"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What's in the Box?

Dear Readers,

I went to the trouble of reading through some of the instructions for GIMP. This photo editor is free, fairly useful, and can run on both Windows and Linux. And as far as I know it's legal for me to post my picture here.

I used a single image as a test-bed for all the tools and features I was learning. It turned out fairly...strange. Thus, to my untrained eye it looks "artsy."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Dear Readers,
The first sentence of this story is not mine. It was written by a friend and won a brief facebook like-off to be the sentence starter for a short story. Thanks to everybody who contributed their creativity to help me get some motivation. I finished this story more than a month ago, but my editor persistently argued that it needed more work (I confess this is an inside joke. No, I won't explain it). I'm finally ignoring her advice and posting it anyway. I claim sole responsibility for the bad parts.

This story is dedicated as a strange sort of late wedding present to the (insert favorite positive male adjective here) friend who wrote the first sentence and to his (insert your favorite positive female adjective here) new wife. I'm proud to be sort-of-related to you two, and I hope your stories and legacy will be much more weighty and wonderful than those of the characters in this story.

Four thousand, three hundred and twenty-seven hours, twelve minutes and eighteen seconds ago, Joseph ran into the girl of his dreams - literally. He did not have time to take in her auburn hair (flying behind her as she rounded the end of the aisle), the smile lines beneath and on top of her cheeks (currently doing their best to express complete horror) and the modest silver-link chain that held a gold wedding band around her neck (it was bouncing and jangling madly, somewhat like the several thousand pet toys that were crashing to the floor all around them). Instead, he caught a glimpse of his cat Athena daintily slipping between 50 pound bags of dog food just moments ahead of the floppy-eared blur of brown dog that seemed to gain its mobility through rapid sideways scrabbling of its paws and continual baying.

* * * * *

"That's how long it has been," Aden said through his laughter and the bewildered chuckles of the wedding party, "that's how long it has been since my godfather, Joseph Took, met the love of his life, Madelyn Tinker, and I have the video surveillance evidence to prove it!" He half-shouted the last bit, and, exchanging his watch for the projector remote, switched the slide show to the over-viewed, jerky, low resolution video of the carnage they had all come to know and love. The only thing that wasn't hurtling and colliding was the overlay of the date, August 18 of the previous year.

A woman, just enough younger than Aden to perhaps still be a girl, buried her head in her hands and groaned quietly.

Madelyn reached past one of the bridesmaids and patted her goddaughter-to-be on the shoulder, while addressing Aden. "Did you work that out? For exactly this second?"

"Well, about ten seconds ago now," Aden was almost crying with pleasure, and the entire room was aglow with sentimental congeniality. Even Joseph was rocking in his seat with a severe case of the chuckles. He was fifty-nine years old, and all of life was being rejuvenated around him.

* * * * *

Joseph leaned on his trowel, which itself leaned midget-like on the bench-top, and wondered just how long it had been now. Perhaps Aden would work it out for them at the dinner table that night. Five years, anyway. Five Augusts ago he had made a trip to Joe's Pet Sto' and left out his typical several-hour stop at the garden-store. He hadn't needed to make that stop, because he had decided to close the nursery he operated in his back yard. Then he had met Madelyn and forgotten everything else, and for five glorious, painful years they had continued to serve the plant lovers of their community. But time had rolled along, and this time they really were getting old.

Joseph sighed and examined the old wooden benches. He remembered like yesterday when he'd bought them, all businesslike, to replace their rotting predecessors. It was like the day before yesterday that he'd gotten those... but had Aden been born then? Probably. Had he been walking? Probably not. Did Aden and Adelaide have parents back then? Yes, yes they had, because, he remembered with a shock of old grief, Kevin had helped pick up the benches with his pickup trunk.

