The Doofus Avoidance Factor Catches Up With Me

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The Doofus Avoidance Factor Catches Up With Me

 Three lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of misreading my visible and invisible audiences:

 I’m delivering an energetic but hopefully entertaining diatribe on the art of communicating with the public. This is way back when I believe that the profession of Public Relations Practitioner is tantamount to a Calling, that I can actually change the world—or at least cause it to shift slightly on its axis—by telling the Truth. My audience of writers and communicators is rapt, which encourages me to go on about the importance of Detecting BS in all public messages, be they purposeful or inadvertent. And I preach about the BS factor, the litmus test for finding fact amid the babble. Proud of myself, I stop to take questions. “Uh, what does ‘BS’ mean?” one participant asks. I freeze, my mind racing to do two things instantly without allowing the crowd to see me sweat. First, I realize that a generous amount of my speech has fallen on deaf ears, since they don’t know what I am talking about. Second, I try to verbalize a definition of BS that will avoid using the “S” word, this being a Baptist school with lots of prim and proper folk scattered among the folding chairs. “Uh, BS means bullshooting—you know, covering over the truth with your own agenda or message.” Saved! That seems to satisfy the inquisitor.

Another jarring lesson:

I’m performing some of my stories before a group of educated and skilled authors and artists, going on about my book, “How to Become Your Own Book,” all about the joy of creating words and images. I provide lively examples from popular culture, so that each point will have some gravitas as it is being digested. I read a wonderful passage from Jack Benny’s autobiography, a piece about life, both poetic and instructive, an example of great and simple writing. After a dramatic pause to allow the words to sink in, a middle-aged participant timidly raises her hand and inquires, “Who is this Jack Benny?” I sputter and explain, knowing that, once again, I have  assumed that my audience knows everything I know. The lesson I learn from this is, IF MY AUDIENCE KNOWS EVERYTHING I KNOW, WHAT AM I DOING WASTING THEIR TIME? ‘Tis better to lead them gently into new ideas, making sure that they are following each step.

And one more lesson, Grasshopper:

Two days ago, I am groaning my way into a very cold car seat, preparing to face low temperatures and a short ride to the shop. I get the motor going, then reach for my genuine brown cloth Family Dollar bargain garden gloves (four pairs for $2.00) to give my pinkies protection against the day. The gloves are not on the passenger seat, so I grope around between the seats to see it they’ve fallen into an abyss of thingies that accumulate there. Ah! A glove! Shivering excitedly, I pull the soft fabric onto my left hand and reach down for the right-hand glove. There it is! I try to don it but it, too, is a left-handed glove. Muttering in amazement, I open the glove compartment—where else would you find a spare glove—and pull yet another one out. It, too, is a left-handed glove! Now I’m speaking words to the frosty air that I try to refrain from using in public. I slam the glove compartment closed, but it pops back open because the stuff stuffed within is expanding like a nova. Ah! Again! I suddenly see popping out onto the floor a genuine right-handed glove. I calm down a bit, slide it on, then resume trying to close the cotton-pickin’ door. Fifth try is magic and it sticks shut. At this point, my mind is sorting out what else is going on around me, and I realize someone is giggling nearby. I lower the window because my friend Lon is standing there, having observed my entire Passion of the Family Dollar Store Bargain Gloves. He’s having so much fun, he could use a bag of buttered popcorn. I am now beyond dignity and simply join in the laughter, having learned that sometimes the audience you are performing for is invisible…so you’d best be on good behavior at all times to avoid being packed into the doofus category that life provides free of charge

 © Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Eagles Aerie 972 Awaits Me

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Eagles Aerie 972 Awaits Me

Lying snug and covered in my Sunday morning bed, I try to focus my mind on what I will do today.

Liz is preparing to go to church, to sing in the choir. I, the secular husband, like to laze about on Sunday, since it’s the only day of the week I do not ply my trade(s).

Then, I remember that today will be different—I am to be guest speaker at the annual Thanksgiving gathering of Eagles Aerie 972 near Graysville, Oops, that’s at 1 p.m., a mere two hours from now.

