Neighbor leaves a legacy of kindness

It was not my best day. I had just got home with the kids, who seemed a little grumpy because they forgot mom had to work tonight and probably because this meant Hamburger Helper or chicken with mushroom soup over rice for dinner, neither among their favorite meals. I elbowed open the front door, my arms filled with a stack of papers and my laptop, somehow managing to get the key in the lock to nudge open the door. The kids burst through in a dash for the video game bonanza downstairs, still pretty new from Christmas.

“Let the dog in!” I yelled after them.

I had no sooner walked 12 steps to turn on the coffee — blessed coffee! — maker than our dog, a miniature dachshund came bounding up the stairs, tearing around the corner like a car sliding sideways in a movie chase scene. He had on that ridiculous burnt orange and brown autumn sweater that Tammy bought for him at one of these boutique pet stores, and he was yelping as if he hadn’t seen a human being in two years.

Before I could get the coffee on and the dog settled down, the kids suddenly materialized in the kitchen as if teleported from downstairs.

“Daddy, I’m hungry,” said Kid One.

“Daddy, come downstairs and play Wii basketball with me,” said Kid Two, more or less simultaneously.

Before I could answer either kid, before I could calm the dog (who would continue yelping until petted, regardless if it took 10 seconds or 10 hours to do it), before I could press “start” to get my hazelwood coffee brewing, someone knocked on the door. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. The dog was absolutely nuts now, projecting his eight-pound body at the front door like a furry dart, scratching over and over to get at whatever lurked outside.

The kids whined. ‘Hungry!’ ‘Won’t somebody play with me!!’

Another knock.

“Go downstairs for a minute,” I said, barely able to be heard above the chaos. “I’ll get you a snack in a minute, and then I’ll come play Wii basketball.”

I scooped up the yapping dog in one arm, and opened the door with the other. I can only imagine what a picture of pure frustration I must have been. It was Donna, the next-door neighbor. She and her husband, John, need to use our driveway on snowy days, because the only other way out of their driveway is down a very steep slope. We had sorted all this out last year when we moved here, when they explained the situation and asked us very kindly if we would be willing to share our driveway with them in bad weather. Of course we would, we had said.

While it wasn’t snowing on that particular day in January, it certainly had been in days previous, and their driveway was still completely covered in snow and ice. In my haste to get home and get dinner on, I had simply forgotten about the driveway and left my car parked right in the middle, blocking access. Donna needed to go somewhere, and couldn’t get around. Would I mind moving it, she asked.

I am not sure exactly what I said, but I know it was something along the lines of, “Just a minute. Give me a minute.” I walked back to our bedroom, tossed the dog on our bed, and shut the door, then pulled back on my boots, not bothering with a jacket, though it couldn’t have been much above freezing out.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, finally appearing outside. “I completely forgot.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said. “So sorry to bother you.”

I jumped in the car and moved it, feeling like an idiot. Later that evening, when my wife got home from work, I told her what had happened and said I probably needed to call John and Donna and apologize, not only for forgetting to leave the driveway open, but for my irritable demeanor.

A couple of days later, there was another knock. This time Tammy was home, and the waters in our home were much calmer. It was Donna again, this time bearing a basket filled with all kinds of goodies, including a nice bottle of wine, truffles, chutney, and a number of other bottles filled with various treats. Not only was it obvious that each one had been carefully handpicked, each of the items had a Post-it note attached with a brief description or suggestion, handwritten by Donna.

“We just wanted to give you this to thank you for letting us use your driveway,” she said.

We thanked her, and spent 15 minutes looking through the basket, remarking at what an amazing and kind gesture it had been, especially in light of my poor response a couple of days before.

I had been thinking of some gesture of our own in the days following, even though we didn’t see them for a few days. Then, one night, we got a call from another neighbor, one across the road. She told us that while John and Donna were on vacation in some tropical place, Donna had complained of weakness moments after scuba diving, and then died suddenly.

Died suddenly.

“She what?”

We couldn’t make sense of it, not at all. These were retired people, but young, active, retired people, always on the go, always doing something outside. Donna in her flower garden, John in his workshop.

We had just seen her a few days ago. She had brought us this wonderful basket, filled with stuff, marked with personalized notes. You have seen those bumper stickers, the ones that say, “Commit random acts of kindness.” Well, Donna committed a specific act of kindness, where others might have complained about the neighbors’ lack of concern or tact.

She left the neighborhood much too soon, but we’ll never forget her kindness. We will surely miss her. I can’t help but notice that the flowers are blooming early this year.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

This epiphany is shiny, new and has all-wheel drive

My epiphany occurred on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, the snow having momentarily given way to a stray and fleeting glimpse of the actual sun — lately as rare as a celebrity sighting at Ingles. I was outside doing my best to break up the thick ice underneath two or three inches of packed snow in order to make a couple of pitiful tracks to the highway from the church parking lot, where our Camry was trapped like a kitten in a wet bathtub, unable to climb out regardless of how furious the spinning, how desperate the need.

