Phenomenal

I read that Maya Angelou will appear on the U.S. quarter. That’s pretty cool. This is my favorite poem by her. I think I read it first in my 20s. It is called Phenomenal Woman and talks about an alluring woman verses a physically beautiful woman. Here is the full poem at the Poetry Foundation. A good and introspective read for young women:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48985/phenomenal-woman

Another great one is the poem And Still I Rise. It has a universal quality, referencing the human condition and tenacity of spirit.

https://poets.org/poem/still-i-rise?gclid=Cj0KCQiA8vSOBhCkARIsAGdp6RQLUwmra2CFqmqFVp-VWGU8HX03J8QeF3VrissVOVTsr3pX1M-CdCQaAqo3EALw_wcB

Choose Faith or Choose Fear

It’s a cold, cold night. The winter storm is coming. Tomorrow is supposed to be -35 degrees. I am warm inside the house. I let my dogs out for 5 minutes and then bring them back inside. They whimper because the ice is frigid. It hurts their paws.

The storm is coming.

I could worry about everything. Will my car start? Will I make it through the snow and ice? What about the storms at work? What if someone else gets Covid? What will we do? What about this? What about that?

What if…What if…What if…

2022 is not starting out well. We are stuck in a bad, bad approaching storm. Think about the economy, think about Covid, think about the supply chain shortages, think about this, think about that…..think about all the bad stuff on the news…….get all filled up with anxiety and fear. Get all angry and frustrated and all worked up.

Or…..

choose to stay calm. Choose faith. Not the crazy blinding stupid faith that totally ignores the potential dangers. No the kind of faith that informs the serenity prayer.

Lord, help us to accept the things we cannot change and give us the courage to know the difference between what we can and what we cannot do.

I went to Galilee when I was 21. It was a study abroad for a summer. We took a rickety old metal bus up to the Golan Heights for the day and then on the way back, we stopped at an outside cafe. We got the wild notion to swim in the Sea with our clothes on. I still remember the joy of that moment swimming in the Sea with friends.

It really wasn’t that big, the Sea of Galilee. You could see the other side….much like a big Missouri lake. I wondered then what the disciples were so afraid of when the storms tossed their boat around and the waves threatened to come over the sides. Why did they panic? Jesus was asleep in the boat and they came to him and asked him to save them. Now, I realize that they probably didn’t know how to swim. That would be scary for sure.

Anyway, he got up and told them to have faith and then he calmed the waters to ease their minds.

We’re all kinda stuck in a Galilee boat and we don’t know what to do and we’re worried that this dang disease is gonna drown us. But remember what JFK said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear causes anxiety and procrastination and arguing and in-fighting and endless stupid drama which only serves to compound our problems. It causes the blame game and finger pointing. People stop fixing things and looking for solutions. Instead, they just throw shade and throw each other under the bus in an attempt to save their own hide. Every man for himself like we’re on the Titanic and there’s only one lifeboat left.

Admit it. You’ve done this. I’ve done it too. But this time…

Relax. Stay calm. Stay the course.

We’ll get out of this.

The man who wrote the song Amazing Grace was once in a storm too off the coast of England. He tied himself to the boat and he asked for mercy. He came through the storm and gave up his profession of slave trading. He went on to become a prolific preacher and hymn writer and we still sing his songs to this day.

It’s getting colder and colder outside. I could sit here and worry myself to death about the endless possibilities of what could go wrong. Or I could sit here and write something encouraging.

I choose to write.

The Opportunity to Help Heroes

I just work HR. It’s not very glamorous. All day long I help the company process paperwork. Today, I did 3 leave forms, payroll, helped with tuition reimbursement for 2 nurses, put in schedules for traveler nurses, and filled out lots of forms for helping medical staff with work comp in case of Covid quarantining. I help to ensure they get paid and get their benefits to support their families. Sometimes I screw up. But sometimes I am glad I am there to help.

All across America and the world, the medical staff are getting hit hard by the pandemic. It is not just the disease. It is the long hours, the double shifts, the struggles between work and family. It’s working extra to make sure the patients are okay. It’s holding hands. It’s not just meeting medical needs but psychological needs and basic needs like feeding and hygiene for the people they care for. It is wearisome to say the least.

