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Claustrophobic Costanza

By Tim Hayes

Okay, so we drive up to Rochester, New York, just the two of us, to see our daughter at college.  We purposely chose this particular weekend because it fell in the middle of a slow time of year, no holidays, no heavy traffic on the New York Thruway.  Just an easy up-and-back trip and the chance to spend a couple of days with our college girl.

The hotel room had been booked a couple of months in advance, so we had no idea.  No clue.  No way of knowing that by the time we arrived in Rochester, every room in the city had been reserved.  An entire American metropolis, booked solid.

Traffic into the city crawled along.  Finding a space in the hotel’s garage – one of the last ones available – we entered the lobby.  The crowded lobby.  A sea of humanity with its luggage in tow.

But wait – that wasn’t regular luggage.  Oddly shaped cases, some very small, others enormous.  We looked at each other and, as former members of our respective high school marching bands, realized that the hotel had been overrun by musicians.

When we finally got to the registration desk, I asked what was going on.  “Oh, we’re hosting the national marching band competition!  There are bands from all over the country in Rochester this weekend!”

Oh.

Well, so much for sleeping in, as trumpets tooted in the next room and drum sections practiced in the front of the hotel.  But that was okay.  After all, we had been part of that world as teenagers, too.

As we spent time with our daughter, going in and out of the hotel that weekend, the impression formed that this facility might have passed its prime some years earlier.  They kept the rooms clean and the place functioned well enough.  But you could just tell that a lot of the luster had been worn smooth, if not fallen off completely.

Exhibit A: The elevators.

Not all that spacious, the cars rode at a snail’s pace up and down.  The doors took forever to open at each floor.  The cars bounced and wobbled in space before the mechanism could grab the latch that opened the doors.

All of which represented little slivers of interior terror for a claustrophobic scaredy-cat like me.

Just walking into an elevator – any elevator – requires a focused, conscious effort in my head to not freak out.  Being in an enclosed space, especially a small one, sends my adrenaline shooting skyward.  Those of us dealing with claustrophobia know the feeling, the very real, very powerful sensation.  You realize you’re trapped inside this box, completely dependent on out-of-your-control mechanics for your release into freedom.  Every moment of the ride builds anxiety into a taller, more thunderous wave.  Full panic threatens to engulf you any second.  As the doors open, relief.  You can exhale again.  Heart rates subside back into normal levels.

Until the next elevator ride, anyway.

So, back to Rochester.  We had been lucky, the elevator rides had been relatively manageable, even though we were staying on the top floor – the ninth floor – of the hotel.  Come Sunday, we gathered our bags for the return drive home, hit the call button, and stepped onto an empty ninth-floor elevator.

Floor 8, another couple got on.  Floor 7, same thing.  Starting to get a little crowded in this rolling box of death.  Floors 6 and 5, we sailed right past.  Whew!  Then the doors opened on Floor 4.  And the world ended.

There had to be eight people crushing their way into that elevator car.  But not just regular people – musicians!  The band festival had finished the night before, and now hundreds of musicians were leaving the hotel at the same time as us.  So on came these folks, with their horn cases, their saxophone cases, their flute cases.

Smashed against the back wall, eyes clenched tight, breathing shallow, I kept telling myself, “It’s only three floors to the lobby, and no one else could possibly fit on this elevator.  Hang on, you can do it.”

Then the drummers tried to enter.  I kid you not.  People carrying drums, trying to get onto an overloaded elevator.  By this time, the car is bouncing on its cables with all the weight.  I’m rapidly losing self-control, hot, sweaty, trembling.  And as the second drummer fought to squeeze in, the rubber band in my head snapped.

Summoning the strength of an NFL fullback blocking to make a tough first down, I started knocking people to the side, to the front, to any direction, so that I could get the hell off that thing.  Like George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” at the children’s party where a small grease fire starts, when he knocks over kids, moms, clowns, old ladies with walkers, to get out of that house, self-preservation kicked in.  Eyeglasses, purses, trumpet cases, and especially drums, were sent flying as I bulldozed my way to oxygen.

This meant leaving my poor wife alone, still pressed against the back of that overcrowded deathtrap.  I hope that in less stressful situations, I would be a lot more chivalrous than that.  But there were just no two ways around it.  I had to get off of that freaking elevator.

It had been years since anything like that has happened.  Although, just the other night, we were visiting someone in the hospital.  On the ninth floor, in fact.  And as we slowly made the descent to the lobby, more and more medical staff piled on one of only two elevators running that evening.

Around the fourth floor, as another team of folks in scrubs fought its way onto our overpopulated car…well, you can probably guess what happened next.  Let’s just say a stethoscope or two got swiftly and forcefully separated from its owner, as some nut ran wild-eyed from the rear.

