Parenting on Fast Forward

There’s an old saying that if you wait until you’re “ready for kids,” then you will never have kids. Like a lot of old sayings, there’s a lot of truth in that one. Not only are you never ready for kids, you’re never really ready for them to take those next steps in their lives. (Except diapers. You are always ready for them to be out of diapers.) But here’s the catch about those next steps for your kids— they tend to come in sprints instead of slow strolls. Most days, it’s just a matter of holding on as best you can. Life moves so fast that I like to call it parenting on fast forward.

I have been blessed with three sons who each make me proud every day. They are each unique in their own way, and not a day goes by that I don’t marvel at something they do or say. It’s trite and sappy, but they are my greatest accomplishments in this world. Like any self-respecting attorney, I have a brag wall in my office filled with odes to myself, but my true greatness is found in the three blonde kids who share my last time. They each have unique personalities but their sameness is also quite noticeable. 

I’m not a man easily impressed, but most days, I marvel at our boys. They are getting older, and in their own ways, they are finding their independence without their dad. I’m not sure how JC went from being the little boy obsessed with Thomas the Train to the young man now taking college visits. Times were simpler when he and I were just flipping on the Higglytown Heroes every morning before daycare. When he was a small boy, Walker was adamant about holding my hand when we got out of the car in public and never left my side. These days, he would much rather hang out with his friends than his Dad. I have to damn near beg him to answer my texts. (Editor’s Note- Walker is a subscriber to this newsletter. I’m sure this entire thing embarrasses him.) Their baby brother Quinn is almost 3 now, and is speech and developmentally delayed. He goes to speech and occupational therapy a couple times a week, and requires a good bit of attention from all of us. Quinn’s personality keeps me young at the same time it ages me (this hairstyle isn’t entirely self-inflicted), and his big brothers are easily his two favorite things in this big ol’ world. Being 3 years old, he needs his parents more than his brothers, but we already see glimpses that he would rather hang with the guys when he can. Seeing my three guys spend time with each other makes all the parenting frustrations worthwhile. They are our boys, and I know they will be there for each other long after their dad takes his last breath on this Earth. Hopefully that day is far away from today, so in the meantime, we will keep making our memories together. We have games to go to, and movies to watch. We have smart ass conversations to have, and yes, we even have eyes to roll. The greatest blessing I have ever received is to be a Dad, so I hope I can fill my role as well as my three sons have filled theirs.

Hi Mom!

She was a force of nature. I wish I had a more descriptive way of describing my mother, but “force of nature” is about as good as I’ve ever been able to muster. Which is unfortunate because she really deserves my very best shot. Monica Cox taught me to love words and ideas, and I will never have a bigger cheerleader. She was, in all sense of the phrase, the greatest fan of my life. She lugged me around to libraries and bookstores, and even random “gifted” classes when I was a small child. She took me to countless ball practices and was not afraid to check me out of school early to take in an afternoon Delta State baseball game. She saved everything I ever wrote, and always encouraged me to dream big. People who never met her doubt me when I describe her as a lost Pat Conroy character, but it’s pretty damn accurate. Equal parts lady and tornado, my mother could outsmart the smartest in the room and out-charm the most charming. Case in point- Mom was born Doris Eleanor White, and hated her name. So she chose to be known as Monica at some point in her adulthood, and although she never had it legally changed, both the State of Mississippi and the Social Security Administration changed their official records to reflect her “new” name. A force of nature, I tell you. 

I have written thousands of words about my father, and will probably write thousands more before I am done. But the real star of the family was Mom, and that’s not even a close race. To this day, I encounter far more people who mention Mom to me than I do Dad. She collected friends as if they were baseball cards, and she had that otherworldly ability to make anyone she talked with believe they were the only person in the room. She could remember names, faces and your life story after the first time she met you. She knew a little bit about everything, and was a voracious reader and writer who literally never met a stranger. I’ve read countless interviews with friends of President Bill Clinton, and everyone talks of his ability to put strangers at immediate ease with his charm. I’m certainly biased but Mom’s people skills would have made Clinton turn green with envy. People young and old flocked to her, and she returned the attention to each and every one of them. Before email and social media, Mom wrote letters every day to contacts near and far, and spent an average of 2 hours a day on the telephone. She joined more groups than I could ever list, and somehow led them all. Just thinking about the many groups and jobs makes me dizzy. At one time or another in her life, Mom was a court reporter, legal secretary, high school Latin teacher, head of the church Parish Council, ran the school basketball concession stand, community theater actress and director, Cub Scout Den Mother, savior to countless stray cats, chairman of the Friends of the Public Library, and volunteered at the local hospital. She was on the executive committee of the local Republican and Democratic committee at different times in her life. When I was in college, she walked into our living room holding two bottles of vodka and announced to my father and me her intention to join Alcoholic’s Anonymous. I am not exaggerating when I say Dad and I weren’t surprised in the least— we just figured it was the only group in town she hadn’t joined yet. True to form, she became the chair of AA within six months. At some point, she started calling in to a television shopping program, and she was so good on television that the home shopping network actually arranged times for her to call in as a regular caller. Mom was a comet hurtling through life, and sadly, the energy she brought to life ultimately led to her burning out way too soon. 

