Category Archives: life

Farewell to a friend

The dragonflies were coming out at the beach last week, a new cycle of life beginning with the season. For my wife and me, a stage of life was ending, as we cleared out and sold the beach house we’d owned and cherished for the last sixteen years.

Beach house

Growing up in the Midwest and not being the imaginative type (think Lake Wobegon), I never dreamed I might someday have a home by the water. I spent lots of summer days swimming in lakes, but never went to Florida for spring break. I had no clue that the world’s most gorgeous beaches lay on the Gulf of Mexico in the area once called the Redneck Riviera, now the Emerald Coast.

Then my girlfriend and I visited friends there and were entranced by the white sand, the balmy turquoise-blue water, and the cool, laid-back vibe. We bought a condo, got married on the beach, and a few years later traded up to a house, where we spent the best times of our lives. Swimming in the Gulf as little fish nibbled our toes. Riding our bikes to get ice cream at ten a.m. if we felt like it. Floating in our pool with Pat Metheny on the outdoor speakers. Kayaking in the rare dune lakes all around us. Eating sweet Gulf shrimp on the beach at sunset. Joining our neighbors for a Fourth of July pig roast, complete with a New Orleans funeral procession for the pig, then watching fireworks all along the coast. Catching beads at Mardi Gras in Panama City.

The Mardi Gras parade in St. Andrews, a few years before the hurricane

Of all those moments, the very best were the clear nights when we lay in our deck chairs for hours on end, marveling at the Milky Way and the planets, talking, and just being together. My wife’s creative spirit and loving heart touched every corner, from the wreath on the door, to the screened porch she had put in, to the nature photos she took and hung on the walls. We could go down anytime and find everything as we’d left it, waiting for us like an old friend.

But eventually, managing the place became a struggle. Meanwhile, our historic beach town was ruined by a plague of mini-Trump Towers, hideous new houses that blocked our Gulf view and were full of obnoxious tourists. These are the kind who bring their guns on vacation, then forget and leave them for the next group of renters (or their kids) to find. They overran our formerly uncrowded beaches, tore around the streets on golf carts, and shot off tons of fireworks even when it was nowhere near the Fourth.

We fought back. When some jerks got raucous in the house behind ours, we fired up the stereo and introduced them to John Coltrane at top volume. But it just wasn’t paradise anymore. And when Hurricane Michael slammed Panama City and came within twenty miles of us, it was time to sell and move on.

I know it’s the right decision. I still feel like I’ve torn out part of my heart. Little things remind me of the place all  the time: no more beach house keys on my ring, several beach-related bookmarks to delete from my browser, the storm forecasts I don’t need to follow anymore.

But we gave our home a proper farewell. We donated lots of household goods to people who’d lost everything in Michael (and didn’t need the National Hurricane Center to tell them it was a Category 5). On the last evening, we walked down to the beach with boxes of shells we’d collected over the years and cast them back into the sea.

Our last sunset

Like Hemingway’s Paris, the beach is a moveable feast, a state of mind. We can see the same stars and planets from our porch in Atlanta. It’s spring and this Sunday is Easter. The dragonflies will be back soon.

Dave closing door.
Goodbye
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This post might be a failure

Stop the presses! No: stop the world, right now. Physics be damned. Not kidding. If we turn all our missiles and SpaceX vehicles upside down and fire the engines at once, it might work like a supersize retro-rocket and stop this poor planet before the humans get any more cuckoo.

How bad is it? Well, the college admission scandal, in which one-percent parents bribe elite schools to get their kids in, is just the illegal tip of a societal iceberg. It goes beyond helicopter parenting into “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parenting: clearing obstacles, melting black ice, and removing anything that stands between Junior and success. In other words, we’re trying to stop our young from growing up. I’m no scientist but this strikes me as the fast train to extinction, if climate change doesn’t get us first.

We’re already seeing the problems facing young “adults” who don’t know how to live on their own or deal with adversity and (shudder! gasp!) failure. In a lengthy piece on this craziness, the New York Times reports, “There are now classes to teach children to practice failing, at college campuses around the country and even for preschoolers.” Let me repeat that: There are now classes to teach children to practice failing.

I sure didn’t need to practice failing when I was growing up. Without even trying, I failed at being cool, impressing girls, getting parts in school plays, learning guitar, making the grade in my original college major, and especially sports. In baseball I usually wound up in right field, where they put the worst player because most batters hit to left or center. But thanks to a teacher, I learned to deal with mistakes and defeat.

Mr. Turner was an assistant gym teacher when I was in junior high, the 60s version of middle school. I didn’t know much about him, except that he was one of the few African-Americans on the staff and might have been ex-military because he sometimes sounded like a drill sergeant.

