July 27, 2011


The dusty street was silent and still. Even the tumbleweeds stayed away.

How the Sam Hill did it come to this? A little smile played across his face, remembering how his pa always used to tell him jokingly, "Ol' Sam wouldn't appreciate you using his name in vain, son." His hand hovered inches above the worn grips of his six-shooter, steady as ever. All I wanted was some dinner. And something cool to wash the dust from my throat. But that could come later, if there was a later. The town had been terrorized long enough, and it was past time for that to end.

"Whaddya smiling at, sheriff?", said The Kid. "Make your move." He said it casually, as if they were playing a friendly game of chess, bringing the sheriff back from his thoughts of cold beer to the reality of hot lead. The leering grin was all the sheriff could see under the brim of the outlaw's black hat, and it said what the Kid didn't. You don't have the guts, friend. You're nothing but a hollow badge.

Was he? He hadn't fired his gun at anything deadlier than a coyote since he had left the U.S. Marshall service five years ago, but he had the feeling that was about to change. The thought made him tired, and he was tired enough after such a long day. The sheriff stole a glance at the town hall clock tower. 5:23. At least it's not high noon.

He had walked into the Dancing Dragon after a dry day spent rounding up Old Murphy's cattle. Some troublemaker had flattened several sections of fence, letting the cows roam free over half the county. He had a hunch as to who that troublemaker might be. There had been no rain in almost a month, and his bandanna was caked with prairie dust. His thoughts were on that cold beer when he pushed through the the Dragon's batwing doors, but the only sound he heard as he walked into the saloon was his own bootheels clocking on the pinewood floorboards, and he knew there would be trouble before he even removed his hat.

The three outlaws had been sitting at the bar when he walked in, sipping sasparilla, having apparently just finished beating up Rex, the town drunk. The poor fellow was just now trying to pick himself up off the floor. The sheriff's lovely wife, Blondie, tended bar at the Dragon, and she stood behind the bar absently polishing a beer mug, a harried look in her blue eyes, as silent as the rest of the saloon's patrons.

The Kid didn't look up when the sheriff walked in, but continued to spin a gold coin back and forth across the tops of his fingers. He was the fastest gun in three counties, if one believed the rumors, and he and his gang had been making mischief in town for months. Curly Sue, the gang's only gal, sat next to him, a sweet smile on her face. She was a beauty, all bouncy blond curls and big blue eyes, but the sheriff knew better than to trust that pretty face; she was deadly with a knife. Shorty McGee was the youngest of the gang and a known card shark, but no one called him a cheat to his face. The bold few who had done so now spent their time in the cemetery behind the town's little church, and Shorty had a hard time finding a poker game these days. He leaned lazily against the bartop, low-slung gunbelts crossed on his hips and an insolent look on his face. All three were no more than babyfaced kids, but coldblooded nonetheless. The sheriff sighed, and silently said goodbye to that cold beer.

"Whatcha doing here, Kid? I thought I told you to leave town." The sheriff caught Blondie's eye, and her glance told him all he needed to know. These three had been up to their old tricks. Rex, fearful and battered, gaped at him hopefully.

The Kid didn't turn, and never missed a beat with his spinning coin. "You did, sheriff, but me and the gang like it here. It's such a fine little town, and the fine folk here love to have us besides. Isn't that right, Blondie?"

"Bull." someone mumbled, but it was very loud in the silence. The coin disappeared suddenly with a flash of gold as The Kid turned slowly, cool eyes surveying the room. "Who said that?" There was no reply, of course. His regard finally fell on the sheriff, and they locked eyes.

Weary as he was, he stared at the outlaw unblinking. I've let this go on long enough. "Might be it was me, Kid. You and your gang have given us enough trouble, and I mean for it to stop."

The Kid smiled. "Well, that's a fine bark for such an old and toothless dog as you, sheriff. Why, if I didn't know you better, I'd think that was a threat." From the corner of his eye, the sheriff saw Shorty's hand creeping slowly toward the shooter on his right hip. He couldn't see Curly's hands, but he knew they weren't far from the razor-sharp throwing blade she kept tucked in her garter.

