Random musings…

Glad you stopped by… take a peek inside for a collection of short stories, social commentary, poetry, rants, and excerpts from current projects. Hope you enjoy your time here, check back often for new material and of course feel free to submit any questions or comments…

Author retains all rights to published / posted material – all posts are solely the work of the author

Joe

Independence Day

I wrote this about fifteen years ago and have for the most part dragged it out every Fourth since then… this afternoon I’m halfway home sitting in a much to luxurious hotel room in Chicago looking out over a city I love to visit…. the staff takes good care of me here, most are immigrants working hard on this “holiday”… I take the time to listen to their stories when they are willing to share… It’s the true story of freedom – independence – the pursuit of opportunity this country still represents to those outside clamoring to come in… I think about my trip East from Seattle this past week – the beautiful country I have passed through – but also the blatant racism in so many small towns where Native Americans are treated as second class citizens – how do we embrace “…all men are created equal…” when we look the other way uncomfortably? Maybe these are questions without simple answers… I think probably, but I believe when we stop asking we have conceded point and the bright shining example we should and could be is tarnished a little more…

INDEPENDENCE DAY

The sweet smells of cotton candy and caramel corn dance through the early evening air mixing with the laughter of children and the soft murmur of a thousand conversations. The sun begins its slow descent and you can feel the anticipation thrumming through the stadium. As the sharp cadence of the Color Guard recedes the lights go down and the first shells burst in a spectacular blaze of color and thunderous sound. I lean back in my seat and let the show assault my senses.

Independence Day, a day of celebration, a day of remembrance, a holiday so simple yet so fraught with the complexities of modern day politics and the ever-shifting landscape of international policy it should challenge us to examine its true meaning. In its purest form we celebrate the courage, vision, and perseverance of our forefathers. They created a new nation with their very blood and infused it with a set of ideals and beliefs that has not only become a rallying banner for democracy everywhere, but a siren song for the oppressed and downtrodden the world over. ‘We hold these truths to be self evident…” the power of these words shaped a nation and challenged the greatest imperial power of the time. They also set an inescapable responsibility for us as a people, we cannot embrace our history, our independence, carry on our annual celebrations and displays if we ignore the balance of our declaration: …” that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We have taken this responsibility upon ourselves and have found opportunity in our history to rally to it: The fascism of the Axis powers in WWII, our vigilance against the insidious creep of Communism during the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Jihadist of the Middle East and in defense of those most vulnerable within our own borders. These political and military battles may represent our collective will, but the achievement of our independence was built on the personal efforts and decisions of those men and women who chose to shoulder the burden of, not only defeating our imperial masters, but also investing themselves in the creation, nurturing, and guiding of our country as it took its first steps on the path to greatness. Too often it seems that the ideals our founding fathers espoused have become the fodder for today’s self-serving political machine. It unfortunately transcends party and pollutes the purity of the democratic process. We must always remind ourselves of those “self evident truths” and understand that the preservation of them is a personal responsibility.

The final rumbles are fading into the distance and the last vestiges of smoke have cleared, chased across the horizon by a warm breeze. I take my daughter’s hand as we begin the slow walk to our car and I silently rejoice in the fact that she will grow up in the greatest country in the world. I promise myself to teach her the history of Independence Day so she can one day become the conscientious steward of our freedoms that is the legacy of our citizenship.

Two Vases

A good friend was telling me a story about an abandoned home where the folks had left their “parents” or maybe “grandparents” cremated remains behind… that seemed incredibly sad and lonely to me… I imagine a conversation something like this…

Two Vases

Time ceased its count long ago
And the voices have faded
As the dust deepens on this lonely perch

I feel you near me dear
Do you remember my kiss
Now it’s just the two of us

Long passed are our days in the sun
The sand soft beneath us
The kids playing in the surf

I remember the stars above
The singing of a mountain stream
Marshmallows by the fire

It seemed so long I waited
Now you sit beside me
Matching vases in the shadows

Time ceased its count long ago
And the voices have faded
As the dust deepens on this lonely perch

The North Wind

The North Wind

I have always been here
I chiseled the peaks
I carved the valleys
I smoothed the prairies
I have always been here

I was here when the Red Men came
I carried their arrows
I lifted their prayers
I cherished their songs
I have always been here

I was here when the White Men came
I spun their windmills
I closed their highways
I weathered their curses
I have always been here

No voices cry in the silence
No prayers are left to carry
No songs are left to sing
The firs bow in final supplication
I will always be here

