The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

My Grandfather's Clock

Some of my earliest memories in life are of family functions in the home of my grandparents, Louis and Gladys Hassell. They lived in the Oak Forest area of Houston on Gardenia Street. They bought the house and moved there early in 1949. It was in June of that year – on my mom’s birthday – that they planted the grass much to the dismay of my mom. This was certainly no way to spend a birthday. My mother and her sister were raised in that house and my grandparents lived there until my grandmother died in March of 2004, one day before the eleventh anniversary of my grandfather’s passing.

There were many family Christmases that took place in that house. Easters, Thanksgiving dinners, birthdays, and many other celebrations filled the house with laughter and joy over the decades, but Christmas was always my favorite. Their house became the center of our family it seemed, because while not every holiday or event took place there, we certainly gathered there more than any other place partially due to the fact that the rest of us moved to different houses from time to time, but mostly I think it was because that was just where we all gravitated to. That house was literally and figuratively the center of our ever expanding extended family.

Microwave Oven Where it Should Be

There is a microwave oven in my bathroom. "Why is there a microwave oven in his bathroom?" is the question that I would assume most of you are asking yourselves right about now. The question that I ask myself when I walk past this appliance of modern convenience is "I wonder why it took me 50 years to realize I need a microwave oven in my bathroom."
There is so much I have learned in my 50 years of life. Being a fan of the game of golf, I think I'll start referring to the first 50 years of my life as "The Front Nine." This is neither original nor unique to me, but I like the sound of it so I shall adopt it as my own. This also assumes that I will live to be 100. In some ways I hope I do. I yearn to see what the next 50 years will bring to modern science, art, technology, and entertainment, just to name a few things that will undergo major transformations. On the other hand, I dread to see what will happen in these and other areas of our everyday lives.

And then there's the fact that I may not be in the best of conditions when I reach 100, if I'm still alive that is. I don't want to be a burden to anyone. I don't want to be scared because I can't remember where I parked my car, or where I live, or my own name. Living to be 100 seems to me to be a double edged sword… either a blessing or a curse. I guess I'll have to wait and see which it is for me, if I ever get there.

But anyway, back to the front nine. I've always told Rebecca that I may or may not be smarter than she is… she really is pretty smart in her own right. I've also told her that I have one thing that she doesn't have and cannot argue with, and that is 28 years more experience than she has. I've seen some incredible things in my life. I've been burned by people I thought were friends, and I've felt love from people I thought had forgotten me, either by will or by time. And I couldn't help but learn a few things along the way.

I learned pretty early not to stick my hand in the fire. That one was easy. It only took once for that lesson to sink into wherever things need to sink to so as not to ever be forgotten. I learned that gravity can hurt. That one probably took a little longer to learn. I know now that crawling across rough concrete with bare knees is not the wisest of things to do with my spare time, but I have moving pictures of a very young me doing that very thing, and not having too much concern about it at the time. I cringe and everyone else in the room groans every time we have "Home Movie Night" and we all see firsthand how I was not to be stopped by such trivial matters as rough concrete against bare knees. I was, after all, a toddler with places to go.

I know that just because something is on regular television doesn't mean that it's good for you. I used to watch Benny Hill's show on public television when I was a kid. That could be pretty racy at times, but nothing like the so-called reality we see on the tube these days. I used to think that if it was really all that bad, it would only be shown on cable or at a movie theater. Maybe it was that way once upon a time, but not today.

Yes, I've learned much in my time on the front nine. Some things I wish I didn't know. You know, the kinds of things that make people cynical or untrusting. I wish I didn't know firsthand how people who profess their love for you can turn around and hurt you and not seem to care. I have to admit that I have done that too, long ago, when I was a lot younger. I guess it's karma. I'm guilty and so I had it coming to me. I don't know, but that makes as much sense as any other reason, I guess.

I'm sure that as technology continues to advance at an ever increasingly alarming rate, there will be wonderful things to experience. I'm almost positive that someday in the not too distant future, we will be able to dine out or go on weeklong vacations without having to leave the comfort of our homes, and while such advances sound exciting and wonderful, they also sound horrible and even boring. Sometimes I feel that all these modern conveniences that we have grown so accustomed to have made us all weak and lazy. I dunno. Maybe I'm just getting a head start on the mindless babbling that I'm sure will take up most of my old age.

