Watching sleazy 80s movies late at night

“Don’t do it, Dan.”

Michael Douglas is Dan Gallagher, and he is sitting across the table from Alex Forrest, played by the incomparable Glenn Close. Alex is beautiful, all right, but she is also not his wife, who is out of town. And though she is beautiful, even with her poofy 80s hairstyle, there is something slightly askew about her, something not quite right. Dan is walking into a nightmare. Anybody can see that.

My wife can see it, even though she has never actually seen “Fatal Attraction,” the 1987 movie that taught a generation of women that the charismatic, handsome, cultured married man you just “connected with” at a party is never, ever going to leave his wife to be with you, and a generation of men that the sexy woman who isn’t your wife will not only pour acid on your Volvo if you sleep with her and then go back to your wife as if it never happened, she will also boil your daughter’s pet rabbit in a stock pot on your stove.

We hadn’t really set out to watch the movie in the first place. It was already past our bedtime, a little after 1 a.m., and the movie had just started. Dan and Alex had met at a party and were having that fateful dinner, perched right there on the brink of an odyssey that would ultimately leave her dead in the Gallagher’s quaint, country estate bathtub, and then dead again when she sprang to life after being apparently and quite convincingly drowned by Dan, having broken into their house and attacked his wife, only to be shot in the heart — oh cruel irony! — by the newly empowered wife. She was left dead, and poor Dan was left ... well, severely chastened — weary, but perhaps wiser.

When Alex sprang out of the water for one more go at Dan before the wife finished her off for good, my wife screamed and jumped so hard that she catapulted our miniature dachshund, who had been slumbering on her lap for a good hour, halfway across the room. He woke up midflight, yelped, and then barked at her for five minutes once he landed and regrouped.

“It’s a MOVIE, woman,” he barked (I’m translating now, for the benefit of readers who may not speak dachshund). “It’s not REAL. Glenn Close isn’t really crazy or dead. She has that television show now — you know the one. People cannot just drown in a bathtub, then come back to life, you know.”

Mouthy dog, he doesn’t realize that in the 1980s, dead movie villains frequently came back to life after being killed by the protagonist. You nearly always had to kill them twice (or, in the case of the “Friday the 13th” franchise, dozens of times). Usually, someone other than the protagonist had to do it the second time, since the protagonist was compelled by the curious laws of 1980s movies to sit near the “dead” body for several minutes after killing the villain the first time, his head in his hands, reflecting on the mistakes that brought him to this sorry place.

After my wife gathered her composure, as the credits rolled, she said, “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“Well, if she was actually attacking you with a kitchen knife, I would do whatever was necessary to subdue her,” I said. “I don’t want to drown anyone, but...”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” she said, poking my arm. “If I went out of town...”

“Honey, sweetie, valentine,” I said, grabbing her hand. “You’ve BEEN out of town half dozen times since we’ve been together. The closest I’ve come to cheating on you is getting Chinese takeout. As much as I love crabmeat wontons, they don’t even compare to you. Not even CLOSE!”

“I want you to know that I would have killed her a lot sooner,” said my wife, with terrifying conviction. “Probably would have killed you, too.”

“But, honey it’s just a movie,” I said. “You should listen to the dog.”

“What on earth are you talking about? What dog?”

“Never mind,” I said. “Look, I love YOU, babe. Glenn Close can find someone else to go to the opera with, OK?”

Just as we were getting a lid back on our own boiling pot, we saw that “Basic Instinct” was getting ready to come on. Must be a Michael Douglas sleazy guy marathon. I grabbed the remote and clicked it up channel, and there was Tom Cruise grilling Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” I sat up a little straighter.

“Honey, it’s three in the morning,” my wife said. “We both have to get up in the morning.”

“Let’s just watch this one scene,” I said. “Tom Cruise is really good in this, and Nicholson...”

“Honey, it’s three in the morning...’

“You can’t HANDLE the truth!” I shouted.

The dog, once again yanked from sleep, barked sharply at us both. I’m not going to translate what he said.

(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..)

My year-end list obsessions won’t go away

I have an irresistible urge to make a list. Apparently, it is what people must do at year’s end, especially if the end of the year is also the end of the decade. In the past few weeks, I have seen lists everywhere I look. Top 10 movies of the year. Top 10 movies of the decade. Top five most influential people. Ten albums to take to a deserted island. Top 50 entertainers of the decade. Top 10 books of the last 10 years.

The list of lists goes on and on, and I admit I cannot turn away from them. In fact, I have always been a gleeful participant. A few years ago, when The Smoky Mountain News used to gather top 10 lists from various people in their areas of expertise — for example, a musician might be asked for a list of her favorite recordings of the year, a bookstore owner a list of his favorite books — I practically begged to be included, even though my area of expertise is teaching English. How much interest would there have been in a list of the 10 most commonly misspelled words (“lose” and “loose,” “their” and “there” — isn’t this exciting?) or my top five indefinite pronouns?

