The happy gas theory

May 11, 2015  

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It’s May, and that means both good and bad things around here. Good in that the school year is almost over for my kids. Bad in that it still quite isn’t. That’s why my son said something about the happy gas last night.

Here’s where he got that:

He was six when he got his tonsils out. It wasn’t the visit to the hospital that worried him. He was okay with the hospital. And it wasn’t even the pain. What worried him the most was the very thing he most looked forward to.

The happy gas.

It’s tough trying to explain a medical procedure to a six-year-old, especially when the ins and outs are pretty vague to his father. I didn’t really know what tonsils and adenoids were, what function they served, or why they were giving him such trouble. But the anesthesia part I knew.

So I told him he got to wear a mask like Batman did and that the air would smell like cotton candy and he’d fall asleep. And while he was asleep the doctors would do their business and make him better.

“You won’t feel a thing,” I told him. “Promise.”

He didn’t believe me.

Experience had taught him otherwise. He’d slept before, and he’d either done things or had things happen that he not only remembered, but felt.

He fell out of the bed twice. Felt that. Bopped his face against the headboard. Felt that, too. He’s also awakened himself by burping, talking, snoring, and coughing. Sometimes all at once.

No way, he thought, no way, would he be able to sleep through someone operating on him.

So I explained that the happy gas wouldn’t just put him asleep, it would put him really asleep, and that the doctor would make sure he stayed that way until everything was finished.

Afterward, once we were home and he was safely on the sofa with his ice cream, I asked him about it.

“I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I can’t even remember anything.”

And then he said this—“I wish I could have some of that for when I go to school. That way I could just wake up when I got home and I wouldn’t remember any of it.”

Funny, yes. And that definitely pegged him as my son. But he really had a great idea there, at least on the surface. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have some advance warning to the less than perfect things we have to face? And wouldn’t it be great if just before we could put on a Batman mask, breathe some cotton-candy air, and fall asleep through the whole thing?

Yes. It would.

I’ll admit for a while I did my best not to try and poke holes in his Happy Gas Theory. I knew there were some and most likely many. But sometimes we take comfort in those things that aren’t and can never be. That’s what I did while sitting on the sofa with him. I reveled.

But the truth of course was that we had to go through our painful things sometimes. We could slide around some and jump over others, but sooner or later a storm would come that we couldn’t outrun or take cover from, and we were left to stand there in the open under the pour.

Sometimes, that didn’t seem right to me.

It would make more sense to say that if God was there and if God was good, He would take better care of the ones who loved Him. He would make sure our paths were clear. He would prevent the pain and the pour and the doubt. He would take away the fear.

If there was such a thing as everyday happy gas, I thought, then shouldn’t it be God?

Maybe. But maybe that pain and pour and doubt served a purpose that outweighed the need for our happiness. Maybe we needed fear so we could know the value of faith.


I didn’t know for sure, but I thought the odds were good that He’d spared me from a great many troubles in my life without me knowing it. Not happy gas, but maybe something better. And as I looked down and saw my son wince when he tried to swallow, I knew that all the happy gas in the world couldn’t take away all the pain. Some still lingered.

That was true for all of us, I supposed. We were all a collection of bruises and cuts. We all had our tender places.

And I thought that in the end, it was our pain and not our happiness that brought us nearer to heaven.

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Your mama lied to you

May 7, 2015  

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I was nineteen when I realized my mother had lied to me. It was a difficult thing to accept.

She’d lied to me before, but those were small lies—stuff like Santa and the Easter bunny. Things that seemed pretty darn big at the time but not later on, after the sting of their truth had been replaced by the knowing that I would still be getting presents and candy every year. Those are the sorts of falsehoods most parents tell their children, and I think that’s okay. You don’t get sent to hell for lies like that.

You don’t get sent to hell for lies like the one my mother told me, either. Still, that one stung more than when I found out her and Dad were really Santa and the Easter bunny. Maybe it was my age. People tend to hold on to things tighter as they grow older.

As far as I can remember, the lie started when I got a telescope for my eighth birthday. I’d sit outside for hours every night pointing it at every star and planet I could see. I saw seas on the Moon and rings around Saturn, the spooky redness of Mars and the calming whites of Venus. I was enraptured. To know that there were other worlds aside from my own? That what I saw was only a grain of sand upon the shores of All There Is? Amazing.

