Happiness Project: Sing cause it means something …

When I put Ben to bed, he always asks for the same things – more time for video games, a drink, a story, world peace, another story, another drink, to brush his teeth, that I read Betsy a story, etc. … and that I sing him “his songs.” As I sit here humming my personal renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Twinkle, Twinkle” (I prefer a bluesier version), singing to my kids has always made me happy.*

*I really can’t seem to write these without indulging in the frequent aside … With Emma, I sang “Hush Little Baby” and with Betsy, she always calmed down when I sang “Come Unto Me” by Take 6 or “Unforgettable” (just Nat King Cole, please; Natalie … my psychic friend says you’re needed elsewhere … ).

In fact, singing is one of those things that has both made me happy – a lot – and taught me a lot about guarding and protecting something that I do love … to ensure that it keeps making me happy.

When I was 10, my father was the minister of youth at Guntersville First Baptist Church. When I wasn’t playing football outside or trying to sneak into empty classrooms on the third floor, I was in the children’s/youth choir. The first time I can remember singing in front of an audience was the night the director, who was also my band director, asked if I wanted to do a solo – I think it was one of the verses to “Because He Lives.”*

*Which reminds me, this is a happiness blog, but I’d love to do a rant on church hymns that make me want to sneak liquor into the service … anything with blood in it; any that mention how I’d be better off dying and leaving this cruel world; and a host of others that I’ve sung and heard at funerals that make me well-up.

People have WANTED me to sing a lot more than I’ve felt inclined to do it. I love it when I sing because I want to, because I’m getting something out of it. I’m often embarrassed when I’m asked to sing and really don’t feel it … because in the end, I’d rather disappoint me than someone who has asked me. Most of us want to give of ourselves and do it from a sense of goodness, charity or desire to share and make people happy. It ain’t the same when you feel obligated or manipulated.

And just to complicate things, sometimes I’ve agreed to sing, reluctantly, and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. In the balance, it makes me happy. Maybe because I’m giving of myself. Maybe because of the connection with and to other singers and the audience. Maybe because I have seen people moved by the music and words … and I knew I was a part of it.

Which just goes to show, to be happy, follow your passion … but sometimes, try something you don’t want to do. What’s life without mystery and taking some risk?

At this point, I have no idea how many different songs I’ve sung – in choirs, groups or alone. And I’ve pretty much sung all types of stuff:

  • In high school, I sang Lionel Richie’s “Say you, Say me,” because my director at the time, and I believe it was Johnny Brewer, had some unexplainable fixation with that song. It was clearly a Lionel Richie time; we did the same song in band. (and no, go find your own clip of this one … Trust me, I heard it plenty)
  • At the same time, my church choir would travel every month to the nursing home, and we’d sing old Gospel hymns – think I’ll Fly Away, We will Understand it Better, Traveling On and shaped notes.*

*I REALLY detested this music when I was a kid. Instead of going on strike, I would simply steal one hymnal a week, knowing eventually I’d have them all, and chances to sing songs like this would evaporate. I did eventually have to explain the collection of songbooks to my parents.

  • I don’t know if we were that good or just that obnoxious, but Dale Foster, Hugh Thomas, Jon Campbell and a collection of others sang all around campus at Montevallo – in the street, the caf and in the shower at Napier Hall (it had great acoustics). While we could do one helluva version of Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles, I really loved caroling at Christmas. The best parts were singing outside Main Hall, and having people join our little troupe along the way.
  • I love singing The Messiah, and this last Christmas, had a first. Dale, who as a best friend is allowed to call in favors, asked me to sing with his choir and perform the tenor arias that begin the piece. The night of the performance, he also surprised me and ask that I do another solo … a bass one (I’m a tenor). Now, that’s fun (and that’s pressure, folks). Clip of Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (I know it looks like me, but alas … he’s just a pretenda’ but I’ve sung this many times)
  • More recently, I was introduced to karaoke. I admit, I’d never sung karaoke until last year, in all my years of singing. But sometimes now, I’ll go by myself just to get the chance. It’s also a place where I can shine with my soulful side. Don’t be hatin’ but I do kick-ass versions of “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, “Me and Mrs. Jones,” by Billy Paul, and “Ain’t no Sunshine,” by Bill Withers.

