I am the worst person in the world about getting shots. My son is almost as bad as I am. We’d make terrible heroin addicts.
My wife and daughter are better. Why is it women are braver patients than men? Most women can give birth in the morning and plow the back forty in the afternoon. One woman in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood had a caesarean section by Saracen sword one day and stormed the castle the next. Of course, that was a movie.
My wife says she wasn’t good about getting shots when she was a child. One time the doctor came by the house to give her an injection, and she jumped around the bed to avoid the needle. He caught her mid-bounce in the buttocks. After that she calmed down. When my daughter got her first inoculation she looked at her arm and said, “Hmph, that hurt.”
My son, on the other hand, shuddered with tears welling in his eyes, pleading with the doctor not to stick him. And that was last week. He’s thirty-eight years old and a prison guard. Just kidding. He shuddered when he was eight. He takes it like a man now. He shudders on the inside, just like me.
Back in the 1950s, the schools gave polio shots regularly to elementary school students. You had no warning. There you were, sitting in the classroom just about ready to doze off, when the next thing you knew the teacher was herding you down the hall to your doom. The needles back then were huge and dull. I could swear that they had been using the same needles that they had used on soldiers in World War II, just to save money.
Of course, getting an inoculation is nothing like having blood drawn. From the time I first discovered the fact that doctors, on a regular basis, stuck dull needles in your veins to extract copious amount of blood, I lived in fear that one day I would have to undergo such torture. When it eventually happened, I had to be placed on a gurney and my mother hovered over my face as the nurse drew the blood. And I’ll never forget her kind words.
“You’re being a big baby over this and embarrassing me to death.”
Over the years I have not gotten much better. At least my wife has never told me I was a big baby nor acted like she was embarrassed when I almost passed out on the clinic floor. By the way, women faint and men pass out; at least that’s what my brother told me. He was a Marine so he should know.
Doctors actually have a name for the condition, and it is not cowardice. It’s Latin so I can’t remember it. When your nervous system thinks it’s losing volumes of its life-giving fluid, your blood pressure drops dramatically so the blood won’t flow out so fast. Not surprisingly, mostly men have it.
Just last year at the hospital a male nurse couldn’t find the vein. In another aside, I think women draw blood better than men. Call me a sexist. Anyway, by the time he had thumped both arms several times and finally stuck in the needle, I was light headed. They rushed me over to the emergency room because they thought I had a seizure. Nope. It was just manly nervous Nellie disease.
I have discovered if I keep babbling on about something inconsequential the attendant can draw the blood and get me out of the building before my blood pressure drops. Once I quoted “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I’m memorizing the Gettysburg Address for next time.
Gloria became distracted slicing the roast beef when Dave put his arms around her waist.
“Gee, Honey, that smells great,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck.
She concentrated on the knife going through the meat as Dave kissed her on the cheek.
“You’re going to make me cut myself,” she said, trying not to be curt.
“In that case I’ll sit down and be a good boy,” David replied as he plopped in the kitchen chair closest to her.
Gloria brushed strands of gray hair from of her brown eyes as she finished carving the roast. Looking around the table she saw the vegetables were in place. They glistened in the candlelight. Candles lit by her husband of thirty-five years. She studied them carefully before turning her attention to Dave. His dark hair was still closely cropped. His cheeks were full as always, and his wrinkled face was as fair as it ever was, almost pink. But something was not the same.
“Please sit down, dear,” Dave said. “I can’t enjoy this delicious meal until you join me.” As he smiled, the dimples in his cheeks deepened.
She took a chair across the table from him and began to fill her plate.
“There were a lot of people at your brother’s funeral today,” Gloria said slowly.
“Yes, Ben had a lot of friends.”
“I noticed you didn’t cry.”
Dave kept his head down. “You know me. I don’t show my emotions much.”
“Unlike Ben. I never knew anyone who wore his feelings on his sleeve like he did. No wonder he committed suicide.”
“Yeah, kind of a pansy, wasn’t he?”
“So different, the two of you, to be identical twins.” Her voice was aloof and soft.
“But I got the good-looking wife, and he didn’t.” Dave laughed. “Gosh, this roast beef is great.”