And did he leave his wife on the elevator?  Again?

Yeah, he did.  Again.  Sorry, Hon.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Tracy the Brave

By Tim Hayes

I can’t even begin to imagine the courage required.

Picture this.  A Catholic elementary school, grades one through eight.  About 400 students in all.  And every single one of them white.  Sure, they broke out by family heritage, the Germans outnumbered everyone else, but you had Italian, Irish, Polish.  Most of Western Europe well represented, but all white.

And you’re the only black student.  The.  Only.  Black.  Student.  Plus, you’re not even Catholic.

Yet, driven by your parents’ belief in a quality education, they send you off to that school, alone.  I can only guess at the fear, anxiety, concern – of that young girl, certainly, but also of her mother and father.

But there she was.  Tracy.  There on the first day of seventh grade, in my homeroom.   Taking her seat amid stares and whispers.  Shock and surprise.  Curiosity and wonder.

This wasn’t to say that prejudice did not exist among my classmates.  I’m sure it did.  In some more than others.  I don’t mean to excuse some of the faculty, either.  This introduced all of us to some very new territory, and it took some time to get acclimated.

Tracy, as I recall, did her best, participating in class, being friendly to her classmates – mostly the other girls – and trying hard to not stand out or stand apart.  She wanted to be a member of our seventh-grade class, the same as anyone else.  Not the “black girl” of the seventh-grade class.  She didn’t want to be a novelty, an exception, a distraction.

At the same time, though, we’re talking about the seventh grade.  Kids in seventh grade can be an unpredictable, ridiculous, reprehensible bunch on their best days.  The first whispers of hormones get carried on the breeze.  Girls become gossipy, clique-obsessed, moody.  Boys get shot full of bravado and testosterone, with no clue as to how to recognize or control it.

Seventh grade can be a full-blown shitstorm, let’s face it.  Introduce a new student like Tracy, in the early ‘70s when society may have been, shall we say, considerably less enlightened?  Well, as I said, I can’t believe the courage required on her part.

Around Valentine’s Day, one of the girls in our class said she would have a party at her house, and that we all could come.  Hallway and playground chatter for the next week dealt with little other than who was going, what would it be like, would anybody chicken out at the last minute?  Even though this all happened in the dark ages before text messages, Twitter, and all the rest, we had our own crude, rudimentary social media going like a house afire.

At last the big evening arrived.  My neighbor’s Dad drove me and his daughter to the party (she was my longtime friend, not a girlfriend), and said he’d be back around 10 p.m.  We went in to the house, then down to the basement, where the streamers and refreshments had been set up.  Other kids trickled in for the next half-hour or so, including Tracy.

At this point, the only boys present were me and two other guys from class.  We sat on one side of the basement, keeping to ourselves, while the girls stood around and talked on the other side.

Soon, shouts could be heard near the basement windows at street level.  Hands started slapping against the windowpanes.  Faces soon pressed against the glass, laughing and yelling.  Other male classmates were trying to disrupt the party inside by provoking trouble.  But what was worse, they said they wouldn’t come in until somebody left.  It didn’t take much to understand who they meant.

And most of these ignoramuses were altar boys.

Well, I’m proud to say that no one left the party.  For my part, it wasn’t necessarily because I had suddenly turned into a fearless advocate for racial justice and harmony.  I mean, I knew those guys outside were way out of line, and I had come to like Tracy as a classmate.  But the bigger reasons I stayed were that my ride home wouldn’t get there for another two hours, and I didn’t want to get beat up.

That night has stayed with me for more than 40 years, though.  How easy it is to hate.  To frighten.  To convince oneself of the righteousness of a cause and to feel brave while part of a pack gathered under the cloak of darkness.  And how hard it is to withstand such needless, warrantless, heartless, pointless abuse.

Tracy stayed at the party that Friday night, and she took her seat again the following Monday morning in class.  If any of that nonsense got to her, she never let it show.

I have no idea whatever happened to Tracy, once we all left for high school.  My hope is that she’s a happy, content, successful wife, mother, businesswoman, entrepreneur, friend – enjoying a life free from ignorance and intimidation.

A life she demonstrated to us in the seventh grade.  A life of courage.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

A Little Neighborhood Hole in the Wall

By Tim Hayes

Everybody needs one.  That place you find that fits your style.  That serves up great food.  That makes you feel at home every time you walk in the place.

We found ours about a year after we moved back to our hometown of Pittsburgh, more than 25 years ago.  This little hole in the wall, just about eight minutes from our house.  After all this time, we know the family who runs it as well as we know our own neighbors.  This comes as no surprise, since we probably spend more time with these folksy restaurateurs during the cold months than we do with the neighbors.

