Chris Cox

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We are still near the dawn of the Internet age. We can get just about any information we desire in a matter of seconds, so much information that a simple Google search on practically any subject will turn up literally thousands and thousands of “hits.” This has obvious advantages if you are looking for the best restaurant in, say, Hickory, or if you want to know who won the Dodgers game last night, or if you are trying to find out why your dog is sick by typing in her symptoms. It is all there for the taking.

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When I was 16 years old — going on 17 — I had a poster of Stevie Nicks, the mystical, utterly bewitching lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, on my bedroom wall. I sometimes tell people that she was my first schoolboy crush, but that is not entirely true.

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Beware, gentle readers. This story is not for the faint of heart. It is a story of betrayal, corruption, and greed. If you have ever read Dante’s classic work, “The Inferno,’ you may still have nightmares remembering the Nine Circles of Hell. Since the poem was written in the 14th century, Dante could not have anticipated the 10th, and most vicious circle, the one you enter when you call a major corporation to request a change in service, as my wife tried to do a couple of weeks ago in a noble attempt to save us a few dollars per month by disconnecting our landline.

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On my Sunday afternoon jog around Lake Junaluska, I can actually feel for the first time that summer is slipping away. There is the slightest sliver of coolness in the air, like a strand of different-colored hair, and some of the trees are beginning to flash a tiny glimpse of the dramatic changes in color that are just around the next bend. I’m pushing myself a little today, as if I might outrun the image forming now in my head of my family huddled together, waving goodbye to the best summer we’ve ever had as it pulls away like a train leaving the station.

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We made our first trip to Edisto Beach 10 years ago and almost immediately, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. We had been mired in traffic snarls for hours on I-26 and arrived much later than planned, only to find ourselves in the middle of a rainstorm reminiscent of the days of Noah once we crossed over onto the island. The kids reckoned themselves about starved to death and were scanning the roadsides for any sign of a Burger King or McDonald’s. Nothing. Not a chain restaurant in sight. The whining inside the car intensified to match the rain on the outside.

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On our way back from the coast on Saturday in bumper-to-bumper traffic just outside Charleston, I saw a billboard that not only made me laugh out loud, but also summed up this year’s election better than any political commentary I have heard or read. Some clever realtor put up a picture of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with a banner that read, “Moving to Canada? We can help you sell your home.”

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law enforcementThere are people who believe that the reason black men seem to keep getting shot and killed by police officers is that they simply will not obey orders or “show respect” for authority. There are people who believe that this is a media-created problem, and not a race problem. There are people who believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is racist by definition, as if the implication in saying black lives matter in the first place is that no other lives matter, as if the suggestion that context matters, too, is just liberal hogwash.

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op coxBecause when she dresses like that, she is just asking for it. Because saying “no” is part of the game, not what she really means. Because she got me worked up, and that is on her. Because once you go so far, you just cannot stop. Because we were both drinking and things got a little out of hand. Because she shouldn’t have been here in the first place. Because boys will be boys. Because I’ve got my whole future in front of me.

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op frI don’t know what to tell my children, so I don’t tell them anything. Not yet anyway. It is the first day of summer vacation, and therefore, the mood in our home is one of revelry. The alarm clocks are off, the swimsuits are airing out on the railing of the deck, and the pancakes are whimsically sprinkled with chocolate chips, in the manner of a big, crooked smile. I don’t know what to tell them, so I don’t tell them anything.

The world is filled with love. The world is filled with rage. The world is filled with hatred. How can all of this be true? How can it be reconciled? How can it even be understood? Another mass shooting, this time in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Fifty people dead. Another young, male killer, and everyone trying, as usual, to assemble pieces of his life into a picture that will explain it, why he chose to go into a nightclub just around last call and start shooting until fifty people were dead. Maybe he had ties to ISIS? Maybe he was homophobic? Maybe he had a history of mental instability?

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op coxMy daughter is turning 15 this weekend. Every 15 minutes, she reminds me that she will be driving a car in another year. And every 15 minutes, I remind her that so far she has saved exactly $3.78 toward the purchase of her first car.

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op coxMy wife and I like to host small parties or entertain our friends every three years or so, not because we love people so much as the discovery we made some years ago that throwing a party is the only surefire way to get us to clean our home.

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op merlefestAnyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a complete nut about music. There are people for whom music serves as a kind of soundtrack for their lives, so that certain bands and songs function as memory jukeboxes, instantly evoking specific times, places, and people whenever they come on, regardless of the circumstances.

