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My favorite road signs and display signs are the ones that grow larger in memory as time passes.

Cruising past a variety store/thrift store/remainder store I notice a carefully hand-lettered-hand-colored poster that prominently states, EARS PIERCED WHILE YOU WAIT.

It’s not until a few beats later that the message snaps back at me. EARS PIERCED WHILE YOU WAIT.

What I enjoy most about signs like this is that they actually communicate, with a high degree of accuracy, what they are attempting to get across to passersby, despite their humorous blend of common sense and mixed metaphor.

Even though I write and edit as part of a vocational calling, I am careful NOT to correct every grammatical or syntactic misuse I see. Especially when the communication is deliberate and the message immediately understandable. I almost admire the creative and original way the author has laid out this cardboard placard idea.

Another handmade sign at another independent roadside sale: THE SALE LASTEZ TILL MARCH 6.

This statement precisely reflects, economically and simply, exactly the way the proprietor talks and, again, I can’t find fault with its clarity. THE SALE LASTEZ TILL MARCH 6 says it all. No proofing red marks allowed.

As a kid, I used to ponder over the meaning of metallic intersection signs that warned NO U TURN. It took me years to decide what this message meant. Was it a shorthand way of saying, “Don’t you turn here,” or “There is no way for you to turn here,” or was it something that only grownups understood, and was it any of my business anyhow? NO U TURN.

For weeks now, just a block from my home, I pass a large orange sign that has been damaged to read, ME WORKING. The N has been obliterated and the message altered. I keep meaning to have Liz take a picture of me next to the sign, holding a shovel and grinning idiotically. But I never get around to it. One day, there is actually a hardhatted city employee digging up part of the street near the sign. I’d love to see all hard workers sporting badges that say ME WORKING. Or, during breaks, ME NOT WORKING.

My brain does rattle on, doesn’t it?

I guess just jotting all this down for your entertainment means that ME BE WORKING.

I hope your laughter and goodwill lastez while you wait and that you make no dangerous U turns, at least on my watch

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Horace and I are free-falling down an elevator shaft, much to my horror, much to his delight.

The time is many years ago when Birmingham still has living elevator operators on duty in each tall building. Horace is the uniformed elevator man at the controls. I am the hapless businessman who makes the mistake of stepping aboard, wearing suit and tie and carrying briefcase.

Horace and I are alone in the elevator, so for the moment he is in total charge of me and my smug universe. At least for the next fifteen stories down.

Horace’s ritual is clear to me only later, when I’m trying to calm down, when I am counting my lucky stars.

Earlier, the upward ride from first to fifteenth is smooth and gentle, as there are other passengers present. But right now, with no-one else aboard, Horace has a chance to play his game, the only game in which he for a few seconds has total control of his life. And mine.

Horace nods a polite, obligatory nod and grasps the handled wheel as he closes the clanging doors.

Staring expressionless straight ahead, he spins the wheel to what I can only assume is full throttle position, and the elevator begins its joy-ride drop.

I back up against the wall and clutch my briefcase, gasp deeply and glance in panic at Horace, who is elegantly expressionless and artfully oblivious to my plight.

The elevator descends as if in free flight, my stomach ascends as if compensating for the fall, I suddenly decide that this is definitely a structured game. I must play my part.

Pretending to ignore my internal churnings, my last rites recitations, my roller coaster fears, I, too, become stoic and expressionless, lest Horace reduce me to a whimpering mass.

Just before the feeling of certain death and transfiguration, the elevator magically screeches to a halt at the first floor. I try experiencing breathing again. I straighten my tie, hold my head up as if nothing unusual has occurred. Horace opens the doors and I wobble through them to the lobby, just as he says in his most gentlemanly and polite voice, “Watch your step.”

And so I shall, so I shall.

One thing I learn from this experience is that exercise is good for me. You know, at my tender age, walking down fifteen flights next time is probably going to be the right thing to do.

Assuming I ever enter this particular building again

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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One enthusiastic customer, beaming, walks up to the front of the store balancing a waist-to-chin stack of books he wants to purchase.

As I begin to add up his finds, I notice that they are all about astronomy, the scientific heavens, real space travel, cosmic phenomena, stargazing, telescope making…

This takes me back to a time some sixty years ago when I was an amateur astronomer reading and poring over some of these same titles.

I wax nostalgic about my childhood planetarium, star maps, late-night watches, eclipse predictions…

“You know there’s going to be a major solar eclipse this year!” he reports. He plans to travel to the Carolinas with family to view an event most people won’t even know is happening.

