It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like...Star Wars

The air outside is crisp. You can see your breath and the end of your nose is red and cold. The houses that you pass have Christmas trees in the windows. There are lights arranged all over the front lawns. The stores are all lit up and twinkling. The bell ringers are sitting in front of the shops collecting your spare change for charity.

But it’s not a Christmas party that we’re going to tonight.

I’m sitting in a restaurant with my wife and my daughter. It’s not a fancy place. “It’s not the Shangri-La,” as I’ve been known to say in description of any place that doesn’t require a jacket and tie. No, this is just a hamburger joint.

We’re sitting in a booth enjoying big, fat cheeseburgers, shoestring fries, and ice cream sundaes. There is electricity in the air. There is a smile on my face. This is a special day.

At the table next to us there are two men about my age. They’re having a casual conversation about their work and if you just listened to the words you’d think they were in business attire. But both of them are wearing t-shirts that have cartoonish pictures of robots…or droids, as they prefer to be called.

The front door opens and a gust of cold air sweeps through the room as a bunch of teenage boys come inside. All of them are wearing shirts sporting more droids, x-wings, and a certain villainous character garbed all in black. One of them is wearing a fur-covered body suit with a sash across the front.

This is Star Wars day.

I turn into a little kid when it’s time for a new Star Wars movie. A lot of us do. It’s not our fault. It’s just a part of who we are. Star Wars was a very big part of my teenage years. I was late to the game watching it but once I did I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it.

There’s something about those movies that triggers my imagination more than a lot of the other things that I like. It’s not true science fiction like Star Trek, my other favorite fandom. It’s much more of a fantasy story than that. True, there are spaceships and aliens and all of that. But at the end of the day it’s a movie full of magic, wizards, and sword fights.

Star Wars is a fairy tale…and it’s my favorite one.

I can remember the first time that I saw each film. I remember my favorite viewing of each of the films. I remember seeing the remastered edition of the original trilogy when they re-released them in theaters. I remember lying on a sofa and watching A New Hope while my infant sister slept on my chest. I remember watching The Phantom Menace in 3D with my son. I remember seeing Rogue One with my daughter.

And last night I remember feeling that excitement again as we prepared to revisit that world again.
The previews subside…the theater grows quiet…and that famous sentence fills the screen…

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

And then the speakers explode with John Williams’ magnificent and instantly recognizable fanfare. I’m 12 years old all over again. The screen is covered in X-wings and TIE fighters. I’m hearing the same laser blasts and light-sabers bouncing off one another that I did back then. And my eyes are filled with the faces of old friends.

Look! There’s Chewie!

There’s Luke!

Ah…There’s Leia…

Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher will truly be missed.

And that’s all that I really have to say.  I saw The Last Jedi. I loved it. But I’m not going to do a full review here because my review would not be objective enough for you to really gauge the quality of the film. I’m too in love with that universe. They could drop a steaming pile of garbage in front of me and if Mark Hamill was standing on top of it with a light saber I’d give it two thumbs up.

Star Wars is a big part of my life. And judging by the amount of people that I saw last night, I’m not alone. This thing is just as huge now as ever and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Star Wars taught me that there is good in every person, no matter how bad they seem to be. It taught me that every person has the potential to be something great regardless of where they come from. And it taught me that no matter what you have done in your life there will always been time for you to redeem yourself.

Pretty good for a movie full of magic and laser swords.

May the Force be with you.

The Big Boy

As I was driving in work the night shift this evening I saw something that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

I had just pulled off I 20/59 where it runs through downtown Birmingham and just before it gets to the dreaded “Malfunction Junction”. Anyone from Birmingham knows what I’m talking about. I pulled down to 17th street and stopped at a red light, waiting to turn. Across the street there was a construction site and a huge crane that stretched a hundred or so feet into the sky. On top of that crane was a platform that had a couple of big, heavy duty metal containers on it…the kind that would be loaded onto a flat car for a train. He was standing on top of that.

The Big Boy.

You know who the Big Boy is. He’s the smiling mascot for a giant hamburger that has been passed around to various restaurant chains for decades. He’s probably most recognizable if you’ve seen the Austin Powers movies. Dr. Evil used him has a spaceship.

As I sat there in my car and looked up at him, smiling with a gigantic Santa cap waving in the cold wind, I smiled. He has been the subject of a lot of laughing in my family over the years.
When I was a little kid I was absolutely terrified of the Big Boy.

The story all stems from something that happened to me when I was about three or four years old. This would have been circa 1980 or 81. We were living in Columbus, Mississippi at the time. My dad was in the Air Force and my brother was a baby.

I can only remember two things about living in Columbus. One was that there was an orange replica of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of town. The other was that we went to a church where the pastor didn’t care for children very much.

At least, he didn’t care for me.

It might have had something to do with the handful of times that his services were interrupted by things that I did. Like the time I got stuck crawling through the opening in the back of a rocking chair in the nursery and the attendant had to go get my dad out of church to come free me.

That’s another story.

We had what is commonly referred to as “children’s church” on Sunday nights. This was when all the children would go down to the basement of the church and have a separate service. We would sing, play some games, hear a Bible story, and possibly get a snack. It allowed the adults to pay attention to the pastor without interruption and it kept us from being incredibly bored by “big church”.

One night the pastor announced that there would be a special guest for children’s church. The big doors in the back of the room opened and a monster walked inside.

He had feet nearly as big as my entire body. He was wearing a pair of red and white checkered overalls. And is head…

His head was not from this world.

He had hair as black as sin. His mouth was frozen in a grin that looked like he was happy about the absolute horror that was shooting like ice through my veins. His huge, round, eyes devoid of any semblance of a soul pierced my heart like a red-hot dagger.

The Big Boy was the stuff of nightmares…and he was grinning at me.

I screamed.

When I tell you that I screamed I don’t mean that I let out a little yelp and then cried like little kids tend to when they’re being shy. I mean that I let out a yell that would make a banshee get goose bumps on the back of her neck.

I made the Wray name proud that day. My ancestor, Faye, was one of the screaming greats.
The church was full of laughing, smiling children and parents looking on with joy. And there was one little boy that was screaming like someone had just set his shoelaces on fire and he was trying to put them out with a bucket of ants.

My dad picked me up as quick as he could and ran out of the sanctuary as the Big Boy led the rest of the children down to the church basement to have a party. I got a lot calmer once I was out of the room. My parents explained to me that the Big Boy was just a costume and that there was a very nice man inside. He went to our church and I saw him all the time. Wouldn’t I like to go to children’s church and have fun with all the other boys and girls?

I said that I would and they took me down stairs. I could hear all the other kids laughing and playing and singing. I felt better. This was going to be fun.

My dad opened the door to the room they were in. I saw all the other kids. I took a few steps inside and looked to my left.

The demon was staring at me.

I screamed.

This time they heard it in China.

The Big Boy came out into the hall with my parents. He reached up and grabbed hold of his own head. He decapitated himself right in front of me.

That didn’t make the screaming stop.

When he removed his head, I saw a man that I knew inside the shell of the Big Boy’s body. He was smiling. He told me it was okay. He wasn’t going to hurt me.

“Do you want to come inside?” he asked.

“Will you leave the head off?” I replied.

“No,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

“Then no,” I said. He put the head back on. I screamed. We went home.

After that day, I was teased whenever we saw a picture of the Big Boy. Then my parents told the story to my wife and kids. The teasing continues.

It’s okay. It’s a pretty funny story.

The White Thing

In the Himalayans they have the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman. In the mid-western United States they have the Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. Down south of the border they have El Chupacabra.  And up north there are tales of the Jersey Devil. The world is full of monsters, even though you never see them. You hear the stories of the people that say that they have. And while it’s easy to write them off as the ramblings of a crazy person there is always a part of you that believes it and is a little bit frightened by it.

All over the world there are different versions of the same tale. In the south we have a monster, too. It’s called the White Thing.

You can ask people that live in the country portions of central Alabama if they’ve ever heard of the White Thing. Most of them will tell you “yes”. It’s a story that we’ve all been told. It’s an easy way to scare children around a campfire and a villainous way to get them to go to sleep at night or to be home before dark.

Legend says that deep in the woods of Jefferson and Shelby Counties, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, there is a creature that is at least seven feet tall. It is covered with thick,  white fur. It can walk on its back legs like a man or move like lightening when it gets on all fours. The noise that it makes when it screeches sounds like a woman’s scream. Most people say that they can hear it screaming at night and that it sounds a lot like a panther.