And if you’re a hatah’ … message me, I’ll put my money where my silky, smooth vocals are!

So (Carpenter’s Fans): Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong. No matter if it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear. Sing. Sing a song.


Happiness Project: What can I thank you for?

I have a question for you to ponder on a gorgeous Sunday morning: can we make ourselves feel happy? I can make myself angry, focusing on some slight, imagining things true or untrue and whipping up my emotions. I can make myself sad by cataloging shortcomings, disappointments and the people I’ve loved and lost. But what about being happy?

* First, I’m no longer sure – except in the black/white definition – what the opposite of happiness is. If you don’t think that happiness embraces sadness and happiness at the same time, I challenge to check out these posts from some of the folks also involved in this …


To paraphrase one of the writers who has been most influential to me – C.S. Lewis – to have joy, you have to stop thinking about it, contemplating it … and DO something.

When happiness seems distant to me, I usually start thanking people for what they’ve done for me, validate what they’ve meant to me or show my appreciation for who they are. I also try to be grateful and have some fun with things that make my life better. So, I’m going to throw out some thanks today:

  • Coffee – I wasn’t always a coffee drinker, but I do so appreciate the brown grit in a cup that just seems to make my day a bit more awake.
  • My baby, Betsy – She’s two, and we’ve spent most of the week alone together. She reminded me that being a father is one of the greatest gifts in the world, as she kept coming back to sit in my lap, clung to me when she was scared, and made all sorts of attempts to get dill pickles (“kuckles”, as she says) out of the fridge.
  • Kathy Due – We haven’t seen each other since college, but she read one of my recent posts in the project. She sent me a message on Facebook that couldn’t have come at a better time.
  • My parents – I could get all sappy about what good people they are (and they are!). But they also make me laugh a lot. After spending nearly a week with them, my older kids begged: “Please, no steak or pizza tonight” when they got home! And when I talked with my brother, Jon, recently he related that my dad – a Baptist minister (yes, I have fallen far) — had told him, “Yes, I’ve had to adjust my theology a good bit after you boys grew up.”
  • Barry Norris – He is one of a kind – an organist, choir director, carpenter and missionary. What I love about him is his passion for people and the grace he shows them. I have to thank him, however, because he has a gift of talking me into singing in his choir, even when I’m reluctant or busy. And it always, always, is worth the effort.
  • Randy Miller, Terry McElroy and Matt Rocksvold – I know it’s not manly/cool to thank your occasional drinking buddies for whatever trouble they seem to be able to get me into. So, I am not thanking you. Nope, not at all.

When I start this gratitude thing, it really begins to take on a life of its own; I could thank people – and probably should – a lot more than I do and or for a lot more things than I do. I’ve had – and continue to have – my personal compliment of crap, or what seems like it. But there are always people and things that make it better – for seconds, moments or days.

I became single again the year I turned 40. And I decided to change some things in my life. I wanted to be bolder and cultivate a mind-set of joy: (and yes, I do say this) “Our lives are short and the opportunities we have to live, love and enjoy the beauty around us are too few to … [insert the veiled excuse, such as, “worry about what someone else will think; not take a risk; not stay out too late, etc.]. Basically, life is too short to give myself an abundance of reasons to regret.

It’s that way for all of us. Instead, just DO.

As Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” It might also have a love child of happiness …

Check out these great blogs, too, from other happy people.

Happiness Project: If you’re Prince, it’s cool to be weird

Today, I’m equating guilty pleasures and being happy. If chocolate cake or porches or whatever can bring a few minutes of happiness, I owe at least a nod to his majestic purple weirdness. If I’ve had a guilty pleasure when it comes to music, it has been Prince since the early 1980s.

I was a little bitter at that time in my life … (trust me, I’ve gotten over it). The whole world was not-Lady and not-man Gaga over this one-gloved, unusually high-pitched voiced guy who kept promising the world … over and over … that he wasn’t Billie Jean’s lover.

All the time, I was sneaking reads of the words to Darlin’ Nikki and hoping whichever radio station played “Let’s Go Crazy,” wouldn’t use the short version of the song, which cut off a few seconds of the guitar solo at the end.

Man, that annoyed me.

I was a Prince fan already, because 1999 had been a staple of the band bus. I didn’t have a copy of it, but I knew which songs on it that I liked: 1999, DMSR, Lady Cab Driver and Delirious (I was never that crazy about Little Red Corvette … though I like Corvettes … and the songs was kinda slutty, you know).

