Monthly Archives: April 2014

God, Family, Prayer, and Fried Chicken

My daddy told me the two things that can end a friendship quick or get you horsewhipped are talking religion and politics.  He said both are inspired by man, judged by man, manipulated by man, and man will tar and feather you if you dare stray too far from the collective views of either.  Therefore, in today’s world where manipulation often seems to be a mainstay of politics and religion, I have chosen to ignore his good advice and weigh neck deep into muddy waters in which a more sensible man would strive to avoid.  Sensible or not, when it comes to sharing my opinion, my attempts at wit or even seriousness sometimes result in stepping, falling, or diving head first into controversy.  I can assure you though that controversy is merely a byproduct of my aversion to any advice other than my own, and that my opinions are basically harmless and generally fall in line with the observations of a more sensible and cautious man.

From the time I was a boy, I have always put faith in God above religion since religion is often agnostic at best, and I have always put common sense above politics since politics is a befuddled mess at best.  However, I do not plan to belabor either point since I doubt very seriously if God intended life to be about religion or politics.  He is far more interested in mankind learning to be less judgmental and more human toward each other.  To that end, he made animals pretty much self-sufficient since he knew he would be spending a lot of overtime refereeing humans.  I have never heard animals, such as dogs and cats, complain about being short changed though; they are as happy as a two-tailed skunk to have been spared the torment of humanity.  They do not have to answer to the IRS, pay rent or a house payment, worry about money for their puppies’ braces, wind up in divorce court, worry about who is telling the truth – Fox or CNN, worry about escalating gas prices, worry about where to send their little ones to school, or any other number of worries that torment humans daily and throughout their lives.  That is why you will find more dogs and cats in heaven than their masters.  Dogs and cats truly possess the key to Heaven; they are innocent to a fault, at peace with who and what they are, and non-judgmental.  I have known dogs and a few cats that no doubt made it to heaven based on those merits, but like Mark Twain I am inclined to believe humans enter heaven more as a favor than merit.

In spite of odds often stacked against them, humans never stop trying to claim their Heavenly home, especially in the South.  Take a drive through any town in Mississippi or any other Southern state and you will most likely find a Walmart, a bank, a dollar store, a convenience store, and a Churches Fried Chicken.  What you are guaranteed to find in a Southern town is a church on just about every corner.  In fact, churches probably out number all other buildings five to one.   From small wood frame white structures to super structures of steel and masonry that cover several football fields, churches are readily available throughout Southern communities to provide the people of God sanctuary from the world and a direct connection to Heaven.

The church is the religious, social, and political center of the Southern community.  Recipes, gossip, and political advice are exchanged every Sunday morning on the steps of the church house.  Every aspect of a Southerner’s life is influenced by the church.  More than likely, if you grew up in the South, your first date was with someone you met at church, your first real boyfriend or girlfriend was someone introduced to you at church, your first marriage was someone you proposed to or proposed to you from your church, and your first divorce was caused by someone who attended the church down the street.  Also, when it comes to the church, Southerners understand that attending church regularly not only keeps them in touch with God, but it greatly increases the likelihood that they know everybody and everything about everybody.

Just as the church greatly influenced a young man or young woman’s first significant other, the church also more than likely has greatly influenced their politics.  The biggest political influences in the life of a true Southerner are his grandfather, father, Sunday school teacher, and pastor.  Now I am not neglecting the contributions of mothers and grandmothers, quite often they are just as influential in the family politics as the men, but they generally tend to be a little more subtle in their approach to politics.  It is because of this subtleness that Southern women are often given credit as being instrumental in the development of sneaky politics as an art form.  To be brutally honest, although the men often pray in church the loudest and politically pound their chests with the virility of a Congo gorilla, when mama speaks, the men listen whether it is about politics, religion, or mowing the lawn.