He couldn't let this happen here. "Then I guess you know me pretty well after all. Why don't we take this outside?"

The Kid eyed him for another moment, and the sheriff saw a flicker of doubt cross his smooth face. Good. The Kid was obviously not used to having his bluff called. The young gunslinger gave a silent signal to Shorty, who was visibly itching to draw, and the latter's hand fell away from his gunbelt. Recovering his cool, the Kid said, "Sure, old man. I guess that's as good a place as any. You've had this coming since the day we rode in." Then he strode from the saloon with a little smile on his face, spurs jingling, his mates close at his heels. Shorty spat on the sheriff's boot on his way by.

How the Sam Hill did it come to this? It didn't matter anymore, he knew. He hadn't taken a strong enough stance with the outlaws when they sauntered into town for the first time, and now someone would pay. He thought of Blondie, and hoped for her sake that it wouldn't be him. He caught sight of her standing silent and grim among the people that lined the street, said a little prayer, and focused again on the lean gunman who faced him.

Then a child cried out somewhere in the crowd, and the thunder of guns filled the street. When he thought back on it later, everything seemed to happen at once. But in that moment, for the sheriff, time slowed to a crawl.

He turned his head slightly at the child's cry, and the Kid drew, lightning fast. Knowing his mistake, the sheriff fell to the side while drawing his own weapon, and as he fired, the Kid's bullet grazed his shoulder. The Kid flinched, knowing he'd missed and expecting to be shot, but the sheriff hadn't been aiming at him, and even with the distraction, he was faster than the Kid. The sheriff's bullet found its mark in the lock that held up the back gate of the huge wagon right behind Curly Sue just as she was about to throw her blade. The heavy gate crashed down, knocking her cold.

Rolling in the dust, he looked for the spot he had last seen Shorty, fearing he'd be too late, but the outlaw was lying on the ground, dazed. Blondie stood over him with a big cast iron frying pan in her hands and a look of deep satisfaction on her face.

The Kid had turned when he heard Shorty's cry of pain, and that was his undoing. When he turned back, it was to the sight of the black tunnel of the sheriff's gun barrel pointed at his head. Beaten, the Kid threw his weapon aside.

"Mercy, sheriff, please! Don't shoot!" His hat had fallen off, and stripped of his gun and his cocky grin, the Kid looked like...well, a kid. The sheriff felt pity for him.

"We'll leave town, we'll never come back, you have my word, sheriff." The Kid was pleading as the townspeople looked on darkly. The sheriff knew better, however. As much as he wanted to show mercy and just show the Kid the way out of town, he couldn't let the gunslinger go with a warning this time. He had to make this count, to show this gang what happened to troublemakers who strolled into his town. If he didn't, he knew he'd be in this situation again, and the next time, he might not get the drop on them. The time for lenience was gone. He'd have no rest if he didn't deal with this now.

"Sorry, Kid, but I can't let you off that easy this time." Then, to the onlookers, "Tie their hands and stand them up. Take those two to the jail. I've got other plans for the Kid." The town blacksmith dragged Curly Sue away as she screamed very un-ladylike curses, and Shorty had to be carried by two men; Blondie had put everything she had into that frying pan. The sheriff smiled at her briefly, and then hoisted the Kid to his feet.

"This way, fella. I'm sorry to have to do this, but you've left me no choice." He marched the now weeping Kid in the opposite direction, and then down a dark alley near the edge of town. He holstered his gun, rolled up his sleeves.....

......and gave the Kid the worst spanking of his life.


This was last week, and since then I've had to dish it out a second time. Brady has been going through a period of defiance that has caused my wife and I wring our hands and wonder what we did wrong. We've learned firsthand that the results of effective discipline, or a lack thereof, are self-perpetuating. I have at least thirty newly grayed hairs, thanks to this phase.