Joseph smelled the soil on his wrinkled hands, closed his eyes, and sighed deeply, feeling the ache building up in his back, ready to attack the moment he sat down in his easy chair in the den. Perhaps Madelyn would give him a back-rub if he promised to grill for dinner. Or had he already spent that promise? And would she ever dream of with-holding her love in order to secure promises from him (except in jest, of course), when she knew he wanted to grill for her, and take her car to the mechanic's, and repair the old fence where the teenagers had torn it up...?

Retirement with Madelyn. Enough time to keep the house and yard maintained, and watch Aden be the man he was now, and watch young men break their heart over Adelaide while she broke her heart over that foolish...juvenile...whatever his name was, Fred or Tom or Bill or something. And enough time to be sitting sipping lemonade and knowing the right answers when Aden came and asked whether or not he should take the big job on the other side of the city, and when Adelaide came and asked if Tom or Fred or Bill was a good enough man for her. He didn't know the right answers yet. He realized with a shock that the children would be surprised to know he didn't. That was silly of them; they ought to understand he was still a boy. But children didn't understand things like that; Joseph had learned through painful experience -- 14 year-old Aden raising his voice and shaking his head violently to hide the tears welling in his eyes, yelling "so you don't know what to say; I don't know what to do, and they're never going to speak to me again unless I figure it out!"

Joseph smelled the Earth, and wondered if Aden's friends had ever spoken to him again. How was it he didn't know? Had Aden not told him? Had it worked out so smoothly that there had been no need in Aden's mind to bind up the wound, that was itself the knowledge of a wound, in his godfather?

Athena, sleeping, tumbled off the back of the pansy bench and landed with a thump, a scrabble, and a yowl of lost dignity.

"All right there?" Silly old cat couldn't catch a mouse anymore to save her life. Maybe she would fall on top of them from here on out. She'd always been clever, unlike Clobber, Madelyn's dog, who, with the dubious exception of bringing his mistress and Athena's master together, first in the pet store, then in the damages settlement, and then in holy matrimony, had never done anything remotely clever his entire life. Aden sometimes introduced his godparents to his professors based on this idiosyncrasy in their mutual character. "Madelyn can't stand cats, and Joseph can't stand dogs, and it was their pets chasing each other that got them to meet."

Madelyn always showed off her smile lines and said something feisty but clearly in humor, and Joseph felt all his pomp slip away, and grinned like a kid in a candy store and shuffled whatever distance was between them and put his arm around her, and watched everyone look mildly embarrassed as they observed his unconcealable affection.

Joseph made himself put the spade back in the tool-chest at the front of the floral greenhouse, and walked outside. The last customer had wandered out early this afternoon. He began to put the padlock on, then left it and the others. If someone wanted his and Madelyn's plants so badly, they could have them without breaking the glass, as the teenagers had sometimes done.

Everything must go, the sign in front said. Everything would go soon, now, given away to Madelyn's ladies group, and perhaps some to the church on the corner, and they would have to carry out Aden's plan to "floralize" Adelaide's apartment as a surprise for her while she was on that ill-conceived beach trip with "her girlfriends." Joseph felt an urge to speak these thoughts to Madelyn, so she could listen with chirping comments, like a songbird, and then, when he was finished, smile at him until he made fun of himself for being grumpy at his godchildren's plans.

"Grump grump grump," he said, but without Madelyn there to smile at him so provokingly, he couldn't say it right, the way that made both his godchildren, at whatever age, stop what they were doing and laugh. Athena swished past his legs daintily just before he reached the back patio, a clear display of her regained dignity.

"That's just fine, then," Joseph observed to her, "I didn't even notice. And anyway, Madelyn told you all about how I fell down the Kellers' side steps last weekend, so we're even."

Inside were old wood floors thick-shiny with glaze, like the sheen on the ice rink at Forest Park, after the Zamboni went over it. The furniture was a hodge-podge of old and new. There were pieces from Kevin and Dorothy's place that still occasionally made his heart sting and put a look on his face that inevitably brought Madelyn to his side to lay her head on his chest and sigh with him.

