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Virginia Living – I’m a “Wrap” Star!

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the current issue of Virginia Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (my third essay for them now) and as a native Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my piece in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like, please comment on their site in the space just below the essay. I’d love to hear your feedback!

http://www.virginialiving.com/culture/wrap-star/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to some great opportunities.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Near Miss

Wait! Frantically I chased the bus trying to catch the driver’s attention. Brakes screeched and exhaust puffed as he threw open the door and impatiently waved me in. Out of breath from my unexpected sprint, I leaped onto the bus which jerked roughly into motion. Why does everything seem so urgent?

Ear shattering noises blasting from my alarm clock that morning had startled me into reality. Abusing the snooze button meant ultimately springing from bed in a hasty rush. After a speedy shower I dressed in a hurry and dashed out of my front door to see the bus pulling away.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Anxiety at work as constant emails popped up. Between fast-paced phone calls I zipped out for a quick lunch and realized in a panic that I was late to a meeting. Choking down a sandwich while running, I flew through the doors of the conference room just as the meeting began.

Frazzled and heading home, the congested commute included a hectic stop by the crowded market before charging off to meet others at a restaurant across town. The cab was late, I anxiously begged the driver to speed up, and barely made it before losing the reservation.

Busy Saturday’s numerous errands included a breakneck trip to the dry cleaners before stopping by the bank. Next, off to the post office. Back towards home to drop off the car for repairs before the mechanic closed. Heavy traffic and honking horns added to the stress of trying to make it in time.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Breathe. Calmly, I began the next morning determined to take it easy. Though always much to do, this day would not suffer the angry push from an alarm clock. Lusciously aromatic steam billowed from my coffee cup as I eased into the cushioned chair on the patio outside. The fountain trickled peacefully in the background.

Beautifully, a cardinal sang from a branch in the maple as a nearby squirrel gave himself a lazy scratch behind the ear. Two small white butterflies danced and drifted as a pair across the garden. A fuzzy bumblebee covered in pollen took his time crawling over marigolds blooming under the crepe myrtle.

Gracefully, a sparrow floated down to land at the edge of the fountain. The little bird dipped its beak into the water, ruffled its feathers, and with eyes closed sat motionless in the early sunshine for several minutes. No sound. No movement. That tiny fellow had made a decision to find some peace in that moment. A valuable lesson.

And from now on I should slow down. I nearly missed it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Perfect Fit

“Hopefully I’ll have that again someday.” my son Evan said wistfully over the phone.

“You will!” I encouraged him. “Just give it a while.”

“Best that it’s over but there were still some fun times.” he went on.

“You’ll have that with someone new.” I said. “You’re only nineteen. Plenty of time.”

“Yeah.” he said solemnly. “Just not sure it will happen again or be as good.”

“It will only be better!” I said confidently.

“But how do you know it will be better?” he asked.

Oh no. He wanted an answer.

I’m absolutely no relationship expert. I’ve been in several and calculate I’d have done things differently in every case. I’m just no fountain of good advice. Still, my son’s lamenting after his unpleasant breakup triggered memories and I searched for words of wisdom to help him through this momentary setback.

That strong parental desire to offer profound guidance washed over me. I prepared to launch into weighty philosophical input that would surely embolden him to dismiss his temporary breakup regrets. I took a deep breath and began my lofty speech.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began.

With the spotlight squarely on me and my son listening intently, paying more attention to a parent than any nineteen year old ever has, I went into a panic. Ideas had flashed before me while Evan spoke. Where had they gone? What had I intended to say? What was that clever tidbit again? Gone. All gone. But Evan waited eagerly.

“Well, it’s like this…” I began again. “Relationships are like underwear.”

I had no clue where that came from even as I heard myself say it.

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled in anticipation.

That wasn’t enough? I had to say more?

“You put on a new pair of underwear and it’s great. Feels good, nice change, you like them, and soon find you prefer them over all others. How wonderful life is with this new pair of underwear.”

“Ok…?” Evan chuckled again.

He expected even more? He’s a nineteen year old boy. Time to break it down.

“Well, then one day you realize the new underwear is up your ass.”

Evan chuckled loudly this time. “Ok…?”