“Thanks.” Gloria folded her hands in her lap. “Poor Ben. He never married.”
“Like I said, he was a pansy.”
“No, that wasn’t it. I don’t think I ever told you this, but Ben proposed to me the same night as you did. I told him no. I said I loved you instead. He told me I’d regret marrying you. He said you were a cold-hearted son of a bitch who would make my life miserable.”
“Who cares what that pansy thought?”
She stood, picked up the carving knife, walked around the table and quickly put the knife to Dave’s throat. “How did you do it?”
He dropped his fork and gasped. “Do what?”
“But I’m Dave.”
“No, you’re not. You’re Ben.”
“That’s—that’s foolishness,” he mumbled. “You’ve always been a foolish woman,” he added, finding his voice. “I don’t know how I’ve put up with you all these years.”
“Dave said that a lot.”
“Of course, I did—and I still say you’re a foolish woman.”
“Every time Dave said that I noticed you always clinched your jaw and turned a little red. You hated your brother.”
“He was my brother, I didn’t hate him. I didn’t hate Ben. How could anyone hate Ben?”
“That’s right. Nobody hated Ben.” Gloria pushed the blade into his soft, wrinkled skin. “Now tell me the truth, or I’ll slice your throat.”
“All right. All right. I killed the son of a bitch. I hated him for the way he treated you. I wrote my own suicide note and killed him. No need for an autopsy when you got a suicide note written in the hand of the man they think is dead.”
“And you thought you could fool me?”
“No, I thought you’d like having a good husband after all those years with that son of a bitch.”
“Well, he may have been a son of a bitch,” Gloria said as she plunged the knife straight down between his shoulder and collar bone, “but he was my son of a bitch.”
My father’s idea of being cultured was to lift his leg downwind of company when he needed to pass gas.
My mother thought anyone who liked opera, ballet or Shakespeare was a pretentious snob.
So why I consider myself an esthete is really a mystery. An esthete, by the way, is a person who derives great pleasure from exposure to beautiful things, like art, music, theater, dance, literature and the list goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It just mean that I get the same stress relief from artistic stuff that many people get from watching sports or participating in sports.
I once heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say he got more pleasure out of lifting weight than from making love. And he was elected governor of California. Go figure.
All I got out of exercise was a lot of sweat, panting and an excruciating pain in my side. And I never did see any amazing results in my body either.
Now I always did get excited when Shakespeare was going to be performed on television. I remember a production of MacBeth with Maurice Evans (he was the condescending ape in Planet of the Apes) and Judith Anderson (she played the queen of the Vulcans in a Star Trek movie). It was filmed in Scotland. I didn’t understand half of what being said but I still liked it. Then there was Hamlet with Lawrence Harvey (he was the brainwashed guy in Manchurian Candidate). I understood a little more of the dialogue and liked it even better.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember why I even was allowed to watch those plays. If there had been a western on at the same time my father would have insisted on watching that instead. Maybe he had to work late or went to bed early. Anyway, I did get to see them and felt like windows had been opened to my soul. Come to think of it, my mother did refer to me as a little snob from time to time.
Opera eluded me for years, but I always liked ballet. A touring group came to our high school for an assembly program. Afterwards a football player said, “Hey, look at me, I’m a ballerina!” He took a few goofy-looking leaps but stopped and panted. “Hey,” he said in a moment of self-revelation. “That’s kinda hard.”
My mother-in-law didn’t approve of ballet because certain features of the male anatomy were too obviously on display. I always wondered how come she could ignore the beautiful music, the costumes, the sets and the graceful movements and just concentrate on that one thing. Dirty old broad.
As I said, opera took the longest for me to appreciate. I think part of it was that the singers belt out the songs like they have to be heard in the next county. When arias are lightly tossed out to waft on the breeze they become inspiring and lift the burdens of everyday life.
The same is true for symphonic music or chorale. I’m not that great of a singer but I have been lucky enough to sing a few times in large groups performing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. To be completely surrounded by such music takes me to another, better place.
