By Rodney Strange
"Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention..." I have always thought the classic song, 'My Way' as one of the very best pieces of music ever penned. In my earlier years, I thought I might have it played at my funeral, for so many of my years on this earth were indeed lived just the way I saw fit to live, my way. I lived under the false assumption that, as the song says,
'I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway...'
And I really believed that. I was in full control of my life every step of the way. I was wrong.
Sunday was 'Senior Sunday' at our church, a Sunday set aside to commemorate the achievements of those who made it across the finish line, those who will graduate from high school and embark on a life of their choosing. Just as I so many years ago, they will set out on this new adventure with the firm belief that they are in complete control of their future.
I spent a vast portion of my life believing that my very best days were those from my high school years. During the worst periods of my adult life, I would yearn to go back to those simpler times. In my memory, those were the best years of my life. A few years ago, I sat down and began putting those memories into a novel, 'Nineteen Seventy Something.' While the story was embellished here and there, the plot, as best I remembered, was as true as the gospel. Within those three-hundred and fifty pages, I would lay out a tale which would lead up to, what I still considered thirty-five years later, the biggest regret of my life. A regret I had lived with every day of my life.
As I toiled on the script day after day for several months, I began to come to the realization that those days weren't as good as I remembered. I endured hardships and heartaches that I've not seen since. Writing the book had become therapy I never knew I needed, a means to take me from the past I wanted so badly to live in to a future I had been so blind to that I never saw coming.
It was a year ago this past Sunday that I sat in church and, just as this year's seniors were honored, my own daughter sat on the front row in her cap and gown. It was a bittersweet moment for me. There was an ominous sense that my duties as a parent were complete. There was also a sadness as I felt a sinking feeling that I was no longer needed. But through blurred eyes, there was also a sense of joy, a joy that my child's accomplishments were being celebrated by an entire congregation. There was a happiness in my heart that she...that we were in church.
I came to a revelation before that Sunday, but it amplified so loudly in my mind on that day, that my biggest regret was not from those days back in nineteen-seventy-something. Had I had it my way back in those days, this Sunday would have never happened. In fact, had I had it my way...my daughter would have never happened. It was a horrifying realization, so disturbing that I wished I had never dwelled on that fateful decision that changed the course of my life and brought me to this point.
I realize that I was never in control, that I didn't do it my way. For had I, the very best blessings of my life would have never come. The Good Lord just let me think I was doing it my way, but it was His way all along.
My biggest regret? That of the four children I raised, I've only sat in church with one. While I spent several decades thinking I didn't need to do it any other way but mine, I never darkened the door of a church...and neither did those other three children. There was no Bible School, no Sunday school, no family sitting side by side in a pew singing hymns, and no 'Senior Sundays.' When judgment day comes, I fear that will be the first question I will have to answer. And 'I did it my way' won't be an acceptable answer.
With all the evils in the world today, including school shootings, the killing of kids who will never see their 'Senior Sunday,' perhaps the answers to our problems are no further than the church down the street. If you are a parent, don't make my biggest regret yours. It's a regret that's hard to live with...and harder to answer to.
There's a lot of things I like about summer. Like summer shorts. No, I don't necessarily like to wear them. I have a few pairs but I feel like a duck out of water running around in a pair of shorts. I don't want the neighbors to see me that way. I do have a reputation to maintain and I've been told it's not cool to wear my boots and hat with shorts, so I just stick to my wranglers. I like summer shorts on women...and to avoid any #MeToo feedback, I'll just leave it at that. I'm a normal guy, old but normal, and I like girls in shorts. That's not the kind of summer shorts I'm referring to, anyway.
Summer is here. We've already had two one hundred degree days here in west Texas. I'm an outdoor sort of guy and it has to reach a hundred to drive me back inside the house. I've shirked my indoor duties lately. If I can't cook it on the grill this time of year, we don't eat. I drink my coffee outside in the morning and sweet tea in the shade in afternoon. I try not to miss a single sunset and usually wait until the stars are twinkling in the vast Texas sky before finally calling it a day.