It can be argued that there are two churches in the South – the one reigned over by God and the Bible, and the one ruled over by the Constitution of the United States.  However, in reality there is no separation between the two for most Southerners.  Although many people believe the Constitution of the United States calls for the separation of church and state, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the United States Constitution nor does the separation of religion and politics actually exist in the South.  Throughout the South, religion and politics are closely joined at the hip, and nowhere is that more evident than in the pews and parking lots of Southern churches come Sunday morning.  It is often said, the road to getting elected in the South is through the pulpit.   Simply put, more politics are discussed and political decisions both local and state are finalized in church parking lots on Sunday morning than take place in all the Southern capitals on a daily basis combined.  You might say, the politics of the South are often conceived and baptized between the pews of the church house.

Although church and politics are crucial to the culture of the South, total love and respect for God and family are the glue that holds the South together.  Anyone who thinks otherwise was not raised by a card carrying Southern mama and daddy.   In the South, where children are taught to pray before they can talk, even fried chicken and guns come in second to God and family.  That is not so strange when you consider Southerners pray before they sleep, they pray when they wake, they pray over every meal, they pray before every meeting and gathering, they pray at ball games (to hell with the American Civil Liberties Union), and often they pray about praying.   Prayer is a way of life in the South.  It is a distinguishing characteristic of a true Southerner who is taught from birth to forgive but never forget, and to always keep those who offend or wrong him in his prayers least they be forgotten.

Yes, prayer is extremely important in the South.  Being brought up in a Southern Baptist home, I was brought up to believe that every prayer is an opportunity to deliver a non-believer to salvation, and therefore, every prayer is a mini sermon with your eyes closed.  Of course, using the word “mini” in relationship to religion in the South is a contradiction of epic proportions.  A prayer in the hands of a well-trained and articulate “good ole boy” Southerner can be an artistic marvel of rhetoric steeped in the juice of bread and butter pickles, or simply put, just about as long-winded as a two day hurricane.  That is why if you have the slightest inkling that a Southern Baptist is about to break into prayer, you should make like a librarian and find a good book and settle in for the evening while they pray.  Now, I am in no way trying to poke fun at something as serious as prayer; I am simply stating that sometimes the “good ole boys” do not know when to stop.

For a Southerner, prayer is a way to reach out to those around them, a way to announce to the world the severity of their religiousness, and a way to proclaim kinship to God.  However, even in the South, prayer has changed dramatically over the years.  When I was growing up in rural Mississippi, people prayed with reverence and awe before God.  Today, they casually pray like they are talking to Uncle Jeb or Aunt Martha.  They carry on prayers or conversations with God as though they are talking to a good buddy they just met in Walmart.  Now do not get me wrong, I am not saying you won’t find God in Walmart.  With the way tithing is going in churches nowadays, even God has had to embrace a rollback or two.  Prayer is indeed important in the life of the Southerner, and it should never be taken lightly, but a little more emphasis on reverence certainly would not hurt.  Getting caught up in the Holy Spirit is one thing, but carrying on like God is your “best bud” may be taking the spirit down a path it was not intended to go.  Although intentions may be good, with the casual sometimes overly enthused theatrical way some people pray, I can envision them in the hereafter walking up to God and giving him a high five.  I do not believe that would go over well at all.

Religious beliefs in general should never be taken lightly.  They are important to Southerners who are often quick to share their beliefs, and sometimes even quicker to condemn those who dare not believe as they do.  God is the commander-in-chief of the Southern way of life; he is a neighbor.  In fact, by the way some folks in the South carry on; an outsider might assume God lives in the house next door.  Who knows, in a world where many people routinely claim God speaks to them openly and directly every day, he might very well have bought a house down the street.  Not that it is impossible, but I cannot help but wonder why he would trade a mansion and streets of gold for a three bedroom brick veneer house and streets of potholes?

Nevertheless, there are Southerners who believe God lives on a Southern plantation somewhere between Jackson, Mississippi and the Mississippi Guff Coast, and as a Southerner, I must confess – despite my skepticism – that makes perfect sense to me.  You see, though I have never seen streets of gold anywhere in the South, I can truthfully say I have seen many hearts of gold throughout the South.  Southerners are among the most charitable people in the world.  Mississippi for example has the highest poverty rate of any state in the nation, yet Mississippi year after year leads the nation in charitable donations per capital income.  The Bible is clear about heaven being in the heart, and that being the case; I have no problem believing God has a mansion somewhere in Mississippi.