My parents – God, love em – didn’t monitor my music a lot, but there was no way I was going to see Purple Rain.

But when I got in high school, I bought a copy of Around the World in a Day, the follow up album to Purple Rain. To non-Prince people, it’s the Raspberry Beret album …

Which brings me to an important Prince-point: the crap on the radio was usually the often doofus-music, as he might tell you himself, schlocked together for Warner Bros. Raspberry Beret was catchy, but with the depth of a your basic sideline or locker room interview.

There are plenty of songs on that album that I flat wore out. And I used to be able – all you oldsters will know of what I speak – to flip the tape at just the right point to begin songs I wanted on the other side of the tape.

I liked that he was catchy, lurid and everything that rock and roll should be. But I was completed taken to another level of weird appreciation when I read the liner notes … I don’t have them around, but let’s just agree on one Prince thing, which was crystal clear from reading those notes:

That is one conflicted dude! All the stuff about God and thanking God for this and that, then songs like Temptation, about sex and going to Hell.

I’ve endured much in my Prince appreciation:

  • I actually watched “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge.” Get the soundtracks. As for the movies … If you need a film review, let’s put it this way: Madonna’s films look good compared to these; Roger Corman looks like Stanley Kubrick; those are not tears coming from my eyes … it’s the blood from gouging my eyes out.
  • I quit caring during his symbol days. It went over the top, even though there are songs I like.
  • Not everything – especially stuff done to get out of the Warner contract – is his best work. He mails it in, on occasion.

But I look past all this to his purple funkiness. Enjoy some clips of a couple of my favorites …

Ballad of Dorothy Parker

The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (Live at Leno) by CJanssen



Prince Lets Go Crazy / Purple Rain tour 1985 by Recoda321

Check out these great blogs, too, from other happy people.

Happiness Project: This old porch …

Today is the first day of spring, and for the last two days, I’ve eaten dinner out on my porch. On Sunday, it was me and my two girls. Last night, it was just Betsy and me, eating an otherwise forgettable meal of food I now wish I hadn’t purchased at Aldi (a true hit or miss place if I’ve ever seen one … avoid the porcini mushroom ravioli and Alfredo sauce; just a piece of friendly advice). Tonight, we sat outside and painted the concrete with chalk … or as we say, we chalked.

Right now, it’s looks as if something ran through my back porch. The screen has been ripped out of a couple sections. The door – my constant nemesis now for years – is broken. The wood is in terrible need of a pressure washing. My party lights were pulled down by the same wind that left the screen in tatters.

I’ve spent many a relaxing evening on my porch – wine or bourbon in hand, listening to music. I remember several years ago, standing underneath and in the distance, there was lightning in the clouds, coming in bursts every couple seconds. It was exquisite. Red, purple and fiery hues, like fireworks. It was so beautiful and so natural that I can remember them even today. From that porch, I saw the eye of Hurricane Ivan pass over and recent tornadoes in the distance.*

*Of course, I also get to see the lake the forms in my back yard when it rains because the builders did a crap-tastic job of landscaping back there … I’m not riding the bitter bus about this; only watching it make squishy stops next to my air conditioner.

When I had the house built several years ago, I had them extend the porch and leave it unfinished. Doing the porch was my project (plus, I was appalled at what they charged for it). I did almost all the work, but I also let Emma help (Ben wasn’t around then) and my neighbor, Darien (who is now at UNA).

Working in the evenings and on the weekends, it took me about two weeks to finish. Installing the ceiling fan made me invent curse words that had only been dreamt of. And I am now on my third back door.

Someone special recently asked me, “If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?” I answered almost immediately: “I’d sit on my porch, write and be wealthy enough to take care of people who depend on me.”

I don’t know why the porch figures so prominently in my dreams. As a kid, we had a front porch … and not much of one. It had a swing on it, and on cooler days, I like to lay in it and sleep.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been asking myself – no joking here (consider it a snapshot of how the sausage is made) – “Why DO you like your porch so much?” I don’t have a complete answer. It can be relaxing, but it isn’t always. It can be a haven, but not all the time. I compare it to the places I do writing most of the time. My office at work. My computer at home. These are places I’ve ordered to be good for writing.