But here is one thing I know for sure… I will always have a microwave oven in my bathroom from now on. And why? Because I discovered the art of shaving with a shaving mug, soap, and brush many years ago when I was in the Air Force. The easy way for a guy to shave is to use foam out of a can. One can certainly get a decent enough shave that way. I started using hot tap water to create a warm lather with my shaving brush and mug. Then one day I thought about making the water hotter so I heated some water on the stove to use to create an even hotter lather, and that was better. Then I started using the microwave oven to heat water to the boiling point quickly and use that to shave. The natural progression of the thought process is a wonderful thing to behold, isn't it?

So now I need my microwave oven right there where it should be… in the bathroom. And it only took me 50 years or so to figure that out.

Necessity? Convenience? OCD? I'll leave it up to you to decide.

Christmas Ruined

Christmas was coming and as always when I was nine years old, Christmas couldn’t get here fast enough. That was years before I would feel any kind of stress from a rapidly approaching Christmas for which I was ill prepared. As someone who believed that he had become an adult and was therefore somewhat responsible, I began to feel that pressure in my twenties. Sometimes I would start feeling the dread of the upcoming Christmas as early as December 26th.

Man, that’s just wrong.
Most of the time these days though, I tend to barely suffer most of what our society has to offer beginning just after Halloween and all the way through the day itself; the commercialization of the season, black Friday, live nativities, to whose house are we are supposed to go and when and for how long, which new television specials I should contemplate and which to disregard, which parades will attract my attention, how many time I will watch “A Christmas Story” all the way through, or any other of the flotsam and jetsam that goes along with the temporal part of this sometimes maddening season.

I really do welcome the spiritual part of the season though. I enjoy my reflections on the true meaning of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. I like to read the account of the birth of the Son of Man from the second chapter of St Luke. I feel the peace on Earth and good will to men when I hear Christmas carols. I welcome the feelings of love towards my family, my friends, and the people in my life and from my past that have had a profound influence on who I have become.

And I have become patient over the years when it comes to those packages under the tree, the ones that right after the word “to:” have my name on them. It’s not as though I don’t care what’s in those packages, or have no regard for the time and effort it took someone to pick out and then carefully wrap the item in question. It’s just that I would rather wait until the appointed time to unveil what was meant to be a surprise.

I have known people, and probably still know people today, who simply just can’t wait. They find gift-wrapped present with their name on it and it gnaws at them, it keeps them awake at night, it consumes their lives because they have to know and they have to know NOW. Rational thought becomes scarce. After ensuring no one else is in the house, they will shake this package and listen carefully for any hint of telltale rattling or clinking from within to indicate the contents. If that doesn’t work, they might carefully take note of the shape, size, and weight distribution in order to determine what’s inside.

Then if that fails, there may be a series of actions that goes something like this: There will be a second survey of the house and this time phone calls may be made to confirm the whereabouts of anyone who might suddenly appear through the front or garage door. There will be a methodical studying of the wrapping itself in an attempt to determine the reverse order of the wrapping process. This will be done several times before a cautious finger is ever so carefully eased under a corner the scotch tape. After taking a deep breath, the finger is painstakingly slid the length of the tape with surgeon-like precision in an attempt to separate one flap of delicate wrapping paper from another. As the anticipation grows, another look over the shoulder and a few moments of motionless silence is observed. Once satisfied that the coast is indeed clear, a slow and deliberate lifting of the newly liberated piece of wrapping paper reveals one end of a plain and nondescript brown box. A new strategy must now be formulated.

Meticulous removal of more tape will allow the plain and nondescript box to gradually slide through the opening in the fragile paper and out of the confines of its green and red prison to freedom. More tape is found on the box. More careful finger sliding and tape lifting is needed.

The treasure is finally ready to be revealed. The box is slowly opened and then it’s over. Just like that, it’s over. It is now known what is in store for the future. The surprise is over. No more anticipation. No more wondering. No more guessing. No more trying to catch the giver of the gift off guard and trick him or her into letting the cat out of the bag. It’s known and it can never be unknown again.