But one day we were playing softball and I struck out. Mr. Turner noticed me walking around with a frustrated, disgusted look on my face and asked why. When I told him what’d happened, he said, “Willie Mays strikes out sometimes, but you know what he says? ‘Next time I’ll do better.’”

That was the most valuable lesson I ever learned. In the next inning, a long fly ball came my way and I caught it. I did better. I’ve dropped a few since, but I’ve never forgotten what Mr. Turner said.

Being the age I am, I’m tempted to quote Bob Dylan: “There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.” However, another song fits better: “Pick Yourself Up,” written during the Depression and quoted by Barack Obama in his first inaugural address: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Our children can’t finish the job if we don’t let them remake their own lives.

I hope this post is a success. Your opinions are welcome as long as you don’t tell me to hire a snowplow. “Go stick your head in a snowdrift” is perfectly okay.

Retreat from reality

Just when I’d gotten used to constantly reciting my birth date and reminding myself of my fast-advancing age, I get smacked by another warning that my game is in the late innings. And by “smacked,” friends, I mean SMACKED, like going to that fish market where they throw the fish around and catching an Alaskan halibut right in the kisser.

It seems that not only is 60 not the new 40 after all, but 35 is the new 65. That’s the drift of this article about a luxury retreat designed to help Silicon Valley types cope with fears of early geezerdom. This feeling is driven by the breakneck pace of new software and a culture that demands “a limber, associative mind and an appetite for risk — both of which lessen with age.” As a result, people in their 30s and 40s are flocking to the retreat, at $5,000 for a week.

Oh dear. Get ready for a shock: these golden children of the revolution aren’t the first ones to have this problem. People whose jobs require a limber body, like construction workers, truckers, and restaurant servers can find their livelihoods at risk long before they’re “old” enough for Medicare. Besides, women have always faced discrimination based on their looks and age, and not just in Hollywood, politics, and TV newsrooms.

One of these angst-ridden folks at the retreat said, “I watch YouTube stars and all these things, and intellectually I get it, but emotionally I just can’t connect.” So what? Twenty-five years ago I couldn’t connect with Nirvana and Pearl Jam either. The grunge bands weren’t bad or untalented. Their music just didn’t speak to me like Patti Smith, Talking Heads, U2, and before that the Beatles, the Temptations, and lots of others did. I’d gotten older. It happens. It beats the hell out of the only available option.

Maybe this is a clash between their California ethos and my Midwestern one, but to me, you don’t need a shaman to just be yourself: warts, wrinkles, reading glasses and all. And please don’t zap your face with Botox or run to the Hair Club. That’ll just make you look and feel even more decrepit, broken-down, seedy, tottering, weather-beaten, worn out, haggard, creaky, and unsound. (As I’ve said before, a thesaurus is a very useful thing.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to put fresh batteries in my hearing aids and update my playlist with some Lunch Duchess. I don’t know much about their music yet but they have one of the all-time great names for a rock and roll band.

The ATL for Yankees and Gator fans

Greetings to all Michigan Wolverines, Florida Gators,* folks who got on the wrong plane, and everybody else who’s bound for Atlanta and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl! This is part of that delightful American holiday tradition in which we celebrate with family, give to the needy, humbly honor the rituals of our faith, and resolve to be better people in the New Year, then scream ourselves into an aneurysm and throw bowls of clam dip at our brand-new mega-screen TVs when a “ref” decides a young man from Our School “didn’t get his foot down in bounds.”

I’m talking about college football bowl games, approximately 8,395 of which are played every year, including the aforesaid Peach Bowl, which pits the Universities of Michigan and Florida against each other (again!). As an Atlanta resident, a U-M grad, AND an official Florida Man with a home on the Panhandle, I am uniquely qualified to answer all the Important Questions for visiting fans! Like these here:

Q: Is the traffic in Atlanta as bad as everybody says?
A: That’s just fake news. It’s worse. Think Midtown Manhattan and I-94 in Detroit are hellish caverns of misery? Down here we have the Perimeter, which winds around the city like chicken wire, is under construction 24-7 / 365, and moves at the speed of a dying garden slug. If Sherman had taken the Perimeter during his march, he never would’ve made it to the sea; the South would have won the war while he was stuck at the exit to I-20 East. By all means avoid the conflation of interstates we call Spaghetti Junction, which also resembles a nest of rattlesnakes but isn’t as friendly.