Perhaps I have been softened by years of creature comforts — jet tubs, fleece blankets, microwave popcorn — but let me tell you, I was one miserable sight out there in my mismatched gloves and old workboots, nose raw and running, eyes squinting, teeth chattering like dice in a Dixie cup. Again and again, I attacked the ice with my big silver shovel, and about every third or fourth strike, I’d get through to pavement, then wedge out a heavy piece of snow-crusted ice about the size of a pumpkin pie — or maybe half a pie — an excruciating, slow pace. I tried not to look toward the road, to see how far I had to go. It was a long way, and my back was already screaming at me.

“CHIROPRACTOR,” it yelled.

“GROCERIES,” I yelled back, and kept digging, remembering the stale graham cracker I just had for lunch.

The wind kicked up suddenly. It felt like opening a jar of bees, stinging everywhere at once without pity or remorse. I tucked my chin like a concert violinist, kept digging, trying to position my back to the wind, which seemed to be blowing from all directions at the same time. I was getting tired, and I paused for just a moment to catch my breath. My wife had joined me, offering to take turns with me battling the snow and ice.

And that’s when it happened. A silver Subaru came around the curve, plowing through the snow like a pack of teenage girls going through a mall. We stood there and watched it in sheer astonishment as it crested the hill and disappeared.

“We have to get one,” I said. “We have to get one now.”


Requiem for a Camry

I stood there and looked at my Camry, to which I have an attachment that is both sentimental and practical. I took my Dad with me to buy this car in 1998, two years before he passed. My father was to buying cars what Stephen King is to horror novels or Peyton Manning is to football. I vividly remember him reducing a cocky Toyota salesman to a small puddle of frustration years ago when I bought my first car. This time, he let me do the negotiating, said very little to nothing during the test drive, just nodded slightly when I got the price we discussed on the way. Afterward, we went for Chinese, and I remember sitting there over my egg drop soup, looking out the window at my shiny new Camry, thinking, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.

Until my epiphany, 13 years and 170,000 miles later, that was still the plan. The Camry actually does pretty well in moderate snow, but you may have noticed that our past couple of winters have been lacking in moderation. Last year, I had a couple of close calls in her, but I chalked it up to an historic winter, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until our children had children, when we’d haul out the pictures and laugh at the memories of it on holidays.

A year later, it is apparent that this was a profoundly foolish notion. You know what we call a snowstorm packing a foot of snow these days? Wednesday. It’s not historic. It’s just the latest snow. Ho hum, another foot of snow, another week out of school, another few days before we can get the Camry out on the road again, another round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, another few hours of fantastic cardiovascular exercise shoveling snow.

I knew I would have to work a bit on Tammy, who is so frugal she is sort of an anti-Kardashian, unwilling to spend a nickel unless it is absolutely and utterly necessary. I reminded her that during last winter’s storm when a twig lashed open a two-inch gash just above our son’s left eyebrow, we had to get a neighbor to drive us to urgent care because — dramatic pause — we couldn’t get our car out of the driveway to take him ourselves. What if the neighbor had been unavailable?

A week later, we were test driving Subarus, and now there’s one in our driveway. From the kitchen window, I can see it out there all shiny and new, just daring the snow to fall, and I think to myself, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels come off. I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with it. He loved buying cars.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Words have a power we often forget

Just as I was sitting down to write my column on the controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which an Auburn University professor plans to publish with the intention of replacing the “N” word with the word “slave,” news of the tragedy in Arizona began to break. Even before the horrific facts of the tragedy were fully established — six dead, a congresswoman shot in the head and fighting for her life in the hospital, 14 injured, the suspected shooter in custody — commentary began to appear on the Internet ascribing blame for the shooting on the vitriolic tone that is so pervasive in modern politics, particularly from the right wing.

“I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in,” said Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference within hours of the shooting. “And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”

Sheriff Dupnik’s comments have touched off a national debate on the power and influence of language, which is more or less the thesis I set out to explore with the recently censored edition of Huck Finn. Advocates of the new version of the book point to the potential harm to self-esteem the repetitive use of the word “nigger” in the novel might cause for young, vulnerable readers. Others fear that exposure to the word might result in its continued use as a racial slur among students looking for a way to justify bad behavior.

In both of these cases — different as they are — the issue seems to be the power of language to inflict damage, and what measures we, as a society, are willing to go to as a possible remedy. As ugly as the ‘N’ word is, are we ready to accept the censorship of what many consider to be the greatest of all American novels in order to avoid exposing students to it, even taking into consideration the context in which the book was written and the word used, not to mention the major themes of the book, not least of which is that the institution of slavery was profoundly wrong and immoral? Twain used the ‘N’ word, at least in part, to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man. Remember, in helping the slave Jim escape — in learning to see him as a human being and not “property” — Huck becomes an “outlaw” and believes that his actions will cause him to “go to hell.”