But my porch is the place where the things that mean something to me often do come together … eating together and enjoying friends and family; thinking and writing; taking in the world; playing and accomplishing something. And just letting the world gently breeze its way onward. It’s the most homey of places in my home.

It’s not a place of perfection. I can also see my terrible lawn and the place on the garage where Emma ran into it. Mostly, it’s the place where all the stuff of life — the happy and sad, triumph, joy and frustration — join hands.

Many of you know that I’ve written a novel. Working on it on and off for about two years, I was sitting on that porch, my trusty old Titanium Mac laptop on the table, when I typed the last few lines of it. It was a week before Ben was born. Writing that novel was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life, not because I made one dime (which I haven’t) but because I learned so much about myself — good and not-so-good — in the process.

There have been parties that lasted way too long on my porch with people who I loved … and who I’d wished would have stayed longer. Discussions about everything and nothing. Drunk people saying and doing things that only the drunk do … And BELIEVE ME, I’d like to naming names and tagging some folks about right now; you know who you are!

In fact, after I divorced a few years ago, one of the things I was left without was a kitchen table and chairs. They weren’t “mine.” I’d given them as a gift. Today, my go-to table and chairs are outside on the porch.

This year, we had the first Thanksgiving meal of my lifetime in which my Grandfather wasn’t there. I can still remember his sometimes downright depressed blessings … “Thank you, Lord, that things are as well as they are …” My kids were all home, and my parents and grandmother came over, as did my neighbors Sam and Biz Stowe. I cooked – turkey and other trimmings. We ate outside on my porch. It was something new, bittersweet and wonderful at the same time.

The more I work on this — and I guess I have to blow a kiss in the direction of Amy Bickers and Erin Street for this insight — is that I’d always looked happiness as, well, about being happy. I’d always seen it as that positive, fuzzy feeling. But even as I’ve worked on this project and read the tender, touching words of people I’d never known before, I see happiness a different way.

Today, I see it for the whole that it is. The hardest memories I have in a difficult past year — deaths, disappointments and stressful relationships — are always … eventually … balanced by sweet memories, new opportunities and hope … They come together.

Which might explain why I’m always having to fix my porch … the good comes, the bad comes. Happiness and my porch take a licking, but I want to be out there on it, and I want it to be there for me. I’m going to have to make myself fix it, go buy the supplies and sweat.

Then some time later, I’ll toast myself with a super-cold one, on a blistering summer day, and laugh about how the winter of 2012 tore my porch to pieces.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness Project: To all the words I loved before …

I like to think of myself as a complicated man (it’s been my experience that most people think they are, too … but no, really, I AM). I grew up in the country and have fought dirt clod wars, wormed cows and baled hay. At the same time, I studied medieval literature and swore off Bette Midler for the last 20 years.*

*I tried telling Bette to leave me alone. Yes she’s brassy, but CLINGY. I just said, “Enough woman, I banish you for the decade of the 1990s” … and it just has seemed to carry over.

I’ve hit a stage in life – a nice one – in which I’m old enough to know better but sometimes I’m too old to care. And at the heart of it all, I will admit to being a geek. A word nerd. I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake.

Thus, words make me happy. I love them. I’ve been accused of thinking too much, but some of these words give us a refreshing, summer-like view of life and why we’re spinning on this planet.

Like the people who’ve passed in and out of my life (and I feel like I should be breaking out in Willie Nelson/Julio Iglesias “To all the girls, I’ve loved before …”), I have words that have left a lasting impression on me. I think about these words, because in various areas of my life, they have spoken to me. They have spoken of the interconnectedness that we all share, because they sometimes give deeper meaning to something. They remind me that to hold two disparate ideas at the same time is more fascinating than insane.

Or maybe I like them just because I think words are cool.