OK. This makes me want to tell the story of my blacktop fireflies.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this. Here goes…


 The firefly nights and the ‘skeeter mornings frame each day as we the children of summer and autumn play at our chores and work hard at our play.

Back then, in childhood (where I suddenly am transported), time doesn’t matter at all. We are too young to notice time slipping and sliding past our nighttime openscreened windows.

Sometimes we lie on our backs on the black flat roof of our small home at 26 Eastwood Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and gaze up at the stars and the planets and the Moon and an occasional meteor and an even less frequent comet, and we lie there and breathe the dampened chilly nonpolluted air, sometimes unable to tell the difference between shooting stars and spasmed fireflies.

The shooting stars can be oohhed and ahhed at, but we can never catch one unless we are lucky enough to be hit directly, and then wouldn’t we be famous for a while? “There goes that boy who got hit by that meteor,” everyone would say.

The fireflies we  touch and gently cradle in our palms and place in widemouthed Ball jars for a few minutes in hopes of getting enough together to light the entire neighborhood, but we never gather quite that many, because there is always something else to do.

Lying here on the flat black roof, looking at the stars and smelling the moist fragrance of the old quilts Mother lets us use, we do not notice the mosquitoes. There is just too much to do, you see. We have to count the stars and figure out how many per square foot are up there, we have to hide the Moon behind our thumbs, we often count the number of meteors we see in a 15-minute period, then chart their paths on a sky map, we need to take the lens cap off the old Criterion cardboard-tube refractor telescope and take a close look at the stars and now and then at the neighbors’ homes, we have to wonder which of those tiny colored lights moving very high up in the sky might be satellites or planes or unidentified flying objects.

We never get bored, because we do not yet know what time is. We do not know that time passes and that everything changes all the time–even us, even our dreams.

We only know that lying on our backs on the flat blacktopped roof, munching on a few Graham crackers we have taken from the kitchen, is the only thing going on that we are aware of.

The stars twinkle. The planets do not. The Moon is so glowy bright. The crickets provide ambience so cleverly and persistently that we seldom hear them.

The fact that the flat black roof is stone hard is not even noticed. We sleep like the near-babies we still are.

At long last, the Sun begins to rise and we slowly wake up to its radiant pressure on our faces and feel the dew over our clothes and now-soggy Graham crackers and quilts, and we never guess that the Sun might never rise again, we never think about the stars disappearing, we only wonder how far the Sun and stars go and what lies beyond the boundaries of the Universe. One thing we do know: we are dead-center in the middle of the Universe. We are each the center of the Universe. And we somehow know, instinctively know, that every creature in the Universe, whether on Earth or on Jupiter or in a distant galaxy, every creature, wherever it is, is definitely and individually at the center of the Universe, too. We somehow know that the center of the Universe is always wherever we are at the moment, no matter who or what we are.

So, 26 Eastwood Avenue is the center of the Universe and at least in one dusty wing of my heart, it will always be thus


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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My late-afternoon trek resumes after I stop for gasoline and a quick snack at just another roadside convenience store. I hold in my hand a Baby Ruth candy bar, something I haven’t eaten for years, something that syphons memories from the cloudy recesses of my dormant childhood. The flexible metallic packaging is quickly separated from the delicacy.

Munching my fond memories, I glance to the right and see this stunning apparition passing me by. It’s an old house.

This old house is just sitting here in the dusk by the side of the blue road I am driving on, somewhere in the Gothic reaches of rural Alabama.

The sun and mellowed-red skies are behind the house, and the streaked clouds glow, casting the front of the house into shadows that aren’t quite ebony, not quite gray, not yet blackened.

I pass by, but it’s too late to ignore the image implanted within me.

The old house sitting in the dusk looks abandoned but sturdy, a place you could still move into and live a life in if you chose, but it looks like nobody has been there for some time.

The caramel and peanuts feel right at home in my mouth, and I wonder how many Baby Ruths I craved when young so many years ago.

The windows have no glow to them, as if lights and lanterns have not been turned on inside for years.

Houses like this are always branded Haunted by my generation and my parents’ generation. Some folks are scared to go into houses that are old and not quite stylish, afraid they’ll run into things that a well-lighted carpeted air-conditioned suburban home couldn’t possibly contain, things like ghosts and spirits and nesting animals and crawly critters.

The candy’s sweetness sticks familiarly between my teeth, but I know it will slowly melt and absorb and disappear.

There is something different about this house, though.

It just sits here empty but ready for occupancy. It is not run down and abused as those feared old houses of yore were. Nobody has vandalized it or marked it for desolation.