Fried chicken, rolling hills, sugar white beaches, sunset in the Delta, catfish and seafood buffets fit for kings, down home family values, and the most beautiful women in the world make the South a paradise like no other in the world.  A paradise celebrated every Sunday when millions of Southerners bow their heads in their church of choice to thank God for the blessing of being born Southern, and if they were not born Southern, bowing their heads to thank God for the wisdom they showed when they finally came to their senses and moved to the South.  Simply put, despite all its faults and maybe even hypocrisies, the South equals Heaven on earth!

I love the South where on Sunday you will find Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Protestants, and a handful of others with one major worry on their minds.  Will they get out of church in time to beat all the other churches to fried chicken at Miss Mary’s Cafe or steaks at the Golden Corral?  Now I am not saying Southern stomachs are in competition with the glory of God on Sunday morning, but in the South behind God and family the soulful pleasures of a plate of fried chicken with mash potatoes and gravy have been known to get overly long winded preachers run out of town.  As a people, our religious rituals may not always be exactly the same, and sometimes even our religious beliefs may vary slightly, but we are all united in our belief that God, family, prayer, and fried chicken are the cornerstones of paradise on earth – the cornerstones of the South.  Pass the gravy please.

JL

©Jack Linton, April 28, 2014

Gum Flapping: Rules of Engagement

Friday night I attended a concert in Jackson that I had been looking forward to for months. The concert was a laid back program with just the singer-songwriter with his guitar telling stories and singing requests from the audience. Except for the concert ending prematurely, it was a great night. The venue was great, and the performer did his best to put on a good show for everybody. However, the audience was more interested in socializing than they were in the show. They talked, chatted on their phones, and badgered the performer nonstop through every song the man tried to sing. The gum flapping was unending and very disruptive. To be blunt, there were people in the audience who were a disgrace to common decency. About halfway into the show, the performer had had enough, so he picked up his guitar and walked off the stage never to return. Although I was extremely disappointed, in retrospect it is hard to blame the performer. The only thing I blame him for was he allowed the inconsiderate jerks in the audience to win while short-changing his real fans.

I know this is the age of being connected and everybody has something to say, but there are times when the mouth cogs need to be disengaged. Like the concert Friday night, it is getting where it is almost impossible to attend a concert, movie, conference, or even a school event and be able to enjoy the outing without having it ruined by the constant chatter around you. Especially in concerts and movie theaters, people think nothing of talking and texting on their phones, talking with friends, and in some cases they even feel the need to bring attention to themselves by shouting at the person or persons on stage. These people are rude, self-centered, and just plain disrespectful of other people. Oh yes, I have heard the lame excuse, I paid my money, so if I want to talk to the person next to me or use my phone, I have the right. Wrong! The price of admission buys the privilege to be seated for the show, not to disrupt it with cell phones, talking with friends, or trying to weasel your way into the spotlight.

However, the biggest problem is that we enable these people to disrupt our evening. All too often, we see and hear what is happening, but we choose to ignore it. We don’t want to risk causing a scene or to offend anyone, so we tolerate it – never mind that they are disrespecting and offending us. Now to be fair, some of the people who cause such disruptions are not bad people, they just do not know any better. They were apparently born and raised in barn without a mama or a daddy to teach them how to behave in a public gathering. I truly feel sorry for them, so I really do not want to rub their noses in their inadequacies as considerate human beings. However, something needs to be done to get their attention. Therefore, I have created a set of rules of engagement for gum flappers to follow in performance venues such as concerts, movie theaters, and even school programs. Now I don’t really expect such inconsiderate people to actually do the decent thing and read these guidelines much less abide by them, but emcees and/or venue managers/producers owe it to their patrons to set the ground rules for the evening performance and announce those rules prior to the show beginning, so everyone can have an enjoyable experience. It is at least worth a try; who knows, it may actually work for some.