When the “N” word is “erased” from the book, the power, context, and authenticity of the novel are severely compromised, and the lesson lessened, if you will. Censorship is not the answer; understanding is.

On the other hand, there is perhaps no way to understand the mindset of a 21-year-old man who goes on a killing spree on sunny Saturday morning in Tuscon. I have not read any conclusive studies done on these mass murderers, but doesn’t it always seem as if they are cut from the same piece of cloth? Invariably, they are young male loners who have struggled to fit in anywhere or find a coherent meaning in life.

In this latest instance, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had posted messages on YouTube in which he rambled on about issues he had with “informing conscience dreamers about a new currency.” According to friends and teachers, he had a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and had been kicked out of a local community college until he agreed to seek psychiatric help.

All of this makes it difficult to draw a straight line from the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh to Jared Loughner. On the other hand, when Sarah Palin has a Web site with a map in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims in the shooting, is listed as a “target” — complete with crosshairs — and when Palin tweets inane messages that exhort her followers, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD,” it is fair to debate how much of this kind of rhetoric adds to a climate in which violence is perceived as an acceptable solution to political disagreement.

As with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the answer is not censorship. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions — and words. And it is holding those who do not act responsibly accountable for their actions, rather than remaining silent.

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

So Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927. True then, and true now. Whether or not Jared Loughner shot a bunch of people because someone told him to reload rather than retreat, we must stand up and speak out when the Sarah Palins of the world use the threat of violence — even if it intended as a lame metaphor — in an effort to incite their followers. The remedy is not censorship. It is telling them their 15minutes are up, and showing them the way off of the American stage.


(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Remembering Terry … and not too fondly

When I was in the fourth grade, some dirtbag stole my hat. But it wasn’t any old dirtbag, and it wasn’t any old hat. The dirtbag was a kid named Terry, a garden variety bully with no manners, questionable hygiene, and no regard for people’s personal property. In other words, he was the kind of dirtbag who would steal another guy’s hat, and then wear it proudly the next day, as if it were a trophy, as if he were daring the victim to do something about it.

Under normal circumstances, I would have probably just let it go. A hat is a hat, not worth fighting over, and a dirtbag is just a dirtbag, no shortage of those in the halls and on the playground. However, this was not just any hat. It was a brand new Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap that I had just got as a birthday present from K&E Sporting Goods. I still remember the day I picked it out, tried it on, felt the stiffness of the bill as I began shaping it into a curve. I was a big Dodger fan, as was my dad. I thought that there was no blue like the blue in brand new Dodgers baseball cap, not even the sky.

I wore it all the time, to church, to school, even to supper, where my mother patiently let me eat my fried perch and mashed potatoes without making me take it off. Unfortunately, my fourth grade teacher would not allow me to wear my hat in class, so I had to put it in my locker, which was not really a locker but a little wooden cube barely big enough to stuff a windbreaker into, a cinch for even the most dull-witted thief, and Terry certainly was that.

When I discovered my Dodgers cap had been stolen, I had a feeling that I am not quite sure I can adequately describe. I felt angry, yes, but more than that, I felt confused and violated, as if the natural order of things had suddenly come undone and I had not been alerted to the new way of things. What if Monday suddenly followed Friday and someone had taken the weekends? What if someone had removed all the tater tots in the entire world? What if someone took all but three days of summer vacation?

Something important had been taken from me, by someone who had no business or right to take it. It was mine and now it was gone. I remember looking at the empty “locker” for a long time, as if looking hard enough might somehow force the hat to materialize right before my eyes.  To be honest, I felt more sick than angry.

That was a long time ago, but I still remember the feeling vividly. A couple of weeks ago — on Black Friday — my wife was shopping at Belks when someone stole her pocketbook. She was looking at shoes, and had maneuvered her cart between two nearby rows of clothes so that it would not further clutter up the area. She had turned her back for just a few minutes, only to find when she turned back for the cart that it was gone … along with her pocketbook and everything in it, including her wallet, credit cards, license, photographs, whatever money she had, her keys, cell phone, and assorted other, more easily replaceable, items. When she looked at that space where her cart had been, I imagine she felt very close to how I felt when I looked at my empty locker all those years ago. I know she did, because I could hear it in her voice when she called me at about 5 a.m. on Friday morning, her voice trembling and frail.

It wasn’t just that her pocketbook had been stolen. We were able to cancel the credit cards, contact the bank, replace the cell phone and keys, and change the locks on the house easily enough. Luckily, she hadn’t been carrying much cash, so it turned out that the monetary loss was fairly minimal. The bigger injury by far was that feeling of violation, that the natural order of things was out of whack, that at any minute for no apparent reason someone will take what’s yours when your back is turned. She’ll get over this, of course, but it will take her longer to get over the sense of violation than it will to get over what she lost.