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op bryant“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

— Dylan Thomas

Maybe it is because I have followed his career since he was a teenager playing high school basketball at Lower Merion in a Philadelphia suburb. Or maybe it is because I wanted to pay my respects to a basketball legend, one of a small handful of the greatest players ever to play the game. Most likely, it is because I have also seen my “game” diminished by the ravages of time, and I wanted to watch Kobe Bryant play his last game in the NBA as a simple act of brotherhood.

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op coxI have turned off the talk shows, put down the newspapers, avoided barbershops and changed the subject at family gatherings. I know that eventually, this being an election year with the future of the republic at stake, I will have to put on my waders and trudge back into the primordial muck of politics. But not now. Not today. Because it is spring, and the world is, as the poet E.E. Cummings said, “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” a long drink of elixir to rouse us from our long winter’s naps. Because every tree, every bush, every dandelion, every blade of grass is alive, alive, alive, as I am alive on my deck with a good book and a glass of red wine filled nearly to the brim, as the children are alive on their bikes and their skateboards and their own sweet adrenaline.

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op coxA few weeks ago, I suddenly developed a thirst that I could not seem to quench. No, this is not a metaphor. For days, I drank water by the quart — and probably a gallon of orange juice — but no matter how much liquid I consumed, in less than an hour, I would be thirsty again. Of course, this led to several sleepless nights, as my body became a living, breath recycling plant. I was exhausted, but I was up and down all night at the mercy of my relentless thirst.

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op coxI hate having my picture taken. The simple truth is that I have found clever ways to avoid it for most of my life. 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 my hometown of Sparta, North Carolina. 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!”

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op panthersFor some time, I have been worried that my children are not learning the coping skills they will need in order to handle disappointment, failure, and setbacks when they grow up. They are, after all, growing up in a culture that values self-esteem above all other things, which means that they have for years been given prizes, trophies, ribbons, tee shirts, and certificates for everything they do, which includes simply showing up — or not showing up if they don’t feel like it. I think the idea is to make sure that all children understand that they are special, and to protect them from potentially self-esteem damaging experiences such as losing a tee ball game.

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op coxI was dreaming, I can’t say exactly what. It was that kind of dream you have that floats away like a birthday balloon the second you open your eyes and let go of the string. In the dream, I slipped on something and was startled awake, about 15 minutes before the alarm was set to go off.

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op frI was in my early twenties before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. My son, Jack, is 10 years old and he already knows what he wants to do with his. He wants to play point guard in the National Basketball Association, specifically for the Charlotte Hornets. His favorite thing in the world is going to see the Hornets play basketball at Time Warner Cable Arena, where he can root for his favorite team while imagining himself on the court pulling up for a three-pointer at the top of the key, or “breaking someone’s ankles” with a wicked crossover dribble before finding a wide open Frank Kaminsky all alone under the basket for a thunderous alley-oop dunk.

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op coxWhen we wake up on Christmas Eve, it is nearly 70 degrees and raining so hard that when our miniature dachshund is about to go out for his morning trip to the bathroom, he takes a look up at me instead as if to say, “Are you kidding me, man? No thanks, I’ll just hold it.” What he means, of course, is that he will go back to bed just long enough for us to jump in the shower or start making breakfast, whereupon he will find a nice, quiet room somewhere in the house and surreptitiously relieve himself on the leg of a chair, reappearing minutes later, with another look that says, “No worries, mate. That room is all clear and secure.”

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op fr“OK, everybody, huddle up, huddle up!”

But nobody really seems to want to huddle up. Our point guard is standing at a slant, hands on his hips, looking at the scoreboard with a seething contempt. Home 2, Guests 12. We’re the home team.

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op footballWhen I was 12 years old, there were few things I liked better than the Dallas Cowboys. Definitely my Farrah Fawcett poster. Maybe Fudge Royale ice cream. But not much else.

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op dogMike and I were not exactly a match made in heaven. In fact, I didn’t think we were much of a match at all. At the time we were “introduced,” I lived in a tiny rented house with an equally tiny yard, and I already had one dog, a skittish collie named Russ, who was skeptical of anything new, especially other dogs. I barely had room for Russ, and barely got the bills paid each month. The very last thing I needed or wanted was another dog.

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op frSomewhere at this very moment, a political science major is writing a dissertation on why young people these days are so apathetic with regard to politics and the issues. In the 2014 election, for example, slightly less than 20 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 29 cast a ballot. According to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, that is the “lowest youth turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election.”