And now comes the cleanup. With crime scene attention to detail, there must be a careful retaping of the box, a cautious sliding of the box back in through the opening in the wrapping paper while fearing with every millimeter that one corner of the box will catch and rip the wrapping paper, a deliberate refolding of the paper and then trying to make sure that the tape is reapplied to the exact same position, and finally a placing of the package back under the tree so as not to alert anyone that any gift tampering has taken place. There may or may not be feelings of guilt or shame. There may or may not be sleepless nights worried that a reused piece of tape has lost its adhesiveness and is slowly coming undone. There may or may not be numerous hours spent in front of mirrors practicing reactions of shock and surprise for when the package is officially opened in front of family and/or friends.

Man, I’m exhausted. I need a nap and I need it right now. I personally have never done this so I can’t really imagine how someone who actually performs this procedure would feel afterwards. I’m not judging here. I know that every person makes decisions and has to live with the consequences of those decisions. I know that my way of doing things doesn’t have to be anyone else’s way. It’s just not my thing to let curiosity drive me to do such things as described above, and for me it is a rare thing that I know exactly why I feel a certain way about something. For one, I’ve never been one to handle such intricate details without ultimately making a mess of things.

Mostly though, I remember vividly how I felt when I was nine years old and Christmas was coming.

That was the year I campaigned unabashedly and without pretense for a chemistry set. I’m not really sure where such a desire originated, but I remember that I had to have one, probably to keep up with the Jones’ so to speak. It’s possible that one of my good pals, Randy or Barry or Payson, had one and so ownership of one would of course be required in order to remain in good standing in this circle of friends. I can’t remember. What I do remember however, is that I needed one as surely as my lungs needed air to breathe. Ralphie’s quest for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, range model air rifle was certainly pitiful in comparison. And “pitiful” may be one of the all time understatements in the history of mankind.

So I campaigned. I thought about hinting and quickly discarded such foolish thinking. Instead, I blatantly stated to anyone within earshot. I left catalogs lying around the house in conspicuous places opened to pages that proudly displayed pictures and descriptions of the kinds of kits in which I was interested. I did my best to convince Mom and Dad that a chemistry set was essential to my education and development, reciting the benefits of discovering compounds, mixtures, solutions, suspensions, and more. A world of possibilities would open up to me if only I were to know how to make plastic out of milk, a stink bomb, a smoke bomb, and colorful slime all while learning about the basics of elements, atoms, organic chemistry, electrochemistry, indicators, polymers, and much more. Subtlety would not do. This was no time to insinuate. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind what it was that I would be expecting come Christmas morning.

Now, in our house there on Sierra Madre in Austin, Texas, the family room was the center of activity. That’s where the television (yes, the ONE television) was. It’s where the sofa and reclining rocking chair and fireplace was. A few feet behind the sofa there was a window to the kitchen, a pass-through of sorts. The sofa faced the wall with the television of course, and on that wall to the right of the television was a door. The door opened into a small room off the family room and when opened fully, it was against the wall on the right that separated that room from the garage.

Sometimes that small room was a guest room. Sometimes it seemed to be Mom’s sewing room, though I think she did most of the actual sewing at either of the kitchen or formal dining room tables. It was more like her sewing gear storage room, full of materials and buttons and spools of thread that would someday become serviceable garments for her family. Sometimes the room appeared to be an office. I seem to recall that a desk might have been in there. Not really sure. I do remember that I often had occasion to go into that room for a variety of reasons. Mom might send me in there to grab something for her. Maybe one of my Hot Wheels cars accidentally rolled in there and I had to retrieve it with my Hot Wheels wrecker service. Maybe I was looking for a pencil with which to do homework, but that actually seems unlikely and perhaps a little farfetched upon further reflection.

One day as I went in to that little room for some reason I caught a glimpse of something behind the door. Now, I understand that most people who know me at all will think that I am being sarcastic and even dishonest when I say that I really wasn’t looking for Christmas presents. I must ask for a little faith and trust here. It’s not that I didn’t ever look for hiding places; this just wasn’t one of those times. Whatever I went into that room looking for was in no way connected to Christmas and was immediately forgotten when I spotted that shiny, unwrapped, white metal box hidden behind the door to that little room. I stood there frozen for what seemed like until the next Christmas, not exactly sure what I should do. Dad was at work and I could hear Mom in another part of the house doing some kind of mom-type thing. My little sisters weren’t a real concern either because even if they saw me they were too young to understand the implications of my actions.

