Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Day for Mothers

It's Mother's Day in America -- a bittersweet day for me. 

Every year I tell my own children that, with kids like them, every day is mother's day. As sappy as that sounds, I absolutely mean it. My son and daughter are the most incredible blessings and I'm privileged to get to be their mother. 

That's the sweet. 

But what I miss on is my own mother. Her last Mother's Day was in 1991. She was dying. 

We lost Mom to an astrocytoma -- a brain tumor. There were two of them, actually, already huge when they were discovered, and inoperable. Brain cancer is nearly-consistently fatal -- a horrible disease no one ever deserves. 

Mom would be 71 today. I can't really fathom that because, in my mind, she's frozen at 53. 

She met only one of her five grandchildren. Sarah, my niece, was 1-and-a-half when Mom died -- too young to have any memories of her. Mom knew that would be the case. It was one of the things that made her saddest. 

My children know her only from a handful of pictures and from what I tell them. Their Grandma Ann would be so proud of them. They know that, and it's true. I can't begin to convey to them what they have missed by not knowing her. 

My sisters and I do little things for each other's children that go beyond, I think, what we would do otherwise. We try, in some small way, to fill the void. There is no way, of course, to truly do that. 

I love my father dearly. And I know that a father's influence is incredibly important in the life of a child, as my own father's has been in my life. 

Still, there is something absolutely unique about a mother's love. No one else in your life can ever love in quite the same way as your own mother. None of us would even be here, actually, without the love and care of mothers for their children throughout countless generations. 

Happy Mother's Day to us all, whatever our circumstances. For good or bad, for bitter or sweet, in honor of caring mothers everywhere. 

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Understanding news as it changes to survive: Quotes from the ONA conference

photo by Allyson Beutke DeVito
Quotes and paraphrase on the future of journalism from those in the know:

In news, blogging saves good information otherwise gone, thrown out, wasted. -- Tammi Marcoullier of Publish2

In blogging, the metaphor of a talk show host is more accurate than that of reporter. -- Rex Hammock of Rexblog

"In journalism there are no rules, just guidelines. The same is true of blogging." -- Michael Silence of the Knoxville News Sentinel

Bloggers "have to have a stomach for this. You have to have thick skin." And you have to be consistent with that. - Christian Grantham of Nashville is Talking

"Have an email subscribe on your blog. Not RSS, email." Interested readers get immediate updates. -- Tammi Marcoullier of Publish2

"The comment is the currency of the conversation when you go online." -- Rex Hammock of

Blogging is like jazz. Bloggers have to be able to think and write at the same time. There is a lyrical nature to good blogging. -- Rex Hammock of

Produce content for print. Produce content for the web. That content cannot mirror one another. Not the same audience. It's a totally different audience. -- Val Hoeppner of Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University

In-depth online coverage of a major murder story bought credibility for the Indianapolis Star within the Black community there. The paper was not always welcome in that community before. -- Val Hoeppner of Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University

"People are no longer willing to wait for that thud on the door (newspaper) at 6 a.m. We want news on demand." -- Val Hoeppner of Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University

"When the fire burns out and the earth before you is scorched, that's when new life begins." -- Janet Coats of the Tampa Tribune on upheavals in news and newspapers

We aren't killing print, but "journalism is far too important for us to sacrifice it to a format." Evolve to stay viable. -- Janet Coats of the Tampa Tribune on upheavals in news and newspapers

"Understanding the audience doesn't mean pandering to it." -- Janet Coats, Tampa Tribune, keynote speaker.

A "curated aggregation of links" can be great journalism. See examples of link journalism at Publish2 -- Tammi Marcoullier of Publish 2

Speakers were part of the program at the Online News Association conference in Nashville Jan. 30. These quotes are derived from my impressions as Tweeted live. See quotes and comments from other journalists and academics in attendance by searching for #onanash .

Friday, January 30, 2009

Journalism has a future: What it means, how it works

Journalism HAS a future. 

