Sunday, February 20, 2011

Three years later, she remains more than just memory

Marisa Joy Williams
before the prom in 2005,
just less than three years
before her death.

What wounds time fails to heal are those whose aches remind us that we have survived.

I still walk outdoors on a cool springtime morning when there’s not a cloud in the deep blue sky and tremble at the memory of the day, three years ago, when a trooper’s phone call awoke us to tell us she was gone.

It’s amazing how much life has changed in that time. And how little, considering the most beautiful and perfect of days remains a bittersweet reminder.

Marisa Joy Williams was my son’s best friend, and she was like a second daughter to us. Regular readers of this column will know that she died in a single car accident on Feb. 23, 2008, driving in a thunderstorm to pick up her boyfriend, who had been stranded when his car broke down. She was 18.

The next morning, the sun rose anyway. The sky was blue, the air crisp and cool. For three years, the sun has continued to rise each day.

As those days passed, Marisa’s parents, Donna and Charles, and her extended family and friends raised money and last year established a perpetual scholarship fund in her memory at Gulf Coast Community College, where she had earned her associate’s degree in technical theater. A playground was constructed and named for her on the grounds of her church, Springfield Methodist.

She will not soon be forgotten. Years from now, children will play in the Joy Playground and students will continue to receive the scholarship in her name. Her memory will live on long after those of us who tremble at perfect spring mornings are gone.

Three years later, I still can hear a noise at the front door in the morning and look up from my coffee, half expecting Marisa to be standing there. Every day for the better part of two years, she would come by to pick up my son for school and would have apple juice in a Mason jar. He was always late getting ready, and we would talk as she waited.

Now I can’t even buy apple juice without thinking of her — particularly, how she reacted one morning when she came in to get her regular jar and discovered brand name juice in the fridge instead of the Walmart label. She gave me a skeptical look as she poured and drank.

“Yuck,” she said, and I asked if the new juice was too refined for her palette. She took another drink, made a face and shook all over.

We still only buy the store brand.


This was my Undercurrents column for the News Herald on Sunday, Feb. 20.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

A true story from the heart for Valentine’s

If you don’t know what today is, this is your wake-up call. Meanwhile, here’s a true Valentine’s Day story:
It was 1981, and “Brother Tim” was a youth pastor at a Baptist church in Flomaton, Ala. Part of his job was to open the church’s recreation center on Saturday nights for teens and pre-teens to hang out.

They had skating on the indoor basketball court some nights, and some nights they played basketball. There was a bowling lane, a snack room with cola and chip machines, and upstairs was an open balcony/loft with pool and foosball tables.

As he checked out the skates to a long line of kids, Tim played music over the P.A. — contemporary Christian tunes and love songs. You know, to match the day. It was a good crowd, and he enjoyed joking with the kids, even though he’d have preferred to stay home with his own family on this night.

As they skated, he’d call out girls only or guys only, or all-skate or couples only, and the kids would comply. He noticed no one was skating during the couples-only calls, but he kept trying.

One time when Tim made the call and everyone dutifully found a place to sit off the court, two strangers met. The boy had been attending the church for a few months, and the girl had come to the rec center with her cousin, who was a church member. The boy admitted to the girl that he could barely skate and said that, if she’d hold him up, he’d skate with her.

She held his hand and they circled the boundaries of the basketball court. For a minute or two, they pretty much had the space to themselves.

(Within a couple of days, they both would discover that she had been exposed to poison ivy when helping a friend haul firewood that morning. To say she got under his skin would be an understatement.)

She started attending the church too. They sang in the youth choir together, and Brother Tim led them in music as well as their moral development. Too young to date, they saw each other on weekends at the rec center, and Tim kept an eye on them.

In a couple of years, Brother Tim left the state for a job at another church. By then, the kids had begun dating for real and stopped hanging out at the rec center.

Tim returned almost five years later to sing at their wedding.

Now 30 years later, and with at least one broken heart between them, that little girl is still holding that boy’s hand and helping him get around — and they owe it, at least in part, to Brother Tim, who opened the rec center one Valentines Day.


This was originally posted as my Undercurrents column for The News Herald in 2008. I slightly edited for use today.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Tao Of Pooh

Tao: It's pronounced "dow," like the stock market listings. Simply put, it means "the way."

In Confucian confusionism, it comes to mean "teaching," as in a knowledge that must be imparted, learned and followed. In the Lao-tzu path, it means "the source" - where understanding is found; the "uncarved block" that will become whatever it becomes.

All of which, at first glance, seems a stretch when considered in the context of Winnie the Pooh.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff uses the characters of A.A. Milne's classic stories to illustrate lessons in this ancient philosophy, a method of thought as well as a way of life.

Asian legends and teachings have long used animal metaphors or animal "guides," so is it really all that different to ascribe the traits of human thought and emotion to the creatures in the Pooh stories?

There's pessimistic Eeyore who frets and complains, insecure Piglet who hesitates and is lost, scheming Rabbit who looks out for Number One, know-it-all Owl who preaches about things he doesn't understand.

And then there's Pooh, who just is.

Pooh, the uncarved block, the childlike voice of simplicity.