I see it everyday. I see the exhaustion. I see the burnout and frustration. But I also see how hard they are working. I see how much extra they do with no thanks. I see the risks they take every day. I see them gowning up and getting N95 masks on that are really uncomfortable to wear. I see them working together to keep patients safe and bringing food trays to rooms and locking down facilities and screening visitors endlessly to try to keep the covid out. I see them getting through the winter snow to work. I see them playing music for the patients to cheer them up or doing all sorts of activities to keep the patients happy.

It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. It’s the little choices they make every day that make the medical personnel and medical admin heroes. It is getting up in the dark in the morning and getting scrubs on even though you want to call in. It’s showing up and clocking in and going through all the testing requirements from upper management. It’s showing care and compassion when they could easily turn a blind eye because they are overwhelmed. It’s a thousand little decisions made over and over day after day after day after endless day to stick it out for better or in this case, worse and worse and far worse.

It is an endless battle with an invisible enemy that keeps morphing over and over again and again. It would be easy to give up hope….and so many have. But I see in my own workplace, folks that just keep going and keep hoping and keep scheduling and keep administering and keep nursing and keep feeding patients and keep watching over them at night.

In Batman, the Dawn of Justice, there is a scene when Batman runs towards trouble while everyone around him is fleeing. You can watch it here if you want. I think medical people are like that but on a grander scale, a longer time scale. There is no fantastic explosion. Instead, it is decision after decision after decision to treat and maintain and prevent.

The choice to be a medical hero is not that simple. Watching it from the sidelines, it’s way harder than I had any idea of.

It’s countless endless decisions to not give up even through Delta, even through Omicron, even through this new Florina. It’s the internal decision to soldier on. It’s the decision to stay positive amidst adversity, as one of my colleagues said to simply, “Take one day at a time.” He said the key is to not look at the big picture but just focus on the day, getting through the day. That is the best advice I’ve gotten since working this job.

I’m honored to help them. I know I make mistakes sometimes with the paperwork and sometimes the procedures and processes can frustrate or seeing the medical staff burdened can make you feel god awful. But overall, I am glad I took this job.

I work with heroes. Real heroes. Not the kind that wear spandex and capes. And that’s not just rhetoric. It’s true. These are the real kind. I wonder what stories we will tell of them many years from now if we all make it through this pandemic.

Tonight, if you just google hospitals, you will read countless articles about the hospitals and other nursing facilities under siege. My own cousin came down with Covid in Kansas. All the hospitals were full up and they were considering life-flighting him all the way to New Mexico to a hospital there. That is how bad it is for the medical facilities right now.

If there was any time the medical staff in America could use your thoughts and prayers, it’s now.

Heroes run towards trouble even when others run the opposite direction. It’s a gut decision, a split second decision. They just do it. That’s how you know someone is a hero.

As they say in the St. Jude’s hospital commercial, “Hope is when you never give up.”

Remember, the stars shine brightest only on the darkest of nights.

A Frosty Christmas

We drove to Manchester airport to pick up Mom and Dad for Christmas. We drove northwest through the White Mountains in the thick snow and ice. 2 interstates were closed nearby but we continued slowly onward. Nonetheless, we took the road less traveled to Franconia and the snowy path led uphill to Robert Frost’s home.

Robert Frost is considered the quintessential American bard or poet. He lived from 1874 to 1963. Right before his passing in Boston, he delivered the inaugural poem for JFK.

Robert Frost won 4 Pulitizer Prizes and the Congressional Gold Medal. He was born in San Francisco but moved alot. He lived primarily in New Hampshire and England where he was influenced by Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves. Frost went to Dartmouth and Harvard. He first published in 1915. He published 2 books called North of Boston and A Boy’s Will. His poetry quickly amassed a great following and by 1920, he was known all over America and beyond.

A Thanksgiving Blessing

On Thanksgiving Day…
May your pie crust be light and flaky.
May your family table be covered with delicious dishes.
May your favorite seat, chair, or sofa be cozy.
May you sleep in and be grateful for a day off work.
May your home be filled with light.
May the music in the background be soft and relaxing.
May your hearth be warm.
May your pets be happy and safe.
May your family be gathered from far travels.
May your friends always be near by phone or text or neighborly visit.
May your turkey be tender and your gravy not lump.
May eggnog or wine overflow.
May the laughter of children be heard.
May you enjoy the Macy’s Parade.
May your hearts be humble and glad.
May peace and joy be in the air.

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

Thankless

By J. Speer

He had a thankless job.