Q: What is the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl?
A: First and foremost, it’s not to be confused with any of our myriad** “Peach” and “Peachtree” names and places. Buckle up and listen, ‘cause we got us a Peachtree Street, West Peachtree Street, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, Peachtree Battle Avenue, Peachtree Corners, Peachtree Circle, Peachtree Plaza, Old Peachtree Road, Peachtree Millennial, Peachtree Pothole, and PTSD, Peachtree Stress Disorder. This game is also not to be confused with a playoff game but we already knew that!

Q: Where will the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl be played?
A: At Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Q: Why would anyone who drives a Mercedes-Benz eat at Chick-fil-A?
A: They got lost over on Peachtree and couldn’t find a Waffle House, though there’s one on every corner. Lest y’all think we get by on grits and hog parts, we also have restaurants where delectables like sustainable catfish, hakurei turnips, and evoo are on the menu.

Q: Huh?
A: “Evoo” stands for Extra Virgin Olive Oil. However, if I were a server and a customer told me to “hold the evoo,” I’d call the vice squad. And how is the catfish sustainable if you’re going to devour it?

Q: Are grits groceries?
A: Boy Howdy! If you don’t believe it, just ask Little Milton or maybe Wet Willie, who were from Macon, GA, not to be confused with Makin’ Whoopee down on Peachtree, or more likely on Piedmont Road. (Note: the patrons of this fine establishment aren’t actually “Gentlemen.”)


*Over the years there’s been a lot of chatter on sports-talk radio about how “Gator fans never call.” Since I never listen, I have no idea if this vague rumor is true. But using my regular standards of accuracy and integrity, I’m going to assume it is! So Gator guys and gals, please continue this practice and DON’T CALL ME to complain about this article, ask for directions etc.
**Greek, Middle French, and Late Latin for “godamighty, that’s a big ol’ mess of ‘em.”

Birth dazed

I hate my birthday. Not that there’s anything wrong with the date itself. I don’t share it with some famous person like Muhammad or Mel Brooks, or with an unhappy moment in history like the time the migrant caravan bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s not even because so many years have flown by since my original birthday, though it was slightly terrifying when my latest was the one Sir Paul McCartney wrote a tune about, and it wasn’t “When I’m 19, or “When I’m 28,” or “When I’m 35, 39, or even 49 or 59, FFS!”

No, the reason for this grump attack is that the birthday has suddenly become an indispensable form of ID, which compels me to state it, and thus be reminded of it, a lot more often than I’d like. Medical offices are the worst offenders. No matter why I’m calling, and lately I’ve been ringing up lots of docs about different issues, the voice on the other end always asks, “Date of birth?”

When I was a kid, I of course eagerly anticipated each DOB for the presents and cake. Later on I tried to ignore them, especially the milestones like the now-distant 30 and 40. Eventually, I grudgingly decided getting older is better than the alternative and made peace with the date. But I had to think about it only once a year.

Now, even if I called the doctor’s office five minutes before and I’m talking to the same person, they want my mm/dd/yyyy. And remember: the reason I’m calling in the first place is because my various faculties, faculty lunches, organs, pipes, pipe organs, Moogs, wellness plans, Marshall Plans, Marshall stacks, and other instruments of crepitude* are falling apart – and on top of that, they gotta remind me I’m older than God and dirt put together?

At least I’m still dealing with humans. The New Yorker has an amusing piece about the horde of robots trying to take our jobs, one of which was deep-sixed after trying to hug customers and calling out “Hello, gorgeous!” I think I can safely speak for every male member of our species in saying I do NOT EVER want a doc-bot to examine my prostate.


*The opposite of decrepitude. Right?

Bobby Dean Goes Viral

A short story

The whole town was delirious. People were on their feet, cheering wildly, hardly believing what was about to happen. Gardnerville had just hit a long pass and was down 23-21 with four seconds left in the game. They just had to kick a 27-yard field goal to beat Consolidated, their oldest and biggest rival, for the first time in eight years.

Cole Daley stepped in behind the holder. Everyone knew he could make it: most of them were there a few weeks before when he nailed a 45-yarder. The snap and the hold were good, the ball rose into the cool night and seemed to be, had to be, dead on…but then it curled just left. The visitors’ bench and stands erupted, while the hometown side deflated like a dollar-store beach ball.

Cole took the blame at the postgame press conference, telling the few reporters, “It was completely my fault. I didn’t plant my other foot right, and I missed the angle.” But when Bobby Dean Glenn heard that on the radio, he jabbed the “Off” button and spat out the window of his pickup. Bobby, as everyone knew, had been on the team that won the state title in 1979. He was a reserve, slow and a little small for a defensive end, and his butt never left the pine in the big game. But no Gardnerville squad since had gotten anywhere near that far.