But I was allowed to play along anyway, and I submitted a list of my top 10 albums and top 10 movies as if they meant something, despite the fact that I might have heard only 20 or 30 albums of the thousands produced each year and only seen 15 or 20 movies.

My frame of reference is even more limited now that I have children. For example, I can tell you for certain that I think “The Road” is the best movie of the year, but if I also tell you that the other movies I’ve seen this year are “Confessions Of A Shopaholic” and “Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” would that undermine my credibility as an authority? These days, I tend to get around to the better movies (which are usually released toward the end of year to get more consideration for the Academy Awards) only when they are finally released on video, usually after March. Even then, I will only have seen a fraction of the movies released this year, so who am I to judge? I can say that here is a movie I think you should see or a book I think you should read, but the best of the year? Who knows?

Maybe we need to be more realistic and honest with our lists. Maybe we need a new approach altogether. Instead of my top 10 movies of the year, what about my top 10 excuses for avoiding the painting I’ve been meaning to do in the basement? Instead of listing my top 10 books, how about the top 10 meals in a box or from a jar that I make for dinner when my wife is working?

If you want to know my favorite albums from 2009, I would enthusiastically recommend Leonard Cohen’s “Live From London” as the best of the eight or nine albums I actually heard, but my experience is pretty limited. On the other hand, I can give you a great, comprehensive, and authoritative list of the top 10 reasons I did not go to the gym since July.

“Top Ten Reasons For Skipping the Gym in 2009”

1. I want to be less superficial, because it’s what’s on the INSIDE that’s really important, even if my doctor is increasingly concerned about my ever-expanding outside.

2. We bought a new house, and I’ve been planning home improvements, although we seem to be more or less permanently mired in the “planning” stage. Never have people negotiated so intensely over the color the guest bedroom should be painted. We may have to retreat to Camp David to work it out.

3. My wife hasn’t been going either, and I don’t want to make her feel bad by getting too buff. I’m just that caring.

4. I used to be obsessed with working out, and I’m just trying to quit cold turkey to get some perspective. Now, when I go on vacation, I do not immediately look up the number for “World’s Gym” in the yellow pages. But I do look up the number for “Krispy Kreme.”

5. We may plant a garden in 2010, so I’m just trying to “clear out some space” in my daily schedule for that. You can’t have home grown yellow squash and 18-inch biceps, can you?

6. Did I mention the painting in the guest room?

7. I’m finally getting busy on that novel, now in the planning stage. It’s about a guy who finally reaches fulfillment by leaving the gym and getting his guest room painted.

8. Because there are other, more productive ways, to burn calories, such as watching the first two seasons of “Mad Men” on DVD while running on the treadmill, as soon as I get a treadmill.

9. Did I mention becoming less superficial? The life of the mind, that’s the way to go.

10. Do I really need to be able to bench 350 pounds at my age? When will I need such strength? Isn’t it a little like algebra, impressive but essentially useless to the common man?

So there’s my list for this year. Got to run now. My wife tells me we’re going back to the gym. Never mind what I said. But do get that Leonard Cohen album. It’s the album of the year, without a doubt.

(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..)

Yeah right, sure it’s gonna snow

“Winter Storm Warning, Haywood County.” That’s what it said on television Thursday night, up in the top right corner of the program we were watching. Winter storm warning. Yeah, we’ve heard that one before.

“Better get to Ingles quick,” I said, rolling my eyes while zipping through sixty-three channels with my remote during the commercial, which is just a thing men have to do.

“Hey, we don’t live in town anymore, smart guy,” Tammy said.

“Oh, I know, I know,” I shot back. “How will we EVER get to town through all the snow flurries? If we get two inches, it’ll be a miracle. When was the last time they got a winter storm called right? 1993? We’re fine.”

The snow had already started before dawn on Friday. School was out, of course, so we slept in and finally managed to rouse ourselves enough for a late breakfast. I was sipping coffee at the kitchen table, watching about 20 birds compete for spots on our big feeder on the deck. The snow was pretty steady outside. Hmmm, maybe we’ll get those two inches, after all, I thought. Kids might even get to try out their new sleds.

I took a long shower, and decided I might as well get a jumpstart on the day’s work. I had another day to meet some deadlines I had — and only three or four hours worth of work to do — but I liked the idea of finishing early, and since we were “snowed in” (haha), I figured I might as well knock it out. So I poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat down with my laptop. Outside, the snow was a little more urgent than before. Well ...

Before I could finish that thought, Tammy opened the door and our dog, a miniature dachshund, burst in, his face a mask of snow.

“Uh, you might want to see this,” Tammy said, stomping her boots.