Joseph sat down on the boot bench and pulled off his dirty tennis shoes. The sound of stripping Velcro in the cool quiet drowned out the tick of the grandfather clock from the adjacent dining room and brought old Clobber clobbering into the mudroom. Joseph pondered whether Clobber's entries were becoming more or less catastrophic as the dog went from old to antique. On the one hand, he was becoming even less capable of controlling his thick paws, and it was discovered at his last veterinary visit that he had managed to beg another ten pounds of excess food out of Madelyn (unlike Joseph, who had to meet the boys at Hardee's for breakfast in order to expand his potbelly). On the other hand, Clobber's top speed had diminished significantly, so much so that Joseph had time to think all these thoughts in a leisurely manner between the time that Clobber first spilled out of his bean-bag in the front window seat and the time when Clobber zipped through the propped screen door into the mudroom, lost control as he attempted to turn towards Joseph, over-corrected, and, as usual, slid sideways, legs splayed, nails sampling the glaze, into the pile of boots.

"A spare. Tough luck, Clobber," Joseph murmured disingenuously, indicating the one rubber rain-boot that remained erect, though teetering. Clobber was beginning the process of putting his paws back underneath his body when he noticed that Joseph's now-removed left shoe which was lying next to his nose, had stepped in something fascinating, and decided he was in an advantageous position after all.

"I love you, Madelyn," Joseph said, reminding himself, and, he liked to think, Clobber, why he put up with having his gardening shoes snuffled, licked, gnawed, and hidden on a regular basis.

“I love you too, Joseph,” said Madelyn's voice, and there was a laugh in it. Joseph turned and shook his head at his wife, who had followed Clobber and was standing at the screen door.

“Hello honey,” he said.

“Hey,” she replied. She leaned her shoulder on the door frame and rested her head on it while she grinned at him.

“My back is going to kill me.”

“I'll give you a back rub once the youngsters get here and take over the cooking,” she said, in that precise way she had. “That's it, then. The last day of TinkerTook Greenery and Floral.”

“That's it,” agreed Joseph, standing up with his flip flops on. “I'll grill,” he offered..

“Yes,” said Madelyn, missing his sacrificial tone, “we've got enough hamburger in the refrigerator, and I was thinking of making a bunch of cold salads. The garden gave us enough cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers to feed an army of vegetarians...”

Joseph watched a line of delicious cold salads marching out of Madelyn's imagination towards realization as he followed her through the little back-of-the stairs entry, glanced left to see she had already finished setting the dining table, and turned right into the kitchen. Athena, having attended to some business in the laundry room, reappeared next to her master and let him know with a brush to his ankle that he still belonged to her.

* * * * *

“Hey dad,” said Aden, two hours later, as he rounded the back of the house to where Joseph was standing on the patio grimacing at the hamburgers.

“Hello...son,” said Joseph, surprised by Aden's use of the familial name, usually reserved for particularly meaningful, emotional moments. Aden must figure closing the greenhouse was a big step for his god-father.

Which it was.

His thoughts on the matter were interrupted by “Joseph, this is Kayla Lunceford.”

“Oh,” Joseph shook hands with Kayla, who said,

“It's great to meet you, Mr. Took.”

“Well, it's good to meet you too. Madelyn told me Aden was bringing a friend, but I thought that meant someone as bad-looking as he is!” he waited for the laughter to subside, and added, more quietly, “Call me Joseph, Kayla.”

“Ok,” she said, “call me Kay,” and they were done with the awkward pleasantries and were free to leave their positions. Kayla went in through the back door, to the safety of Adelaide and to be introduced to Madelyn. Aden and Joseph embraced, and began to chat about the logistics of closing, interspersing comments on grilling technique, until the girls came out to say hello. Madelyn waved messy hands at Aden affectionately and disappeared back to the kitchen.

Adelaide said “Hi, Joseph,” with a gratuitous smile, and Joseph noticed a smile cross Aden's face, divined that it was due to the fact that Adelaide and Kayla were linked arm-in-arm, and applauded himself for how well he had learned from Madelyn how to “read people.”

“Hello, little 'laidy,” said Joseph, and relished her blush and quick glance at the ground. Kayla laughed without opening her mouth, and Adelaide whispered something to her that the men couldn't hear. Then Athena, sensing a kindred spirit, left her supervisor's post in the grass by the grill to be picked up by Adelaide.

“How are you, goddad?” asked Adelaide, leaning over to examine the uncooked burgers waiting their turn on the grill, her skinny, pale legs ramrod straight over her painted toes and flip-flops. Athena was dangling over heaven...

“All right, my dear. I hope once your godmother finishes whatever magic it is she's up to in the kitchen that you three will take over while I get a back-rub.”

“Sure. Right now I'm gonna show Kay the greenhouses. Hey,” she raised an eyebrow and, with difficulty, brushed her hair back behind her ears while still holding Athena, “Is it ok if we take stuff?”

“There's some flowers marked for Madelyn, but other than that...” Joseph motioned generously.

“'k. Thanks!” They strolled across the grass.

“How's work?” Joseph asked Aden, then checked himself. “Just the quick version now, or else you'll have to say it all again for Madelyn at the table.”

“Then the one-word summary?" Aden stroked his young beard. “Dull.”

“I look forward to hearing more over dinner,” Joseph tossed Aden a wide-eyed glance of mock fear.

“How's retirement?” asked Aden quietly, neglecting to leave the appropriate pause in the conversation before asking a serious question.

“So far so good,” joked Joseph, slapping a piping hot burger onto the tray.

Aden said nothing.

“I think back to before I met Madelyn a lot more, more than anytime since I've known her.”

“Because you were ready to close then?”

“I suppose. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't met her. I wonder if that's going to happen now.”

Inside they heard Madelyn singing a melody with no discernible words.

* * * * *

“It's a good thing you're here,” Joseph said to Kayla, leaning towards her confidentially, unaware of the spot of mustard on his chin. “No family gathering is complete without a telling of The Story, but it's best if there's someone who hasn't heard it before.”

“Oh, Joseph,” fussed Madelyn, and, noticing the mustard, she attacked his face with her napkin.

Kayla smiled and glanced with raised eyebrows at Aden, across from her. He waggled his own eyebrows back.

“How they met,” Adelaide said to her in a low voice.


“I came prepared,” said Aden, digging out his wallet, and, from it, a piece of paper.

“Really?” mocked Adelaide.

“Of course.” Aden, unphased, noted the paper and held up his watch.

“At the time of the tone,” he said in his deepest voice, “The time since Joseph and Madelyn met will be...forty-four thousand and ninety-six hours, thirty-two minutes and thirty seconds.”

“Wha-ha-ha-at?” laughed Kayla.

“Well, there's this nice place about a half an hour's drive from here, that both Madelyn and Joseph frequented,” Aden said.

“Joe's Pet Sto'” Adelaide explained emphatically.

“And, ah, let's say Clobber and Athena got a little excited when they saw each other.”

“Clobber has never chased anything...” Madelyn interjected.

“Athena is the most peaceful...” Joseph said at the same time. They eyed each other and Madelyn gestured with her fork and head for him to go on.

“Thank you, dear. You see, every other time I've had Athena around dogs, the only danger is that she'll try to climb onto my head to get away. This time, she claws at me. Well, I dropped her. And instead of hiding, she runs straight for the...dog,” Joseph self-censored any adjective that might have come to mind, “and runs past him so close I think he thought he had caught her.”

“You see, normally Clobber is content to strain a little and sniff at cats,” Madelyn took over, applying knife and fork to her hamburger while she talked. “So I don't pay too much attention. Well! The leash was out of my hands before I even saw that cat and I turned around to see Clobber running along the aisle, trying to jump up to the third shelf, where this white fluffy thing was zipping along, knocking off everything in sight, both of them were! So of course I ran after them.”

“I was running at something of an oblique angle,” said Joseph gruffly. “We, ah, didn't see each other.”

“Next thing I knew,” Madelyn was bouncing with laughter now, “I was lying on the ground, not sure where I was, and there was this man on top of me!”

“So,” Aden said, “Cats aren't supposed to knock stuff over, right? And Athena's like that, I mean, has she even broken anything?”

“Outside of that day? Not a darn thing,” answered Joseph.

“So, the only way to explain it is she was doing it on purpose,” Aden shrugged.

“Anyway, we would have just blushed and apologized and been on our separate ways...” said Madelyn.

“She would have blushed, not me,” Joseph told Kayla.

“If it hadn't been for where Athena lead him...”

“Where Clobber chased her,” Joseph told Kayla.

Kayla waited, eyes wide, a bite of potato salad forgotten on her fork.

“The fish section,” said Adelaide.

“Clobber is something of a canine bowling ball,” noted Joseph.

“Ah!” protested Madelyn, not having heard that one before.

“The damages,” Aden took up his role as numbers-keeper, “Amounted to five thousand, seven hundred and seventy-four dollars, and seventy-two cents.”

“That included several tanks, and, ah, their contents,” Joseph rearranged bits of bell pepper and onion on his plate.

“So Joseph and Madelyn have to go meet with all these lawyers to settle the damages, or else go to court!” Aden continued.

“And there,” Madelyn took over proudly, “I discovered a humble, thoughtful, friendly old gentleman, who was so loyal to his pet that he wouldn't budge an inch to recognize that it was his cat who was the root cause of the problem. He reminded me of Max, my first husband.”

“And there,” Joseph said, “Was this quiet, refined, yet feisty young woman who was so afraid of the trouble she was in, but wouldn't budge an inch over 'the facts' and 'justice'.”

“Young!” Madelyn laughed. The children just laughed.

“I've always thought the neighborly, informal approach is best,” said Joseph, “So, after the first meeting leaves the Pet Store lawyer about ready to take both of us to court, I suggest to this lady that we discuss the matter over coffee.”

“I was a little offended by his forwardness, as if he could bribe me out of a perfectly reasonable position by being so sweet and winning!”

“I wasn't trying to be winning, and I certainly wasn't sweet,” Joseph shook his head.

“And we got nowhere! He was so terribly stubborn and unreasonable.”

“I thought I was sweet and winning...”

“So then, he called me, can you imagine?”

“I thought maybe a second cup of coffee might help.”

“You were scared of going to court, dear,” Madelyn corrected almost apologetically. “Well, at that point I knew something was up. I told myself I would go and tell him exactly what I thought of him, and he would never try such antics again, and perhaps we would be taken to court, but there wasn't anything I could do about that. And, well,” Madelyn turned red and attended to her hamburger.

“That's all right dear, I'll finish,” Joseph said knowingly. “We tried to talk about the case, but there wasn't really anything to say that hadn't already been said, and then she told me what she thought of me, and after all the negative items, some of which you've already heard, she mentioned that it was truly despicable of me to attempt to use my masculine attraction to sway her opinion of the case. Now, Kayla, I don't know if Aden told you I was never truly in love before I knew Madelyn. What with being in the service, and then my business, well, there was never time and there was never the right person. So I was a bit unprepared to handle the feelings that I had begun to feel during our first coffee. And when Madelyn accused me of trying to work my wiles on her, all I heard was that she thought I was charming. I've never been a man to string things out. I don't remember the rest of that conversation, but I showed up on her doorstep the next day and explained how things were.” He chuckled. “Her face looked something like it does now.”

Madelyn's face was so red by this time that her smile lines were like folds in a dried red pepper.

“Oh!” she said, and hid her face in her napkin.

* * * * *

They and their young guests walked out to the sign at dusk.

TinkerTook Greenery and Flowers: Everything Must Go Sale.

They changed the last line.

