Posted in Five Friday Happy Bringers

Five Friday Happy Bringers — 8/15/14


I love these lazy, hazy crazy days of summer!  Here’s Nat King Cole singing about them.  Listen as you read the Happy Bringers:

1.  Friendly dogs coming up to me as I sit and read in Washington Square — “my square” here in Savannah’s historic district.


2.  Going to the Meet Your Classmates and Teachers Social at Grandson Gabriel’s Pre-K class at Savannah Country Day.


(My grandies call me Abu.  Read why here.)

3.  Making up a cool recipe the other night — Sautéed Collards with Red Beets and Onions.


4.  The (frequent) sight and sound and smell of late afternoon heavy rain in Savannah.


(Outside my living room window.)


5.  The sheer joy of being enthusiastic.


Here a wonderful article about that very subject:

Enthusiasm is the Key to Happiness

Have a gloriously enthusiastic weekend ahead!

Posted in Humor, The Joy and Wisdom of Children

Magic Dream Spray


Do other folks out there do what my family does?  All get iPhones and set up a little Family Group Messaging System?  Well, my two daughters Amy and Emily, along with Donna (even though divorced now, we remain the best-est of friends) have done just that.  And it’s such an incredibly efficient strategy for staying in touch, bothering each other constantly and having SO MUCH FUN!

The other night, daughter Amy (and mother of grandsons Daniel, 7 and Gabriel, 4) sent us this text.


I LOVE faith-stretching strategies such as that!  My response:


A bit more of Amy’s explanation:




End of discussion until a couple of days later when we received this text from Amy as she, Orte and the boys were driving down to Florida for the weekend:


Family … magical.

Maybe that’s what family is … Magic Dream Spray.

Posted in In Our Own Backyard, Savannah Joy

Tybee Lifeguarding


So this morning I decided to “do church” by driving twenty minutes south from my place in Savannah’s historic district to Tybee Island.  Even though the dark clouds kept threatening to open up, I communed with nature and thanked God for the beauties of creation.

(I wanted to take up an offering, but the obviously heathen beachcombers just would not cooperate.)

So I walked.


And looked.


And listened.

And then, lo and behold, at one point I glanced up from checking my stock portfolio …


… and all of a sudden JUST KNEW what my Tybee trip this morning was Really All About:

“Look!  I am meant to Be a Lifeguard!”


And, clearly, the island is in dire need–the lifeguard stand stands sadly empty.


“Hey you!  Yes you!”


“I’m talking to you!”


“That swimming suit looks ridiculous on you!!  What were you thinking?!”


And a little later:

“Oh gosh, someone’s in trouble!  I gotta take action!”


After the life save, I hurried back up to my post 14.


And then this “official” rescue personage came driving up …


… and asked me what the heck I was doing on a condemned life guard stand.  Like it wasn’t crystal clear that I was saving lives while he was golf-carting around and looking at girls.

“Sir, for future reference, please do not climb on these old structures.  And be careful climbing down.”

(As if a fit lifeguard like me would have any issues.)


If you need me at the beach, rest assured, I will be on the lookout.

Posted in In Our Own Backyard

September Oaks Revisited


Last Saturday I revisited September Oaks Vineyards— a small but incredibly beautiful boutique winery in Ridgeland, SC.  On my first trip to SOV about a year ago, I fell in love with the place–as well as the fun and friendly folks who work there, especially Nikki Davis …


… a kindred spirit, who at the time of my first trip (and the above pic) worked part-time at September Oaks and taught high school English in Ridgeland.  Thus, we hit it off as fellow English teachers right from the start.  Nikki has since become a faithful blog follower and happiness promoter.

For this second visit, good friends Robert and Edward (such strong, classical names–who names their child “Neal”?  And with an “a”?) accompanied me along lazy U.S. 17 on the forty-five minute trip from Savannah.

The entrance to September Oaks is as beautiful as the place itself.


So I motored down the old oak-lined entryway and parked Skedaddler.  (My little car’s name.  What?  You don’t name your vehicles?  Well, why not?  And, what?  You think “motored” sounds a little silly and pretentious?  Well, I would too under normal circumstances, but those ancient oaks and the incredible fall weather made me want to talk British-fancy.)