I went over to the door and opened it, which resulted in the dog darting back out the door and diving back into a layer of snow at least six or seven inches deep. He was there for a second and then he was just gone. All I could see was the top of his back and head. He looked like a dolphin just breaking the surface of the ocean. He tunneled around until he found his way back to the porch steps, emerging with a fresh mask of snow, quite pleased with himself.

The snow poured now, and although it was not yet even mid-afternoon, the sky was dark. I could feel a thought trying to force its way into view, but I couldn’t quite make it out. So I sat down to work for a bit, thinking that if I distracted myself, the thought would finally make itself clear. In about 15 or 20 minutes, it did, speaking to me with great authority and, I thought, a hint of mockery.

“You are going to lose power, you dolt. You are going to be stuck here, probably for days. You don’t live in town anymore, genius.”

Lose power? Lose power! But what about those deadlines? What about that trip to Ingles? What about an alternate heat source?

I began working frantically, trying to cram as much productivity as I could into whatever time we had left before the power went out, which turned out to be about 45 minutes. Tammy was in the middle of a shower, covered with soap, when the whole house went dark and silent all at once. Stereo gone, heater gone, water gone, all gone. There is no silence quite like the silence when the power goes off in your house.

“Now what?” Tammy said, pitifully, nestled down inside her big white bathrobe.

“Blankets, candles, flashlights, sandwiches, ghost stories,” I said, trying to think of other “like” things to go on the list. It was like answering a question on the SAT.

We found that we could light the eye on our gas stove, which meant we could boil enough snow to furnish water for drinking, washing our faces and hands, and flushing the toilets. When darkness asserted itself about an hour later, we were able to make dinner by using the flashlight. We lit candles and huddled around the table, eating some pretty decent chicken fried rice. We discovered that our new house has pretty good insulation — the temperature remained pretty comfortable right up to bedtime, which was around, oh, 8:30 p.m. or so.

Right before bed, the phone rang. A friend who lives in Cullowhee called to check on us. He said that they must have five or six inches over there. Just then, Tammy came back in holding a tape measure, her thumb and forefinger pinched a little over the 15-inch mark.

“Fifteen inches here,” I said. “And it’s still coming down. We won’t have power until next week.”

I got off the phone and went outside, just to absorb it all before bed. I love the quiet of heavy snow, the absolute stillness of it. But all I heard were trees snapping, branches breaking off and thudding heavily as they shook the ground. One tree fell about a foot in front of our minivan, its topmost branches reaching out for the hood like the tentacles of some newly discovered creature.

We won’t have power for a week, I muttered to myself. Winter storm. Yeah, right.

Tiger hurts himself with silence

Poor Tiger Woods. He is not only the greatest golfer of all time, but also perhaps the world’s most popular athlete. He is still in his prime and is already rich beyond imagination, still at the top of his game. He has a beautiful wife, adorable children, and a mansion for all of them to live in. He has movie star good looks and keeps himself in peak physical condition.

He has everything. Well, almost everything. What he doesn’t have is a good answer for the events that unfolded in the wee hours of the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, when news of a bizarre accident in his own driveway began to unfold in the media. First it was reported that he had been involved in a serious accident and was hospitalized in serious condition. It was reported that the “serious accident” involved backing his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant, and then a tree. It was reported that his wife had broken the window with a golf club to get him out, where he was found nearly unconscious and bleeding from facial lacerations when the police and rescue workers arrived on the scene.

Of course, the first thought most people might have would be that this was alcohol-related, but that was quickly dismissed as a contributing factor. As the hours passed, the Internet swarmed with rumors. There had been reports of an affair between Tiger and an attractive socialite in the gossip rags just days prior to the accident, and now various Web sites were busy “connecting the dots.” In the meantime, reports began to emerge that Woods’ wife had given two stories to the police, and now neither of them were talking. For three consecutive days, arrangements had been made for Woods to meet with the police to discuss the incident, and for three consecutive days, Woods canceled those meetings.

In the meantime, with no clear explanation for what had happened, the speculation and gossip continue to build. Had there been an argument between Woods and his wife over the alleged affair? Had she actually whacked him with a seven iron and busted his windshield in a fit of rage? Was he trying to cover for her now to save embarrassment?

Finally, on Sunday, Woods posted a message on his Web site that he alone was responsible for the accident and for the embarrassment to his family. He acknowledged that some “curiosity” about the accident was natural, but that the rumors being bandied about on the Internet were false.

Whatever happened — or did not happen — Woods’ strategy appears to be to hunker down, to weather the storm of bad publicity and wild speculation, to rely on an assumption that his right to privacy will ultimately trump the public’s curiosity and the media’s zealous pursuit of a juicy story, especially a potentially lurid one.