Gum Flapping: Rules of Engagement

1. Concerts, movies, school programs, or other venues where people go to enjoy a show are not the place to meet friends for updates on what has been transpiring in your life and their lives over the past five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Instead of going to one of these functions, please, go out to dinner together, or have a cookout at home so you can visit without being disrespectful and disruptive to others.

2. Unless your name is on the show bill as the opening act or headliner, the audience did not come to see or hear you, so keep your mouth shut during the concert. People paid their money to see and hear the show. They did not come to hear you and your friends socializing. Most venues have a lobby for people who are there to socialize and not for the show – use it! Better yet, if you are basically interested in a place to socialize, drink, and raise hell with background music, go to a bar or invite your friends to your place.

3. Understand the differences and expectations for different venues. Going to a concert where everyone is standing, dancing in the isles, and singing along with the performers at the top of their lungs is quite different than going to an acoustic set with a performer and his guitar on stage. The single performer on stage is considered to be a more intimate setting, and if you must talk, you should do as we teach children – make it short and use your inside voice.

4. Although you may think it is cool and cute to constantly interrupt the show with your misplaced wit, it only proves you are a disrespecting A-hole with no consideration for anyone but yourself.

5. DO NOT think it is cool to bring attention to yourself by constantly badgering the performer. If you think the performer is terrible that is your opinion, but you should respect the rights of the other people in the audience to form their own opinions without having to listen to your dribble.

6. The movie theater is not a place to socialize, talk on your cell phone, or text. To do so is very disturbing to patrons who paid to see and hear the movie, and yes, some movie goers even like to see and hear the previews, so if you must talk, keep it low and quick, and if your conversation is so important that it cannot come to an end when the previews and movie begins, take your conversation to the lobby. No one in the theater cares about the drama in your life; they have come to the movie to escape the drama in their lives, so shut up.

7. Finally, it is not alright to carry on a conversation at a school sponsored program when someone is speaking on the stage or a group is performing. I understand that you pay attention when your child or grandchild is on the stage, but please have a little respect for other parents and grandparents when their children and grandchildren are on the stage.

8. If you must be the center of attention, please join a local theater group, choir, or band and experience firsthand how it feels to be disrespected by selfish people in the audience. Maybe, then you will finally understand, and shut up when you attend performances of any kind.

Probably the best rule to follow is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is all about respect for one another. Maybe, if all of us practiced respecting each other a little more, the world would be a better place for all, and a frustrated artist would not have to walk off the stage. See, all he wants to do is give the best show he can possibly give, and all his fans want is a chance to enjoy the show; I hardly think that either one is too much ask.

JL

©Jack Linton, April 20, 2014

Leadership

Of my 37 years in education, I spent 21 in a leadership position (assistant principal, principal, district technology coordinator, personnel director, and assistant superintendent). During those 21 years, I continuously searched and researched for ways to improve as a leader. Sometimes I was lucky and found the answers I was looking for, but more than often I learned the answer through hard knocks and bruises. I learned many lessons about leadership, but probably the most important was that leadership is not an exact science, and there are no “silver bullets.” Believe me, I have looked relentlessly for that one special something that would miraculously transform me into the leader that everyone would die for in the heat of battle. I never found it, but yet I continued to search.

Over the years, I looked everywhere for inspiration. I read books about leadership, went to conferences to hear the leadership experts speak, and watched hours of videos about leadership. I would sit on the edge of my seat listening, hoping to catch that one magical word or phrase that would set my world on fire. However, it never failed that I would be led to the brink of finally grasping the “holy grail” of leadership only to have the golden carrot suddenly wrenched from my grasp. It was always the same; the secret the leadership gurus always promised in their promotional literature never materialized. I would sign up for a conference with a nationally recognized leader promising to reveal the secret of great leadership, I would rush to the book store to purchase the latest leadership book with the newest road map to success, or I would breathlessly watch a motivational video proclaiming I could be as dynamic and successful as the speaker in the video only to realize once the adrenalin from all the hype had subsided, that I was still me. I was not that great speaker expounding his exploits and successes from a stage in front of hundreds of people, I was not a person who could follow someone else’s road map to success, and I was not a dynamic charismatic superstar selling millions of dollars in motivational videos on leadership – I was me.