Jerry realized this as he worked the toll road booth collecting change and dollar bills from travelers in a rush. It was Thanksgiving Day. The wind blew cold outside the booth. Snow flurries scattered here and there in the wind. He pulled his upturned collar closer towards his neck. Then, he blew warm air into his hands. He had gloves on but due to changing money, he just had the finger-less knit kind that could grip easily. His fingers were slightly numb.


The Oklahoma turnpike was unusually busy the days prior to Thanksgiving. For days, he collected tolls from this stranger or that stranger, from Minivans to Porsches or Teslas. He greeted each with a smile and sent them on their way with a good holiday wish. “Have a great Thanksgiving, folks. Be safe traveling,” he’d add with a short wave. Most zoomed past once they cleared the booth, so they missed his send-off. Some were curt. Most were pre-occupied. Yet, a few here and there wished him a happy holiday too.

Jerry was 44 years old. He had worked at the factory damn near most of his adult life until it shut down last Spring. He had seen the advertisement for the toll booth job on Indeed. It took him a while to put together a resume since he wasn’t used to job shopping but he did eventually. They called him right away. But he was low man on the totem poll, a new hire, which meant he would work through the holiday season. He bargained with another co-worker. Give me Christmas day and I’ll give you Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It took some hard negotiations but it worked. Besides, he had plans for Christmas. Palm trees and white sandy beaches……maybe a margarita in his hand or a mojito. Florida or Cancun maybe….if Dianne could go. Wishful thinking, he said to himself.


He’d been dating Dianne off and on for a few years now. It wasn’t too serious, just fun. He was a widower. His wife, Lee had succumbed to cancer 6 or 7 years prior. It was a harsh ordeal to go through and he decided to stay single afterwards for quite a long time. The kids seemed to like Dianne enough. His 3 boys and daughter thought she was alright but he knew deep down that Dianne would never take the place of Lee in their hearts. It was just casual. They were more like friends than lovers really.
The wind blew harder outside the booth. He looked over and waved at George and Lucy, the other toll booth workers. They all looked out in unison at the growing darkness outside and the thicker flurries coming down swiftly now.


It was pretty much dead…..not a lot of travelers around 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day. He figured everybody was warm and cozy inside homes celebrating and feasting on turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. His mouth salivated at the thought of it. He exhaled.


In the distance, he could see headlights making their way slowly in the heavy snow towards the booth lanes. The driver seemed cautious and moved from one lane to the other as if trying to determine which toll booth to proceed to. Whomever it was, they decided on Jerry’s booth.


It wasn’t a fancy car, just a 4-door sedan in navy blue with tan interior. Jerry leaned out his window prepared to smile at the passenger.


“Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you’re doing alright in this snow tonight,” he said.


He looked at the woman in the car. She was pretty and she smiled back at him.


“Thank you,” she said as she gave him her toll ticket.


“$3.50,” he said to her. He noticed she turned down the music and the heat in the car. She had been listening to the kind of music he preferred too. It sounded like maybe a Kenny Chesney song or Dwight Yoakem.


She dug into her purse and gathered the money. She dropped it into his hand.


“Not very busy tonight are you guys?” She asked him. He noted the curls framing her face and the dimple on her right cheek. She was lovely, just as lovely as his wife Lee had been.


“Nope, not at all. Glad to have your company actually,” he said.


“Ah, I’m traveling from my mother’s. Went to see her at the nursing home,” she said. Her eyes seemed misty a bit. “Is there a diner nearby? I missed Thanksgiving dinner. Due to COVID, we can visit the nursing home but not remove our mask near the residents. Can’t risk getting them sick.”


“That’s good of you,” he said. He leaned further out the window. Nobody was coming down the toll road, so he figured he had some time to direct her.


“Try Claudette’s down the road. I think it’s exit 42A. Should be on the right. Best food around this area. They should be open tonight I think for the truckers. Claudette’s good about that, always taking care of them guys and in turn, they keep coming back,” he added.


“Try the pumpkin pie. Best around.” He continued.


She looked at him a bit.


“Are you busy tonight…..I mean, after your shift?” She said hesitantly as if it had just dawned on her. “Maybe we could go together, seeing as how you gotta work for Thanksgivin’ and all.”


She extended her hand with a slight wink. “I’m Lisa.”


He took her hand gladly and paused a bit when she said her name. Almost like Lee, he thought to himself. Normally, he’d decline….but maybe.