In a converted two-story townhouse, the husband and wife along with their two sons and their families have been serving up the best pasta, fish, steak, pizza, soup, salad, you name it, year after year.  Nothing fancy, but unbelievably delicious – and with a consistent quality that has never wavered.  Amazing.

When we started patronizing the restaurant, our two daughters were babies.  Our son hadn’t even entered the picture yet.  Now the girls are through with college and off on their own, and our son’s college career is mere weeks from wrapping up.  And our friends who have been whomping up great meals for us through it all have watched our kids grow and enjoyed the process right along with us.

It’s so comforting to have a go-to place like this.  When we want to celebrate, we go there.  When we want to crash on a Friday night after a tough week, just to relax, have a drink, enjoy some great pasta, and chat for a minute with people who sincerely are happy you’re there, that’s where we go.  We have reserved the restaurant for private events, including First Communion parties.  We have asked them to cater graduation parties at our house.

Our little neighborhood hole in the wall has been at the center of many of the milestones of our family’s life.  What a blessing.

In the film “Moonstruck,” the family of the character played by Cher frequents its own little neighborhood hole in the wall, the Gran Torino.  “Bobo,” the head waiter, knows them by name and can anticipate their preferences and orders.  In our favorite haunt, the people there can do the same.

The patriarch of the family, freed from the heavy cooking duties in the kitchen, now serves as the roving goodwill ambassador in the bar, the downstairs dining area, and the upstairs dining room.  Stopping by to say hello, he’ll ask where the kids are these days, maybe offer some sage wisdom, then totter off to make some other patrons feel welcome.  His wife does much of the same, while keeping a sharp eye on what’s going on the kitchen and among the wait staff.

The sons, whose roles have risen to cooking the meals and running the place day-to-day, know us well, too.  Even when I call to place an order for take-out, before they ask for the name, they’ll say, “Is this you, Mr. Hayes?”  It probably sounds corny as hell, but to be so familiar and to be recognized with such sincere gratitude and grace – well, it’s one of life’s loveliest little victories.

During one tableside conversation not long ago, as one of the sons asked about our kids, I mentioned that we had been coming here ever since our oldest was about two years old.  Twenty-five years ago, that would make it.  His eyes widened, and he told us that his parents opened their doors 25-and-a-half years ago.  In other words, our patronage correlated precisely with the history of the restaurant itself.

No wonder we all felt such a kinship and connection – we raised a family as they built a successful business.  And now here we all find ourselves again, us making that eight-minute trip over and over to a place we know and love and savor, and them keeping the lights on, the water boiling, the zucchini crispy and hot, and the friendship and smiles abundant and free for the taking.

A little neighborhood hole in the wall.  Everybody needs one.  And we sure have treasured ours.  Who’s hungry?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Angel on the Line

By Tim Hayes

In the (then unbeknownst to me) waning days of my final corporate PR employment, a full 18 years ago now, I found myself sitting in slack-jawed amazement while listening to a speaker bowl over a ballroom full of people.

My reason for attending this event tied to the fact that I had written opening remarks for the company’s CEO, who then introduced the woman at the microphone as the keynote speaker.  She held herself with such confidence and grace, telling her personal story of crushing poverty, unplanned pregnancy, and being forced out of her family, left to fend for herself and her daughter – and all before she had reached the age of 18.

Starting with selling fire extinguishers door-to-door, she forged a path ahead, in time raising a bright, articulate, accomplished daughter, and building a successful business.  Her story became such an inspiration to entrepreneurs that she began a new career as a highly sought-after speaker, complete with her own set of materials available for sale.

I had never met anyone quite like her.

As the event wound down that evening, I introduced myself to Georgina.  We chatted for a time, she asking about my responsibilities at the company, and me asking more about what it took to achieve all she had accomplished.  And then we parted ways.

Less than a month later, I got swept up in a wave of layoffs, and faced a crisis.  It didn’t take long for my wife and I to agree that breaking off on my own – where my career and my family’s future would never again be at the mercy of unforeseen and uncontrollable forces – made the most sense.  So I pulled Georgina’s business card out of my desk and gave her a call.

Forget Robert Frost and his two roads diverging in a wood.  That single act of picking up the telephone and reaching out to that one person is what has made all the difference.   She became my angel on the line.

You need to understand that starting my own practice had not been a priority.  The plan called for me to remain as a full-time employee in a corporate communications department until age 50 or later, and only then begin to consider running my own shop as a means of easing into retirement.

But, as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.  I was three weeks shy of my 40th birthday when the corporate gig came crashing in on me.  So, having been thrust into this new role of business generator, project executor, client relationship builder, invoice issuer, and occasional bill collector, I needed help.  Advice.  Reassurance.  A good kick in the butt, whether to correct a knuckleheaded mistake or to get me back in gear.  Georgina filled that role magnificently.