My days are full and honestly, I could use a few more hours in my days. There are around forty pecan trees in my front yard that need my attention. I'd wager my yard is bigger than yours by a few acres. I toil and sweat in bliss as I relish this new life that retirement has introduced me to. I admire my farmer's tan and the searing sunburn on the back of my neck reminds me every night how blessed I am. Calloused hands, scrapes and scratches, and even the sting of a scorpion hiding beneath a coiled water hose are all trophies of a man who has found peace and happiness.
I enjoy writing stories and sharing them, but not nearly as much as the life I treasure away from this laptop, beyond the confining walls of this man cave. So, with these weekly stories consuming time that I honestly don't have to spare, I've decided that during these blissful summer months, I will be delivering what I call 'Summer Shorts.' I don't have time to write lengthy blogs and likely, you don't have time to read them. Therefore, I shall keep in touch with some passing thoughts now and then.
Let's all enjoy the best summer has to offer...cookouts and sunsets, fishing trips and sleeping beneath the stars, swimming holes and watermelon...and good times. And summer shorts!
Back in the day, a decade or so ago, I proudly claimed the title of a boot-scootin' wanna-be over-the-hill Saturday night cowboy. My sole focus in those days was finding the perfect woman...or what I fondly refer to as my next ex-wife. Being somewhat narrow-minded in my search for that perfect woman, I was determined I'd find her in, of all places, a bar. (Well yes, I did write a book about those adventures.) While it's true that I've held a thousand women or more in my arms out there on some dance floor or another, I had more than a few bad nights. On those occasions, I'd find myself hunkered down at a table for two, in the darkest corner of the bar, alone and lonely. It was always a safe bet that somewhere around midnight on those lonely nights the DJ would play the one song I did not want to hear...'Ain't Nobody Lonely' by a local band who called themselves The Maines Brothers. The first time I heard that song, I had tears streaming down my face as the lyrics floated to my ears, "Ain't nobody lonely, lonely as me." I vowed right then and there, I'd not sit all alone in the dark and listen to that song ever again. From that night forward, when the first few notes played over the speakers, I'd leap to my feet and grab the first woman I could find. I didn't care if she was buck-toothed and had a glass eye and a wooden leg. By gosh, I wasn't sitting at that table all alone...lonely and crying in my beer.
According to recent studies, forty percent of Americans over the age of forty-five experience loneliness on a regular basis. Between 23% and 31% of millennials report feelings of loneliness. The most common response as to the number of friends the average American has is zero. I guess that explains all this loneliness America finds itself immersed in. But why? Why do we as a society not have friends in this day and age? Why would we. by the millions, choose to sit at home and be lonely?
I personally tend to refer to myself as somewhat introverted. I'm a writer. So, do I have introverted tendencies because I write or do I write because I am an introvert? Writing is not a social activity. One doesn't invite friends over for a night of writing. It's a lonely job but someone has to do it. All of those lonely people need something to read while they sit alone at home, the despair on their faces illuminated by the glow of their smartphones. But I find myself drawn less frequently to the laptop. Yes, I am alone much of my time, except for the company of a dog and a college-aged offspring whose daily activities are similar to that of a hummingbird. Blink and she's gone. Alone I may be, but I rarely consider myself lonely. So, I can't say with full honesty that I relate with the loneliest of our society. But still, I have questioned why do so many choose to remain lonely? No, I don't have the answer.
People tend to begin losing close friends around the age of twenty-five. At that age, people begin to go their own way, whether it be a result of marriage or careers. Those most often to admit their loneliness often cite a feeling of being left out...left behind. A trend of individualism hampers social interaction. We hesitate to interact for fear of offending, fear of 'political incorrectness.' Small talk and shallow conversations hold our attention span a mere few seconds. You know, like a hummingbird. We've talked about the weather and I'm fine and you're fine. And we move along, allowing our loneliness to settle back in once again. Reaching for our smartphones, we retreat to our safe zone, alone. Celebrities and the weather girl are our only 'friends' and as a society, we've become okay with that. We don't feel the need to connect eye to eye with anyone. We have Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify to fill our void.
Physical touch is obsolete and in fact, in spite of the genetic need for human contact, we shun hugs and handshakes out of fear they will be misconstrued as a form of sexual aggression. We don't date anymore...ask any single millennial when the last time they actually went out on a date. Ask me when I last went out on a date!