I never turn down an invitation to speak or perform publicly, since it serves to pull me out of my shell, away from my routine. And it forces me to re-live all that wonderful practice I got back in youth-time, when years of acting on stage, followed by years of announcing and interviewing on radio and television gave me the self-confidence I needed to deal with other people. Like riding a bicycle, it all comes back to me whenever I’m in front of an audience. Plus, I like to make people laugh and remember the good tidbits of life, if only for a few minutes.

But what will I say to an audience of military veterans? What can I do to help them override bad memories for a while? After all, I am not a veteran, I am not an Alpha Male exuding testosterone and bluster, I am merely a nerdish guy who spends his life with words swirling about him, selling books, reading books, writing books, preaching about the importance of books.

When will the first yawn come from the audience today?

Lying here, staring at the ceiling, I await Liz’s emergence from the bathroom, so that I can hop across the cold wooden floors and grab a hot shower. Liz comes into the room, all dressed up and perfumey, looking radiant. She places her hand on my forehead and, sensing my natural insecurities, says, “You’ll do fine. You always know how to make ‘em laugh,” or words to that effect. That’s all the encouragement I need.

Liz leaves, I get cleansed and dressed, and here I am at the computer keyboard, writing a note to you—or to myself, if you aren’t there.

My mind starts clicking and I kind of know what I’ll be doing at the lectern today. Maybe I’ll read them my favorite true Thanksgiving story—the one I share with you once a year. Maybe I’ll tell them about my Uncle Buddy’s adventures as a paratrooper during WWII. Maybe I’ll mention that sometimes war can make certain things better. In Uncle Buddy’s case, he taught me how to turn swords into plowshares. In the case of the Berlin Wall, it was 25 years ago today that it came down. Maybe I’ll mention several Russian and American astronauts who have lived and worked together in space for six months and will come down to Earth today just in time for Thanksgiving.

And maybe I’ll get a nice turkey dinner and some camaraderie from the veterans and spouses.

Why not have a good time on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in a little town named Graysville, located near here somewhere on planet Earth

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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A Gift of Time Not Squandered

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“An extra hour of time. What would I do if I were handed an extra hour of time, to do with as I pleased?”

This thought suddenly arcs out of nowhere and, like a Cupid arrow, plants itself into his racing and fertile mind.

He prepares to go to bed Saturday night and dutifully resets the nearby clock so that eleven o’clock becomes ten o’clock. He is suddenly excited by this pressing idea that he’s being gifted, that an hour of his life has been handed back to him. He feels like Ebenezer Scrooge, waiting for the next revelation to be forced upon him, a revelation about Life and Meaning and Purpose…

What if the first ghost to appear is Sadie Logan, his late, revered Second Grade teacher, who gave him the best school year of his life? What if she appears just to observe him while he struggles with his decision? What if she grades him on what he intends to do with his precious extra hour?

Will he come up with a new theory of particle physics? Will he be inspired to write a new and lasting thought about the meaning of life, such as “Tomorrow is the day after the first day of the rest of your life.”? Will he fill the time carefully thanking all the people he’s never thanked, the people like Sadie who nudged him along in positive directions throughout the decades?

Will he decide to spend sixty minutes being unrelentingly kind and thoughtful?

He is filled with anticipation and ideas and outrageously pious thoughts.

He knows he is about to do something great.

Instead, he spends the spare hour lying abed on Sunday morning, contemplating stuff like this.

But he knows that, wherever and whenever Sadie is, she still believes in him.

And that is enough of an epiphany to make him feel the hour is not completely squandered

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Grace and Beauty in a Frazzled World of Frazzled People

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Grace and Beauty in a Frazzled World of Frazzled People

The young mother driving the van-like vehicular contraption stops so abruptly in the supermarket parking space that the whole machine bounces once, testing its suspension system against a forgotten warranty.

She pushes the door open with one foot while disentangling herself from a cranky seat belt. Her otherwise lovely face is pinched in concentration as she hoists a shoulder bag or two, slings them over her back and circles to the passenger side to dig for a small child who is buckled and cocooned in a plastic and synthetic cloth bucket.