In the unlikely event, a leadership secret of some sort was revealed, it never had lasing impact. It was usually only good enough to make me feel like a somebody – like a leader – for the life of the presentation and maybe an hour or so afterwards. Ultimately, the newly discovered leadership secret enshrouded in lights and magic resulted in frustration for me. I found the high energy presentations steeped in the robes of evangelism to be entertaining, but for the most part not very practical or even sensible. The secrets that the leadership gurus made look so effortless and simple was as far as I was concerned a fabrication, a product of smoke and mirrors. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not speaking against or bashing motivational speakers on leadership or leadership books or motivational videos, I enjoy them all, and I have usually learned something from each and every one of them, but their “feel good,” “fist pounding,” “larger than life,” “awe inspiring,” formulas for success were for me little more than a “sugar rush” with little sustaining substance. Their secrets – if they actually revealed one at all – left me groping in the dark for leadership answers that were relevant to my life. Therefore, I usually left such events frustrated and wondering if a secret to leadership actually existed at all.

It took years, but I finally made the connection; I finally discovered the secret. It had been there in front of me from the beginning, but in my search for something “life changing” or “earth moving” I had failed to recognize it. What I discovered was something I had known from the beginning, but I had been too hard headed to accept as the truth. What I found was what I had feared most – there is no secret to great leadership. It is not a sword pulled from a stone. It is not hereditary. It is not an invisible magic cloak. There is nothing sacred about leadership at all; it is simply persistent hard work and common sense.

Actually, I had known this for years. My father actually broke the news to me when I was in my teens, but like most teens, I did not put a whole lot of stock in anything my father said. He taught me that you will sometimes meet people who are smarter or more talented than you are, but you should never meet someone who can outwork you. He said the only man he feared was a smart man with a work ethic, and if such a man existed and had common sense to boot, you might as well say, “Yes sir, boss,” and move out of his way. According to him, hard work and common sense were all a man needed to climb a mountain. I never knew just how wise my father was until I became a school administrator years later. Although he had never supervised more than one or two people at any one time in his life, I learned more about leadership and making decisions from him than I ever learned from any leadership conference or leadership video. He taught me that making a decision required three things: (1) knowing why the fence was built before you tear it down; (2) understanding decision making priorities – (In education, this equates to doing what is best for kids first, and taking care of everything else second); and (3) common sense.

However, in spite of what my father had to say, the same truth can be applied for him as applied to the leadership gurus – there is nothing sacred about leadership. What worked for my father may not work for anyone else, or what worked for the guy on the stage, may have little impact on the success of Joe the Principal in the real world. Therefore, leaders are left to discover mainly through trial and error what works and does not work for them. They must understand and accept that there are no shortcuts to being a good leader. However, I encourage anyone with the desire to lead to read as many books and articles as possible, attend conferences, and view as many videos as possible. Although, I highly doubt any earth shattering secrets will be revealed, it is nevertheless crucial for a leader to make leadership a learning journey, in which he or she continuously collects information, tips, and advice that will empower him or her to be a better leader.

JL

©Jack Linton, April 14, 2014

Why I Write

           I cannot remember ever waking without wanting to write, but after the exhaustive futility of a day job that consumed every waking hour, writing took a backseat to reality. As a result, for years my writing was on life support, but thanks in no small part to a vigilant muse, it remained my way of breathing. With the rise of each new morning my muse greeted me with hope and excitement, but each night she fell asleep against me devastated and defeated. Why she stayed with me as long as she did I will never know, but morning after morning, year after year, she was there for me. I woke each morning to her soft whispers, and empowered by her I made it through another day with the hope that at day’s end we would finally sit down together and visit places yet to be imagined. Over the years, from time to time we flirted with what she called the sculptor’s pen where madmen taste the immortality of ink on paper, but there was no constancy. Such was our relationship until December past she came to me weak and frail, tugging softly, pleading with me. Once again I ignored her, and if I was a romantic I would write how Sunday morning she left me, a tear sliding down her cheek, catching in the crevice of her soft censored lips. It wasn’t like that though; she was simply gone, and my breath gone with her.