She taught me the importance of not panicking when business looked sparse, or when clients changed their minds about projects.  She helped me realize the moral and practical wisdom of referring opportunities to others in the field, sharing the fact that there’s enough business for everybody and that a good turn gets reciprocated eventually.  She encouraged me to take on projects and assignments that forced me to stretch beyond my standard repertoire, stressing that not only would that bring personal and professional growth, it also would expand my menu of offerings to more potential clients.

Any time I needed her, she was there.  Some phone calls lasted hours, especially in those very early days, but she remained patient and helpful and funny and wonderful.  She would insist on lunches or coffees in person, to check up on my latest news, answer any new questions, and offer her always invaluable advice.

As I mentioned, most of this happened nearly two decades ago.  Georgina and I have not had the chance to catch up for a while.  I hope she is resting, enjoying her well-earned retirement, maybe traveling and enjoying her grandchildren.

But I doubt it.

If I know my dear mentor, she’s still on the road, speaking to audiences, knocking them out, finding and founding new business opportunities, and no doubt selflessly sharing her hard-won brilliance with new entrepreneurs the same way she did with me.  We all should be so lucky.  So fortunate.  So blessed.

Godspeed, Georgina, wherever you are.  I only hope I can follow in your remarkable footsteps, as a respected business person, as an incredible mentor, and as a cherished friend.  A true angel on the line.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Free and Unfettered

By Tim Hayes

In the new film “The Post,” the Nixon White House in 1971 attempts to squash release of the Pentagon Papers, a secret and unflattering government assessment of the Vietnam War.  The administration threatened the publisher and editor of The Washington Post with contempt – a federal offense, punishable by imprisonment – should they decide to publish their reporters’ stories.

During the internal deliberations, the newspaper’s attorneys argue that if publication of those documents occurs, then The Washington Post would “cease to exist as we know it” – to which Ben Bradlee, the editor, counters, “If we let the government tell us what we can and cannot publish, then The Washington Post has already ceased to exist as we know it!”

Freedom of the press was enshrined in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment.  Not the Second, the Fifth, or the Ninth, but the First.  There’s a reason for that.  Just ask that tall, red-headed fellow holding the quill and parchment.  I yield the floor to my colleague from Virginia, the right honorable Mr. Thomas Jefferson.

“No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free no one ever will.”

As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black noted, in the ruling that supported the right of the press in the Pentagon Papers case, “In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

Presidents through the centuries may not always like it – Jefferson included – but the critical function of an independent press to an informed and functioning democracy cannot be denied.  Jefferson came to truly hate the reporters who covered his administration, but he never lost sight of why they needed to coexist, and never tried to prevent them from doing their jobs.  How could he, when he said things like:

“The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by a despotic government.”

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

To keep the waters pure.  That’s a wonderful line, and one that needs to be studied, thought through carefully, and safeguarded today as in few other periods in my lifetime.

We hear about “draining the swamp.”  We hear outrageous statements like, “I alone can fix it.”  We have been overrun for decades, long before even the current administration came into power, by a toxic bravado on both ends of the political spectrum.

A deafening cyclone of anger and accusation, where everyone shouts and no one listens, where to attempt compromise equates to surrender and punishment.  Any victory must be complete.  Any loss only incurs an ever-expanding reservoir of cunning and hate, as a precursor to total, sweeping, devastating revenge.

But when the guiding philosophy comes down to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the only result can be a nation of the toothless and the blind.  We need to relearn to respectfully disagree by listening first, talking second, then finding and achieving success in areas of shared priority.

And we need to respect those professionals whose job entails shining a light on those conversations, those plans, those attempts to influence decisions that affect millions.  We need to acknowledge and appreciate, not denigrate or let others insult, a free press.  Again, Mr. Jefferson says it best:

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Each accusation of “fake news” tears at the fabric of our democratic standards.  There can be news reports that you don’t like or don’t agree with, assuming a bias on the part of the reporter or news organization.  That doesn’t automatically make the news report fake or false.  There can be – and sometimes are, since reporters are human too – news reports that contain errors of fact.  When discovered, they get corrected.  But even errors do not make the report fake or false.


My fear comes in wondering whether these insistent cries of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and similarly nonsensical accusations and affirmations could actually take root in the minds and opinions of American citizens.  That could lead to a national trauma, whereby the only information accepted by people comes directly from the government – with no other way to validate, verify, or challenge it.  Few things would be more dangerous or damaging, as Jefferson knew:

“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”


An ill-informed, lackadaisical populace is the best friend of a government bent on steamrolling over the opposition, including the rights of those who put it into office.  We cannot permit that to happen.  The Washington Post realized this in 1971, as Richard Nixon sought to crush press reporting that exposed 30 years of misleading propaganda regarding Vietnam.  The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, clearly and definitively told Nixon that the Constitution said otherwise.