“So you say wow, didn’t expect that. You make a few adjustments and you try to move on. It happens again. A few more tries to make things right but it’s just not working. No matter how much you’d loved the new underwear and no matter how many adjustments were made there has now come the point when you realize you need to take them off for good.”

Silence.

“So, unfortunately you say goodbye to that pair but at some point you come across another new pair. You put them on and maybe something about them reminds you too much of the pair that hadn’t worked out so well in the past. You pretty quickly take this pair off having learned from the last just what works for you about underwear and what doesn’t.”

Silence.

“None of us know when or where we might ultimately find underwear with the right fit, but we keep trying with yet another new pair if an old pair fails. So, I know your next pair of underwear will be better than the last because you learn something each time you try one on. Never settle for the wrong fit. Remember, none of this means that you or any of the pairs of underwear were necessarily bad. It simply means the fit wasn’t right.”

Silence.

“One day you’ll put on that next new pair of underwear and they’ll feel pretty nice but  you may hesitate. Ignore the fact that any one pair of underwear, or maybe all underwear, has disappointed you in the past. If this newest pair feels good then enjoy it and see what happens. One day you’ll put on a new pair and the fit will be so nice, so perfect, that you’ll skip along every day for the rest of your life not even realizing you have on underwear at all.”

There, that was all I had. I knew I’d fallen short but I’m just not good with relationship advice. I waited for the dial tone I knew was coming…

That” Evan said through a hearty laugh, “was the dumbest, grossest, and best thing I’ve ever heard! That was awesome.”

Phew! I wiped the sweat from my upper lip.

Evan hadn’t necessarily asked for relationship advice nor had I been eager to give any. What do I know? His angst was serious and my response may not have been, but I recognized his feelings and let him know in the wacky way he probably expected of me that I understood.

Keep trying. The perfect fit is out there.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Raker Man

The tropical sun was intense but from the shade we sipped Pina Coladas and stared at the blue Caribbean. A vacation in the Dominican Republic! We staked claim to a favorite cabana and by afternoon were chatting with beachside neighbors. Diane in the next cabana knew a lot about the area and in the balmy breeze we compared notes on favorite restaurants as we enjoyed the beach.

The next hot day while eating lusciously ripe strawberries I caught sight of the trio working in the sun. We’d noticed the daily routine of these three whose job it was, apparently, to clear the beach each day of seaweed washed up during the night. They were a motley band in ragged clothes. Locals in need of work I supposed, and hard work it was. Each day they scoured the beach, raking and hauling debris. An older worker lagged behind. The effort it took to push a loaded wheelbarrow through soft sand slowed him down. He usually raked alone, stopping often to wipe sandy sweat from his face. He has to be thirsty I thought, as I sipped cold coconut water.

On the following morning, just as I devoured a heaping bowl of chilled watermelon, I saw the old raker man diligently working over the beach. Mere yards from chattering sunbathers, clattering dishes filled with tropical delights, and Mimosas clanking toasts to vacations, this old barefoot man in torn pants worked silently. Unnoticed. Head down as he worked, I waited for him to look up.

He looked up. I waved.

Puzzled, he stared at me and returned to his work. He has to be hot I thought, as the waiter served our Pina Coladas.

I took a sip of mine. It tasted like guilt.

“How much do you think he’s paid?” I asked Francisco and nodded towards the raker. Before he could answer I heard a groan from the next cabana.

“Well, don’t you give him money.” Diane yelled. “He’ll get lazy. Anyway he’ll never even thank you.” With that, she told the waiter to hand her a magazine, brush away the sand stuck to her back, and bring lunch to the cabana so she wouldn’t have to get up.

Judging me over her magazine, Diane said nothing.

“That’s hard work he’s doing.” I continued with Francisco.

“Well, don’t tell him.” Diane yelled again. “He’ll whine about having to do it and he’ll never even thank you for noticing.” With that, she told us she was staying on vacation an extra week because she was sick and tired of the rigors of her job.

Staring at me over her calendar, Diane said nothing.

I watched the raker struggle with another load of seaweed. He sometimes tripped and fell as he shoved the heavy load down the beach. The ceviche and slices of fruit the waiter set down in front of me looked nice, but I couldn’t eat them.

Days passed and I continued to wave to the raker each morning. He eventually waved back and towards the end of our vacation he even waved first. I never saw interaction of any kind between him and anyone else on the beach. Was this man invisible?