While this might be a strategy that would work for you or me, for celebrities, it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Privacy might be important to Woods — he once said that the thing he liked most about scuba diving is that the fish don’t know his name. He even named his first yacht “Privacy.” But whether it is important to him is of no interest to the media, and the longer Woods is silent, or posts only the vaguest messages imaginable in order to avoid answering questions, the worse this is going to get.

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but gossip thrives in one. In the vacuum of Woods’ silence, the rumors and speculation are only going to intensify, the flames fanned by Woods’ own stubborn refusal to put them out. Ironically, sometimes the best way to put them out is to confess to everything, regardless of how embarrassing the truth may be.

Woods would do well to study the recent cases of David Letterman and Roger Clemens for some instructive lessons on how to handle an embarrassing situation. When rumors began to spread that Letterman was involved with a much younger intern on his show, rather than “hiding out” and issuing vague messages, he almost immediately acknowledged the affair in full, even using it as fodder for self-deprecating humor on his show. He apologized to everyone, especially his wife, but didn’t try to “accept responsibility” while also somehow keeping his reputation intact and pretending that things were other than they were.

Clemens, on the other hand, denied everything — charges of steroid usage, charges of infidelity — despite mounting evidence to the contrary. All this did was keep the story afloat longer, even drawing out new allegations as the scandal’s momentum continued to build over a period of weeks and months until Clemens had no credibility left and his reputation was essentially ruined.

None of this is to excuse Letterman’s actions, but it does go to show one thing. As gossip driven as the American public may be, it loses interest fairly quickly once a confession is offered. Some have said that the public is “forgiving” if the guilty are appropriately penitent. I doubt it is that so much as there is nothing left to gossip about once the truth is made plain.

Of course, Woods could simply issue a statement claiming that mistakes were made, and never answer any questions or make further comments on the accident out of respect for his wife and children. But he had better hope that anyone who might have been involved with this accident — his wife, a buddy he talked to about it in the aftermath, a family member, a neighbor who might have heard or seen something — has the same high regard for privacy that he does. And he had better learn to be very patient with the media, and with fans.

Whether Woods likes it or not — whether we like it or not — in the information age, stories do not go away until all the information is accounted for. If Woods feels that whatever happened is nobody’s business but his and his wife’s, I am in complete agreement with him. But if I were his friend, I would tell him that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

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

Flirting with my own mortality

I felt something clutch, almost seize up, and then a shooting pain in my chest, and my first thought was, oh no, God, please, not this, not now, not yet. I was standing over a frying pan, just browning some ground turkey for the spaghetti sauce. The kids were sitting at the bar, sort of watching me, sort of involved in their own pursuits. My daughter was making another list of some sort — she loves making lists — and my son was busy arranging Hot Wheels cars in some type of face-off, as if they might be about to race toward the oven.

I am sure I must have paused when I first felt my chest tighten, but if my face registered anything alarming, the kids must not have noticed. I turned toward the kitchen window, gathered myself, and took a breath, then another, and another one after that. The pain was not getting any worse, but it wasn’t getting any better either. I thought about the symptoms I could remember from those days when my father was still alive, always seemingly on the verge of a major heart attack, from the time he reached forty until the time a heart attack actually did take him, almost nine years ago.

By the time he was the age I am now, he had already had one, and was only a couple of years away from another one that nearly killed him, followed shortly by a quadruple bypass that bought him a few more precious years. In those days, we lived in constant fear of losing him. Any calls after 10 p.m. were cause for profound dread, until it turned out to be a friend who’d simply lost track of the time. When the call finally did come, it was a beautiful, cold Friday afternoon in December, not even two weeks before Christmas. I was just about to leave work, and had quite a few plans made for the weekend. I had imagined receiving the call a thousand times, but never imagined it would be like that. Life may get predictable sometimes, but death is always a surprise.

Of course, I was thinking of my dad, remembering the other symptoms from the heart attack years. Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Tingling in the arms and legs. Numbness. What were the others? I took inventory, and as far as I could tell, I had none of the other symptoms, but when I tried to move my arms, my chest tightened further still and the pain increased. I remembered that my dad had described his heart attacks as incredibly intense and painful to that point of complete debilitation, and I wasn’t quite to that point. Then what was happening?

I looked at the kids sitting there at the counter, oblivious to this, oblivious to the terrible fact of our mortality. I could have a heart attack and die. Or I could go on browning the turkey and eventually wrangle them into the bathtub, as I always do, before reading them their nightly story on the couch. We have our rituals. We have our expectations. We all believe vaguely in some allotment of years. Somewhere in the back of my own mind, I take the 62 years my dad lived — and his dad before him — and I add a couple of decades based on some very fuzzy math that I’ve invented without really thinking about it consciously. I exercise, I gain a week. I don’t smoke a cigarette, I get another half hour. I take the stairs instead of the elevator, there’s another half a day. Surely this adds up, doesn’t it?

Then I think of all the people I know who are dead, some of them my age, or younger. Somehow, their math went wrong. Or maybe math is no match for fate — or luck.