The squirming child frowns in the sunlight and flails about while its mom steadies herself under equal parts of bulging baggage and contorted tot.

At some point, she has everything balanced and in place, and for a moment her world is steady and stable, what with kid planted and detritus organized. Then, she points her squinched nose toward the supermarket and begins steering herself in the direction of automatic doorway safety.

As the young mother disappears with child and burdens into fluorescent air-conditioned sanctuary, she just as abruptly is replaced by an enormous woman emerging from the other automatic entrance, slowly pushing forward a metal wheeled cart packed with all the victuals and cleansers and aids she will need to accompany her through the week. The cart serves as a walker, and it is obvious that she feels pain from her swollen ankles, pain she is accustomed to, pain that is always fresh and relentless.

Her progress across the parking lot is steady, and it is clear that she is as organized as the mother, carefully opening the car trunk and methodically arranging each bag for stability in preparation for the drive home.

Two lives passing in the light.

In just a few years, will the young mother be alone and overweight in an asphalt parking lot? Just a few years earlier, was the large woman a young mother, packing and unpacking her child, keeping it safe and nurtured till distant fly-away time?

The moment passes. The Writer who is writing all this down meanders on to the next parking lot vision, hoping against hope that each sighting will induce some insight, some wisdom, some empathy, for all the sole survivors in all the village parking lots of all the towns in all the world

 

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Hand Prints on the Sands of Time

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Hand Prints on the Sands of Time

The bright whitish sand in the small hand-made sandbox at my feet pulls my attention away from the green and asphalt world around me.

It is Childhood Summer on Eastwood Avenue and I the small boy am alone this afternoon, playmates scattered to the winds and wilds of the neighborhood.

I stoop to examine the sand up close. The longer I stare, the more un-whitish the sand appears. It seems to be multi-colored—granules of tan, clear crystal, brown, orange, white, off-white, cream.

The more closely I gaze, the more the sand fills my vision, until there is nothing to see but vast stretches of exotic desert, mounds shifting in the breeze, sculpted contours that can change on a whim. Then, to add to the desert, there is all that cannot be seen, that which is barely hidden from view, that which can appear and disappear if I’m not paying attention.

A grunting camel just over the horizon, a green and damp oasis around the next turn, a crawling thirst-craved man following the next mirage, mysterious veiled women offering jugs of sweet water.

I press my open hand, palm down, into the warm sand, forming an inch-deep print for future nomads to discover.

I raise my hand and turn it over to examine the single layer of grains coating all, forming a temporary glove that glistens in the sunlight.

And, as gossamer as a spider web, the sand flies into the air as I brush away the evidence, erase the Sahara box from my mind, and go on to the next adventure and the adventure after the next adventure.

Later, lying abed after a firefly and ice cream evening, I stare at the dark ceiling and re-live the desert adventures, adding color and texture to the story line by switching on my Boy Scout flashlight and reading another chapter of ROBINSON CRUSOE to flavor what dreams may come

 

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Another Real Life Martian Horror Story Before Halloween

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Another Real Life Martian Horror Story Before Halloween

WALKING TO WOKING: TAKING A MARTIAN TOUR

 We are trudging through the sand pits at Woking, looking carefully about for any signs of Martian space ships, when I realize for the umpteenth time in my life that it’s good to get away and do something different with mind and body and spirit.

This is 15 years ago, and I am in England with a group of scholars, authors and fans of H.G.Wells. We are walking together near the town of Woking.

H.G. Wells lived in Woking (Great Britain) whilst writing THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, and a few things, such as the sand pits, have not radically changed.

In the cool and humid forest we finally find the exact landing site of the Martian cylinders, then go on to other landmarks of the Martian invasion—places where houses and buildings had been destroyed, and the house where the story’s hero had lived.

Once in the town square, I got to stand beneath a replica of one of the 55-foot-high Martian robots, something these aliens had left behind when an earthly virus finally killed them all off.

H.G. would have been delighted to see this machine, but he might have expressed disappointment that his warnings about unanticipated invasion (invasion from Fascists, invasion from bad ideas, etc.) have gone largely unheeded, generation after generation.

Soon after he published WAR OF THE WORLDS, the invasions of WWI began, the war destined not to be the war to end all wars. And finally, in 1945, Wells had a chance to see what horrible use his predictions about atomic energy would be put to.

The good news is, Wells’ early draft of a universal human rights statement for mankind was adapted by the League of Nations, then the United Nations. His visionary views of racial harmony, feminism, sexual freedom, equality and freedom from repression have stuck with us. But it’s good to know that there’s an ever-present reminder of what can happen if mankind doesn’t learn to stick together and get along: the Martian machine can be re-animated at any time and the world can plunge once more, as it has plunged many times in the past, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back…

It’s hard to find the pony some days, but, as Wells reminded us: Despite the despairs and depravities of humanity, we must accomplish two things simultaneously. 1. do everything we can to fight them, and 2. live each day as if these despairs and depravities do not exist.

After my Martian trek through the forests of Woking, I return to the States with renewed hope, and within two days I contract a strange virus

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Whatever Happened to Whatever It Is That I Just Said

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Whatever Happened to Whatever It Is That I Just Said

Sometimes I say something I don’t mean.

Sometimes I say something I don’t mean but just for effect want you to think I mean.

Sometimes I say something I don’t mean just to get a reaction from you.

Sometimes when you say something I don’t agree with, I don’t let on, just to keep from getting into an argument or a debate.

Sometimes I regret having just said something I mean.

Sometimes I regret having just said something I don’t mean.

Sometimes I regret not having said something I meant to say.

Sometimes I say something I mean but realize I gained nothing by saying it.

Sometimes I say something just to get a laugh.

Sometimes I say something I don’t believe just to get a laugh.

Sometimes I say something in a funny way just to soften the blow.

Sometimes I say something in a funny way that neither of us wants to hear. That way, we can both say “ouch!” and face the truth but still get a laugh.

Sometimes I say something tragic with humor.

Sometimes I say something funny to suppress a tear.

Sometimes I make a wisecrack just to keep you at a slight distance.

Sometimes I wisecrack in order to bring you closer.

Sometimes I deflect your anger with a smart remark.

Sometimes I try to get you to laugh, just to help you rise above the darkness.

Sometimes I wish you would make me laugh despite myself.

Sometimes I wish you cared enough about me to make me smile.

Sometimes I make a wisecrack to bond us together.

Sometimes I wish the whole world would take a step back, look around at the cosmic joke, and spend a moment laughing together.

As H.G. Wells said, “To laugh is to awaken.”

Sometimes I want to shake you awake

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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A Halloween Horror Story in Advance: Beware Martians and Terrorists Bearing Gifts

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A HALLOWEEN HORROR STORY

Beware Martians and Terrorists Bearing Gifts

Winning at any cost is not something we humans get to do very often.

To win at any cost usually translates into some suicidal act.

That’s why the battle cry “Victory at any cost!” is likely to be mere bluster, more empty saber-rattling.

To win at any cost means you’re probably going to have to die in the process. That doesn’t sound like winning to most of us, but to those who think outside the box, the idea of dying for victory is a valid one.

Some examples:

The Trojan War dragged on for a decade and might never have ended, had Ulysses (Odysseus) not stepped back and resolved to win the war at any cost. What warlord, trained in the rigid format of weaponry and mass military strategy, would have predicted that a handful of unarmed soldiers could wrap themselves in a gift horse and take over an entire city? For thirty centuries, the tale of the surprise, innovation and cleverness of this suicidal act has been repeated, until the myth has become a myth of itself. And, as we all know, myth turns to metaphor.

Perhaps storytellers in the Middle East for the next thirty centuries will repeat the tale of a handful of unarmed soldiers hiding themselves in the bellies of flying metal beasts to bring down the mighty towers of the Western Devils.

In 1897 the author H.G. Wells, knowing his history and acutely aware of its perpetual repetition, tried to warn us all of what happens each time we rely on structured machineries of warfare, each time we forget to use our creative thought processes to anticipate the worst and prepare to deflect it. The novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was the result: a Trojan Martian attack from an unexpected direction and for an unknown motive. Sacrifice of a handful of soldiers in a—to the aliens—just cause was the result, and quite effective. Thirty centuries from now, the tale of a handful of outsiders stomping the vermin of Earth in order to colonize, will be told and its metaphor unconsciously understood. The Martian storytellers just might leave out the part about eventually dying after the attack.

And do we learn from such monolithic, in-your-face mythology? Let’s see…

At any moment, the people of Earth could be exterminated—this time by forces known and understood—but very little is being done to prevent it. The reasons are clear. Day-to-day life and politics distract us from preparation. The mosquito on the arm is immediate and can be dealt with in a rapid and unimaginative manner. The five-mile-wide asteroid that’s headed our way is way out there, invisible, and perhaps won’t make itself known till it’s too late. Its effect will be a trillion-fold worse than a mosquito bite, but it’s, like, man, it’s like something that might not happen, man, and don’t bug me about it—I gotta take care of this mosquito.

I suppose Trojans and New Yorkers, somewhere in the backs of their minds, knew that Something Bad could happen at any moment, but we all go on living, knowing that. When we read about H.G. Wells’ Martian war or Homer’s Trojan war or the Twin Towers or an impending meteor, we understand that it can take place, but we are all betting in the same reverse lottery—it’s a long shot, expecting to draw the winning apocalyptic ticket number. Probably won’t happen in my lifetime, so not to worry!

I live in Alabama, a virtual magnet for tornadoes, but each time one misses me, I’m secretly grateful that somebody else is being made miserable, while at the same time feeling bad for them. It didn’t hit me this time. Oh, as a poet, I feel guilty about this, but I’m sitting here, eating chocolate chip cookies and breathing more deeply, just the same.

In order to conquer a planet, you have to think like a Martian. In order to conquer a society, you have to think like a Greek warrior. Then you have to be willing to evaporate along with your victims. Since most of us aren’t willing to make that leap, a lot fewer terrorist acts take place than you would imagine. There are still lots of people who can see beyond politics and dogma and focus on the important things, such as watching sunrises, burping babies, holding loved ones, protecting neighbors. We just aren’t motivated to die violently—if we can help it.

Once you think like this, wars, sports events and contests lose some of their appeal. The way to win a fencing match or a chess game is to pull out a gun and shoot your opponent(s) dead. If you’re not willing to do that, then you don’t really want to win, do you? Besides, most of us want the losing party to survive, so that we can gloat and strut.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was a cautionary tale, but the peculiar thing about humans is that, even though we know things could end badly, we just go on living in denial, hoping that something bad, if it happens, will happen somewhere else. Wells knew this, but he also knew that to be human is to try and try again to survive, against all odds, against all mockery and ignorance and hostility

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Tender is the Obsolete Once-Tended Tinderbox

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Tender is the Obsolete Once-Tended Tinderbox

I watch new buildings being erected throughout ancient Southside Birmingham in which I reside. In some cases, century-old historic structures are bulldozed in the tradition of all developers everywhere. Here and there,  high-speed carpentry replaces a vacant lot with a multi-storied block of pressed particle board hidden by brick.

“Those condos would go up in flames like a tinderbox,” one bystander remarks, at which point I begin recording in print these observations and events, hoping that future generations will appreciate what it was like to watch history defaced and replaced in a matter of hours.

But, as a scribe of history, I mull over these  ideas:

Will anybody be reading anything a hundred years hence, and will all my efforts and the efforts of thousands of writers be in vain?

Even if there remains a small population of readers, even if some of them actually study history anymore, even if my written words are preserved so that real readers can find them, will they understand what I have written?