A special event was going on that day:  A Novel Wine Tasting & Literary Festival, featuring readings and book signings from over two dozen authors.  Such fun!  (More about that later … with a Princess Diana twist.)


So we sauntered (there I go again) into the tasting room, paused just inside the door because the place was booming with folks at the counter, and glanced around.  But not for long–because suddenly I heard a hooting and hollering, and saw Nikki rushing toward me and giving me a big hug, as if I were, oh I don’t know, a World Famous Blogger or something!  It was so cool to see her again.


We waited our turn for the tasting and then belly-ed up to the beautiful new counter …


… which is made from crushed wine bottles poured in layers to give the appearance of a flowing river amid vineyards.  WHO thinks to do creative stuff like that?!  When I think of crushed bottles, I always remember the time as a kid when I stepped on a broken Coke bottle and had to have a terribly painful and tear-producing tetanus shot.  And let’s be honest, nobody wants to see THAT scene worked into a wine tasting counter!

Anyway, we met our pourer Annette (delightful), who led us through three whites and three reds, from dry to sweet.  We were asked to score each wine on a scale of 1-5 points.  And I probably don’t need to tell you, but wine has alcohol in it!  Edward and Robert were SO much better at the taste scoring than I.  Really.  They swirled the wine around, smelled it deeply, commented on its color, and even had exaggerated expressions on their faces after each tasting which somehow seemed to register their definite approval or casual dismissal.  They even made comments such as, “Oh yes, I would serve this one with fruit and chocolate” or “This white would pair perfectly with fresh, local seafood.”  Me?  What was I doing?  Well, before I answer, look at the picture below.  Although the photo is a bit dark, here I am with Edward and Robert.


My biggest concern during our tasting was not wine aroma or pairing possibilities … but that woman in the right edge of the picture.  See her?  You can’t tell from the pic, but she’s really close (too close in my opinion) to the two heavenly smelling featured dishes at the tasting–southern seafood gumbo, and shrimp and grits–and she’s actually somewhat blocking my path to the food.  All through the tasting I kept glancing over my shoulder and worrying about how I could get past her.

Here’s a lighter picture of Robert and Edward.  I took it mainly to get a better perspective on how to get past that lady.


I did it!


Here’s Nikki with Evie Woods, wife of September Oaks owner Grady Woods:


And here I am with Evie:


And here’s Evie between two wine bottles:


And here’s Evie eating gumbo:


And here’s Evie feeding me gumbo:


After the wine (and food) tasting, Annette asked if we would like a tour of their new barrel room.  Well, who’s gonna turn that down?


On your visit (and of course you’re going to visit soon), look closely and you’ll see my shadowy spirit protectively overseeing the oak barrels.


Oh my gosh.  Look what showed up next in the warehouse area:


A set of drums!  So of course I had to play a while.


It would have been so much more enjoyable for myself and the others if I knew how to play drums.  Oh well, we moved on to the big steel barrels.


Next, we ventured outside to the vineyard and the literary reading.


Here’s Jack and Robin Firestone, authors of Chasing Diana.  The Firestones were in Paris on the night of Diana’s fatal car crash sixteen years ago … and were in the tunnel … and saw the wreck!  Chasing Diana is their fascinating story.  Here they are reading excerpts from the book.


And here I am harassing them.


Evie and Grady, SOV’s gracious owners and hosts.


What a joyful Saturday afternoon.  I hereby declare September Oaks to be the Official Winery of!

A special thanks to Robert Smith for taking most of the pictures in this post.

Read the blog post about my first visit here:  SOV 1.

Posted in Delicious Joy

Tomato Joy

To me, the perfect picture of summer happiness is this …


… vine-ripened tomatoes.  The color, the smell, the taste and the memories of tomato summers gone by.

The above beauties went into my okra-tomato gumbo.


Come on over!

Posted in Delicious Joy

Pot Pie Smiles

One of my earliest joyful memories as a kid finds me meandering off, on warm summer mornings, to the community playground near my house in Cochran Field, near Macon, Georgia.  My best friend Billy and I would play until our mothers brought us chicken pot pies and sweet tea.  Sitting at the weathered, wooden picnic tables, we would  gobble down our pot pies in their little aluminum containers (which we repurposed as treasure collectors).