  • Communicate – the same root word, “commune” is at the heart of the words community and common. It’s cool to me that the word we use for where we live is also the word for the process of exchanging information and ideas. When you add in that the word communion is also connected to this, it points to something other-wordly and un-defineable in how we communicate. Words themselves become the connection between people. It really is a mystery that we have specific words that mean specific things — like dog being a dog. But somehow, it’s like we have a connection we can’t explain, understanding where its unexpected and a yearning to be … connected with others.
  • Remember — Memories are sometimes all the happiness that we can tap into. But if you’re like me, I can’t say I have some catalogue in my head and can tap into those ideas and feelings at the drop of a hat. I have to remember them. I’d not thought much about what that means until someone pointed out to me the word is a combination of “re” and “member.” That’s awesome, folks! Memory isn’t about a little snapshot; it’s actually a process of making us whole again. It returns the displaced part of us, of our lives to a wholeness.
  • Adventure — A word used in the Christian church to evoke awaiting, anticipating something (advent) is the same word that we use when we talk about something exciting, heading into the unknown. The meaning seems to have evolved: one meaning before it happens and the other the entirety of the experience. And in the end, they both point to how we are changed and readied for something bigger and more important by walking boldly into the future.
  • Value — Not too much on this one, but I do like that it means both something that I place a worth on and at the same time, it means what is intrinsically important about something. It kind of points to the importance of the action of placing value on something … but at the same time, maybe not. It’s complicated.

There are other words. But you may have some of your own. Feel free to leave any you love in the comments, because they are likely to have made both of us happy at some point.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness Project: The thrill of competition beats the agony of defeat

Let’s get something out of the way; I am not competitive, in the slightest. If I’m challenged or someone wants to try to win at something — cards, who can get away from the red light first or my sad and tattered basketball bracket — I just let them. That how I roll … easy-going … carefree … no one’s got nothing on me. And I’m not stubborn, either … Scout’s honor.

Somewhere, back in the DNA or from my parents or just being a guy, it was burned in my brain: you must dislike losing, immensely. Yes, it happens. But I love the challenge or a game. I love the competition and the rush of winning.  For about 20 years now (starting well before my conception), it’s one of the reasons I’ve played racquetball.

For the most part, when it comes to exercise, I need some competition. I’ve tried valiantly to like running, but a lot of people (most even) who run LOOK as if they are doing the unhappiest of things with their lives. Swimming … let’s just say that if I run afoul of the mafia, they won’t need to weigh the body down. I like competitive sports.

With racquetball, for those of you who have never seen this game, it’s kind of like tennis. It’s kind of like squash. It’s kind of like dodge ball, except the ball goes a lot faster and getting hit with a ball or racquet hurts a lot more than a flat PE ball. You can play with two, three or four people. Sometime the courts are clear-walled (bashfulness will need to stay in your locker) and other times, they are solid, white 20 ft high and a bit intimidating

One of my hall-mates at Montevallo – Bill – introduced me to the game. Bill, as a junior , was in semi-retirement. He’d cut back on playing to focus both his energy and his 5’2” fire-hydrant-like frame on body-building. It was Bill who I first heard speak the mantra: If you don’t need to sprint, jog. If you don’t need to jog, walk. If you don’t need to walk, stand … which he took down to an evolutionary, “if you don’t need to do long division, do cell division” or some such goofiness.

Soon, I’d purchased two racquets from the Sears Outlet store in Huntsville. Paid $20 for the two. Somewhere, I think I might still have one of them, but believe me … they aren’t anything like what players use today.

A few months later I was in the grips of what I would term “racquetball fever,” as I introduced my friends to the game and saw the same obsession form within them.

Not as many people play today as did when I first started playing. You can see this in the fact that most gyms built in the 1980s and 1990s have courts; the new YMCA in Hoover has no such facility and neither does the one in Pelham several years ago.

But for someone needing an exercise fix, it’s a great game. Let me just provide some highlights:

  • In how many games do you get to hit something as hard as you can, and do it over and over again? In most municipalities, that’s called assault. In racquetball, it’s called strategy.
  • It is, in all honesty, a game that you can learn the rules to in a matter of hours. In a matter of a few weeks, most people progress to being able to hit some shots fairly consistently, i.e., it’s a swift boat to mediocrity.
  • It has its flirtation with danger … people who play do get hit … by the ball … by racquets … by other players … by slamming into concrete walls … diving on floors …
  • Little do most people know, you can get racquetballs in more colors than just the blue. In fact, just to prove that the racquetball gods have a sense of humor, they come in all the colors that your bruises will be – blue, red, black, purple, pink, and green.

The game makes me happy in so many ways. For me, it was a lesson I had to learn by denying myself playing for a long time. After I married, I really did not exercise in any consistent way. I worked too much. I played too much. I didn’t do the things needed to stay healthy.

