Category Archives: Family

The Time is Now

A little over a week ago, as my family and I were preparing to head to Kentucky for the holidays, I received word that my grandmother was not feeling well. I had just spoken with her on her birthday, December 15, and she was in good spirits despite her just having returned from two weeks in the hospital. At 88, she had experienced complications of congestive heart failure.

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My brother, Jared, his daughter Lila and Mammaw on December 13, 2015

Christmas Day, as we were celebrating with my in-laws, word came that my grandmother, “Mammaw” as we called her, was hospitalized again. It did not sound overly serious to anyone, so my mother told me not to worry about it and to just stop by the hospital on our way into town. It was like a less severe repeat of what she had experienced at the end of November.

Right after I learned of this news, the hospital staff administered hydromorphone. Mammaw went to sleep and never woke. She was not yet in severe pain so I question the necessity of the timing of that decision. It’s pointless though, because I cannot change the overall outcome. The doctors had said that her body was simply shutting down and there was nothing left to do but make her feel comfortable and pain-free. That raises another question for another time: What is pain-free? 

My family and I saw her asleep on her death bed. She labored to breathe every 30 seconds or so and you could visibly see her carotid artery pulsing with vigor, diverting lifeblood away from vital organs in order to preserve the brain. The pulse was highly irregular, and her vitals included blood pressure readings so low I didn’t understand how she could still function. This was 36 hours after she had done her last load of laundry, swept the floors and made my grandfather his breakfast. I stood awestruck at biology, and how despite evidence that science can explain everything, some form of higher intelligence was at work. In that moment I realized her body was shutting down right before us, yet life itself was doing its best to hang on to the failing structure. Life, consciousness as we know it, was preparing its next move, whether that be finding a route to another plane or simply halting altogether. In the blink of an eye, mundane tasks become the last things a person does.

When you hear about an anonymous elderly person passing away of natural causes, It’s easy for the general population to feel comfortable in some way. At least the person is not suffering any longer. That person is much older than I, there’s a long time before I’ll face that for my life. They had a good, long run. Sometimes we know the fast pace of our modern lifestyles would conflict greatly with the reduced pace of the elderly, so we plan very short visits or none at all. Meanwhile, nursing homes are filled with scores of lonely people desperately wishing for the connection between their world that time forgot, and The Now that doesn’t want them. They need to feel significant, like they mattered, and that their lives DID happen. This is not a surreal veil pulled over their eyes.

For your own family, you eventually get to the point where you think, “I should talk to them more; they’re not going to be around forever,” thinking with arbitrary abandon that you’ll have another time to visit, to share a meal or a holiday celebration. I took that attitude on December 15 when Mammaw turned 88. I was at work and should have been finishing my lesson plans. I ended the short, five-minute conversation with, “We’ll see you on December 26th.” Well, we saw her. She didn’t see us. I think her soul was already gone.

You’ve heard it preached before, so you know it’s true. Stop what you’re doing and reach out to a loved one. Take that inconvenient weekend trip, make one of your clients wait so you can place a phone call, and maybe cancel some after school stuff for an evening so you can focus on someone who may not be here tomorrow. Make it a person you rarely see, or each week, contact a different friend or relative. The truth is, none of us are guaranteed the next breath. You have no true idea if you’ll ever have a tomorrow.

Your inconvenient moment could be the most uplifting thing your loved one experiences between now and the end of their life.

For Mammaw, she gets to be one of those people who can have the following dates inscribed on her tombstone:

Goldie Phelps. December 15, 1927 – December 27, 2015

That’s 12/15/27 – 12/27/15

I’m no numerologist, but those are intriguing to me.

The minister said she’s celebrating in heaven today. I want that to be true like anyone else, but death makes it difficult on the living.

Please, make the most of NOW in 2016

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Attitude of Gratitude

Life is good.

Even when times are bad, life is good.