I ended up getting my hat back, by the way. And, years later, Terry ended up dropping out of school and going to jail. The moral? Sometimes, the natural order of things may be temporarily upset, but in the end, it’ll kick your ass. I think Aristotle said that, probably after some young Athenian stole his sandals.  

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

All of it – glory, honor, M&Ms – just one hit away

It was a perfect day for baseball: blue sky, a crisp breeze, the sun still hanging like a pop fly above the horizon. There were ducks on the pond. Runners on first and second, and just one away. Two runs were already in, and the blue team was threatening to break this thing wide open there in the top of the third inning.

The next batter was a hot shot rookie recently called up from Tee Ball. At the tender age of 5, he was called up along with his buddy, Charlie. They figured that together they would weather the inevitable hazing from their older teammates, as well as the rough adjustment to machine pitching and hard baseballs here in the big league, both a far cry from the hitting tee and rubber ball world of last spring. Alas, Charlie was traded from the blue to the red team before the first game due to some tricky carpooling issues negotiated between the mothers, and now the rookie was left to sort out his own place among the 6-, 7-, 8-, and (gasp!) 9-year-old boys.

Yes, there had been ups and downs. The pitching machine, which looked like a giant metallic grasshopper, had proved to be an intimidating foe on the mound, and there had been several strikeouts before his timing improved. The strikeouts finally evolved into foul tips, which in turn evolved into bunt singles, lazy grounders, and ultimately sharp base hits into the outfield. The metal grasshopper still racked up its share of strikeouts, but the rookie had learned to stand in the box and take his cuts. He had shown he could hit in this league.

Still, he had never been up in this situation. In the first game of the season, the blue team had scored a few runs and jumped out to an early lead, only to see the green team rally for a big 12-7 victory. Apparently, based on some scuttlebutt I heard from some scouts in the stands, the green team had a couple of nine-year-old ringers minivanned in from Sylva. One of them was nearly big enough to be a sheriff’s deputy, and both looked like they might be shaving by next spring. Never mind.

Today was all that mattered, right now, this at-bat, with ducks on the pond and the metal grasshopper winding up to pitch to the rookie. The first pitch looked a little high, and the rookie swung at it much too late. Strike one. The coach clapped his hands twice and said, “Shake it off, rookie. Go ahead and take the next pitch. Watch it across the plate.”

The rookie nodded, stood back in, and took the next pitch right around the letters.

“Now you’re ready,” said the coach, optimistically.

The next pitch was right down the middle, and the rookie took a good cut at it, fouling it off the screen behind home plate. The runners had broken to run, and were forced to return to their bases.

Now there were two strikes, and just one more chance. The pitch came, and this time the rookie hit the ball right on the nose. It shot between the first and second basemen into right field. The runner on third scored easily, and the third base coach waved in the runner from second for the second run. The rookie pulled in at second base with a stand-up double.

The coach was so excited he ran out to second base and patted the rookie on his batting helmet. The rookie smiled and said something, which we could not make from the bleachers. Whatever it was caused the coach to give him a high five with both hands and then come sprinting toward the bleachers where the 12 or so fans of the blue team were sitting, still buzzing with excitement over the growing rally.

“He told me, ‘I’ve never been this happy before,’” said the coach, still laughing.

The next batter added another single, and the rookie scored the last run of the inning. The blue team went on to win 10-1, and the rookie collected two hits and three runs batted in.

A private post-game celebration was held at New Happy Garden, which seemed only fitting. The rookie ate only two bites of an appetizer before moving on to an array of desserts, including ice cream, M&Ms, and cake. Fortune cookies were opened and read aloud, and then a final toast to happy days, to being happier than you’ve ever been before.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Thirty years later, partying like it’s 1979

James looks at me, briefly averts his eyes, then looks at me again, this time with a purpose and a certain intensity, as if I am an algebra problem he’s about to solve. There is a flicker of recognition, a slight smile beginning to form. He knows me.

“James,” I say, relieved, sticking out my hand.  “It’s so good to see you.”

But even before he takes my hand, I see that the flicker is gone, the tiniest ember of recognition turned to a cinder. Now he is looking for my nametag, a white sticker with my name Sharpied on it in capital letters. I see this, and quickly pull aside the lapel of my jacket and thrust my chest forward like Wyatt Earp showing his marshal’s badge.

“Oh, Chris,” he says, nodding. It’s the nod you give when you look up the answer to the algebra problem in the back of the book, and it comes to you in an instant how you missed it, how close you were, but not really. “Good to see you, too. Do you know my wife?”

There is surreal, there is just plain weird, and then there is your 30-year high school class reunion. Salvador Dali never painted anything stranger than a group of people bearing down on the age of 50 gathering in a place called the Silver Dollar Saloon to compare notes, photographs, memories, and a rather acute sense of shared disbelief. We are like survivors of a plane crash, walking around in our pressed shirts and khaki pants to see who made it out alive, and what they remember about it. Our wounds, if not mortal, are crow’s feet, a few pounds here, a few more pounds there, male pattern baldness, and the hair we do have touched with gray, some of us a little more than others. It’s fitting, I guess, that we’ve chosen mid-October, as the leaves here are beginning to turn, just as we have.  Nobody wants to say so, except in a variety of jokes and jibes, but autumn is upon us.