Today is World Mental Health Day. I’m not sure if it is appropriate to “celebrate” a day like today, but we should definitely take notice of it and do our best to help those suffering from any mental illness. Mental illness is real, and my mother battled her demons throughout her life. My brother likes to jokingly say that I grew up once “it got crazy” around the house. I don’t know if crazy is the right description but it was definitely different. I have many funny stories, and I’m sure I will share many of them at some point. But not today. Today is for something else. 

Mom had a tough life- she lost her own mother early, started college at 15, married with a child at 17, divorced with two children by 18, and a single mom for the better part of the 1960’s. Forced to be responsible when much of her generation had the freedom to be irresponsible, Mom’s will to survive pushed her forward as a career woman at a time when it wasn’t always the norm. That determination led her to Cleveland and into Ancil Cox’s law office. The rest, as they say, is history. Or I guess, my history.

Despite everything she accomplished, a dark cloud followed Mom for years until one day, it finally caught up with her. We should have seen it coming- the hot/cold friendships with some people, the icy glares, the intense bickering, and the quick mood swings. We had a family Christmas my senior year that ended with tears, people storming out of the house, and a Lite-Brite set in pieces in the living room. At some point towards the end of my high school days, Mom started missing more and more work claiming illness so she could stay in bed all day. (She had been diagnosed with lupus years earlier. Yes, she was on the board of directors for the Mississippi Lupus Foundation or something like that.) I was in the midst of negotiating with Dad about my college choice, and Mom began saying things like, “You could go to the college you want if I wasn’t around.” One night, after a particularly heated argument, Mom stopped in my room to tell me she “always loved me.” I might have been 17 years old, but I noticed the use of the past tense in those words immediately. The next day, Mom tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful. The rest of her life was filled with numerous trips to the pharmacy, doctors, psychologists, more doctors, stays in the psychiatric ward on a couple Christmases, and even some electric shock treatments to her brain. That’s not to say she didn’t have many good days, but our world was definitely never the same. She still had a heart of gold, and still loved as fierce as ever. But part of her was forever broken.

I was not as patient and understanding with her as I should have been. I still beat myself up for that. I avoided her neverending phone calls whenever possible. I rolled my eyes at her stories and was, in hindsight, very rude to her at times. I was too immature and stupid to understand what had happened, and thought it all to be a bit of an annoyance. But no matter how much of an ass I was, Mom kept loving her baby boy to the end. She was easily the proudest member of my family when I graduated from law school, and she beamed with pride the cold December morning my oldest son John Christopher was born. He would be the only one of my three boys she would ever meet, and I wish she could’ve met them all. Or more importantly, I wish they could’ve met her. I think they all would’ve liked that a lot. 

Ironically, Mom brought me a book as a late birthday present a couple days before she passed away. We talked about the book when she dropped it off, and true to form, I hurried her away so I wouldn’t be forced to sit through another long story. Two days later, she left this world. After 62 years, she was finally rid of those demons chasing her. She gave them one hell of a run for their money. 

One last thing. The book she gave me? “The Survivor,” a book about Bill Clinton. The irony is not lost on me. I’m thinking of you, Mom. Today and every day.

Because I Have To

Because I have to.

That’s the only answer I have to explain the reason I started randomly sending out this crazy newsletter. I’ve had some very kind comments from many subscribers, and I’ve had some folks ask me how the hell to get off this list. For as long as I can remember, the only way I’ve ever made sense of anything in this world is to empty my head. Sometimes it’s a memory swirling around in my head wanting to escape. Sometimes it’s just random commentary on the world in general. But when these ideas come to mind, I’ve always had a desire to spill my brain onto paper (or screen). So when I figured out that I could send out my own e-newsletter, it looked to be the perfect forum. Admittedly, it takes a certain degree of arrogance to put your thoughts out to the world. Like Isbell sings, “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about.” Seriously, who the hell really cares what a country lawyer from Mississippi thinks? Who really cares about my family stories or my reflections? But honestly, if the desire is there, then who really cares who really cares?