Author’s Note: I was driving across Montana and North Dakota recently experiencing a relentless North wind… the land is beautiful beyond my meagre ability to describe and always the wind, the wind… the words have been stuck in my head ever since so I share them with you…

JC

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day I am always reminded of our men in uniform and how cavalier we tend to be about the potential sacrifice they face everyday. I think back to the tales my father and grandfather shared with me about their experiences in WWII. I was always fascinated by their differing perspectives: my father joined the Navy at 17 and served aboard a submarine in the Pacific theater and my grandfather was a Colonel in the Air Force stationed in Panama during WWII. As different as their military service was they shared the common bond of having lost men they knew and served with; as a young boy I didn’t really understand the significance of this sacrifice and the impact it had on them.

In the many years since, I have often wondered if we, as not only individuals but also, as a society truly understand the sacrifice we expect of our military and what Memorial Day actually signifies. I know for myself – as a young man still in high school – I had the good fortune to read a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed to the West Point cadets in 1962. I am still stirred by his words and the impact they had on me and even more how they bring a substance and gravity to the memories of my father and grandfather. I imagine I can hear these words echoing as he spoke: “…It is the story of the American man at arms… His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast… I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…”

I find it impossible to read these words and not take a moment to reflect on those who have laid down their lives for this country and the ideals we hold dear. Whether it be 200+ years ago in a war for self determination or yesterday in somewhere far from home – it is incumbent upon us to honor the sacrifice of our fallen. I recently re-read the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, from a speech he gave in 1884 at a Memorial Day dinner, remember this wasn’t shortly after some world wide conflict of good vs evil but a war among ourselves brother against brother… he said “But as surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead…where the ghosts sit at the table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.” I believe he was speaking about more than just their memories he was reminding us that on this day of all days it is their sacrifice we not only honor but remember lest we forget the mighty toll of our conflicts and vast responsibility it creates.

So my friends as you gather together for that afternoon BBQ, the morning round of golf, or whatever activity you may have planned for that “end of spring extra day off from work Monday,” let us take even just a brief moment to honor and remember those who embraced “Duty, Honor, Country” as more than just a slogan.

Maxton Mona Lisa

She was from Maxton or thereabouts anyway, not that it much mattered the names were more a dot on the map then a place to be from. It was hot that day, much like every other day once the spring broke and the heat settled in for a long Carolina summer, swarms of gnats, afternoon thunderstorms, and the fine dust that seemed to inhabit every nook and cranny. There would be things to harvest toward the end of it in the coolness of fall, cotton to pick, ‘bacci to lay out in the long drying barns, and the wagons full of deep red melons with their jet-black seeds – perfect for spittin’. But none of that had come to pass yet, it was just another day in an endless parade of days maybe leadin’ to something but most likely not.

He had seemed so handsome and sophisticated, the car was new, didn’t have no dents or nothin’ not like the ones her Pa was always workin’ on in the back, no this was a big city car and he was a big city man with his polished shoes, and his big city hat. He took pictures of Ma and the little ones sittin’ on the porch, Ma didn’t smile of course, wasn’t nothin’ to smile ‘bout anyway.

She had leaned up against the doorway, as much to hide the empty room behind her as to seem disinterested… she would soon be thirteen after all – well past the time of little girl dreams – lookin’ womanhood right in the eye, she already knew things she shouldn’t, but that’s how it was – wasn’t somethin’ to complain ‘bout. She wants to hide the pin holdin’ her dress closed, didn’t make sense Ma not sewin’ a proper button on it, and she’d tried to brush the dust off her shoes rubbin’ em on the back of her calves but wasn’t no polish made was gonna make em shine again. She doesn’t think about the melancholy smile, just is – another part of being here and gettin’ by.

He waves as he’s leavin’ the little ones trail down the drive half hidden by the cloud of dust ‘fore they come back up and sit some again. She turns to go back inside, but Ma stops her, “they’re be compny tonight so don’t be gettin’ no ideas ya hear.” It don’t mean nothin’ Pa always got somebody over drinkin’ and carryin’ on she’ll keep the little uns quiet and hope no one takes a shine to her… that sure was a nice car though…

*Authors Note:

So about this… there is a novel written by Reynolds Price – “A Long and Happy Life” published in 1962 – it was and is celebrated as the novel that launched Price’s career. Price has said that the picture that is now the cover of his book hung above his desk for many years and inspired him… that picture is my dear mother-in-law Ann…

I don’t the details of that picture or how it came to be, but I do know that Price often said she had a “Mona Lisa” smile… I imagine that hot summer day so long ago may have gone something like this…

