Cheryl’s second check of the day, which meant once again she wouldn’t have recess. But the rest of the class would, so I’d made a worthy sacrifice.

Or had I? The rest of the morning, Cheryl never took her eyes off me. Each time Mrs. Fowler turned her back, there was Cheryl, giving me the evil eye, or making a menacing hand gesture. As I walked to the pencil sharpener, she hissed “I’m gon’ git you, girl.” In the lunch line, she stood as close as she possibly could without actually touching me, her breath hot on my neck. She hardly touched her lunch; instead, she used that time to shoot more venomous stares my way.

I tried hard to let the whole thing roll off my shoulders. I wanted to save face in front of my friends, but I was seriously shaking in my jelly shoes. I kept thinking surely this would all blow over soon. If I could just get through the day, tomorrow we would start over, no one would have any checks on the chalkboard, and we’d all get recess. By this time tomorrow, the whole thing would be forgotten, right?

Cheryl’s eyes narrowed as they caught mine (I’d been doing this thing all day, where I’d look to see if she was looking at me, and if she was, we’d lock eyes, then I’d quickly look away, or act like I was actually looking at something just past her. It wasn’t working. She knew I was looking at her.). Her balled up fist smacked the palm of her other hand as she nodded her head and said, simply, “The Bathroom.”

Sweet mother of Debbie Gibson. I’d forgotten about the bathroom! Every day after lunch, Mrs. Fowler’s class went to the bathroom in “the tunnel,” a brick breezeway between the buildings. Even if you didn’t feel the urge to use the facilities, you still had to go in there, because Mrs. Fowler didn’t let anyone go to the bathroom any other time. Well, unless you had an “emergency.” But everyone knew that “emergency” meant you had to go Number Two and admitting to that was a social infraction that would take weeks to get over. The post-lunch bathroom break was not up for negotiation.

I held off as long as I could, hoping against hope I could somehow skirt the mandatory bathroom visit. Cheryl was near the front of the line (no doubt because she wanted to start the pummeling as soon as possible), so I got in the back, thinking maybe she would have to leave the restroom before I got there. Oh, but no. Cheryl might have been a meanie, but she was no dummy. She just waited as the line of girls wound their way through the stalls and sinks. My friends offered no real assistance, but I saw their lack of teasing as a sign of solidarity. Their sympathetic looks and silence were a way of paying their respects. They were grieving me already. I didn’t fault them for not coming to my defense; no one wanted to tangle with Cheryl. And Mrs. Fowler didn’t tolerate tattling. My predicament served as a cautionary tale for anyone contemplating their own David vs. Goliath scenario.

Oh, you all enjoy your recess, friends. I’ll just be in the health room, having my face reattached and my broken limbs reset. No, really, it’s fine. Happy to take one for the team. You go have fun.

So, there we were. Wolf and sheep, penned together in a four-stall, 2 sink, brick and block prison. It didn’t take long for me to know that I couldn’t hide out in that stall any longer. For one thing, the longer I waited, the more people outside were going to suspect I was in there going Number Two. For another thing, it was well past time to get this thing over with. I ripped the stall door open and made a run for it (What? Did you think I was actually going to fight her?). Cheryl caught me halfway to the door and punched me in the stomach. I got a few more steps towards the door before her right hand clutched my neck and shoved my back against the wall. I eeked out some sort of panicked animal noise that caused Mrs. Fowler to open the door and bellow, “What’s going on in here?” There was no explanation needed. Cheryl was sent to the principal’s office and she never so much as glanced my way again.

Someone asked me, “Have you ever been bullied?” And I now know my answer is, “Yes. For three hours, in 1986, Cheryl Harcourt bullied me and made my life a living hell.” The comedic nature of two little girls in a bathroom standoff like a Clint Eastwood movie is something I can laugh about now. But something has to be said about the fact that this happened 30 years ago, and yet I can still remember the feeling of fear and dread in the pit of my stomach. I’ve long forgotten many of my friends from elementary school, but Cheryl’s face is burned into my brain forever.

