Hometown Loyall-ty

I’m told that I had a bad upbringing.  Oh, no one says I had bad parents, mind you.  Nevertheless, I had it bad.  Why?  I grew up in Eastern Kentucky.  Apparently, that’s bad.

I’ve written about Eastern Kentucky before and probably will again.  I haven’t lived there in three decades, but it is as much a part of my life today as it was then.  It’s home.

WHERE (OR WHAT) IS LOYALL?

I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky.  Here’s where Loyall is:

loyallmap

Exactly where is THAT?  As I told a guy who picked me up hitchhiking, it’s three miles outside Harlan, to which he responded “Where the hell is that?”  Harlan is the county seat of Harlan, County, Kentucky in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields.  When I was growing up, about 40,000 people lived in Harlan County.  Today, that number is closer to 30,000 and dwindling everyday.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

The first thing to know is how to pronounce “Loyall.”  It’s not LOY-al, like the word “loyal.”  It’s kind of like “Lole.”  More accurately, it’s pronounced “Lowell” but without the “w.”

Harlan County is known for two things:  Coal mining and stone cold bad asses.  There’s not nearly as much mining  as there used to be and there never were as many bad asses as people thought.

Here’s what I can tell you about in which I was raised:

  • I always heard it was named after a railroad executive.  That might be true.
  • It had around 1,000 residents when I was a kid.  The welcome sign now says 776.  Frankly, that might be a bit of stretch.
  • Loyall consists of two parts:  Loyall and Old Loyall.  Old Loyall is exactly what it sounds like–the old part of Loyall.
  • The CSX Railroad Yard is in Old Loyall.  When I was kid it was the Louisville & Nashville Yard.  A lot of people in Loyall worked at the yard.
  • Trains ran day and night out of the yard hauling coal out of the county.
  • We had one traffic light.  It’s still there.
  • We had a full service gas station (long gone now).  They’d fill your car, clean your window and always ask:  “Check that oil for ya?”
  • We had a soda fountain, The Corner Store.  It sat on the corner, of course, by the traffic light.  They had fountain drinks and excellent hotdogs with chili.  They also had a pinball machine.
  • We had a movie theater until I was about 6 or 7.
  • We  had a barber, Gene Harber.  Very nice man.  He always asked “How do you want it?  ‘Bout the same?”
  • The Cumberland River ran through Loyall and washed us away in 1977.  Thanks to the largesse of the federal government, the river now runs through a man-made channel so it won’t flood.  Of course, they cut the town in half for that bit of high-tech engineering.
  • We had a school.  It was Loyall High School until the late ’60’s and then became Loyall Elementary and Junior High.   It still stands but hasn’t been a school for several years now.
  • We had a post office, City Hall, Fire Department and Chief of Police.
An artist's rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office.  This was done from an old photo.

An artist’s rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office. This was done from an old photo.

In other words, it was Small Town, USA.  You knew your neighbors and lots of the folks in town.  We slept with the windows open and the doors unlocked.

I must confess that I was not raised within the city limits of Loyall.  I spend my first twelve years in Rio Vista, a neighborhood just outside Loyall.  I spend the last years on my childhood on Park Hill which overlooks Loyall.  Still, we thought of it as Loyall.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH HARLAN COUNTY?

I thought it was a pretty good place, but I learned differently.  My first lesson was when I attended the University of Kentucky.  I talked funny.  Evidently, I had (and have) an accent.  That’s weird because I never noticed it.  I did know people at home with heavy accents, but I wasn’t one of them…or WAS I?  I was also a redneck, at least by Lexington standards.  Trust me on this one, but I was NOWHERE close to being a redneck by Harlan County standards.

I took a class at the University of Kentucky called “Appalachian History” or something like that.  It was taught by an odd fellow who had visited Harlan County on several occasions.  He had read Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He had been to Evarts (where my father grew up), which he pronounced EE-varts.  So, he was some kind of an expert.

I was told three things that I didn’t know:

  1. I was the victim of abusive Robber Barons who operated coal companies.  OR I was the victim of a well-meaning but misguided government which institutionalized poverty.  OR both.
  2. As a result, I lived in stifling poverty.
  3. It was likely that I was too ignorant to comprehend points 1 and 2.

I had a substandard education and health care.  Bad teeth, too.  Inadequate clothing.  Wow.  You’d think I would have noticed some of that, but I didn’t–maybe all the inbreeding made me less perceptive.

Later, after I graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Finance and Law, I continued to learn about my homeland.  It was a bad, bad place.  Bad coal.  Bad government.  Bad drugs.  Bad, bad, bad.

Eastern Kentuckians, it seems, can’t take care of, or think for, themselves.  Others, though, can do it for them.  They need help.  Here’s why:

  1. Schools are horrible.
  2. Health care is horrible.
  3. Everyone is poor, even people with jobs.
  4. All the unemployed people are victims of something or other.
  5. Everyone is a drug addict.
  6. There is no drinking water.
  7. There are no roads that can be driven on.
  8. The people aren’t smart enough to know that they are unhappy.

Honest to God, it sounds like Somalia.  How the Hell did I survive?

LIVING IN REALITY

Fortunately, I grew up in the Real World.  It wasn’t a perfect world, mind you, but it was far from what was (or is) portrayed.  Imagine if your hometown–whether small town or large city–were always portrayed according to lowest and worst performers.  I now live in Lexington, Kentucky, the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World.”  We have about 300,000 people here, but it’s a college town at heart.  It’s a nice place to live, and I’ve enjoyed raising my family here.  We don’t promote Lexington by showing our homeless shelters, the rundown shotgun shacks that litter downtown, the hobo jungle or our public housing projects.  If we did, one would wonder why anyone would set foot here–except maybe for the horses who wouldn’t know any better.