The White Thing can run like a cheetah, jump ten feet in the air from a flat-footed stance, and rub its belly and pat its head at the same time.

Everybody and their brother has a story to tell about it. Some people just claim that they hear it all the time. Some will tell you that they’ve seen it running like a blur through the woods. Others will say that they saw it take their dog or their cat. Then the stories get a little more elaborate.

One woman says that the White Thing chased her as she was walking home from a relative’s house. She took a shortcut through the woods and it started to follow her. She ran and it ran, too. She started taking off clothes to throw at the beast in an effort to slow him down. By the time she made in into her house she was almost naked and she heard a body slam against the door behind her.
Let me just go on record as saying that I don’t believe that particular one.

Then there is the story of George Norris who went out in to the town graveyard and sat down next to a tree. He fell asleep. When he woke up the White Thing was lying on the ground next to him. He said that it looked like a cross between a dog and a lion and that it just looked at him and never attempted to hurt him.

Old George was probably one to take a drink every now and then.

Then there is the story of my own brush with the White Thing. It was when I was still living at home over on good old McBrayer Drive in Vincent. My cousin, Mike and my friend, Tommy were spending the night at my house. We had decided to go for a walk late one evening and it started to get dark before we got home. We cut through the woods to get to my house. The whole time we were walking we kept hearing something walking quickly behind us. When we stopped it would stop. Then it would start again when we did. This got us moving quicker and we finally got back in one piece.
Then, Mike and Tommy had the brilliant idea to go back in and see what they could find out. I told them that they shouldn’t. They told me I was being a baby. I stayed behind while they went on an adventure. They came back thirty minutes later. They looked like they had seen a ghost.
…Or a White Thing.

They had seen it. It was everything that we had heard about. It was huge…like ten feet tall! It had white fur covering every inch of its body. It’s face was concealed in the dark. They watched it walk over to Mrs. Harlow’s back fence and jump over it like it was jumping over a tiny hurdle. They heard the Harlows’ dog barking away and then heard that bark cut off suddenly.

It was true! All of it! And it had been following us through the woods? It was right on our tail? It could have gotten us?

We were all lucky to be alive…

And then I figured out that Mike had made the whole thing up and the thing following us in the woods was my dog.

Good times.

Cocktails anyone?

Let me tell you about the first time that I ever got drunk.

The first time that I got drunk is also the only time that I’ve ever been drunk. People that know me well know that I don’t drink. I’ve been known to have beer on occasion but I never drink more than one. Hard alcohol is not something that I generally partake in either.

This isn’t because of some moral thing. I have no feelings at all about people that drink. There is nothing wrong with it if you don’t let it control you. I’ve just never developed much of a taste for alcohol. Usually in social gatherings I’m the guy that’s drinking a Diet Coke.

But I have been intoxicated at least one time in my life and it was the most terrifying experience of my childhood.

Yes…I said childhood. I was eight years old.

I was sick one evening. I was running a small fever and I was coughing a good bit. So, my parents decided that to make sure I got a good night’s sleep they would give me an adult dose of Nyquil. I don’t know what that green liquid has in it these days…but in the 80s it was almost pure alcohol. That was the way the stuff got you to sleep. It gave you a buzz. You could get the same effect by pouring yourself a finger of Jim Beam.

So, my dad poured me a shot. I didn’t have a lime wedge or anything to chase it with, but he and my mom were confident that it would do the trick.

There are two kinds of drunks in this world. There are those that can drink a little bit and get a warm, calm feeling that wraps around them and relaxes them into a nice long sleep. Then there are those people that become screaming maniacs. Apparently, I belong in that second category.

I climbed the ladder to my bunk and pulled the covers up to get some sleep. My cough had eased so some part of that medication was taking hold. It was the other part that took a bit longer.
Young boys have peculiar thoughts as they lay in bed at night. As the rest of my family drifted off to sleep, I stared at the ceiling. Images of my future swam through my head. I had a long, bright road ahead of me as I worked toward my dream of being a bestselling author, highly-paid actor, and part-time astronaut.

When that shot of Fireball kicked in it did so with the force of a roundhouse kick from Chuck Norris.
We lived in a mobile home. Southerners usually refer to them as “trailers”. My bedroom wall was made of panels of fake wood that had a pattern printed on it that was meant to look like that grain of a piece of cut lumber. As I looked at the wall that night all those patterns began to move. They turned into squiggly lines that swam along every wall in the room. The entire area was moving and I felt as if I was caught in a tornado.

I closed my eyes tightly and pressed my hands to my face. Instead of darkness I saw nothing but red and the images that I had seen on my wall filled my vision. I pulled my hands away and looked at them. To my amazement I saw that I was spinning some sort of thread between them. A string was connecting my hands together and forming an intricate web between my fingers.

But all that pales in comparison to the visitor that I received that night. My entire room filled with light and a ball of fire shot down out of my ceiling and landed loudly on my bedroom floor. It took the form of a man made completely out of flames. He just stood there and looked at me for a few seconds. I was paralyzed with fear. My brother was sleeping soundly below me, oblivious to the danger that I was perceiving.

The man vanished and my over taxed brain finally had all it could take and I passed out from a combination of exhaustion and having a snoot full.

The next morning, I told my mom and dad the story of the things that I had seen the night before. My mom took my temperature and determined that it was normal and that there was no reason to not go to school.

Of course, I was never given Nyquil again. I’m not sure if that’s why the fire monster never paid me another visit…

A Good Girl

Let me tell you about a good girl.

The year was 2003 and it was Christmas Eve. I was doing something that I had never done before and as far as I can remember I haven’t done since. I was putting on a red and white suit, a big ol’ floppy red hat, and a fake white beard. I was about to go into the living room and pretend to be Santa for my kids. Santa was going to show up, laugh a little, give the kids a hug, and give them a very special gift.
I was looking at that gift as I put the hat on my head. A little brown Labrador retriever that was only about two months old was looking back at me with her head cocked to one side with a question in her eyes.

“Why are you putting that on your face?” she seemed to be thinking.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked. She just looked at me. Of course I was the one talking to a puppy like she was going to reply so there is that.

I picked her up and put her in a box that had already been gift wrapped. I patted her on the head and told her not to be scared. She’d only be in there for a minute. A few seconds later Santa had delivered the present and the lid was removed. Suddenly this little pup was receiving more love than she had ever known in her short life. Certainly more that she had received in the pound that my wife and I had rescued her from. That kennel had been a loud and cold place where she had caught a cold so bad that she probably would not have survived if we had not came along and adopted her.

I nursed her back to health in secret. It was amazing that we had that dog for at least two weeks without the kids finding out. I gave her some medicine every day, made sure she was warm and well fed, and fell in love with her just a little myself.

But I didn’t name her. I left that job to my kids. They named her Reese because she was the color of peanut butter. And for those of you that don’t know, in the south its pronounced Reese-ee. Don’t get it wrong.

We had Reese for a long time. She grew up with the kids. She loved to run. If we turned her loose she would run laps around the yard until she collapsed. And she was so smart. She had a different temperament for each kid. With my son she would run and jump on him, nibble on him like she was ferociously attacking him, and then run away. My daughter was much smaller so she would chase her and when she caught up with her she would just run in circles around her until she got petted.

She was a good girl.

As the kids grew they became more invested in their own interests and didn’t have as much interest in playing in the yard with a dog. So, Reese became my dog. I came home from work and I petted her and scratched her belly. I made sure she was fed every day and that she had water. I treated her wounds after she wondered into the woods and got into a fight with god knows what.
She loved me. And I loved her very much.

I loved her even when she started getting old and fat. She had enough energy to make a round through the neighborhood and beg for scraps even though she was getting more than enough food at home. I tried to make her lose weight but she was getting the food from somewhere and I didn’t have the heart to chain her up. She was a country dog. Country dogs roam.

So she got fat and she got lazy. Her joints started to hurt and we had to put her on medicine for arthritis. The cold air was hard on her so she started sleeping inside when it got too cold out.
She had friends and she lost friends. My in-laws had a dog named Laney for several years. Laney and Reese hated each other but also loved each other very much. They competed over the attention of my kids and fought over food all the time. But they were also inseparable. Then Laney died and Reese grieved.

Then we had a cat named Keegan. This was the strangest animal story I’ve heard because from the time that Keegan came to live with us he absolutely hated Reese. Every time she would come into the room Keegan would hiss and spit and arch his back. Reese got clawed a few times before we realized that they were going to have to be kept separate at all times. Then one night in the dead of winter as Reese lay beside the fireplace Keegan walked over and nudged her a few times with a curious paw. Reese gave him a look that dared him to claw her one more gall darned time. Keegan didn’t. That night Keegan curled up beside her and went to sleep using her as a pillow.