Are we still that diligent about the First Amendment today?  If not, why not?  A responsible citizenry requires that we demand accountability from our government at all levels.  And the best way to achieve that on a consistent basis is through a free and unfettered press, doing its job, warts and all.

Let’s give Tommy J. the last word, thoughts every bit as prescient now as they were in his colonial times:

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes


Beefsteak Blossoms

By Tim Hayes

Our eldest daughter, an accomplished professional woman now, with two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, celebrated a birthday this past week.  Our pride in all she has done and become has no bounds.  This story occurs some years ago, when she was a lot smaller and the world seemed a lot simpler.

* * * * *

In the moderately sized backyard, shovel sliced into earth across the rear corner, off to the right.  The heel of a tennis shoe-clad food pushing the blade into the ground, to reveal the black soil beneath.

Before long, a 10-by-10 foot patch had been cleared, then tilled carefully, before planting began on the first-ever Hayes Family vegetable garden.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and maybe one or two more crops comprised our tentative foray into urban farming.

A six-foot high picket fence promised to keep the deer away.  Smaller critters like rabbits, well, we’d just have to take our chances.  The real point, of course, came in giving Dad (me) some time with his kids while they were small and still happy to hang around him.  And maybe we’d all learn something together about growing, living things, and how important it is to care for them well.

We dug out rows for the different vegetables, giving the tomatoes the run of the middle patch.  Risking tremendous overreach and flashing a bit of bravado, we put in Beefsteak tomatoes – the bullies of the bunch.  But if they came in strong and ballooned up to their juicy, skin-stretching potential?  Oh baby, we’d be the toast of our little neighborhood.  So it became Beefsteak or Bust.

The kids were maybe five, three, and one years old when all of this happened.  The size of the garden would not have impressed anybody at the office, but to our kids it looked like Old MacDonald’s Farm.  We planted the seeds, taped the seed packets to the little wire trim fence around the edges to keep track of which row held which vegetable, watered them, pulled out weeds as they poked up, and waited for nature to start the festivities.

At the right time, the buds pierced the soil and started blooming.  The Beefsteaks started crawling out from their spreading vines, turning different shades of green before taking on hints of red, while the other crops eventually came into view and started to grow under the scorching July sun.

One evening after dinner, I took our oldest out into the garden with me.  She and I carried some long wooden sticks, a hammer, and some twine.  The time to give the Beefsteaks some help had arrived.  We’d place the sticks into the ground and tie the tomato vines to them, giving the plants room to grow vertically.

I had decided on this strategy using my (severely) limited agricultural faculties, declaring to my five-year-old assistant that this would increase our harvest while letting the tomatoes benefit from more direct sunlight.  Plus, I’d seen somebody on TV do the same thing.

We worked together for more than an hour, her handing me tools and implements, holding up the tomato vines against the poles and telling me where to tie the twine around them.  Our knees, hands, and faces got smudged and smeared with the loam of the garden, but we didn’t care.  We did something important and great, and we had done it together.

One Beefsteak had fully ripened, we noticed.  It looked plump, deep red, and ready to be enjoyed.  I helped my little daughter pluck it from the vine, and it almost fell to the ground, it was so heavy for her to hold.  But she got a good grip on it and smiled up at me.

I reached down, and lifted her up into my arms.  As she held that tomato, and I held her, neither one of us said a word, but looked at each other for the longest time.  In that moment, like so many more with all of the kids over the years, there was nowhere else in the universe I wanted to be more than where I was right then and there with my child.

The pride, the gratitude, the joy, the deep, deep love for this little person and the love and happiness she felt after spending this special time with me – all got communicated as we looked at each other in the approaching dusk of that late summer evening.

She’s well into her 20s now, building a career and doing wonderfully in another part of the country.  She will be coming back home for a belated birthday celebration.  No Beefsteaks anticipated here this snowy, bone-chilling January, other than maybe some scrappy imports at the grocery store.

But when I see her, that moment next to a makeshift backyard garden more than two decades ago will flash across my mind once more.  And all is right with the world.  Happy Birthday, Honey.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Show Towels

By Tim Hayes

Nobody’s supposed to touch them.  Ever.

They’re the bathroom “show” towels.  You know, the ones hung there just for show.  The ones that get thrown in the washer twice a year, along with the curtains.

The show towels have no practical use, no primary working function.  The idea of drying one’s hands on them?  Absolutely out of the question.  They’re a feng shui accent.  A way to balance the bathroom décor.  Sorry, but nobody touches the show towels.

Okay, fine.  So how come they keep moving?

I swear, every time I go into our master bathroom, the show towels have been separated.  A half-inch space has been made between the two.  I know I didn’t do it.  I actually make a point of pushing the show towels back together when I see a separation.