To a point, I'm as guilty as anyone. Fear, yes. Fear that I may be rejected if I put myself out there. I more often as not say things all wrong and someone who doesn't know me misses the intended humor more often than not. I think people, in general, miss the humor in anything these days. And that's sad. We've become a sad, lonely society.
Man is meant to be a social animal. The bonds of family, community, and faith give meaning to our lives. The government cannot fix the longings the human heart has for fellowship. The government cannot bind us together. Neither can social media and in fact, it goes without saying, social media has done nothing positive to correct this epidemic of loneliness running rampant through our country. We no longer actually call each other on our smartphones. I was schooled in the inappropriateness of such action a decade ago. Rude, I was told, to interrupt someone else's loneliness with a phone call. Texting is a preferred method of social contact. Anymore, even the sound of another human voice is considered an invasion of one's loneliness. Loneliness has become a way of life for many.
So, I'm good just as I am. Sure, a cookout on the patio with friends would be great. Good music floating through the night air and dancing beneath the full moon under the carport sounds like a perfect night. It seems that nights like that are nothing more than a dream in this day and time. Folks would rather stay home and be lonely. I've become adept at cooking just one steak. I've come to enjoy sitting on the patio watching the stars all by myself. And, if you promise not to tell anyone, there have been a few occasions that I've danced in the moonlight all by myself. Doesn't bother me a bit...until that old Maines Brothers song comes on.
"There's got to be someone lonely as me..." Apparently so. Millions.
I finally succumbed to that overbearing craving for a hamburger the other evening and me and Stinky loaded up in the pickup and headed into town. I shook my head in disappointment as we drove past the Burger King...still closed for remodeling. They must have only one guy working on it. And he sure is slow. I pondered all the other options in our little podunk town. The burgers at the Dairy Queen were a bit pricey, about the cost of a decent steak up in the city. I couldn't stomach those onions the folks at the Sonic slap on their burgers and the tomatoes are always about a month past being edible. That left me with one option. I sighed as I pulled into the Golden Arches. I'll be sorry, I told myself. I should go back home and cook my own burger, I told myself. But did I listen? Nooo.
There is only one food item I will eat from McDonald's and it's a stretch to call it tasty. I pulled up to the speaker.
"I'll have the Quarter Pounder Deluxe, medium fries, and a Sprite."
The voice came through the speaker, "Shumfurpshibyedzum?"
My eye twitched a bit as I responded, "Uh, okay...that's all."
I pulled up to the first window and whipped out my debit card.
"The printer is not working. Sorry, I can't give you a receipt. Please pull up to the next window."
Sure, I don't need a receipt. I don't keep them for tax purposes. It would be nice to verify that I wasn't charged fifty bucks for my meal, but what the heck.
Stopping at the next window, I waited patiently for my meal. The window slid open and the girl inside said,
I glanced at her and shrugged as the window closed. I continued to sit there, patiently waiting for my meal. Five minutes later, the window slid open once again and the employee tersely instructed,
"You need to pull forward! We will bring your meal out to you when it's ready!"
I grumbled under my breath and obeyed.
Ten minutes later, a girl who obviously indulged in more than her fair share of Big Macs appeared beside the pickup with a sack.
"Okay, here's your Big Mac."
"Um, no...I ordered a Double Cheeseburger Deluxe. It's what I paid for. You know, it has that wilted lettuce, a sliver of tomato, and mayo on it."
"She exhaled a sigh of disgust and disappeared. Ten minutes later the manager appeared.
"Quarter Pounder Deluxe, medium fries, and a Sprite?" she said tersely.
I nodded and took the sack. Without as much as a 'Sorry you have wasted a half hour of your life waiting for your order,' she disappeared. It was clear I had been tagged a troublemaker.
Returning home, I settled into a chair on the patio and reached into the sack. I was past hungry by now. I let out a howl as I glanced at my burger, startling Stinky, who had sat at my feet in preparation for a possible stray french fry that might fall to the ground.
"This is NOT a Double Cheeseburger Deluxe! This is a regular Double Cheeseburger!"
I lifted the top bun and shoved the burger to the dog's eye level.
"See, there is no wilted lettuce! No sliver of tomato! And...and...there is ketchup and mustard on it!" My voice raised to a shout as I declared, "Whoever came up with the idea of putting ketchup and mustard together on a burger damn sure ain't from Texas!"