“The kid’s got no nerve,” he groused to his buddies the next morning over coffee at the Good Day Café. “None of ‘em have any mental toughness. Or physical toughness either, because if you try to make ‘em tough nowadays their parents and the school board come screamin’ bloody murder.”

“He’s a good kid,” Ray said. “Works at my cousin’s place. Always on time, real polite to the customers. ‘Course his old man’s not around. That might have something to do with it.”

“He hit that big one against Central, remember?” Doug chimed in. “Then he misses a short one.” Bobby snorted. “That’s what practice is for. Back in my day, we knew we’d better be good every time or we’d get our asses kicked.” He waved irritably to the waitress for a refill. “I heard him on the radio sayin’ he didn’t plant his foot right. Well, if you’re a kicker, what else should you know how to do?”


When Cole went back to his after-school job in Ray’s cousin’s hardware store, most of the customers, if they said anything at all, said “Too bad,” or “Good season.” But a few of them gave him dirty looks and one man grumbled “It wasn’t but 27 yards.” That night as Cole rode home on his bicycle, Bobby pulled up alongside him and called “Careful on that bike! Better plant your foot!” 

A couple of weeks later, Cole came into the Good Day to get a cup to go before school. The boys were at their usual table, and as Cole turned to leave, Bobby said, just loud enough for the whole room to hear, “Don’t forget to plant that foot now.”

Cole didn’t look at them and never changed his expression as he headed out the door. “I heard he’s coming out for basketball again,” Doug said once he was gone.Bobby shook his head. “Probably can’t shoot any better’n he kicks. There goes that season too.”“He shot pretty good last year,” Doug replied. “And we need him for experience. We only got one other senior.”

When Cole missed a layup in the first game, someone yelled, “Hey number 12, you forgot to plant your foot!” As the season wore on, a couple of freshmen got hot and one night Cole didn’t get in the game until the last few minutes, and right away he heard “Plant that foot!” But he still played hard, hustling up and down the floor until the final buzzer.


Spring brought graduation and just after the 4th of July, Cole’s mother Suzanne came into the café. Wanda, who was running the register, asked about Cole. “He’s great,” Suzanne said, beaming. “He’s already off to college. The University of Illinois.”

“Illinois?” Bobby piped up. “Thought I heard he was going to Auburn.”

Suzanne looked at him, still smiling, but barely. “Well, he applied to different places and he liked Illinois. It’s really a fine school. He decided to take some summer classes and get settled in before fall.”

“That’s a long way,” said Wanda. “It must be hard.”

“Oh, it is,” Suzanne replied. “I never thought such a small house could feel so empty. But you have to let go sometime and he just loves it there. Thank goodness for email and texts. And Skype.”

“Well, I guess Illinois’s all right,” Bobby said. “Nothing wrong with Auburn, though. Seems like a kid’d want to stay close to home.”

Suzanne turned toward him with her mouth suddenly taut and fire in her eyes. A few tables away, Greg Burdick chuckled and took out his phone. He’d seen that look before, many times, in her fourth-grade class. This was going to be good.

“And what young man would want to stay here?” she demanded. “Where you do one thing wrong and have to hear about it for the rest of your life? ”

Startled, Bobby said, “I don’t know what you mean, I –” but she cut him off. “Don’t you lie to me, Bobby Dean Glenn. He told me what you did that night when he was riding home.” She leaned over the table, staring down at him. “I could have killed you dead but he said he’d just have to live with it. But why did he have to live with it?”

No one was eating anymore. “He’s seventeen years old. He made a mistake in a game. And he owned up to it. But you and your good-for-nothing friends never gave that boy a chance.” Suzanne folded her arms. “How would you like it if everybody kept reminding you how your girlfriend ran off with that tractor salesman?”

Bobby tried to say something, anything. She held up her hand. “Not one word. But let me tell you what I told Cole when we said goodbye,” and her expression softened. “Be good, but be yourself and be happy. There’s a whole new world out there. Don’t fret about the old one,” and she picked up her takeout and left.

Everybody was looking at Bobby. “What?” he barked, then muttered, “Guess it’s the wrong time of month for her.” People looked down uncomfortably. But Kristin, the waitress, who was about to give Marge Edmonds her breakfast order, marched over to Bobby’s table. She poured the little pitcher of milk she was holding in one hand into the bowl of cornflakes in the other, and then she dumped the cornflakes right over Bobby’s head.

The room exploded in laughter. People guffawed, hooted, and clapped as Kristin emerged from the kitchen with another bowl and pitcher. “Sorry for the delay,” she said nonchalantly as she set them in front of Marge, who was about to split her sides.