Some of us really have not changed all that much. Others need their nametags. But one thing that is abundantly clear is that we are all still so profoundly us, which will sound insane to many people, I realize, but not to people who have just attended their 30-year class reunions.

If you are a younger reader, I will let you in on a little secret, one you may find liberating, reassuring, or terrifying, depending upon your circumstances. The secret is, you are not going to become a different person when you reach middle age. You are not going to suddenly become someone else, losing all of your interests or your personality quirks. You are not going to become your parents, as you have been warned that you will. You are still going to be you, through and through, and you’re going to have a hard time believing that 30 years could pass so quickly.

Yes, I am well aware of the cliché there. I also know that there is change, most of it for the best, if you don’t count the aches, pains, and assortment of “mechanical problems” that factor into 30 percent of our conversations at this reunion, compared to, oh, zero percent of our conversations at our 10-year reunion. What can I say? We’ve got a few miles on us now. Every so often, the “check engine” light is just bound to come on.

Otherwise, we are doing pretty good, maybe better than ever. By now, we know who we are. We’re more comfortable in our skins, wrinkled or not. We don’t have to impress anybody. We either drive nicer cars or don’t give a damn if we don’t. We’ve learned a few things, among which is not to say, “I wish I could go back to then with what I know now.” Most of us are pretty happy right where we are. If we could go back, it would be only for awhile, just to check in and say, ‘hi,’ but certainly not to stay.

If I could go back, it would be to tell my 16-year-old self, “Hang in there, buddy. It’s going to take awhile, but you’re going to have it all, everything you ever wanted. You’re going to know love, know happiness, know contentment. You’re going to love and be loved. You’re going to like your life and not wish it to be any different. And, oh yes, you’re going to have a hot wife and a kick-ass stereo!”

By the end of the evening, dear readers, we took to dancing. I had made a mix-tape CD of some of our old favorites for the occasion, a soundtrack to the late 1970s in a small southern town, mixing in a little disco on the off chance somebody might want to shake it to “Brick House” or something. Well, someone did, and before you know it, the dance floor was full. We danced and danced, partied like it was 1979, and at the very end, everyone remaining at the Silver Dollar Saloon danced to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” as required by law in all southern states. You may not believe this, but after a verse or two, we spontaneously formed a giant circle, everyone holding hands, old friends bonding again after three decades apart. It sounds unbearably corny, the very kind of thing that would cause most people to cringe and our children to die of embarrassment, but as I may have mentioned already, one of the perks of being this age is not caring about any of that.

I think my 16-year-old self would have grimaced at this news, but I also like to think he would have smiled just a little, maybe recognizing himself well enough not to have to look up the answer in the back of the book.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville.)

I go to carnivals, therefore I love my children

Part of becoming a parent is making peace with the proposition that virtually everyone in the world except you knows best how to discipline your children. I was once part of that world, casting judgmental “if those were my kids” glances at parents whose children were running amok in restaurants, attacking the salad bar with little balled up fists, or pressing their faces flat against the fish aquarium, alarming the fattened goldfish into a frenzy.

Seven years into my education as a real — rather than a theoretical — parent, what I have learned so far can be summed up in one sentence: Trying to find the “right” discipline for your child is like trying to tie your shoes with a strand of cooked spaghetti for a shoelace. It looks like it might work, but it won’t.

This doesn’t mean you stop trying, of course. You don’t want your shoes to fall off. You don’t want your children to wind up in the principal’s office … or the penitentiary. I know I don’t, which is why when my children act out, I get out the “box of consequences” from my handy parenting tool kit and search for just the right instrument for the job. What will it be? Time out? No television? No electronic games? No ice cream for dessert?

Whatever I choose, I know it will stir dramatic, perhaps Oscar-caliber performances from my children, who are never more prone to histrionics than when they feel falsely accused of a crime they may not have committed, at least not alone, and, hey, it wasn’t their idea anyway! When this happens, I usually get the same response, sort of a forlorn “my daddy hates me” slumping into the chair, as if the meting out of punishment included the literal removal of all bones from their bodies, such that whatever chair they may occupy now contains only a large pool of child … with shoes.

“Why do you hate us, daddy?” they say. “Why oh why?”

Of course I don’t hate them. They’re very expensive, and they often look cute in their school pictures. They make people think I’m younger than I really am, and they give me an excuse to play video games and eat ice cream instead of working in the yard or cleaning the garage. What’s not to love?

I guess I owe them more than that, though, so I decided to give the question a lot of serious thought and not bail out with obvious, easy answers such as, “I’m your daddy, and you’re my world.” This is the kind of drivel parents post on Facebook, but it’s just sentimental parental boilerplate to kids.