It's little wonder, really, that Western thinkers have such trouble wrapping their minds around Taoism.

To understand it, you really have to stop thinking about it so hard.

Go have some honey instead.

Yeah, that's the way.

The masters know the way, and it knows them. They listen to the simple voice within, the child's voice - the still, small voice.

And a Pooh shall lead them.

This was originally published by The News Herald on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003. I was reminded of it after a conversation with my daughter about the parts of the psyche represented by the characters in Pooh stories.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Eats, shoots, leaves a bad taste in my mouth

I have a visceral reaction to the misplaced apostrophe. Seeing a plural turned into a possessive on a billboard because someone doesn’t know any better can send me into fits unfit for publication.

Suffice it to say: Punctuation is about clarity of communication. It’s isn’t its. Learn the difference. End of lesson.

That’s probably why I recently received a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. ("Tony will love this," thought the person who gifted me with the book. "It’s just the sort of thing he obsesses on. This’ll shut’im up.")

(Boy, was he wrong.)

For one thing, there’s the title. It’s not a funny joke.

I mean, we sticklers get it: It’s a misplaced comma. But if you’re really a stickler, you wouldn’t find it all that humorous. If you’re not a stickler, you wouldn’t understand. If you’re Truss, the author, you feel the need to explain it — and nobody likes having a joke explained to him.

Therein lies the rub, and it rubs the wrong way, for about 200 pages.

Perhaps the earliest warning that the book is not for American audiences should have been in the foreword, where it was explained that no changes were made to adjust the English edition for American publication. American punctuation, like word usage, is vastly different from English punctuation, so almost every paragraph of the book makes for a painful read

for an American obsessivecompulsive punctuation stickler.

Consistently seeing Truss end sentences with the punctuation outside her quotation marks is enough to send any American stickler into hysterics. After a few chapters, it became unbearable for this one.

I suspect the people who made this a bestseller in America, like the person who bought the book for me, bought it for their friends and not for themselves.

But the clearest indication that this book is not for sticklers of the U.S.A. variation came only a few pages later, with the author’s declaration that sticklers "got very worked up after 9-11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude.’"

I think a good editor would have done Truss the favor of removing that bit of "levity" for the American edition.

Begin quote: Truss can keep her opinions and her "rules." Full stop. End quote.

(You’ll note the punctuation is inside the quotation marks.)
This originally appeared in The News Herald on Sunday, February 20, 2005. I unearthed it because a friend and coworker last week read this book and hated it, and I printed this out to give him my reaction.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

This is prose, not poetry, but let’s be sincere

The truth will out, but do we take the time to note it, and will we recognize it when we see it? I ask because it’s a question of vision.

Sure it is. Follow me here, if you will.

See, I have this thing about roadside billboards that have been left to the weather — the paper withered and lacerated, mixed messages from sundry times melding into unintended meanings, rust and wood showing through. It appears flat but betrays secret depth.

And I wonder (sometimes, for no apparent reason, I wonder things like this) if maybe people are like these billboards torn by time, maintaining their shapes while hinting at the secrets hidden under layers of paper, ink and glue.

Sure they are.

See? Scratch the surface. People, too, camouflage enigmas under the cover of happy colors and bright slogans. Mysteries are concealed beneath their skin, forgotten layers that sometimes push through of their own accord, and other times are torn free by mere circumstance, memory or wild catastrophe.

Water-softened and sun-dried, the weathered membrane peels back. Real lives squirm under the onionskins we turn to show the world, the smiles like billboards by which we advertise something that maybe never truly was — reality now revealed by juxtaposition with that which lay secluded just beneath, that which would not (or could not) remain buried.

This is the viscera, the rawness poets ache to glimpse, the honesty Kerouac was seeking when, in Book of Blues, he wrote, "I mean / This is prose / Not poetry / But I want / To be sincere."

But what does it mean, this contrasted with that — the before and the after, both fading together in the sun-bright face of the now?

The rusted backboard, the termite-eaten and time-rotted wood. The bleached paper and spotted ink that make up a person’s past? The half-messages, now garbled and misunderstood, ghosts of meaning left by those who came before, who passed this way, pressed their designs upon our surfaces, and have since moved on.

All of it, taken at once and jutting above the treeline for all to see?

It is what it is, and we must not make more of it than that. Look quickly, gaze deeply, take it in when you can. Because tomorrow, if not sooner, a new skin will be placed — bright smiles, fashionable slogans, happy colors on fresh paper.

It’s the only way we can survive together, after all.


This was my Undercurrents column for The News Herald on May 15, 2005, during a particularly trying time of life.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Drive-In Saturday: 'Changes'

Once again my titles reveal the Bowie connection.

'CHANGES' is an animation experiment created using a VHS Panasonic camera in 1990; the camera had a function that allowed it to shoot one second of tape every minute, so I changed out the pages of typewriter paper in between activations.


(No extra charge for tonight's double feature. You're welcome.)

Friday, February 04, 2011

Books Alive weekend

It's Books Alive weekend, when authors from all over the country come to Panama City for a festival. Check the link for details.
We're about to head out to the meet-and-greet. I'll post photos later and give you more details.