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Making God Laugh

By Tim Hayes

The fellow in the front seat of the car probably was thinking about dinner that night.  Would he go out?  Maybe just grill up some hot dogs, stay in, and rent a movie on pay-per-view?

The lady wanted to get her bicycle across the street.  Maybe to get back home, maybe to go have a nice long ride.  Just another day.

A moment later, however, disaster.

The woman lay, dead, struck by the driverless car cruising the streets in Tempe, Arizona.  She had been walking her bicycle when struck by the car.  Preliminary reports say she may have darted out in front of the vehicle.  Later news updates say the driver inside the car – there to take over operation in case of malfunction or emergency – may have been slow to respond.  The investigation continues.

Here’s the point.  Neither of the two people involved in this tragedy saw it coming.  Life changed – and ended, for one of them – in a second.

Life is completely unpredictable.  People can be completely unreliable.  Getting through any single day has no more assuredness than a crap shoot.  It’s a miracle we leave the house in the morning, travel around, interact with familiar faces and total strangers, transport ourselves back home, and get into bed again in one piece.

I knew a high school senior once, who seemed quite upset that her entire life’s trajectory could not be plotted out with any real sense of confidence.  That was years ago, and where she is and what she’s doing now has little, if any, resemblance to those carefully constructed plans back in high school.  She understands this concept now.

The longer you’ve been around, and the more you’ve experienced, proves this over and over.  I’ve been in the conference room when the grim-faced VPs from the New York City headquarters told us that the Pittsburgh office of their global PR agency would be closing in two weeks.  One day, walking out from my eighth-grade classroom to take my post on a street corner as a patrol boy, a Cadillac taking a short cut hit me and left the scene – fracturing my skull and sending me into a three-day coma.  You never know what’s coming around the bend.  Sometimes literally.

We’re heading into the Christian Holy Week today, and I sometimes think of poor old Thomas.  One of the 12 apostles, Thomas sounded all brave and full of spunk before Jesus led the group up to Jerusalem, where he told them he would be executed.  Thomas pipes up with, “Then let us go with him, to die with him there.”  Pretty bold stuff, right?

But then, when things start to get rough in the Garden of Gethsemane as the Temple Guards arrest Jesus and the saga begins, where was Thomas?  Running for his life, with the other apostles, into the night, as far and fast from the action as his feet could carry him.  Even after Christ rises from the dead and appears again to his flawed followers, Thomas misses the moment.  Worse, he later says he won’t believe it until he actually sees Jesus and touches his wounds personally.

But Thomas ultimately proves his devotion, even after all of these misguided declarations and letdowns, when he becomes one of the first Christian martyrs, accepting death before denying his faith in Christ’s mission and person.  This holy man’s whipsaw journey from valiant disciple to wanton coward to doubtful skeptic to fearless hero proves that nothing’s guaranteed.  Life changes in an instant, for good or for bad.  There’s an old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” meaning that you can’t assume too much in this world of random fate and unpredictable chance.

I guess the best plan is to know who you truly are, what you represent, which principles you believe in and hold fast, and trust that those will carry you through any curve ball the world throws at you.

As the fictional movie boxer Rocky Balboa tells his son, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.  But it ain’t about how hard you hit.  It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward – how much you can take, and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done.”

Keep your head down, your tail up, and your heart moving forward.  What else is there?

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

Aiming for Them

By Tim Hayes

The blue Buick Regal sped down the highway, its undercarriage rattling, its shock absorbers pleading for sweet mercy.  Spring in Pittsburgh, and the potholes had begun to bloom.

There I sat, feet on the pedals, hands on the wheel, mere days after passing my driver’s test and becoming a licensed operator of a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Unlike most of my friends in high school, I never went for my license at age 16.  After they got their licenses, I just had them pick me up if we wanted to go someplace.

A true late bloomer, I only got my license after starting college and falling spoons over teacups for this girl.  She lived in Pittsburgh too, but clear on the other side of town.  You had to cross two of the three rivers to get there, for Pete’s sake.  Here’s how parochial my worldview had been growing up – I had never even heard of her high school.  Thirty minutes away, and life had not given me cause to get within 10 miles of her house for my first 18 years on the planet.

But, boy, I tried to get there by any means possible whenever we came home from college that freshman year.  Bus rides took way too long, with transfers and various assorted weirdos and vagrants striking up incredibly uncomfortable conversations.  No, at age 18 the time to man up and learn to drive a car had definitely arrived.  I had to get to that girl’s house on my own terms.

(By the way, “that girl” is sitting at our dining room table as I write this, completing class assignments while working toward her second master’s degree.  She still amazes me, 36 years of marriage later.  But I digress…)

The blue Buick rumbled and rambled down the concrete toward the exit for my girlfriend’s house.  The highway looked like it had been cluster-bombed.  Shock and awe.  Or, shocks and ow.

The winter that year – just like the one we’re coming out of now – featured weather cycles where a few odd stretches of really warm days would be followed by frigid cold and lots of snow.  The repeated pattern of water seeping into seams in the roadbed, freezing and contracting, then melting and expanding, caused the pavement to crack and crumble into the war zone now being navigated.

Boom!  Crack!  Pow!  The blue Buick smacked into one vicious pothole after the next.  It sounded like one of those old Batman shows from the ‘60s.  Splat!  Crash!  Oomph!  Then came a voice from the passenger seat beside me.

“Good God, are you aiming for them?”

Dad, the owner of the car currently auditioning for the demolition derby under my slapdash piloting, feared for the suspension of his Buick, even as he feared for his life.  Looking back, can’t say that I blame him.

His question – clearly referring to my rookie driver’s inability to avoid potholes in the road – goes a lot deeper, if you think about it.

Are you aiming for them?

As a Type 2 diabetic, I’m supposed to watch my intake of carbohydrates.  But nothing tastes better on a Friday night after a busy week than hot pizza and cold beer.  They’re not great choices for my health.  So, am I misbehaving on purpose?  Am I thumbing my nose at my medical advisors, for the sake of a self-serving reward?  Questionable choices: Am I aiming for them?

We all do things we know better than to do.  Even St. Paul, that old sinner.  The New Living Translation of the Bible quotes him this way: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

Does that mean we’re aiming for those things?  Those shocks to our consciences?  Those potholes of the soul?  Heavy stuff.  That’s when I’m glad to be Catholic.  We get to go to confession and start over again!

In all the 40 years of driving since that rickety, rattling trek to see my girlfriend in my Dad’s blue Buick, potholes still have a way of sneaking up on me.  I try to skirt around them.  I try to straddle the tires over them.  But sometimes, you just gotta take the slams as part of the journey, whether it’s while enjoying a drive or living a life.  They can be unavoidable.  But not always.

The conundrum remains, regarding the choices we make, even when they’re questionable: Are we aiming for them?  I dare you to think about it.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

This Is The Only Day

By Tim Hayes

We had only been married about two or three years, living for the first time at an appreciable distance from any family, and broke as hell.

After finishing dinner at the all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut Buffet one evening, we carefully loaded some slices into a carryout box to serve as lunches and maybe even dinner the next day.  Walking over to the car, I felt a gust of wind suddenly rise like vicious and well-placed uppercut, sending the box flying into the air and out of reach.

It flew open, tomorrow’s lunch sailing by, pepperoni-laden slices silhouetted against the street lights, before landing, toppings down, on the gritty sidewalk.

“Son of a bitch!” I shouted, the frustration and embarrassment of our just-scraping-by existence bubbling up and out.  Only years later – more than 30 years later, actually – did the truth finally grab me by the metaphorical lapels and issue a good hard slap across the face.

And it came, of all places, from a tweet.

Scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago, this sentence stopped me in my tracks: “Right now, you are living the life that someone else is dreaming of living.”

So even then, with little money in our checking account, we lived someone else’s dream life.  We were very happy, very much in love with each other.  We both had jobs and a safe, clean townhouse in a good neighborhood.  We had our health and our hope for a long life together.  The money would come later, we believed.  And we were right.

It reminds me of a character from one of my favorite movies, “Field of Dreams.”  In this mystical journey to renewal and reconciliation through the game of baseball, we meet Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham.  We see him first as an elderly small town physician, who only played one half-inning in one major league game as a younger man – and who never got the chance to come up to bat.

When asked how that makes him feel, to come so close to your dream and never get it, Moonlight says, “You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening.  Back then I thought, ‘Well, there’ll be other days.’  I didn’t realize that that was the only day.”

What he means is that what’s past is past, and it can’t be changed, so who wants to live there?  What’s yet to come is anybody’s guess, and it’s foolish to spend too much energy or anxiety over it.  No, Moonlight Graham learned the lesson well that today is the only day that matters.

What that’s meant for me comes down to that fateful night when our pizza took a flying leap onto the cement.  And the days when each of our children were born.  And the nights when I’d read to my little girls as they climbed into bed, performing all of the voices and making them giggle.  And the day my son and I drove a golf cart clear across four fairways on a blistering afternoon in Phoenix, laughing like loons.  And the lunchtime phone call when I learned I had cancer.  And the day I watched my father-in-law being taken out the front door of his home for the last time.  And the mornings when I open my eyes to see the most beautiful face in the world beside me.

Life is happening, even when we fail to realize it, appreciate it, or notice it.  Some of the greatest moments occur on the most otherwise lackadaisical days.  John Lennon is quoted as saying, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

But there is no “other.”  There’s only here.  There’s only where, and with whom, you are now.  This moment is all that matters.

To quote from another favorite film, “Dead Poets Society,” the prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams instructs his young charges, “Carpe diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

Your life, no matter how much or little may be in your checking account, is indeed extraordinary.  It’s worth remembering that whatever situation you may be in, right now you are living the life that someone else is dreaming of living.  I finally connected those dots in my head and heart.

So I plan to appreciate this day, this life, this moment.  Because, as Moonlight Graham realized as a country doctor, long after his playing days had ended, this is the only day.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes


By Tim Hayes

A comedian I saw on TV not long ago did a full five minutes on sleep, and how ridiculous it would sound to aliens trying to understand us earthlings.

“Okay, so you mean that these creatures, the very top of the food chain around here, with brains that can outperform any other form of intelligence, need to completely – COMPLETELY – shut down for one-third of their existence, just to remain functional?”

“Well…yes, General.”

“Great!  This will be a piece of cake!  We attack at dawn!  No, wait…we attack at midnight!”

Doctors, your mother, hell, even Arianna Huffington in her book “The Sleep Revolution,” all agree that eight uninterrupted hours of sleep remains an essential element in mental, emotional, and physical health.  Ha!  Talk about comedians!  Now THAT is funny!

According to Gallup, 59% of Americans get seven or more hours of sleep at night, while 40% get less than seven hours. Those figures are largely unchanged from Gallup polls in the 1990s and 2000s.  Americans on average, though, slept much more in the 1940s.  Americans currently average 6.8 hours of sleep at night, down more than an hour from 1942.

They got more sleep in 1942.  Think about that.  The U.S. had just entered World War II.  The spread of Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism had yet to be reversed, much less defeated.  D-Day and the invasion of France was still two years off.  Nobody knew when or how this global cataclysm would end – or if it ever would.

And yet Americans still got more sleep than we do today.  How is that possible?

I blame the iPhone, an out-of-whack economy, and the twisting of priorities across this society.  Stress makes people wrecks, both outwardly and within.  The physiological effects of stress actually reach down to cellular level, making us sick, constricting blood flow to the brain and other parts of the body.

The absolute worst thing anybody can do at night before trying to go to sleep is the one thing most people continue to do with regularity – watch and listen to the news.  Local news in particular, where every forecast emanates from the SEVERE WEATHER CENTER, every snowstorm rivals Armageddon, and the fate of your neighbors – or even YOU – lies at the mercy of druglords and roving bands of heavily armed marauders, just around the corner.

Then there are the political ads.  Good grief, no wonder we can’t get a solid night’s rest!

Personally, I love to sleep.  If I had my druthers, I would take a two-hour nap each afternoon, just like my rhetorical hero, Winston Churchill.  That crafty old bloke religiously took a London siesta from 4 to 6 pm., then took a second bath of the day, ate his dinner, and worked until well after midnight – from the Battle of Britain to Yalta and right up to the day he fell asleep and never woke again.

But the modern pressures of business, family, friends, and community involvement obligations tug and pull at us all, sapping our energy, fraying our nerves, limiting our rest, shortening our lives.  Wouldn’t it be worth the effort, though, to stop and think about all that?  Why do we feel the need to move so fast?  To take on so much?  To push and reach and climb until we collapse?

The mind can be so much smarter than the brain.  The brain cracks the whip, setting goals, insisting on striving beyond ourselves, using fear and stress to keep us running on that metaphorical treadmill.  The mind, however, remains smart enough to either temper those impulses, or to simply shut the body down entirely in self-defense.

Is that any way to live?  Where’s the balance?  Where’s the fun?  Where’s the perspective?

We have some crazy people running the world these days, make no mistake, but they said the same thing in 1942.  And the situation had become a lot worse for that generation that it has for ours.  Still, they found a way to get their proper rest, even amid the madness.  Old Churchill, too.

We ought to do the same.  It couldn’t hurt.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes

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!”


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