The dog, by now hopeful that I'd just forfeit my burger, looked at me with those wanting eyes.
Grumbling, I took my first bite. I grumbled some more as I took my second. In fact, I grumbled all the way through the meal. And when I finished I went to the kitchen to get a cookie to get that horrid taste of ketchup and mustard out of my mouth. I pretty much grumbled for the rest of the night, vowing to share my story.
I worked in retail for fifteen years of my life and I am perhaps a bit more demanding than most when it comes to customer service. As a manager, I drilled the importance of customer service into the heads of my employees on a daily basis. In today's world, customer service is all but extinct. The customer has become an inconvenience, apparently in the minds of employees. Yeah, I'm old school. I still want to walk out of a store with the feeling that they earned my money. I want to feel like they appreciated me choosing to shop at their establishment. This particular place with the golden arches should be jumping through hoops with their competitor down the street shut down for remodeling. A golden opportunity wasted! A perfect chance to win over a return customer time for years to come. Instead, they made an enemy.
Now, I tread lightly as I continue, but there is a point that needs to be made. In light of the recent incident at a Starbucks in Philidelphia...you know what I'm talking about...indifference is color blind. Again, I speak cautiously when I bring up the fact that not one of those employees at the local McDonalds who dealt with me that day were white. Living in the bowels of west Texas where the Caucasian population is less than fifty percent, I have seen time and time again that not all customers, regardless where they shop, are treated equally or fairly. It's just a fact. I don't view it as a racial problem. When an employee working in a retail establishment fails to do their job, which is to serve customers, it is a customer service problem. If I were going to close every one of my stores down for training, as the CEO of Starbucks has vowed to do, I would make sure every one of those employees walked away from that meeting fully understanding the importance of customer service. Employees who can't grasp that concept should be escorted to the door...and forced to consume enormous quantities of burgers with ketchup and mustard on them.
As I enter my fourth month of retirement bliss, I realize I have grown accustomed to the joys of simply cruising through life with my blinker on. I avoid stress and strife at all costs and detest anyone who attempts to curse me with such. With that being said, last week was one of intense stress. I am still struggling to move past this extremely damaging event and in fact, I am considering professional counseling. The cause of this interruption in my otherwise near perfect life? I was banished from Amazon!
Unceremoniously banned, I was and without even proper notification. Being retired and a man of leisure, I have fallen into a morning ritual that fits my comfort zone. With morning coffee in hand, I turn on the CBS Morning News and sit down to my laptop, casually browsing through Facebook and Twitter, moving on to my email, and finally getting down to what's important...updating the Rusty Goat website with the stories of the day. Having that out of the way, I then move on to the financial side of my day. I check in with Google to see if I made any pocket change the previous day. If I'm lucky, someone clicked an ad or two on one of my websites, sometimes I make enough to buy a cup of coffee, no not at Starbucks. I am rarely that fortunate. And last but not least, I check my Amazon account to see if by some slim chance someone purchased one of my books. And that's when I discovered one Friday morning that I no longer had an Amazon account.
'There is no account associated with this email address.' I pursed my lips as I read the warning message that flashed across the screen. I tried signing on to my Amazon Associates account... the same message. I scratched my head as my brow wrinkled in sudden worry. Okay, on to my personal account and no...I no longer existed within the Amazon database. I felt panic sweep through my body. No Amazon! What would I do? I relied on Amazon to deliver my off-brand Rogaine every month, and my Tumeric pills! All of my books resided on the Amazon website and I couldn't get to them! Did I lose my books? My Amazon Associates account...frozen! Some days I make enough money from Amazon to buy a donut with my cup of coffee. And it was gone...gone!
I tried to calm my nerves. Surely it was a temporary glitch. They'd have it back up and running in a few hours, I told myself. I decided to move on with my day and put it out of my mind. But throughout the day, it consumed my every thought. What if someone had hacked my Amazon account? What if they had stolen my books? What if someone had stolen my financial information! I frantically checked my bank account...no, my five dollars was still there.