“Is it ok to give him some money?” I asked Francisco. I’d hesitated to do so, less from Diane’s comments and more for fear I would offend the man.

“It could be a tip. How much would a little cash mean to him?” I continued.

“It would mean the world.” Francisco responded.

Diane yelled to us. “Well, he’ll become a beggar if you give him money. Like I said, he’d never even thank you!”

On the morning of our final day I saw the raker as usual, head down, combing the sand. For reasons I’m not even sure of I’d still not given him a tip and I was sorry about that. I mentioned my regret to Francisco, but it was our last day on the beach and I had no cash with me.

“I have cash.” Francisco said as he rifled through his bag. Happy, I think, to bring an end to my weeklong obsession on which I’d taken no action!

As the raker’s work brought him nearer the cabana, he and I waved. This time Francisco stood and waved too, then motioned the man to come over. Clearly perplexed by this new routine the raker slowly left his wheelbarrow and approached us. We quickly realized he spoke absolutely no English but in an awkward conversation consisting at various points of Spanish or French, we learned he was Haitian and had come to the Dominican Republic in search of work. He was in the middle of a rough and miserable time.

Francisco held cash towards the raker and pointed at me. “He wants to thank you for working so hard to keep the beach clean.”

The raker stared at the cash and I waited for him to smile. Instead, he stepped back and threw his hands over his head. Oh no. We’d insulted him.

He looked back and forth at us, his eyes filling with tears as he stepped forward to shake our hands. He shook our hands for several minutes before even touching the money which he very slowly took from Francisco’s hand. He spoke rapidly the entire time. I don’t know what his mouth said but his face said thank you. He wiped his tears and returned to the wheelbarrow. We sat back down fighting tears of our own.

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Diane yelled over the heaping plate of lobster on her lap. Butter dripped from her chin. “He’ll be back. He’ll be back ten times today begging for more! Did he even say thank you?”

I just shrugged my shoulders at her. I was sure the man was thankful but I had no idea what he said.

With a disapproving look, Diane said nothing.

Francisco and I returned to our Pina Coladas. I sipped mine, a bit tastier now, and watched for the raker. If he returned I hoped Diane wouldn’t notice. Silly me. Still, it was the end of the day before she got the chance to say she told us so.

“I knew it!” Diane yelled.

I looked in the direction of the half-eaten drumstick she pointed at the beach and saw the raker running towards our cabana.

“He’s going to ask for more and never even say thanks. Not once.” Diane said smugly.

The raker stopped in front of us and leaned down. Knowing he knew no English we waited for him to say something, anything. From the next cabana, Diane waited too.

The raker leaned a bit closer. “Thank you.” he said in English.

Before we could respond, he smiled and ran back down the beach.

Diane said nothing.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Thanks Alice

I sipped the watery coffee and unwrapped my egg biscuit. Hitting the highway early and with another hour ahead of me, I’d pulled off to go through the drive-thru window of a lone fast-food place surrounded by woods. Nice, I thought. I’ve always found eating in my car preferable to the noisy interiors of those restaurants. It was quiet and peaceful with no kids screaming.

“Mommy!” the kid screamed.

It was a little girl. She and two other kids stood with their backs flat against an old beat up car parked a few spaces away.

“Mommy!” she screamed again. A little more panic in her voice this time. All three kids looked around in different directions but never moved from their spots. Puzzled, I stopped eating and watched for a minute as I tried to understand. That’s when Mommy appeared from the woods with a baby on her hip and a long thin stick in her hand.

“But where’s Daddy?” the screaming little girl asked, still in a panic.

Daddy appeared from the woods holding a toddler’s hand. He, too, carried a long thin stick.

When Daddy fumbled around the edges of the driver’s side window I realized they were locked out of their car. Mommy and kids stood by while Daddy tried with first one long stick and then the other to get into the window. The first stick was too thick and the second broke just as he seemed on the verge of success.

They need to find someone with a coat hanger, I thought. I’ve seen people get into locked cars using those. But it was so early in the morning and with no one else in the parking lot I wasn’t sure who might have one.

Oh wait. I did.