I appreciate all forms of art, from the Old Masters to Jackson Pollack. Once I picked up my daughter from a birthday party at the home of a very successful lawyer. He was so successful he had a helicopter pad in the front yard in case he was needed in Miami or Nashville real fast. We were talking in the living room with my daughter’s friend, the birthday girl, when my eyes strayed to a wall where was hanging a small dark oil painting of something Polynesian. I squinted and thought I saw a very famous signature. I walked over and, sure enough, it was signed “Gaugin.” I turned to the girl, 13 or 14, and said respectfully, “May I touch it?”
She shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”
My daughter was, as usual, was mortified. My fingertips lightly ran across the surface, feeling the brushstrokes.
“Do you know what this is?” I said, continuing to act like a groupie backstage at a rock concert.
“I don’t know. Just something daddy picked up somewhere.”
“This is a Gaugin,” I said and proceeded to give a brief history of the French artist who palled around with Van Gogh and painted naked women in Tahiti. If anyone asked to touch a Gaugin in an art museum he would be escorted from the building and kicked down the stairs.
By this time my daughter realized her daddy wasn’t just being his usual goofy self and asked if she could touch it too. The girl thought we were nuts but let us stroke the little painting all we wanted.
So that’s why I’m an esthete. You don’t have to own the art. You don’t have to be able to create art. All you have to do is appreciate it and let it wash over you like the invigorating cold tide on a Florida beach.
I was so bad off when I was young I needed divine intervention to get married.
I met my wife in November 1970 at a banquet she had organized for an educational co-operative in Southwest Virginia. She was the public relations director and I was the area editor for the Kingsport, Tn., Times-News. The reporter who would have ordinarily been covering the event could not make it so I was there.
When we shook hands I noticed the black ribbon with a cameo brooch she wore around her neck. For some reason I thought she was older, married, maybe with kids. After all, she had organized this big banquet.
The next week the reporter said the girl from the educational co-op had told her to send that cute guy back anytime. I was a bit surprised. I thought anyone stupid enough to think I was cute might be stupid enough to go out with me.
She was. We went to movies, dinner, Ralph Nader lectures—you know, all the wild and crazy stuff kids do—until Christmas. She went to Pennsylvania with her folks for the holidays and I had a horrible dinner with another young woman and her family. Her teen-aged brother got her in a full nelson, held mistletoe over her head and rammed her at me, yelling, “Kiss her! Kiss her!”
I was ready for my public relations cutie to come home from Pennsylvania. Now she lived about thirty miles away from me over winding mountain roads. The drive was at least an hour. I figured it wasn’t worth the drive unless she was really interested, so I popped the question the first of February.
Actually, my exact words were, “If we got married, our kids would have beautiful brown hair.”
And they do.
By March I made the down payment on a little two-bedroom house and she started planning a July wedding. We watched the ads for furniture and appliances. Which ever one of us had just been paid bought whatever was on sale. I painted the inside of the house.
It was only after 20 or so years of marriage, three houses and loads of furniture and appliances later that I realized how foolish we had been. There we had only known each other three months and we were spending my money and her money like crazy. If we had decided the whole thing was a big mistake the middle of July, how would we have divided the whole mess up?
Also, after we got married, I found out that when we first shook hands that night in 1970, my wife heard a male voice over her left shoulder say, “Janet, this is the man you’re going to marry.”
This is where the divine intervention comes in. I was born Oct. 29. Janet was born the following Sept. 7. We have this theory God looked down and saw this pitiful little male child come into this world in Texas and wondered what woman in her right mind would want him?
So He looked around and found this couple in Virginia who had been married 11 years and never had a child. The woman had an inverted uterus and had given up hoping for a child. It would take a miracle. Instead it took a sledding accident. She went down a snowy hill, hit a log and flew off the sled and landed on her stomach. The impact flipped her uterus and nine months later my wife was born. The uterus flipped back so there were no brothers or sisters for Janet.
It was a fluke I saw the ad for an area editor for the Kingsport Times-News in Editor and Publisher magazine. It was a fluke that this public relations job opened up in my wife’s hometown after she had graduated from college in Richmond, Va. It was a fluke this reporter couldn’t go to that banquet. Those are way too many flukes to be a fluke.