What did we do wrong? I think that for a long time we didn't enforce boundaries well enough, what with two other little outlaws to worry about. It's easier to just let kids push the limits than to enforce them when you're tired and stressed, but they'll take the ground you gave and push for more. Now we're taking back that ground as gently and respectfully as possible, aside from a strategically placed spanking or two. Thankfully, it seems to be working, and although we need to continually reinforce the new rules, I think that once they see we can't be moved, we'll have some reformed and repentant gang members on our hands. I hope. 

I hope you enjoyed my little story, and that you'll forgive me for getting long-winded. Parents, I wish you compliant kids, but if you find yourself in a situation in which a message needs to be sent, just draw a line in dust and tell 'em this: Kids, there's a new sheriff in town.

July 19, 2011

The Way You Look Tonight

Ol' Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. The Voice. Frank Sinatra was known by all these names and more. He was arguably the greatest crooner ever, with a career that spanned parts of seven decades. He did it all: starred in movies, won awards, hung out with presidents and mobsters. Although he wasn't loved by all, and his personal life and relationships were sometimes shady, Sinatra could sing those bobby soxers right out of their bobby sox. He was the embodiment of "cool" for generations.

For me, Sinatra's greatest contribution to the world was a single song that he didn't even write. "The Way You Look Tonight" was originally performed by Fred Astaire as "Lucky" Garnett in the film Swing Time in 1936, singing to Ginger Rogers' character, Penny Carroll. At a moment in which she's not feeling very beautiful, Lucky is telling Penny through the song that to him, she's always beautiful, that he'll always love her just the way she is.

This poignant scene and song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but it's Sinatra's version that is the best known, his voice that made it a timeless love song. It's also the song that played as I danced with my beautiful bride for the first time as husband and wife at our wedding reception, eight years ago today. For me, the song has meshed with the memory to create one of those rare moments of perfect harmony. You probably have a few memories like that. Priceless, aren't they?

Earlier that day, we had the honor of having my father, a pastor and accomplished Used Diaper Salesman in his own right, marry us, and in his message, he made a critical distinction. He painted the picture of marriage as a covenant, not just a contract. Contracts can be broken or modified. Each party to a contract will agree to put on their half of a set of handcuffs but put a key in their back pockets just in case the arrangement ceases to suit them one day. A covenant, however, is unbreakable. When you make a covenant with someone, you're agreeing to cuff yourself to that person and throw every copy of that key in the ocean. It can't be taken lightly, because come what may, you're stuck with that person. You may now insert your lewd handcuff joke here.

My beautiful wife and I made a covenant that day. "For better or for worse" and the rest of the usual wedding day prose can become cliche, but there's really no better way to put it because, frankly, it's not always better. Sometimes, it's worse. Sometimes, you just don't like each other. Sometimes, you hurt each other on purpose. Sometimes, you screw up royally and have to beg for forgiveness on your knees. Sometimes, you're gassy, and God help you then.

Equally cliche is the ever-popular bible passage from 1 Corinthians 13 which is read at so many weddings, the one that goes "Love is patient, love is kind..." Ever tried to actually live that out? It's not for the faint of heart. Like raising kids or any other worthwhile endeavor, marriage takes a boatload of work, but consider this: once you've weathered storms and gone through valleys with someone who didn't leave when the reality didn't meet the ideal, and then held hands and looked back at those times and at each other, you will inevitably say "Wow, it was worth it." Because inevitably, it is.

And now here we are, eight years, three kids, 7,403 gray hairs (give or take) and about as many used diapers later, still imperfect but still perfect for each other, and still no handcuff keys in sight. Right about now, you may be choking on all the cheese I'm serving up, and that's okay. The truth is that I'm a pretty sub-par husband sometimes, so I have to make a conscious effort to keep up with all this stuff. And further, I don't really care if you think I'm weird for taking my marriage seriously. I actually do love my wife that much. Why should that be odd?

So when my wife asks me if a dress looks good on her (one of the top five most loaded questions of all time),  I answer, "It's YOU that make the dress look good, babe." For this response, I score between fifty and one hundred points. Yes!