What if those three hours had stretched into six? What if instead of just that one day of bullying, I had to face Cheryl and her threats every single school day? What if my friends chose to distance themselves from me so they didn’t have to bullied, too? What if my teacher said, “Oh, kids will be kids,” and chose to focus on her curriculum instead of the social dynamics in her classroom? What if I spent my entire school year waiting and praying for it to be over, so I could be in a new classroom where Cheryl wouldn’t be? Would the story be so funny then?

You don’t have to have school age children to know that “bullying” is a serious issue facing all ages. So, what do we need to know about it?

First, of all, what is bullying? There are many definitions, but the most encompassing one I found is the one used in the legal sense:

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That’s right, the legal sense. There are adults dealing with this, who feel so intimidated that they will plead their case in a court of law. There are all types of bullying, but most can be divided into two types: Aggressive and Social Isolation. Aggressive Bullying is usually physical in nature, and can mostly be attributed to similar physical aggression at home. Physical intimidation can be harder to hide and easier to prove, so it seems to happen less in our schools because punishment is swift, once it is recognized. Social Isolation Bullying is stickier for many reasons. Social Isolation can go on for weeks or months before an authority figure recognizes what is happening. These bullies are usually very skillful in denying their behavior, and their victims are reluctant to come forward, out of embarrassment. In a battle of words, context is very hard to prove. “But that’s not what I meant!” is the battle cry of many Social Isolation bullies.

Social Isolation bullying is for all ages. You see kindergartners freezing kids out of a game of Red Rover. Teenage girls post slumber party photos to Instagram with full intent of ostracizing other girls. Social media gives rise to more sinister Social Isolation bullying, too, with some kids sending out sexually explicit photos to large groups of people without their subject’s authorization, thus decimating that person’s social life. And adults aren’t above it, either. The “popular kids” have popular moms, who are quick to post those same slumber party photos, but just with the kids. And what about Direct Level Marketing? It’s one thing to be annoyed by a friends’ constant Facebook posts about her “amazing new job,” but it’s quite another when she bombards you with personal messages, phone calls and “party” invitations until you just break down and buy the stuff already. Bullies may be born on the playground, but they are refined in the workplace. Bosses who require that you stay late, repeatedly. Co-workers who consistently take credit for your hard work. Clients who insist you buy just one more round (the company’s paying for it!). Bullying is repeatedly intimidating or taking advantage of someone you perceive as weaker.

Next, who are the bullies? Anyone can be a bully. Budding gang members (yes, there can be a gang presence in school, even elementary), sweet-looking kindergartners, children of abusers, teenage girls (hello, Snapchat), PTA moms, athletes, honor students, soccer dads…all these people can use their own brand of intimidation to subdue and tear down another person.

Why do people bully? I asked my kids if they knew any bullies. “Oh yes,” they said. They went on to explain, “Bullies are ‘bucket dippers.’ Their buckets don’t have enough happiness, so they want to steal yours.” (Props to our school’s teachers for giving my kids the confidence to recognize this behavior, by the way!) Every bully is different, but their core motivation is the same. What they want is power. They want the upper hand. They want to win. A bully recognizes an area in his life where he is not winning, and he wants to put himself in the place of power. The easiest way to do this is to intimidate the person who he sees as the winner and force that person give up the top spot. In sports, this could show up as repeated, harmful “trash talk” in an effort to make a teammate’s mental game diminish their performance. In teenage girls, it could be leaving snide comments on social media posts or sharing unflattering photos to make another girl retreat, bringing the attention back to the bully. You might see little kids taunting emerging class leaders because it’s the first time in their lives they haven’t been the focus of constant praise and adoration. Some bullies are modeling behavior they see at home. In homes where physical abuse is present, a child may become a bully simply because that is the only way he knows how to interact with others. Or, if the child is the abuse victim, assuming a role as a bully over a weaker person is the only chance he has to wield power. But physical abusers aren’t the only bullies at home. What about the dad that constantly screams at the coaches on the kids’ soccer field, or the mom that daily belittles the teacher and her ridiculous homework assignments? We’re sending our kids a message when they hear our disparaging remarks about other authority figures, or see us strong-arming those same people into doing what we want on behalf of our child. There’s a fine line between standing up for yourself to get what you deserve and using your power and influence to gain preferential treatment. When your child sees you cross that line towards something that looks like intimidation, why wouldn’t she try to do the same thing?

I talked to several teachers and school administrators while writing this piece. I was astounded at how many people saw bullying in schools as a consequence of affluence. Cheryl Harcourt isn’t the bully anymore. The new bully is an articulate, well-liked child from a prominent family. This kid singles out and attempts to weaken another child or group of children at school, and gets in trouble for it. The kid shows very little remorse, and continues the behavior, getting in trouble again. The parents swoop in, in disbelief that their little angel would do such a thing. This goes back and forth between parent and teacher for a while, with the parents usually undermining the authority of the teacher. How much damage has been done by the time the teacher has to hand if off to a higher administrator? What has it done to the self-confidence of the child being bullied? Has that child’s parents completely lost faith in the system? Now, consider what happens if the bullying problem goes to the administration, and mom and dad stand in the principal’s office, reminding him/her of how much they’ve contributed to the school this year and what a shame it would be if Dad’s office pulled his company’s sponsorship of the school fundraiser. The bully has successfully intimidated his/her targeted classmate, the classmate’s parents, the other classmates that feel like helpless bystanders, the teacher, the administration and the set of rules it has put forth AND he walks away with the feeling that this is how life will always go for him. I don’t think this is a common scenario, but I’ve heard the same story with different players enough times to know it’s not rare. At any rate, it’s a good example of the multi-level nature of bullying.

Lastly, what can we do about it? The same thing we do about everything in parenting. Talk to your child. Know what they’re up to. Know their friends and their interests. Ask questions, even if they don’t want to answer them. And don’t just try to get the facts: show your child that you’re genuinely interested in them. Even if it feels like they have zero interest in you and would rather gargle river rocks than listen to what you’re saying, showing true interest is a form of showing love, and they’ll remember that.

Keep the lines of communication open, and make sure your child has a trusted adult in their life. Ideally, that trusted adult should be you, but find a spare because there are some things kids just won’t bring to their parents. While I was writing this piece, a friend of mine shared her experience with her son being bullied at school. She and her son had a very open and honest relationship, and she felt that he would come to her with any problems. However, her son suffered bullying for months without saying a word to anyone. Finally, a friend of his confided in his own mother, who then shared the situation with my friend. It turns out, my friend’s son didn’t want to tell his parents about it because he was afraid they would be upset and sad for him. He was protecting their feelings! This is a prime example of how important communication and trust are in these situations. More than one child had to be trusting of an adult and willing to communicate. Further, the adults involved had to be trusting and communicative as well. I also thought this was a great example for us all to know that helping someone doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Just because you don’t literally stand between a bully and his target on the playground doesn’t mean you can’t be just as helpful, but in a quiet way.

Be open and understanding. In the bullying situation described above, did I mention that the parents of that child were a school counselor and a psychologist? These are involved parents, well-educated and trained to spot such behavior. It would be easy for them to say, “This can’t happen to my child; I would catch it immediately.” But they didn’t. They were open to knowing that you never say “never” with kids. You do all you can to educate your child and teach them the things you think they need to know, and then you hope it sticks. Parenting is a life-long calling. Your job is never finished, so stay open and understanding to your kids, and to the people that care for them.

Cheryl Harcourt was a bully, but our altercation was not a severe case of bullying. A marker of bullying is that it’s a repeated behavior. The intimidation makes the victim feel hopeless, as if it will never be over. Ours was a one-time incident, and I am grateful that my school’s authorities put a swift end to it. But, as I said before, it made a big impact on me. When you’re nine years old, a brick breezeway is a giant tunnel and the walk to the lunchroom is a miles-long trek. The whole world fills the space between home, school and church. Your entire life’s memorable experiences wouldn’t fill up a marble-backed composition book. When you’re a kid, all the little things are BIG things.

Know. Talk. Keep your mind open. Be a good role model. We face bullies in every stage of life, but we don’t have to give them our power, and we don’t have to sit back while they take someone else’s. Make small, quiet stands for what’s right. Guard your heart and your bucket and help others do the same.

For more information about bullying, go to https://www.stopbullying.gov/index.html

 

 

 

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