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op coxWhen my daughter, who is a freshman this year at Tuscola High School, made the Color Guard this summer, the first thought I had was that I would soon be seeing high school football games again for the first time since the late 1980s, when I was a fledgling sports writer for the Watauga Democrat in Boone. My second thought was that I would finally get my first real taste of the vaunted Tuscola-Pisgah rivalry, an intense battle that has been going on for more than 50 years.

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op frIf we are ever going to have any hope of stemming the bloody tide of mass shootings — which happens in our country with such depressing regularity that we might pause for a day to shake our heads before moving on with the awful knowledge that absolutely nothing will be done about it — then we must first agree with the all-powerful gun lobby that no single piece of gun legislation is going to make much of a difference in stopping the bloodshed. 

They are right — we do not need one piece of gun legislation. Or two. Or three. We need to change the entire gun culture, and not just the gun culture, but the “culture of me.”

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op dirtycoffeeI had never heard of “The Red Pill Theory” or the “manosphere” until I saw references to them in the story that broke over the weekend concerning the co-owners of Waking Life Espresso, a coffee shop in West Asheville. By Monday, the story was in the Asheville Citizen-Times and on WLOS.

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op fr2“So, you’re a band parent, huh? Boy, is your life about to change.”

My wife and I heard that a lot a few months ago after our daughter, a rising freshman at Tuscola High School, made the Color Guard. I had only the vaguest notion of what the Color Guard was, and no recollection at all of whether there was such a thing when I pounded the bass drum in the marching band for Alleghany High back in the 1970s. I was a freshman myself once upon a time, adapting as fast and as well as I could to this intense new world around me. Now it is my daughter’s turn.

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op frSome of them arrive four or five days early, packed up and just sitting there on the Haywood County Fairgrounds like gigantic metal suitcases that won’t quite close all the way. The rest come later. The Scrambler, the Flying Bumblebees, the Pirate Boat, the rickety little coaster that somebody has to snap together like Legos. The booths that house impossible games, rows of cheaply sewn stuffed animals, the biggest the size of couch cushions. Overinflated basketballs and rims the size of pie tins that are never quite level. Five thousand plastic toys made in China, none of them bigger than a candy bar. Three throws, five bucks, everyone’s a winner.

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op frI would wager that I despise politics just about as much as you do. Whatever your political affiliation, we would probably agree that the system is broken, that politicians on both sides of the aisle are too beholden to special interests, and that all too often, we end up voting against someone far more passionately than we ever vote for someone. Maybe that is just a different way of saying that we usually vote for the lesser of two evils.

Another thing that we might agree on is that politics is much too often the Theater of the Absurd, in which candidates — many of whom are extravagantly wealthy — are rebranded as “common folk” to appeal to the electorate. Without question, the vast majority of political ads we see these days are attack ads, ad hominem attacks on the character of the opponent, but on those occasions when we do get a glimpse of the candidate, the staging will be very studied and precise, calculated in such a way to convey the same message: he or she is just one of us.

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op coxIt looked so good on paper, the way terrible ideas always do. Instead of boarding our miniature dachshund as we usually do when we go to the beach each summer, we were going to take him with us this year.

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op edistoEDISTO ISLAND, SC — Whether it is a time-honored family tradition or simply the very real possibility that, as a family, we share a stunning lack of imagination, the Cox family always spends a week on Edisto Island every summer.

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op coxI have seen more Confederate flags flying in the past couple of weeks than I have seen in years. A few days ago, I was at the grocery store and saw a young fellow with a Confederate flag waving above the tailgate of his truck. As he pulled out of his parking space, another guy walking by said something to him — I couldn’t hear what — and then gave him a big smile and a thumbs up.

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op coxMany years ago, in a time and a place that seems so far away to me now, I courted a young lady and fancied I was in love. We were really just kids playing at being grown-ups, but we believed we were destined to spend eternity together.

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op frBy the time I was in the fifth grade, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a lawyer. While other kids my age grew up with dreams of becoming race car drivers or ballet dancers or senators (surely you remember those student government types), I dreamed of fierce cross-examinations, roasting the accused on the witness stand until they blurted out desperate confessions, anything to escape my searing questions and the inferno of their own guilt, as I composed it like Dante for a jury of their peers.

“Who IS that man?” one attractive juror would whisper to another. “So brilliant, so dashing, so well-groomed and articulate.”