I eased the door towards the closed position just enough to get a clear look at that box, and there it was. My chemistry set. It looked like a real cool one too. I remember the excitement I felt oh so clearly. I also remember that this happiness lasted somewhere around a second and a half. What took the place of joy and elation came as a surprise to me, and there were several emotions that came over me. One was guilt, but this was somewhat minor because I hadn’t actively sought out this hiding spot. One was fear that I might either inadvertently let it slip in casual conversation that I had discovered my present or that I might not be able to pull off the surprised reaction when I opened this gift and thereby ruin Christmas for everyone. I was able to easily discard this feeling also, but I would have to be careful.

The feelings that were the strongest were sadness, regret, and disappointment, and not for the reasons you might be thinking. It wasn’t the wrong gift. It wasn’t too small. It wasn’t a different kit that the one I wanted. I was very pleased and most appreciative of what I was to receive. I was sad and disappointed because I had indeed ruined Christmas. Not for everyone else, not even for anyone else, but for me. I had ruined the surprise. No one knew it but me, but I knew. I hadn’t initially done it on purpose, but when I saw that white shiny box I did peek behind the door to get a better look. I was disappointed in myself and I couldn’t truly grasp that concept at such a tender age.

I knew some form of disappointment, sure. I could become crestfallen and sullen when I didn’t get my way. Mom and Dad had been forced to deny many of my requests in the past such as wanting to bring home stray dogs, numerous attempts to spend nights at a friend’s house when we had school the next day, having my own car, or airplane … things like that. But this was the first time I can remember being disappointed in myself for my own actions. I’m sure it happened before that day, but this time it was profound. I hadn’t yet been exposed to much of the ugliness that the world is capable of showing to us so this made a real and lasting impression on me.

I was still learning much of the differences between right and wrong, but I knew perhaps instinctively that this was wrong. The fact that it was accidental didn’t really matter and was of little comfort because the bottom line of the situation was that I had discovered what I was getting for Christmas that year. Sure, it was cool that I was getting it, but I wasn’t supposed to know. This destroyed all anticipation for Christmas morning. I remember almost dreading its arrival. I wanted to forget what I saw, but of course that was impossible. It was done, it couldn’t be undone, and I was sad and disappointed, and I was sorry for what had happened but who could I really apologize to?

I also remember thinking of Mom and Dad and how excited they would be as I opened this awesome present. They should see amazement on my face and I was so scared that my reaction would betray what I knew in my heart… that I had cheated. I broke the rules. This was one of my earliest memories of actually thinking of someone else’s feelings instead of my own. Man, I was heartbroken, and this time it was me that had broken my own heart.

Christmas morning came as scheduled and I opened my presents and was truly happy and joyful when I opened that package that contained the chemistry set. It was the “big” present for me that year. And while the happiness and joy were real, I had to feign surprise. Maybe I pulled it off, maybe not. Even if I was transparent in my attempt to fake surprise, I doubt that anyone who was there that Christmas morning 40 years ago will remember anything that explicitly stood out about the incident. It’s probably no more than a very minor footnote from a Christmas long ago for everyone else, if even that.

For me though, it was a life altering accident and then error in judgment.

These days, Sheri will on occasion let me know that she has some kind of surprise for me. I do the same for her. It’s fun to surprise someone you love, especially if it’s a good surprise. I finally grew out of the kinds of surprises that involve such things as jumping out from behind doors. Those aren’t the good kinds of surprises. The kinds I’m referring to involve happiness, smiles, hugs, and maybe tears of joy. Over the years though, it’s become a fun game for me to try to get the secret out of her and the first few times we engaged in such a battle of wills she gave in too easily. I was disappointed all over again when that happened.

I think she knows now that it’s more the challenge of breaking her than it is actually discovering what she’s trying to keep from me. It’s a game. The real fun is watching her get frustrated at my attempts to trick her into revealing too much. I think she really knows how I feel and will sometimes spill the beans on purpose me just to teach me a lesson. Maybe it’s too dangerous a game to play even if the ultimate outcome may seem insignificant.

I truly do not want to know now what is meant to be a future surprise. I don’t even want hints. I love pleasant surprises and I will wait patiently until I am told I can uncover my eyes and look upon what someone has put much thought into. I prefer to not know the gift of a surprise that someone has taken the time and energy to create for me. I will be patient. I will not try to find out until you are ready for me to find out.

I’ll just wait, and then we can enjoy the moment together.