The house can’t be haunted.  It’s not that old, and no one’s ever died inside it, so paranormal activity seems unlikely. We’ve never had an earthquake, so a natural shifting of the ground beneath us can’t be the culprit.  Maybe the show towels get swiped and slid a little as people go in and out of the shower?  That’s possible, but wouldn’t you notice that and try to avoid it after living here for 15 years?

That leaves only one other theory.  One half of the married couple in this house likes to leave a gap between the two show towels, and the other half (me) doesn’t.

I think my aversion to the gap may reach the whole way back to my early elementary school days, when yours truly sported a monstrous gap between two front teeth.  This incisor incident, this molar malady, this dental disaster eventually got fixed.  But I took a lot of ribbing for a lot of years over it.  Maybe when I see that gap between the show towels today, it lights a flare in my subconscious – CODE RED!  CLOSE THAT GAP, STAT! – and I feel compelled to push them back together.

It’s funny that, while this silly little battle of wills has been going on for a decade and a half, it’s never come up in conversation.  (That’s may change with this blog, I realize.)  But I think that’s part of what has made our 35-year marriage so strong, so healthy, so much fun.  We give each other the space to be who we are, to express what we think and feel and hope for, and the knowledge that we’ll always support the other person to ensure their happiness, safety, dignity, and love.

You read articles in magazines or see stories online about how poorly people can treat others, including their spouses.  It’s shocking, hard to fathom.  It makes me sad and concerned.  A listing I recently read detailed the top 10 pieces of advice from long-term happily married couples.  Most of the items sounded so obvious.

“Don’t tell jokes at your spouse’s expense (No “ball-and-chain” cracks!).  Hold your spouse in respect and guard it diligently.” Duh.  Yeah, of course.

“Don’t argue to win; argue to understand and solve a problem together.” Okay, this one might be a little tougher sometimes, but again, of course.

And here’s the topper: “Have fun together.” Seriously?  Is this news to anyone?  Who has to be told this, as a way to have a happy marriage?  Good grief.

True love means truly respecting, cherishing, building up, cheering up, giving plenty of attention while leaving enough space.  It means letting that person know their happiness is your ultimate purpose and top priority, always.

It means letting each other move the show towels around without making a big deal out of it, I guess.  It seems to have worked pretty well for us, anyway.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

A Single Tear on a Silent Night

By Tim Hayes

Nothing felt right that Christmas Eve, and it had put me in a bad mood.

I followed my parents, sisters, and grandmother into church for Midnight Mass, only to find that “our” pew – the one we had populated for years – had been usurped by a bunch of “twice-a-year” Catholics.  So we traipsed over to a side section that felt like we had sailed into uncharted waters.

A bitterly cold night, we all had bundled to the brim.  At the same time, the overflow Christmas Eve crowd (see “twice-a-year” Catholics, above) meant more people smashed into smaller spaces.  So when you added the extra heat generated from this unusual crush of humanity, plus every member of the congregation wrapped in his or her warmest winter outerwear, you knew the place was primed for clammy skin, sweaty brows, and heightened odds that somebody in the building would pass out before we got to Communion.

Midnight Mass also meant an extended version of the typical service, so we wouldn’t get home until close to 2 a.m., and first had to endure creaky old Father up there, with his dry, boring sermon and his slow shuffle around the altar, all while suffering in this sweatbox, sitting in a part of the church I don’t think I’d ever even set foot in before.

Had any other 16-year-old ever had to contend with such stifling inconvenience?  I ask you.

Plus, it had taken too many bus rides, far too much shoe leather, and all of my limited funds to get presents for my family and a couple close friends.  Outside of the otherworldly feast on Christmas Day at Grandma’s – where my siblings, cousins, and I could absolutely gorge ourselves on ham, homemade bread and lasagna, meatballs the size of billiards, and more of her trademark cookies than you could count – it would be so good to get this whole Christmas thing over with.

As Midnight Mass lumbered on, I may have heard a muffled thud from somewhere behind us, as the heat claimed its first victim.  (Called it!)  Father somehow finished his interminable homily, then the consecration of the bread and wine, followed in time by Communion.  Finally, a chance to get up and walk around a bit.  Maybe breathe some new air.

We all walked up, took Communion, and returned to our pew.  The choir had been singing during this time and finished its selection.  While the rest of the congregation continued coming up to the front of church, the choir began “Silent Night.”

I sat there, in my misplaced adolescent assuredness, impatiently checking my watch, and waiting for the choir to finish this old holiday musical chestnut.  Then I happened to look down the pew.  Don’t ask me why; I don’t know.  Maybe it was a teenaged scattershot attention span.  Maybe it was a reflexive way to alleviate boredom.

Or maybe it was something else.  Something – someone? – from above.

As I turned my head, I looked at my mother.  As our parish’s tired, old, but always game, choir softly sang “Silent Night,” I saw a single tear trickle down my mom’s face.

And, suddenly, the nonsensical American commercialized hijacking of Christmas fell away – and my immature snit-fit with it.  The reality of a teenaged girl who had just given birth in a corral for farm animals burst into consciousness instead.

“Christmas” dissolved, and the “Nativity” emerged.

To think that this story really happened!  It wasn’t a fable.  It wasn’t a fairly tale.  It had been rehashed so many times, as to become as faded, smooth, familiar, and taken for granted as the stained-glass windows all around us.

But it actually took place.  An amazing epiphany.  How did Mary get through it?  Did Joseph know how to help her?  Was she terrified?  How bad was the pain?  Did she scream?  Was she exhausted?  And then the baby – Did he look like any other newborn?  Was there something about him that marked him as unusual or special, even holy?  What did Joseph think about all this?  Did the cows and sheep smell bad?  And who were these shepherd guys showing up out of nowhere?  How did they know where to find the three of them in this nondescript, ramshackle stable?

It’s an incredible story.  The story of a miracle.  A story that set into motion a shift in time and history.  But before all of that magnificence and spectacle entered our consciousness, there were just a husband, a young wife, and an infant – all alone in an unfamiliar town in the most unexpected of places to give birth.

My mother knew what it took to bring new life into the world.  She knew the miracle of raising three healthy children.  She knew the invaluable contribution of a trusted, loving husband.  She knew what Mary had to be thinking and feeling that night.  That incredible silent night.

So she shed a single tear of love and pride and appreciation.  And it changed the Christmas experience for me, for the rest of my life.  Thanks, Mom.  I love you.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

The Secretary

By Tim Hayes

“The Secretary is coming.  The Secretary is coming!”

It marked the first time I ever saw grown men panic in a professional setting.

My first foray into public relations, after three years working as a newsroom journalist fresh out of college, occurred with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDOT in the state vernacular.  PennDOT, for as long as I could remember and for decades before that, had remained atop the listing of state agencies most reviled across our beloved Commonwealth.

Accepting a job – a significant element of which included dealing with irate media, taxpayers, and elected officials – certainly afforded me with an avalanche of immediate trial-by-fire experience in promoting and defending an organization through effective messaging and strategic communications.  One would be hard-pressed to find a first PR job more daunting than as a spokesperson for a PennDOT district located squarely in the mountainous snow belt.  Hair, pants, shoes, soul – set on fire daily.  Or so it seemed.

The fact that such a job existed at all, however, could be attributed to the Secretary of Transportation, a former civil engineering professor from Penn State who challenged the governor to do better with the state’s transportation system of roads, airports, and waterway traffic.  The governor took him up on it, in effect giving him free reign to either put up or shut up, so the Secretary got to work.  Greater accountability across the board, no more political patronage, careful budgeting, establishing clear measures of success, and creating a system of PR representatives to keep travelers informed at all times.

About two weeks after I had joined the district office, my boss sent me to the state capital to meet the PR staff at the central office.  Having been introduced to the press secretary and others on the headquarters team, I was shepherded to another office on the top floor of the PennDOT building, where I met a woman with what struck me as a rather vague title.  “Special Advisor” or something similarly gauzy and ill-defined.

Her actual duty soon became clear, however, when she picked up her phone, asked “Is now a good time?”, smiled at me and said, “Come on.”  She escorted me down a long hallway, knocked on the door, got the go-ahead to open it, and waved me in – and who should be sitting at an enormous desk, with large windows behind, setting him in silhouette?

The Secretary.

He stood up, all six-foot-whatever of him, came from around the desk, shook my hand, and asked me to have a seat at a side table.  A deep, resonant, authoritative voice issuing from his throat, he cut quite the imposing figure.  Plus, he had the power to send guys like me packing whenever he felt the need.

But for all of that, what I recall from that initial introduction was a person genuinely interested in making a new team member feel welcome and valued.  And while I only worked for the Department about two years, that sense of mutual respect and the incredible blending of pride in the work, high expectations, and a little bit of fun carried through any interactions I had with the Secretary.

In just one example, PennDOT each year conducts a community service day where volunteers help pick up litter along state roadways.  I had done my best to inject more excitement into our district’s participation levels, which had been moribund, putting it mildly.  The Secretary made a point to visit our district on that Saturday, and it fell to me to pick him up at the small regional airport in my state-issued Chrysler K-Car.

As we drove northward to join a cluster of adults and kids performing their litter pickup, I made sure I adhered to the posted speed limits.  He leaned over and said, “Tim, you know I’m the Secretary of Transportation, right?”  “Yes, sir.”  “And you are transporting me, right?”  “Yes, sir.”  “Well, then, I guess there’s only one question left.”  “What’s that, sir?”