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op veteransIt is just a beautiful day, this Memorial Day. I am able to get a little work done in the morning, and then sneak off to the fitness center for a quick workout and a run around Lake Junaluska while Tammy makes a project of the pantry, which has over the past couple of years become “overstuffed” and is about as organized as a cat parade. The kids are now old enough to help us put away the groceries, and they have embraced this new stage of responsibility by developing a truly impressive talent to put things in completely random places. Why shouldn’t a can of beans be flanked on the shelf by a jar of Maraschino cherries and a dozen eggs?

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op chriscoxEven though she’s an Indiana girl who had only seen the ocean once before we met, there is something about the beach that feels like home to Tammy. She especially likes Edisto Beach, where we go every summer. But we also have fond memories of Sunset Beach, where we went for a few years before discovering Edisto. When I was a kid, on the rare occasions my family took a vacation, we went to Myrtle Beach, about a half hour south of Sunset Beach, but another world entirely in character.

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op frSixth grade was not so kind to my daughter. She did better than she expected on the social part — and that was the part that really worried her, since she had heard so many frightening rumors about the chamber of horrors otherwise known as middle school. But the academic part proved to be much tougher than she had anticipated, and she struggled.

She would come limping in from school every afternoon around 4 p.m. with her enormous backpack full of heavy textbooks slung over one shoulder, causing her to list on one side. It was as if every burden of the earth was stuffed into that backpack, and she did not bear it lightly, oh no, dumping it with a thunderous thud on the kitchen floor and then stomping like Godzilla to the refrigerator, where she seized a pint of cherry vanilla yogurt as if it were a small car, ripped the top off, and then stabbed at the occupants with her shiny monster spoon until every last one of them was gobbled up completely. Tourists, probably.

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op acIt is just mid-April and already too hot to sleep, but too early in the year to resort to air conditioning. For years, I managed to do without any air conditioning at all, even in my car — partly out of some last remaining strand of stubborn resistance to being overly pampered, but mostly because when I bought my first car and my first house, I didn’t have enough money for such modern conveniences. It is much easier to maintain excellent principles when you lack the funds to compromise them. My car had a radio and floor mats and my house had doorknobs and a kitchen. In the summers, I kept the windows down and drank a lot of ice water.

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op chriscox“She can wiggle her toes.”

This text message — a simple statement of fact pertaining to my mother — would have seemed absurd just a week ago. It would have meant next to nothing, the punchline to some silly joke maybe.

(“And now, for her next trick ….”)

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1) The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday

If lead singer Craig Finn weren’t fronting this band, he’d be writing short stories for a living. He’s got the verbal chops, believe me. In fact, he IS writing short stories, but instead of publishing them in the New Yorker, he reads them in front of a bar band that owes more to “classic rock” than to the Ramones or Nirvana, a pretty nifty trick in this day and age. Like all good writers, he has favorite themes — degradation and redemption, to name the main ones. Sample lyric: “I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted. I heard things ain’t been the same since.” Or this one: “She said: I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again it felt strange but it was nice and peaceful. It really pleased me to be around so many people. Of course half were just visions.” There’s plenty more where that came from. Just add power cords, keyboards, and a drummer to move things along. Flannery O’Connor and William Burroughs’ love child grows up in Brooklyn, learns to play guitar by listening to Thin Lizzy and AC/DC records, lives a little, forms a rock band. Album of the year.

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op frOver the past few months, my 10-year-old son, Jack, has developed an insatiable appetite for all things basketball. We spend hours out in the driveway playing “around the world” or “pig” (an abbreviated version of “horse”), where he unveils a dazzling array of turnaround jumpers and a truly impressive aptitude for the old school bank shot. He loves going to the fitness center or church and playing pick-up basketball with much older guys, even if he is not quite ready for that level of play and spends much of his time on the court nipping at the heels of the bigger guys like a particularly relentless Chihuahua, trying to steal the ball or harass them into making a bad pass.

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op frIt must have been 20 years or more since I heard a futurist telling a skeptical crowd the extent to which technology would be changing the way we live. He said that we would eventually — probably in our own lifetime — have unfettered and instant access to just about every form of entertainment we could imagine. He said we would be able to watch movies on our phones, and listen to any recording ever made — from Louis Armstrong to Loretta Lynn — on the Internet, and get the news minutes after it occurred. He said we would literally have the world at our fingertips.

I remember thinking, who wants to watch a movie on a phone? I also remember thinking how cool it would be to have that kind of access. Just imagine: as a lifelong fan of “The Andy Griffith Show,” I would someday be able to watch any episode I wanted with one or two keystrokes! As a lifelong music fanatic, I would be able to listen to any song or album I wanted anytime — and anywhere — I felt like it, since everyone would be using laptop computers and we would be able to get on the Internet virtually everywhere we went. Our computers would become the centers of our lives. Everything would become so … easy and fast. Everything would be great, beyond our imagination!

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op snowday“Dad, do you think we’ll get out of school tomorrow?” My son, Jack, is standing in the doorway of our bedroom. Sunday night is bearing down again, and the weekend forecasts have been taunting him and his sister with the promise of a big snowstorm, which is supposed to begin around 7 a.m. on Monday morning, just in time to get them out of school. But he’s not quite prepared to buy in, not after having been burned already three or four times by faulty forecasts. What’s that song by The Who? “Won’t Get Fooled Again?”

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op frI am living the days I have dreamed of all my life. “One day,” I said, somewhere ages and ages ago, “I will have children, and I will watch the Super Bowl with them just like I watched it with my dad.”

And now I do have children, and I am watching the Super Bowl with them, explaining different fine points of the game, explaining what the game represents and why the game means so much to the players, the coaches, and the fans. I am explaining (I do a lot of explaining — I am a teacher, you see, and a former sportswriter, so it’s not as if I can help myself. I would explain the game to the dog if the kids weren’t here) … wait a minute, where was I?

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op trueyourselfOne of the pure joys of my job — teaching English on the college level — is getting to spend time with young people still working out their identities and finding their own way. In my composition classes, they tell me (and each other) their stories, and in my literature classes, they wrestle with Emerson, Dickinson, and Shakespeare, among others, absorbing it all and testing new ideas against their experience. We discuss, we debate, we search for meaning, we try to find common ground.

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op frTwo miserable characters — the larger one in a terry cloth bathrobe and fleece pajama bottoms, the smaller one in his new school clothes and orange parka — stand at the bus stop, huddled together in a sad and pathetically ineffective attempt to generate some small bit of warmth between them on a brutally cold and windy January morning, the first day of school and work after Christmas vacation.

Teachers worry that their students will lose momentum or enthusiasm for learning during their time away from school right in the middle of the school year, but the boy in his new school clothes has indeed learned something over these past few weeks. He has learned about inertia, not just the dictionary definition of it, but the implacable reality of it.

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op frWe’re all at home, on vacation at last. Ella Fitzgerald is wishing us a swinging Christmas, as she does every December. First “Jingle Bells,” then “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” then “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and on and on, her voice like honey butter on a hot dinner roll. Tammy and Kayden are in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies and joking about the utter foolishness of boys of all ages, including the one who keeps darting in and out of the kitchen to swipe Hershey Kisses — which are intended for the cookies — and another one who is sitting in the living room, enjoying a glass of Pinot noir while watching the cat make a punching bag out of a silver ornament hanging on one of the bottom branches of the tree. The dog is curled up on one arm of the recliner, also watching the cat, as he often does.

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op frI am in my office between classes, eating egg drop soup out of a little plastic container with a white plastic spoon, checking email, separating student essays into stacks, wondering whether I will be able to make it until Friday, when my next appointment with the chiropractor is scheduled. Every six months or so, my back slips out of alignment and I spend a few miserable days in varying degrees of pain, with tingling and burning sensations radiating through my torso. I gobble down muscle relaxers and handfuls of Ibuprofen, but get very little sleep until I’m properly aligned again and the pain finally abates, a square inch at a time, a minute at a time. I don’t have time for it, not with the end of the semester bearing down like the gray, oppressive sky just outside my office window, but back pain is notoriously indifferent to my plans and responsibilities.

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op frI cannot take a nap, at least not on purpose. Whenever I try, I twist and turn as if my wrists are tied behind my back and I have to work myself free. Try as I may to fall asleep, I cannot help obsessing about the things I should be doing, worrying that I may feel worse when I wake up, that I may have insomnia from having slept earlier in the day. A nap has to sneak up on me like a big cat stalking its prey, pouncing on me while I’m listening to jazz in my easy chair, or reading the short stories of Herman Melville. The older I get, the easier prey I become for such naps. When I wake up from naps, I’m usually confused, even disoriented. Where is everyone? What time is it? Why am I reading Herman Melville? Who is that man knocking at the door? Or am I merely dreaming of a man knocking at the door?

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