My mother and father were huge readers. Our house was littered with books and magazines and newspapers. Both of them would spend hours after work reading their library books and encouraging me to do the same. At the same time, if I had a question (and I had plenty), their usual answer was to “look it up.” That answer led to me reading the World Book Encyclopedia one summer (my brother can verify) and then writing my own reports about the things that intrigued me. I would take my mother’s typing paper and write these little summaries of what I read, or I would make up stories of my own and peck away on her typewriter. Mom must have thought it was cute, because I found a bunch of these terrible stories before we sold our old family home last year. There is ZERO chance those stories ever see the light of day. While it might have cute for my mom to see her six year old son attempt to put together a homemade magazine of his own original material, those stories don’t really hold up when read 41 years later. But finding those stories did remind me I’ve been a geek with a keyboard for basically my entire life. As sad as it might be, I know nothing else.

Last week, I had an old Facebook post pop up in my Memories which reminded me that my middle son Walker announced to me when he was 7 years old he was authoring a series of books starring Captain Stretch-O and his evil nemesis, Dr. Short Pants. That was 7 years ago, and I’m pretty sure the Captain Stretch-O series hasn’t taken off just yet. But I thought it was interesting my son was apparently doing the same thing I was doing at his age. Lord help us, maybe one day soon, Walker can start his own newsletter for us all to read. But I understand the feeling that sometimes words and stories just have to come out.

I remember seeing a band playing one night in a bar to about 6 people, not counting the dudes themselves. I watched the band play for about thirty minutes before the thought hit me—- the room didn’t need to be packed for the guys on stage— they were just digging the music and the chance to play. That’s kinda what I think about when I sit down and write my stuff. I just enjoy the chance to play. Like I said earlier, I appreciate everyone who has been so supportive and offered encouragement. The only bit of career advice my father ever gave me was “You want to write? Great. But I’m not paying for you any longer than I have to.” That nugget probably led me to law school, only to have Dad look at me soon after graduation and say, “Hell, I can’t believe you just didn’t go write full-time.” Maybe one day, Dad. Maybe one day. But until then, I will just spit out my random thoughts when I can. 

Because I have to.

How Can You Forget Something That Has Never Really Left You?

I shouldn’t write my story of that day. I was not in New York; hell, I didn’t really travel anywhere that day except from my house to my office in Cleveland, Mississippi. I did not have any family or friends anywhere close to the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. At that time, my entire family was living within 5 miles of each other in our small Delta town. On the surface, I have no direct connection to that tragedy. I didn’t lose anyone— Not one family member or friend.

Except I have every connection to that day. 

We all do. 

On September 11, 2011, I lost part of myself.

In late August of 2001, my then-wife and I flew to New York City so she could go to a training seminar on the SEC. That’s the Securities and Exchange Commission, for those who don’t know. I did know the acronym, but I still walked around the seminar’s social hour quizzing unsuspecting accountants on their expectations for Florida’s offense and Auburn’s defense that season. (No one at the meeting appeared to be amused by this behavior but me.) We had a wonderful long weekend in New York. A Mets game. A Broadway play starring Al Pacino. My first trip to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. We did it all as only 26 year old kids full of energy and wonder can do. Saturday night before dinner, we had a driver take us downtown so we could see the Twin Towers. They were so tall that you couldn’t even really see the tops from our car. They dominated the skyline like a steel testament to American strength. We didn’t get out or dwell at the Towers. We saw them, mentally checked the tourist box, and moved on. We had dinner reservations, so we were off to our next stop. Everything was possible, and everyone seemed invincible. I dare say we, and countless others in the City That Never Sleeps, never felt more alive.