I'm in Nashville today at the Online News Association conference by that name. I believe it.

Follow along as a multitude of journalists and academics offer constant updates via Twitter

The hashtag search is #onanash

The conference is at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University


Monday, January 26, 2009

Learning, the hard way

All sorts of lessons we learn as children are useful the rest of our lives:  Fire is hot. Water is wet. If you fall down, get back up again.  

My baby niece got a new life lesson last weekend: know with whom you are dealing.

Baby niece is nine months old and learning the fun of interacting. If you smile, people smile back. If you wave at people, they generally wave back. And, her newest interaction: If you offer someone a bite of your food, they say "thank you." 

Most adults are kind enough to understand that a baby doesn't actually want to give away her food. So they courteously let her keep her cracker while offering the desired comment. 

A dog, however, won't extend a baby that sort of courtesy. 

A dog will take your food if you offer it. A dog will not say thank you -- at least not in the traditional sense.

Life lesson: It's best to know with whom you are dealing -- something we could all stand to remember now and then.  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Live Blogging: Journalism conference as a participant observer

Journalism students will be working in a converged media world. How will they learn to do that when technology and opportunities change every six months? A conference group hosted by the Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media is discussing that right now.

The inaugural ICONN conference (Inter-Collegiate Online News Network) brought together professionals, students and faculty to discuss opportunities for collaborative connectivity.

Collaborative connectivity was the theme behind the scenes, too. As panels discussed and students listened and took notes, participants from many universities used wireless connections to report from the scene.

A back row seat offered a great vantage point for a participant-observer. On laptops, Blackberries, iPhones, etc., participants were communicating through:

• blogs from every imaginable CMS

Participants used the hashtag #ICONN as a searchable term to make the content easy to find. They Googled speaker bios during sessions, blogged on their own sites and published updates to students back home. The communication was live, constant and interactive.

ICONN will use a content management system (CMS) called Ochs, developed at Tennessee for a student news site using Django, to connect student journalists from around the country.

How exactly will that happen? That's the subject of the next session.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ample Customer Parking: Batman Signage in a University World

When we pulled into the parking lot at the car dealership we had to laugh. Directly in front of our car was a large sign that read, “Ample Customer Parking.” The same message sat squarely in front of every parking spot. “Ample Customer Parking” – repeated 50 times – all over the lot.

“It’s the Bat Cave!” we said. Because in the 1960s live-action television version of Batman, every item carried a carefully concise label: the Bat pole, the Bat computer, the Bat chemical analyzer, Batmobile parking. Pretty funny.

We didn’t think much more about all those signs.

Until, that is, we got the survey. Our salesman told us we’d be getting a customer satisfaction packet -- that his dealership prided itself on extremely high customer satisfaction ratings. He’d really appreciate it, he said, if we’d take the time to fill out the survey and send it back.

You guessed it. On that survey was the question, “Did your dealership provide ample customer parking?”.

Of course it did. The signs told us so. We laughed, but it was also true.

Would the parking have been ample without those signs? Probably. Would we have thought about it as much when we filled out that survey? Probably not.

We can take a lesson from Batman and from the car dealership. Communicate frequently. Make the message redundant. Keep the signs up. That way, there’s no mistaking.

Ample customer parking? Yeah, we got that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In search of Bubba

A battle has been raging in my community newspaper on the relative merits of being a northerner in this southern-Appalachian town.

Northern transplants, say some local folk, are loud, abrasive and constantly trying to change the status quo to match the way things were "back home."

The northern natives respond that they, at least, are forthright and forward thinking. They're willing to speak their mind right to someone's face.

To some of those northern writers, the ones who feel being here is forced exile, the local folks must come across as just a bunch of Bubbas. But I don't think they've ever actually met Bubba. He's a more well-rounded fellow than they might expect.

Bubba is a staple of southern music and books. He can be found in person in small towns throughout the South. Most southerners know Bubba -- or his cousin, or his neighbor.

In country music lore, Bubba is every man. In Mark Chesnutt's song, Bubba Shot the Jukebox, he has a quick temper and carries a gun.
Bubba shot the jukebox last night. He said it played a sad song and made him cry. He went to his truck and got a .45...
In Shenandoah's account, If Bubba Can Dance, Bubba is the lowest common denominator -- a basis for comparison.
He saw it on TV and ordered that video. He learned every step at home and never told a soul. When I saw him out there the very first time, I knew. If Bubba can dance, I can, too.
But let's not limit him to those roles. Bubba is Forrest Gump's best friend. He must be an athlete, too, because he has played in the NFL, NBA, the MLB and the PGA. Carson McCullers wrote about him. So did Pat Conroy. Bubba even has his own entry in Wikipedia. Some claim he lived in the White House during most of the 1990s, although it's hard to imagine Bubba as presidential material, or as an Oxford scholar like Bill Clinton.

But according to southern sociologist, John Shelton Reed, the idea of Bubba as an intellectual isn't that far fetched. In his 1996 book, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South, Reed says that Bubba is an equal-opportunity name.

"Bubbas actually come from all classes and all levels of sophistication," he said. "We know one who teaches classics. No lie."

But, he says, that's just a man named Bubba. The term, as it's used these days, isn't usually meant kindly.

"Bubba as a label, rather than a common name, became a near synonym for 'good old boy' during the 1992 (presidential) campaign," Reed says. "... Unlike 'good old boy,' however, Bubba was never used admiringly."

Somehow I think this is the Bubba most naysayers have in mind when they use that term. Personally, I wouldn't mind being thought of as a Bubba -- or maybe as his little sister.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Family Christmas

Sometime during my childhood, I had a dentist appointment on December 23. The friendly receptionist, thinking of Christmas excitement, asked me, "So, is anyone special coming to your house tomorrow night?"

"Yes!" I replied. "Mamaw and Papaw and Uncle Joe, and..."

She, of course, meant Santa. But I was thinking of my family's Christmas eve tradition. Though I lived nearer to my mother's side of the family, when I think of Christmas, I always think of the Byerleys' annual gathering.

I won't tell you just how many of those I've attended, but I can tell you that they still feel special. Last night, the Byerleys gathered at my house. There are 16 of us now -- we're a fairly small clan -- and 15 of us made it to dinner. The locale has shifted over the years, but the routine never does.

Everyone arrives bearing presents and covered dishes. Each cook brings his or her specialty and, beginning with my dad's generation, that includes the men.

Though he isn't quite up to it now, traditionally my dad brought barbecued beef and cherry cream cheese cake. My uncle bakes a ham and brings slaw or a dessert. One sister brings deviled eggs on any of her collection of deviled egg plates. Another sister brings her sweet potato casserole. My great-aunt brings her home-preserved green beans or creamed corn -- so good because they've been picked ripe, and fresh preserved. My mom was known for her special iced tea, my grandmother for her boiled custard. And as other family members grow up or "marry in," they become known for a special dish, too.

The kitchen bustles with activity until we all stop to ask the blessing. Then we eat. Any children struggle to wait patiently through that long and happy meal to the big event -- present time. When the adults can be dragged or cajoled into the living room, the children distribute the gifts. Camera flashes punctuate the stories, exclamations and laughter.

All too soon, it's over. Everyone takes home samples of favorite dishes for the next day. And we hope to be together again -- all of us -- the next year.
It isn't the tradition that's so special, I guess, but the people. And it's always my favorite family night of the year.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ms. Wanza

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Wanza Sharp, died Jan. 27, 2008, at the age of 92. That she of all people should live to be 92 probably surprised very few who knew her. Ms. Wanza was perpetual energy and motion. She was active, enthusiastic and very involved with her students. She was born to be a teacher.

She was born into a family of educators, actually. At a place and time when even going to high school was luxury, Ms. Wanza's family produced teachers and school administrators who were well known and respected in Union County, Tennessee. One sister was a much-loved high school biology teacher. A brother became superintendent of schools. Her youngest brother went to Harvard and became a professor of at the University of Tennessee.