After fending off a nervous breakdown, I finally shot off an email to Amazon customer support that afternoon. I waited patiently for a response. But by bedtime that night, I'd not received a reply. The following morning I called the Amazon customer hotline. A man with a foreign accent answered. I couldn't understand him but frantically explained my situation. Apparently, he couldn't understand me either and transferred me back to someone in the United States. A polite young man listened sympathetically and upon checking what information he had available, finally informed me that my account had been suspended for violation of Amazon's terms of service. I protested loudly that I'd done nothing to violate their terms of service, whatever they were. Well no, I haven't actually read them. Have you? Anyway, he assured me that he would send my inquiry on to whoever was in charge of banning folks from their website and with a little luck I might hear something from them in seven days or so. And that was that.
Now, I'm a pretty good guy in the grand scheme of things. I go to church almost every Sunday, say my prayers every night, and about the shadiest thing I've done lately is put my trash in someone else's dumpster. I'm still guilt-tripping over that. For the next seven days, I searched my little brain for anything I may have done to piss Amazon off. I drew a blank time after time. Finally, as promised, I received an email on the seventh day.
Hello from Amazon.
Thank you for contacting Amazon Customer Service. We have reviewed your account and confirmed it was deactivated for violations of our Community Guidelines and Conditions of Use.
Your account has been deactivated for the following reason:
-- Your reviews were posted in exchange for compensation, such as gift cards to purchase the product, product refunds, review swaps, or free or discounted products;
We have submitted your account for re-consideration and will advise in the next 7 business days if your account is eligible for reactivation.
Ah ha! Have you ever received one of those emails? I had indeed received an email from some company just days before asking me for a favorable review of their product. In return, as a show of their appreciation, they would send me a free pencil or something of the sort. I had deleted the email and forgotten about it. And here I now sat...banned. from Amazon. I stewed and fumed over the unfairness of my banishment. By gosh, I should call Jeff Bezos himself and give him a piece of my mind! How dare they ban me from Amazon! I was an innocent man! Knowing myself like I do, I resolved to sleep on it before doing anything too rash. Being banned from Amazon was not worth doing hard time in some federal penitentiary. It turned out to be a wise move. The following morning, as I sipped my cup of coffee, I opened another email from Amazon customer service:
We appreciate you being an Amazon customer and thank you for your patience.
We detected unusual activity associated with items previously purchased on your account. As a result, we had deactivated your account while we conducted a deeper investigation.
Based on that investigation, we have restored access to your account.
I fully understand how important ratings and reviews are to those who sell on Amazon. I sell books there, and a positive review can bump my books way up in the search results. But from the perspective of a buyer, I see the entire system is completely flawed. Amazon is quick to overreact, as I learned from this painful experience. They take it so far to the extreme that if my second cousin's wife's sister's boyfriend reviews one of my books...and they manage to connect the dots, they remove the review...and likely make a little tally mark on a yellow legal pad. They are that anal about reviews.
So, I have vowed to never, never, ever rate or review another product I purchase on Amazon.com. I just can't risk being banned again...and I look forward to my donut money every month!
See more about Amazon's sudden infatuation of closing customers' accounts here.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon the first part of April 2016 and I should have been outside doing something constructive like Weed 'n Feeding the lawn or washing the pickup, but that stack of bills had haunted me all day. Grumbling under my breath I placed the mound of bills on the kitchen table and armed with a checkbook and my favorite gel pen, I sat down to begin the dubious task. But before I could pick up the pen a knock came at the door. I sighed and squinted my eyes. Likely some of those Jehova Witness folks have returned to tell me how misguided I am with my Southern Baptist beliefs, I thought as I rose from the table.
I opened the front door just wide enough to peek out and behold, there stood a most beautiful young woman on my porch. My heart pounded in my chest as I wondered if God had finally sent me a woman after all this time. A fine job He did, I marveled as I eagerly swung the door open. This little lady was calendar girl material, standing a bit past five feet tall, maybe tipping the scales at a hundred pounds, her brunette hair blowing slightly in the breeze. Her green eyes locked onto mine as a warm smile came across her face.
"Hieee! My name is...well, I don't remember...and I'm representing a new company who specializes in floor maintenance."
Her eyes glanced down at the wood floor just inside the door as she continued, "We're out and about today just letting people know about us. How would you like for us to come in and buff those beautiful wood floors for you, no charge?"
My brain was now working at full speed as I responded, "Wow, that'd be great...you can buff my floor anytime, calendar girl."