A little over a week later, we were back to living our normal Delta lives. Deborah worked about thirty minutes from our home, so she left every day around 7 a.m. every morning, and I had the house to myself for an hour or so before I dressed for work. I typically spent my mornings with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, and this morning was no different. Around 7:40 a.m., General Electric CEO Jack Welch was next up on the Today Show when the commercial break was suddenly cut short and my television screen was filled with blue skies and the World Trade Center. A small plane had crashed into the first Tower, and Matt and Katie were struggling to give information as they talked to a colleague on the phone. As far as anyone knew, it was an accident. I remember thinking to myself that I had never flown a plane, but how in the hell do you accidently run into one of those Towers? Maybe the pilot just lost control of the plane or there was some malfunction. Around twenty minutes later, although it felt like two seconds, we saw, and the caller confirmed, a second plane just flew into the second Tower. I’m not a military man, but I knew what the second plane meant. The world had changed. The simple life we lived before was forever changed. 

America was under attack.

The rest of that day is a blur in my mind. I remember calling Deborah immediately and telling her. I remember my Dad’s sad, wide blue eyes when I saw him at the office. He was 14 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, so he remembered. I remember thinking almost immediately of my friend Andy’s daughter Morgan’s birthday that day, and that it would be linked forever. Most of all, I remember watching the world, my world, my invincibility crack around me. I was raised in the Eighties with Ronald Reagan assuring me we were a superpower. Movies like Iron Eagle and Top Gun and Rambo taught me that we were the baddest motherfuckers on the planet, and no one would ever mess with us. Terrorism was something that happened in those overseas countries without paved streets that I only saw on the news. My college years were the Clinton years, and everyone was making money and enjoying life. We were safe in our country, and the nightly news consisted mainly of anti-government American whack jobs or the latest D.C. blow jobs. Although there were conflicts in the world, those conflicts were always somewhere else. Our military was always present and ready, but they were always on a perpetual road trip. Their games were always played on the other team’s home field, and never on American soil. No one had ever had the audacity to attack us on our own soil so brazenly. I remember thinking this entire surreal scene was like a movie, and I wondered when it would end or if I could change the channel. But honestly, as I watched the news, part of me wondered if, not when, it would end. First the Towers and the Pentagon, I thought. What’s next? Other cities closer to me? Then what? Our small towns? Living in Nowhere, America always brought a sense of comfort when it came to this kind of thing. Attacks seem abstract until they’re not. The greatest terrorism I have ever felt was the destruction of my sense of safety. I felt deep, mind-numbing fear for the first time in my life. What was next?

Everyone knows the rest of the story. Beginning September 12, our country rallied together, one nation under God. The stories of the courage on Flight 93 came forth and reminded us all that bravery does still exist. I had never heard the term “first responder” before September 11, 2001, but I’m damn glad there are such people in this country. Later that fall, George W. threw a strike at the World Series and the American spirit was never more evident. We proudly flew flags, set our collective jaw, and slowly put our world back on its correct axis. We showed moments of national pride not present in my lifetime. But despite the resiliency, my scars remain. My parents taught me to be tolerant and believe in the innate goodness of my fellow man. I should not judge others based on their appearance or beliefs. We should not have a fear of “the other.” I still try to live that way today. But after 9/11, I can’t say I always do as I was taught. I have flown hundreds of times in the last twenty years. Hundreds. But I have not boarded a flight one time in the last twenty years without mentally calculating whether my flight would be attractive for a hijackers. I am momentarily paralyzed every time a person stands up to walk to the bathroom mid-flight. I still scan the faces of my fellow passengers as we prepare to board, as if I could pick out a terrorist by their appearance alone. I do these horrid things, and I curse myself for it. That’s not the person I was raised to be. That’s not the person I want to be. But after September 11th, that’s the person I am. The person I was in September 10 is gone forever and in his place stands a man who felt the cold hand of fear touch his shoulder one Tuesday morning and is forever changed.

My children were not alive on 9/11. Thankfully. Just as Pearl Harbor is only a moment in history to me, 9/11 is just another date to memorize to them. I can educate and I can try my best to explain the tragedy, but it will really only be a “who, what, when and where” event to them. Society will remind them to Never Forget, but thank God they didn’t lose anything that day. They are blessed in that way. I pray every day their lives aren’t ever affected by anything so sinister, and their world remains the Phoenix that rose from the ashes on September 12th.

I read a quote from Gandhi the other day, “Speak only if it improves the silence.” I was very hesitant to write about 9/11 for that very reason. I wasn’t sure that my voice needed to be heard. But as I watched the replays and tributes and memorials this last week on television, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was alone in my experience. We are told to Never Forget, but Jesus Christ, how can you forget something that has never really left you? 

20 years later, our personal stories of this day have become memories by now. For our nation, and for the men and women who lost their lives in this real manifestation of evil, please God let them be memories that we survivors Never Forget. 