A few months later Keegan got sick and had to be taken away…and Reese grieved.

A lot of jokes are made about people who say that their pets are a part of their family. Those jokes are usually told by people that don’t get it. And having a pet is not enough to know what that means. There are a lot of people who have dogs and cats for the wrong reasons. There are those that get a cat just to catch mice. There are those that get a dog just to stand watch or, God forbid, to fight in a ring. Those people don’t get it. They never will. Because you don’t just pick an animal. You have to pick an animal that also picks you.

Reese picked us.

One night I came home from work to find Reese laying in the floor of the living room and my family in tears. She had been gone for a day or so but we had figured she was off having one of her adventures that she tended to go on every now and then. My kids had found her a small distance from the house. She had hurt herself and she wasn’t moving on her own. They carried her to the house.
Bandit was a dog that we had gotten as a puppy only a year or so before. He was stiffing Reese and nudging her with his head. Dogs tend to know when something is truly wrong and they’ll let you know. Bandit was letting me know then.

I picked her up and took her to the car. I drove to the vet with my kids asking me if she was going to be okay and not knowing how to tell them that I didn’t know. A short time later a man in a white coat told me that she would never be okay again.

Reese went home with us that night...and we buried her when we got home.

I don’t live in that little trailer any more. It’s still there and in the back yard there is a wooden cross marking where she is buried. In my den I have a shelf covered in books, DVDs, toys, and pictures. On the corner of that shelf there is a small piece of clay. It is molded into the shape of a heart and has a paw print pressed into it. Above that print is one word…”Reese”.

It is one of the most valuable things that I own.

Merry Christmas, Reese.

Tales From The Bookstore

Books are in my blood.

I have read them. I have tried to write them. I love to collect them. The smell of a dusty old library is a scent that I wish I could bottle and take home with me. If they made a scented candle that made my house smell like books I would buy a lifetime supply.

I love to be around books. And even though I don’t read as much these days as I did in my youth, I still love the feel and the weight of a good book. I like to talk about them. I love to compare them to the movies they spawn. So, it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise when I graduated high school and I decided to get a job in a book store to help me work my way through college.

My idea of a bookstore when I was a kid was a lot different than what I ended up experiencing. When I was a child the closest thing that I had to a bookstore in my small town was the city library. So, on the rare occasion that I actually got to visit a real one at the mall was a special treat. They had so many more books than the library did. Not only that, they had a rack of magazines about any subject that you could think of. But, the bookstore was extremely small, tucked away in a back corner of the mall where it was missed by most of the shoppers that were there to visit GAP or Sears.

But in the 90s a store popped up in Birmingham called Books-A-Million…and it pretty well lived up to its name. I was in high school and driving by that point so I made many trips to that store. A lot of times I only went in to look around. I had a gaming habit at the time. I was playing Magic: The Gathering a lot so I loved that there was a place in driving distance where I could pick up new cards. I would find myself wandering around in that store for hours. I’d sit in the coffee shop that was called Chaucer’s Cup and read a magazine or I’d just marvel at how many novels based on Star Trek and Star Wars that there were to look at.

When I got a job there it became a dream come true for me. I spent all day around books. I helped people find the ones they were looking for. I stocked them. I ran them across the cash register. I really loved working in that store. And it had its perks. Of course I got an employee discount. I could also borrow books to read for myself. I could talk to coffee shop employees into giving me free cookies. It was great.

One of the biggest perks was meeting celebrities.

When you have a big box bookstore like Books-A-Million or Barnes and Noble you are able to get a lot of authors to come have a book signing. They usually go on tour and visit stores around the country where they meet fans and sign their books. These can be really small signings with local authors who may only have a handful of visitors the whole time they’re there. Or they could be huge celebrities that write a book and have book signings so big that you have to give out tickets a few days ahead of time to keep the crowd from getting out of hand.

It was because of these book signings that I got to briefly have interactions with people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Brett Butler, Joan Collins, Charleton Heston and a few others. But the most memorable book signing that I was ever involved with was on the day that Dan Quayle visited our store.
Dan Quayle served the United States as our vice president during the original Bush administration in the late 80s to early 90s. He gained a huge reputation as not being a very smart man which I personally feel was not a fair assessment of him. If you have ever heard him in an interview you’ll know that he was and is a very smart man. He just had a few missteps in front of the cameras along the way and was attacked for it by the late night comedians of the day. When you’re in politics you deal with that from the opposite party that you belong to a lot. I know I’ve made enough Trump jokes to attest to that. But I met Mr. Quayle that day and he seemed very nice for the two seconds that I spoke to him.

One of the things that Quayle did while he was in office is infamous. He was moderating a spelling bee for an elementary school class. One of the children was given the word “Potato”. The child wrote the correct spelling on the chalkboard and Quayle said “I think you left a little something off the end”. The child, not wanting to correct the Vice President, went back to the board and added an “e” at the end.

How many of us have written a word like “Potato” and questioned whether we should end it with an “e”? Can you imagine if you made a mistake like that while the world was watching?

So, fast forward to Books-A-Million in Hoover, Alabama circa 1996. Dan Quayle is signing copies of a book about family values that he had written. There is a line that stretches from the front door of the mega-store to the rear wall where he is seated at a table in front of a banner with his picture on it that has been draped in front of the magazine racks. There are photographers snapping pictures for the newspaper. A reporter for the local TV station has just stepped up to ask him a few questions for her report. Employees are trying to keep the line moving as best as they can. There are secret service agents stationed at various points in the store as well as in the stock room. Hoover and Birmingham have some of their finest police officers on site to assist if they are needed.

And then there was that kid.

That kid is what I call him now since I never really knew his name. He was in the store every afternoon. His mom worked until around 5 pm ever day and I guess she didn’t trust him to stay at home alone. So, after school every day he would walk over to our store, buy a snack at the coffee shop, and then wonder aimlessly for two hours until him mom came to pick him up. He had never caused a problem so management didn’t really worry about the fact that they were becoming unpaid babysitters for this lady.

I do remember that I didn’t particularly like the guy. He just had this arrogant nature about him that I didn’t care for. He had a smirk on his face all the time that said “I’m better than you”. The look that I returned usually said “I have a job and your mommy won’t let you be alone”.

On the day of the signing, this kid was hanging out in the science fiction section of the store. That particular aisle was only separated from the signing area by one shelf. He was over there, pretending to look at books, but really giving Mr. Quayle a look and a weird smile. We all had our eyes on him. I didn’t think he was going to try to hurt anyone but even if he had there were so many secret service guys and policemen in the building that he wouldn’t have.

He wasn’t trying to hurt Dan Quayle. He wanted to embarrass him. Over the sound of the crowd and the clicking cameras came one teenage voice.

“So…How do you spell potato?’

You could hear a pin drop.

The kid high-tailed it for the front door. Secret service was right behind him and had a hand on his shoulder before he could get outside. I saw Mr. Quayle give a nod to a police officer and he took off in that direction as well. That kid was grabbed and sprawled over the hood of a police car. He was searched, handcuffed, and placed in the back of the car.

I can’t imagine the call his mom got that day at work.

Officer: “May I speak with (kid’s mom)?”

Kid’s Mom: “This is she.”

Officer: “I’m calling on behalf of the United States of America. You’re son is under arrest for being a huge jerk to the former Vice-President.”

Kid’s Mom: “Oh my god!”

Officer: “Yes, ma’am. He’s going to be put in a corner and made to think about what he’s done.”
I never saw that kid after that. I’m pretty sure that he was banned from ever coming in the store again.

There is a lesson here…don’t be a jerk.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1995

I was 17 when I graduated from high school. I was a little younger than most of the other kids in my class because my birthday was in the summer. Like most kids that age I didn’t really have an idea of who I was. Up until that point in life you’re usually told who you are. You’re a student. You’re a son. Clean your room. Study chapter 12. Get a job.

But one thing that I knew about myself was that I loved film, and the year that I graduated there were a ton of them to pick from. Maybe not enough to completely erase the fear that a teenage boy had of facing the real world but still enough to keep him occupied while he dealt with it.

As I look back at 1995 and the films that we got that year I realize that I have a very difficult decision. How do you decide which of these movies is your favorite. Bruce Willis came out with the last good Die Hard movie when Die Hard With A Vengence came out. Tom Hanks and Ron Howard changed the way movies were made with Apollo 13. Pierce Brosnan took over the 007 crown with GoldenEye. And Val Kilmer put on the cape and cowl with Batman Forever.

