Knowledge Acquired On a Don’t-Need-to-Know Basis

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Knowledge Acquired On a Don’t-Need-to-Know Basis


“Well, that’s just vulgar.”

“Don’t be vulgar.”

“They are vulgar people.”

I lie late at night on the top bunk in my childhood room many moons ago and listen to The Voices. Staring at the hovering ceiling and awaiting sweet sleep, I try to sort out what The Voices are telling me.

The word “vulgar” keeps popping up and forcing me to work past it. It is a word my mother uses frequently in describing uncouth behavior or disreputable people or scatological language.

It is an interesting word because it is alive with uncomfortable meaning, abrasive undertone.


Don’t ever hear that word in my present grownup world. Wonder why?

“Vulgar” is Mother’s way of avoiding the use of what she calls “curse words,” the words she feels are useless and way too easy to employ. When I run out of creative vocabulary, I tend to resort to short-cut words, usually terse and profane. I learn from her that in a stressful or confrontational situation it is important to stop, count to ten, then carefully and thoughtfully speak. The few times I have been able to employ this advice, it actually works.

Unfortunately, to this day, my mouth generally moves more spontaneously than my brain…so Mom’s advice remains affixed to a wall in a red metal box with small window and sign that reads, “In case of vulgar usage, break glass and count to ten.”

Or something like that.

I don’t like being vulgar, and I don’t like it when vulgarity abounds in my childhood world as well as today’s world.  So, vulgar is my constant filter. Vulgar serves as a protective helmet that I wear in order to fend off the vulgarians.

And it helps me get smugly through the day, knowing that vulgar people are so ignorant they can’t even count to ten


© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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Enough is Enough and Too Much is Plenty

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Enough is Enough and Too Much is Plenty

At some time in my encroaching dotage, I have this mini-epiphany.

I call this mini-epiphany The Time of Unleashing. That’s when I begin tossing aside the things I can in no way control or affect or steer, the things that waste my time and energy.

On a good day, this unleashing frees me to focus on the really important moments of life. I look around at the obvious, observe the things that are so present they become invisible if attention is not paid.

This is a good moment. I’m at the museum restaurant having a most pleasurable brunch and conversation with my wife. I am taking in Liz and everything surrounding us.

What I see comprises my entire world at this one moment.

At a nearby table, an elderly wheelchaired diner hovers over his plate and slowly arranges his food, all the while suppressing the coughing spell that sets his  eyeglasses askew. He is focused on getting edibles from fork to mouth, all on his own.  His caretaker sits patiently across from him, vacuously or stoically or resignedly or disdainfully—it’s hard to tell which.

I head for the drink table and scan the selections. A large man ahead of me is sampling the drinks to decide which is right for him. I say, “Is the iced tea any good?” He grumps, “Not sweet enough,” and heads for the lemony water.

Back at the table with Liz, I watch the elderly wheelchaired diner carefully transfer, one at a time, several ice cubes from a half-full glass to a nearly-full glass. I know what he’s doing—we southerners like our cold drinks filled with ice before fluid is added. Out-of-region servers don’t know this.

Musicians a few feet away are playing an old jazz piece called “Killer Joe,” then transition into tunes by Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. I just can’t wipe the smile off my face, since these are the songs I played on the air some fifty-plus years ago when working as a radio DJ. The memory is vivid and visceral, adding  extra spice and sweetness to the meal.

We chat with our cheerful server and are pleased to find that she loves her job. I have a special regard for job-lovers, since they seem rare and scattered. Later, in the museum gift shop, we have long and energetic conversations with the volunteers who run the place. They, too, have that enthusiasm we love to see in craftspeople and artists.

As we meander through the galleries, having broken our fast and paid the tab, we talk about anything and everything, with no agenda beyond enjoying the moment and each other and ourselves.

I am living within my epiphany and focusing all my energy away from the challenges, problems, terrors and accidents that the outer banks of my life will pour upon me when my guard is down.

Right now, this minute, is life. It is quite enough

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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Squeezing Through the Dark and Narrow One-Way Dead-End Cave

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Squeezing Through the Dark and Narrow One-Way Dead-End Cave

I am squeezing my way on hands, knees and stomach through an unexplored North Alabama cave, following my high school science teacher and the fellow science-club students foolhardy enough to enter the bowels of a dark and crumbly place such as this.

It is six decades ago, and at this point I am wondering whether I will live to relate my spelunking experiences to future generations such as yours.

I am a nerdy geeky teen. Cave exploring sounds exciting in all these books I am reading, but the reality of what it takes to leap into darkness sans lifeline, holding tight a faltering flashlight, is beginning to impose itself upon my brain.