I like Lexington, but honestly I don’t see it as being that much better than Harlan County.  Lexington has poor people–a lot of them.  Unlike my life in Harlan County, I don’t see them here.  They don’t live near me.  My kids might go to school with them, but they really don’t socialize with each other.  That’s just how works.  You won’t see Lexington’s homeless shelters, unless you go looking for them.  The last time I went to one of them, I saw two men I know–LIVING IN THE SHELTER!  I didn’t know anyone who was homeless in Loyall.

In Harlan County, there was no insulation.  Your friends might live in poverty.  I had a good friend who lived in a housing project.  Housing projects in Harlan County are no nicer than anywhere else.  His father was chronically unemployed.  It didn’t matter. We were friends. Same with my friend whose father was illiterate.  He was a good man.  He just couldn’t read and write at any functional level.  I don’t see that here in Lexington, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s well-hidden.

My friends’ parents included teachers, railroad workers, government workers, politicians, coal miners, coal operators, dentists, barbers, doctors, lawyers and just about every other walk of life in the mountains.  Both of my parents were college graduates.  That certainly was not common in those days, but I was hardly the only kid with that distinction.

Growing up, we lived like kids.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League Baseball, school, dances, romances, fights and all the rest.  I have raised two sons to adulthood and have been surprised how they occupied their time much like we did–chasing girls, hanging out with friends, watching TV, all the while complaining about having nothing to do.  Like my kids, we had all the teen angst that exists everywhere else–wanting to leave our small town, broken hearts, drinking, drugs and general teen mayhem.  We just happened to be in Harlan County while it was going on.

We played Little League in Harlan County.  Your author is on the front row, far left end.

We played Little League in Harlan County. Your author is on the front row, far left end.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT BAD STUFF?

There were plenty of people who had hard lives in Harlan County and elsewhere in the mountains.  Poverty and unemployment rates have always been high and, in the remote parts of the county, people could live bleak existences.

As far as I know, my parents weren’t related to each other.  I did know a guy who married his cousin, but I know someone who did that in Lexington, too.  That kind of thing is frowned upon everywhere.

Did I know people who didn’t have indoor plumbing?  Yep.  I had an uncle in Pike County, Kentucky who had an outdoor toilet until the mid-70’s. By the way, my wife’s grandparents had an outdoor toilet, too.  But they lived in Franklin County, Kentucky, home of our state capital.  That’s not as sensational as one in Harlan County.

Did I know people on food stamps?  Yes sir.  I also knew people whose only goal in life was to “draw a check,” our Harlan County way of saying that a person just wanted to be on the dole.  Some did. My Dad called them “people living off the grid.”   They were cautionary tales.

Did I know any criminals or, as we liked to say, “outlaws?”  You bet–a bunch of them, too.  My Dad had a friend who killed his own father-in-law.  The guy who lived across the road from us served time for attempted murder.  For a time, we lived next door to a notorious bootlegger. I knew a bunch of people who’d been shot.  Like I said, it’s a small place.  You don’t get to hide from people.

Some parts of our county were so remote that most Harlan Countians never saw them.  Jones Creek, Bailey’s Creek, Smith, Black Star, Holmes Mill and many such places were well off the beaten path.  Still, those folks went to church and school and had jobs–a good number of them, at least.

The funny thing, though, is that the overwhelming majority of folks I knew didn’t fit these extreme profiles.  Most people had jobs and took care of their families.  Some families, like mine, had two working parents.  Like parents everywhere, most wanted something better for their children and tried to help them.  It was nothing unusual, just typical American life.

SO, WHAT’S THE  DEAL?

Have things changed since I left Harlan County?  Of course. Time changes everything.  When I grew up, good jobs were fairly plentiful.  That’s not the case today.  The economic base in Eastern Kentucky is shrinking and may well not recover.  The population continues to decrease and is likely to drop precipitously as the Baby Boomers fade.  We didn’t have the prescription drug scourge that has devastated Eastern Kentucky in the past few years.  Regardless of the changes, on my frequent trips to the mountains, I see the same sorts of folks I knew growing up.  These aren’t characters from a Norman Rockwell painting nor are they the “salt of the Earth” or any other such overblown characterization.  They’re just good, solid people for the most part.  They don’t see themselves as victims nor are they trawling for handouts. They’re just living their lives as best they can.

I had an uncle who was fond of saying “Mountain people have mountain ways.”  He meant that there were certain things about life in the mountains that were different–and not always different “good.”  For instance, a lot of people threw their trash in the river.  If we had high water, you see it hanging in trees when the river receded.  We use to have a county trash dump on the side of mountain.  No, it wasn’t a landfill.  It was exactly what it was called–a big, stinking trash dump.  People would line up on the side of the road and shoot the rats.  It was really fun, but you don’t see that everywhere.

Now, as then, some people don’t take care of themselves or their families, either.  They don’t go to the doctor or dentist or do much else.  They pretty much live like their ancestors.  Some of us might  have called these folks “trash.”  I’ve never been any place in this country that doesn’t have its pockets of trash.

Of course, like anywhere else, some people are born into bad circumstances and struggle.  Sometimes, they can’t overcome that.  They aren’t bad people.  They just start life with two strikes against them.  That still happens.  Everywhere.

Are some of my memories skewed by the prism of nostalgia?  Of course.  My father used to rail against people talking about the “good old days.”  He would then talk about Harlan County in the 1930’s when he grew up.  He always concluded with “There were no good old days.”  Fortunately, I don’t have those memories.  I remember the good people and the nice life we had.  Like a lot of people, I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time and probably spent too much time wanting to “get out.”