Do you feel lucky? I do. After spending the better part of an hour researching chest pain on the Internet, I found that one cause could be a pulled muscle, and then I remembered that my wife and I had moved an enormous television — one of the old picture tube TVs that weigh about as much as a medium-sized cow — out of the van and into our bedroom earlier in the day. I hadn’t felt any muscle pull then, but I’m at the age now where such injuries often as not turn up later, like hours later. I tried a few more movements and found that there were certain things I could not do at all, the pain near my heart was so intense.

I have never been so relieved and in so much pain at the same time. I could not give my son his bath, but I was able to supervise as he bathed himself. He’s almost old enough now anyway. I couldn’t pick up anything off the floor, but the kids helped with that. I could not breathe deeply, but I could breathe. I was going to die all right, but not yet, not now.

Not long before bed, my daughter called me over to the upstairs window. With the last of the leaves barely clinging to the towering oaks in our front yard, we now have a great view of the sun setting in the west, and that night the clouds were burnished with a dark pink tint that had us completely transfixed. Minutes after the sun disappeared completely, the sky just above the mountains was still lit, just like a stage, and those clouds shined deeper, the last embers in the dying light of day, glowing still.

“Beautiful, isn’t it, daddy?” my daughter said, her arms around my waist. We kept watching for quite awhile.

Obama haters showing their true colors

His harshest critics delight in daring you to characterize their frothing hatred — and there is no other word for it — of President Barack Obama as “racist.” They whine, “You just can’t criticize Obama or you’ll be labeled a racist by the socialist, liberal elite media.” Now this is rich. A group that has, for decades, depended upon the labeling of people who disagree with them as a substitute for real debate on the issues is suddenly in a twist over being labeled!

During the campaign for the presidency, we saw repeated, sneering mention of Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, with a decided emphasis on “Hussein.” We were subjected to rumors about his citizenship, rumors about his religion. I am sure that there are still people who feverishly believe that Obama is a Muslim (he isn’t) who is not even an American citizen (he is). If this isn’t a form of racism, it could pass as a body double.

While this lunatic fringe bears watching, I am more interested in the opposition reaction to three things, all much more recent: Obama’s push for health care, his failed efforts to lobby for the 2016 Olympics to be held in America, and his win of the Nobel Peace Prize. On the surface, these things may not have anything in common, and it is sure that health care is a complicated issue about which people can reasonably disagree.

But the word “reasonable” belongs nowhere near any description of the reaction we have seen regarding Obama’s push for healthcare. The opposition, perhaps gripped with severe amnesia, believes that hundreds of thousands of poor children, just to choose one example of the millions who do not currently have health care, SHOULD have health care, but that we should just find another, less “socialistic,” way to do it. Again, these are the same people whose favored party has been in power for the past eight years. Now I know that the priorities of the previous administration were more centered on war, torture, and tax cuts than finding effective health care options for Americans who do not have coverage, but still, in eight years, you would think they could find half a day or so to discuss it, right?

It is not so much the opposition to health care that gives away the true motives of Obama’s opponents as the reaction to the other two events, however. When Chicago lost out on its bid to land the 2016 Olympic games, Obama haters were delirious with joy. It would only take about five minutes of searching on the Internet to find footage of Americans cheering wildly as news broke that America had lost out on landing the Olympic games. I know it sounds crazy, but you would think that Americans would be happier if we actually landed the games, but apparently not, not if that meant some kind of moral victory for Obama, a president already far too “uppity” for some, evidently. Here was a man in need of a “comeuppance,” and losing the Olympics was just what the doctor ordered.

Except that he turned around immediately and won the Nobel Peace Prize, transforming those joyous cries into apoplectic fits of disgust and despair. When have we seen indignation so absolutely pure as that over Obama’s achievement? Obama himself said he didn’t deserve it, and I am actually inclined to agree with him. After all, you can only put the Nobel Peace Prize so high in your trophy case when you are presiding over two wars, you have failed to initiate an investigation on the possible war crimes of the previous administration, and you have not yet suspended use of the military tribunals of that same administration. If Obama is pacing himself, he needs to pick up the pace. Let’s just say that the Nobel Peace Prize is like a new set of clothes he needs to grow into quickly.

But you see, these are not the arguments of the Obama haters, because these arguments are based on a critical review of the evidence, and not a more deeply ingrained dislike for the man himself. So what are their “arguments”? Maybe no one really knows for sure, not even them. They’ve despised him from the start, and the condition only gets more acute as we go along. It has only been a few weeks since these folks were enraged because Obama gave a pep talk to students about the importance of staying in school and studying hard. Well, we certainly can’t have a sitting President stress the importance of education to America’s students, can we? The very nerve of this fellow!

The people who so dislike Obama say it is no different from people like me who never liked George W. Bush, who never gave him a chance. Well before he was elected, I admit that I thought of Bush as the feckless son of a more successful father, and every time I heard him speak or every time I read anything about his record, I became more and more amazed at the seeming gullibility of those millions of Americans who voted for him as leader of the free world — twice. But I didn’t despise him, not until he and Cheney cooked up this war we’ve been in for over six years, exploiting a national tragedy as a springboard to start it. I just thought that George W. Bush had no more business being president than I had singing opera at the Met.

Is this animosity against Obama different? Yes, I think it is. Is it racist? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not a duck, but it certainly does quack like one.

(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..)

It’s time to go, but the cord won’t cut so easily

I have lived in a lot of places in my life — countless apartments, dorm rooms, and houses, some of them I can barely remember — but in nearly 48 years, I have only had two homes. I left one of them when I was 18. I am leaving the other one on Friday.

After spending nearly a year looking at other houses while getting ours ready to sell, we finally found the home we were looking for, and finally found a buyer for our home. We feel lucky and are looking forward to beginning the next stage in our lives in the new home, which has more room both inside and out for our growing family. But that does not make leaving the only home our family has ever known any easier. I have been here for 15 years, the family for nearly six.

We can pack away our possessions, putting them all into nice, neat, numbered boxes. But what are we supposed to do with our way of life, those habits that are tied directly to living here, in this house? I am not talking about memories — we will be taking those, of course; they were already packed away long before we even looked at the first empty box. I am talking about something else, the rhythm of life, the little things we all take for granted.

Rushing out for a pizza because the chicken’s gone bad. The arrival of the ice cream truck on a sunny afternoon. Crowding into our one bathroom on a Sunday morning, jockeying for position like basketball players battling for a rebound as we get ready for church. The sound of the kids talking in their sleep, so audible with our bedroom right next door. Impromptu walks around the neighborhood, the houses as familiar as the faces of old friends. The place where the Christmas tree goes, the place where it always goes. The music, always the music. Family dances to “Rock Lobster” before the kids are off to bed. The indescribable feeling of turning off of Church Street and on to Meadow, after a few days away from home. The feeling of the gravel under your tires — how your own gravel sounds different from other gravel. The feeling of the key turning the lock, the dogs competing for attention. The feeling of belonging so completely in one place.

So tell me, where do we pack these things?

Even the memories we can and will carry away with us have become so very heavy, so sopped are they in the place itself, the bricks, the mortar, the creaks in the wood floors, the cracks in the walls, the trees outside. As we draw closer to leaving this place behind, trying to wrest the memories away from the objects to which they are so profoundly attached, a weird thing is happening. Suddenly, everything in my life here in this house suddenly seems to be happening all at once. I sit at the kitchen table, divorce papers spread out before me, pondering my life here alone. I find in the mailbox a document that tells me my book will be published. I look out the front window and see my friends in the yard moving toward the front door, come to say and do whatever they can on the day my father has died. I am on the computer all day, sending the cleverest messages I can think of to the woman who will become my wife, my heart out of control as a feral child. I am putting on a tie to get married in, this decision having been arrived at and executed on the very same January day.

I am driving home with the baby in the backseat, taking him to see his room upstairs for the first time, the one we painstakingly converted from an office to a nursery. I am driving 20 miles per hour, maybe as high as 40 on the interstate. I am teaching him how to walk. I am trying to figure out the new camcorder on Christmas morning, the kids tearing into their presents like brightly colored piranha. I am taping crepe paper to the ceiling and lighting birthday candles. I am on the phone negotiating a price for the house.

In 15 years, I have lost my father, three grandparents, and two dogs, one of them buried behind the garage. I lived alone for more than half that time, watching the last years of my youth slip away in impossible increments, so much so that I wonder if the man who moved in here 15 years ago would even recognize the man who is moving out.

I have heard that moving is one of the most traumatic events in a person’s life, a notion I would have laughed at 25 years ago, when I was in the habit of moving someplace new nearly every year. But now I see not only that this is actually true, but why it is true. Moving is a metaphor for death — if you are a believer in an afterlife, and I am. It is saying goodbye to one life and hello to another, a life yet unknown in a place you think will be better, but don’t know for sure, can’t know for sure until you get there. It’s all about faith, after all.

I heard Loretta Lynn sing that “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” No doubt, a little bit of me will die on Friday when we take one more tour through the empty rooms of our home — uh, no, THEIR home now — to look for any last remnants of our life together here before we get in the truck to leave Meadow Street, to say goodbye to it all, to say, at last, thanks, thanks for everything.

Family time before deployment a mix of emotions

I do not much like having my photograph taken, but there is one picture of me I have always liked. In it, I am standing near the road between my old apartment and the park across the street. In the crook of my right arm, I am holding my nephew, Adam, who is 3-years-old. I am wearing my favorite shirt, a gray R.E.M. T shirt, and it is a beautiful day. Adam is squinting, and I am smiling broadly, as if to say, “This is MY nephew!”

My sister, Lisa, was the first of us to have children, and Adam was her firstborn. As soon as he was old enough, I took him to see professional wrestling matches, the Harlem Globetrotters, even the Charlotte Hornets when they used to hold their preseason training camp in Boone, back in the days when I was a sportswriter for the Watauga Democrat. Adam was pretty dazzled to be able to get that close to the players, even if it was just practice.

One day after practice, I tried to get Rex Chapman to give him an autograph, but Chapman snubbed us, leaving Adam standing there at the door to the locker room holding his unsigned Hornets basketball. I was so peeved that I wrote a nasty column the very next day about pampered athletes, as well as placing a private hex on Chapman, which in turn caused him to have a terrible season.

Now, the Hornets are in New Orleans, I’m in Waynesville, and Adam is on the verge of being in Iraq.

I went back to Sparta over Labor Day weekend to see him. He had come down to visit for a few days before shipping off in just a couple more weeks. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with him, bumping fists, talking about music, watching his kids play with my kids, who are only slightly older than his. On Saturday night, we somehow got involved in watching a segment of my mother’s favorite movie of all time, “The Sound Of Music,” picking it up right around the time that Captain Von Trapp realizes that the Baroness is not really the girl for him, after all.

As we watched the family Von Trapp basically sing its way out of the clutches of the Nazis, as we watched them climb that mountain and out of harm’s way, propelled upward by the soaring music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I wondered what Adam must be thinking. He is, after all, heading back down the mountain, toward the fray, where matters these days are a good deal less black and white.

Near one end of the couch, his girls, who are 4 and 2, got involved in some type of minor dispute that quickly escalated into accusations, followed by tears. He handled this the way he always handles his children, with a calm, soft, but firm touch that miraculously settled the issue almost as quickly as it began. He is a single dad who dotes on his girls without spoiling them. I have never seen him get remotely upset with them, not even once. He tells them what to do, and they do it.

Later on in the evening, we watched sports highlights and just talked about whatever came up. His girls were laid out on the couch next to him, fast asleep, one with her head in his lap. I can’t imagine how hard it is going to be on him to leave them behind, but that is not one of the subjects we talked about. It was just easier to talk about the Bruce Springsteen show I am going to see this week, or the Tool show he is planning to see. It is easier for me to tease him about the mean imitation he used to do of Michael Jackson, moonwalking across this very same living room floor not so very many years ago.

Now he is a grown man, a father. Now he jumps out of airplanes. Now he is a member of the US Airborne Infantry.

The next morning, we all had breakfast together, and it was time for us to go back home. My kids had missed their mom, who had to stay behind and work, and I needed to get caught up on some work back at home. His kids hugged my kids, and I hugged Adam.

He promised to keep in touch via Facebook, and I told him I would look for him there. And I will. But I will also probably dig out that photograph of the two of us, just standing there in the road. What’s that Van Morrison song? “We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun.” I love that picture.

The art of storytelling (in the style of an 8-year-old)

My daughter is 8 years old, which is one of the greatest ages a person will ever be. She has outgrown Dora the Explorer and “The Cat In the Hat.” She does her own exploring now, thank you, and writes her own adventure stories, complete with illustrations. Last week, for example, she wrote a story called “Tornado!” In this story, she and her brother are out playing on the swing one fine summer day when, all of a sudden, they hear a big wind, a REALLY big wind. There, on the horizon, is a funnel cloud! “Tornado!!” they both yell.

The rest of the story involves them going around informing a series of people, including their parents and a variety of her friends and their families. All the while, the wind keeps getting louder, and the tornado follows them around from house to house, never seeming to get a lot closer. In this respect, it reminded me of a zombie movie, but I didn’t tell her that. She’ll get to zombies soon enough, I figure.

Of course, all the families band together to go in search of a place to hide from the tornado. Apparently, and this is just an aside, our family is incapable of making friends with anyone who has a basement. Luckily, this alarmingly large group is able to find a house for sale on Main Street, a home with a basement. “Whew,” they say, with no small amount of relief. They get a key to the house, go inside, retreat to the basement, and (this is my favorite part) lock the door behind them, as if they are all third graders hiding not from a tornado, but a fifth grade bully trying to steal their Hello Kitty lunchboxes.

At last, the tornado passes, but not before a lot of plates, cups, spoons, and other kitchenware come crashing down around them. In the final sequence, the protagonist (who happens to be the author, in case you were wondering) is suddenly being jolted awake in her bed by her mother.

“Time for school!” Mom says. “You don’t want to be late again!”

Ah, just a dream. I know this is a fairly common narrative device these days, but she’s eight. Plus, it turns out to be a more complex ending when you turn the page and see “The End” followed by a question mark and a tornado clearly visible through her bedroom window. Was it really just a dream, after all, friends? She has already learned the most important lesson a young writer can learn, which is that you must aways leave a way for a sequel. Coming soon: “Blizzard!”

Another great thing she has discovered is sleeping over at a friend’s house. She has done this about four or five times now, to the point that she has developed a pre-sleepover routine. It begins around midweek, when she begins generating a list of the items she will need to take to her friend’s house. Toothbrush. Shirt. Ducky. Pants. Sleeping bag. Underwear. Baby doll. Pillow. This list of essential items continues to grow with each passing day. When she begins listing canned goods — corn, carrots, Spaghettios — we gently remind her that she is going to a friend’s house for a one night sleepover, not moving to Canada. I have never been able to explain the concept of over-packing to her mother, but I do my best to explain that there will likely be some food at her friend’s house, and they will probably give her some, and if they don’t, that she should give me a call.

“Oh, daddy,” she says, in the tone of voice reserved for when I have said something more ridiculous than usual.

I admit that I could not be more envious. One of the very best parts of being a kid is sleeping over at a friend’s house. They have stuff that you don’t have, eat things that you don’t usually eat, do things that you don’t usually do, stay up later than you usually stay up. And even when you DO go to bed, you stay up talking — and giggling, lots of giggling at the absolute absurdity of everything! — until the adults finally cannot take it anymore and threaten to separate you if you cannot be quiet.

There will be plenty more thrills to come in her life, but it will be hard to top the exhilaration of being called down “for the last time” at 1 a.m. by an exhausted parent. Savoring the sound of footsteps retreating down the hall, and yet more giggling.

If I could illustrate this column like my daughter illustrates her stories, I would draw a picture of two eight-year-old girls elbowing each other in the dark, their heads under the pillow to muffle the giggles. And maybe I would draw a funnel cloud in the bedroom window.

The pains of summer vacation

There, swirling miserably in the bottom of my morning coffee mug, are the dregs of summer. I had such plans just a few months ago. There would be a beach trip. Several rounds of golf. About two dozen novels that I have not had time to read in the past year or so. Time to put the finishing touches on our home and sell it.

We have had a thousand conversations this summer, all of them exactly the same.

“Honey, have you seen the _______?”

“Sorry, babe, it is in storage.”

All we have left in the house, it seems, is a fork, a spoon, and a scented candle, but to what end? We’ve discovered that there are three types of potential buyers out there. There are those that LOVE the house, but need to sell theirs first. There are those that LOVE the house, but haven’t made up their minds yet. And then there are those that don’t really love anything, but will kick the tires on everything. They have no intention of buying, but still they come. For them, the price is too high, the kitchen too small, the grass too green. These are the kind of people who go to funerals of people they didn’t know. They just like to feel like they are part of something, that they’re in the game.

Once it became clear that our house wasn’t going to sell in the two weeks we had foolishly allotted in our planning, we began to look toward the beach again. We could make last minute arrangements and sneak in a trip before vacation was over! But then something terrible happened. We managed to find an opening for a procedure that I have been putting off for quite some time now, the same procedure, more or less, that we have scheduled for our puppy in a few weeks. Yep, that one. Goodbye, fertility. Hello, Vicodin!

I had still hoped to make that beach trip, but the doctor quickly scuttled that notion.

“You’ll be spending a few days resting with your feet up,” he said. “All you will need is rest and ice packs. Keep them rotating. Lots of ice packs.”

“And Vicodin?”

“And Vicodin.”

I wasn’t timing it, but the procedure itself took about twenty-eight seconds. The Doc and I were discussing the “Cash For Clunkers” program, while I kept my eyes fastened on a spot on the ceiling. I wasn’t really all that nervous, but I also wasn’t really anxious to see what devices he was planning to use in the procedure either. It was easier to imagine that I had just dropped by to discuss current events for a bit.

Then, there was a strange little puff of smoke, and in a few more seconds it was over.

“You mean, that’s it?” I said. “That’s what I’ve been dreading all this time?”

“Well,” he said, hesitating a little. “The numbing hasn’t gone out yet...but this part is over. Do you have any questions?”

“Yeah, do you know anybody that wants to buy a house? Do you know where I can find another summer? I seem to have lost mine.”

He was right, of course. The thing about “the procedure” isn’t really the procedure. It’s the recovery. My wife said that one of her customers told her that he ran a 5K race immediately after his procedure. I, on the other hand, look like a guy walking on a giant sheet of bubble wrap trying to not to pop any of the bubbles as I tip toe from one room to the next. My face has frozen into a seemingly permanent grimace. And this morning, perhaps as a measure of preemptive revenge, the puppy trampled my lap, causing me to discover an octave I didn’t know I had in my vocal range.


Sing it with me now.

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