Anyway, here it is 42 years later and we still hold hands walking through parking lots. We don’t talk anymore. We just grunt at each other and we each know what we mean. Actually, we do talk. A lot. Fortunately we always agree. Everyone else in the world is screwy except the Cowlings. She reads one type of book and I read another. We tell each other about our books so it’s like we get twice the information in half the time.
Okay, okay, this is so icky sweet you’re ready to surf the internet for something really exciting. This really does have another point. My wife was a State of Florida Department of Corrections officer. In other words, she was a probation officer. A lot of people came in her office and tell her she’s incompetent because they weren’t getting their restitution money as fast as they think they should. Or they told her she was incompetent because their little boy got arrested again.
Most of these people don’t know how the criminal justice system works and they take their frustration with their ignorance out on some one who doesn’t make the rules but just has to carry them out.
So the next time you’ve had a bad day or you’re upset because you don’t understand how the system works, whether it be legal, educational or retail, please don’t insult the person you’re dealing with.
Remember, you’re talking about somebody’s sweetheart.
Linda protected her older sister Anne because Anne, Linda felt, let people run over her. She came to this conclusion after seventy years of watching Anne caving into other people’s demands just to get along.
The Florida sun beaded down as the sisters walked up the steps to the bank to make a deposit. Linda knew the clerk would short-change her sister if she did not watch her every move. Anne lost her footing and fell back down the steps.
“You okay, Sis?” Linda bent over to lightly touch Anne’s arms and legs. “Does this hurt?”
Before Linda knew it a bank clerk hovered over them with a large umbrella.
“Oh you poor thing,” the clerk cooed. “How dreadful. Let me protect you from that awful sun.” In the next breath she stuck a piece of paper and pen under Anne’s nose. “Here, sign this.”
“Okay.” Anne took the paper and pen and signed.
“No!” Linda screamed, but it was too late.
The clerk smiled at Linda in triumph. “There, there, everything will be all right.”
Linda pinched her lips because she knew the paper was a release form, clearing the bank from any responsibility for the accident. Why did Anne always do this to her?
“Yes, everything will be all right as soon as the ambulance gets here. You did call 911, didn’t you?”
The clerk paused. “No, I was concerned about your sister getting heatstroke so I came straight out with the umbrella.”
“My goodness,” Linda said in feigned concern. “We must go immediately inside and call 911, mustn’t we?”
“I’ll do it,” the clerk replied. “You stay here with your sister.”
“No, she’ll be okay. She’s got the umbrella.”
Linda stood and put her arm around the clerk’s waist as they walked into the bank. “Oh, my dear, I don’t know what we’d done without your quick thinking.” She raised her voice. “Someone call 911! My sister needs an ambulance!”
“I’ll do that.” The clerk tried to pull away with the signed paper.
“Oh my sister! Oh my sister! What am I going to do!” Linda wrapped her arms around the clerk. “She’s all I got in life! Help me! Help me!”
“My dear lady! Control yourself.”
“No! No!” Linda sobbed and pawed the clerk. “I need the comfort of your arms. You are so sweet to me!”
A siren cut through the air. Linda pulled away and headed for the door. “Oh good. The ambulance is here. Thank you, my dear.”
Outside she knelt by her sister under the umbrella.
“What was on that piece of paper I signed?” Anne sounded mystified.
“Don’t worry about it, Sis.” Linda extended her hand to show the wadded-up paper. “I robbed the bank.”
Two old men sat on a bench at the park, one tall, balding with a pot belly and the other short, bearded and skinny. They both stared at the pond, the ducks floating on it and at the children playing on the jungle gym. From time to time they looked at each other and smiled. When someone parked his small foreign car in front of them, the skinny man tapped the fat man and pointed.
“Howdy to you.” The big man took his hand and shook it with vigor. “Kinda hard to start up a conversation these days, ain’t it?”
The little man smiled, but wrinkled his brow and pointed to the car again. “Audi. Audi.”
“Well, ain’t you the friendly one. But you can’t speak Amurican, can you?”
He shook his head, keeping the smile on his face.
“No wonder you sat there so long and didn’t say nuthin’. I guess some folks make you scairt ‘cause you can’t speak Amurican, but I’m broad minded, buddy.” He pointed at himself. “Me Billy.” He pointed at the little man. “You?”