If my words are found and appreciated, will I, the writer, have been respectful enough to my future readers to use language that they can readily understand? For instance, the comment, “Those condos would go up in flames like a tinderbox,” is not self-explanatory. Who knows what a tinderbox is nowadays, much less in a few decades? If I carefully state that a tinderbox is a box containing tinder, flint, steel or other items for kindling fires, will I lose the reader? Who will know what flint is, or kindling? Should I say, “Those condos are so frail and wood-based that they would go up in flames like burning newspapers.” Wait—nobody will know what a newspaper is, let alone what a condo is.

“Those condos are so fragile they would go up in flames like a meth lab.” Uh, what’s a meth lab?

“Those condos are so flammable they would burn like a BIC lighter.” By then, self-lighting cigarettes will have made lighters disappear as quickly as bottle openers.

All these remarks might have been meaningful at the time of writing but by the time a next-generation reader reads them, they may be puzzling or boring.

So, how can a writer attempt to communicate with the Future?

Good question.

To make yourself clear, you just have to view each sentence as if you are a Martian.

Are there universal words that can replace faddish words or slang words or brand-name words or doomed words?

Yes.

The writer who wants to be understood beyond the present and the temporary just has to write smarter than most scribes.

“To be or not to be, that is the question,” is such a remarkably simple statement that its many meanings are never lost on each generation.

If Hamlet had said, “Uh, I don’t know whether I should pull a Kevorkian or just go on feeling disenfranchised and depressed,” his forgettable thought would not have lasted a season at the theatre. Who would know the meaning of Kevorkian or disenfranchised or even depression in a thousand years?

Next time you see particle board replacing genealogy and remembrance and lineage, think how you would describe the horror to Martians or futuristic societies.

The exercise could be fun

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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Another Whirlwind Roller Coaster Bumper Car Day in the Magic City

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Another Whirlwind Roller Coaster Bumper Car Day in the Magic City

My car heads west on the Bessemer Super Highway this morning. I don’t have to tell my car to do this. It just does it. I’m riding in a driverless car.

The signs along the way are worth the drive. There by the side of the road is GRANNY’S LITTLE ANGELS DAY CARE CENTER. I still miss the long-gone POWER RANGERS FOR CHRIST DAY CARE CENTER. Maybe those tiny Power Rangers became little angels one day.

I would pick out my favorite sign, but each one is a favorite for a special moment. Look! There’s MIDFIELD THE CONVENIENT CITY. I’d love to have been in on the committee meetings that decided on this slogan. “Well, Charles, I think your idea about MIDFIELD THE IN-BETWEEN CITY is a little vague. And Andy’s YOU’RE PASSING THROUGH MIDFIELD ON THE WAY TO SOMEPLACE ELSE is too long.”

Actually, MIDFIELD A WORK IN PROGRESS wouldn’t be bad.

One pedestrian is walking a scruffy dog. He holds his head high and takes a deep breath of fresh air, then sticks the large billowing cigar back into his mouth and continues on, deep in a portable cloud.

Along the way, I look for clotheslines. I miss clotheslines. The last time I visited my Aunt Margaret in Cuba, Alabama, she was out in the yard hanging out clothes, ignoring the nice washer-dryer combination in the house. When I helped bring them in, they smelled of pure air and cleansed soul. The same way they smelled sixty years ago in my backyard in Tuscaloosa, when Mother and I would quickly take them down in advance of a storm.

A man crosses the street in front of my idling automatic vehicle. He strolls with the calm air of someone who has no appointments. How I envy him.

In some of the passing mysterious places, highly trafficked,  somebody somewhere has forgotten to put up a sign telling the name of the street or the name of the intersection…thus depriving people of knowing where they are. Thus depriving the neighborhood of its history.

I remember when the sign at the entrance of my childhood home, EASTWOOD AVENUE, was removed by the city of T-Town without warning. Someone had decided a numerical system would make more sense. Our street was stripped of its story. But to us, those  who lived much of our lives on EASTWOOD AVENUE, it would always be EASTWOOD AVENUE. Some things cannot be removed.

Cesare Pavese once wrote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

That’s why my pockets are bulging with tiny sticky notes jotted with moments.

Never know when they might come in handy

 

© Jim Reed 2014 A.D.

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