What if the kid behind me gets stuck? At one point, the passage is so narrow that each of us can only get through it by bending and twisting a special way. What if the teacher ahead of me suddenly panics and tries to back up rapidly? This is a one-way route. If we cannot arrive at a place where we can actually turn around, we may have to back up inch by inch for a hundred feet or so, becoming more claustrophobic and fearful by the minute.

What if a wild animal lives in the cave and decides it wants to get out, and fast?

What if my science teacher does not have a Plan?

I am beginning to feel the weight of the mountain above us. I am too inexperienced to know what a grand mal panic attack is like, but I feel its potential power welling up within.

A quote from Shakespeare pops into my brain—something a character I once played in a school stage drama said, ”Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Onstage, this felt profound and noble, this special quote from long ago. But here, in the depths of a forgotten cave under a mountain in North Alabama of a Saturday morning, it is difficult to find courage. But try I must. It is the only thing I have, this utterance of old: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”

This caving adventure sticks with me down the years, a great lesson in the possibilities of life and death and bravery and foolishness, a sobering dance with reality and fantasy. Being inside a book is a safe way to be foolhardy and reckless and still return home to love and safety and sweet memory.

Have I learned to be valiant instead of cowardly because of spelunking and Shakespeare?

No, but I have learned the ancient secret of all heroes and death defiers. Courageous talk only comes later, once the crisis has been survived. At the time of the actual events, all you can do is open yourself to the law of averages and try not to show your fear to others. In other words, acting brave is being brave, concealing your inner doubts inspires others to muddle through.

Acting valiant could save a life.

It’s natural to be a coward, but the valiant coward never lets you see the sweat, the fear.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Something worth holding onto when the battery in your flashlight no longer cooperates

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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One day when I was seven years old, the world got all cleaned up and everything got a chance to start all over again.

Overnight, the multi-textured earth became one smooth, soft, icy texture, the world of colors and hues became one wonderful multi-shaded land of whites and off-whites and cream-whites and shadowed whites and faintly pinkish whites.

The world overnight cleansed the landscape and allowed clapping children to remold everything in their own images. Snowmen and snowwomen appeared quickly, playing guardian to our delight. Makeshift sleds materialized mysteriously out of old siding, ragged boards, large tubs and pans. Footprints showed us who had been where and from where and where to, leaving traces of their makers—something that could never happen during ordinary times. Mother took the whitened landscape that Daddy had gathered from the yard and shrubbery and, waving her large magic wand of a serving-spoon, created the sweetest, sloshiest ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Large multilayered men came outside to pretend they were younger in the deepening creamy banks, and little stuffed-slug kids meandered about in pelts made of nylon and dacron and cotton and leather.

Though we could barely make out each others’ faces under all those makeshift scarves, we recognized everybody instantly, because they were our transmogrified neighbors and playmates running amok upon the unfamiliar terra-infirma. All human routine was suspended, and during that 24-hour period so many years ago, nobody seemed to hold a job, nobody had homework to do, nobody had to be anywhere else but right there on our block on Eastwood Avenue right down from McArthur Avenue and Patton Avenue and 15th Street.

Some celestial force had taken over our little village for a day and, like Brigadoon, it would not repeat itself in our lifetimes but would save itself for the next hundred-year generation that needed a quick and gentle cleansing so that the next day, when all was back to normal texture normal color normal temperature normal firma, everybody who had experienced this whiter-than-white washing of the spirit would have a memory to cherish in old age, a memory of things being just right and just magical and just totally real all at the same time 

(c) Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

The Long Walk Home

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 I am a mere toddler in 1944, and my older sister, Barbara, is just four years ahead of me.

Today my Mother, Frances Lee McGee Reed, and Barbara and I are riding the bus home from Downtown Tuscaloosa. This is back in the days when the bus company boldly displays a sign up front that reads, COLORED TO REAR, WHITE TO FRONT. It takes me years to figure out what this means.

Anyhow, at one of the stops, a very young, very pregnant African American woman boards the bus, which is filled to overflowing–no seats available.

Mother immediately gets up and offers her seat to the young woman, who is grateful for the chance to sit steady.

The bus comes to a rough halt, the very red-faced driver stomps down the aisle, stares at the woman and demands she get up and allow Mother, the white lady, to sit back down. Mother, suddenly also red-faced, stares him down and exclaims, “This woman is pregnant, and she can have my seat!”

The driver will hear none of it–as long as there are no seats available, the black woman will have to stand up. It’s the law.

Mother fumes. Her solution is simple. She yanks Barbara by the arm and heads toward the exit, leaving the seat empty for legal use by the young woman. Barbara grabs my arm and makes sure the three of us are locked together as we exit the bus.

Then, Mother’s next challenge arises.

What Barbara and I remember is that the day is bitterly cold, we don’t have warm clothing, and Mother is very mad.

But we do warm up quickly as we take the long walk home

© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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Things I Could Do With and Without

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Things I Could Do With and Without

I hope to spend the rest of my days never knowing what Powerball is.