Going to the 9/11 memorial and museum, it’s not the familiar pictures of the tragedy that rip you apart. It’s the little things— the baby clothes for a baby whose Daddy or Mommy didn’t come home from work that day or the mementos like an autographed baseball— that make it all too real. I caught myself looking away because I felt like I was invading someone’s privacy by sifting through their life. Their lives could have easily been my life. 

The face of evil is often hidden and the task of fighting against hate is daunting to even the strongest among us. I struggle against it every day even if it is a battle raging within myself. But that fight must continue just as it did on the days after September 11th. Good comes with an unbelievably heavy price tag but defeating evil, whether it be real or the abstract idea, is worth it. Want proof? Then go to New York City and gaze into those two holes in the earth. You might just find part of your soul down there

Be Aware

I’ve been a Municipal Court Judge since 2003, and I very rarely share stories about our court in person, much less on social media. I’ve read many things recently about how we judges need to be harder on the people appearing before us or that we are soft on crime. Without wading into that argument, something in court today touched me for some reason and reminded me there are other sides to every situation.

Today, we had a man that looked to be in his late 60’s appear before the court on a shoplifting charge. I am not one to judge a person by their looks alone, but this man had clearly fallen on hard times. He was accused of stealing a shirt and a pair of pants from a local store. The facts revealed that he had, in fact, taken the clothes and put them on in the store bathroom. However, it seems that he is currently homeless and has a stomach condition that causes certain foods to not always agree with him. He was in this store when his previous meal came through his body at such a rate that he had an accident before he could get to a bathroom. He then took a change of clothes off the rack and changed in the bathroom. Store security stopped and apprehended him before he left the store. He pleaded guilty to shoplifting, and admitted to his mistake. You could tell he was very embarrassed but he did not shy away from what happened. I suspended his fine on the condition that he not have another conviction for the next year. My heart went out to him, but he had violated the law. However, I knew there is no chance of collecting a fine from him as he quite literally lives meal to meal on the street. I absolutely hated the entire situation, and although he thanked me for my kindness, something really got to me as I watched this man shuffle out of our courtroom.

I tell this story because I live and have lived a very good life. I’ve never wanted, I have been spoiled with material things that others would love to have, and for the most part, I’ve never known true hardship. But this man, and so many others like him in this world, was probably born and raised by a mother and father just like I was. Like me, he played as a kid and did his best to grow up and be something in this world. I would wager good money he did not envision himself living on the streets. Growing up, he did not foresee soiling himself in a public place and then having to steal a change of clothes out of necessity and shame. But that’s where his life is now. It all reminds me of the old song lyric by Drivin’N’Cryin— “Abandoned by the promised land/Set sail on your own/How much longer Will the well Be dry for those Who roam?”

I probably have no real point to this story other than it affected me and made me think. Hug your kids and be grateful for what you have been given in your lives. Most importantly, please realize that there are those who want in this world. There are those who live a life most of us cannot fathom. I am not justifying criminal behavior. I am simply asking you to be aware. Every day.

You Have to Grab the Audience’s Attention from the Start

Many years ago, I spoke at a women’s group in Cleveland. This particular group was not exactly populated with the youngest crew in town. Wonderful ladies, to be sure— but very seasoned. Regardless, the head of the group gave me a very nice introduction that talked about my growing up in Cleveland and how I was a young man who had come home to practice with our family law firm. A sea of blue hair nodded with approval as I stepped to the podium to find many of our city’s finest steel magnolias beaming up proudly at me.

I have always believed good speakers connect with their audience in the first minute of their speech. Whether it be a quick joke or story, something has to grab the audience. Building trust or establishing a comfort level is the key. So, on this day, I settled in behind the microphone and immediately thanked the group for the invitation to speak. Next, for whatever reason, I veered off my prepared speech and felt the need to explain to the assembled group that I practice law with my father, Ancil Cox, and my cousin, Dana Moore. For that fact alone, I am always a bit nervous I would be introduced in public as working at “Cox and Moore Cox” instead of “Cox & Moore.”

Silence. The room was funeral-quiet for a solid minute.

I smiled, took a deep breath, and began my talk. Then I started to hear some whispers in the room—“Did he just say . . .?” A couple giggles were heard. I soldiered forward with my speech.

As I continued, there were more whispers, more giggles and then finally, some outright laughter about 90 seconds later.

