Then and Now

A few weeks ago, I awoke to sea breezes and sunny skies. Amy and I spent the afternoon on the beaches in Clearwater. By the end of they day, my skin was the color of a crab, even though my butt was planted securely in a chair under a beach umbrella. The entire time we spent in Florida, the temperatures hovered around the eighty degree mark.

Another morning I woke up at home around 8:00 a.m. and looked out on gray skies. My feet shuffled to the kitchen, and there I made a pot of coffee. My next chore fetching paper, and when I opened the door, wet, thick snow flakes greeted me. By the time I returned, my hair was wet and my shoulders carried snow back into the house. The weather hasn’t been unusual for good ‘ol East Tennessee, but it sure seems brutal after a week in the sunshine state.

At the end of 2010, gas prices were tolerable. Most places charged $2.50-$3.00 per gallon. We’d adjusted our budget to cover the cost. I kept thinking about my teen yeas and how fuel ran about thirty cents a gallon, except when gas wars between stations sent prices plummeting to as little as a quarter. Yes, in the “old days,” a guy could put gas in his car, take his date to a movie, and buy her something to eat with a five dollar bill.

The future looks as bleak as a winter’s day, and before long a fiver will buy one, yes ONE, gallon of gas. Amy and I will make it somehow. My worries are for my kids and my country. Paying such a high price wouldn’t be so painful if our leaders had made significant strides in developing alternative source of energy. The truth is they forgot about doing so when the last round of spiking prices eased. And don’t tell me the reason is because of Libya’s unrest when the country supplies only two percent of our fuel. Prices that shoot into orbit like spaceships occur overnight. Americans are smart enough to see that speculators are raping and pillaging the country and its citizens as they cause oil to rise.

In 2008 I called it quits after thirty years of teaching. When I left, kids were still kids; they became pains only when interfering helicopter moms and dads disturbed the glassy waters with waves of absurd demands. My reason for leaving the profession had more to do with my no longer being able to relate to teens than it did with time of service.

Now, the state politicians have villanized teachers and education. They aim to take away the rights of teachers and to put their fates in the hands of an elected school board that many times has no understanding of what goes on in classrooms. They want to take collective bargaining rights and replace them with the decisions of politically motivated board members and their whims or vendettas.
Only a few years ago, the US had two major political parties. Democrats and Republicans ran for office based on philosophical difference. Voters could listen to platforms by both and then decide which one best suited their views. Elections were held, and one side or the other won control of Congress. Disagreement was a part of the day-to-day operations of the government, but when the country faced real turmoil or threats, the elephants and donkeys banded together and put the United States first.

These days, politics has little to do with directing the country toward prosperity. Instead, both parties have adopted partisan views and express no desire to work for the common good. A new bunch, the Tea Party, has arrived with a dangerous extremism. These people seem intent upon crumbling the government. Their desire to end government spending and cut entitlements makes great rhetoric and produces sound-bites for the media. However, what supporters of this faction don’t seem to comprehend is that cutting government means cutting services. Are they willing to give up roads and schools and grants to favorite organizations? Will these people be so quick to scream for a cut in entitlements when their social security and Medicare payments are severely reduced or ended? I don’t think so.

What used to be sure looks a lot better than what is. That sounds like something an old fart would say; maybe that’s an accurate description. I’m more inclined to think that a few years ago common sense and common decency had a much greater hold in all areas of life. About the best we can hope for is that the extremism from all sides gets fifteen minutes of fame and then recedes into the deep, dark waters from which it came. That way, life might just be a bit easier to live.

The Panera Bread Personal Office

I sat in a Panera Bread Store in Tampa not long ago. Amy was completing some last-minute cramming before a test on material she’d covered in a class. I got to tag along to enjoy sunny weather and warm temperatures for a few days. As the saying goes, if you’ve been in one Panera, you’ve been in them all.

All booths are filled first on any given day. People must like the coziness of the enclosure, as well as the padded seats. By and large, most of the booths are taken by people who are interested in talking. In Tampa, one man rattled on about a baseball camp. For a second I thought he might be someone affiliated with the teams in town for spring training since he spouted out statistics about one pitcher. In the next couple of sentences, he ratted himself out. This guy would be coaching a little league team in some recreational league. He was going to a mandatory camp that certifies coaches as qualified leaders of youth teams. I should have known it; all dads think of T-ball as if it were the stepping stone to a major league contract.

In an adjacent booth two more men carried on another conversation. Better said, one man yakked while the other listened. The talker went on incessantly as he prated about every area of his personal life. His voice whined about the struggles he encountered, and the man sounded as if he were the only person who’d ever had such a rough time of it. I assumed his worries didn’t include money since he was eating food and drinking coffee that is over-priced and not all that tasty. After a while, Amy asked if we could move outside. The yammering interfered with her studying.

Tables in the business are usually filled with those who are working. Groups of men in coats and ties and women in dresses and heels pull tables together and begin sales meetings. At smaller tables, one-on-one meetings between managers and employees drag on. At a couple job interviews are being held, and individuals in search of a job nervously answer questions while keeping their voices low enough to prevent others in close proximity from hearing. Some tables are occupied by singles. It’s fascinating to watch them enter and begin the search for a table close to an electrical outlet. After territories are staked and plugs are inserted, these folks sidle up to the counter to place orders. For the next few hours, they nurse cups of coffee and complete a day’s worth of work. All are smart business people for they’ve found offices that cost $1.79 plus tax (cup of coffee) each day in rent.

Another common ground for Panera stores deals with restrooms. Upon entering any of them, the mingling odors of urine and methane gas attack. Urinals are half-filled and in some stalls patrons have left creations for which they are so proud that flushing them away in unthinkable. Workers in charge of cleaning the facilities are derelict in their duties, but even when they are attentive, the smell indicates that floors have been swabbed with soured mops. The best way for customers to approach a restroom is to take a deep breath before entering, hurry through their business, and exit before passing out from the lack of oxygen.

I, too, am guilty of using Panera as a meeting place. On occasion, I’ve met individual for story interviews there. Usually during afternoons I meet with them for no more than forty-five minutes. That’s usually all it takes. Some people who are there when I arrive appear to have staked their claims to tables and booths since early morning. I much prefer to complete my business and move on to something else. My office at home is more comfortable than Panera, and it’s much quieter. The only distraction is letting the dog out a couple of times. I appreciate Panera and the service it provides; however, clean restrooms would do wonders for the business’ image. Maybe a sign might be placed that cautions talkers to maintain low voices so as not to annoy others.

Sittin' and Thinkin'

Things have slowed in my work. The paper doesn’t want what I’m writing so much these days. New blood joined the staff, and my role has been cut in half. I hate the pay cut but suppose the other end of it is nice. More time is freed up for me to do stuff that I enjoy. Among those activities are reading, writing, and playing golf. Much of it is spent in what I call “sittin’ and thinkin’.”
The best sittin’ and thinkin’ is done in my office. My butt is plunked down in the office chair and for hours the wheels of my mind squeak as they turn around first one subject and then another. Breaks from the mental work occur when Snoop needs to go outside to chase a squirrel of to relieve himself or when I need to take a trip to the bathroom or get a drink or something to eat. I look up, and the day has disappeared. Sometimes the only way I know the time is when the sun streams through window and floods my desk to the point that I can’t see the computer screen or the desktop.
Over the years, my thinking sessions have spawned column topics, new stories, and novel plots. Some of those threads led to good pieces; some have been a waste of time. The desk at which I work is a sewing desk that Mother used for years. It’s wide and long and has drawers on either side that hold notebooks, papers, and copies of things I’ve completed. I’ve probably produced a number of writings equal to the number of things the Mother sewed. Her creations were more utilitarian, and they might well have been more valuable.
Hundreds of thoughts about my family have poured out in this office. I’ve worried about Amy when she was sick or upset. Lacey was on my mind when she was pregnant with Madden, as well as when she was in school and when she married Nick. Dallas stays front and center many times as I fret over his well being in life and love. The top of this desk has served as a prop for my arm as it’s held my head when I’m worrying, wondering, crying, or praying.
In the last couple of weeks, the rights of teachers have come under assault by a political faction that wants to end collective bargaining. I think about what this means to teachers in the state. To be honest, it has little effect since negotiations have been the school board offering a pittance and the teacher representatives snapping it up and saying “than you for your kindness.” Tenure is also being targeted with the idea of changing probationary periods from three to five years. I think that whether or not a person is a good teacher is discoverable in three years. The added two are just so school boards can throw their overly-inflated views of themselves around. In all of this, one side gets the good while teachers are again relegated to second class status in the work place.
I’m also concerned about the state’s attempt to limit the amount awarded for personal injury in negligence cases. A maximum of $750,000 is being proposed for injury or death. I’ve thought about that but can’t understand how person’s serious injuries or death at the hands of some a business owner’s or corporation’s being negligent can be worth so little. It sounds as if the rich guys have decided to put a price on human life and health as if they were a product they’ve developed.
Not all my sittin’ and thinkin’ is so serious. I’m wondering what happened to a UT basketball team that was supposed to have so much potential. The coaching was there, but the desire of players sure seemed to be lacking. I’d like to know if the Braves will be a good ball team this year, and I “study,” as my dad used to stay, about what’s going to happen to this country if our financial mess doesn’t clear up. I’d also like to know if the Democrats and Republicans will ever care more about the country than about their power. Along the same lines, I am curious when the Tea Party’s fifteen minutes will be up. I hope it’s soon. I think extremism on the right of left is dangerous to the stability of the country.
Yep, sometimes when I have too much time, my sittin’ and thinkin’ slides me into a pool of funk. At other times, that pondering gets the juices flowing and makes life more enjoyable. The summer’s coming, and I can’t wait to do my sittin’ and thinkin’ on the front porch.