She didn’t really know what had come over her either. Usually she wasn’t so forward with any guy but she had a rough day at the nursing home. It was hard to see her mother there…hard to see her decline and her mom seemed sad and depressed. Lisa had done her best to cheer her mother up. She couldn’t afford to have her mother live with her. Her mom needed a nurse’s care and 24 hr attention, around the clock care. She was worried for her mom.


The man in the toll booth had smiled when she drove up. He was a nice man and something about his kind eyes appealed to her. So she had asked him. Why not? She reasoned.


They went to Thanksgiving dinner at Claudette’s that night. They laughed and joked and had a good time together. He ordered the turkey dinner with turkey gravy and homemade mashed potatoes. She ordered the same.


A year later, that thankless job and that chance encounter led to a marriage. They went to the justice of the peace before Thanksgiving. Jerry had talked to the kids about it and they were on board. Earlier, in the year, Lisa had gotten her LNA license through a state grant and with Jerry’s help, had moved her mother back home. She took care of the kids and her mom during the week days. Meanwhile, Jerry had gotten a slight raise at work and was doing well. On the weekends, Lisa would pull a double shift as an LNA while Jerry stayed home to watch the others. She did this to supplement the family’s income.

Together, Jerry and Lisa put together quite a nice spread for Thanksgiving at his small home. He was no longer a newbie at work, so he was able to get off for both Thursday and Friday. The kids and Lisa’s mom had helped with the dishes. They had made Lisa’s mom’s best recipes. The group bowed their heads for prayer and each went around the table saying what they were grateful for. Jerry said he was most thankful for a thankless job which turned into a blessing in disguise by meeting Lisa. Lisa smiled and hugged him. She said she was so thankful for him and her new family and that her mother could join them. They all nodded and smiled.


In that little home full of heart, it really was the happiest of all possible Thanksgivings.

Return from Duty

by J. Speer

SSgt Miller took the overnight flight home.

It was a grueling flight much like the desert sands and blazing heat of the Middle East.

It had been a long year since he’d seen his children, now 14 and 8 years old.

The gym was a packed house.

He stood in the hallway in uniform near the school trophy cases.

Filled with deep emotion inside, he appeared calm and collected on the surface.

The school announced a special guest of honor over the intercom.

His daughter was on the Varsity team playing basketball.

She was a guard on the court.

The team was 7 and 2 this season.

It was something that together they discussed frequently over the long-distance phone calls at night.

He had taught her how to play ball.

Years ago in the driveway of their family home, they shot hoops together and played horse.

Countless hours.

He told her how to hold the ball just right for free throw shots and how to release it into the air.

When the school principal motioned him to enter the gym, his heart skipped a beat…

As did hers when she saw her father across the court.

She ran to him.

He held his arms out open wide.

His hat was in his left hand.

Her little brother and the soldier’s wife were already moving towards them from the stands.

Tears welled up in the faces of many nearby in the crowd as father and daughter embraced.

He kissed her forehead and smoothed her hair.

He held her tight.

She looked up at him smiling.

“I love you, Dad,” she said softly and shyly so only he could hear.

“I missed you.”

“I’m home,” he said with heartfelt gladness.

His son hugged them both.

The boy was grinning happily as he pressed his head against his father’s side.

His wife stood close by allowing her children this moment with their father.

She was crying tears of joy as well.

The crowd smiled and clapped loudly.

Home.

He was finally home.

Capone’s Gold

By J. Speer

(This story was written for a summer writing contest on the theme of “summer vacation”. It had to be 1,500 words or less.)

It was summer of 1996. It was also Frontenac Homecoming, a weekend of wonder for little ones and a weekend of celebration, or rather, inebriation for adults. George thought of the carnival in that moment back at the outskirts of town. How he wished he and his friends could turn back. But a dare had been made to enter the old mine and a dare was a challenge kept.


The entrance had been found by Steve’s dad earlier in the Spring as he ventured out to the strip pits around Mulberry for some fishing. After school had gotten out in mid-May, Steve and his Dad had crossed by the mine entrance a few more times as they lazily enjoyed the beginning of summer break. Steve played travel team baseball and this was one of the few times in their family’s busy, hectic Spring baseball schedule that he could take a bit of a break.