You may have never been to Eastern Kentucky, and this may not make you want to even visit.  You may have lived there in tough times or under bad circumstances.  Maybe your memories are not fond.  Consider this:  People from every part of this country have the same experiences.  Perhaps we should condemn their culture or treat them all as victims.  I leave that to you.  All I can tell you is what happened to me and most of the people I knew.  We were alright.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

My Kindergarten Commencement Address

I have already tackled the difficult task of preparing a high school commencement speech.  Not surprisingly, no one took me up on my offer to speak at any high school commencement. High school, though, is not the only ground upon which to impart my wisdom.

Perhaps I should speak to a college or university. Public figures and captains of industry often do that. Alas, I am neither. That goal simply isn’t realistic.

What about elementary or middle school grads? I didn’t go to a middle school, so I don’t know anything about that. As far as those entering high school, most of them are morons and won’t listen anyway.

This leaves me with kindergarten, that Petri dish of preschoolers ready to take on real school. I graduated from kindergarten as part of the Harlan Kindergarten Class of 1968.  It was my only foray into private school, as there was no public kindergarten in those days.  I graduated with a haughty sense of entitlement.

kindergarten

Your author’s natty attire belied his naiveté as a kindergartener.

I would have benefited from wise counsel in those days.  I now stand ready to educate kindergarteners on what lies before them.  To paraphrase the late, great drummer, Buddy Rich:  These people.  They are my kind of people. So, here goes:

Hello, kids!  Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today.  Today is an important moment in your young lives.  After today, you are no longer preschoolers.  You are students and shall remain so for many years to come.

As you are no doubt aware, “kindergarten” is from the German, meaning “children’s garden.”  It was created by a German named Friederich Frobel in the village of Bad Blankenburg.  Stop giggling!  That’s the name!  You’ll be calling the world ahead of you blankin’-burg soon enough. 

Up to this point, many of you have gotten by on your appearance.  You are, as we say, cute.  That will rapidly fade in elementary school.  We will lose teeth and become awkward as you grow.  Being cute means nothing.  Every misanthrope and human monster was once your age.  Look at this darling child [I hold this up for the audience]:

Adolf_Hitler_Childhood_Photos-{1}

His name? Adolf Hitler.  Cute, isn’t he?

Many–if not most–of you are unprepared for school.  A great number of you are complete illiterates, unable to so much as correctly spell your full name.  Others are only functionally illiterate.  You cannot read even at the 1st grade level.  Your ability to understand or complete even a simple job application is nil.  Even rudimentary math is beyond your comprehension at this point.  As a result of these limitations, you are unable to function in modern society.  These handicaps, daunting as they may be, can and will be remedied in the coming years–at least to some extent.

Some of you now begin your long, slow trudge to failure–sad but true.  You will annoy your teachers.  You will gravitate to the worst of your lot and mimic their behavior.  Perhaps you will be the ring leader of a group of miscreants.  If so, make no mistake:  You can and will be written off at a young age.  The good news is that–for the only time in your life–time is on your side.  As unlikely as it may be, you can change your behavior for the better.

Many of you are angels or so your parents have led you to believe.  You are sweet and when you aren’t, you are simply misunderstood.  Your failures and shortcomings are not your own.  They are the product of misinformed individuals or society as a whole.  Your parents are failing you daily, but I do not expect you to understand.  Being egocentric as you are, you are comfortable with this arrangement.  This comfort sows the seeds of your ultimate downfall.  When you fall short of expectations at school, your parents will harangue your teachers, blaming them for your sloth and intellectual shortcomings.  Only when you are much older will you realize that your house stands upon sand.  Then, it will be too late.

Some of you are tethered to your parents like pets.  You never leave their sight.  They are determined to protect you from the evils of the world and the world itself.  They will often lunch with you at school.  Perhaps they will volunteer in your classroom.  Some may even seek gainful employment at your school.  They seek to smother you with their attention.  And they will succeed.

A few–and I hope very few–of you are little more than street urchins deposited at school by uncaring parents who neither deserve to have children nor any other human relationship.  There is good news for you.  It is possible–not likely, but possible–that you will encounter someone who can exert a positive influence upon you outside your home. School is the most likely place to find such a person.

You may be an only child.  By that, of course, I mean you are the only child in your immediate family.  YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY CHILD ON EARTH!  Just remember that.

Of course, you will encounter teachers.  In my experience, the good far outnumber the bad.  The good ones will care about you like no one outside your own family.  The bad ones will want to herd you on the next grade while they detest you almost as much as they do their dead-end jobs.  Most of your teachers do the best they can.  Your cooperation will help.

Your teachers may occasionally criticize or correct you.  That is their job.  That is how you learn.  This may be foreign to you.  Your parents may be the type who praise everything you do from feeding yourself to basic hygiene.  Your teachers shall prepare you for the real world where such tasks are not viewed as accomplishments at all.  In fact, society fairly demands you master them.

Your teachers also cannot praise your every move.  I have no doubt that all of you have drawn pictures for your parents.  Let’s say you draw what you called a “horsey.”  In reality, this horse resembles nothing so much as random scrawling with no form.  It is, in fact, completely unrecognizable as a horse or any other living creature.  When you present this picture to your parents they exclaim “Oh, what a pretty horsey! It’s beautiful!”  Such lies are meant to boost your self-esteem by lauding your crude art work.  If an adult produced such a drawing and insisted that it was horse, he or she would branded as mentally deranged.  Institutions and unemployment would be their future.

A decent parent would look at your drawing and ask “What exactly about that looks like a horse?” or “Why don’t we just call it a wildebeest or a fire hydrant?  Makes as much sense.”  I doubt that you have ever received such constructive criticism.  Those days are done.

No teacher worth his or her salt can engage in such foolishness.  If you declare that 2 + 2 equals 11, you cannot be praised.  You are not praiseworthy.

Despite what your parents think, there is almost no chance that you are a genius.  That you are able to distinguish letters of the alphabet means little.  It is axiomatic that most of you are average.  That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions.  Some of you are far, far smarter than your peers.  That will not change, although you shall be witness to many years of people trying to bring your peers up to your level or you down to theirs.  But you are smarter than these people, too, and they will fail.

You are now headed to a world where failure is, in fact, an option.  The good news is that the educational system is designed to prevent failure.  In addition to your teachers, there are counselors, tutors, study plans and even medication at your disposal.  Perhaps you are now addicted to amphetamines in an effort to help you pay better attention in school.  That might help.  Of course, the downside to living as a speed freak is well-known but better discussed at your middle school graduation.

No doubt you reflect today that time flies.  It seems like only yesterday that you soiled yourself simply because you knew no better.  For a few of you, it literally may have been yesterday.  In any event, those days are behind you now–hopefully.  A new day dawns.

You now leave the garden and head straight into the jungle.  Knowing your penchant for distraction, I have kept my words brief.  Some of you have picked your noses throughout my talk while others have squirmed with annoyance.  Welcome to the rest of your life.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The 1976 Loyall Spelling Bee: The Scandal That Will Not Die

Four years after the debacle of the 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball game, another scandal occurred.  Like that infamous game, it remains shrouded in controversy.  In a country wearied by Watergate, perhaps it is understandable that it didn’t capture the public’s attention.  The time has come to clear the air.

I was once quite the fine speller. This was many years ago before spell-check rendered me a virtual illiterate. Spelling was my forte. I did quite well on spelling tests, of course. I well remember the first time I missed a spelling word. It was in the 3rd grade in Mrs. Brewer’s class. I cried. I guess I should also mention that I was quite an odd child, too.

I could spell almost anything. I learned to spell “Constantinople” before I even attended school (I think it was in a Dr. Seuss book). One reason I could spell was that I was an excellent reader, far ahead of many of my peers. You might now guess that I was a child prodigy of some sort (note that it is “prodigy,” not “protegé”). Alas, I was not. I was, however, of above average intelligence and armed with some kind of 6th sense when it came to spelling.

I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High School in Loyall, Kentucky. Loyall is in Harlan County, far off the beaten path for most folks. Don’t be fooled, though–we had our share of smart kids. Just because you live in the mountains of Appalachia doesn’t mean you can’t spell.

loyall

loyall.jpg

Loyall, home the legendary 1976 Spelling Bee. In my day, we did not have the air conditioners shown here. We battled in the sweltering heat.

For most of my education, my spelling was never put to the test. Actually, it was, but those were just spelling tests. We’d occasionally have a class spelling bee, which I normally dominated like an academic version of Michael Jordan with a spelling hang time unseen before.

The 1975-76 school year was 8th grade for me. High school loomed. As with every year of school, my only goal was to go on to the next year. My early school years were marked by two things: 1) stellar academic performance; and 2) spells of habitual truancy. That latter had little impact on the former but great impact on my parents. I spent half the 7th grade at Evarts Junior High where my mother kept a watchful eye on me from her post as a teacher at the adjoining high school. It worked. One semester at Evarts, and I was ready to fly right back in Loyall.

8th grade was mostly uneventful. I promised that I wouldn’t skip school–and I didn’t (that would wait until high school). Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I was part of Loyall’s Health Fair Championship team.

healthfair

Your author’s odd appearance belied his spelling ability

The other event of that year was the school spelling bee.  This wasn’t just any spelling bee. It was for the whole junior high. It was like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, except everyone got a bid. Every kid competed from the smartest of the smart to the most impaired dullards. It was a Battle Royale.

While I was quite confident in my abilities, I didn’t care for the spelling bee. Over the years, I had grown weary of being thought of as a smart kid. As offensive as this might be to say about myself, I was a smart kid; however, unlike my older–and even smarter–brother, I would rather have been an athlete or just average. I just didn’t care for it.

There was no refusing to participate in the spelling bee. I thought about it, but I figured that would just be another issue for my parents. So, I played along.

As you might suspect, I was spelling like a whirling Dervish dances. Every word lobbed to me was like hitting a beach ball. Not all my classmates were so fortunate. Some were felled by simple monosyllabic words. Although I don’t recall the specifics, I’m sure “cat” and “dog” took some out.  Others choked, such as one lad who spelled “neither” N-I-E-T-H-E-R. That’s the spelling bee equivalent of a called third strike.

We started one afternoon in the gym. Participants dropped like flies as we moved to polysyllabic and more arcane vocabulary. I was cruising. As the day wore down, I became troubled (if I had a hobby back then, “being troubled” was it). A fear gripped me: What if I won? I would have to go the county spelling bee. Who the hell would want to do that? It was probably on a Saturday, too. How was I going to get out of this without looking like a moron who couldn’t spell? It was quite the conundrum.

When the day came to a close, only two spellers were left. Naturally, I was one of them.  The other was a was very smart and a fetching young 7th grade girl. I suspected she had lived somewhere else at some time, because she had that Michigan-sounding accent which was a little suspicious. Now, I had another problem: To get out of it, I’d have to lose to a 7th grade girl to boot.

When we broke for the day, I consulted my friend Norman, my confidante on important matters. Norman was a fine fellow but a bit devious. He always had good ideas about how to get out of ticklish situations. For example, he once broke up with a girl by writing her a letter claiming that his father had gotten a job on the Alaskan Pipeline and that he would be moving to Yukon, Alaska at the end of the school year.  A man of his stripe would know what to do.