I have always loved the creamy texture, the flaky crusts, the green peas and carrots, and the homey, Mama-ish warmth of chicken pot pies (or turkey pot pies but NOT cheesy or veggie pot pies).  Of course, they were FROZEN SOLID forty-five minutes before I had all those lovey feelings as a child.  And back then, I didn’t realize that our mothers were watching The Price Is Right or Queen for a Day instead of preparing fresh, homemade lunches for us boys.

So after buying organic vegetables from the local farm-to-table community market (doesn’t that make me sound health-oriented and grounded yet hip and on-target?), I decided to make a homemade chicken pot pie.  HOMEMADE

First of all, do you have ANY clue how long it takes to chop carrots, celery, peppers and potatoes?  Boil the corn and then scrape it off the cob?  Grate the rosemary?  Roll out the dough?  (Okay, okay, all I did was roll it out of the carton, but still.)

But, oh my goodness, what fun! I may become a famous TV chef or something!




Swanson’s may do it faster, but not better!

Posted in Life Experiences

10 Reasons I Loved My Little Trip to Visit My Folks

Early yesterday morning I drove up to my north-of-Atlanta hometown of Ball Ground for a short visit with my mom and dad.

dec 772

My dad–Harold or Tub–is 89 (90 in November–come to the party!), and my mom–Geneva–turned 86 in May.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun we have when I visit.  They taught me (are still teaching me) to laugh, to enjoy life.

Here are Ten Reasons I loved my little visit.

1.  The early dinner that awaited me upon my 11 am arrival.  Okay, for some of you this will be a bit confusing, but in Ball Ground lunch is called dinner, and dinner is called supper.  (Breakfast is called Hardees.)


My favorite meal in the whole wide world consists of 1.) my dad’s creamed yellow corn.  2.) My mom’s fried sweet potatoes.  3.)  A tomato and an onion.


The corn is scraped, raw, from the cob and meticulously cooked stove top, stirring constantly to keep it from scorching.  It has the taste of heaven.


These sweet potatoes look a little burnt, and they should.  That gives them the carmelized flavor.  Cooked in a large cast iron pan, there’s nothing better.  One stick butter, one cup sugar, sliced sweet potatoes.  Orange joy.


Oh.  My.  Goodness.  Thank you, Jesus.

2.  The bird clock in my parents’ bathroom.


I like it best when the batteries get old, and the hourly bird calls become eerily elongated.

3.  Walking around my folks’ small house (which my dad built BY HAND 34 years ago), looking at the bushes and trees.


4.  Eating supper at Cracker Barrel.  During the meal a very overweight but jolly lady came over to our table and said to my mom, “Honey, can I give you a hug?  You remind me so much of my little grandma.”  “Why, of course!” Mama replied.

“”Our hugs come in twos,” my dad said with a laugh.  And then was amply rewarded.

I thought about saying, “What about me?  Three’s company.”  But my mouth was full of turnip greens and chow chow.

5.  My mother repeatedly getting her supper choice, “eggs in the basket,” confused with a meal she had about forty years ago at IHOP called “pigs in a blanket.”


“Now what do you call this again, Neal?”

From the Cracker Barrel menu:  Eggs in the Basket–Two slices of Sourdough Bread grilled with an egg in the middle of each, cooked to order and served with smoked sausage patties, turkey sausage patties or thick-sliced bacon and your choice of Fried Apples or Hashbrown Casserole.

6.  Still at Cracker Barrel, as my dad stood in line at the counter paying (he INSISTED), another lady just finishing with paying her bill, saying to my dad, “Here, sir, let me pay for part of your meal with the rest of my gift card.  Happy early Father’s Day?”  And my dad, a bit confused at first, trying to PAY her for the gift card, before she finally hugged him and said, “No, no, I want to do this for you for an early Father’s Day present!” (While I stood over to the side between the pulled taffy and the Brad Paisley cd, unsuccessfully holding back laughter.)

As we finally left Cracker Barrel, my mom said to my dad, “You sure are hugging a lot of women today.  I gotta get you out of this place.”