The boys circled the abandoned entrance in the light of the moon. It appeared to be a deep shaft, a remnant of the pre-strip mining era of southeast Kansas in the early 1900s. Steve tested the wood around the entrance by kicking a board and it broke in half, rotted from the inside by years of weathering. The boys looked at each other hesitantly.


George had the brains enough to bring his father’s hunting headlamp on the excursion. There was four of them, standing with curiousity tinged with fear together near the entrance: Steve, George, Grayson, and Bill. Steve was the oldest and so dominated most discussions with confidence. George was the smart one. Grayson was the comedian and then there was Bill, the tag-along younger brother to Grayson.


“Is it safe to go in?” ventured Grayson hesitantly.


“Hell ya, it’s safe,” said Steve with a bit of bravado to hide his insecurities. He pushed back the rotted wood even further. George switched on the neon yellow glow of his headlamp. One. Two. Three clicks to the brightest beam. Then he placed it squarely on his forehead. The bright beam shone into the darkness beyond of the little mine entrance.


“Hasn’t been touched in years looks like,” confirmed Steve. There was nothing at the entrance just a deep hollow in the earth that disappeared into the beyond. There was a staleness to the air and a smell of old rocks and dirt. Steve stepped gingerly into the entrance, cracking the old wood and hoping he did not step on a rusty old nail. He didn’t relish the thought of a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Nor did he want to think about a nail going through his beat up old sneakers.


The other boys one by one switched on their flashlights while looking around in the dark at the silent, thick woods and nearby water pits. Bugs of all kinds gravitated towards the lights and circled here and there in the dark evening around them. Bill swat at a chigger or mosquito on his bare leg.


Steve stepped further into the entrance, praying that his feet would not give way. He had a sinking nightmare image of falling into the deep earth and being buried never to be found again. He squelched the fear and pushed the bad thoughts from his mind.


“Come on in, it’s safe you chickens!” he motioned and the other boys promptly entered behind him. Bill was the last to enter but not out of effort, just that he was the runt of the litter so to speak and got pushed to the back. He was, however, bound and determined to show the other boys he was part of the group. He wanted to look brave.


“Dad said these mines are from the 1920s when Al Capone’s mafia ran Frontenac as a bootlegging operation,” Steve said with authority. “They used to distill liquor during the Prohibition here in these secret places….a place the cops would never look at. Pretty clever.”
“Al Capone used to come to Frontenac to hunt on his way down to Hot Springs for gambling. They said he’d eat at the little Italian restaurant nearby here. Chicago boss man in this little Kansas town….who knew?” Steve continued.


“They say..he buried his gold here too…..somewhere in this little Italian town.” Steve’s voice trailed off. Grayson and George looked around at the rock walls in curiousity while Bill just gulped peering into the dark. The boys began walking hunched over deeper and deeper into the shaft until the moonlit entrance nearly faded away. Steve led the way with his little headlamp. As they rounded a sharp corner and the entrance disappeared Steve stopped to look back at the others with a finger to his lips.


“We don’t want to disrupt anything or make any loud noises, ” he warned the others with a whisper. “You sure you wanna do this?” He pointed to the way back out. “Last chance.” The others said nothing. Steve half-hoped they would.


He turned to the cave ahead in search of Al Capone’s buried treasure. It was one heckuva a way to start the summer vacation of Steve’s 14th year…the year that he would forever remember as Bill’s last.

The Chamber Magazine

I am super excited today! I submitted 2 ghost stories about a young woman who is a sensitive, or someone capable of feeling the presence of paranormals. The first story called The Cold Spot will be published on April 2nd at 10:00 am. The second story will appear on April 9th in that next edition online. It is simply called Stull. Stull is the name of a paranormal mecca, a gateway to the underworld located outside Lawrence, Kansas. Both ghost stories are works of fiction but inspired by true locations in the Kansas City area.

Here is the link to The Chamber Magazine. They are seeking submissions like poetry or short stories that involve horror, dark subjects, gore, ghosts, monsters, etc. To learn more, check out their site:

New Stories, Poetry, Interviews, and Articles

Cars

We visited Galena, Kansas yesterday. It is along old Route 66. Galena was the town that inspired the Pixar Cars animated movie with Lightning McQueen. When you visit the town, you can see Luigi, Towmater, and all the gang from the beloved movie. This is a great place to see with family and also is just a short distance from the Joplin waterfalls. Remember the waterfalls scene in Cars? Here are some pictures from our trip: