Smoking

I kind of quit smoking when I was 33 after having incessant heart palpitations. I think the actual trigger had been the exhaust we breathed stuck in traffic the night before after watching fireworks at the mall. Plus I’d had a lot of dental work done which involved repeated doses of ephedrine. Whatever. The doc looked at my EKG and said I had to quit smoking. And drinking caffeine.

I loved smoking. Maybe I imprinted on my father’s lifelong relationship with Winstons. Maybe I was just a natural addict. Maybe the boost I got from nicotine helped me jumpstart the confidence I so badly needed.

Pretty much within the first several weeks of college, I bought Winstons and started smoking. I learned how to French inhale. I learned how to flip ashes and thump butts out of car windows. After a year or so, I gave it up temporarily because my soon-to-be husband didn’t like me to smoke and I wanted him more than I wanted cigarettes.

For a while.

I could write an entire story about my life with cigarettes, about the on again, off again drama while married to him. About the shift to Kools after I met a particular man who was my lover for three months. One spring night as a thunderstorm raged outside, I ran out of Winstons. He offered me a Kool and that was that.

Smoking felt even more exhilarating with Kools, the intense menthol burn on the inhale, the slightly sweet smoky exhale. I loved each new pack in its clean white and green colors, the ceremony of tapping the pack, of pulling the little cellophane thread that opened the top, the careful tearing off one side of the foil interior wrap and the skilled thump on the side of my finger to knock the first lovely white cylinder loose. These were gifts, objects of beauty. That first puff felt wonderful, but it was the second hit that filled my lungs and my body with the full tobacco experience.

If anyone ever wanted a hit of my cigarette, they did not get the second hit.

Cigarettes were my best friend. They were there for me when the rest of my world dissolved into runny shit. In lonely moments, in anger, in grief, I turned to my faithful companion. In the dark of night, I relied on the warm cheery glow of a cigarette’s lit end. In hunger, in drunkenness, in the hours of tripping my brains out, the cigarette was there, centering me, reminding me of myself. Being the lighthouse in the storm.

With my first pregnancy at age twenty-seven, I bravely stopped smoking. Time slowed to a crawl. I so wanted to do right by the future child growing inside me. Then one night my husband and I had a vicious fight. I leapt into the old Ford 150 and drove to the nearest gas station where I purchased a pack of Kools. Then I drove to a vacant parking lot and lit that old friend and sat there crying and smoking. I subsequently smoked through all three of my pregnancies.

I required a cigarette when on the telephone. Otherwise I might leap out of my skin in annoyance with yet another incessant nonsensical blathering about whatever, or another tale of romantic angst, or whatever the fuck it was someone else had to tell me and I thought I had to listen as the minutes of wasted life ticked by. Without cigarettes, I finally learned to just draw my line in the sand and make whatever excuse was necessary to end the call.

After the doc said I had to quit and pointed out that I risked having some other woman mother my young children because I could fucking die, I stumbled out of the building into the glare of July sunlight and sat in my blazing hot car with the windows down while I smoked my last cigarette. I cried. Deep body shaking sobs. Then I drove up North Street, finished the last drag on that luscious Kool then tossed the rest of the pack out the window. Yes, I looked back. The little green and white pack lay forlorn on the pavement.

That wasn’t the end of my smoking. I went through a period where I’d meet a friend for a beer and she smoked my brand and I’d luxuriate in the pleasure of ‘just one.’ Only I never could smoke just one. ‘Just one’ after weeks or even days of abstinence resulted in dizziness and nausea. I had to smoke more often if I wanted to tolerate the effects. And I did smoke more. I stopped and started smoking so many times I lost count. The craving would get so bad, I’d buy a pack, smoke one then throw the pack away. Then I’d buy a pack, smoke one, and keep the pack in my glove box until the next insurmountable craving forced my hand.

It took nearly ten years before I really quit. I’d have dreams of smoking, feel the pleasure of smoke curling over my tongue, drawing deep into my lungs, brushing past my lips as I exhaled. In the dream, I’d panic that I’d started smoking again, that I’d never be free of it, that I’d always be tortured by an addiction I couldn’t beat. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I sometimes have that dream. In recent years when the dream occurs, I know in my dream that it’s a dream. For years, though, I’d wake up not sure if I had started again.

Side note: Maybe I have this dream often. I don’t know because I mostly can’t remember my dreams anymore. Why is that? My life is crumbling away before my very eyes.

I understood my thing with cigarettes was a real addiction. To me, addiction is the ability of a chemical to make a place for itself in the recesses of a human brain and take up residence there. A more refined understanding is that it isn’t the chemical itself that takes up residence, but the effect that chemical has inside the body. The whole endorphin receptor thing. The euphoria that results from those effects will live forever inside me, always ready for that moment when I might finally lay down my guard and say ‘why not?’ and bring flame to the tip and inhale.

Knowing that, I sometimes lament my father’s last request for me to bring him a cigarette. Or, more accurately, I lament my response.

We all knew he was dying. Eighty-five years of life and Winstons finally came to collect its debt in atrophied heart muscle and congested lungs. He spent his days and nights those last weeks in a hospital bed in the family room, unable to walk and perhaps in pain. But he never said he hurt. He didn’t complain.

On one of my last visits before he died, he held my hand and asked if I’d get ‘the old man’ a cigarette. I said no, you know you can’t smoke, you’re on oxygen. But later I thought, what the hell was I thinking? I could have turned off the oxygen. I could have bought a pack and wheeled him to the porch and watched him enjoy the hell out of that damn thing.

It would have been the rational, kind thing for me to do. He hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at that point, so I’m not sure how dizzy it would have made him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the joyous sensation he expected. Maybe he would have coughed or choked. But he was dying anyway.

I should have done it.

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Winter

She speaks for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it’s going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices are different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line, in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys work up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that will keep us secure when the weather moves in. Cars and trucks crowd the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipping sideways in the freezing wind.

Men wait holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had been. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joke, catch up with old acquaintances who also stand in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet starts.

The cold comes first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I return home, fifteen by three. Wind rocks the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

More wood on the fire at midnight and two a.m. I shiver by the fire. The house creaks.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows wakes me. I indulge in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do race through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice mean a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearance, I sip hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signals dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer move slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filter into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line.

Four degrees.

I build a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steams while I craft my list of things to do, tasks that seem too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burden the hours. I simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I sketch scenes, the road to my house, the long-familiar contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hang by the blistering stove whose greedy heat soon pulls out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorate the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rush out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January, when a few decades earlier our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew up expecting that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house discovering long lost treasures at the back of the closet, reading magazines, standing at the window as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately, with the warming climate, there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of man over the elements, a proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

This piece is excerpted from my collection of essays, I Met a Goat on the Road–and other stories of life on this hill. Published 2013

Best Gift Ever

All around us, every day, the people and events of the past still echo. What is better than to meet those memories and share them with your loved ones?

From 1835 to the present day, the City of Fayetteville in Washington County, Arkansas, has enjoyed a vibrant and colorful history. Its reputation as a regional center for arts, culture, and education began early in its history. Frequently named one of the nation’s Top 10 cities, Fayetteville hosts the University of Arkansas and its famous Razorback athletic teams.

In Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, history comes alive in stories of the town’s origins and development. The five articles contained in Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past focus on under-reported aspects of that history. Published initially by the county’s historical society, these intensively-researched works have been revised and expanded with illustrations, photographs, and maps.

“The History of Fayette Junction and Washington County’s Timber Boom” now include not only an in-depth review of Fayetteville’s first major industry but also three appendices which examine wagon production in Fayetteville, the name and tradition of Sligo, and the Fulbright mill.

“Quicktown” delves into the story behind this quirky short-lived suburb in south Fayetteville.

“546 West Center” tracks the development of a landmark Fayetteville property from its earliest use as a site for an ice factory in the 1880s.

“The Rise and Fall of Alcohol Prohibition” documents the use, production, and regulation of alcoholic drink in Washington County from before statehood through the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and features indictment and other crime data.

“175 Years of Groceries” follows the transition from country store to supermarkets to big box stores and includes newspaper advertisements showing price changes over those decades.

Whether a reader is interested in learning more about the history of Fayetteville or simply enjoys the peculiar details of how time changes all things, Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past will inform and entertain.

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I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

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South County

1972. A Yankee learns the Ozarks way and lives to tell his tales. Now almost a native, Denny fondly reminisces about the people and places of his adopted home.

Denny Luke is an adventurer. During his years as a Navy man, he built hot rods with money he made with shipboard loansharking. He returned to his native Ohio where he soon tired of the mechanic’s life. Computers had just started to break the surface in 1966, the perfect attraction to a young man with a sharp mind and plenty of ambition.

Hot cars and Enduro racing occupied Denny’s next few years as he helped usher in the computer age in Minneapolis. But another adventure awaited when in 1970 he fell in with a bunch of hippies. By 1972, he had found his way to the Ozarks.

An avid photographer and storyteller, Denny shares the adventures of his life as he recalls the outrageous backwoods tales and colorful characters who populate the southern fringe of Washington County in Northwest Arkansas.

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Is Rock and Roll Dying?

As soon as the caller identified himself, my heart sank. Not another one. I let him explain—barely making it, bandmate working three jobs, time to cut back.

This truth hit them suddenly. No time for thirty days’ notice. He’d moved all their stuff out early that day—amps, speakers, drums, guitars, miscellany only musicians know. All of it now crammed into corners of already cramped living space, it won’t see use. It will sit there until their finances improve or until, on some forlorn day, they decide to sell it.

My vacancy rate now hovers at twenty-five percent – four studios out of sixteen. It’s actually worse than that. I’m down to three actual bands plus one unit occupied by a drummer who needs a place to practice when his band isn’t on the road and one unit occupied by a retiree who used to be a big time guitarist. He and his wife live in an RV, no place for him to play.

Then there are the hip-hop and rap guys, three studios without a drum or instrument, nothing but a computer set up, comfortable furniture, and microphones.

The other rented studios are occupied by an accountant, a masseuse, a writer, and an artist. I’m actively advertising the units as office space, work space, a place to store things if someone needs a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. There are two bathrooms including one with a shower for rinsing off that after-gig smoke-and-booze film that mixes with sweat and sticks to hair, skin, and clothing. There’s a break area with microwave, bar sink, and coffee maker.

There’s a loading dock leading to an entry with a keypad lock, steel doors set in steel frames set in concrete block walls. Another key code is required for each tenant to enter his individual studio. Surveillance cameras further enhance security for tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear acquired over time—keyboards, sophisticated mixing boards, smoke machines plus t-shirts, CDs, and other promotional items. Most of all, the studios provide sound control. Heavy metal played at two a.m. does not leak outside because the walls and ceilings are double-layered, offset with sound clips.

It’s a niche business, something I got into by accident. Back in 1989, I gained ownership of an old railroad property where my dad and I had operated our piano repair business since 1981. The ramshackle buildings stretched along a block of spur track once served as warehouses, a 1940s Quonset hut among them. We used only half of one building, leaving room for multiple renters. As it turned out, the greatest demand for space was rock and roll bands who needed rehearsal space.

Many repairs and changes in those old buildings over the coming years created eleven rehearsal units. Even at that, I usually had a waiting list. Nothing about those old buildings worked well for bands—except the price, ranging from $200 to $300 per month. Sound leaked out so badly that police forced rehearsal shut-downs on a regular basis. Keyed doors meant a continuous drama over lost keys or the need for new locks because the drummer lost his mind and they wanted him locked out. No humidity control, no central heat or AC.

Around 2003 when retirement rolled around and we shut down the piano business, real estate development was exploding all around me. I caught the fever. Perfectly positioned between the university, downtown, and the entertainment district, the property could be the home of a profitable development of apartments or condos alongside commercial space. One of the questions that came up during that two-year frenzy of architects, engineers, city planners, and financial shenanigans was: What about the bands?

The bands. By now hundreds of bands had sojourned there, some famous, most of them not. Some lasting a few months, some for years. I continued to have a waiting list.

So I spent considerable time looking at affordable properties where I could create the best possible rehearsal studio space. I borrowed money for a down payment and contracted with various trades for a remodel of an existing building. I went into debt for a quarter million dollars.

On opening day, April 2006, the studios filled up. Except for a few dark months at the bottom of the recession in 2008-9, they stayed filled. At some points, bands shared space in the larger units and still there was a waiting list.

Then, inexplicably in spring 2016, all that changed. Rent was paid late or in partial amounts along with fervent promises—soon as we get this recording deal done, soon as we get back from tour. Vacancies didn’t get filled. By the end of the year, four vacancies existed from month to month. By mid-2017, there were five.

I’ve talked about this with some of the musicians who have rented from me for years. The sad truth is that the local scene has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, especially in the last ten. Back in the day, a person out for a night of revelry could stand on the sidewalk on Dickson Street and hear rock and roll leaking out into the night from clubs up and down the street. Live music brought in the customers, eager to support their favorite bands with a small cover charge. The money added up for the bands, and the club owners made money off the drinks.

People thronged the dance floor, shouting and laughing as the heavy beat and guitar riffs joined them together in a primal celebration of life. These were songs of the soul in the glorious tradition of rock and roll, an expression too heavy for mere words. This was the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and all the greats and not so greats who tapped into the zeitgeist of the times in protest of war, of social injustice, of human angst in the unspeakable onslaught of life itself. We needed the music to get us through.

Do we not need it anymore?

One club owner explained to me that the whole scene changed as more people got iPhones. Patrons wanted to be free to circulate up and down the street, meet friends at one place, go to another. It was about seeing and being seen. Texting ruled. No one wanted to pay a cover or cared whether there was live music. Now on any given night, a person standing on the sidewalk finds the street mostly silent. Two or three clubs still invite live performance and there are occasional music fests. But the bread and butter money has dried up.

More than the loss of local venues is the lingering impact of economic downturn. Prices for food, rent, and everything else has gone up but wages haven’t. For young men and women hoping to move forward in the music industry, there simply isn’t enough to go around and still cover a modest $250 to $300 per month studio rent even when shared among three or four bandmates.

And why should they? Since music went digital, the scaffolding holding up the music industry has mostly collapsed. People routinely steal downloads. Whatever tiny increments of profit someone’s CD might generate are siphoned off by the recording studio and the promoters leaving the band with barely enough to cover the costs of touring.

People take music for granted. It’s ubiquitous. In every office and marketplace, every movie and television show, every waking moment, music undergirds our voice-overs. If someone suddenly pulled the plug and music disappeared, we would stand aghast at the disconcerting silence. The musical background spans awkward moments in conversation, social unease as we crowd together as strangers in increasingly jammed spaces, and in long private moments when we don’t want to face whatever is going on in our own minds.

We rely on music in ways we hardly realize. But we’re mostly not willing to pay for it. It’s not only that musicians are often forced to play for free, it’s that the economy places little value on it.

Four vacancies is my break even point. Fewer means I gain a slim profit to bring home to supplement my meager Social Security. More means the operation isn’t meeting its expenses. A continuation of the status quo means I have to think seriously about selling the property, and I’m not sure that the property will bring what I still owe.

At the time I jumped into the new building, spent weeks learning about acoustics and building materials and security systems, I diligently wrote out my business plan. In the part where I needed to describe my exit plan, I described how the spaces could be used for offices or work spaces or even living quarters. But, I added, rock and roll will never die.

Maybe it won’t. Maybe this is just a weird bubble on the local scene that has little relevance to the future of this art form. Maybe in the near future, local talent will again seek out space to create musical statements about the emotions and challenges we face. The big concerts still draw tens of thousands of fans, and a handful of stars still earn their fortunes in the trade, so there’s still the hope of fame and fortune for those intrepid few who gut out the hardship and keep playing.

I hope I can hold out and do my part to keep the dream alive.

The Good Old Days

Back when … well, whenever, things were better. Right? People loved each other more, spent more time with family. Life was simpler.

Exactly when was that?

Was it the 1950s,

  • Back when the U. S. and Russia detonated nuclear weapons above ground, when milk tested positive for radiation? When school kids routinely practiced scuttling under their desks in case of a nuclear attack?
  • When everyone smoked cigarettes?
  • When women had to find a back alley abortionist to end an unwanted pregnancy and the only means of birth control were condoms and diaphragms? (Okay, plenty of people think this was a good thing because, you know, women who abort should die and sex is only for making babies.)
  • When schools and most businesses remained segregated? When homosexuals could be beaten to death? (Another good thing, right, for all the racists and bigots out there?)
  • Back when there weren’t any cell phones or cordless phones and television only came on three channels in black and white?

Oh, you meant earlier than that. Back in those halcyon days when folks sat on the front porch and ate homegrown food?

Like 1900,

  • Back when nobody had automobiles and you had to saddle up to go anywhere? When families traveled by wagon on the rare occasions they went to town? When horse dung littered city streets and nobody had indoor plumbing? We loved hanging ourselves over a stinking hole in the ground and freezing our privates while relieving our bowels in January. Right?
  • When three generations all lived in the same house?
  • Ah, the good old days before modern medicine invented antibiotics and people died of tuberculosis because nobody had figured out it was a curable, contagious disease.
  • Those days, so wonderful without any of these modern distractions like radio or television or rural electricity so everyone could enjoy dinner by the light of kerosene lamps or candles.
  • Yes, gee whiz, back before welfare and foodstamps and all those other pesky handouts to the slackers, how we miss working in the fields all day, milking cows, butchering hogs, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have anything to eat.
  • And how we miss sewing all our own clothes and all the women wearing corsets and long skirts
  • When women couldn’t vote.
  • Those fabulous days when no one could talk about birth control or buy condoms because it was against the law.

Further back? Like 1850, when much of the labor to produce goods or foodstuffs was performed by African slaves? When it was legal for husbands to beat their wives as long as the stick they used was no wider than their thumb? When children worked in coal mines? When no one had heard of weekends or sick leave or vacation time or minimum wage?

How far back, exactly, did you think we’d have to go to get back to “the Good Old Days?”

The colonial era when poor people and random miscreants were rounded up to work on ships or turned into indentured servants and no one had the right to vote?

Or the 1600s when people who couldn’t pay their debts were imprisoned? When those who didn’t agree with the dominant religion could be burned as a witch?

Or the 1500s when Protestants and Catholics fought endless wars?

Or the 1300s and 1400s when bubonic plague killed one-third of the entire European population?

I mean, how far back do we go? The Crusades? The Roman Empire? Ancient Egypt?

In all those times, war ran rampant as nations ruled by kings fought over resources and territory. People starved and died of diseases that are now preventable or easily curable. Women died in childbirth and half the children born died before adulthood. All the inventions we now consider normal didn’t exist—heated homes, air conditioning, toilets, sinks, glass windows that open and close, motorized vehicles, air travel, ambulances, hospitals and medical doctors, understanding of planets, stars, and our sun, microscopes and the world of bacteria, viruses, cells, and atoms, organized educational systems and widespread literacy…

Could it be that the fondly remembered good old days were simply the days of our youth when we didn’t have to earn a living and didn’t know enough yet to worry? Could it be that those early years of playing in piles of leaves or swimming in a creek or coming home from school to savor a freshly made cookie were simply the experience of a decent childhood without any real application to the adult world? Or that our memories of childhood gloriously forget the bad stuff we don’t want to remember?

When exactly were the Good Old Days?