I tried breaking this down because I was finding it nearly impossible to figure out what film needed to come out on top.

Which movie was I looking forward to the most? That was easy…it was Batman Forever. I had been in love with the first two Batman movies for 6 years. The caped crusader had become a staple of my early teenage years. I had seen those two flicks dozens of times and had really dug into the comics after they came out. I knew a lot about the characters and the fact that we were finally going to see Robin really excited me. I was also a big Jim Carrey fan at the time so the idea of seeing him take on the role of The Riddler was blowing my mind. It turned out to be one of those movies that was not as good as I expected it to be but I didn’t want to admit it. I still don’t think it’s terrible…I save that designation for Batman and Robin. But it was definitely not at the top of the stack.

Which movie did I enjoy the most in the theater? That was Die Hard With A Vengence. Die Hard made this list several installments back and by the time this movie came out I had seen the first two several times. While this one still doesn’t live up to the original I still loved it. They changed things up. First of all they gave Bruce a partner with Samuel L. Jackson. Second they didn’t contain him in a building or an airport. He had the whole city to protect.

But I think that my favorite movie of the year was not one that I actually saw that year at all. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t see it until several years later when I had kids that I needed to entertain. It was Toy Story.

The story of what happens with your toys when you aren’t around isn’t new. There were cartoons along those lines when I was growing up in the 80s. What made this one catch the eyes of modern kids was the graphics. This was the first full length film collaboration between Disney and Pixar. The animation for this film was phenomenal, and set a precedent that Pixar has consistently topped with each new film. These movies are beautiful.

But Toy Story was more than just a pretty movie…It had heart. We’re introduced to Woody, a toy cowboy who is the leader of all the toys in Andy’s bedroom voiced by Tom Hanks. He keeps things organized and makes sure that no one gets lost. He is Andy’s favorite toy and he’s been around for years. But his existence is put in jeopardy when Andy gets a cool new Buzz Lightyear toy (Tim Allen) for his birthday.

The pieces are put in place for a great adventure but also a series of valuable lessons. What does it mean  to be yourself? Are you defined by how important you are to another person? Woody became a character that over the next few years and two more installments in the series showed that there was one thing that was more important to him than his own safety and stature…his friends. He would never hurt them. He would never leave them behind. And the way we see Woody and Buzz go from being enemies to best friends was magical.

I love this movie. And, thanks to my children I’ve seen it about 100 times as well as both of its sequels. Toy Story 4 will be coming in the next couple of years and I’m sure I’ll be in the theater watching it with my grandchild.

I can’t wait to share Toy Story with that kid.

On Writing

Image result for fat boy paperI remember the day that I knew I wanted to be a writer.
When I was a kid I had no problem coming up with stories. My imagination was brilliant. I would sit and tell my mother stories off of the top of my head. Most of the time it was all in fun to make her laugh. Sometimes it was to explain a broken picture frame or a mess in my room and the results were not as hilarious.
Somewhere out there is a picture of me drawing stick figures in a notebook. Upon first glance it just looks like a kid drawing pictures. But what I’m actually doing is writing a story. It just happened to be taken before I started school so I didn’t know how to write much more than my name at the time.
One day in the second grade I was given an assignment that changed my life…or at least I thought it had at the time. It actually started early one morning when I got to school. I was out of paper for my notebook. I guess I had drawn a few too many pictures. I went into the school store to buy some more.
The school store was a racket that most public schools had going in the 80s and probably still do. If you were out of some supply that you needed for class then you could go and pick one up. They claimed it was because they didn’t want you to have to go to class without a pencil or an eraser. And, since no kid has ever remembered everything then they were making bank every single day.
I went into the school store that day and bought a packet of loose leaf paper. It would have been a quarter at the store. They cut me a deal and charged me fifty cents. As I was leaving the room I looked at the image on the front of the pack. There was a drawing of a little boy wearing a striped shirt and a beanie holding a little flag. Below him were the words “Fat Boy”. I know now that it was the name brand of the paper company but at the time it was just a funny little picture that made seven-year-old me giggle.
My second grade teacher was Miss Campbell. I have a few stories about her…most of them are not good. But on this day I’ll tell a story where she was one of the good guys. She gave us an assignment that day that she called “creative writing”. The instructions were simple. Write a story and then one by one we were going to stand in front of the class and read it to the class.
As I said, I was no stranger to coming up with stories but up until then I had not been asked to write one down. I reached into my backpack to get some paper and the little fat boy caught my eye again. I decided to tell his story.
So I wrote a tale that I called “The Adventures of Fat Boy”. I don’t remember exactly what Fat Boy’s adventures were. It had something to do with a child with an eating disorder that kept eating and became bigger and bigger. I think that at one point in the story he weighed somewhere in the millions and there was probably a Godzilla-esque scene where he was trampling the city. This was obviously before the days that my own eating disorder began and I still thought things like that were funny.
I don’t know how long the story was. If I had to guess I’d say it was two or three pages…but then my handwriting was so large back then that I may have only had a couple of paragraphs of content.
When Miss Campbell finally called my name and I took my place at the front of the class my heart was lodged in my throat. If you’ve read any of my past stories then you’ll know that I dealt with a lot of bullying when I was young. For someone that had to go through that on a daily basis to get in front of a group of their peers to speak was devastating. I knew what was going to happen. They were going to make fun of me. But, I had to do it. That was the rule. So, I shakily held my sheets of paper in front of me and started to read my story.
A few chuckles…I kept reading.
A giggle here and there…my face reddened but I kept reading.
Laughter…all out laughter…and I realized that they weren’t laughing AT me. They were laughing because they thought my story was funny. The more I realized that the more animated I got and the funnier the story became.
It was the first time that my storytelling had gotten an actual reaction out of people. When I got home that evening I wrote another story about Fat Boy. I probably wrote two or three altogether, with each one his circumstances got a little more spectacular.
The story doesn’t end like some kind of a movie. I didn’t suddenly become the most popular kid in school because I wrote a funny story. The girls didn’t line up to sit with me at lunch. I didn’t even become Miss Campbell’s favorite student.
That was the whole story. I wrote something funny that some kids laughed at.
But it planted a seed inside me…a seed that has been growing roots for the past 33 years. The seed hasn’t become a plant.
At least not yet.
But there is still some time.

More Than A Tree...

They were still kids themselves when they got married. They had a son to take care of and they had just found out that she was going to be having another in a few months. Both of them spent their days working jobs that they didn’t really like and coming home to a trailer that was too small for their growing family. They made meager meals, did some cleaning, and tried to rest up for the next day while spending a little time together.
Money was tight.
That’s a bit of an understatement. There were times when the money would come in on Friday and by Sunday it was all but gone. There was just barely enough to buy food and keep the bills paid and sometimes there wasn’t even enough for that. Christmas was coming fast and they had no idea how they were going to pay for it.
But they did. They always got through it. Year after year they worked as hard as they could and their children never had to do without on the big day. There were always plenty of presents for them under the tree and lots of food to be had as well.
And there was always a Christmas tree.
That first year the tree was real. They went to a local hardware store and bought the one that they could afford. It wasn’t very big. It had to be kind of short to fit in their living room and the branches weren’t very full. But it was what they could get so they strapped it to the roof of the car and carried it home.
On the way they stopped at the dollar store to pick up some decorations. It was their first Christmas as a family and the first time that either of them was trying to do things on their own. The ornaments that had been hanging on the trees of their childhood were on their parents’ trees. For them there was nothing so they had to start from scratch. That meant the dollar store. They bought a couple of boxes of white lights…the kind that don’t blink because they were cheaper. They got two boxes of colored balls and a few boxes of assorted shapes like angels, reindeer, Santa, and a star. They also bought some ornaments that almost look like sugar cookies cut into the shape of a ribbon. She had the idea to buy some fake flowers to spruce things up.
They took it home and assembled it. Their first Christmas tree was a scraggly one with cheap lights and ornaments. But when their son looked at it in awe they knew that it was worth it.
After that year they started a tradition. Every year they would buy an ornament for their kids to signify some accomplishment from that year. One year it was a Girl Scout symbol. Another year it was a fishing pole. This has gone on even to this day. They also were gifted some of the ornaments that hung on the tree when they were children. There were ceramic Santas with his name on them that his mother had made when he was young and angels that hung on his Grandmother’s tree when she was alive. There were handmade ornaments that she had made in school when she was only six years old.
So, the decorations grew. The tree changed every year. That was the last time that they had a real one but the artificial ones got changed out ever few years.
This year they are not celebrating Christmas in that tiny trailer. They are celebrating in a house. It isn’t their house yet but tiny steps are being taken. The tree is brand new…the product of Black Friday shopping. It has the lights built in and they change color and blink and all of that stuff. His grandmother’s angels can be seen right up front. The ornaments his kids made in school are given a prominent placement. The things that his wife made with her own hands are spaced throughout. And there in the mix are a few fake flowers and some ornaments made to look like sugar cookies in the shape of ribbons.
Their first Christmas is honored every single year. This year it seems a little more special. In a way this feels like their first Christmas. After the storm that they’ve weathered over the past couple of years it almost feels like a new starting point for them. A lot has happened lately. A lot will happen still. Next Christmas they’ll be celebrating with a brand new grandchild.
The tree looks like it has an identity problem. It’s covered in decorations that range from Christian to secular to fancy to homemade. But it is made up of much more than just a pile of plastic and tinsel. It is covered in memories, promises, and hopes.
It's more than just a's the story of their family.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1992

This series is not about the best movies ever made. It’s not a list of the movies that I think have done the most for the craft of movie making. It’s not about the ones that speak to my soul or the ones that make the earth a better place to be. It’s simply about listing the movies that are my favorites from any particular year. A few things go into that decision. Sometimes its nostalgia and I’ll admit that. There are some movies that I saw when they first came out and the illicit a response from me and there is no denying that. The other thing that I think about is how a movie has grown on me over time. I had no interest in JFK when it was first released, but now as an adult I can appreciate a few things about it.

It is with that preamble explanation that I announce my favorite movie from 1992…Wayne’s World.

I just heard a lot of eyes roll.

I’m as much of a comedy nerd as I am a movie geek. I love comedies of all kinds. And one of the things that most fans of comedy have in common is that we love Saturday Night Live. It’s had its ups and downs as far as quality, but some of the all time greatest performers got their start right there on that stage. Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy…the list goes on and on.

When I was a teenager I used to watch SNL every single week. This was in the early nineties when people like Adam Sandler, David Spade, and Chris Farley were first starting to make a name for themselves. Actors on that show really hoped to create a character that the audience loved so that producers would insist on putting them on several times a year. That was why we got characters like the Church Lady and Stuart Smalley. They just resonated with enough of the audience that they kept writing sketches for them.

That’s what happened with Wayne’s World. That was a sketch that Mike Myers came up with about a young slacker named Wayne Campbell that cares more about heavy metal than getting a job. He and his buddy, Garth, do a public access TV show. Talk show sketches are the easiest for SNL to do since it is essentially just talking to the audience and being funny.

Well, this sketch got a rise out of my generation. We loved Wayne and Garth and the catchphrases started flying. “Shwing!” “Sheyah, Right!” “Excellent!” So, SNL did something that I don’t think they had done since The Blues Brothers. They moved that 5 minute skit to the big screen.

At the time I thought it was a fantastic idea. Looking back on it now I can see how weird of a decision that was. I mean, it works great for a few minutes on TV, but how are you going to make this concept work in a movie. You have to take these characters out of a talk show format and make them have some kind of adventure, changing the dynamic completely. It’s a risky move. And we now know that it is not a move that always works. Because even though this movie was a massive hit, they also made movies like The Ladies Man, Stuart Saves His Family, and It’s Pat that didn’t work out so well.

One cold February night my dad took my brother and I to see this movie on opening night. It was one of the rare occasions that we all actually wanted to see the same thing. I was just getting to an age where going to the movies was not as special of an occasion as it was when I was smaller. We were doing it more often because…what else are you going to take your teenagers to do in small town America?

When the movie started I realized that this was going to be a lot more than just a 90 minute version of an SNL skit. These characters had been fleshed out. This was a real movie and 14-year-old me absolutely loved every minute of it. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey did a great job of changing everything about their characters without changing one single thing. I really felt like I was watching the same two guys from the sketch but with so much more detail. This was Wayne’s basement but it wasn’t Wayne’s basement.

And I also found out that night that I was in love with Tia Carrere.

1992 had so many movies that were really good. Aladdin is in my list of favorite animated films. I loved Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Few Good Men, Batman Returns…are you kidding me? It was a fantastic year to be a movie fan. But when I look back on those titles and I wonder which of them gives me the warm and fuzzies…which one I quote the most…which one I had the most fun watching the first time around…It has to be Wayne’s World.

I’m not worthy.

Family Deceptions

The men in my family are a bunch of liars.

This is more specifically on my dad’s side of the family. And “liar” may be too harsh of a word because we’re not deceitful people. We just like to make up stories and try to get you to believe them for as long as possible. It’s a way to pass the time when you live the small town life. We always come clean eventually, usually right before our victim is ready to make a phone call to verify some outrageous claim that we’ve made.

Most often the object of our trickery is our children and the children of our extended family. We would take the stories that most people tell and embellish them enough to make them truly epic. In our world Santa doesn’t just show up and leave presents…he has to slay a dragon in the yard that was there to ruin Christmas and the evidence are the smoldering embers outside which is normally a pile of leaves.

One epic example of this was the story that my grandfather used to tell all of us about how turkeys are such stupid animals that when rain hits them on the head they look up to see what it is and they end up drowning. Now, upon close reflection of this story it just doesn’t…ahem…hold water. If that tale were true then there would be no need for turkey hunting. You’d just wait until after a good rain and then go and collect the dead turkeys that are in plentiful supply. But, PawPaw Wray said it so it must have been the truth. I have to admit that I didn’t really put two and two together until my adulthood when I told that story to my kids and my wife started laughing at me. She even went to my family to share the laugh and they looked at her strangely because they all believed it, too.

I’m guilty of making up a story or two in order to trick my children and entertain myself. My daughter is the one that fell for it the most. She believed for years that I was Batman and that my Bat cave was under our house. When we saw contrails in the sky I would explain that it was Superman flying through the air to go save someone’s life. One of my favorites would be when we were in the car and the sun was shining in her face. When we would make a turn I would say “Here, baby…let Daddy move that sun for you”. Then I would motion my arm as I turned the car and magically move the sun so that it wasn’t in her eyes anymore. That one really amazed her.

But one story stands out. She was probably in kindergarten. I drove to the elementary school to pick up her and her older brother. At this point in life we were having some money issues and the air conditioning in the car was not working. I had all the windows rolled down since it was early September which is basically still the middle of summer here in Alabama. It was hot!

The kids climbed into the car and immediately started complaining about the heat. I diffused the situation my telling them that we were going to stop at the grocery store and get a gallon of ice cream to eat after dinner that night. So we did and once we got back into the card I had an idea. My son was next to me in the front and Gracie was behind him. I handed her the grocery bag that held the ice cream.

“Gracie, the air isn’t working so the ice cream is going to melt if you don’t keep it cold,” I said.

She looked at me with those enormous green eyes of hers questioningly. “How do I keep it cold, Daddy?”

“You have to blow on it, baby,” I replied. “You can’t stop. You have to blow into the bag all the way home.”
So she started blowing. And she was blowing hard, like she was blowing out her birthday candles over and over and over. We only lived about ten minutes away from the store so this wasn’t overly cruel. But my heart filled with laughter every time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw her blowing like she was putting out a fire.

“You’re doing good, Gracie!” I’d yell. “Keep blowing!”

And she did. Her face got red and she rolled her eyes from exhaustion a few times, but she did.

My son was beside himself in an effort to keep his laughter contained. I would reach over and nudge him and he would almost lose it. He pulled down the visor in front of him with a vanity mirror so that he could see the spectacle happening behind him. She caught a glimpse of him laughing at one point and stopped what she was doing.

“What are you laughing at, Austin?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “I was just looking in the mirror.”

“You’re laughing at yourself?” she asked a little more skeptically.

He nodded. “Yeah,” he said.

She shook her head. “You’re so stupid.”

And then she continued blowing.

There is a corner of Purgatory set aside for the Wray men to atone for their crimes before they can move on to Heaven. I’ve already got my seat picked out.

Grandmother's Dressing

My grandmother was an interesting woman, to say the least.

She had a style that could only be described as…”Faye”. That was her name and her style was all her own. She loved to wear colorful clothes. Going back and looking at the pictures now I’d say that a lot of the things that she wore didn’t always match. But she liked it and she was the kind of woman that you didn’t dare speak against lest you wanted to spend the next thirty minutes being told why you’d better get your head right.

But there was never any reason to say anything. She dressed well. She had a pair of red heels in her closet. She always said that every woman should have a pair of red heels, which is a piece of advice that my mother never followed since there wasn’t a red heel anywhere in our house…but that’s beside the point.

She also used to say that a lady should always put on some lipstick before her husband comes home from work. She said it was important to look your best after he’s been working all day to support the family. Those kinds of sentiments aren’t widely accepted these days. That’s mainly because women work just as much as men. But it was never meant to be defeating. It was how she felt and that was okay.

As we near Thanksgiving I’m reminded of my Grandmother Faye as I usually am at this time of year. Various holidays across the calendars get associated with different places, smells, and sounds. When I think of Thanksgiving I still can’t help but think about all the Thanksgivings that we spent at her house.

We’d get there pretty early since my mom was doing what she could to help get the big meal on the table. It didn’t matter how early we arrived, though. Grandmother was in the kitchen at daybreak. By 9 am the house was already filling with the smells of food cooking.

And cooking was something that she excelled at. We had at least 20 people coming to dinner so of course she cooked enough to feed a thousand. She didn’t do the turkey. That was a job usually given to my uncle Gene. But she made all the other stuff. Potato salad, cranberry sauce, bread, pies, pies, pies…

And dressing.

Dressing was her specialty. She would use a roasting pan the size of a bathtub and whip up the heaviest, thickest cornbread dressing that you’d ever seen. That stuff was amazing and hearty enough to fill us up all on its own. There was only one problem…

Grandmother put raisins in her dressing.

It’s like eating a minefield. Every bite had to be carefully dissected so that you didn’t accidentally bite into a hot, mushy raisin and ruin the flavor. We asked her why she put the raisins in it. She didn’t have an answer other than that was the way she liked it. That was enough.

After we complained long enough she finally started putting a divider in the roasting pan and made half of it with raisins and the other half the way normal people ate it. So, when Thanksgiving dinner was over there would be a pan that was almost exactly half full of dressing. Of course, you put some in a bowl and took it home with you and over the next week you braved the mine field again.

After all, it was Grandmother’s dressing. It was worth it. 

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1991

The further I go into the project the harder it becomes to pick a favorite out of any particular year. 1991 is no exception. By the age of 14 I was a full-fledged film fan. I wouldn’t say that I was a film “buff” yet since I had not gotten around to appreciating classic films. That wouldn’t come for a few more years. But there was no question that I loved watching movies. And at the age of 14 I was not quite old enough to be working and getting out of the house but old enough that I didn’t need a babysitter. So, during the summer I would stay at home all day either by myself or with my brother. We would go to the video store every night and rent two or three movies to watch the next day.

It was that year that I saw movies like JFK and I learned that not all of the movies have spaceships and cartoon characters. I saw Beauty and the Beast which taught me that some of them still do. And on a bus ride back from a school trip to Tennessee one of my teachers made the very poor decision to let a bunch of 12 year olds watch Silence of the Lambs.

But this blog is all about reflection. So I’m looking back at that year and deciding which movie has become my favorite. Which one brought me the most joy later in life? Which one is the most quotable? Which one has the most rewatchability?

No question. Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

I’ve said before that I remember Terminator being on in my house growing up. I’m sure that my dad watched it on Showtime or HBO when it aired. But I don’t remember watching the original film until it came on a regular TV station a few years after its original release. Of course all of the swearing had been cut out and some of the violence was gone as well. But I remember finding the concept of going into the past to save the future very interesting.  I was watching an episode of Siskel and Ebert—because I thought that’s what you did when you liked movies—and they showed a clip from the new Terminator movie. I was not a stranger to sequels. I knew what they were but I had not yet realized how prominent they were as a way for a studio to make a buck. I thought that a movie had to be really, really good to get a sequel. Spoiler alert—they don’t. They just have to make a profit.

But I didn’t get to see it right away. My parents didn’t go to the movies very often. It was a thing that you did on really special occasions a few times a year growing up. We went a little more often when I was a teenager but it was still relegated to the cheap theater where seats were $1.50 and nothing over a PG-13 rating was allowed. Terminator 2’s hard R was a no-go.

I did see it eventually. Probably not too long after its release. We did have Showtime and my mom was gone a lot, so it happened. And when it did it was amazing!

Terminator 2 was a return to the franchise for Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger and introduced Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick. This time, Arnold is the good guy. He’s still a Terminator, but he was reprogrammed by John Conner in the future because Skynet is sending a newer model back to present day to kill him when he was a child. Sarah Conner is locked up in an insane asylum and young John is a ward of the state.

When Robert Patrick oozes on the scene we start to see some special effects that we had never witnessed before. James Cameron stepped up his game with this movie and actually created technology to complete his film that was used for years after. To say that this movie revolutionized movie making is putting it mildly. I would say that modern special effects owe everything that they are to this movie. Because if what the MCU can do now is considered running then what Cameron did was equal to learning to walk. Everything before that was a steady crawl.

The performances are good. This movie makes me wonder why Linda Hamilton never became a mega star. I guess she was before her time. Because in the days of Wonder Woman and Black Widow I think Sarah Conner fits right in. I feel bad for Edward Furlong because this is basically the highlight of his career. He never reached the height that was going for and has suffered a great deal.

Arnold…well it’s his movie. He probably has three pages of dialog the entire movie but he’s still great. He’s the king of action, after all. He starred in two more Terminator movies (3 and Genysis)  after that and was kind of (sort of) in Salvation as well. But they when He, Hamilton, Furlong, Patrick, and Cameron all got together they made magic happen and there has never been a Terminator film that matched the second one. That’s what makes it my top pick for 1991.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1990

Admitting failure is not an easy thing to do, but it is something that I have to do today. I failed to complete this project by the date that I promised. I know that the deadline was something that I imposed on myself, but I promised that it would be met and it wasn’t. So, I’m sorry.

That being said, I still want to complete my list of my favorite movies from the last 40 years. I’m up to 1990 so let’s start right there.

1990 was a big year for me since it was the year that I officially became a teenager.  I have some pretty vivid memories from that time. I was just beginning my journey into nerdom. I was falling in love with movies. I went to the theater as often as I could, which was not as often as I would have liked since I still depended on my parents for transportation and our closest theater was a 30 minute drive away. Oh, and I didn’t have a job. I was a frequent customer to the local video store. Perusing the shelves of films was one of my favorite ways to pass time.

But I have some pretty specific memories of films that I saw that year. I know that I went with my mom and my cousin to see Dick Tracy on my birthday that year. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was also a huge deal for me. I saw it twice and spent my meager allowance on the novelization and the comic book adaptation.

But when I look back on that year there is one movie that has embedded so many images into my mind and steered the course of my taste in films since that stands out above all the others…

Total Recall.

This was a Schwarzenegger vehicle and probably the first movie of his that I ever actually sat down to watch. I remember Terminator being on in the background a few times as I grew up but being a kid it didn’t really appeal to me. I didn’t go see Total Recall in the theater. Of course my parents weren’t going to take a 13 year old kid to see a R-rated film. But a few months after its release it started airing on one of the premium movie channels that we had.

I remember that it was a perfect storm one evening. My mom was at work. She worked in a hospital and she had been assigned the 3pm-11-pm shift. My dad was getting ready to leave for his job as a firefighter so my brother and I were getting ready to spend the evening at home all alone. We’d been fed and I was popping some popcorn and flipping through the TV Guide to figure out what I was going to watch. I saw that Total Recall was about to come on. I had seen the commercials and I knew that I wanted to see it. Being the honest kid that I was I went to my dad as he was leaving and asked if it was okay if I watched it. He stood there and thought about it for a minute and then said, “Yeah, but don’t tell your mom.”


Now a little about the movie itself. Total Recall is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick called We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Of course it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, and Michael Ironside. It was directed by Paul Verhoeven, the same guy that had brought us Robocop a few years before and would make Starship Troopers a little while later.  The concept grabbed me immediately. Arnold plays a regular guy that works as a construction worker and he has all of these dreams of being something bigger than he is. He sees and advertisement for a company called “Recall” that specialize in putting manufactured memories in your brain. The idea being that if you don’t have time to take a vacation then you can have the memories of a vacation put In your brain and its basically the same thing. He goes through with the procedure and things go a little sideways. He pretty much discovers that he is a spy and that he has a mission to complete on Mars.