If I never understand golf, I’ll remain ecstatically happy.

Deliver me from knowing what an app is or does.

I hope never to learn how to text messages.

I long for a phone that does not require passwords and codes. I just want it to ring. I want to lift the receiver and say Hello and immediately have a high-fidelity conversation without pauses and echoes and overlaps and drops and distortion. And I’d like the phone to have a cord attached to a wall, so that I can always find it.

Is this too much to ask?

In this newest of all New Years, there are hundreds of things for which I long…hundreds of things that will never come to pass. But what the hey, I can long all I want to, because it is my life we’re talking about here.

I long for the world to have one long day of peace—no murders, no wars, no accidents, no grudge matches, no snarky, angry, baseless remarks on social media, no racist or bigoted diatribes, no proselytizing on behalf of belief systems or anti-belief systems, no terminal illnesses, no molestations, no soulless overlords, no torture or bullying or taunting, no hunger…

Well, I do go on, don’t I?

Maybe the world will never achieve this mythical stasis. Maybe nobody anywhere is in the mood to risk feeling good and hopeful for a 24-hour period. Perhaps dreamers and philosophers such as I are few and scattered and basically useless. Maybe all I can hope for is a little bit here, a little bit there…a dab of hope, a smattering of joy, a pinch of goodwill, a thimbleful of love, a modicum of kindness, a heap of laughter. A tasty recipe only to be entertained by optimists and visionaries and just plain nice people.

Wonder what this might taste like, once blended and baked and garnished?

Make one up and send me a care package. I’d love to ingest some unconditional caring from friends and strangers alike


© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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How to be Your Own New Day

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How to be Your Own New Day

I have a  free day sandwiched between two workdays. This I am not used to having.

So, how do I spend a free day sandwiched between two workdays?

There’s no itinerary, so things just approach me at random.

What comes to mind? Well, there are things I Iove, such as Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the most profoundly beautiful Christmas story in the English language.

There is Dave Brubeck performing with full symphonic accompaniment, “Blue Rondo ala Turk.” Music can’t get much better than this. There is even Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions,” just about the coolest teenage cruising tune you can imagine. And “It’s Not Easy Being Green” performed by Ray Charles and Kermit brings a tear and a smile.

Memories of watching the starry skies within my childhood room, a result of my beautiful Christmas present, a genuine planetarium, is the best feeling ever. Sharing grins with Liz across a freshly prepared dinner of salmon and greens is right on target.

Sadly remembering special people who left us during the year brings special meaning to this lovely meal, this lovely evening. And noting the lonely walkers of the damp city nighttime streets helps focus attention beyond myself.

Watching and appreciating the brilliant gleam in the eyes of a little girl who is clutching tight to her chest the perfect book she just selected from the shop’s trove of Smurf books, is my meditative recreation from yesterday.

The Modern Jazz Quartet’s rendering of “England’s Carol” is ever locked in memories fond and fun. Reading Valentine Davies’ “Miracle on 34th Street” is a yearly ritual that magnetizes childhood to my electric imagination. Reading P.G. Wodehouse, watching Jerry Seinfeld interview President Obama, seeing Liz glued to her chair during the Tide/Michigan State game, missing everybody who ever loved me and left me, loving everybody who cares about me right now, appreciating people who love me unconditionally…these things cannot be denigrated or diminished. They remain with me hopefully all my days.

And one special thing means all the world to me:

The privilege of writing all this down, recording it for posterity, leaving behind bits of reminiscences that might bring moments of comfort to some future reader in need of a bit of goodwill or easy familiarity…

That helps keep me going. Here’s hoping that you, too, find something equally worth doing on your unexpected day off


© Jim Reed 2016 A.D.

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A Smattering of Mattering Couldn’t Hurt

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 Smattering of Mattering Couldn’t Hurt

 Having been steamrolled by the year 2015, I guess it is time to savor what good there is, time to hope for what might be, time to actually come up with a plan to make 2016 better.

Where to start?

Maybe the simple act of looking around me at life as it is, will help me jump start the year.

I am full of dreams and imaginings. Dreaming and imagining is a pleasant way to expend the time I have, but does it do anybody else any good?

RESOLUTION: Once every 24 hours, I will ask myself two questions—1. At start of day, What can I do that will actually affect someone else’s life in a positive way?…2. At end of day, What did I do today that actually affected someone else’s life in a positive way? First question is easy. Second question is tough. It tends to hold me accountable for my do-good intentions.

RESOLUTION: Once a day, I will ask myself whether I opted for the easy way out. Did I slide past an opportunity to do good or did I pause, stare straight into the face of a difficult situation and address it in a constructive way? Did I at least try?