           The first morning that I realized she was gone I merely shrugged knowing she would be back. The second morning without her whispers of hope and encouragement I grew concerned. When I woke to silence the third morning, I cried, but I did not cry for lost journeys that might have been, I wept for the lost comfort of her voice. Instead of writing being my sword rallying me through life, the quite delicate strands of her voice had become the strength I needed to face each new day. Without her a void entered my life that could not be filled. I was paralyzed without her. I don’t mean that I could not write, but rather I had no desire to write. The words were there, but not the motivation. I went into grieving, but I grieved not for my writing but for my muse. I did not miss writing; I missed her and our dreams of writing. I was in love with my muse and the idea of writing, and not with writing. I am sure that is what finally scared her away. She was shattered, ashamed, and saddened to know she had grown between me and my writing – that she had become a crutch for me rather than an inspiration.

           Although I did not realize it until later and even then at first I refused to believe it, a crutch is exactly what my muse had become for me. She had become my security blanket, a unique comfort that instead of inspiring me hobbled me. As long as she was with me, I had no reason to write; I found truth, comfort, and sense of accomplishment in her and not in writing. I was smitten with the air of renewal she brought to me each morning. Her voice was so sweet, pure, and encouraging, that without realizing it, I had grown afraid that writing might somehow actually silence her. If I was writing, there would be no need for her comforting presence, and if not needed she would find someone who did need her. Irrational? Delusional? Aren’t all writers at least a bit irrational and even delusional? I had become dependent on her for the wrong reasons, and over time, she came to realize that, so she left.

           It must have broken her heart to think that my foolish dependence on her had become my substitute for writing. Somehow, through no fault of hers, though no one could have ever convinced her of that, I had twisted our relationship into something that screwed with the very fabric of decency and order. As a result, I was distraught, and for days, I lay still in my bed listening to the silence of the morning. Then something happened as irrational as my love affair with my muse, I started to write!

           I felt compelled to write, good or bad. It did not matter as long as I put it on paper. I used too many adverbs, but I wanted to! Sometimes I labored over a single word and sometimes I said to hell with it. I began to realize that to really become a writer I had to write for myself and tell the world to shuck off. My main goal became to find a topic and do my best to make it interesting, to make it so succinct that it would suck the reader into believing anything and everything I had to say. The peace I found in the voice of my muse I began to find in my writing. I fell in love not with my words but with the right words coming together to tell a story that kindled an epiphany, an “ah hah” moment, or that metaphoric light bulb that flashes every now and again in someone’s head.

           I suddenly had plenty to write about. There was nothing that I could not spin whether superbly or poorly. School, politics, rubber monkeys, or even zombies would dance under my pen. The writer’s block I sometimes whined about to my muse was vanquished giving credence to her notion that writer’s block was for block heads and the dead. “There is always something to write about,” she would say, “if you know where to look.” My writing became seeded by my experiences, perceptions, beliefs, and dreams, or as my muse once told me, “All writing is fueled by the writer’s truth.” I even came to grips with the writer’s truth, my truth, not fitting the palette of all readers. However, the turning point came when I realized that regardless if a writer is a philosopher, moralist, or a liar, his intent is always to meet the needs of the writer first and the reader by chance. Anything else is contrived and a damn lie.

           As a result of my resurgent writing, I believe my muse would be proud of me. Not necessarily of what or how I write, but that I am writing. She is still not speaking to me, but if she is waiting for my feelings for her to subside before she speaks, I fear I may never hear her voice again. However, maybe it is her voice I hear when I sit down to write. I would like to think so. Through writing, I can finally breathe again, and for that and for setting me free, I must thank her, my muse, wherever she might be.

JL

©Jack Linton, April 6, 2014