I looked at the night sky and saw wonder and mystery and possibility, and I knew my calling in life.

So I told Mom I was going to be an astronaut one day. And she looked at me and smiled and said, “You can be anything you want to be.”

That’s when the lie started.

I believed her. When you’re eight years old, you believe your parents hold the keys to the gates of wisdom. They know everything you’ve done, everything you’re doing, and in many cases everything you’re going to do. So if she said, “You can be anything you want to be,” that meant I was going to be an astronaut. No doubt about it.

I’ve told you where her lie began. Now I’ll tell you where it ended.

It was a year after I’d graduated from high school, and I’d drifted into a job at a local gas station. I was filling up Betsy Blackwell’s car (nice lady, Betsy, though every time I’d wash her windshield she’d turn the wipers on and nearly take off my hand), and up to the pump in front of me pulls a nice SUV. Government tags, with a NASA sticker on the back window.

That’s when I knew.

I was never going to be an astronaut. I’d never have the privilege of riding around in a nice Chevrolet Tahoe with a NASA sticker on the back window, much less seeing the stars up close. I wasn’t smart enough or talented enough. I didn’t catch the breaks. No sir, the only sky Billy Coffey would ever be under was the sky out on Pump 1 at the gas station. And he couldn’t even really enjoy that one because he was too busy trying to make sure Betsy Blackwell didn’t take off his hand with her dang windshield wipers.

I kept all of that to myself until two weeks ago. My family had joined my parents for pizza. One thing led to another and then another, and I mentioned that day at the gas station.

Mom smiled and said, “I figured if I said you could do anything, you’d end up being something.”

Ah. I understood then.

Odds are your mama lied to you, too. She said you could grow up to become a scientist or a baseball player or a musician or President. And in the spirit of transparency, I’ll admit plenty of fathers say the same thing. I know I do.

My daughter wants to be a writer/teacher/archaeologist/scientist/doctor. I tell her she’s aiming a bit too low.

My son’s aspirations are a bit more basic but no less high—he wants to work at Legoland. Yes! I tell him. Why not?

Because they might not be able to do anything, but they can certainly be something.

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Being cursed

May 4, 2015  

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I remember the morning he rang the doorbell sometime after one, waking me and the dog and everyone else. Your bell rings that time of night, you know it’s either trouble or bad news.

The kid was no more than seventeen, short and thin and scraggly-looking. I cracked the door and he said, “You seen my dog, Sir?”

I told him I hadn’t and neither did anyone else, whole neighborhood asleep and most of the woods, and a kid who goes around knocking at doors this time of night is looking to get killed, dog or no. Especially a kid stoned out of his mind. He said yessir and sorry sir and went on his way.

I knew where he lived, down the next block in the big red house most of the people around here know to be cursed and maybe is. The family who last moved out of there did so out of necessity. The father gone to jail and the mother gone to rehab, their kids scattered. Even here drugs are plentiful, their pull just as strong as in any fancy city. I knew the father well, watched him turn from aspiring businessman to addict and watched his money disappear right along with his hair and weight and teeth. He told me after he moved in that the builder, a preacher in town, stamped the heads of all his nails with scripture verses. Said it felt good to live in such a house. Might bring luck, he said. It didn’t.

The boy was shooting hoops in the road when I walked by with the dog that next day. He never said a word to me and I never said a word back. My dog growled, but that was all. The boy didn’t know who I was and never had a clue he’d stood on my porch the night before, rousing us all and nearly getting himself shot. His eyes were wide as moons and bloodshot. For every two steps he took, one was a stumble. A man down the street paused in his mowing to say hello. He shook his head at the boy and said, “House got a curse.” I told him about the heads of those nails, how they’d all been stamped with Jn 3:16 and Phil 4:12. The man just chuckled and went back to cutting his grass.

The big news here is the high schooler who got himself killed in a wreck a couple weeks back. Ran his car off the road. There may have been a telephone pole or an old oak involved. No one knows for sure. It was early when it happened, after midnight.