I popped my trunk from inside and got out of the car. It only took seconds to go into my luggage and grab the one wire coat hanger I had among several plastic ones. I heard an odd rattle, but in a hurry I paid no attention and shut the trunk. Daddy’s eyes lit up as I approached with the coat hanger and Mommy herded the kids aside so he could try again. The screaming little girl was now crying. Mommy had her hands full with the other four so I squatted down beside the little girl.

“Don’t worry. It will be ok.” I said, patting her on the arm. She seemed to be taking this whole incident very seriously!

“My name is Alice.” she said, voice cracking.

“Well Alice, don’t worry. It will be ok.” Her Daddy contorted himself in attempts to maneuver the coat hanger into the window. I hoped it would work quickly so Alice wouldn’t give up and panic again.

Pop!

“And there you go!” I said to her when we heard the door unlock.

Sighs of relief from Mommy and Daddy who thanked me profusely as they packed the five kids back into the old beat up car. Daddy joked saying the worst thing of all was that his coffee was now cold. We laughed and I waved as they drove off.

Bang! Bang! As they left, their old car backfired twice, maybe in celebration. Heading back to my own car I reached for the keys in my pocket.

They weren’t in my pocket.

They were in the trunk.

I’d dropped them into the trunk while getting the coat hanger. That was the odd rattle I’d heard. I could pop the trunk from inside of the car though, simple enough.

The car was locked.

I looked around. It was still very early, dead quiet, and I was the only car in the lot. Not sure how long it would take to get into my car, or have someone get into my car there in the middle of nowhere, I just leaned against the door with my head in my hands.

Bang! Bang!

From around the fast-food place came the old beat up car. As it turned out, Daddy just couldn’t keep driving with cold coffee and he’d circled back for more. By the look on his face when he saw me standing there I could tell he knew exactly what had happened. He pulled up beside my car, coat hanger in hand, and set to work.

I watched him struggle a bit. It didn’t seem to be working as easily with my car as it had with his. He bent the coat hanger several ways, trying each new bend to see if it was the right one. His family watched eagerly but everyone stayed in the car.

Everyone, apparently, except Alice. I looked down to see what was tugging at my shirt.

“It will be ok.” she said.

I smiled at her but I wasn’t so sure. Daddy seemed to be struggling with the coat hanger and had worked up a slight sweat. He tried to unlock it, I tried to unlock it, and he was trying again when I decided to stop wasting their time and call someone to get into my car. I guessed it was time to give up but Daddy kept at it.

“It will be ok.” Alice said again as she patted my arm.

Pop!

And there you go!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Mitzi

We’d been lying in the shade together for quite a while. I was on my back, hands cupped behind my head, she on her side facing me. I talked about things bothering me at the time while she stared intently into my eyes. I was just a kid but I remember knowing how lucky I was to have her by my side. I noticed her long eyelashes each time she blinked, but I didn’t love her for her long eyelashes, didn’t love her for her perfectly white teeth, and didn’t even love her for the way she seemed to adore me.

She was still looking directly into my eyes when she burped in my face, wagged her tail twice, and continued chewing on a stick.

I loved her because I was a boy and she was a dog.

Mitzi was a collie. I was only nine when we went as a family to meet the litter. I don’t remember which one of us picked her, or whether she picked us, but in short order we were on our way home. Mama and Daddy in the front seat while my sisters and I in the back fought over whose lap the fuzzy puppy should ride home on.

It would take a lifetime to tell about her lifetime and anyone who’s loved a dog knows the telling doesn’t do it justice. You have to have felt it. As a puppy she was hugged and kissed constantly. As she grew up she was naturally our best friend. As she aged she earned the respect of family and friends as an intelligent, faithful old girl. We treated her like any other member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

During those years Mitzi made hundreds of trips to the pasture, ran countless miles behind our bikes, refereed dodgeball games, gave us away during hide-and-seek, and waited patiently while we worked in the garden. She was a happy constant when we returned from school and she didn’t just wag her tail; her entire backside swayed when she saw us coming. Many families have several dogs over the years, my family did too and we loved them all, but as a nine year old boy that collie puppy was the dog. Thirteen years into her life, I was twenty-two and that happy old collie was still the dog.

When she fell ill it happened fast. I went to work but called home later to check on her. Mama hesitated but told me poor old Mitzi had died. Back in those days, in spite of regular vet trips starting with her spaying and continuing with regular vaccinations, heartworm prevention was not what it is today and sadly she was a victim.