One day, a co-worker invited me to play. It was awful. I was dizzy. Tired. Out of shape. An embarrassment to my then-racquet, the “Black Assassin.”

I joined the Y two weeks later. And I found an old friend that I’d fallen out of touch with. I got my ass kicked a bunch when I started playing again. I realized – not for the first time either – that playing was good exercise, but it was just as much therapy for me.

I could go into that enclosed court … and none of those guys wanted to talk about work or women or really anything of any consequence. In fact, as I’ve weathered turmoil and found it increasingly hard to not think about things, I realized that when I’m in the court, those thoughts vanish.

In ways, the court is more home than home a lot of times. It’s home in that, where home can sometimes also be the source of our joy and sorrow, the court does not allow such interlopers.

You either put on goggles, get a ball and play … or like the cares of the world, you gonna need to stay outside.

For fun, check out this video. Two pros … ignore the silly intro … :

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness Project: A Mexican Revolution

There are a couple of rules that I believe are wise to live by:

  1. Don’t go out of genre when you eat somewhere
  2. If you make a promise, you need to keep it.
  3. I cannot and should not be held responsible for anything said or done under the influence of tequila.

That last one is harder and faster than the first one. Most of my head-slapping-est experiences of the past 40 or so years – at some point along the way – included either, “let’s just do one more shot” or “can you bring me another margarita.”

But when it comes to Mexican food – or what we like to call Mexican food round these parts – margaritas and lard aren’t the only things that make them a happy place.

Some people catalogue their lives – Facebook Timeline style – by the songs they remember along the way. I can catalogue my life by the Mexican restaurants that I’ve had a relationship with over the years.

Until I was in college, Alabama was really a Mexican food wasteland. Now, you’ll find some diehards who will argue that places like El Palacio’s or El Gringos (in the various locales they were in) were exceptional. They were exceptional in the way that a crank telephone was hi-tech at the turn of the century … but I don’t see many people today hauling one of those babies around in their back pocket cause it fits better than an iPhone.

The other George Wallace

When I was in grad school at Alabama, I had a friend name George Wallace Law, III. He was in a strange, have-to-see-it-for-yourself way, a combination of Governor George Wallace and George Wallace, the comedienne. About 250 lbs., white as a sheet and with a voice that was twangy and a bit high-pitched for someone his size. George ate at La Fiesta in Tuscaloosa every day … the same food at each meal … Chicken Nachos and a sweet tea … and if he had his way, it would be served by “fast-as-Hell Ricardo.”

I tried to get him to go to other places – Pepitos on the Strip – but he was comfortable at La Fiesta. And if Mexican food has become anything in this state in the last 20 years, it is pseudo-ethnic comfort food … with an order of cheese dip.

After Emma was born, we had a Mexican restaurant of choice, Guadalajara in Hoover (closed). She would eat plain tortillas, and we always made the mistake of going on mariachi band night, which led to the rather awkward experience of having the band come over and croon the Barney theme at her (with the look of “I have your cojones, amigo, and will be expecting a tip for our fine playing”).

George Wallace …

Damn dinosaur! Damn mariachi!

A move to East Birmingham … and more Mexican food relationships developed … Sol Azteca, another Guadalajara, Habaneros, and a lot more. There was a time, as a young man, that I looked over the checkbook and saw my small discretionary money being funneled consistently toward this taco turnpike.

And with more moves and places coming and going, the list goes on … Pablos, San Antonio Grill, Habaneros, Las Pinatas, Sabor Latino, Los Amigos, El Cazador, El Palacio …

Some of the best family and friend memories I have of the past 30 or so years come from being with others and enjoying these cheap but plentifully available meals:

  • Watching the green enchiladas do their work, to get labor started so Emma could join us in this world. Then, years later, turning to green salsa to encourage Ben to leave that wonderful place, that warm, safe place …
  • Finding a place that served white salsa in Williamsburg, Va. Never had it anywhere else … and the hombre wouldn’t fork over the recipe, either. It’s closed now … gone.
  • The, to quote Emma, “freak-ass clown” — and it was a real clown — who came to ChiChi’s in Eastwood, and made balloon animals … and probably LSD back in the kitchen.
  • Eating at El Cazador in Eastwood with the Archibalds and the Yarbroughs … and Emma breaking some large piece of pottery that was next to a fake fireplace … it was a one-time Western Sizzlin’
  • At the El Palacio’s in Irondale, when Emma and John Yarbrough were mostly engaged with trying to stuff the most gumballs possible in their mouth … They used at least $5 on those gum balls … that’s the price of a margarita, for God’s sake!
  • I went to Maine, and was denied any decent Mexican food (and by the way, I nearly cried when we ate at Cracker Barrell in Poughkeepsie, NY). The only place near Freeport — an unholy union called Pedro O’Haras! When I woke up on our way home, leaving from Hagerstown, Maryland, I planned the whole trip home around getting back in time to eat the Fajita Chicken Nachos at Pablos that night, before they closed.
  • Realizing that not all margaritas are created equal. Two of the strongest in Bham — Chuy’s and Cocina Superior. Thus, I have fuzzy memories (of which I cannot be held responsible) of being there with works friends — Valerie Ramsbacher, John Hill, Steve Welch, and others. I also remember a post-divorce trip, instigated by two other single work friends, Linda Childs and Sonya Smith, and discovering that mojitos have just as much kick. I also, at least vaguely, remember several fun dating memories in recent times … way too many margaritas at CS with Dawn Hammack, and at Chuys, enjoying the sunset on the porch with Cherie Cornelius and getting there right as happy hour started with Heidi Rowe and watching the staff fight with the door … oh, and getting the free food.
  • Then there is Betsy. She’s been eating salsa, probably in her bottle. By at least 18 months. Not so much eating the chip as using it to shovel the salsa in her mouth. We starts ’em early!

The chips and salsa are on the table, and I’m ready to order … So, enjoy, amigos … cause with me, happiness comes with order of beans and rice.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness project: Overcoming the digital conspiracy with the bullet list

I’ve whined aplenty about losing a couple of posts about our bedtime routine recently. I turned around — 1,200 or so words into the effort — and *poof*. Pulitzer down the drain. I re-created it, with less passion and more frustration, only to see it devoured by the void, too.

I often see things as fate, so I read the tea leaves; evidently, there must be some mystic power in the bedtime routine, something that must be kept secret … So, if you read this and you’re bummed about what you didn’t get to read … It isn’t my fault; I was just trying to not be cast into oblivion like those posts! I’m too pretty — and have too many kids to support — to sucked into some Tron-universe and fried by cycle trails (or whatever that thing was … or the scary Frisbees …).

Just to prove that the digital universe continued to conspire, I had another post put together, but I forgot a vital step in getting it on the blog … and the one below is only now seeing the light of day.

If you can’t lick ’em, you probably shouldn’t have tried. That’s a motto that will serve you well in life. Something else that will serve you well — the bullet list. In fact, this happiness post is random things that make me happy in a format that makes me happy. As a writer, the list is your friend. In the back of your mind, you know. You know that no matter how informative and illuminating the previous prose might be, the eye gets drawn to those little black dots.

And – closet confessional time – some times, us writers, we don’t really feel up to this thing we do. The bullet list can make your job a lot easier. So here is a random assortment of simple things that bring a smile to my face:

  • The bullet list – It’s a like all-you-can-eat bacon; I can’t help it. See above for other reasons
  • Clean sheets on my bed – I don’t know why they feel so good. But they do.
  • The cool side of the pillow – I don’t know why it feels so good. But it does.
  • Fred Travalena. Really, just saying and typing “Fred Travalena.” Try it sometime; just as a random answer to a question, say, “I think that might have been by Fred Travalena.” It will confuse others, and you’ll smile cause you’re so darn clever.
  • Any piece of mail that comes from a real person, not a business or political organization. When was the last time you got a real letter from someone? I miss those days.
  • Thin Mints – the Girl Scout cookies. They were developed by the CIA as an experiment for addiction. Sure, you could eat two or three at a sitting, but you’re just as likely to eat an entire sleeve of those suckers.
  • Naps – Why is it that you don’t appreciate this most simple of pleasures until you’re an adult. Seriously, if I could have nap time every day, I’d take that deal in a heartbeat.
  • Kid soccer games – The younger the better, because this is unstructured improv comedy at its best. It’s like the soccer ball has a magnet in it, and the children surround it in a pack. Of course, then there are the kids with no interest in the game, picking flowers, playing their own games or whatever. They can be as fun as the game.
  • Ice
  • The first time someone listens to the musical stylings of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. It’s a life-changing experience. I swoon at the exertion.
  • Surprises – after a certain point, it gets hard to be surprised by anything. That’s why I LOVE having no idea what I might receive as a present.
  • Looking at someone sleeping (kids, significant others) during the middle of the night and seeing how peaceful they look.
  • Swinging on a swing – yeah, even today.
  • Cake – really of any kind. Cupcakes, included … but if you’re thinking of surprising me, chocolate will get you major points. Major points.
  • Spell check – It’s the only thing standing between me and linguistic purgatory.