Okay, I didn't really say that last part out loud but I admit it almost came out of my mouth. With my affirmation, she turned and motioned toward a car in the drive. A seemingly large crowd of people emerged and instantly appeared, bustling about my living room with alarming speed, unpacking several boxes of equipment and supplies. I blinked...and they disappeared before my very eyes, the calendar girl along with them. The only person left standing before me was a chubby little girl, definitely not calendar girl material. I peered out the window and saw the vehicle speeding away, like gypsies in the wind.
The chubby girl smiled and began her well-rehearsed speech.
"So, are you familiar with Kirby vacuum cleaners?"
I scowled, "Is this what you people are up to? Look, missy, I don't need a Kirby vacuum cleaner. I have one rug in the living room and carpet in my bedroom."
"Oh, these machines do so much more than vacuum your floor." she replied as she dutifully buffed about a one square foot section of my wood floor, "See, look at that shine!"
She then changed attachments and moved on to my rug, literally sucking the design off of it. I watched as I realized I was stuck with this chicklet until, well, who knows when. She had been abandoned at my doorstep like a burlap sack full of kittens.
Over the course of the next two hours, I watched as she sucked the mites out of my mattress, the feathers out of my pillows, and the demonstration of how this nifty machine could even be used as a screwdriver, I had to admit, was impressive. Finally, a knock came at the door and one lone person stepped into my living room. He introduced himself as the regional manager of the Kirby vacuum cleaner company, and wasn't I just completely overwhelmed with this machine? And...because I seemed like a wonderful guy in dire need of this contraption, I could purchase one for my very own for...not the regular price of two thousand dollars. No, today only it could be mine for the low price of seven hundred bucks and some change.
"Mister," I replied, "I need one of these like I need a boat out here in the desert of west Texas!"
I watched as they drove away, knowing that I had dodged a bullet. Had the calendar girl sucked the mites out of my mattress instead of Miss Chubby...I would have jumped at the chance to buy her machine. Had they only known my one weakness, they definitely would have left her behind.
I tell that story to tell this one:
It was a year ago that life around here became a living hell. I had a senior on the verge of graduating. If you've been there, you will readily relate. Colleges and universities begin terrorizing entire families in the months leading up to graduation. Recruiters, usually nothing more than students themselves, begin making contact, no, not with parents, but with these kids. It begins with letters that read like this:
Dear (insert student name here)
Due to your exemplary scholastic achievement, our university has awarded you (insert tens of thousands of dollars here.)
My daughter received several of these letters. One was for the generous amount of fifty-four thousand dollars. Another was in the neighborhood of thirty-five thousand. Me, being...I dunno...stupid, I guess, literally fell to my knees thanking the Lord. A tiny voice came back...
"Not so fast, buddy!"
Upon investigation, I discovered that these private universities, even with their generous awards, would still cost between seventy to one-hundred thousand dollars for a four-year degree.
Enter the recruiters: As I mentioned, these people aren't calling me. They are spending hours talking to and texting my child, twisting her naive mind into knots. They have convinced her that any education other than one obtained from their university is no education at all.
Suddenly, all those plans that I as a parent have harbored since her first day of kindergarten have been trampled underfoot. In the back of my mind for nearly two decades, I had resolved that she'd attend the college just up the road. It was affordable and my child would be less than thirty minutes away. It was a parent's dream...until those evil college recruiters reared their heads, spewing venom and creating havoc within our daily lives.
Like the Kirby vacuum people, they were relentless. With a heavy heart, I began succumbing to university tours with daughter in tow, knowing there was no possible way I could afford to send her to any of these institutions. The feelings of failure began to overtake me with every tour. Our daily family life became consumed with the impossible dreams of an education only the very wealthy could ever afford. Gloom and depression hung in the air like smoke from a Camel cigarette. And the texts and phone calls kept coming, day after day after day.
Then one evening my daughter sat down to dinner and said, "You know dad, I think I've decided to go to the college up the road. It makes more sense, don't you think?"
And it was over and life returned to normal.
I have to give them credit, Kirby people, and private universities. They have the art of salesmanship finely tuned like a muscle car. Their technique is simply to wear the buyer down to the point of relenting just to find peace within themselves. But, if either wish to make a sale to this old goat, they'd be best advised to send a calendar girl over to knock on my door. Yep, that would probably be all it takes to break me...