In your honor Ann… I humbly submit – “Maxton Mona Lisa”

JC

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Kandi Kane

– A Christmas Story –

The flamingo pink had faded to a shade closer to Pepto and the stucco was cracking and chipping in a dozen places, it didn’t matter though no one frequented the Pink Pony for its curb appeal. Kandi pushes off the wall taking a final drag on the diminishing cigarette she had bummed off Nigel, the stucco leaving a dimple effect on her soft skin. Time to get back inside, Nigel didn’t care if you took a “break” but he would be looking for a cut if you were more than a few minutes. It had been a good month though – December usually was, but any month you didn’t have to spend on your knees to make rent was a good month in her book. The sad string of multi-colored lights tacked around the door and the line-up of Christmas inspired names were the only nods to the holiday. She had chosen first – Kandi Kane – cause her plain jane eastern Iowa looks and “Heidi” didn’t inspire a man to drop twenty on a lap dance.

Like most little girls she had grown up with bigger dreams than her opportunities could fulfill. It had been three years since she had left the little nothing farm town for the big city where those dreams were all going to come true. Why her mother hadn’t stopped her was still a mystery – well maybe not, her mother had a hard-enough time taking care of herself, never-mind a teenage daughter with wants no waitress’ tips were going to quench. Nigel had seen her coming a mile away, fresh off the bus, small town blues, and nothing but a decent set of tits and legs to her name – “Heidi, you know like in The Sound of Music,” she had told him. He had laughed in what had seemed like a cool British accent at the time, that was now just annoying. She had only found out months later that there wasn’t any “Heidi” in The Sound of Music.

She holds the pole and kicks up her heel before losing the red sequined bra – mustering what passes for a smile she struts over to the three drunks sitting stage left, bending over to pick the singles up she gives them a good view of her goods, hoping for another few bucks but not really caring either way. These guys are all regulars and more interested in their beer than her boobs. The place is empty by eleven and Nigel cuts them all loose early with a slap on the ass and a Merry Christmas! Wrapped in a hoodie and carrying her heels in one hand and bag in the other she catches the #3 bus home. She leans her cheek against the cool window and hums along to radio… “jingle bells, jingle bells…” – “Merry Christmas mom,” she whispers to the dark brushing a tear from her cheek.

The 2017 RANT

So, my friends, we have been traveling down memory lane, “RANT” style for about twenty years now – so I decided to use a new font this year to freshen things up a bit… $#%@ you that’s a joke, but seriously it’s a new font.

I wrestle with the same problem every year – how do you recount all happenings and accomplishments without coming off smug and all “look at me, look at me.” I know it always seems to work out with some combination of sarcastic observation about the strange world we live in and what passes for normal combined with a rundown of the family hi-lite reel.

I always go back and read the last three or four years’ worth of Rants before getting started – funny it always kicks up my allergies. This year I decided to start way back in the ‘90s and read forward – oh sweet baby Jesus was that a mistake! It reminded me why I started this mess in the first place – we were a young family, four kids, working our asses off, moving from rental to rental trying to stay ahead of the bill collectors and still buy groceries. Knowing everyday any little ripple could throw it all off the rails, “sorry kids no Happy Meal today, Dad has to pay the electric bill.” You work eighteen hour days, kiss your kids as they lay sleeping, love your wife when she lets you, catch a few hours and back at it – and I’m sure through it all my wife worked harder than I did.

Christmas time would roll around and we would scrape a few dollars together for gifts – those kids never missed Christmas and we did everything in our power to insulate them from the everyday hardships – it was our burden not theirs – we weren’t heroes just parents. Inevitably we would get that holiday letter from our slightly older and much better off friends trumpeting all their blessing and big deeds for the year – how do you not feel like your failing reading that? Most people tape it to the fridge and celebrate their friends good fortune – F’ that I decided to write a RANT instead and so here we are!

Those first Rants probably weren’t very good, and in fact I’m slightly embarrassed by how angry some of it sounds, but it was real and that’s what mattered… They are more circumspect and polished now – I guess I’ve grown up a bit and truth be told passed through that “slightly older better off” phase myself, now I’m just old, grumpy, and probably too acerbic – so almost full circle, but with better writing!

Normally I just plow through the kids one by one extolling their virtues, poking fun at them, and generally irritating them in a fairly good-natured way. But honestly, I just can’t bring myself to do it this year so I’m just going to go with some hi-lites and observations instead.