I hung up with Mama and went to tell my boss that I needed to go home. When she asked why, I said there had been a death in the family. My phrasing had nothing to do with dishonesty. It was to me the genuine reason. I’d heard she had a dog at home so surely she would understand.

She expressed her condolences and asked who had died. When I said “my dog” there was a pause before she giggled slightly and said she just couldn’t let me go home for that reason. With no one who could easily cover for me, I’d have to stay. I left her office and talked to my coworkers who agreed to cover for me, no problem. I then let my boss know I’d made arrangements for coverage but she repeated to me that no, I needed to stay.

I left.

There was nothing I could do when I got home; Daddy and one of my sisters had already buried Mitzi there in the same pasture where she’d played all her life. Nothing I could do, but to stay at work with that load of grief would have been pointless for me. It was Friday and on Monday I’d talk to my boss about it again. If I still had a job.

It was a sad weekend. We cried, laughed, talked about Mitzi and talked to Mitzi. Family and friends called to say they were sorry. They treated her death as though she’d been a real member of the family.

Because that’s exactly what she was.

Early Monday morning I learned from coworkers that my boss had been very unhappy about my leaving on Friday after she’d told me to stay. I started working and waited for my fate, but my boss didn’t come in. On Tuesday she was there.

I tried to read her face as she walked towards me. My boss said nothing as she handed me the envelope and walked away. I looked at it, puzzled she’d said nothing, and ripped it open expecting my dismissal letter. It contained nothing official, just a small card from her to me.

A sympathy card.

I learned later why my boss hadn’t been at work the day before. Sadly, her own dog had been hit by a car over the weekend and in spite of the vet’s efforts, it hadn’t lived. My boss was understandably upset and stayed home that Monday. She had let management know her absence was due to a death in the family.

Because that’s exactly what it was.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Watch For It

He stopped at the curb to press the crosswalk button, casually swinging his briefcase as he checked both ways for traffic. Any second now he’d set the briefcase down to tie a shoe or adjust his jacket. Wait… wait… and there it was. Today he tied a shoe. The light turned green and I drove through the intersection glancing at him one last time as he stood to pick up his briefcase. He nodded slightly as I passed. I raised one hand from the steering wheel.

I leave for work very early in the morning. Almost every weekday for a of couple years now I’ve seen this same lone man at the same empty intersection at the same early time of day. We each wake up to carry out our daily routines unconcerned, and mostly unaware, that the other exists except for that thirty seconds or so each morning at the intersection. He generally approaches the corner about the time I come to a stop at the light.

That early in the morning he’s the only pedestrian and I’m the only car. I forgot who began to wave first, but after months of early morning crossings it just seemed silly not to. He’d become as much a part of the landscape for me as the row of trees by the school, the yellow house with the picket fence, or the bridge over the creek. Their constant presence is an odd reassurance that all is right and routine. On rare days when he wasn’t at the intersection, I wondered where the man might be. He’d reappear the next day and all would be normal again. I laugh at myself for noticing such things but I suppose others do too. It’s not just me?

And it isn’t only the man with the briefcase. A rusty white van pulls out in front of me at the next corner. Further along, two black labs do their early morning romping behind a fence. A man in a red hat hoses off the sidewalk in front of an office building. Over time I began to notice these things and soon actually watched for them.

Each evening going home I walk past a woman smoking a cigarette under a tree out back. The security guard at the parking garage sings loudly to himself. Back in the car and I pass the same food truck along the same stretch of road every day. Closer to home and those two black labs are either lying in the shade or barking at squirrels. Those routine sights in my personal landscape satisfy something, I’m just not sure what. It’s not just me?

A while back, returning to work after a few days of vacation followed by a long weekend, I eagerly checked off my daily landscape markers. The briefcase, the dogs, the sidewalk washer, all there as usual even though I’d been gone a while. That evening on the way home I saw the woman light her cigarette and head towards the tree out back. I laughed again at myself for even noticing, but she was, after all, a part of my daily landscape.

As I neared the tree on my way to the parking garage I wondered if the security guard would still be singing after all of my days away from work. That’s when I heard the woman’s voice.

“Hey.” she said as took a puff of her cigarette. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

It’s not just me.

Stuart M. Perkins

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