I went back and watched this movie again a little more recently, about the time that the remake with Collin Farrell came out a few years ago. The special effects don’t really hold up and the story gets a little clunky toward the end. It suffers from a classic problem where a movie has a great story but it needs to wrap up so quickly for no other reason than it’s time to wrap it up. But, even today I can watch it and get lost in that world. Some of that is Verhoeven’s vision. He had a way of world building that gave us futuristic satire of our own society that made you think. He did it in Robocop as well. You see the things going on around the character and you think to yourself…”Yeah, I can see that happening”. But it is also a product of Philip K. Dick’s mind. He could tell such huge stories in just a few pages. And when it is handled by the right filmmaker it can deliver something truly amazing.

Total Recall may be considered to be a middle –of-the-road sci-fi flick in most critics’ eyes…but it is the one film from 1990 that left the biggest impression on me. 

A Word About Victims...

Facebook is a wonderful thing. There is probably no way to measure the hours of time I’ve wasted away on that site…whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is really up to interpretation. It’s definitely helped me relieve a lot of boredom. But it’s also become a nuisance for me in the fact that it is so readily available when I feel the need to lash out. If I get angry over something that I’ve heard or something that is in the news then I can go for the instant release of expelling my bile on the internet. I don’t always think of what comes next…people actually read it.

My lessons in this began last year. As many readers know, I lost my mother in April of 2016. Watching her pass away is the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to go through. I came out the other side of that experience pretty much broken. Her suffering was a hard thing to deal with and there were lasting effects with family and people surrounding the situation that last to this day. I was a pretty angry guy for a while and I wore my heart on my sleeve.

The year that followed was also pretty rough for me and also for my family. We lost a few more family members our life took a few jabs that left us a little bruised. I got into this mindset that I just didn’t care what people thought anymore. It didn’t really matter what anyone’s opinion of me was. I had a lot of anger built up and started to find outlets for it and one of those was Facebook. There was plenty of low hanging fruit to be picked since we were in the middle of the most polarizing election that I can ever remember.

So I went on Facebook a lot over the next few months and I ranted about Trump. I thought that I was being cathartic. I was actually ostracizing myself. I started to notice that the number of people who clicked “Like” when I posted a funny meme or something had reduced which told me a few of my friends had unfollowed me. Then I noticed a few of my friends disappearing from my page altogether. So…I stopped. Or at least I tried to. I made a few apologies and tried to get along without posting things on social media that could cause any more drama in my life.

Then this garbage in Hollywood with Weinstein and Spacey and the rest started. I had a lot to say, but I didn’t’ say it. It wasn’t until the story about Roy Moore broke the other day that I had enough and needed to spew. If you don’t know, Roy Moore is running for US Senate and over the past few days he’s been accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with minors in the past. It struck a chord with me just like the Spacey allegations did because I have a huge problem with people who prey on children. It will set me off on a rant almost every time. What detonated this bomb was the hundreds…HUNDREDS…of people that came out in support of Roy Moore and called these women liars that were politically motivated.

I have a personal belief that any child that comes forward and suggests that they have been sexually abused should be believed. I made a post to that effect…a very calm post. What I think Facebook fails to do that I’m hoping this blog post will is give the idea a little more space so that I can detail my thought a little.

I hit a pocket of resistance. It wasn’t argumentative but a couple of people disagreed with me on the basis that a person could be falsely accused and it would ruin their life. Yes, I agree with that. That can and does happen on occasion. But instead of posting anything more about the subject I opted to just take it down. It wasn’t worth unintentionally starting a battle over just because my words were misunderstood. Let me try to elaborate my point.

Why do I think that the child should always be believed? Because it takes a great deal of courage for a child to come forward and tell someone that they were abused. If we automatically go into a mode of protecting the abuser then it is a slap in the face to every child who goes through that trauma. If what the child says is true and we don’t do anything about it then, in my opinion, we create more victims. We give that abuser an opportunity to continue doing these things to other children. We also set a precedent that will encourage other predators to do the same since they see people getting away with it.

Do we believe every child even if they are falsely accusing someone? This is a tricky answer because basically I would say yes. And the reason for that is that there is usually no way to know for sure who is telling the truth. But if we go in to the situation not believing the child then it causes many more problems. The thing is that every one of these situations needs to be investigated fully. If the child is lying, then eventually it’s going to be found out. But if they’re telling the truth and we didn’t believe them then we’ve damaged that child for life and put other children in danger.

What if you were accused? That was a question I was asked yesterday. I personally don’t allow myself to be put in situations where it can be said. I love kids. But I’m not alone with other people’s kids at any time. I’m not friends with children or social media. But that’s beside the point. My argument stands. If a child comes forward then they should be told that they’re believed…even if I was the one being accused. I would work tirelessly to clear my name. And, of course, there would be those that would stop having anything to do with me after that. And that’s fine…it’s their choice.

I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t find value in their argument. I do. This situation is not two-sided. This is a dodecahedron. So, no one can really be said to be right or wrong. All I’m trying to do here is state my idea of what I believe is right.

If you’re tired of hearing about this, you might as well get comfortable. This topic isn’t going anywhere for a while. It’s been brewing under the surface for decades and is finally getting some steam. Some people are going to get justice. Some abusers are going to get their comeuppance. My hope is that some of the kids that have been the victims of unspeakable acts get the help that they need to move on with their lives. 

Happy Birthday, TNG!

I’m a geek…it says so right there on the name of the website.

I’m not even embarrassed about it. There was a time in my life that I felt kind of bad that I wasn’t like the other boys my age. I didn’t like sports. I wasn’t into hunting or fishing. I didn’t have a big ol’ truck.

But those days have passed me by. I’m at an age now that I like the things that I like. If I don’t measure up to what you think a man should be then you can look elsewhere.

I wasn’t always like that.

I’ve posted many, many blog installments about my childhood. I was a fat kid. I dealt with a lot of bullying. My days were usually spent dodging insults. If they had been dodge balls then I’d be the worst player ever…because every one of them hit me.

When I was in my early teens I found this TV show that I kind of clicked with. It had been on for a couple of years but I had not been watching faithfully. Then, sitting in my house with nothing to watch I settled on it to see what it was about.

It was called Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I didn’t know if I wanted anything to do with it at first. I had never seen an episode of the original TV show. The only exposure that I’d had to Star Trek at that point was Star Trek III: The Search For Spock which had aired as the movie of the week one night, and a handful of episode so The Animated Series that air come on Nickelodeon a few times.

But this looked different. The captain was an old man. The ship looked kind of funny. There was a man with weird bumps all over his head. The guy from Reading Rainbow was there and he was wearing some funky-looking sunglasses.


But I watched it. I have no idea at this point what episode it was that I was watching, but I liked it enough to know that I wanted to watch it again the next week.  After a few weeks I was hooked. I watched it every time it came on…which I quickly learned was every day. My mother was not as thrilled about that news as I was.

Before long I was a bonafide Trekkie. I spent all of my high school years absolutely in love with that show. I had the t-shirt and everything. I think that every novel that I read for at least two years was a Star Trek novel. I even remember a teacher telling me that I was too wrapped up in it and needed to concentrate on other things.

But what no one understood is that it was much more than a TV show for me. It was my escape. For one hour every night I knew that I could leave the struggles that I went through every day. I could go and visit my friends in the 24th century. I could go on an adventure with them and I didn’t have to worry about what had gone through that day or what was going to happen the next day. I visited with my friends and I was always accepted.

I can’t say for certain that Star Trek: The Next Generation saved my life. I don’t remember having any suicidal thoughts but I was a pretty depressed guy. I do know that it saved my sanity. It gave me an outlet in my life when I needed it.

And it started the rebirth of a franchise that has brought me so much joy over the last 30 years. Even this week as I sat down and watched the newest incarnation, Star Trek: Discovery, I was reminded of that feeling I had watching TNG as a teenager. It was like wrapping up in a warm blanket.

Today, Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 30 years old. Here’s to 30 more!


He was a kid.

He wasn’t literally a child. I mean, he was technically a grown man at the age of 23. But he hadn’t really experienced much of life. The small town life had been all he’d every really known and he had not yet figured out what his place in the world was. He made $6.50 an hour at a job that didn’t really hold much of a future for him. He spent his days working and at night he’d sit alone in his room, watching TV and wishing that there was more to his existence.

She was a kid, too. She was only 22. And in her short life she’d actually already lived a lot. She’d lived long enough to have been hurt by the man she loved. And she’d been around long enough to have a precious little boy that meant the world to her. She thought she had everything she needed. She thought that if it were just her and her son that she’d be fine.

The Universe had other plans.

These two met one day. They went on a date. Neither of them was really out to find a relationship. They were each just trying to meet people and venture out of their comfort zone.