Hearing the laughter, I stopped. I could not resist the chance. I leaned into the microphone as if I was sharing a secret.

“If you haven’t gotten my first joke yet, then it will probably come to them on the way home.”

The room roared with laughter. The ice was broken and I went on with a pleasant talk on the assigned subject.

Many members of the group have become good friends and clients over the years. Maybe they just enjoy giggling when the receptionist answers the phone?!?

The First Day

It’s that time of year again. Our newest National Holiday is upon us, and it has snuck up on us like a thief in the night. Whether we are ready or not, it’s here. It’s the First Day of School.

Hallmark hasn’t caught up yet, but give those folks time. Like National Siblings Day, National Lawyer’s Day, or any of the rest of the new special events created for social media, it’s only a matter of time before the greeting card industry spots the opportunity and seizes their moment. Our children cannot start school without it being captured in a picture.

When I was a kid, we just started school on the appointed day and went to school. I think we might have had a half day the first day, and I think my parents might have wished me luck for the year, but I’m pretty sure we just walked in the schoolhouse the first day and away we went. These days, it’s a week-long celebration like Mardi Gras. Schools have orientation, then Meet the Teachers, then Meet the Desks, Meet the [Fill in the Mascot], and then, maybe, after all the pomp and circumstance, we start classes. All of these events are to be documented and shared on social media, or else there is real danger of it not being official. Query– if a child starts school and no one is there to take a picture, do they really start school? Because of the importance of these days, parents are dolling their kids up and threatening them with their lives to be on their best behavior for The First Day. Teachers have to prepare, as well. Not necessarily for their upcoming year, but instead for the week-long Grip and Grin with parents and the never-ending pictures where they will put their arm these little tykes and smile sweetly at the camera with a look reminiscent of those old World War II photographs of solders right before being shipped off to war. It’s The First Day.

An offshoot of The First Day for the older kids is the Dorm Room Decoration Day. Our children cannot go to college without an obligatory photo shoot of parents working diligently to turn their kid’s small room into something akin to the Taj Mahal. The budget for these makeovers appears to be roughly the same as Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding in the Eighties. It’s like a global competition to make the rooms as ornate as possible, with matching bed spreads, pillows, lamps and wall accessories. I’m not exaggerating– Ben and Erin from Home Town would be jealous of these efforts. Understand, these rooms will never, ever look this way again and are nowhere near an accurate representation of college life. But it’s a silent challenge– who can win Decoration Day?? The real kicker? Parents throw untold bucks at these extreme dorm makeovers only to find their child start planning their way to future off-campus housing as soon as those proud parents snap the obligatory Dorm Room Decoration Day picture. I guess we’ve got another holiday coming down the pike– College House Decoration Day??

You know what would be some fun? Let’s post pictures of a child’s 114th day of school when the kids barely arrive on time, half of their morning Pop Tart is smudged on their uniform shirt, and their khakis look like they’ve been wadded up in the back of Mom’s minivan. That’s probably a better representation of school. Or you grab a shot of that dorm room on a Friday in November after a long Thursday night of college engagement. All of those beautiful throw pillows are literally thrown all over the floor and that smiling student is probably wishing there weren’t so many cute mirrors in her room. It would be awesome.

I would write more but I have to go now- it’s Walker’s First Day. I need to get a picture before he leaves for school.

  • Originally published in The Bolivar Bullet on August 11, 2021.

Long Distance Relationships Are Better Off Staying Long Distance

Photo by Carol Jeng on

Back in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was using a Sippee cup, my mother had pen pals all over the world. For those of you born with a smartphone in your hand, check this out. People used to write letters and mail them to each other via the United States Postal Service. We used stamps and everything. There was no e-mail or instant mail. We didn’t slide into DMs or post on anyone’s wall. Friendly folks like my mom would write a physical letter to another person and then that person would (hopefully) write back a couple days or weeks later. Antiquated, I know.

One summer day when I was around 12 years old, our house phone (I don’t have the energy to explain what a house phone was) rang one morning. As was usually the case, Mom answered. She then heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. One of Mom’s pen pals, a woman in her mid-40’s,had arrived via Greyhound bus to Cleveland without any type of prior warning and declared she was staying with my family for the next week or so. To any other family, this moment might have seemed strange. But to ours? Hell, it was just Tuesday. As my older brother likes to say, we quit being normal the moment he and my older sister moved out when I was around 8. So, with Mom being Mom, she was overjoyed at the thought of Ms. Crocodile Dundee shacking up at the house for a week. Dad being Dad, he just shook his head, went to work and rolled with it. 12 year old John being 12 year old John, I was trying to figure out how in the heck a strange-talking lady claiming to be from the Land Down Under ended up in our living room. Our visitor realized she had dropped in (from another effing continent!) unannounced, so she was adamant we should carry on with our lives as if she weren’t here. Do what you would do any other day, she said. Those days, Mom’s days usually consisted of running errands around Cleveland, so Mom just drove around Cleveland all day all day with her Australian sidekick in tow.