Nobody wants this old house right this instant.

My first thought in seeing this old structure is, “Boy, I’ll bet there are some really interesting ghosts in that place!” But something nudges at me, pushes me one notch further.

This is a house so lonely that it would gladly welcome ghosts. This house was once a Home.

This is a house so forlorn that even the ghosts have moved out, gone on to other hauntings.

Both life and death have been sucked out of the old wooden floors and plaster walls of this old house.

Now it just sits in a time zone all its own, and it is just a matter of time before either curious humans or curious haints take a second look and try to decide whether this elegant corpse is ready for reanimation, or whether it is now so much a part of nature that it will just be dismissed from memory and left to the winds and the rains and the scorching days and the humid nights.

Until it looks once more like part of the red clay earth from which it springs.

Until it and my Baby Ruth wrapper fade away and survive solely as some weary traveller’s long ago idea of what the world once was, what it is now, what it may or may not become

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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What was I thinking? How could I be so half-a-century selfish? And how many great teachers the world wide have been ignored in the same manner?

I could have thanked her, you know.

I could have thanked Helen Hisey for being one of the best teachers in my known universe. I could have shown up one day at the retirement home and said, “Mrs. Hisey, thanks, thanks, thanks for making my life so bearable.” And I would really have meant it, too. Helen Hisey made me take a right-angle turn and sent me on my way down the long long road to this moment, the moment in which I feel comfortable enough to write down this little thought.

I’m standing in front of a classroom full of eighth grade students, students who are required to sit quietly and pay attention to me, the fellow eighth grader standing before them.

I’m making my first speech in Helen Hisey’s speech class at Tuscaloosa Junior High School in 1954.

I have nervously prepared for this moment, going over my three-by-five lined stiff note cards until I have them memorized…only I’m so nervous that I can’t get up enough confidence to depend upon memory, so, for lack of anything else to look at besides students, I stare down at the note cards and try to give a speech, utilizing all those rules that good speechmakers are supposed to follow: make good eye contact with the audience (not furtive glances, which is what I am producing), speak loudly (I’m projecting ok, since I was born with this Voice), be convincing (I’m convinced I’m going to expire prior to taking my seat), make appropriate gestures (I’m sure my hands are flailing about, if not in time with my spoken emphases), and be passionate about my subject (I am, I am…only I’m afraid to show it before an audience.).

Helen Hisey’s wonderfully warm and slightly nasal non-southern voice gently interrupts my speech, “James, try slowing down a bit,” is what she says, but what she manages to mean is, “James, you’re doing fine, and I’m enjoying this so much that I would really like to see you enjoying it, too…so relax and tell me a good story.”

I KNOW that’s what she means, and that’s what makes her a great teacher. Helen Hisey never makes you think she doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and her kindly, business-like manner reinforces this idea.

From that moment on, I do fine in Mrs. Hisey’s class, because, like every other student, I just know she is in my corner.

Later that year, she inspires me to write my first short story, entitled “The Fool,” and from then on, I am hooked on writing and telling stories to anyone who will listen or read. Subsequent teachers seldom encourage my writing, save for high school instructors Campbell and Williams, so there are years of gaps, years when I write lots of words for other people—my bosses—but seldom write what I NEED to say.

There are times I feel perhaps nothing I have ever written is worthy—did Mrs. Hisey tell me my story was good just to encourage me and fortify my self esteem?

I learn the answer to that question years later, when it is revealed that Helen Hisey had kept my story, “The Fool,” and read it aloud to every class for many years, using it as an example of a good tale well told by a writer willing to slow down and enjoy the ride.

When my first “respectable publishing house” book is released 45 years after Mrs. Hisey’s eighth grade speech class, it contains a dedication to her on the first page. When I call to arrange to present her with a signed copy of the book, ready to tell her how much she has affected my life, I learn that she has died. My dedication and devotion are a little too late.

What would Helen Hisey have said about THAT?

I can hear her clear voice, “James, you never had to thank me. Watching you emerge was the greatest thanks. Don’t you know that’s what good teaching is all about?”

Whenever I speak to gatherings of five or five hundred, I never have a moment of fear. Because of Helen Hisey, I’ve learned to slow down and enjoy the ride. Like her, I have learned that if you are enjoying the ride, and if you show your audience that you are enjoying the ride, they, too, will enjoy it.

Doesn’t matter what your subject is, the audience is there waiting to be taken away to a world full of good teachers who only want their students to emerge as good and happy grownups

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Some time ago…

Or was it once upon a time ago…

Uh, what about once upon a time or two?