I can’t say what it was that went through that girl’s head that night. You’d have to ask her. I can tell you where she is right now. She’s dropping my daughter off at school.

Did we move fast? Yeah, I guess we did. If my kids had the kind of whirlwind romance that we had I’d probably caution them to slow down. My mother did. It made me angry at the time but a few gray hairs now tell me that she was just worried about me. She didn’t have to be. What I felt was real because I still feel the same way.

We married in a courthouse. I’m not the kind of guy that wants to stand up in front of a crowd and make a fuss over myself. And who honestly looks forward to putting on a suit and watching a couple of people light some candles so you can eat a Wal-Mart cake and some ginger-ale punch? So we stood before a judge and promised God that we’d love each other for a really long time.

I kept my end of the bargain. And she’s still here so I guess she’s keeping hers too.

A few months after our wedding I signed a paper that said that I wasn’t her son’s step-dad anymore…I was his dad.

Several months after that I stood in a delivery room and watched a little girl come into the world.

In the years that followed a ton of things have happened with us, to us, around us, because of us…you name it. Midnight rushes to the hospital…scraped knees and sore throats…celebrations and mournings. She was with me at two of my grandparents funerals. I was with her at a few as well. We watched children around us grow up, get married, have children of their own. We watched our son march across the graduation stage. We cheered at ball games…we endured meetings…we shelled out enough money for school supplies to buy a bus!

We’ve had our own heath scares. We’ve been there for people when they had theirs. She was there for me when my dad had heart surgery. I was there for her when her mom had breast cancer.

She held me in her arms the day I watched the life slip out of my mother’s eyes.

It has been a journey…an adventure. And it’s one that I would gladly do all over again. Even the nights when we spend the whole night fighting are worth it because I know that in the end we’re on the same side.

I’ve always told my children not to depend on another person to complete themselves. I said that if you can’t stand on your own you won’t be a very good partner. And that is very true. I am a complete person. But I am even more complete because I have Sherri Wray in my life. I am a stronger person with her. Things that I can’t handle on my own are bearable because she’s in my corner. I certainly hope that she feels the same way.

So…tomorrow is the day that we celebrate our seventeenth wedding anniversary. It’s cliché but I really can’t believe that it’s been that long. I really did something right all those years ago.

Happy Anniversary, Pretty Baby! Seventeen down…a lifetime to go! Here’s hoping to many, many more years of me leaving my socks in the floor, you asking me which way your hair looks best, and all the celebrations in between.

We’ve still got a lot to look forward to. Our daughter’s graduation…the birth of our grandchildren (hopefully many, many years from now), and watching each other turn into old people…and laughing at each other about it.

I love you…so much.

"Stretching From Here To Pletcher"...a tribute to Steve Latham

Today is a dark day.

If you’ve ever read any of my blog posts before then you’ve heard me tell the stories of my experiences in high school. I was bullied. I was bullied a lot. It’s something that has affected me my entire life. It has caused social anxiety issues that I deal with to this day. It’s not something that I like to remember, but it’s my history and it’s a part of who I am.

Granted, I was an awkward teenager. I didn’t play any sports. I wasn’t on the little league team. I didn’t even like watching sports...I still don’t. I don’t know enough about football to have an extended conversation about it. The stuff that I was into was a lot nerdier than that. I liked Star Trek. I liked reading science fiction and fantasy novels. I liked writing stories. I liked watching old black and white monster movies. I liked British sitcoms. Like I said…weird kid.

When I was a junior in high school I signed up to be a library aid for one class period a day. I figured I liked to be around books so much and I already spent enough time in the library that I might as well get some class credit for it. That year we had a new librarian. His name was Steve Latham.

Steve was still a relatively young teacher at the time. He was only about 32 or 33. But what I soon came to realize was that we were kind of kindred spirits. He was into Star Trek. He liked old movies. He was a theater buff and liked watching plays and reading poetry. I soon found myself really looking forward to the class period that I spent in the library because we would start up a game of Star Trek trivia and see which one of us could trip up the other the fastest. His original series knowledge usually won. That and the occasional times that he had to gently remind me that I was supposed to be working.

The next year, my senior year, I signed up for two periods of library duty. Mr. Latham had become my favorite teacher and someone that I looked up to and respected a great deal. I got to watch him give presentations to the underclassmen about the Dewey Decimal System, the card catalogue, and the microfiche. He had a way of getting on the level of those kids and actually make them have a good time learning about some of the most boring subjects ever.

He had a presence about him that is hard to explain. He was a gentle man that anyone felt comfortable approaching. You could have a conversation with him about any subject and he would get just as animated if he were talking with a fellow teacher about normal business or with a sixth grader about what book they should read next. He had a laugh that would fill a room and you could hear it in the classroom across the hall. That laugh was so full of joy that it would instantly bring a smile to anyone’s face. It was like hearing Santa laugh when you were a kid.

Mr. Latham decided to head up a drama club when I was a senior. It was something that I had been lobbying for since I was a freshman and there was finally a teacher that was going to devote some time into making it happen. He settled on a script that was essentially a modern day telling of Twelve Angry Men. This being high school and it being the south there were not twelve guys that wanted to take part. So, we performed Twelve Angry People with a cast of two males and ten females. Those months that we spent developing that play and getting ready for a performance are the best memories that I have from high school. I played juror number twelve and I had a grand total of two lines. But it was an awesome feeling to do that play in front of an audience. And Mr. Latham was the best person for that job. He made it a lot of fun. But, the closer we got to the performance date the more stressed he got and we did get to see the steam come out of old Mr. L’s ears a couple of times.

Mr. Latham left Vincent High School not long after I did. He took a job teaching at another school in the county. He built a career at that school that lasted until this past spring when he announced his retirement. He was going to devote himself more fully to his writing. He was developing a blog called Stretching From Here To Pletcher and he had plans on writing a book. He also wanted to develop a podcast.

 I kept up with him for a while through email but eventually we lost touch until about two or three years ago, when the rise of social media made it easy to connect again. Once again, I was chatting with him fairly regularly. We’d send birthday messages back and forth. I even reached out to him just over a week ago, to find out if he’d be interested in being on my Star Trek fandom podcast, The Prime Direction. He graciously declined because he wasn’t as big of a fan as he had been back in the day. He even got me in touch with a college professor that has taught classes on Star Trek that will be on my show in a month or so. But we had already made plans for him to come on a future episode of Cosmic Potato to chat about movies. And I was going to help him get his podcast off the ground.

Today I found out that Mr. Latham suddenly passed away. This news absolutely floored me. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I broke down and cried. This man that has brought so much joy into the lives of students in Shelby County for so many years was taken out of the world just as he was getting ready to enjoy the next stage of his life. I felt sadness for him. I felt anger at the loss of his future. I felt an emptiness in my soul.

Mr. Latham is gone.

But Mr. Latham lives on in the hearts of students and teachers all over the world that began their lives in Shelby County Schools. He lives on in the memories that we have of him and his wisdom. He lives on when children from the nineties now stand in front of their own classrooms and teach a new generation of students. He lives on when the kids that never had an interest in reading now find themselves looking forward to the next novel from their favorite writer. He lives on every time someone goes to his blog site and reads some of the home spun stories that he loved to tell.
He lives on with a nerdy kid from Vincent, Alabama that hated to get on the bus and go to the place that offered him nothing but physical and mental torment can look back on some memories from high school and smile.

When he announced his retirement, I wrote a comment on his Facebook page:

When I think of my days in high school, some of my fondest memories are of sitting in the library as an “aid”. I was supposed to be working, but what I was really doing was talking Star Trek with Mr. Latham. You may or may not have known this, Mr. L, but my teenage years were a pretty lonely time for me. The fact that you spent so much time shooting the breeze with me has meant a lot over the years. Congratulations on a long career. Good luck on the writing career.  And if you ever do decide to give podcasting a try we’ll have to collaborate.”

His response:

Shawn, those are some of my best memories from a three-decade long career, and our convos meant much to me as well. Thanks for the kind words. I DEFINITELY need to get with you about this whole podcasting scene. It’s more complicated than I thought it would be.”

That collaboration will never happen. That podcast will never be heard. It probably would have been a great one, too.

Mr. Latham…you will absolutely be missed.

If you’d like to read some of Steve Latham’s writing, and I highly recommend that you do, you can follow this link to his blog.

Why You Should Get A Flu Shot

This article originally appeared in last week's issue of The Leeds Tribune. I'm posting it here so it can be shared with people ou...