RESOLUTION: Sometime each day, I will pull the plugs and find personal peace within, ignoring all superficial stimulation. Silence and solitude for twenty minutes will give me a chance to calm down, let go, search for what little goodness and mercy I still harbor. I know it is there, I just have to give it a chance to assert itself.

RESOLUTION: Each day I will look at least one person in the eye and really listen to what is being communicated to me, silently or aloud. I will remind myself that this should be a person whose existence I generally ignore or avoid. Something good will come of this, I just know it.

Before I try to impress myself and you by listing a dozen aspirations for the year, I will stop here. Just accomplishing all of the above will be a challenge.

Besides, each and every day, I begin a new 365-day cycle of living, so why just do resolutions one day a year? The best is yet to come

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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In the way-back land of fond memories, I find these notes about a special Christmas moment that lingers in memory always green…


 The first Christmas decoration of the season to be broken is broken, I guess, by me.

It happens every year.

Sometime during the process of getting everything done getting everything just right getting each and every little item in place if you hold your mouth just right… something gets broken.

In this case, the tinkly shattering of a glass ball causes a momentary lapse of movement. Five-year-old Hallie stops decorating the tree, her brow furrows as she looks up at me—first of all to see if she is suspected of having anything to do with the breaking, and second of all to see if her Grammy (my wife) will scold me, for it is clear that I am the culprit.

Grammy is careful not to moan too loudly, although she always cringes when any of our old, old decorations are maimed.

We have a stack of broken Christmas ornaments waiting patiently for Santa’s workshop makeovers, and I actually believe that this coming year will be the year I’ll try to repair what I can repair. However, the hollow glass ball that I just dropped on the hardwood floor is not repairable, so we’ll just have to try to remember it fondly and pay attention instead to the wide array of family keepsakes that now swing from the greenness of our tall tree, the tree that’s getting harder to decorate each year since we’re getting older and the ornaments are proliferating.

That’s one reason why Hallie is helping us this year, just as granddaughter Jessica used to help. The young ones are here to delight in the project, to brag that they helped decorate two trees this time, and to learn the process for the times when we’ll be too old to do it all ourselves, Grammy and me.

Anyhow, this ritual we carry out each and every year is indispensable to Christmas, and the challenge is, we never get it exactly right—daughter Margaret would prefer we have a REAL tree instead of a manufactured one, Hallie would prefer we have three more trees to decorate, her mother Jeannie can’t wait till it’s all done and over with so she can take a long winter’s nap.

Jessica would rather the trees come pre-decorated so that she can get down to the business of anticipation, grandkids Rebecca, Reed and Ryan would rather just let us entertain them with Christmas cheer all year round, son John can’t wait to share another family story or two, and grand kids Robby and Becky would just as soon get on with opening the gifts now, if you please.

I hope you have something nice to keep from breaking this season, some fragile object or fragile memory that you can hold onto while gazing glazed-eyed at the glowing starry sky this winter

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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Did I Ever Tell You What to Get Me for Christmas?

Did I Ever Tell You What to Get Me for Christmas?

If you really want to please me, if you truly wish to give me something that will make me smile, if you want to feel you’ve done the right thing by me, then read on:

This Christmas, give me something personal, something of yourself–not something you picked up at the Mall or ran into the Pharmacy and grabbed at the last minute. Just this one Christmas, I would love to receive something truly personal, something that is part of you.

The gift you give as a part of yourself could be any number of things.

You could write a little poem for me, one you made up all by yourself.

You could sing me your favorite Christmas carols, the ones you’ve loved since childhood.

You could do a little performance for me–a funny jig or a joke or two about what it’s like to know somebody like me.

You could draw me a picture and sign your name at the bottom and date it, “Christmas, The 21st Century A.D.”

You could take me to dinner all by yourself and sit and chat with me over some nice food and drink, I listening to what you have to say and you listening to what I have to say.

You could make a little album of photos and memorabilia about me and you, and give it to me with a loving hug.

Get the idea?

You may come up with something better or something more interesting than any of these–that’s ok. As long as you give me something personal, something affectionate and caring, I will be happy.

Maybe you feel uncomfortable, trying to improvise a Christmas gift for me. Perhaps you’ve gotten used to going to the store and purchasing something, and maybe you feel this IS a personal way to gift me. If that’s so, then here’s something you can try, something that may please us both: Go to the store and find a delightful little toy, a toy that makes you smile, involuntarily. Then, bring me that smile–and the toy, too. We can enjoy the toy and our mutual smiles together at the same time!

If all of this is just too much trouble, you could even do this: take me to lunch and ask me what I’d like to give to you, if I could only afford it or if I could only do it just right, in a way that you would appreciate.

Anyhow, I thought you might get a kick out of learning the answer to that age-old question we all ask each other every year: “What do you want for Christmas?” This year, I thought I’d tell you the truth, as I feel the truth this year.

Give me part of you, and I will try to return the compliment next Christmas

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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