* * * * *

If you drive down Manchester road, the signs fly by in quick succession. If you bother trying to read them, it's hard to finish each before it passes:

Church of the Atonement: Service Times...
Flags and Other Assorted Stuff...
Joe's Bar: “Happy Hour” $1 beer...
Tinker Took Greenery and Flowers: We've Retired. Thank You...
Bank of Savings: Great CD Rate of 0.1 %...
McBurgers: New! Fruity Beverage with Caffeine...
Shopping Center: Chinese Food, Arts and Crafts, Bike Repair...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Unidentified Flying Anecdotes

Arranged chronologically as they transpired, from the author's perspective, as he traveled from Chicago O'Hare to St Louis.

At a security checkpoint. A wisened TSA agent addresses the crowd as they queue for ID check
"When you get over here, please look for the shortest line and go to it. Don't all go stand in the longest line. People in Soviet Russia used to be forced to stand in line for bread and milk. Well, here in America Madison avenue has trained you to do it for a phone upgrade that you could get in ten days with no line at all!"
And, later,
"I'm sorry about the short lines. I promise it will never happen again."

Arriving at the moment of truth, where the author typically discovers which article of metallic or forbidden material he has forgotten to remove from his person, he, as usual, discovers he lacks the courage to opt-out of the microwave scanner. Plus, scanners are cool. In the long run, the TSA wastes more time on him than if he'd gone straight for the groping, since they go to the trouble of scanning him, asking him for the second time if he's left anything in his pockets, and then groping him anyway.
"So much for the short line," comments the gentleman following the author, but in a friendly manner.

Later, on the plane. The author is reading his book and secretly paying a lot of attention to the off-duty pilot seated next to him. Perhaps a conversation opening will lead to a chance to share the Gospel.
In the back, two attendants are preparing the beverage cart. Another arrives from the front, but addresses the pilot next to the author.
"Can I borrow you for a second?" she asks.
"Sure," he replies.
"Do you know how to fly this plane at all?" she inquires mildly.
As they begin to proceed up the aisle she points vaguely left, towards one of the engines.
"Can you hear that?"
The author notices that the plane has been banking left for a while now, or would listing be a better word? The author hopes that either an engine has gone out, thus, Adventure! or that the flight attendant just wanted to chat and thought it would be fun to scare some passengers, thus, Humor!
The author grins from ear to ear at both possibilities.
Shortly thereafter the pilot mentions that the seatbelt sign has been turned off. "Feel free to use the restrooms, but you really don't want to use the one at the front. It seems we've developed a little squeal in the door. The cabin's good; the pressure's good, it's just really loud..."

"Squeaky door?" the author asks the off-duty pilot when he returns from his quest to the front of the cabin.

As it turns out, the rubber seal sometimes gets pinched or folded in the space between door and fuselage, and vibrates at high frequency, sounding something like an alarm.

The author later disembarks, and tiredly heads towards the exit. Re-routed through the terminal in the name of renovation, the author notices music he likes playing overhead and smiles to himself. A harried gentleman with a viola case and a foreign accent asks which way to baggage. Seeing a sign with that word on it, the author helpfully points it out and sends the gentleman upstairs. Too late to call him back the author notices that the sign is for baggage check-in. So much for American helpfulness, or, at least, American directions.

Later, in the economy parking lot. Having been deposited without mishap next to Manvan, the author speaks soothing words to his neglected beast of burden and guides it to the gates. There he discovers a self-service credit card lane. The instructions instruct him to insert his parking slip into the slot. He does so. The instructions instruct him to insert his credit card. He balks. The ticket, after all, hasn't come back. Plus, what slot can talk to both slips and cards? Wearied into obedience, he inserts his card, which is rather perkily consumed by the multi-tasking slot. After a brief moment of terror, his card is returned to him unharmed. Willing to hope all things, he hits the receipt button, and is not disappointed. The slot returns his slip, upon which is now imprinted the receipt of payment! The author, overwhelmed by this tri-purpose feat of technology, is glad that in a few short minutes he will be home.