“Can this crate go any faster?”

It could, and it did.  And about a week later, I received a letter from the Secretary stating his appreciation for my work on the community service project, and the fact that what our district did would serve as the model for all other districts moving forward.  That letter got framed and sat on top of the living room TV for months in my house.

In the many years since, I’ve had either the pleasure or the pain of working with many CEOs and other top executives.  I’ve never told any of them this (until now, I guess), but I would silently gauge their tone, their demeanor, their approach to professional respect, and their ability to relax and enjoy their interactions, with that of the Secretary of PennDOT.  Fortunately for me, nearly all have measured up pretty well against that sterling standard.

So when the engineers and other professionals in our district office got the word that “The Secretary is coming!” – they let it shake them, make them nervous and anxious.  But I just smiled.

Yeah, the Secretary – my friend, my role model, my idea and ideal of a great leader – was coming.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes

Magic Puck

By Tim Hayes

Gosh, we really thought this idea would work.  Ah, to be young and foolish and fearless again.

We – meaning my fellow members of a corporate communications team and I – had somehow convinced a regional executive to don a hockey sweater and gloves, grab a hockey stick, and slap-shot a puck into a hockey net, all while on stage in front of about 200 employees as part of an annual sales rally.

This borderline-screwball idea flowed from the theme of the event, “Make the Goal!” – one of those trite, forced-enthusiastic clichés so common across corporate America.

Our executive, a very nice older gentleman who relished one-to-one connections but who disdained speaking to larger crowds, agreed to this particular piece of performance art based on pressure from the C-suite to boost sales in his region.  Otherwise, our proposal would never have stood a snowball’s chance in Hell.

But agree he did, so it was Game On.

The day before the event, as our Corp Comm team worked on setting up the ballroom, testing equipment, making final tweaks to speeches and materials, the regional executive came by at the appointed time to rehearse.  He practiced his speech, using the teleprompters stationed along the foot of the stage.  So far, so good.

Then came the clincher.  The real stemwinder.  The big payoff of his presentation.  The moment when 200 jaded salespeople would shake loose the shackles of their cynicism and burst out of the doors alive with the fire of increasing sales.  And all based on the regional executive shooting the puck the length of the stage into the waiting net.

But he needed to get his bearings, line up his mojo, find his touch to make the shot.  So he wound up, swung the stick, and sent the first puck into the fifth row.  Hmmm.  The lawyers might not like the liability issues that presented.  We teed the puck up again, and this time he missed the damn thing completely.  Becoming irritated with himself and embarrassed at his lack of athletic prowess, he took another shot and clanged the puck off of his ankle.

This obviously was not panning out the way we had foreseen.  Our executive, red in the face and with a swiftly swelling ankle, threatened to throw all of this hockey nonsense into the trash, along with all of our careers.

Then someone in our Corp Comm cohort had a blaze of inspiration, a stroke of genius.  Or so we all thought.

The A/V guys on our team rigged up a system whereby a thin piece of clear fishing line was taped onto one edge of the puck.  Standing off in the wings of the stage, one of those crew members would wait until the exec took his shot with the hockey stick, then yank the fishing line, thereby pulling the puck straight into the net.  Talk about your risk management!  The engineering that went into this astounds me today, decades later.  A guaranteed goal, every time, right?  Yeah, right.

Ever heard of “chaos theory?”  Well, we saw it in action the next day.  Up close and personal.  In living color.  And in front of 200 witnesses.

At the event, our executive finished his formal remarks just fine, then slipped on the hockey jersey and picked up the stick.  Because he had been so anxious about being in front of all those people, his hands had become sweaty.  Because he was so relieved to almost be finished, he forgot to put on the hockey gloves.  Hilarity was about to ensue.

He grabbed the stick, lined up the shot, swung the stick back – and felt it slide right out of his slippery hands.  Backwards!  Behind him!  Clanking loudly and unmistakably onto the wooden floor of the stage.  Just as the crew guy offstage on the other side tugged the fishing line and sent the puck into the goal.  A puck that sped some 30 feet without ever being touched.

The laws of physics blown to smithereens at a corporate sales rally!

Lucky for us, this gentleman also had a healthy sense of humor and wasn’t above laughing at himself – which, in this case, meant joining in with the laughter of everyone else in the room.  He walked back to the microphone on the podium and said, “See?  If I can ‘make the goal,’ even with this ridiculous display, so can you.  So let’s go get ‘em!”  That self-deprecating recovery did more to inspire those salespeople than our rigged-up, half-baked, contrived bit of stagecraft ever could.

Moral of the story?  Be yourself.  Nobody else wants the job anyway, because no one else can do it as good or as convincingly as you.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes