Chris Cox

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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.)

Comment

Irene has been in this country for only four years. When she came, she could not speak a word of English. The smugglers became frustrated with her because she kept mispronouncing the one word she had to get right in order to make it across — “American.” When the time finally came, she got it right, and her family was reunited at last, after four long years. Her mother had come previously, and was working as a cook in a local Mexican restaurant. She had hoped to get established and have her family join her. Finally, they did.

Due to Irene’s outstanding performance as a student in Mexico, she could have entered high school here as a sophomore. But she chose to go back a year because she wanted to make sure she learned everything she needed to learn before graduating high school. She didn’t want any short cuts. In four years, she has not only learned the language as well or better than most native speakers, she has excelled in all subject areas and graduated near the top of her class this spring.

She had high hopes of being accepted at Berea College, which had been one of few pathways in higher education available to young undocumented students like Irene, students who have earned a chance by virtue of their performance, but who find most doors closed because they lack a Social Security number. The news that came last winter from Berea was more bitter than the weather. Despite her excellent achievements as a student, she had not been accepted.

Then came her hour of darkness. Make that several weeks of darkness.

“I have always been a person who has a lot of hope and faith,” she said. “But when I got the news from Berea, I lost hope for awhile. It was just gone and I didn’t know what to do.”

Irene is one of those rare people who have a passion for both math and art, which is part of the reason she wants to become an architect, so she can combine these passions in her work. But that day, all she could do was take down the beautiful pictures and photographs she had put up on her wall for inspiration. Suddenly, they were too hard to look at.

Even worse, she had no idea what to say to her younger brothers, Angel and Daniel, who relied on her not only as a role model, but as the source of their own hope — if Irene could make it, maybe THEY could too.

“Our family dinners have always been so noisy,” she said. “My brothers are always talking about what they are going to be. One wants to be a doctor. The youngest wants to become a marine biologist. But after we got the news I wasn’t going to be going to Berea, it just got very quiet at dinner. For like two weeks, nobody said anything. We just ate in silence.”

It was then that I noticed Irene’s voice trembling. She tried hard to fight back the tears.

“The most important thing to me is that my brothers not lose hope,” she said. “I could see that what was happening to me was affecting them, too.”

Slowly, Irene got back on her feet. She focused on her studies, on regaining her lost hope somehow. And then, months later, came a letter from Meredith College. She had been accepted. She was in. Her response was not what you might expect.

“I couldn’t really feel happiness,” she said. “I knew if I didn’t get a scholarship, there was no way I could go.”

Indeed, it was going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 for Irene to attend Meredith. They might as well have sent her an invitation to the moon, as long as she could provide her own transportation.

A few weeks later, the transportation arrived as well, in the form of a major scholarship. It didn’t cover everything, but between that, a local scholarship, several private donations, and what she and her family could scrimp together, she will be able to go. In about a month, Irene will be just another freshman at Meredith College, the largest women’s college in the entire Southeast.

The question now is, what about next semester? And the one after that? Irene is an excellent student, but even she cannot complete a degree in one semester. The scholarships will cover most of her expenses — and there will be other scholarships, once she proves that she can excel on that level just as she has proved herself on every other level before — but what about the rest? She is willing to work, of course, to subsidize her own education. The irony is that it will not be easy finding a job because she is undocumented. Still, she expects she will find a way to find some work that will help her get by.

The last time I wrote about Irene, I received several supportive letters, including a few offers of monetary support. If there are people out there who do want to help, please email me and I will direct you to the proper funding source. Believe me, any donations that are given in support of this student are going to be paid back to the world, with incalculable interest.

Irene is finally excited about her future again — “I guess I know what happiness feels like now,” she said — but she is even more grateful for the change she has seen in her brothers.

“It is real for them now,” she said. “It has been noisy again at dinnertime.”

Comment

There is only so much you can do to help a child recover from a broken heart, especially the first time it is broken. You can say, “Honey, I know it seems like you’ll never get over it, but someday you will. You’ll learn the difference between infatuation and real love. Your hormones will calm down and you will make better decisions. Being an adult isn’t all peaches and cream, but at least you will learn to control your feelings, instead of having them control you.”