The red house filled up with cars and people, neighbors paying their respects. It’s a tragedy when life stops so short and cuts down someone so young. What went unsaid was how inevitable it all felt. Kid like that, always stoned or high or drunk, the sort who goes out knocking on doors at night. Something horrible was bound to happen. I think maybe so.

I’ve noticed the neighborhood kids giving the red house a wide berth now. They’ll scooch their bikes and skateboards to the other side of the road until that pass that house, won’t use the basketball goal. Word of the curse is getting around. If I allow my backwoods nature to get the better of me, I will admit the whole place does carry a heavy feeling. Like that house is full now but it’ll get hungry again soon enough.

I know that’s not true. Not to say there aren’t such things as curses, because there are. That young man, he was cursed. I watched hundreds of cursed people in Baltimore lately, looting and setting buildings on fire. Saw pictures of cursed cops, too. It’s not limited to place or race or economic standing. That curse is everywhere. It’s even you. Even in me. The more I watch the news and look down my quiet little street, the more I see it. Feel and know it. All it selfishness or apathy or sin, we’re all infected. We see the symptoms, but the curse is something I’ve missed only until recently.


That’s it.

That’s how people and neighborhoods and societies act when they have lost their hope. When they look into the mirror or peer into their tomorrows and see nothing looking back. And you know what? Such a thing can’t be fixed with money or policy. Can’t be fixed in Washington.

It has to be fixed in us.

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On witches and free books

April 30, 2015  

IMG_4212I was only a boy when I learned of the witches, and the picture I’d formed in my mind—something akin to the marrying of the Wicked Witch of the West and the one from those Bugs Bunny cartoons—wasn’t the picture I ended up seeing along that mountain ridge. I saw no brooms or bubbling cauldrons gathered about that shack, only a few drying possum skins and a column of gray smoke from the chimney, an overturned metal pail by the well. Could have been any old body’s shack, really. Except this one wasn’t. Witch lived there.

“Ain’t no witch,” I said. But I said it low and kept my head that way too, one eye and all my body behind a stout oak some fifty yards away. “That’s just some woman lives there.”

“Ain’t,” Jeffrey said. “Ever’body knows she’s a witch. My mama came up here onced for medicine. Daddy didn’t want her to but she did.”

“Witches don’t give medicine.”

“This one here does. Mama says she makes them in a room in there. Says she prays over all these plants and stuff.”

“Witches don’t pray.”

Jeffrey said, “This one here does.”

That was the first (and only, as it happened) time I visited Jeffrey’s house and the deep woods beyond it, the two of us fast friends that year of first grade, two country boys marooned at a Christian school in the city. Ours was a kinship born of place rather than blood. While the other boys would spend recess putting together Legos and learning the names of the disciples, Jeffrey and I would be out in the mud patch under the basketball goal, digging up worms with our hands. He’d invited me over that Saturday afternoon, saying he had a lot better worms in his yard and more mud too, plus maybe we could shoot his daddy’s .22. Turned out Jeffrey’s daddy was gone that day and the sun had scorched that soft mud to brown concrete. That’s when he asked me—Hey, you wanna see where a witch lives?

“Where’s she at?” I asked, leaning out a little from the tree.

“I don’t know. Daddy says sometimes she turned to a bird or a deer so you can’t tell. He says she’s watchin even when you don’t think she is.”

“Let’s go up there,” I said.

“No way. You wanna get cursed?”

“Ain’t no curse.”

Jeffrey said, “This one here, she’ll curse.”

I’d like to tell you I went on anyway, left that tree and marched right up to the door on that shack and knocked with neither fear nor trepidation. But I didn’t and neither did Jeffrey, because right after that a crow called from the trees and we ran. Ran all the way back and never stopped until we were locked inside Jeffrey’s little bedroom, and then we never spoke about no witch. I never went back. Not to Jeffrey’s, not to that stretch of ridge. To this day, that part of the mountain is one of the few places I’ve tread but once.

That memory is still fresh in my mind all these years later. I can’t remember the name of my fifth grade teacher or exactly whose house I egged when I was seventeen or where I left the keys to the truck this morning, but I can tell you how the sun beat on our backs that day and how the creek water felt like ice when we ran through it hollering and stumbling and that something—animal or witch—followed us through the trees the whole way back from that cabin. I know it.

There are stories here in the mountains, secret ones told by granddaddies on their porches at night when the crickets sing and the moon is high in a dark sky and a Mason jar is in their hands. Tales to make your skin goose up. The ones with demons and angels are good. Ghosts are better. The stories of the witches some say still hide in these hollers, they’re the best.

I guess that’s the biggest reason I decided to add to those best stories with a tale of my own. Not about two small boys that happen to strike the ire of a witch, but an entire town that does the same and what happens when that witch seeks her revenge. About the darkness in us all, and the light.

The Curse of Crow Hollow won’t be out until later this summer, but you have a chance at getting your own copy a bit earlier. I’ll even scrawl my name in it. All you have to do is follow this link and enter your name. Easy peasy.

In the meantime, you keep away from those witches.

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A question of prayer

April 27, 2015  

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Working at a college has its advantages. Having access to such a big group of smart people comes in handy for me in my daily life, especially when it comes to some of the larger problems I run across. In the years I’ve been there, I have spoken with English professors about writing, political science professors about the goings-on in the world, and religion and philosophy professors about, well, religion and philosophy.

I would call none of our conversations a sharing of ideas. Their words and the diplomas that hang on their office walls are proof enough they are much more intelligent than little ol’ me. I’m good with that. There are advantages to being the dumb person in the room.

So the other day when my mind asked a question my heart had trouble answering, I went knocking on some office doors.

The first chair I sat in was in front of four bookcases that stretched floor to ceiling and were stuffed with titles I could barely pronounce. The professor—smart fella, with a Ph.D. in philosophy courtesy of an Ivy League school—looked at me with kind eyes and asked what was on my mind.

“What’s the point of praying for anything?” I asked him. “I mean, if God knows everything and has a perfect plan, then won’t His plan work out regardless of what I tell Him?”

The professor took off his glasses, rubbed the lenses with a handkerchief. Then he put the glasses back on and looked at the bookshelves behind me, looking for an answer.

“Let’s see,” he told me. He rose from the chair by the desk and brought down one book—this one old, with a worn leather cover and yellowed pages—and then another, this one so new the spine cracked as he opened it.

He talked for ten minutes about free will and time being an unfinished sentence. Or something. My nods at first were of the understanding kind. The ones toward the end were because I was fighting sleep.

I still don’t know what he said.

The door down the hall belonged to a religion professor (Ph.D. again, Ivy League again). I sat in a different chair in front of different books and asked the same question with the same results. More free will, plus something about alternate histories and God “delighting in Himself.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d walked into a professor’s office with one question and walked out with a dozen.

To make matters worse, my mind was still asking that question and my heart was still having trouble answering it.

What’s the point of praying for anything? Because it seems a little presumptuous to ask for anything from a God who already knows what I need (and what I don’t).

I was at a standstill over all of this until I talked to Ralph at the Dairy Queen last night. Ralph doesn’t have a Ph.D., and the only Ivy he knows is the kind that grows on the side of his house. And though far from an expert on matters of the spirit, he does preach part-time at one of the local churches when the regular preacher is sick or on vacation. And since he waved at me and was eating his cheeseburger all alone, I figured what the heck. I’d ask him:

“What’s the point of praying for anything?”

Ralph paused mid-chew. Cocked his head a little to the side. Said, “What kinda stupid question is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just popped into my head the other day. But seriously, why ask Him for anything. And really, why pray at all? If God already knows what’s in my heart, why do I have to speak it?”

Ralph finished his bite, swallowed, then said, “B’cause it ain’t about you, son.”

“It’s not?”

He drawled out a slow “No” that sounded more like Nooo. “Boy, prayin’ ain’t about askin’. Ain’t even about praisin’, really. Nope, prayin’s about you gettin’ in line with God. It’s not about Him gettin’ in your head and heart, it’s about you gettin’ in His.”


I left Ralph to his cheeseburger, answers in hand. And honestly, that answer made sense. Because life—better life, anyway—is always about Him more than about us.

And I left with other wisdom, too. The next time I have a question, I think I’ll spend less time in a professor’s office and more time down at the Dairy Queen.

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