He suggested a feigned illness. I know that doesn’t seem very original, but we were pressed for time. With the passage of time, I can’t recall which illness he suggested. He once claimed to have gangrene himself.  He liked to accuse people of having VD, but I doubt that was one of the suggestions.

Nevertheless, an illness wouldn’t work. I had been fake sick so many times that my parents never thought I was really ill. Dangerously high fever or vomiting or both were threshold requirements. I wasn’t going to be able to swing that.

There really was only one choice. That’s right: take a dive. Norman was leery of this, believing that I would lack credibility. I told him that I would just screw up the first tough word I got.

As usual, Norman and I hung around after school goofing off for a while. Then, we started our walk home. We weren’t a block from the school when two of our classmates–notorious ruffians–yelled at me: “WILLIAMS!!” Uh oh. They were sitting on the steps of a church enjoying their after school cigarettes.

I’d known these guys since first grade. They were okay, but I was kind of terrified of them, too. They rarely had a kind word for anyone.

Here’s (roughly) how our exchange went:

Kid No.1: What’s this bullshit about the spelling bee?
Me: What?

 Kid No.2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: Why? (surely my spelling prowess didn’t merit an ass whupping)

 Kid No.1: We heard you’re throwin’ it. Gonna let that girl win.
 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: I don’t where you heard that…

Kid No. 1: From him (pointing at Norman)
Me: (looking at Norman): Thanks.
Guys, I just don’t want to win the thing.

 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.
Me: Why?

 Kid No. 1: ‘Cause you can’t lose to no 7th grader. We’re countin’ on you. Don’t f— it up.
Me: I’m not throwing it.
 Kid No. 2: We’re gonna whup your ass.

So, with that, Plan B was scuttled.  It seemed too risky.  One of these lads, in particular, was pretty smart, despite his rough ways.  He would probably detect a dive.  The other guy  was like the big guy who put Steve Buscemi in that wood chipper in the film Fargo–very quiet and probably dangerous.  It was a bad combination.

The rest of the evening I vacillated between trying to fake an illness and losing the will to live.  I had one other problem–part of me really did want to win the damn thing.  Why?  I don’t know.  I guess it was because I really was smart.  It was my only real objective strength.

After a fitful night of sleep, I woke up resolved to win and accept whatever embarrassing accolades came with it.  I pictured myself in some sort of World Series of spelling bees with other socially inept children.  Maybe it was just time to accept my lot in life.

We were back on center stage in the gym, spelling away.  We didn’t get the kinds of words you see thrown at these freaky kids today spell in national bees–nothing like antidisestablishmentarianism.  I don’t recall being allowed to have the words used in a sentence or anything like that.  They just gave you the word, and you spelled it.  It was an old school throw down.

We were back and forth for a while until it happened.  I was up.  The word:  “Inquire.”    (I know that’s not a tough word.  This was Eastern Kentucky in the 1970’s.  We weren’t considered linguists). I fired away.  “E-N-Q-U-I-R-E.” Loser!!  I was stunned.  How could this happen?

I was taken down by the most basic of villains–mass media.  As we all know, the National Enquirer uses that spelling.  That is what flashed into my head when given the word.  Yes, my penchant for tabloid journalism was my Achilles’s Heel.  Or was it?

It turns out that “enquire” is a proper spelling, especially in Great Britain where it is used to denote formal queries. You don’t believe me?  Let’s ask Mr. Webster.  He defines it as a “chiefly British variant of INQUIRE, INQUIRY.”  It’s also included in The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, the foremost authority on the English language.  Loser?  I think not. I was hoist on the petard of my own erudition.

I took the high road, of course.  I did not appeal or ask for an investigation.  I made no public accusations of wrongdoing, though I would have been justified in doing so.  I’m also pleased to report that no ass whupping occurred.  One of my antagonists, in fact, was outraged that my opponent was not required to properly spell the word to prove her superiority.  Although I don’t think the rules required that, fair play certainly did.  I accepted my defeat, much like the sore loser I have been my entire life.  After several days of sulking, I returned to my normal activities which at the time consisted mostly of brooding.

Years of mostly unsuccessful therapy helped me deal with this and other injustices. My spelling skills have eroded over time, the victim of age and technology.  I’ve gone on to bigger and better things.  I’m a reasonably successful lawyer with a 25 year marriage and three strapping sons.  Time goes on and heals all wounds.  Far be it from me to allow one minor incident to stick in my craw.

If you have any questions about this post, as always, please submit your enquiries below.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The Stuff Of Dreams

I’m a dreamer. Literally. I don’t mean dreams of success or other flights of fancy, either. I mean real dreams, the kind you have when you’re asleep. Being a tad slothful, I’ve never studied dreams or tried to analyze their deeper meaning. When I was in college, I knew a girl who analyzed dreams, but I never paid much attention.

If you’ve read this blog, you know that I am a recurring theme. My stories are about me. My opinions are mine, of course. I even believe that others are interested in my take on things. This post is slightly different. While the dreams are mine, I’m now interested in what others think. What do these dreams mean? With that in mind, I now share a number of my recurring dreams:

1. THE BAD DRIVER/CAR

In this dream, I am a passenger in a car with someone who can’t drive worth a damn. My most recent version had me as a passenger with Lyndsay Lohan driving. She was smoking marijuana and weaving in and out of traffic on a six-lane highway. She wouldn’t stay in the proper lanes, either, and was constantly dodging on-coming traffic. I was terrified and screaming at her to slow down. She didn’t. This dream ended as the always do with a terrific accident. I was unhurt, but rattled. Then, I woke up.