But that's not why I say it. I say it because it's true. I still see the glowing girl in the flowing white dress, while Ol' Blue Eyes sings.

July 12, 2011

The Budding Sports Star?

Last night we went to Brady's soccer game, and I have to say that, in my opinion, there's nothing quite as fun as watching a bunch of five-year-old boys and girls run around and kick each other in the shins. That's entertainment.

My only gripe: there's always that kid on the other team whose parents have apparently lied about his age to get him on the team. He's the one who's a head taller than everyone else and may or may not have a little bit of peach fuzz already growing on his upper lip. More often than not, he's the coach's kid. He bowls everyone over on his way to scoring nine goals while his mom cheers smugly from the sidelines. If they can prove to me he's only five or six, I'll eat a soccer ball.

At that age, these little athletes can be easily classified into two categories. I call them the players and the pickers. The pickers are the kids who are content to watch the action while picking grass or their noses, or sometimes both at once, and there are three of them for every one little player who's right in there, focused on  moving the ball down the field. Your team's winning percentage is directly linked to its ratio of pickers to players; it's simple math.

Brady is a little bit of both. He'll run up and clear the ball out of his team's end of the field and then go back to picking grass while the kid with the mustache gets the ball back and blows right by him. He'll block a kick while playing goalie, cheer for himself, and then turn his interest to the big booger his teammate has just produced while fuzz-face blasts the rebound into the corner of the goal. Brady hasn't shown a very wide competitive streak yet, but I don't care. Sports at that age are more about teamwork and making sure everyone gets a turn than real competition, and I could take or leave soccer. He's getting fresh air and exercise, and that's all that really matters, right? Right.

But baseball...ah, the beautiful game of summer. Baseball is my first love when it comes to sports, and that's where I get competitive. I played ball until I was a junior in high school, and in retrospect, I wish I'd stuck with it. Ever since I was old enough to think about such things, I've secretly hoped I would one day have a son who would be a major league baseball player, to hear the roar of the crowd when his name is announced, and I know I'm not the only dad who has a secret wish like that. Brady is in his second year of tee ball, and my heart swells every time I see him smack a burner up the middle. He bats left-handed like his favorite player, Joe Mauer, and he has the size and good arm to play catcher like Joe. Kids aren't very coordinated at that age, so his fielding needs work, but the kid can hit. All our backyard work has paid off. I'm so proud.

And here's where I get into trouble. Part of me is itching to live vicariously through my son. I find myself wanting to teach this five-year-old boy how to set the correct stance in the batter's box, to keep his weight on his back foot and shift it to his front foot when he swings while using his hips to generate power and his wrists for bat speed, when all he wants to do is crush the ball and run around the bases.

I have to continually sit myself down and say, "Look, man, relax; the kid's only five. Take it easy and let him have fun." To this I reply, "Yeah, I know, but I REALLY want him to be ready when it's time to start baseball camps a couple of years from now." At this point, Brady gives me a funny look and says, "Daddy, who are you talking to?", and we go back our game. The moral of the story is this: I've really got to stop talking to myself.

Exaggerations aside, like all parents, I have a deep desire to see my kids succeed, and a fear that they won't. I don't actually talk to myself (usually) or get that worked up about my son playing for the Minnesota Twins, but I do worry that I won't do a good enough job of teaching my kids healthy habits, good values, and all the other stuff they need to know in order to make it in the world. It's a matter of locating that fine line between being too lax with your kids and pushing them too hard, and I'll probably spend my whole career as a parent trying to find that line because it doesn't stay in one place; it moves as your kids grow and change. I have to face the fact that I'll almost certainly screw up a few things, and that my kids may sell insurance instead of selling the bunt. I'm okay with that.

Even so, we'll keep working on ground balls and corner kicks while the grizzled behemoth on the opposing soccer team is spending that time learning to shave. When next we see him, we'll be ready. Just wait 'til next year, big guy.