In February, I started martial arts training with an old friend. Not having any prior skill, I was a bit taken aback that he’d want my help, but he asked me to bring my educational classroom management skills in and work to help him start growing his business.  My task is to manage the training floor, keeping things moving and assisting the higher level instructors who are doing the actual training. This program is closely related to traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, and as such it focuses equally on personal development of the mind and spirit in addition to the physical training. As such, I’ve learned to constantly work to improve my attitude, which is the essential element for success.

It’s no secret on this blog that for the past three years I have struggled with unemployment, and the subsequent underemployment that comes from maintaining several part-time jobs. One of those was my return to the elementary music classroom for a half-week schedule in August of 2013. Now, near the end of the second school year as such, I am faced with a new change.

I have been informed that I will be offered to return to full time status with this public school district. This is great news on the one hand because I will finally be able to return to the stability and certainty of full time work, with a modest salary that will enable me to pay my bills and maintain an average savings.

The workload will be a bit of a challenge. Instead of working in one school, I’ll have two. That’s double everything, students, coworkers, principals, etc. It will cut into my available time I have for doing other things such as all the percussion instruction and even the martial arts school. My private lesson schedule will have to be seriously altered. You get the picture.

So I should be elated, overjoyed, ecstatic, yeah yeah yeah. I’m not.

Instead, I’m quietly thankful that for the first time in a long time, I have the option to move back into that realm of certainty.

Quietly thankful, and reserved. I am still not convinced that this is what I want anymore. Certainty is one of the basic human needs, and I do not believe my need for it is as significant as it once was.

Hence the attitude of gratitude. I am thankful for everything I have. I do not want to give up things I love in order to do other things I love. I’m slowly realizing that even though working in a school is tiring, stressful, and at times infuriating, I am at a position where I can finally say that whichever way I go will be a win-win. Ever done one of those Ben Franklin-esque pro/con lists? I did, and because it exists, I am driven to be thankful.

So the goal in February was to become a full-time martial arts instructor. For all I know, that may still happen only at a different time. Maybe sooner. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? As for today, things look as if they’re starting to take a different direction. So despite the fog that remains in the distance, I am thankful that it’s no longer going in the same straight line.

Friends and family, I will inform you all once a definite outcome has occurred. Nothing is set in stone and this could just be the eye of a hurricane. If that turns out to be the case, I’m equipped to fly over the other side instead of through it.

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My Random Thoughts During My Son’s Eleventh Birthday Sleepover Evening

How is it that five preteen boys can conjure up an odor that liquefies a person’s insides not unlike the venom of a giant Shelob-spider? Dear God, can we just firebomb the upstairs and burn out the stench of sweat and vinegar soaked rotting corpses? It’s like the room where you send spoiled Limburger cheese to suffer and die. It’s the funk of forty high school locker rooms with only an annual jock strap washing program. It’s like someone rinsed their socks in raw sewage then left their shoes on for three months after filling them with sauerkraut. It’s the kind of smell that makes rancid hippopotamus turds scream in pain and crawl away to their own treatment plant suicides. I’ve smelled drunken sports fan barf that was cleaner and sweeter than this putrid bitter madness.

The terrifying thing is that eventually my son and these boys that come to hang out will eventually be teenagers where the power of this scent will quadruple and rival that of the Incredible Hulk’s armpits in July. It will start turning people inside out after momentary exposure, and thoughts of the latrines of a Turkish prison seem a bearable option. As bad as it sounds, I welcome the day when the lure of dating drives them to shower four times a day and reach for the opposing spectrum of six gallons of Axe Body Spray. Yes, when that day comes, I hope I’ll remember this and try to imagine the alternative. Axe spray is mind-bending in its own chemical stench, but that’s almost preferred over the smell of kid’s clothing that can escape human wrath on the power of its own pheromones.

So, tomorrow’s list is pay bills, and torch the upstairs.

Baffled, sleepy and stupefied, I must now locate my bed and dream about driving that Koenigsegg CCX around the golf course again. This time while changing guitar strings. OK, I’m going now.

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Release :(part 5)

Letting go of part of your past sounds so simple in print.

It’s easy to say that I’ll miss the farm or the time spent there with my grandmother over the years. There’s more to the story though.

There are some places in the world which are so important to you that they make all the surrounding areas look better than they are. It was always easy for me to look past the occasional run-down property near the Hamm farm because driving past them meant we weren’t far from our destination. Once we had arrived, part of each trip was getting out and exploring the nearby places of interest. Places which we would never have reason to visit had this farm existed anywhere else. To look at it differently, there are no telling how many inspiring places we never saw simply because my grandmother lived in central Kentucky instead of a place with a vastly different scenery. It was rural, not tropical, no oceans nearby, nor large mountains, and yet it was surrounded by points of interest which all have had a special impact on my life despite their mundane qualities. In this post, I’ll try to capture some of the imagination of a few of the more intriguing aspects of this part of the world, at least those which intrigue me.

If you were to leave the farm and drive down Little Hickman Road in a westerly direction following the creek, you would see random spots above the creek bed which looked like vey small, ancient barns built right into the hillsides. Most of the few that remain are about the size of a large doghouse and more or less deteriorating into oblivion. These are the springhouses that mark spots where water bubbles up from the famous Kentucky limestone.  The ground may look like regular soil, but a few feet down you will find layer upon layer of this limestone which is a geologists dream. Not far, the Kentucky river twists and turns, ebbing its way deeper into the gorge year after year. Very close by are the Palisades, one of the highest regarded natural resources in all of Kentucky.

About a mile from my grandmother’s house is another farm that was once owned by my great-grandfather, Fred Teater. His home was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in the late 1970’s. I remember visiting not long after it had happened. I was about 3 and I’ll never forget standing on the old porch pedestal as my mother studied the charred remains. One chimney still stood at one end, tall and proud like the home that once held its fireplace. The barn and outbuildings remained relatively unscathed, a crowning achievement to the fire dept who could not exactly respond within minutes back then. I remember thinking it was neat and that I normally don’t see things like this. I had no idea what loss was, nor concept of destruction.

Thinking back, I imagine my father felt about this farm as I do about the one we just sold. It had to be devastating.

A few years after the fire, my Great-Grandad sold the farm and moved in with his two daughters, my great aunts, in Nicholasville. The new owners built a modern brick ranch in the spot where the stately old 1800’s farmhouse had been. To this day, the springhouse that was on that property remains at the corner where the road bends. I have never seen inside it. I wonder what the water is like.

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Further down the road, we’ll pass typical and odd-looking things on the way down to the river.

Just past this old springhouse is a property that I could barely tell you anything about other than the bridges across the creek to the property. One is built of old lumber and boards and seems to have withstood everything the world has thrown at it for the past several centuries, and the other looks like a flatbed rail car with the wheels removed.

More rolling wooded landscape will pass until you come to a crest which overlooks the Kentucky river. No matter how many times I’ve seen the river from up there, it always impresses me. It looks bigger than it really is for some reason. It must be an optical illusion, but from up there you feel like you’re on top of a mountain, looking through the trees down to KY River Lock No.8. They Kentucky river has a system of locks & dams in place over the run from the eastern Appalachians to the western mouth at the Ohio. Every dozen miles or so, the river level changes suddenly. Since it was once a major shipping route, the river had lock houses staffed with engineers who would pass boats through the locks at any hour of the day. Now most of the locks sit inoperable. It would be a major source of tourism if the State of Kentucky could ever open up the river to pleasure craft, but those locks would need to operate for it to work. I somehow doubt it would be economical to do so.  Currently, a major project is underway to rebuild the lock & dam system, to bring the century-old infrastructure up to 21st Century code. At Lock No.8, they built an entire cement mixing factory on site. My dad has told me of all the truck traffic going back there over the past several months. We’re talking large multi-axle dump trucks and tanker semis hauling materials down single-lane country roads barely wide enough for two cars to pass smoothly. I know the lock from how it always looked, old and creepy, with a sense of danger about it. Who knows how it will turn out after this project is completed? Here’s a picture of what it looks like if you zoom in with a camera from the hilltop:

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Once you turn around at the dead end and make our way back, after passing the former Fred Teater farm, you’ll pass the old Bruner’s Store. Presently it appears as if the weight of a leaf could cause it to collapse completely. The porch is now long gone and one side makes it appear as if there’s no longer a floor inside. It gives the impression that the structure slid down the hillside and stopped just shy of the road. I remember visiting there back before I was old enough to be in kindergarten, standing on the porch with a Coke. Inside, old men sat around chatting and playing cards. I don’t remember much of Mr. Ira Bruner, but I know he had a big deli meat slicer behind the counter. My dad told me that decades ago when farmers hired extra help to work in the tobacco fields, men would take their lunch breaks at Bruner’s. He’d slice a big thick slab of bologna and slap it between two saltine crackers. Not the kind we get now, but the old-school version with four crackers attached in a larger square the size of a slice of bread. So in a way, eight saltine crackers and a slab of bologna would be your lunch if you were hired to help cut tobacco. I knew one other thing about Ira Bruner. He had a sense of humor. For many years even after his passing across from the old store stood a mailbox atop a 12 foot high post with the label “air mail” painted on the side. I wish it were still there.

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This concludes a substantial bit of the area to the West of my grandmother’s farm. I hope I’ll never lose the appreciation for these things, remnants of a simpler time and slower pace of life.

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Release :(part 4)

My grandfather, Russell Hamm, knew how to build things.

Over the years of the Hamm stewardship of the farm, Russell improved the structures or added them to suit the needs of running the family business. His passing was in 1980 when I was a kindergartener, so I only have a short window of observation with which I can make my own assessment of him. From seeing the countless tools, parts and containers in the garage alone, I figured he could do anything.  It was only when I was older that I started to understand who my grandfather was, as limited as that may be. He was a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and was part of the occupation forces in Okinawa after the surrender of Japan. His B-29 and crew could very well have been in line to drop another atomic bomb somewhere had history turned out differently. He taught himself how to play the organ and seemed to thrive on doing things his way, as his own boss.

He built an indoor bathroom and the infrastructure to pump water from the cistern. A detached garage, with room or three cars despite their only having one, was another notable project. I can recall the kitchen remodel done in the late 1970’s which included the addition of the dining room off of the east side of the house. Before he died, one of the last things I remember him doing was rebuilding the wrap around front porch, a job done so well it still looked relatively new more than three decades later.Image

In my mind, however, the crowning achievement was the seven-bent tobacco barn he built on top of the hill behind the house. From my perspective, it had always stood there, stately, guarding over the farm like a proud watchdog. On every visit, there it stood, to the north, up the hill, looking down into the small valley where the house stood safe from harm. My dad would have a different story. He watched it being built. In 1960, he would come home from school and see flatbed trucks of lumber, one after another, hauling their loads up the hill to the worksite. His father would inspect the pieces of wood for quality. I seem to remember being told that for every piece he accepted, he sent several back. More than one truck went on its way carrying the rejected supply with it. Image

The barn was raised quickly after the supplies enabled the framing to be done. It has been said that great architects design structures that appear as though they are part of the natural environment around it. It’s as if once there, they have always been there or meant to be there. This barn gives me that impression, that it was always meant to be there, overlooking the house on one side and the pond on another. Inside on a post near the south end can be seen the carving by my grandfather’s hand, “1960 HAMM”

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Over the years I have seen many a barn in bad shape. Some were leaning, others collapsed, still some wound up as empty spaces where its structure once stood. Not this one. Russell’s barn is still as solid and stately in 2013 as it was more than fifty years ago. Along the way it has seen its share of hardships such as doors blown off their hinges by storms or hardware rusting through. Every one of them were repairable. The only difference is that nowadays, long timber, upwards of 20 feet simply cannot be found. Some of the doors used for air curing of tobacco are now in two sections where one used to suffice. Image

Nowadays the barn stands empty, separated from its once faithful partner. The tobacco may be gone but the barn awaits either its return, or a new teammate with which it will propel the economic stability of a different farming family. Image

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