We were in the middle of June, and the sixth month might mean winter in Australia, it brings a sweltering summer in the Mississippi Delta. Deltans have learned to swim in the humid air, and once the brutal sun set, we were joined by the local mascot, the buzzing and biting mosquito. I had a Dixie Youth baseball game that evening at Bear Pen Park, and everyone knows the yellow baseball lights are a shiny beacon to insects like the Batsignal in Gotham City is to Bruce Wayne. The captive audience of parents and friends gathered around a mini-diamond was like manna from heaven for the bloodsuckers. My parents usually brought lawn chairs to the game, and Dad, being a Southern gentlemen, offered his chair to our guest. She swatted in her chair more than my team swung at the plate. She got up and walked around to try to avoid the buzz and bites. She coated her body in Off! mosquito spray like she was a 14 year old boy slathering on his dad’s cologne before his first school dance. She might have been from Down Under, but I think she would agree there was little difference, in her mind, between Hell and the Delta at that very moment.

Once my game ended, we came home. Our guest stood in our kitchen with tears in her eyes. Her hair was dripping with sweat, and her clothes were soaked with that familiar mixture of repellant and perspiration. Welps and bites covered her body, along with red marks caused by her constant self-inflicted slaps. For our part, Mom, Dad and I acted normal because, hell, it was normal for a Deltan.

“You know, the real mosquitoes don’t come out until July,” Dad said with a sadistic tone in his voice.

An icy glare was the only response. If she would have had a skewer, Dad would have been roasted on the Barbie.

At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Mrs. Dundee woke up my parents with some startling news. Her plans had changed, she said. Sure enough, she had her bags packed by the back door and needed a ride to the bus station. She would continue her trek around the United States, but she had logged enough time in the Mississippi Delta. Apparently, one day of Delta hospitality was enough. I can still see the sly smirk on Dad’s face as he walked out the back door to take our guest to the bus station.

In hindsight, I think she and Mom quit writing to each other shortly thereafter. I guess sometimes long distance relationships are better off remaining long distance. But who knows? Maybe that poor lady’s fingers were too swollen to write anything else after she left us.

  • A version of this post was previously published in The Bolivar Bullet on July 28, 2021.

He’s Pretty Good

Riley Self

Way back when Ashley first described her younger brother and baseball to me, she said he was “pretty good.” I saw him play shortly after, and I agreed. The picture on the far left of this collage is a freshman Riley Self meeting the media for the first time after he dominated Texas Tech in his 2nd career game. He was the toast of Bulldog Nation and the SEC on his way to a Freshman All American year. Life zigs when you think it should zag sometimes, and not every road was straight in the years that followed. There were high-highs and low-lows over the past 5 years. Alex Box called Baton Rouge and the Vandy Boys whistled (a lot), and The Dude even got a makeover about 1/2 way through the trip. Sometimes the right arm cooperated, and honestly, many times, it didn’t.

In all of our lives, we reach a point when our sliders no longer slide and our cutters don’t cut anymore. Athletic glory is intoxicating but all too fleeting. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s memory. How a person acts when the lights aren’t on is when true character reveals itself. The next two pictures are Riley now. He might have had to step away from the mound and into the coaching box, but his leadership and his attitude never changed. For five years, Riley lived his dream for all of us to witness, and he ended it as a national champion.

In some perfect Disney world, Riley came in tonight one last time and found ways to get Vanderbilt hitters out just like he did so many times. But life isn’t perfect, and sometimes our greatest disappointments show us the way to something special. As the writer Ryan Holiday termed it, “the obstacle is the way.” Riley’s career had plenty of obstacles but it ends with that big smile in the middle. His playing days might be over, but his influence over others, on or off the diamond, is just beginning. Ashley was right— Riley is “pretty good.”

And he always will be.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

My Cardinals cap I wore every day of my childhood.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”— A. Bartlett Giamatti

We were ordinary kids who wanted to play ball. We didn’t discuss politics or finances or anything heavy. We just wanted to play ball.

When I was 11 years old, the kids in my neighborhood gathered almost daily at an open lot to play baseball, football, or whatever the sport currently in season. About eight of us kids lived in the neighborhood at the time, and we were like something out of central casting for The Sandlot. We had a pecking order just like any other neighborhood crew — we had the older kid, the talented kid, the big kid, the fast kid, the smart kid, the small kid, the shy kid and of course, the younger kid whose mother rarely allowed him to go outside. Not an evening passed without some combination of our group playing ball while our parents circled the neighborhood block, quietly making sure our childhood bickering didn’t need an adult referee. Our neighborhood was our village. Our field was maintained by the kind man who drove his riding mower down the street every few days. We tracked time by the adults driving by our game on their way home from their jobs, and everyone in the neighborhood knew to keep their eyes out for an errant baseball or even a stray kid when passing that open lot in their car. Every day, we met and played ball.

One particular Saturday afternoon, we were playing when we noticed another group of eight kids edge up to the lot. They were walking so softly you couldn’t hear their feet shuffle on the pavement, as if they thought if they walked quietly enough, then no one would see them. In hindsight, these kids had only traveled from maybe three blocks away but, at that time, in our history, they might as well have traveled from another planet. Like the Greasers and Soc’s in The Outsiders, sixteen kids sized each other up in complete silence as if we were about to rumble. These new kids were basically the same ages as us, and had their own pecking order of ages, sizes and skills. But these kids were different.

These new kids were black. 

After a couple awkward moments of staring at each other, which would have been more awkward had we understood it should be awkward, I recognized someone from the park commission soccer team I played on the previous spring. His name was Joe.

”Joe, do you guys want to play baseball?” I asked.

Joe nodded and looked at his group. They nodded. Not one of them had bats or gloves with them. But they were kids, and we were kids, and that’s all we needed.

Silently, their group walked out to the field while our group dropped our gloves and walked towards our makeshift homeplate. My friends grabbed bats to hit. Joe’s friends all took their positions wearing the gloves we left at our positions. Thus began a bizarre sandlot baseball game featuring two teams divided by race. With the exception of balls clinking off an aluminum bat or the thud of that ball hitting a leather pocket, the game was initially played in silence. Then, as the contest progressed a little, a chatter began— first to our teammates and then to the other team as we passed each other after the third out of every half-inning. Our game continued at that same pace until someone suggested we re-pick the teams and start the game over. Thirty-five years later, I don’t remember the suggestion arising because the game wasn’t evenly matched. Instead, I think it was made because boredom comes quickly to children, and we were always trying to do something more “fun.”

The two best players, one black and one white, were naturally elected as captains and after a quick flip of the glove (we didn’t have a coin), new rosters were chosen. The result? Teams were no longer split along racial lines. Instead, sixteen kids, eight white and eight black, were completely mixed between two teams. We laughed and argued over balls and strikes and safe and out like all kids do. We marveled at how far some kids hit the ball, and we snickered when someone struck out. Just as we were before, we were ordinary kids who just wanted to play ball.

All of us quickly became friends that afternoon. Our group of eight was now a group of sixteen and it remained that way the rest of the summer. We would meet every afternoon to play. It might have been the best summer of my life. In the years that followed that summer, some kids moved away or some lost interest in sports. Boys will be boys and we all fell for the intoxicating combination of girls and gasoline. To this day, though, I still think about those guys. That open lot in our old neighborhood, the scene of so many simple games that unknowingly taught me so much, is no longer open. On it sits a beautiful brick house, a home filled with love and the scene of a new set of memories for another group. But in mind’s eye, I still see the open lot and my friend David’s sweet lefty swing sending another ball into orbit with my other friend Joe chasing down that same ball as it returned to earth. I see myself pulling down my red cap over my eyes and slipping on my brown Rawlings baseball glove, broken in to perfection for another epic chance to pretend I’m the second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember everything about the best summer of my life. I learned a little bit about baseball but a lot more about life.

Pitchers and catchers have reported to their ballclubs for the spring, and it’s nearing Opening Day. My attention is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and I haven’t played in a baseball game since the Reagan administration. My eleven year old self would be disappointed that I really can’t tell you who plays in the middle infield now for the Cards. But no matter how times change and life gets busy, the game stays the same. Like James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams, “one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past.” 

Gosh damn that’s accurate. Let’s play ball.