So, if you’ve made it this far, take the Pepsi Challenge, my happy friend. Leave a comment here and bullet list me a few of your itty bitty faves …
You’ll be glad you did.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

Happiness Project: A nutritious breakfast

My life is a constant, weekly channel change between single adulthood and single parenthood. I don’t mean that I’m not a parent when my kids aren’t around, but let’s just say that the need to get out of the bed isn’t quite as immediate when there isn’t a seven-year-old staring me in the face at 6:30 a.m., beseeching me to allow worship at the Wii.

I’ve always been bad about breakfast. Given the choice between 20 minutes of sleep and 20 minutes of breakfast, nutrition has always taken a back seat.*

*Which in a preview for later will be likely be a future topic: the beauty of the nap and sleeping late.

But Saturdays with the kids at home is likely to be an experience in actual breakfast. Today, I groggily acquiesced to the Wii at the appointed way-too-early hour with the concession that I’d be staying in bed: “Keep the volume down, and for the love of God, don’t yell at the tv.”

A couple hours later, I woke wanting pancakes. First, I don’t even like pancakes that much. The kids do, but my desire to have pancakes usually is in a serious relationship with my desire to have coffee … mmmmm, the combo of the sweet cakes and bitter coffee …

During a normal weekday, I’d never do pancakes either – and I’m not even going to enter into a debate about whether a frozen version of said little dough splats is a legitimate version of the pancake. Making them in the way that would make them a non-Eggo violates the Dad-law of weekday breakfast:

The making of thy breakfast shall be speedy and the consumption, thereof, done in haste. Thou dost not desire yet another tardy slip, lest thy father be called to the board to answer for thy sins. 

But Saturdays are another story. Saturdays like this one give me a chance to enjoy fixing something for my kids. And as Ben has said, he likes my cooking, but sometimes it can be “funky.”

But really, what’s the point of having kids if you can’t experiment on them with foods you don’t really believe they will eat in the first place? Sausage chili … Lemon salmon … grilled fruit … M&M pancakes (okay, they all liked these, and any confection that includes chocolate).

The truth is I love cooking for my kids. For those who know me and know what I do for a living, I have a lot of things in my life that I can’t always see the fruits of my labor. I don’t complete something and see how great it looks and/or know what when it’s complete. In fact, sometimes success is measured when nothing gets done (which is even harder to explain to people or quantify).

Writing is kind of like that; you can write for yourself and get some therapeutic satisfaction from dealing with your obsession with sad cats. But we write also because we want to say something … to someone.

Cooking is the culinary equivalent. I cook as a way of showing love and affection to my family. It’s an act of service. Today, I made apple-walnut pancakes. I was not surprised when Ben pleaded for me to leave the nuts out of his (what does this world have against the noble nut?).

We ate the breakfast, without the weekday drilling to hurry up and move on to tooth-brushing, or threats of various varieties. Instead today, we watched PBS and used way too much syrup. Dad had multiple cups of coffee. And now, we’re hanging out. We aren’t running to the next thing … yet. It’s a time to be together.

With my oldest (who is gone on a school trip), I see now how times to be together are fleeting. Chances to sit and have a meal together – just the two of us – don’t happen every day. Lives take over. But there is always Saturday morning, or Sunday lunch … or whenever.

As I finish this, Ben has come over and sat next to Betsy. They are leaning against each other, as sweet as they can be. I know that in a few minutes the kid armistice could be as yesterday as the Hanson’s.

I’d like to think it had something to do with being … a part of a nutritious breakfast … that’s good for a daddy’s heart.

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

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