So, what’s the answer, then? What IS the best, most compelling evidence, that I actually do love my children? I think the most persuasive evidence by far is that I go to carnivals. You heard me. I go to carnivals.

Let’s be clear about one thing before we go a step further: attending a carnival is a small act of insanity.

Each year, right on the cusp of fall, we draw out a large sack full of cash from our sad little bank accounts and take our kids to the carnival — because we love them — where we must run a gauntlet of hectoring carnival folk, not one of whom you would ever, in your most desperate straits, let your children be around for 20 seconds in any “non carnival” context.

We hand over $20 bills like politicians handing out leaflets on election day to these con people — I mean “carnival workers,” or “barkers,” if you prefer — so that our children can play games that they: a) cannot possibly win, or b) “win” every time, if winning is defined as taking possession of a plastic lizard about the size of your thumb instead of something from the array of stuffed animals hanging above the game like little carnival angels, looking down benignly on the proceedings, almost as if what they are watching is something other than a corrupt rip-off.

We know these games are rigged. The basketballs are inflated to a degree that if you dribble one before shooting you risk fracturing your jaw. The rims are about as big around as the lid of a pickle jar, and fastened so tight and at such an angle that if the ball hits any portion of the rim — which it surely must, given that it will barely fit through in the first place — it will carom so high as to be a threat to birds and small aircraft.

You’ll have better luck with the darts and balloons, perhaps, but you will find that the balloons you do break are ALWAYS the balloons with the thumb-sized plastic prizes, and not the enormous stuffed animals that could pass as friends if your children are lonely. Luckily, you can play again, and trade up for a larger prize. After approximately 17 “trade ups,” you might win one of the biggies. Or you might go home with a pocketful of plastic lizards to mingle with the 37 cents in change you have left from your sack of money.

The rest you will have spent on food you would never eat anyplace else, or on rides that you would never ride anyplace else, contraptions that jerk you around violently, as if the carnival gods will not be appeased until you cough up that corndog you just paid $7 for.

I know you’re upset, children, but don’t ever say that daddy hates you. Daddy goes to carnivals.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County.)

What’s the game, living longer or looking better?


I was just finishing up my lat pull-down exercise when I heard it, but I was too busy thinking about how sore I’d be tomorrow to fully register the sound. Out of the gym all summer and good to be back, but now I would have to pay. Maybe I would get in the hot tub after…


I looked in the general direction of the “pssst,” and saw my wife over on the glut/hamstring machine. She raised an eyebrow and gave her head a little jerk, motioning me over.

“How’s the workout?” she said, but before I could answer, she lowered her voice, adding, “You see that guy over there, the guy getting off the calf machine?”

I looked, saw him, handsome fellow with a summer tan and salt and pepper hair, neatly cropped.

“That’s a good-looking guy, right?” she said. “Don’t you think he’s probably about 50? Imagine how young he would look if his hair wasn’t turning gray. Forty, 35 maybe?”

I understood right away that we weren’t really talking about the distinguished guy getting off the calf machine at all, because I’m sharp, you see. I should be, since I’m nearly 50.

Also, we’d been down that road before. The topic had been broached in the car on a trip, when we’d already worked the crossword puzzle already and had time to kill.  I had argued for aging gracefully. She had argued for taking advantage of existing technology to “look your best.” I accused her of ageism or some other “ism,” and she said she had nothing at all against aging in general or gray hair in particular, just that it would not look very good on my particular head.

I then did something that I can now see as a poor strategic maneuver in the subtle art of domestic negotiation. I horselaughed.

“What?” she said, quite visibly taken aback.

“Well, honey, don’t you think it’s a bit late to be worrying over what color my hair is, since I have so little of it left? Too late to buy new locks when the house has already been robbed, you know.”

It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but I did make a note to self about a great idea for a new fairy tale for young boys about a hair thief who sneaks a sleeping potion into the Chinese buffet, then takes your hair a little at a time every night for 12 years until you finally shave your head or just start wearing a lot of hats.

“What are you talking about?” she said, with convincing incredulousness. “You have plenty of hair.”

“Compared to what? An onion?” I said, equally incredulous. “You see, we have this mirror at home … plus, I don’t want to be accused of being vain.”

Now it was her turn to horselaugh.

“Accused of being vain?” she snorted. “Is this the same man who has spent 12, 485 hours in the gym since we met? Is this the same guy who buys protein powder online? The same guy who wears his World Gym tank top to Ingles to buy groceries?”

“Well, excuse me,” I said, not that far off from a Steve Martin impression. “I thought we were trying to stay healthy.”

“Healthy shmealthy,” she said. “Do you need to bench press 350 pounds to be healthy? Do you need to spend an hour doing curls three days a week to make your biceps bigger to live longer? What about the treadmill or the stairmaster? What about the stationary bike?”

It was true. I did tend to avoid the cardiovascular area of the gym … wait, weren’t we talking about hair?

“You’re right, honey,” I said. “I need to do more cardio and less macho. I get that. But I don’t get the hair-coloring thing. Isn’t coloring what little hair I have left like buying a new set of tires today for a car I totalled yesterday? Won’t I look a little ridiculous?”

As I said, we’ve been down that road — 200 miles of it, more or less. In spite of my wounded vanity, I’m pretty sure the issue isn’t about hair as much as it’s about mortality, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” I am a good bit older than my wife, but it’s not something either of us thinks much about … unless a few gray insurgent whiskers appear to remind us. One thing we can agree on: she doesn’t want me to “leave the buffet” too early, if you know what I mean, and I don’t want to leave it. Why shouldn’t we be able to hammer out a truce on that sturdy foundation?

I may color my hair. Don’t bet against it. Maybe there is some kind of syllogism that can be worked out between looking young, acting young and living longer. But just in case, I’m definitely getting on that damned treadmill.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A package from home opens portal to a treasured past

When I took my morning walk with our miniature dachshund to the mailbox to get the mail last Friday, I wasn’t really expecting much — a couple of bills, maybe a movie from Netflix, the usual mix of junk mail. I found all of that, along with an oversized padded envelope, the sort of thing you get when someone is sending you an “official document” and wants to be sure it arrives unharmed. I checked the return address and saw that it had come from my Aunt Janie.

On the way back to the house, I thought about what it might be. Maybe a newspaper with an article about one of our relatives in it? Maybe a magazine she wanted me to know about for some reason? I hadn’t heard from her, so obviously I wasn’t expecting anything. When I got back inside, I opened it up and beheld a bright purple folder, bulging with whatever was inside. I opened that, and saw what must have been two dozen photographs, along with the original funeral “programs” from my grandparents’ funerals, one for my grandmother, who we lost in August of 2001, and one for my grandfather, who died when I was just 9 years old, in March of 1971.

In those days, it was pretty common to have the viewing in the home, and I remember standing in the large entry way leading into the living room, watching as Papaw’s children, including my father, went up one at a time to see him once more before they shut the coffin lid. My mamaw sat at the kitchen table, with just the slightest trace of moisture in her eye.

That was the only time I can ever remember my dad crying. I may not have understood death exactly, but I knew then that no one is immune from pain and suffering and loss. I knew that something had changed and that things would not be as they were before, that the family would not, that my mamaw — in spite of her incomprehensible strength — would not, that I would not.

I shook out of this reverie and spread the photos over the kitchen counter. Some of them I knew already, including one of my dad and his four siblings, including Janie, that I have always cherished. It was taken when they were all still in their 20s or early 30s. Somebody — my mother probably — somehow convinced my dad to wear a suit for the photo, although his older brother John R got away with a green button down shirt that looks as if it could be flannel. But they all look good in it, and it occurs to me that this is the way I think of them, my aunts and uncle, because I have seen this same picture on the walls of various houses since I was 5 years old. Now it is going up in mine. This is them. It will always be them.

While a few of the other pictures were nearly as familiar, most of the photographs were completely new to me, including various photographs of my dad as a child. In one of them, he is 9 years old, hair still blonde, swept over — but not really combed — from one side to the other as he posed for what appears to have been a school picture. He is not pleased to be in the photograph, although his countenance is one more of studied indifference than a scowl. Is it over? OK, then.

In the next photograph, Janie is standing in the yard, waving at whoever is taking the picture. In the background is the “old house,” which was once directly across the road from the house they built and moved into in the mid 1960s. Janie has written a pretty extensive message on the back of this one, part of which is that she and her sister Louise were born in the old house, and that Lillie’s two daughters were brought home there, and spent their first few years of life in that same house.

It may be that my earliest memories were of that house, not so much when people still lived in it but rather as an old, mostly empty house across the street where we would steal away and play inside. I remember the rusted tin roof, the creaking floors, the strange feelings I had being in there with my siblings and cousins.

In another picture, taken from the porch of the old house, Janie and Louise stand in front of a boxwood tree — the two of them no more than 4 or 5 years old. But it’s the background that startles me. There are all the buildings I remember from boyhood. The chicken house, the granary, the pig pen, and finally the barn.

All of these buildings are long since gone. The pond that used to be down below the barn, where we fished for bream with a Zebco 33 and caught tadpoles in mason jars, has long since filled in and grown over. As far as I know, I have never seen a single photograph of any of these buildings, which existed until now only in my memories, these memories.

Watching my grandmother reach underneath chickens in the chicken house and magically come out with eggs. Climbing on bales of hay in the barn and leaping over cow pies while she milked the cows. Tossing apples from the ground at ones still attached to the big apple tree, trying to knock them loose. Teasing the bull from the safety of the barbed wire fence. Picking gooseberries, huckleberries, and chinquapins, eating more than we put in the bucket. Hunting under rocks in the creek for crawdads and lizards. Digging out big holes in the bank across the road, looking for shiny quartz or mica. All of this comes back with a force I can no better understand than the force I could not understand as a 9 year old, watching my father cry over his father. But here it is. His childhood, my childhood, somehow all collapsed into one thing and one place.

As I have grown older, I have become less certain about my earliest memories — what is real, what I might have dreamed or imagined. I believed I could make it out, yes, but sometimes have struggled to find my way back there. Now that Aunt Janie has delivered this map, this portal in a purple folder, the going is much easier. And it’s a place I still need to go, will always need to go.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The ‘loser’ case may not be all that it appears

By Chris Cox

I did not expect to, but I feel sorry for Enka Middle School teacher Rex Roland, who made national news last week when WLOS aired a story that he had written the words, “-20 percent for being a Loser” — with the word “loser” underlined twice — on the paper of a sixth-grade girl. Her mother appeared on the newscast demanding that something should be done about this, claiming that he had done the same thing in the fall and had been warned then by school officials not to do it again.

According to reports, Roland — who has since been suspended — said that he had apologized and that it was part of his teaching style. Somehow, for him, writing the word “loser” on a student’s paper helps him to better “relate” to his students. As a parent, educator, and columnist, I could not get to my keyboard fast enough to pound out an editorial demanding that this insensitive clod be removed from teaching so that he could pursue a profession that better suits his “style.” Perhaps he would make an excellent clown in a dunking booth, shouting insults at his customers — just part of the show, you know — but a middle school teacher? No thanks.

Just as I was getting ready to sit down and write this column, WLOS aired yet another report, this time with the mother sharing examples of a hundred or more Facebook posts, text messages, and emails deriding her 11-year-old daughter. Many of the messages were hostile. Some were even threatening. The reporter said pages had been established on Facebook both in support of the teacher, as well as one seeking his removal.

I visited both pages, and was surprised to see that more than 300 people — including many students, former students, and parents who knew Roland — had joined the group, with literally dozens and dozens of testimonials of how kind and helpful he had been with them. The general tenor of the comments was that, yes, the teacher did use this type of language to “joke around” with his students. Many students said that he had called them “losers” as well, and they knew he was just kidding. One girl claimed he had thrown her shoes in the hall, as well as her school supplies. Like a lot of others on the board, she wondered how this incident could have been taken so seriously and blown so far out of proportion. Indeed, I saw a banner story on the incident — complete with video — on Yahoo on Saturday, as well as a news report in a paper in the UK. The story had not only become national news, but international.

Because Rex Roland has suddenly become the national poster boy for “worst practices,” embarrassing local school officials, I would be surprised if he escapes with his job, and that the suspension is merely a prelude to a much more permanent outcome, despite an impressive show of support, however misguided some of it may be. I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to come to this. Based on many of the anecdotes shared by his students and the parents of those students, Roland has some good qualities that you would want in a teacher. But whatever those qualities may be, under no circumstances can writing “loser” on a student’s paper — or calling any student a “loser,” even in jest — be rationalized or defended, not by the teacher, his students, parents, or the school system. If this is a part of his strategy to “connect” with middle school kids — to “get down to their level” — it is a strategy that should have been obvious to any administrator who is part of the school system. It should have been made clear to Roland long ago — he has been teaching at the school for 12 years — that calling students names may be “getting on their level,” but that one big part of being a teacher is getting students to a higher level by modeling good behavior and teaching respect for themselves and each other.

While some students may respond favorably to such “buddy buddy” tactics, other, less confident, students would likely be harmed by Roland’s tactics. I have read posts written by students and parents who insist that this girl should toughen up and “get a sense of humor.” Most of the students who have written these posts do not yet have enough sensitivity or life experience to know any better, but their parents ought to be deeply ashamed.

Making this 11-year-old girl out to be the villain in this story does their cause much more harm than good, and her mother only did what any decent parent would do, and that is protect her daughter. If Roland is the compassionate man that they claim he is, he ought to stand up now and call for an abrupt end to any more messages directed at this student or her family. If the school system has a “muzzle” on him, pending an investigation, they ought to meet with him now to craft some type of statement asking that supporters leave the girl and her mother alone. Threats have been made about what will happen when this girl returned to school this week. A very clear statement ought to be issued that nothing of this sort will be tolerated, and that anyone acting out against this student will be sent home.

So, what actually happened here? It may well be that school officials WERE aware of this behavior and did issue strict, clearly defined warnings to Roland to stop. He might have been — or certainly COULD have been — offered professional development opportunities that would help him better understand the fragile psyches of his student population. At the very least, he should have been given very clear directives for appropriate and inappropriate humor. But was he? Given the context of the comments, it seems that this was a day-to-day part of his teaching style, which would mean that if even if such warnings were issued, they were either not heeded or not taken very seriously by either Roland or the school officials who issued them in the first place.

If that is the case, the school system failed Roland every bit as much as he failed it, and now everyone loses.

(Chris Cox is a writer and a teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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