Bobby sat there with soggy cornflakes falling into his collar, milk running down behind his glasses, and the bowl riding atop his head like a World War I Army helmet. With as much dignity as he could muster, he removed the bowl and stood up. “Wanda, if you think I’m payin’ for this –” he began, but she stopped him with, “The coffee’s on the house. But I’ll have to charge extra for the cereal,” and the place erupted again.

Bobby stalked out, shook himself like a dog to get rid of the milk, glared at the two bemused women on the sidewalk watching him, and got into his truck. He wasn’t halfway home before his phone buzzed. “Bobby, you old goat, you’re supposed to eat those cornflakes, not wear ‘em!” Ray howled. “I tell you what, you ought to send that to America’s Funniest Videos.”

Video? Another call: “You can’t talk like that in front of a lady, especially when she’s armed and dangerous!” Another one: “I’ve heard of breakfast to go but not all over your head!” And: “Hey Bobby, I’m buying a new tractor. Let me know if your girl comes back!”

By noon, Greg’s cellphone footage was everywhere and Bobby had 37 calls. That evening, the network news anchor said, “Tonight, we have a lesson in civility from Gardnerville, Alabama,” and the phone rang again. Bobby didn’t pick up, just walked out the back, sat in an old chair, and stared across the yard. He was still there after the sun went down, the air turned chilly, and the moon came out.


Cole was reading in the lounge of his dorm when a girl he’d recently met sat down next to him. “Hey,” she said, “what was the name of that town you said you were from?”

Later he checked his email: Dear Cole: When I saw the video, I laughed so hard I woke up the cat! I know you didn’t want me to make a fuss. I just couldn’t keep quiet.I’m sure this will blow over. But you might save that video so someday you can show your kids that Grandma was a firecracker — and she loved you very much. Be happy.Mom

Copyright 2018 by Dave Swan

Southern overexposure

A problem facing writers like myself is establishing an identity. It helps if one’s homeland conveys gravitas (which sounds cool even if it’s a buzzword) and by default plants you in the same ballpark with giants like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. So by virtue of the fact that I’ve lived way down below the Mason-Dixon for a while, and have absolutely no shame about self-promotion, I hereby do proclaim my humble self a Southern Writer.

(Please don’t be put off by this topic. I know that writers who write about writing are sometimes way past running on fumes and in desperate need of a Literary Inspiration Tow Truck. But this post is a voyage of longing, self-discovery, and angst about my place on this earth, all of which are SOUTHERN to the core. Don’t click away!)

Lest y’all think it was easy, I will have you know I’ve struggled to adapt since I came down from Up Nawth. I no longer get weepy and misty-eyed from watching blizzards on the Weather Channel, and I’ve learned that a “Meat and three” is not a rock band. However, I still don’t know or care what a “restrictor plate” is, except that it’s not what they serve your meat and three* on at the meat and three. I sure haven’t morphed into one of those noxious noodniks who still haven’t figured out they lost the Civil War.

Lots of real-life stories have a Southern tinge, like the one in which a cat caused a lady to lose control of her pickup, which “traveled across the west bound lanes of Lafayette Street, onto the side walk and into a utility police.” And nowhere but the South would you hear about the amorous couple who used a fish farm as their lovers’ lane and ended up, uh, sleeping with the fishes.

Unfortunately, the phrase “Southern writer” still calls up an image of a man (why always a man?) in a Panama hat, white shirt, and suspenders, sitting on the veranda under a ceiling fan with a typewriter, a glass of hooch, and a cigar. This guy probably wrote Southern Gothic stuff, hilariously satirized by James Thurber in “Bateman Comes Home,” in which old Nate Birge sits “watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.”

The New York Times recently posed the question, “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?”, pointing out that the genre is changing along with the region. As novelist Lee Smith put it, “It is damn hard to put a pipe-smoking granny or a pet possum into a novel these days and get away with it.”

Oh yeah? Well, one of my relations once had a cat named Possum and I’ve heard of another Southern gent who kept an alligator named Kittycat in the bathtub of his mobile home. So here’s the first sentence of my next book: “Grandma got drunk on Cousin Junior’s moonshine and threw her pipe at Possum but instead hit Kittycat, who jumped out of the tub and chased Grandma, who was nekkid, plumb out the door of her doublewide and all the way down Dead Confederate Mountain.” Am I Southern or what?

*Vegetables. Including fried okra, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, field peas, butter beans, cabbage, corn on the cob, creamed corn, green beans, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, baked beans, Brunswick stew, potato salad, and onion rings.