You can say that the fire that consumes adolescent hearts will one day be replaced by something not quite as hot, but still warm, and more abiding. You can liken love to a blanket that protects you, rather than burning you up if you get too close. You can say that passion is great, but dignity is even better, and they will understand that one day when they are older. You can say that even though it hurts so much now, that one of the consolations of adulthood is that you no longer have no control over reckless impulses and obsessive thoughts. So what if they wrote an embarrassing letter that all their friends have probably read and laughed at? It’s not as if the entire country knows about it — no one is reading excerpts from it on the nightly news, are they? In two weeks, everyone will be talking about something else anyway, right?

Regardless of what you might say, you must admit that kids have a way of asking questions for which there are no good answers, no satisfactory metaphors or soothing platitudes.

“But mom, what about Mark Sanford?”

Can we just step back from this for a moment and admit that we are no longer shocked — or even mildly surprised — when stories break on the sexual indiscretions of politicians? Tom Brokaw might as well report that a truckload of produce was delivered to Ingles this morning. Oh really? You don’t say.

Can we also agree that, notwithstanding the sanctimonious posturing of the Republican Party during the Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal, this is one issue that is definitely bipartisan? Want to start scandal swapping? I’ll see your John Edwards and raise you a Newt Gingrich.

The Sanford story is remarkable not because another politician got caught in a sex scandal. It is remarkable for how much it veers from the script we all know so very well. The story begins with rumors. Strong denials are issued. There is a “smoking gun,” either a scorned mistress or an “anonymous source” talks to the press, confirming the rumors. The press bears down, gathers evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Documentation is discovered.

Now come the tearful confessions, the press conferences, the mea culpas, the promises to do better, the appeals for forgiveness. Always, ALWAYS, with the wife standing dutifully by his side, gaze steady, resolute. The unspoken message: WE will weather this. We will rebound. He really IS a good man, after all, and I am a strong woman, strong enough to forgive him, strong enough to endure this humiliation for the sake of the marriage, for the sake of his career, for the sake of our mutual ambition.

Evidently, Jenny Sanford did not care so much for this script. Indeed, she has written her own, one that resembles a Greek tragedy less than it resembles ... well, high school. In her drama, she and Mark are king and queen of the prom, popular students who have been going steady for a long time, which EVERYBODY knows. And then this exotic foreign exchange student appears one day, and suddenly he’s acting all funny and stuff. Things begin to change. She catches people whispering, shaking their heads sadly when she walks into her organic chemistry class.

Now she can’t get a straight answer from him. Finally, she gives in to her suspicions, begins looking into it. His cell phone records, text messages, Myspace, Facebook, whatever she can think of. And then she finds this:

“You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light — but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...”

Her tan lines? Two magnificent parts of herself? What was he now, William Freakin’ Shakespeare? Danielle Steele? Next thing she knows, the whole thing is published in the school newspaper, so now the whole school knows about it, and you know what, it’s good enough for him! Pathetic wretch.

Of course, he begs her to stay with him. BEGS her, in front of everybody! Maybe, she says. They do have a history together, all the way back to middle school. She can see he’s really sorry. She says there might be a chance, but he had better straighten up. Most of all, he had better NEVER see what’s her name again.

So what does he do? He tells her he’s going camping with Chowder and Big Stan to “clear his head,” and then spends the weekend with her at some hotel in Gatlinburg. Can you believe that?

It’s going to take a LOT to get her back. Everybody in the school is on her side. She’s the victim, but she’s also in total control. She has all the power, all the sympathy. He’s the schmuck, the fallen prince who has become the fool. It’ll be up to her if he ever amounts to anything in this school ever again.

She’ll keep a copy of his emails with her. If he so much as LOOKS at another girl in the mall or wherever, she’ll whip out his “Ode to Tan Lines” and read a couple of verses to him.

OK, so maybe adulthood is not the guarantee against a broken heart you may have told your kids it was. I guess you could say, “Kids, the good news is that you could grow up to be a governor some day. The bad news is even that won’t save you from getting a broken heart if you get a little reckless.”

Or your girlfriend from giving you hell from now on if you do. You may want to keep that in mind.

 

(The excerpt quoted from the email message is taken verbatim from Mark Sanford’s actual emails to “the other woman.” Everything else has been “dramatized.” Chris Cox can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

“Vicodin!”

Sing it with me now.

Comment

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.

Comment

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.

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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..)

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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.

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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.)

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“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.

Comment

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.)

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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..)

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“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..)

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“Pssst!”

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…

“Pssst!” 

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..)

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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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