Anyhow, way back when—which may only have been yesterday—I had the sudden impression that ‘most everybody I encounter is shaped funny in one way or another.

People are shaped funny. Why was I just then realizing that?

If the world is peopled with oddly-shaped people, why do I view them as being, well, oddly-shaped? Wouldn’t this mean that oddly-shaped is normal and that therefore the term “oddly-shaped” has no meaning at all?

So, the world is peopled with normal-shaped people.

This must also mean that people who have “perfect” countenances—leading actors and athletes and models, for instance—are the odd ones. They are the shapeshifters who don’t fit the mold of “odd.”

Hmm, if most of us are in the randomly odd category, why do we still compare each other to a handful of perfectly shipshape people? “Well, I don’t see what you see in her looks…her forehead is too high.” “I don’t think he’s so good-looking–his arms are short.” “How can he play that part when he’s only 5′ 8″ and his character is 6’7″?” “She’s not so hot—look at that birthmark.”

And so on.

Seems like we spend much of our time trying to make idiosyncrasy look bad, despite the fact that most of us ain’t so  hot ourselves. Maybe we’re trying to level everybody out, uglifying the beautiful and beautifying the misshapen.

This doesn’t get us anywhere at all. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Once this idea took hold in my daily life, I began the exercise of making the bodies of others disappear for a time, so that I can explore and observe who they really are. What joy may lie beneath.

That includes me. I don’t look in the mirror to see myself anymore. The horror. I focus on whether I feel like a kind and helpful person. If I feel like this today, then my shape means nothing. Today, I can feel Gregory Pecky. Tomorrow I can be Pee Wee Hermanesque. Next day I become Roy Rogersy, then Gandhiful, then Denzel Washingtonian.

Or I can just be me, eschewing the transmogrified self-imaging and focusing on the decency lying dormant and waiting to be accessed.

I can look for Teddy’s joy.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Avast, ye thief.

Bring forth the joy


(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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The short-haired middle-aged dog trots—shall I say doggedly?—right alongside my advancing automobile. For a moment we are progressing at the same speed, but my metal monster wins the race and leaves Mr. Mutt behind.

In the rearview glass I can see him diminished but unwavering in his journey.

He is focused and quite unaware of me and my vehicle. He is on a quest.

All I can think is, Just how does a dog with a mission wind up? Where is it that a dog has to go?

Like a white rabbit, is he late and flustered?

Do dogs have appointments?

How will he know when he has completed his trek?

What stories will he tell his pups when he returns?

And what if he is wondering the same things about me and my species?

And will we ever communicate with one another on a level playing field? Are we destined to be Us and Them, Alien and Other?

Can we co-exist and simply get off each others’ cases and just live out our lives on a beautiful but damaged planet?

Scientists know that there are bunches of planets nearby that could be as sustainable as ours. If there are sentient beings scattered about the galaxy, are they better than us? More vicious than us? Do they even care whether they ever meet us?

Do they have appointments and pups? Do they get along?

Or are they, like us, trapped within their own domains, faced with trying to find a way to live out their time with the least pain and most caring they can muster?

Or are they, are We, just figments in a cosmos that, like Mr. Mutt, is not even aware that we suspire?

Maybe we will always be able to view afar, imagine afar, dream dreamy dreams of what could be, always planted in our fertile imaginations…but forever separated and forbidden by physics from visiting one another.

And maybe, just maybe, we will someday learn to be satisfied with this idea.

Maybe someday we will decide, To heck with it—let’s just take care of each other, let’s just behave, let’s just enjoy the ride, with or without the metal monsters

(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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I enjoy laughing or chuckling or tittering or giggling or smiling.

Laughter provides evidence to myself that I am IN HERE…that I am conscious, attentive, engaged. Having a good laugh makes me feel a moment of optimism, a sense that I am more than a mere wandering, directionless soul.

When I go through the day unaware of my frown, my grimace, my tight gait, my tense composure, I arrive home doubly tired, stripped of creativity and joy.

Writing and performing and laughing force me to arise from myself and actually feel things. What can I do to help my audience or reader experience the same awakening that’s going on inside me?

I try different approaches. My stories dig a little, hopefully making you stop, look, listen, absorb the sheer pleasure of life.

What is it that’s going on that you don’t see but that you might find interesting or lovely if I could only find the words to spark you up?

What are the wisdoms you and I know deep down inside but suppress? Why do we wait for a poet or charismatic leader to show us what we already harbor?  Are you and I simply too timid, too unsure to explore ourselves?

Here’s an entry from my Red Clay Diary, rediscovered this morning and re-learned:

My clouded vision only becomes clear and precise when I spy the beauty of a chipped teacup, the history within a torn page, the telltale signs of life represented by a bent fork, the singular individualism of an ink smear.

Everywhere I look among the lockstep rows of identical doughnuts identical cutlery identical automobiles identical lampshades…everywhere I look, I look hard for the uniqueness of a tattered book binding, a leaning chair, an untucked shirttail, a crooked tooth, a skewed lope, a rusty spoke.

Everywhere I look I see the beauty of flaws…the flaws that remind me of the wonderful and mysterious imperfection of life.

I remember yesterday like it was yesterday.

Outside the shop, I see one man wrestling with a black/green umbrella in the wind. He finally gives up & walks with it by his side in the drenching rain.

Will he sing?

Will he laugh?

Will he awaken?

Or shall I simply report him to you and allow you to decide whether to smile


(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Sometimes I ply my trade.

Sometimes I plod my trade.

The repetitive and redundant activities of daily living sometimes gang up on me and, even in the best of times, weigh me down and make me introspect my life, examine my routines, long for a refresher course in how to remain excited and engaged in what I do all the live long day.

Mary Pipher once said, “Most of the unhappiness in the world is caused by people who are 90 percent happy, going for the last 10 percent.”

Maybe that’s a quote I should place before me as I go about the rote treadmill.

If I’m so happy, why am I not happy? At times.

I’ll be keynoting an address to a gathering of Writers Anonymous scribes on Saturday morning, and this subject could resonate with attendees, since our very presence at the meeting will indicate that we’re still in the game, searching for the breadcrumbs leading out of the forever maze.

The primary questions I invite anyone—including yours mostly truly—to entertain are these:

What good am I? Am I contributing to the texture and richness so badly needed in the world? Am I using my art to advance goodness, mercy and kindness, or am I merely feeding my needy ego?

What good am I as a writer and bookdealer? What good am I as a husband and father and neighbor and kinsman and friend and helper? What will my writing mean to this and future generations? Am I just taking up space while eking out the days?

What still excites me about life, is learning how can I pass this excitement on to my readers, my customers, my daily fellow travellers.

Why write if no-one reads? Why write if my work does not enhance and make better the lives yearning to find hope and meaning?

What good am I?

What good is my work?

If I can cause you to react to my work, if I can engender laughter or concern or inspiration in you, does this count as evidence that I matter? That my work is useful to you?

This is a great burden to place upon you—the burden of making me feel that I matter.

But if I can take the time to notice you, to notice that you matter whether you know it or not, then maybe I can find some semblance of meaning in my plying and plodding.

Maybe I can tell myself that, well, maybe I do matter after all


(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Almost every job in the world is a job I would not voluntarily do.

For instance, I have no interest in being a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a sanitation worker, a welder, a letter carrier, a plumber, a pest controller, a dog catcher, a bank clerk, a server, a janitor, a mechanic…and so on and so forth.

Ironically, I admire and secretly envy the professionals who do these and a million other jobs. Correction: I admire and envy those who do these jobs with dedication and zeal and skill, manners and good attitudes and smiles. I study them, interview them, write about them, converse with them…and I always learn something I did not previously know. Being in their presence is as pleasant as getting out of a grammar school classroom routine and taking a field trip.

I miss field trips.

Meeting and observing these professionals, honoring them, even immortalizing them, is a special avocation.

And the one thing I truly believe is, these special people are never respected enough, never reimbursed or recognized enough. Like parents and priests and caregivers and healers, they are taken for granted.

I at least fantasize about doing their jobs, at least in another life.

I can’t help imagining how difficult it must be to deliver newspapers at four in the morning on a dangerous, stormy day, how hard it might be to work a twelve-hour shift in an under-staffed emergency room, how demoralizing it is to be a prison guard or a process server or a repairer of sewers.

These professionals and a thousand more have my respect and awe. How they manage to keep a good attitude, stay the course, complete their assignments is a source of inspiration.

I’m also protective of my own profession, and I appreciate it when someone recognizes my work, be it as bookshop proprietor or entertainer or author or good listener. I hope I ply my trade with as much zeal as the best of all those other workers who (to paraphrase Herodotus) allow neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night to stay them from the completion of their appointed rounds.

Life can be hard, work can be hard, even play can be hard.

But those who manage to maintain composure and positive attitude and calmness in the throes of chaos…they are priceless and precious and at least deserving of a kindly nod or an appreciative smile now and then


(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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