This is a typical variant of this one. Sometimes, the driver is out of control driving downhill. Often, the car runs off a cliff. There is always an accident at the end, and I’m unharmed. I wake up immediately.

Another variation is that I’m driving, but the car has mechanical problems. The most common problems are either I can’t get the car in gear and it rolls backwards or there are no brakes. I careen around the highway–again, terrified–until the inevitable accident ends the dream. Do I see myself as out of control? Do I believe others have my fate in their hands? Do I see myself as immortal?

Perhaps unrelated, I also dream often about not being able to get my car out of reverse. Is this some latent concern that I am not going forward in life? Does it portend future transmission problems?

2. SCHOOL DAYS

In this dream, I am in school again, usually college but sometimes high school. I am approaching finals and haven’t attended class. I’m completely lost. In a panic, I desperately try to determine my class schedule, but I can’t. I am going to fail all my classes. Oddly, the dream always ends before I actually take my finals, but failure is unavoidable. I’m frantic and depressed.

I’ve had some variation of this dream hundreds of times. Sometimes, I’m aimlessly wandering the hallways looking for my classroom. I never find it. I never have any books and don’t even know my class schedule.

What can this mean? Do I secretly regret that I wasn’t a more dedicated student? Do I want to relive my youth? Do I fear commitment? Could this in any way mean I am gay?

3. WORK ABUSE

I work in a small law firm with four other lawyers, and we get along famously. It sounds trite, but we are like family. In almost eight years together we’ve never had a serious disagreement about anything. We’ve been fairly successful and like coming to work. Why, then, do I frequently dream that I am mercilessly abused at work?

This dream revolves around one of my partners–a female who shall remain nameless–berating me over some minor issue. Most recently, I dreamed that our firm had purchased a new coffee maker that leaked. My partner poked my chest with her finger and screamed: “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT BECAUSE YOU THINK YOU ARE AN EXPERT ON COFFEE!!” Nothing of this sort has ever happened in our office. Truthfully, I do have quite a bit of expertise on coffee, arguably more than anyone in my office; however, this has never been a source of contention among us.

In this dream, I’ll be yelled at and called names–maybe even told to leave the firm. It’s always very contentious–the exact opposite of my real life job. I always wake up before there is any resolution of the dispute.

For many years, I had a job that I did not enjoy–at least not often. Perhaps this is post-traumatic stress, and I’m reliving unhappy times in my dream life. Am I expressing some kind of hidden hate for my co-workers? Am I seeing into their souls that they secretly hate me? Do I fear women?

4. GUN PLAY

I’m being shot at. With guns. Real guns. It’s almost always a gun battle where I’m hunkered down exchanging gun fire with someone. One time, it was with Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid had me pinned down behind my car, and he was peppering it with bullets.

This dream has no context other than a gun fight. I never know how or why it starts. I’m just in the middle of it. Once, my wife was shooting at me (I’m pretty sure that was just a dream). Another time, it was my own mother. Regardless, they just shoot at me relentlessly.

This dream always ends with my being shot but not fatally. It’s usually in the arm. That wakes me up. Then, I know “it was all just a dream.”

What the hell is this one about? Do people want to see me dead? Why would Willie Mays try to drop me? Maybe they don’t want me dead. After all, they only shoot me in the arm. Then again, all that reckless gun fire has to be intended to do me great harm. Why? Do I harbor a belief deep in my psyche that I am a bad person worthy of being gunned down?

5. THE HOUSE

This may be the weirdest one. It’s about a house. It’s a large house. Sometimes, the house is yellow. Sometimes, it is red brick. There is an alley separating it from my yard. I’m in The House and can’t get out. People are in The House looking for me, and I’m hiding from them. I’m usually in the bathroom or a closet. I don’t know why they are looking for me, but I’m scared. I’m always alone in The House and trying to find a way out. The good news–I guess–is that they never find me. The bad news is that I never get out. At least, no one shoots at me.

This dream rattles me more than any of the others. I always wake up wide awake. There’s great relief when I realize I am in my own bed and not The House. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a house that looks like The House. If I did, I’d probably freak out.

What is The House? Does it symbolize something in my subconscious? Do I feel trapped in my life, unable to escape? Am I a closet paranoid, fearing that others are out to get me? Am I concealing some secret shame that I fear other will discover much like I fear they will find me in The House?

So, they are–my five most common recurring dreams. I have other dreams, like the one where I’m eating something really crappy. Since my wife is not a great cook, I understand that one. For a brief time I look Ambien and had dreams that were so vivid they freaked me out, but that was only for about six months. These five are the windows to be psyche.

Freud believed that all dreams were manifestation of wish-fulfillment based upon “day residue” or events that happen during the day. I don’t know about that. If I’m wishing for this stuff, I’m more messed up than I thought. Some think they’re all about sex. If that’s the case, it’s just as well that I don’t understand them.

If you have any kind of psychology background or if you’ve been in therapy for a while, feel free to offer your interpretation. I don’t intend to seek professional help. I’d rather just open it up to amateur speculation. Bear in my, though, that if any of this means I’m dangerously unstable or psychotic, you might want to take the edge of your analysis.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I may sleep better, at least. Maybe I’ll even get out of that damn house and get to class on time. Of course, I’ll need to be careful about getting a ride. Hopefully, I won’t get shot before I get there. If I do, someone at work will yell at me. Whew.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The Three Horsemen of Stupidity

Lots of folks moan and carry on about the American education system. Some people hate public schools, envisioning children goose-stepping about while befouling the flag and hurling curses at a God they are taught doesn’t exist. Private schools chafe others who see them as elitist enclaves filled with privileged children who don’t need educations anyway because of their family largesse. Of course, there are the home-schoolers, helicoptering above their kids hoping not only for a better education but also to insulate their young angels from the evils of society, i.e., other children taught in one of the aforementioned alternatives.

All agree, to some extent, that we can do better. We can achieve higher and produce generations of intellectual titans conquering the world by the sheer force of their intelligence. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. We ignore the sad, brutal reality that a very real learning disability yokes many Americans to the oxen of mediocrity. This demon has not been conquered despite many years, centuries even, of effort.

I want to be clear about something up front here. I’m not talking about what most people call learning disabilities. For example, I once knew a guy who had dyslexia. That’s a bad deal to be sure. It makes it hard to learn to read and, once you do learn to read, it affects your comprehension. Fortunately, there are ways to compensate for this–at least to some extent.

I also know that ADHD and ADD affect people, too. Hey, if you can’t pay attention, learning is going to be pretty darn tough. Future generations may question whether addicting our children to amphetamines was the best remedy, but at least we recognize the problem.

There are people, too, with identifiable organic brain impairments which impede their ability to learn. Genetic and injury-induced impairments are well-recognized today, and we don’t expect these folks to achieve at the same level as those of us fortunate enough to have avoided the chance occurrence of such maladies.

Of course, mental illness is no impediment to learning. John Forbes Nash and The Unabomber are but two examples of brilliance developed through the fog of grievous mental illness. As we all know, serial killers are often intelligent, too.

No, I’m talking about a daunting condition which has eluded scientific treatment and continues to hamper many of us. Stupidity and its three horsemen: dumbness, ignorance and laziness. These three elements in some combination can result in chronic, untreatable and incurable stupidity.

DUMB, DUMB, DUMB

Some people are smarter than others. I’d say everyone agrees with that. A corollary to that is that some people are dumber than others, too. Now, I’ve hit a hot button. Not everyone agrees with that. It’s become unfashionable–if not downright cruel–to acknowledge the obvious: Some folks just ain’t all that bright. We all know this but are hesitant to point it out, at least not loudly. Everyone should be able to do as well as everyone else.

I suppose when we acknowledge that some are smarter than we are, we can still cling to the idea that we, too, are smart–just not that smart. Then we can derisively note that those of superior intelligence are just plain weird. We’re smart, too, but not weird smart.

We all are less smart than someone. I have son who is smarter than I am. He is. It’s the same as him being taller than I am. It’s a fact. He studies math at a major university and is clearly far beyond my intelligence. His youngest brother laments that the oldest “sucked all the brains out of our family.” Perhaps, but it’s undeniable that he’s smarter than the rest of us. Being dumb, though, is much different from paling in comparison to someone brilliant. Dumb is dumb, regardless of the context.

We aren’t supposed to say people are dumb, of course. Perhaps they learn at a slower pace or differently or not at all. We’ll readily send the smartest kids to special or advanced classes or schools. When I was a kid, we had “remedial reading” which was pretty much an educational wasteland of some sort or that’s how I viewed it. I don’t even know if they do that anymore. It’s probably good that we don’t have dumb classes in school (assuming that’s true). School is hard enough as it is, I suppose.  I’m not talking about Special Education.  That’s a good thing, even though I was a bit frightened of the Special Ed room in high school (see my comments below about ignorance).

What happens when a child fails at school? The school or the teacher is blamed. If they would do better, so would little Johnny. Maybe, we blame the parents. But we don’t blame Johnny. We dismiss the possibility that Johnny is just a dullard. Maybe he’s dumb. Plenty of adults are. It only makes sense that kids would be, too.

If you’re dumb, learning is tough. Why? Well, you’re dumb. That about sums it up. If you’re dumb, you might not even understand why you need to learn something. Oh, someone can explain it to you, but you probably won’t get it. It just won’t make sense. You might think: “Why is that weird nerd telling me that?” or “Hey, there’s something shiny!” Lots of cloudy thinking will confuse you.

How do you know if you’re dumb? Hell, I don’t know. I’m smart, but not that smart. Even if I could explain it, you probably couldn’t understand it, anyway. We used to rely on IQ tests, but those are now out of fashion as inaccurate, culturally biased or just plain wrong. I suspect no one likes them because they demonstrate that some people are more intelligent than others. Then again, I’m not smart enough to know for sure. Not dumb, mind you, but not that smart, either. If you even suspect that you’re dumb, you probably aren’t. You have to have at least a modicum of intelligence to know that others are smarter than you are.

By the way, we took IQ tests in high school. I did alright on mine. One of my friends scored a 78. Another friend looked it up in what had to be an out-dated medical book. 78 was “high moron.” Oh, how we laughed. We would occasionally greet him with “Hi! Moron!” Like I said, school is tough enough, I guess.

I do think there are some tell tale signs of dumbness:

  • The Look: You’ve seen it. It’s a dull-eyed, vacant look. It’s in the eyes. There just isn’t much going on back there. You’re never sure if anything you say registers. Don’t worry. It doesn’t. George W. Bush has the look. So does Joe Biden. Oddly, George H.W. Bush doesn’t have it. Neither does Dick Cheney. Brad Pitt? Yep. George Clooney? No. Britney Spears? Oh, yeah. Madonna? Oddly again, no.
  • Disdain for the intelligent: “He ain’t got no common sense.” This is the calling card of the dumb. Desperate to denigrate the smart, they point to highly valued “common” sense as the true measure of intelligence. Sure, Einstein may have revolutionized centuries of scientific thought, but he lacked common sense. Just remember, the translation of this statement is: “That person is immeasurably more intelligent than I am, perhaps to the point that we belong to different species.”
  • He’s a nerd: A variation of the point above, this type of comment is designed to point out that you, although quite dumb in comparison, possess certain invaluable social traits lacking in your more intelligent counterparts. This is likely true. Why? Because the smart people are in the minority. If they were just average, they’d be hanging out with your ilk. Remember: The nerds are the ones that will sign your pay checks. Be nice to them.
  • Practiced Illiteracy: I’m not talking about literal illiteracy. Hell, if you can’t read, that’s a problem but fixable. Practiced illiteracy is the conscious choice not to read. No books, magazines or even newspapers. You might even call pornographic magazines “dirty books.” You’ll only look at the pictures in those, anyway. The advent of the internet gives you access to the same content without the need to be slowed down by type face. You’ll rarely read the newspaper, even then just the headlines. Reading is for nerds. (See point above RE: Nerds).
  • What do other people say? If you are often called names like dumbass, idiot, moron, fool, slack jaw, dullard, wastrel, lunkhead, muscle head, numbskull, nit wit, twit, git, pea brain, lame brain, brain-damaged, stupid, imbecile, simpleton or dolt, you’re probably dumb. Why else would people call you all those names?

When I was a young attorney, I took the deposition of a psychiatrist in a workers compensation case. The doctor described the claimant as suffering from “PPP.” When I asked what that was, the doctor said: “Piss poor protoplasm.” The doctor’s point was that this young man didn’t have the gray matter to do much in life. Sad, but true. He was just plain dumb.

(As a totally unrelated aside, that doctor was the ugliest person I’ve ever seen. He was the kind of ugly where you stare to try to figure out if he had some accident or cranial-facial anomaly. I don’t think he did. He was just ugly. I digress….).

If you’re dumb, you may be able to compensate for it to some degree, unless you fall prey to the other Horsemen.

BLISSFUL IGNORANCE

“Ignorance is bliss” said someone named Thomas Gray in a pretensious-sounding work called Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.  Dumb is different that ignorant. Smart people can be ignorant. Despite marrying me, my wife is smart, but she’s ignorant of history. She doesn’t like history and makes a concerted effort to avoid it. I could tell her that Chester Arthur was Bea Arthur’s real name before Bea’s sex-change, and my wife might believe. This isn’t because she’s dumb. She’s never tried to learn these things. She’s just ignorant (I mean that in the nicest way, of course).

I, too, am ignorant of such things as automobile mechanics. I understand the basic workings of the internal combustion engine, but that’s about it. When I look under the hood of my car, I get confused and a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps I could learn about it, I just don’t want to try. On the other hand, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball history. Does that benefit me in any way? No, but it tells me that I can’t be dumb if I can remember all that minutia.

Ignorance, sadly, holds us all back to some extent. We readily recognize such vile things as racism or my fear of the Special Education room as being the product of ignorance or even dumbness. I submit that ignorance is a common thread binding us all. For me, it’s auto mechanics. For my wife, history and basic cooking skills. For you, it might be sports. Here’s the rub: For the dumb, it’s all kinds of stuff: Politics, religion, science, health, hygiene, math, world events, child care–the list is endless. The dumber you are the more likely you are to be ignorant of things. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.

The more ignorant you are the more likely you are to do something dumb. Here in Kentucky, stealing copper is quite popular, so much so that some thieves will steal electrical wiring. Now, one can persuasively argue that this is just dumb. It’s probably also a sign of gross ignorance. Electrical wiring often, by definition, carries electricity. Electricity, for all the good it does, can kill you. You need to know things like this before you steal stuff carrying electricity.

Stay ignorant about enough topics and pretty soon you’re stupid. Sorry, but that’s how it goes.

Most us, me included, write off our ignorance to lack of interest. If I’m not interested in something, why learn about it? That’s a pretty decent point, but it leads to my next topic.

LAZY DAZE

Laziness is dumb’s lazy brother-in-law. Laziness gets a short shrift when discussing learning disabilities. Don’t underestimate the power of laziness. Laziness can neutralize intelligence and breed ignorance like a pen full of rabbits.

The lazier you are the less likely you are to learn anything. It’s just not worth the effort. As with ignorance, you do not have to be dumb to be lazy. Many smart folks are lazy, too. In fact, they can use their intelligence to half-ass their way through life. “Hey, if I can be average with minimal effort why wear myself out to be exceptional? Now, what’s on TV?” After awhile, your laziness and ignorance will lead to outright stupidity.

Sadly, I have suffered from laziness. Emptying the dishwasher, for example, is a daunting task for me, to the point that I am ignorant of where all the dishes go. Now, I’m not so dumb that I can’t figure it out, but it’s difficult because of my laziness.

The truly lazy have lost their ability to learn, if they ever had any. I have another son who likes to lie on the couch and watch television. School work is to him as the dishwasher is to me. His high school career has consisted of  gradually dumbing down his schedule to the point where watching television does not affect his grades. He doesn’t seem dumb to me, but it’s hard to tell, really.  His learning disability is laziness but stupidity could be in his future.

What do you do about being lazy? Getting up off your ass and doing something is a good start. At least that’s what my Dad thought.

CONCLUSION

If you’re smart, you may have noticed that this post is bereft of citations or any sign of research. That’s true, but it’s not because I’m dumb. It’s a blog, and I don’t have to do all that. So, I’m just lazy and possibly ignorant.

I maintain–and believe scientists would agree–that stupidity remains the number one learning disability in our country. Why do I say that? Because no one else will say it, even though in our heart of hearts we all know it’s true. If you’re stupid, that’s a hurdle that’s almost impossible to clear.

If you’ve managed to read this entire inane post, I have good news. You’re probably not dumb or you would have lost interest when you noticed there were no pictures. You’re also slightly less ignorant (maybe). And you’re not so lazy that you won’t at least read something. Congratulations.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013