7.  After loading mom’s walker in the trunk, and getting us all in the car, my mom, saying, “Tub, you should have asked that lady what days she usually eats at Cracker Barrel,” sending the three of us into giggles for two red lights, when I said to them, “I wonder if she would like to adopt us as her other family,” (which really wasn’t all that funny, but still got us roaring all over again, in the way you sometimes do when laughter is in the air.)  Pulling off the Ball Ground exit from I-575, my dad said, “Those hugs were a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.”  Because, of course, it was only 5:00 and we had already finished supper.

8.  The feeling, even at my age, of being HOME.

9.  The difficult but important discussion we had on this trip about what my mother would do if my dad died first.

“I just hope to goodness I go before Tub.”

“Now Neever (his version of Geneva), we can’t control those things.”

“What I really wish is that we could just go at the same time,” my mom said with total sincerity.

“Well, that might be possible,” my dad said with a twinkle in his eye, “the way I’ve been driving lately.”  And we all laughed, at something so unfunny.

10.  Experiencing irony as I was leaving Ball Ground the next day, stopping by a convenience store for a Yoo Hoo and a lottery ticket.   The long-time teller printing out my ticket, as she mouthed, “straight to hell,” the lyrics of a country song blaring from the radio, and then handing me my Power Ball and saying, “You have a blessed day, sir!”

A joyful, blessed trip.

Posted in Life Experiences, Neal's Writing

Learning and Teaching from The World’s Smallest Lady

August–the time of year when school bells ring again.  Teachers everywhere commence their incredible annual charge of encouraging students to develop their true sight, their true voices, and their intellectual joy.  School at every level should be a haven where young learners want to be.  And the teacher, though underpaid and overworked, is key.  Some years back, as I spent a summer month participating in the Georgia Southern Writing Project, I was asked to write about what birthed the teacher in me.  I knew immediately the answer: The World’s Smallest Lady.

small fair

The World’s Smallest Lady

As I dialed the telephone recently to check on the condition of the terminally ill father of a childhood friend from my hometown, I kept trying to keep the memory from surfacing.  I hadn’t thought about it in ages.  An incident from several decades ago surely didn’t still have the power to take control of my thoughts, to interrupt my life.  But the truth is, that memory is too powerful to ignore, too embarrassing, too haunting to dismiss.  And as I listened to Ricky’s phone ringing in one ear, the years faded, and the jumbled noises of an old Cherokee County Fair started sounding in the other, accompanied by reminiscent sights and even smells, which are such an integral part of a southern autumn carnival…

…I was thirteen, old enough to know better.  Ricky, Fred, and I had just staggered off The Bullet and found ourselves walking down Freak Show Alley.  Outside one attraction, a hawker was shouting at passersby to “Step inside and see The World’s Smallest Lady!  Only twenty-six inches tall!  For only a quarter!”  So, laughing, into the tent we hurried, just the three of us.

And there, surprisingly close to us on a small black round table, stood what indeed had to be The World’s Smallest Lady.  She was dressed in a little gaudily sequined gypsy outfit.  A short screaming-red skirt revealed two chubby stumps of legs.  But she wasn’t a child, even though she was so tiny.  Her face looked old, and I could see wrinkles beneath the cheap, garish make-up.  It was her very large head, however, topped with a gaudy, shiny gold crown, which really captured my attention.  I couldn’t stop staring, and why should I?  I’d paid my quarter.

So we gawked and snickered, three carefree young teenagers at the fair, secure and even innocent in our youth, our health, our futures, our “normality.”  Then Fred loudly whispered, “Damn, y’all, look at the size of that head compared to the rest of her body.  And her butt is bigger than mine!”

But it was Ricky, the member of our inseparable trio capable of doing and saying anything for a laugh–who, in reckless teenage cruelty, did the unimaginable.  Before anyone had time to react, Ricky stepped over the velvet rope, reached out to The World’s Smallest Lady, and jerked her gypsy skirt down to her ankles.  He ran out of the tent, followed by Fred, giggling and yelling, “Neal, let’s get out of here!”

But I couldn’t.  My feet were glued to the sawdust, and for a second or two, my eyes looked directly into those of The World’s Smallest Lady.  The dimension of time ceased, no one existed except for her and me, and those humiliated, prostituted, tiny eyes took away my innocence and my security.  As I stared, and stared, the plates beneath my small, comfortable, well-defined earth were shifting, ever so slightly, quaking.  Finally, as she reached down, pulling up her skirt to cover her nakedness, The World’s Smallest Lady spoke in a voice that seemed more resigned than angry: “You boys can just go to hell.”

As I hurried out of that tent and away from that sawdust and those piercing eyes, a startling transformation occurred, the full impact of which I wasn’t aware at the time: a sideshow midget, a twenty-five cent carnival attraction, a freak, became a regular human being with regular human feelings in the frightened yet awakening eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy.



I learned from my encounter with The World’s Smallest Lady the danger and horror of living in a world where we construct walls which establish the category of “other”–with ourselves being the privileged, the truly knowledgeable, the valuable, the ones who really count, the normal…and “other” being defined by gender, race, class, IQ, physical disability, sexual orientation, etc.  I learned that when we cast our dominant “gaze” patronizingly on others, we diminish ourselves as human beings as well as do violence to those we belittle.  I also learned–years later and after much reflection and life experience–that a teacher is one who refuses to allow the binary of “us/them” to operate in (or outside) the classroom.

May the new school year be one of JOY for students and teachers the world over.


Posted in Joy in Nature, Savannah Joy

Welcome to My Backyard, the Alley of the Angels

Welcome to the alley of the angels

Hey, they say your eyes can gleam

When you can a just tell the truth all night

(And you can chase them dreams all night)

Welcome to the alley of the angels.

 — John Cougar Mellencamp

Places–I love the poetic resonance of that word. Some places are special; you had them growing up, of course you did. And do now. Magical places. Special because of their cocoonishness, or their broad openness. Their smell, or their connection to friends or family. Their lightness, or darkness. Their safety, or risk.

So I was aghast a few years back when I attended a writing conference at the Sea Turtle Inn in Atlantic Beach, FL, and one afternoon decided to skip the meetings and drive down memory lane. I headed south to Jacksonville Beach to find the motel where my family and I vacationed from about the time I was six or seven till I went away to college. It had those wonderful beds where you inserted a quarter into the headboard, and the mattress vibrated! For fifteen minutes! My mother, father and brothers would all hop on. Who needed the Ritz?

I knew exactly where the Horseshoe Motel stood. I had been there SO many times as a kid. But I started to doubt myself when I passed the lifeguard station and came to the ridiculously sharp turn in the road far beyond my memory motel location. I can be dense, so it took me at least three to-and-fro trips before I realized (admitted?) that the place had been demolished for a condo. Sad. A childhood place gone for good.


I live in beautiful downtown Savannah, smack-dab in the middle of the nation’s largest historic district, to be exact. I can hear the huge freighters blowing their bass notes at night …


… as well as the clatter of horseshoes as carriages tour past Colonial Park Cemetery across the street.


I love walking the Savannah streets, breathing history.


I don’t really have a backyard, in the traditional sense of the word. But, boy, do I have a backyard! It’s really a small alley, which runs behind the building where I live.

Even though it is communal, and somewhat small, there are hidden crannies where one can sit and read, or laptop, or daydream. It exudes a trace of otherwordliness, a fragrance of excursion. I step into my “backyard,” and suddenly I’m in Europe–Florence, Italy perhaps, trying to decide on which trattoria to frequent. I sit to read in its botanical wealth and am lost, not just in the book’s maze, but in the place, the green, the leafyness, the nowness of nature.

This place calls me to look up, to pause and see.

To view from unfamiliar perspectives and angles.

A tremendous perk of having place appreciation is that windows appear, and open (or shut), and allow you to see just what you desire to see. Or simply, and deliciously, to dream.

There’s power in place.

Both growth and potential growth. Both static and kinetic.

Sometimes sitting is all that’s needed in life. To embrace “is-ness,” accept “am-ness.” Breathing in, breathing out.

A sense and celebration of place, our place, they gift us with calm assurance that we are where we are, for good reason. That rhythm and movement take us (or keep us) where we need to be.


My backyard invites me to …

And such encouragement affirms the heart of this attempt at blogging.