Ms. Wanza began teaching at Horace Maynard High School, but eventually settled into a fourth grade classroom at Maynardville Elementary. That's where I met her.

I'd had wonderful teachers before, but none quite like her. We were going to have fun, she said. If we finished our work, we'd do dictionary drills. We would compete to see who could find definitions the fastest, and that would be fun. We were going to have fun with math, of all things. We would learn long division and, when we did, we'd have so much fun we might just spend all day doing long division. She made us believe this might actually be true.

And it was. We worked long division problems in chalk on a green board for hours at a time. We did spend a couple days doing just math, which none of my other teachers had ever seemed all that enthusiastic about.

Ms. Wanza was enthusiasm itself. We would learn what we needed, even if it wasn't in the book. She got us workbooks on maps and graphs, something no other fourth graders in the area had. That material would be on our achievement tests, she said. It was. But the knowledge would be basic to the rest of our lives.

Ms. Wanza's natural ability to teach touched all of us, but especially a few kids in the classroom. These were the kids, especially a few boys, who seemed to fade into the classroom woodwork all the other years. They were quiet; they were badly behind; they wanted to be somewhere else -- probably just about anywhere other than school. Come high school, most of them disappeared.

But not in Ms. Wanza's class. With her, they had identities. She knew their grandpas, she said, and their cousins and their moms and dads. She tousled their hair when she walked by and gave them affectionate nicknames. In return she got grins, and wonder-of-wonders, some actual progress. For that one year, if no other, these kids actually seemed to like school, at least a little, and to feel at home there enough to learn.

Later, after she retired, Ms. Wanza came back to school as a substitute teacher. She seemed to know a little bit about every subject as she roamed from class to class at the high school. She seemed to be there at least half the time. And she was just as fun as ever. Ms. Wanza in class meant a good school day.

Now she's no longer with us. If they happen to need someone to teach long division in heaven, she'd be perfect for the job.

I've always thought that heaven would be a place to get answers to all the things you ever wanted to know -- and to find out what really matters. If that's the case, I hope Ms. Wanza gets to see how much her life's work mattered. I hope she gets to see all the lives she touched, and that her legacy lives on.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Just Gimme Some Soup! (I Ain't Givin' You No Soup.)

On the kids' TV show, iCarly, some young teens produce a popular web show. In one recent episode, Carly and her friend, Sam, perform a skit Sam wrote for class. It's about a prisoner who wanted some soup and the man who refused to give him any. The dialogue is simple:

"Just gimme some soup!" 
"I ain't givin' you no soup."
"Just gimme some soup!"
"I ain't givin' you no soup." 

Repeat several times.  That's the entire skit. 

This is funny to viewers, I guess, based partly on demographics. It's repetitive. It's contentious. It's dramatic. It's good kid humor. 

In real life, this kind of dialogue is not so funny. I know, because I recently engaged in a similar exchange with my son. Only ours went something like this: 

Me: "Just wear your coat." 
Son: "I ain't wearin' no coat." 
Me: "Just wear your coat."
Son: "I ain't wearin' no coat."

Son is finishing up with middle school, and is busy establishing his independence. That's what teenagers do. So I pick my battles and let him determine for himself whenever possible. Only sometimes that just isn't possible.

Case in point. Son was going to a football game. Gametime weather was set to be in the mid- 30s with gusty wind. Son wants to be cool in his football fan gear. He wants to be middle-school guy tough. Thus, our exchange. 

I told him if he wanted to go to the game, he had to wear the coat. No coat, no game. 

Turns out, it was pretty cold at the game. That coat wasn't such a bad idea, after all. Only the next time the situation arises, he definitely won't need a coat. 

I've always heard that, the older the child gets, the smarter the parent gets.  We have a ways to go just yet. 

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Time Changes, But Not For Everyone

This Sunday we reset our clocks to Eastern Standard Time. We get back the hour we lost and gain a little sunlight in the morning. It's my favorite weekend of the year. The switch always causes me to think of my grandmother, who never had to "fall back." For her, time never changed. 

Granny also preferred "regular" time. She liked it so much, in fact, that she refused to take part in the annual switch.  Clocks at her house never reflected daylight saving time. 

"That old Democrat time," she'd say, with a shake of her head and a tone that implied the rest of us were foolish for going along with such nonsense. 

She refused to "spring forward," so all summer long, her clocks were "wrong." Actually, they were wrong the rest of the year, too. They were just a little more wrong in summer. 

The discrepancy came about sometime before I was even born. At some point in Granny's life, standard time in East Tennessee was officially adjusted by an hour. I've never learned the details, but other older people I knew agreed this was true. 

She never bought into that change, either. 

Fall through spring, Granny's clocks were an hour ahead of everyone else's. All summer long, they were two hours ahead. She got up to do the milking at 3 a.m. -- her time. She went to bed by 8 p.m. -- her time. 

Granny knew that real time was unchanging. And for all the years I knew her, so was she.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Writing Out Loud

These days, I make a lot of my living by speaking. I speak routinely to groups ranging from 20 to 200. In a year, I'll talk to smaller groups at least 150 times. I'll talk to groups of 100 to 200 people 50 times.

To people who have known me in any other capacity, this has got to seem pretty funny. I am a quiet person. I'm not, nor have I ever been, outgoing. I've suffered much more in life from omission than commission when it comes to talking.

Yet, the job God put before me involves speaking. And it's really not that bad. In this specific context, I kind of enjoy it -- most of the time, anyway.

How to make sense of this?

On a personal level, I have to figure that talking to a group must be something like writing. That's something I generally know how to do. Only now, I'm writing out loud.

On a larger level, I have to figure that God has a great sense of humor. He took lots of little details in my life and, without my realizing it, pointed me to exactly where I am right now.

This process is one I've heard described as like working a tapestry. From the back, it seems to be nothing but a tangled mass of colored thread in messy knots. From the front, those threads flow together to form a beautiful picture.

I think about this with my own children, and with my students. What work will God put before them? I have no idea. But in incremental steps along the way, he'll get them ready, if they follow the plan.

Only the plan isn't always obvious. Maybe that's a good thing for some of us. It's a good thing I couldn't see where my tapestry was going. I'd never have believed it.

A Sunny Field, A Few Friends, A Nice Day

My son's fall baseball team gathered one last time this afternoon to celebrate the end of the season. The boys' played a final game against an ad hoc team of dads -- and one mom. The boys pretty much trounced the parents. They ate cake and heard the obligatory coach's talk about highlights from the season.

It was a beautiful day at the ballpark. We had perfect weather, good food, nice folks -- all to celebrate a very worthwhile endeavor: teaching a few boys to play the all American game, along with a little sportsmanship, in a way that also allowed them to make friends and have some fun. 

Too many kids get burned out on organized sports long before they ever reach their teenage years. But not these boys. These boys are having fun. That's just the way it ought to be. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Heroes and Whiners: How we handle a challenge says a lot about who we are...

In the past couple of weeks, a whole bunch of people I know -- and  few I just know of -- have dealt with some truly trying and awful circumstances.  They have amazed me with their strength and resiliance. 

Other people I know -- and some I just observe -- seem to want to turn every little downturn in their lives into drama. They want -- and feel they deserve -- to be rescued from every real or imagined consequence. 

The juxtapostion has left me feeling like a great big curmudgeon. I want to support the people who really need it. I want to tell the rest to just get over themselves. 

Since when are we a society of whiners? Why is it suddenly ok to be needy and self-absorbed? And why is it that those who have the most legitimate reasons to complain or ask for help are the ones who best manage to stand on their own two feet? 

As frightening as the shadows are right now, our world isn't nearly so dark as the Greatest Generation's. Yet we complain so much more. 

I've often thought that the "Greatest Generation," the people who came of age in the Great Depression and then lived -- if they were lucky -- through World War II, got an uncessarily raw deal. It seems really unfair that they had to deal with so much hardship, then so much tragedy. 

But I've begun to think maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe that generation HAD to be grounded in the hardships of Depression in order to be ready for the hardships of a world war. Maybe they had to learn to do without to be hardened, tempered enough, to save the world from an evil dictator. Maybe that's just the way it had to be. 

I hope we, as a people, don't have to go through another devastating period of hard times just so we can learn to be tough again. I hope we can learn from history so that we aren't destined to repeat it. 

And I hope, I really hope, that we can become a little less self-absorbed, a little more resolute in our dealings with our everyday life, so that when really tough times come -- as they inevitably do -- we'll be ready. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pinto beans and cornbread

The chill in the air tonight makes me hungry for my favorite winter comfort foods -- pinto beans and cornbread. Add sides of okra and fresh-sliced tomato and it just doesn't get much better. 

The only problem is the time it takes to make a really good pot of pinto beans. It's a half-day process at best. A whole day, including soak time, is better. I don't have that kind of time right now. Canned beans aren't good for anything except chili. A slow cooker can work, but it's just not the same. I like being home to tend the pot on a cold winter day. 

Better still would be my Granny's pinto beans and cornbread. She spent much of her life making beans on a wood-burning cook stove. Hers were perfect. And she had perfectly-seasoned cast iron skillets for making corn bread. That hot, crusty bread with her homemade butter was truly the best. I can't make it like she did. Of course, I don't use bacon grease or lard. You can't make really great cornbread with canola oil. 

You also can't make good, Appalachian style cornbread if you use too many ingredients. Simple is best. That means no egg, and certainly no sugar. Thrifty Appalachian women would never waste those precious ingredients on an everyday food like cornbread. 

Granny was one of those thrifty farm women. She served pinto beans and cornbread twice a day, every day -- even holidays -- her entire adult life. Those were staple foods.  Great food, but what you had on the table every day, no matter what. 

All my grandparents were East Tennessee farmers. They owned their land and grew almost everything they ate. They may not have had much in the way of cash money, but they always ate well. When you grow your own food, the only limit is a willingness to work hard. 

And time. It takes time to grow, preserve and cook the kind of food I grew up with.

But the first cool day I'm home, there'll be a pot of beans on my stove. You can count on it. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Editing... everything.

I've been a writer pretty much all my life. I can be a reporter when that skill is needed, but I'm really a wordsmith at heart.

Writing may sound like a fun profession, maybe even a bit glamorous. In truth, for most of us, it is neither. This isn't a profession you take on because you CAN write. It's a profession you take on because you HAVE to write. You write because you just can't help yourself.

Reporters seem to have a need to dig out a story more than to tell it. Writers have to dig out a story, too, but the focus isn't the same. The difference seems to lie in a compulsive need to compose -- a fascination with how words fit together to translate thought and feeling.

Getting words to work and feel as they should can be incredibly difficult and frustrating. Yet that's what a writer feels compelled to do. The hardest work in crafting sentences is in the editing. You write, re-write, edit over and over again.

Any conscientious writer can look at words he/she edited a dozen times six months ago and still find lots of ways to improve. Much of the improvement comes in paring down -- simplifying. The most elegant writing is very simple. It's astonishing what you can cut away and still tell a story well.

I don't consider myself a truly good writer. There are plenty of writer's out there whose work I'd rather read. But being even an adequate writer is a lot of hard work.

Not that I'm complaining. To be allowed into a life, and to share in the telling of it, is a privilege. All storytellers know that.

Telling a story in an honest way can be a very emotional process. Doing so requires getting into the head and heart of a topic, of a situation, of another person. You have to truly feel the emotions, feel the impact yourself, in order to write about them accurately and in a way that translates.

A raw sensitivity, a heart for a story and the people in it, are characteristic. As good as those traits may be for storytelling, however, they're not so great for living out day-to-day life.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Honey Dot Comb: Excellent photos of a beekeeper

Honey Dot Comb: Excellent photos of a beekeeper

See Dr. Jim Stovall in action with his honey bees in fabulous pics by photographers from UT's SCOOP magazine.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Walnut Weather

It's walnut weather in Tennessee. On my morning walk I spotted several walnuts, still in hulls, beneath trees in my neighborhood.

Dark spots on the green hulls reminded me of elementary school, and of the boys who would come to class with dark-stained hands this time of year. They had been hulling walnuts. Those stains would stay around for several days -- you can't scrub them off -- but the boys never seemed to mind. Walnuts were easy money for country boys with time on their hands.

The hulls, of course, are designed to protect and nurture the walnut seed until it can get implanted in the ground. They aren't easy to remove.

It is possible to speed up the process, though. On quiet country lanes it wasn't at all unusual to encounter piles of fresh walnuts across the road. When you drove your car across them, the weight from the tires helped loosen the hulls. Hard-shell American walnuts are tough enough to take the pressure.

Every couple of days, kids would clear out the old ones and put new walnuts in the road. Then, they would finish the hulling process, put the hulled nuts into sacks and save them to take to market. That's where they got the stains. There is no good way to get the hulls off except to pull the pieces off with your fingers.

I don't know the going rate for a pound of fresh walnuts these days, but many a country kid financed his Christmas presents, or maybe a new knife or bike, by picking up those much-desired nuts. Walnut-stained hands, this time of year, were a sure sign of ingenuity.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Connie's Story

Today's blog is a guest column by Connie Cox Atkins, my dear friend from the time we were both six years old. She wants to share her story, so feel free to pass it along.
by Connie Atkins

As you may know I have been through a terrible illness. I was diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma on my right kidney last July. I was treated with one of the meanest combinations of chemo that is used. They used more in me than my doctor said he had ever used on anyone. I had 6 rounds of it that included hospitalization for a week for each treatment. It was given continuously over a 4 day period. I would have to stay the extra days because I was usually too sick to go home. I would have the treatments every three weeks. The tumor on my kidney had destroyed all function and literally had taken over the spot where the kidney used to be. It had grown to approximately 30 pounds. They were able to shrink it to about 15 pounds.

After all the chemo treatments, surgery was done this past February.My surgery took about 6 hours. The surgeons would take turns holding the tumor while the other would carefully cut it away from my body. They had to be careful not to leave any cells for fear of it spreading. With their steady hands being guided by God, they were able to remove the entire thing. I was in intensive care for about nine days. (I do not remember this time.) My remaining kidney shut down. I was placed on dialysis. I am still on dialysis (we don't know how long I will have to do this), but luckily my health continues to improve.

Yesterday was a Glorious day. My kidney doctor took me off of ten pills a day that I was having to take (I still have to take some, but not nearly as many). Today my surgeon told me that they would schedule a removal of the dialysis port (they are using my arm now). All my numbers continue to improve. All because the Lord wants me here a little longer.

I don't know what my purpose is yet, but I am beginning to understand. My most important message to people is to PLEASE GO TO THE DOCTOR! You know your body. You know when something is wrong. I knew something was terribly wrong with me, but I was stubborn, or scared or just downright trifling. I was losing weight. I had no energy. The pain was awful. But I went on. People would ask, but I would make up some excuse. My older brother, Jimmy Cox, died from colon cancer. I guess I was convinced that I too would have the same fate. Then I waited. Then I thought I had waited too long. My dear sweet husband, Jeff Atkins (Bolow to some) is a patient man. He asked, begged, pleaded with me to go to the doctor. His last straw finally came. He was fed up. He told me that he was not going to sit by and watch me die when he knew I could get some help. Jeff, by the way, is also a colon cancer SURVIVER.

That night, Jeff told me that if I refused to go to the doctor to get help then he was going to have to ask me to leave because he would not be a part of me just shriveling up and dying. The look in his eye was one that I wasn't going to play with. I knew he meant business.

I finally agreed to go to the doctor. Like I said, I knew it was very bad. We made plans to go to the emergency room that same weekend. I worked at my job up until the day before I went into the hospital. How I worked I don't know. I was very, very sick. But, as they say, the rest is history.

Now, I'm not writing this for pity, or trying to make myself out to be a martyr. I just want people to know how important it is to go to the doctor when they need to. I could have saved myself a lot of grief. Maybe my other kidney would be working better if I had not had to have so much chemo. Maybe my family would not have had to go through all they did. I don't know. I just know how it did happen. It doesn't have to go this way for everyone. Maybe I'm not even through with it yet. The cancer could come back at any time, but I go to every doctor's appointment I have.

All my family and friends have been so supportive to me: Jeff, Mom, my brother David and his wife Connie, my dear friend Kristie, my two nieces, Julie and Courtney, and my little fishin' buddy Taylor (who never said a word when he saw me with no hair--and would let me talk when I needed to). My extended family has also been there. My aunts, uncles, and cousins would stay with me at the hospital when I was so weak I couldn't get up. They would hold the trash can for me when I was too sick to make it to the bathroom (now that's love).

A lot of prayers have been said for me at the local churches. I appreciate each and every one. They have been heard. Thank you all!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Here By the Owl

The owl is a time-honored emblem of knowledge and wisdom.
Being older than the rest of you, I am asked to advise you from time to time, as the need arises.
I hope my advice will always be based on true knowledge, and ripened with wisdom.
From the FFA opening ceremonies, in the official FFA handbook, circa 1978.

My dad was an FFA advisor. He taught agriculture at Horace Maynard High School beginning in the fall of 1955 until he became "just" an administrator about 1993. Much of the time, he was a teacher and administrator both. But in his capacity as ag teacher, he spoke the advisor's part of the opening ceremonies hundreds of times.

I heard him say the owl's part a few dozen times myself -- first, while trapped in his office after school listening to him and his "boys" practice for parliamentary procedure competition. The opening ceremonies were always a part of the contest requirements. Later, I was on his parliamentary procedure team myself, but that's another story.

In FFA meetings, each officer, including the advisor, is stationed at a bust of his official emblem. My dad's, of course, was an owl. He also had a stuffed, great-horned owl on the wall of his classroom. I never see an owl without thinking of my dad.

And that is fitting. He is, and has always been, a very wise man.

He had remarkable success with his high school program, especially considering the resources available to him. Not that he would have admitted that, ever. He would never take that credit.

He advised older "boys" too, because he worked with UT students doing their student-teaching in agricultural education. Several dozen University of Tennessee students passed through his program over the years on their way to teaching positions of their own. They would become owls, too.

He gave them good advice. "Start tough," he would tell them. "Let the students know you mean business from day one." That's important, because you can always ease up later. "But if you start off too easy, you can never go back the other way."

Part of Pop's success was a natural ability to size-up people, and a good, basic understanding of human nature.

When I was a high school freshman, it came to my attention that he was completely misjudging and mishandling one student in his class. I knew the guy. I'd gone all the way through school with him. He was bad news. And here my dad was treating him just like any ordinary student.

So, with all the wisdom of a young teen, I told my dad he was wrong.

Pop didn't seem too impressed with my advice. I wanted to know why.

He thought about that for a minute.

"Well, Lisa," he said. "It's like this. I know who that boy is. I know what he is. But he doesn't have to know that.

"You see, if I treat him like I know his reputation, why, he'll feel like he has to live up that reputation. If I treat him like everybody else, maybe he won't."

Did that actually work?, I asked.

Not always he admitted. But a surprising number of times, it did.

And wouldn't you know, the wise old owl was right. A whole bunch of boys who were trouble-makers in other classes never gave my dad much trouble at all.