Two major events this year really have to take the headline though:

  • Granddaughter #2 – Joined the family in July of this year – cute kid, bright blue eyes, big head, drools incessantly! I think big sis is still deciding if she wants to hug her or hit her… Great name on this one and super sweet.
  • So, this second one is a bit more traumatic – my daughter called me about four months ago clearly upset – not something you ever want to have happen. I have to remind you she just had her first anniversary this December so this whole marriage thing is pretty fresh – anyway she breathlessly tells me that Jon has come home and announced that he is “VEGAN” – I have to admit that my first reaction was “well okay, it could have been worse…” but I refrained and counseled her that just because he had lost his mind didn’t mean that she couldn’t continue to eat steak, meatballs, chicken tenders, and all manners of meat. She is doing better – Jon looks a bit withered but that’s just me.

Of course, there’s more to talk about than drool and vegetables, there’s politics, Starbucks, texting & driving, stupid angry people, air travel, and all the rest of the crazy that makes up every day. I’m going to pare it down for you though cause most of it just makes me insane – so hang on this is the sarcastic acerbic section in case you were missing it.

  • Politics – simply put all of it makes me nauseous on both sides and I’m sure however you feel you’re already arguing about it enough and FYI none of the people in DC are listening to you. They don’t care about you, the environment, your kid’s education, healthcare or pretty much anything beyond their own power and comfort – yeah, I know cynical but have you listened to any of these people?
  • Admittedly Starbucks is a pretty consistent theme for me – I have a problem, I know I have a problem, fact is I don’t even order anymore I just drive up to the window and my stuff is ready. However, I just have to say the stupid angry people that can’t place a simple coffee order should stay the hell out of my drive thru.
  • Texting and driving is another favorite of mine but I’m not going to talk about it anymore – what’s the point everyone is doing it – doesn’t matter that it’s like playing dodgeball with cars at 80MPH – have a good time – just don’t hit me.
  • Air Travel – hmmm what’s left to say that hasn’t already been exhausted. It would be nice if they actually tried to wipe the biohazardous material from the last passenger off the seat and tray before shoehorning the rest of us in there – but what the hell I’ve grown used to being sick six months out of the year – popping antibiotics like #$%@#$ Tic Tacs and drinking cough syrup like it’s water.
  • Stupid angry people – where do you even start with this one – they are among us! Let me just say this is Florida and most of us serene older guys are way over armed and we practice – you young angry stupid guys need to chill out and stay out of my yard… Please. All kidding aside there seems to be some kind of mental lapse taking place in a whole generation of very angry young people because they clearly don’t understand how good they have it and seem to have an incredible amount of free time to protest just about everything from every angle.

Okay what’s that leave – right normal crazy and all the regular stuff – that’s cool plenty to talk about. The wife and I have settled fully into the whole grandparent thing. She even traded my truck for a minivan so she has transitioned to full GIGI mode and loves those little ones. I have to be a bit more circumspect about it, wouldn’t want anyone thinking I had gone soft or anything. However, I do spend a lot of time with the granddaughter on the front porch eating popsicles (sugar free) and watching the world go by – its good stuff, believe me and as a bonus I’ve recently started letting the new one drool on me. I also might have indulged in a number of Christmas inflatables on the front lawn this year – what the girls love Minions, blue hippos and pink pigs!

The other unfortunate situation this year has been the evolution of this group of Cruffin loving misfits that camp out every Saturday morning at God awful early to sample the incomparable creations of Jennifer and the girls at Born & Bread Bakery. Why unfortunate you ask, other than the before dawn wake-up call – despite my best and repetitive efforts these folks are becoming friends, I know a chink in the old armor.

Can you believe we are at fifteen hundred words already and you’re still reading this? I know crazy, right? I haven’t talked about all the kids, their jobs, trials and tribulations, relationships, exploits, blah, blah, blah… but this isn’t going to be that kind of RANT sorry. Everyone is doing life, there is some really cool stuff going on in their lives, and there are some struggles – these are really wonderful people and I love them a lot. You should get to know them if you don’t already, maybe see what they are up to – my guess is they have some cool things to talk about and some pretty interesting thoughts and opinions they would love to share… well except Jon he just talks about vegetables and the melting properties of non-dairy cheese.

So, my friends I hope this year has treated you well, and if it hasn’t let’s endeavor to make the next one better together.

———

Final thoughts for your consideration:

This year I published my second and third novels – if you have read them you have my very sincere appreciation – if you haven’t why not?

My first book “Jake” and its sequel “Peakeville” are intended to create a dialogue on systemic racism and oppression. It’s impossible to ignore the egregious every day demonstrations of intolerance around us – we can do better and if you aren’t experiencing it don’t pretend like it’s not real – be vigilant – there is so much more to say on this, but at the very least just stop acting like it’s not everywhere and folks should somehow miraculously just get over it. It’s not okay to devalue people simply because they are different than you.

My other novel is “Traffic” and is more in the style of an international thriller – but I based this book on the very real problem of human trafficking. If you are on Facebook or any other social media platform you know a week doesn’t go by without us seeing a flyer for the disappearance of a young person – predominantly teenage girls. What you rarely see is any resolution or happy ending to these disappearances. The statistics are truly staggering:

  • The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally.
    • 68% of them are trapped in forced labor.
    • 26% of them are children.
    • 55% are women and girls.
  • The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
  • In 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
    • Of those, 86% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.

There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. The Polaris Project estimates that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated. More information is available at www.polarisproject.org

Stay tuned the follow-up to “Traffic” should be out sometime next spring and I am contemplating doing a third “Jake” book – those take a lot of energy so we shall see.

As always, my very best and remember the journey is long but worth the trip.

Joe

The Order

The steam rises in soft plumes out of the chipped ceramic coffee mug while the thin napkin, folded just so, absorbs the first drops of condensation beginning to journey down the side of the hard-plastic water cup where the square cubes of ice seem to joust for position.

Johnny studies the sturdy plastic menu with an intensity usually reserved for things of much greater comport than the overwhelming selection of egg and hash-brown combinations pictured. Melissa twirls her pen over the yellow pad, “Melissa” isn’t really her name but the faded tag had been carelessly left behind attached to the uniform shirt her manager had tossed her way that first day seven months ago and she had never bothered to change it. She had long settled on answering to hey girl, you, or just about anything else – Melissa would do.

“I think I’ll have the ham and cheese omelet, grits, and raisin toast dark,” Johnny finally intones carefully replacing the menu in the metal brackets next to the napkins, bottle of Texas Pete and stacks of foil jelly containers. It was a serious decision he thinks to himself, everyone knew breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

Melissa nods with equal seriousness, “Yes sir coming right up,” she answers not bothering to write it down, Johnny has ordered exactly the same meal every morning since she started, and who knows for how long before that. “Ham and Cheese plate, grits on the side, raisin well,” she hollers at the cook…

Memories from a Georgia Cotton Field…

The bracken and small trees have overgrown the banks and begun to cover the top of the berm if you look closely you can still see the glint of steel tracks embedded in the coarse grass, the creosote ties have splintered and rotted no longer holding the rails in tight straight lines. The cotton fields extend on either side for hundreds of acres the red Georgia dirt baking in the late September sun – the bolls now dry and brown have split, their sharp claws clinging to the silky puffs loathe to give them up. The memories of a lonesome steam whistle mingle with the sharp cracks of the whips and the soft moans that linger in the quiet stillness of a fading afternoon.

Adelaide wipes her brow with the back of a hand, her mahogany skin’s a crisscross pattern of scars and creases never quite healed from the hundred sharp cuts the bolls inflict – the shadow of the overseer approaches and she bends back to her task hurrying forward hoping to avoid sharp sting of the leather through her thin cotton dress. She steals a glance over, Billy still lay where he had fallen, no amount of whipping was going to raise him up and they’d left him as an example to the rest of them, the men would bury him later but not now no now was for pickin’ 200 pounds didn’t come easy the second time through a field.

The green machines lumber along voraciously scavenging the white puffs in front of them, small strays play across the ground in their wake as they march forward. Along the tree line long bales wrapped tight in plastic keep the cotton from escaping, large enough to fill a tractor trailer they wait patiently for the long bed trucks to carry them onward. Gone are the picking bags, the cotton baskets at field’s end, the crack of the overseer’s whip – but the cotton remains and the soft glint of a steel track – and the memories of another day…

Author’s Note: I was traveling through Georgia this past weekend, past many a cotton field and old train bed… they spoke to me of times long past, but not forgotten.

Wonderin’

I sit here wonderin if the worlds gone to hell
Got Tom Petty playin’ the stories we could tell

I cant find the words to splain the way I’m feeling
And I don’t know how to stop starin at the ceiling

So the tears fall and the memories keep flowin’
And there aint nothing for it but to keep goin’

Cause I sit here wonderin if the worlds gone to hell
While Tom Petty’s playin’ the stories we could tell