He pointed at the car and repeated, “Audi.”
“Bet you watched a bunch of westerns before you come over here and the only word you picked up was howdy. Ain’t that right?”
The little man nodded. “Oui. Audi.”
“Oh, we got us a outhouse right over there if you need to go.” He pointed to the restrooms on the other side of the parking lot. You gotta go wee wee?”
“Oui, oui.” He nodded and shook Billy’s hand again.
“You better get on over there then before you wet your pants.”
“Jim, howdy to you too, but you better go to the outhouse and pee.”
He looked in the sky and shook his head. “Non il plieu.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, I thought you said you had to go pee. Gosh, it’s hard to talk to a foreigner.” Billy thought a moment. “Do you wanna go over there to the stand and get a sody pop? You know, sody pop?” He motioned like he was drinking from a bottle.
“Oui, oui.” He made the same motion. “Salut.”
“No, Jim, I don’t think they got salad.”
“Pinot, cabernet, champagne?”
“Champagne? Heck no, Jim. The cops’ll throw us in the hoosegow.”
“No, Jim, not even a beer.”
“Yeah, you can do a lot damage with that there champagne. What I was talking about was a Coca Cola. You know, Coke?” Billy made shape of a Coca Cola bottle with his hands.
“Oui, oui!” The little man said with a twinkle in his eyes. “J’aime les femmes.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. You said Jim’s a what?”
“J’aime les femmes.” He pointed at a woman sunbathing in the park.
Billy reached out and put the man’s arm down. “Oh, you better watch that, Jim. You go pointin’ at all the purty gals in the park, and the cops will get you.”
“Non femmes? Quelle domage. C’est la vie.”
“Well, Jim, it was right nice talkin’ to you. I gotta get on home to supper.” Billy shook the little man’s hand. “I hope I see you tomorrow. I’m here at this time just about every day.”
“No, it ain’t a reservoir. It’s just a little old pond.”
Right before choir class began, the school bully came in and sat next to me. It wasn’t his usual seat. He put his arm around my shoulders.
In 1965 Texas that meant I was a homosexual, and he was my—well I don’t know what to call him since he was implying he wasn’t a homosexual, just me. When he had pulled that stunt on other guys, smaller than he, the victim was supposed to jerk away and glare at him, and he would laugh maniacally.
I didn’t do that. I just stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle. After a long moment, he patted my arm and pulled away. That wasn’t the first time he had done something. He liked to make fun of what I wore, threaten to beat me up after school and sing loud in my ear during a choir concert to throw me off key. The usual bully crap. Later one of my friends lectured me for not following the accepted custom of pulling away and glaring at him.
“Don’t you know what that means?”
Yes, I did, and I didn’t care. At that time I had a life-threatening crush on a girl half a year older than me so I knew I wasn’t a homosexual and I was convinced that if the girl didn’t like me as much as I liked her my life would be over.
By the end of the school year, the bully and I came up to the water fountain at the same time.
“You don’t like me, do you?” He looked rather pitiful at that moment.
“No, you’re okay.” I was still too infatuated with the older girl to wax righteous about whether or not he was likeable.
By the end of the next school year my worst fear came true. The older girl did not like me in the same way I liked her. I went to college, and the girl and the bully went on to their own lives. I heard later he became an evangelist.
However, throughout my adult life I have found whenever another man puts his arm around my shoulders, a traditional sign of brotherly affection, I stiffen and slightly pull away, which has short-circuited some friendships. By and large, the incident has not kept me from marrying the right woman, having two wonderful children and enjoying a host of good friends in my older years.
This memory re-emerges briefly when I read in the newspaper another child who kills himself because he was bullied, or he himself becomes the killer. I wonder about official school policies that state a person has to have more than one incident by the same person in order to be considered a bullying victim. Sometimes television situation comedies will show the best way to handle a bully is to be a bully right back at him.
I think about how much one minor incident affected my life and how long-term, vicious harassment can be devastating for anyone who is too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too different. Don’t feel sorry for us. Don’t put your arm around us. Teach your children to respect everyone. Practice compassion yourself.
Originally published in the Hernando section of the Tampa Bay Times.