Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Strong Man Looks For Work

I attended graduate school in Winter Park, Florida, which is basically Orlando. Life was good in Florida. I made amazing friends and learned a great deal. One thing that followed me to the sunshine state, however, was The Dark Cloud. It would sometimes raise its ugly head at inopportune moments, causing fits of anxiety that could only be relieved by a nice, slowly-paced trip to Wal-Mart. I suspect that many people may use Wal-Mart to relieve anxiety or to replace a therapy session or simply to just feel better about themselves. This was in the days before the website http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ existed. One visit to Walmart will confirm that your life is not nearly as bad as you probably thought it was before you entered the Store That Ate All Other Stores. Peopleofwalmart.com now provides the same therapy, unless, of course, you have seen a picture of yourself on this website. If that is the case, please, I beg you, call me. I must (a) meet you in person (b) have someone take a picture of the two of us together and (c) Friend you on Facebook. Actually, when I visit the peopleofwalmart.com I usually look with one eye open and one eye closed, cringing my body. I know it is just a matter of time before I see someone from my hometown, most likely a member of my own family on this web site. In fact, you could do an entire site devoted to the Wal-Marts of Southeastern Kentucky, in particular the family of Keith Stewart.
The Dark Cloud would also manifest itself in much larger ways than could ever be cured with going somewhere to laugh at others. On occassion, okay a lot of times, relief would require beer. Lots and lots of beer. Many times the Cloud would go to job interviews with me. In one interview, when asked what magazines I read, I went completely blank, then stammered out "Time (which I have never read to this day, Entreprenuer (nope, not read it), and The Cat's Pause." The Cat's Pause? Did that really just come out of my mouth? The Cat's Pause is a weekly newspaper that is devoted to the University of Kentucky Wildcats. I HAD read the Cat's Pause in my childhood. I had even cut out pictures of basketball stars Rick Robey and Kyle Macy and hung them on my wall when I was 9. I had not, however, seen a Cat's Pause in 20 years, and why I thought that 5 men dressed in three-piece suits from the Harris Corporation, a U.S. defense contractor and aeronautical firm, wanted to hear about it was beyond me. At least I had not told them the truth about my magazine reading habits, which included Entertainment Weekly, Mad Magazine, and The National Enquirer. I may as well have said that I read High Times and Tattoo Weekly, though, given the look on the men's faces. Ironically enough, I made such fun of Sarah Palin last year for being tripped up on the same question by Katie Couric. Touche, Ms. Palin, touche.
For another job interview, I was flown to Dallas, Texas, for a position at EDS. Don't ask me what EDS stands for, I have no idea. Thank goodness that wasn't one of the interview questions. EDS housed all the finalists in town for the job interview in their own company apartment complex. Upon arriving and getting settled into our temporary rooms, an official EDS bus was scheduled to pick us up at our door at 6:00 p.m. for the ride to headquarters for dinner and a "meet and greet." I dressed, primped, fluffed, and buffed myself into a shiny, professional looking almost-MBA and waited outside for the bus. As I saw it coming down the street, full of the other finalists, I turned to lock the door of my apartment. I fumbled with the key and dropped it. As I bent down to pick it up and I heard a horrible rip, then a slight breeze on my derriere. Yes, indeedy, my pants had split open from stem to stern. The bus was, at this point, in front of my door waiting, so I ran to its open door, and told the driver and the other 4 candidates that I would be just a minute, that I needed to go change my pants as I had ripped the ass out of the pair I was currently wearing.
The day before my interview at the Walt Disney Company, my friends Traci and Jan had driven me to the dry cleaners to pick up my interview suit. "Oh, Mr. Stewart, we been trying to call you all day," says the dry cleaner of Asian descent . "I am afraid your suit was in the fire." "THE WHAT?" "The fire, you not notice the smoke? The smell?" I had, indeed, noticed both the smoke and the chemical smell all day in the neighborhood, but had never dreamed it had been billowing from the one place in the city of Orlando that I had left my only suit to be cleaned for my big interview. I vividly remember saying to the clerk, "Let me tell you something, little man. I have a job interview tomorrow at Walt Disney, and I have to have that suit. I am interviewing for a job at the corporate office, not to play Mickey Mouse or to sell turkey legs on Main Street U.S.A. Now, I don't care if you have to go walk through that fire, YOU GO GET MY SUIT." The man whose primary language was not English politely smiled at me and replied "Yes, we call you if we find it." Something in me snapped. My language and actions, I am now embarrassed to say, got much worse and I acted out on the dry cleaner. Unflustered, the man kept smiling and nodding, saying, "Tomorrow." Finally, red-faced and defeated, I started back to the car. Traci and Jan had witnessed the entire episode from the front seat. They knew better than to ask any questions until we had driven in silence to the Orlando Ale House and had secured ourselves a pint of beer each.
The good news is that the Dark Cloud only toys with me. It just makes me work harder, makes me stronger, makes me want it more. My suit was retrieved from the fire-filled dry cleaning facility. I wore it to my interview even though it had a charred, smoky smell to it. I even got job offers from EDS and Walt Disney! So, the Dark Cloud was just playing with me. It just had to make sure that I really, really wanted those jobs!
P.S. Instead of shopping at Wal-Mart, shop locally-owned stores and use/consume locally produced items when you can, but please do have a laugh at http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Missing all the Signs

Believe it or not, I have done some pretty stupid things in my life. Feel free to take a moment if you need to, as I am sure the shock of that statement is resonating through each of you. On the grand scale of things, though, most of my "incidents" are minor, but I do have a couple Humdinger-Wow-Did-He-Really-Just-Do-That-Decisions. The one I have in mind today involves my best friend, a ton of money, friends, family, legal proceedings, and unfortunately, death.
I got married. To my best friend. To a woman. Again, take another moment if you need. First of all, let me just say that getting married to your best friend is the biggest mistake you can ever make. Why ruin a great friendship with something as fleeting and petty as marriage?!
Donna and I have been friends literally all of our lives. We grew up with the same baby-sitter, and spent most all of our first 18 years hanging out, mostly playing tennis. She was born only three months before me, a fact that I, even now as an adult, revel in. I always say that the period of time from July until October is my favorite time of the year because during these months, on paper Donna is older than I am. This fact did not go unnoticed during the planning of our ill-fated marriage, as Donna insisted that the wedding take place after October 10, so that our announcement in the newspaper would read that we were both the same age.
The reasons how and why we ended up deciding to marry each other are irrelevant. However, the Universe tried not only to give us signs not get married, but also manifested huge barriers to cancel the entire show.
Sign #1: Just a mere six months before the wedding, we received a call from the wife of the professional photographer who had been scheduled a year in advance. She informed us that he needed to cancel. Donna, being a fiery red-head and an attorney, a deadly combination, went into full rage mode. "What do you mean you are cancelling?! You can't cancel! We have a signed, legal contract." Then what seemed to me as a long list of legal terms flowed from her mouth as she paced the floor. The wife of the photographer then explained that her photographer husband had been diagnosed with some incurable disease and had only two months to live. He would not be able to photograph our wedding because he would be dead. "Well, that certainly puts things in a different light," Donna said, before giving her sympathies and adding that she expected her full deposit back.
Sign #2: Three months before the big day a small thunderstorm in the Caribbean Sea transformed itself into a monstrously huge hurricane. It headed straight for the island of St. Lucia, where the resort sat that I had just paid for a week-long honeymoon. I wasn't worried at all, though. Our visit was three months away. In three months, whatever leaves and debris that had been tossed around by the wind would be swept up by the natives and they would again be serving poolside tropical drinks with those little umbrellas in them. My travel agent left several messages on my phone, and finally, I returned the call. She said that, apparently, the devastation of St. Lucia rivaled that of Pompeii after the volcano erupted. Destruction everywhere, lives lost, chaos of every sort. "Yes, yes, yes," I said then asking the only question that I really want answered in any situation, "How is this going to affect me personally?" She explained that the resort I had reserved was no longer there. It was somewhere under water in the Caribbean, probably stretched from the Caymans to Cuba. Sigh, this was not good. However, the resort company had property in Jamaica so we could go there with an upgrade and Mother Nature's apology. All was well, signs-schmigns!
The wedding went off without a hitch, other than it snowing on our October fall wedding day, and it being one of the coldest days of the year. Looking back, I now chalk that up to Hell in fact actually freezing over. Donna and I then found ourselves, two best friends, hanging out in Jamaica. Donna would have been happy to just chill out on the beach and sip her tropical drink, but I insisted that we go on a tour to climb Dunn's River Falls, a beautiful waterfall that you could actually climb from bottom to top. Donna probably remembered our ill-fated best friend vacation to Cancun a few years earlier. I had insisted on going to see the Mayan temples in Chichen Itza. Once there, I just had to climb them, but Donna stayed on solid ground. After scaling the 78 feet-tall temple, which is very easy going up, I toured the top of the pyramid, saw the stone urn where a human heart was probably sacrificed (that is what they do in the Indiana Jones movies, at least), then I tried to get down. Fear and panic spread through my body when I realized how steep the steps were and how high up I was. Donna waved and took a couple of pictures of me, but then looked at me. I could tell it was an "OK, come on down" look. I froze. There was no way I could get off here. I didn't have the balance or coordination to do this. I then saw the thin rope that people were using to scale themselves down the pyramid. I am all for preserving historical landmarks, but at that time, I really did not see anything wrong with a nice metal handrail bolted to the 1,000 year old pyramid, perhaps even an elevator or escalator. I mean, if you are going to have people climbing up they should be able to safely get down! I then wondered how hard it would be to have the U.S. embassy send in a helicopter to pick me up from atop the pyramid. Most of the tour group had come down and were making their way back to the bus. Donna had a worried look on her face. I think she may have been looking through her backpack for the embassy phone number, but more than likely, she was just making sure she had all her belongings before heading back to the bus. Finally, I saw a lady no less than 80-years old on her butt scooting down step at a time. What a brilliant idea! With age DOES come wisdom! So I followed granny's lead and scooted down the pyramid on my butt. After that, I was no longer allowed to plan any excursions for the rest of our trip, and we spent our days on the beach sipping margaritas.
I promised Donna that nothing like that would happen this time, and she reluctantly agreed to climb the Dunn's River Falls with me. It was amazing! Beautiful and natural, other than the local people wading out at each landing offering to braid your hair or sell you a rope bracelet. At the top was the hardest part of the climb. The Falls were at full force at this point, and the guide asked us to line up boy, girl, boy, girl and to hold hands. This chain would somehow make us stronger than the water plummeting to the surface. I had always heard the saying "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and I began to be really frightened for our group. We started up and we were actually under the waterfall, which was so cool! Donna was in front of me, and a German lady was in back of me. I decided to take a long look around at the view, and in so doing inadvertently pushed my body back from the rock just a bit. I must have pushed back a little too far because I accidentally got in the way of the waterfall. With the full force of a tsunami, the water rushed down my back and into my swimming trunks, pulling the brightly colored, tropical print shorts all the way down to my ankles. At first, I didn't notice it, but then I felt something odd about what was touching the rock in front of me, and as the lady behind me said something in German I looked down at her. What I saw was my very untanned butt right in her face. I was actually mooning her! At this very moment, the line started moving up again. I was stuck, if I lifted my leg, my shorts would come all the way off and be waiting for me at the bottom of the falls, or found and sold by one of the locals trying to earn a buck. I tried to pull my hand away from Donna's. This being the last big push, she was not about to let go of my hand, probably thinking I would need her help in getting to the finish line. Over the rush of the water I finally yelled "Let GO!!" and jerked my arm away, breaking the human chain, but allowing me to pull my pants up.
After making it to the top and explaining to Donna why I had to break the chain, I tried to walk over to the German lady to apologize. When she saw me coming, she said something that I couldn't understand and turned and briskly walked away with her group. I am sure it had something to do with me being an American, and not that I had given her a moon shot, and perhaps a full monty, I am not sure.
Overall, my best friend and I only stayed married a year or so. We are still best friends, and we now just laugh about it, and wonder how we missed all the signs. She has recovered from her year of living under the Dark Cloud and has married a great guy, who is one of my besties, and has a wonderful child, who I like to think of as my own (though, not in a creepy, Lifetime movie way). I have also moved into my own true self, and am now inflicting the Dark Cloud on Andy, and my two innocent dogs, Duke and Dudley.
The moral of this story is to watch for signs. The Universe will provide them to you. Oh, and never, ever marry your best friend.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Taste of Leslie County

Wow! I am a lucky, lucky man! Tonight was the Taste of Leslie County, a fundraiser for the Leslie County Chapter of the American Cancer Society. The way that the event works is that anyone or any group can enter a dish, appetizer to dessert, and any and everything in between. Then people pay $10 to come and sample some of the best cooking east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon line. A few weeks ago, the organizer of the event asked if I would be a judge.
I was thrilled! Of course I would be a judge! My parents and other family members had attended and participated in the event in prior years and had all talked about how much fun it was and all the great food that was available for sampling. All except Dad, who's famous BBQ did not win Best Meat one year. He holds a grudge, still has hurt feelings, and let's just say it, is bitter. Which could have led to the near disaster in the Stewart family home this afternoon. Here is what went down...
One of my Mom's friends stopped by my parent's house to ask what she and Dad were making for the event tonight. Apparently, Dad had agreed and signed up to participate this year, but then forgot to tell Mom, and then, in turn, forgot about it himself. I chalk it up to the Great BBQ debacle of '08 (see above, bitter I tell you), but Mom through gritted teeth attributed it to his old age and senility. Either way, Mom had about two hours to throw together a dish for 200 people to sample.
All this took place before I arrived from Lexington. As I walked into my folk's house, things looked askew. On top of Dad forgetting to tell Mom about the dish, the entire plumbing in the kitchen had decided to pick today to 'follow the light" into the great plumbing unknown. What was known was that a lot of dishes, mixing bowls, and pans were piled high on the counter, and Mom was standing at another counter stirring not one, but two, crock pots full of meatballs and talking to herself. She was trying to decide what she would call her meatballs. She ran down the list of ingredients, and I thought to myself, "How about calling them 'whatever was in my pantry that might make a sauce to throw on meatballs at the last minute'?" I, of course, knew better than to suggest that, and agreeably shook my head to her "Sweet and Sour" meatball suggestion.
Crisis averted, we made our way to the Leslie County High School cafeteria for the event. The only residual from the afternoon fiasco was that at the table for Mom's Sweet and Sour Meatballs was a sign reading Eugene Stewart, my fathers name, and no mention of my Mom. But Mom handled it like a true Southern woman: she asked someone for a marker, then marked through the word Eugene,with seemingly a lot of force, and wrote Ronnie Carol above it. Martha Stewart, watch out. Ronnie Carol Stewart can solve any crisis!
After I got there, I realized (after someone told me) that not only was I a judge, I was the ONLY judge. There was also the fact that the judge was supposed to be secret. Now, I was not aware of this fact or I would have never posted the status "I HAVE BEEN ASKED TO BE A JUDGE AT THE TASTE OF LESLIE COUNTY THIS FRIDAY NIGHT" on Facebook Wednesday of this week. How embarrassing!
I realized as the only judge to this event exactly how much food would need to be eaten. Never one to back down to a challenge, I started in on the food, working my way slowly from the appetizers, to the salads, etc. At first, I thought I should do this like the judges do on the Iron Chef or at least Throwdown with Bobby Flay. I analyzed texture and the complexity of the taste. Then I decided "to hell with it" and started pigging out. I ate. And ate. And ate. And ate some more. If I couldn't remember exactly how that chicken and dumpling dish tasted, I went back for another bite. If I narrowed down the side dishes to the scalloped potatoes and fresh green beans, I went back for more. I was a machine.
When Mrs. Sizemore, the organizer, asked for my list, I could barely speak. I mumbled out a few items, pointed at the rest. She somehow deciphered what I was saying, announced the winners, and gave out ribbons. I just sat there and thought about how I would get myself (a) out of that school cafeteria table (remember those?!) and (b) all the way out to my car.
I made it back to my parents, so all ended well. Dad didn't ask if we had fun, but none of us really could have told him. We were all too full. So, now that I am all fat and sassy from the evening, I will settle in for a long Spring nap. That burns calories, right? Think Hyden has a Bikram yoga studio?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Gas Cap Will Get You Everytime

I hope everyone had a great weekend! I had a fairly productive one. I did a lot of things around the house, and finished up reading a great book (The Help). One thing that I did not do, that I probably should have, was get the oil changed in my car. I am sure that the car is way over due for a maintenance check-up. The problem is that Andy is out of town, and I flat-out refuse to take a vehicle in for service. Here is why...
I am not a big "car guy." Don't get me wrong. I appreciate a nice sports car, but I couldn't tell you a Lamborghini from an Infiniti. Here are the requirements for my car: be attractive, at least on the outside; be reliable, I can't be taking it in for service or repairs; and my newest need, an On-Star or similar feature, so I can call for help at any given moment, or the car can call for me when I am in accident. If you have read my earlier posts, you probably understand why I need this feature.
I did once, however, love a car. I had an unabashed love affair with my 1998 red BMW Z3. It was a sporty, 2-seat convertible that fit me like a glove. Our love was true and deep. I even took it in for regular check-ups, and it took me for long drives at sunset.
The incident that scarred me so deeply I can no longer take my vehicles in for service happened during my Z3 days. I was a young 20-something yuppy in Daytona Beach living the good life. Or as Sophia Patrillo of the Golden Girls would say, "Picture it, Daytona Beach 1999. A young man, full of nothing but himself and last night's dinner, kept the highways hot in his smoking red BMW convertible." I was living large, and was probably a bit on the cocky side of the attitude scale. One day I noticed that my "check engine" light was lit on the dashboard, and I immediately panicked. I did what every young, professional hot-shot did when his "check engine" came on...I called my parents. "Take it in to the dealer," says my Dad. Well, I didn't have time for that. I was a mover and shaker! I needed to go! But then, I started smelling gas inside the car. Gasp!! I called home again. "Take it in to the dealer," Dad says. I ask to talk to Mom. "Take it in to the dealer, honey," Mom says. I give up. Obviously, they are not taking the hint, and they are not driving down to Florida from Kentucky to fix this for me.
I suck it up and take my car into the dealership myself, sure that with such a strong gas smell inside the car, I am going to burst into flames at any minute. I drop the car off, and get a loaner for the day. When I come back that afternoon, the guy tells me, "Oh Mr. Stewart, it was nothing at all. It was just that your gas cap wasn't screwed on correctly." Having no clue what that meant, I said, "Great! Is it fixed? Can I see the car? When will it be ready?" He looks strangely at me and hands me the keys and points to my Love and tells me it is ready to go home. I was so relieved! Life was good.
The very next time I filled my car up with gas, the same thing happened. Appalled, I took the car back into the dealership, bypassing my parents lame attempt at help. I told them that the same thing was happening, and then stressed to them all the fact I COULD SMELL GAS. Maybe they didn't understand me the first time. I would think that would be a red flag of warning to a mechanic. Sigh. I come back later that afternoon to pick up the car. The guy tells me, "Yes, Mr. Stewart, it was really nothing. It is just your gas cap not being on correctly." Now, I am a very patient person. I wanted to say something mean, maybe tell him I had been in before a few weeks ago with the same problem, but I didn't. I held my tongue. I just said, "Did you fix it?" He looked at me, smiled, and said "Yes." I left in my car, and by the time I was home, I was happy again. Life was good.
Imagine my horror, when just two weeks later, after filling up the car with gas (I am still not picking up on the trend), the "check engine" comes on and I can smell gas in the car! Rage filled me! I was not having my car treated this way! What kind of Popsicle stand was this BMW dealership?! I rushed the car in for repair. I very plainly told them that this was the third time I had been in and that I would wait there for my car to be fixed. Of course, it took them all of 5 minutes, and the guy comes out and says that it is ready. This just fueled my fire. I was being patronized by these people! I asked to speak to the service manager. When he came out, I told him the entire story, and that this was the third time I had been in with the same problem. He says, "Mr. Stewart, it is the gas cap. It wasn't screwed on correctly." I had had enough. I look him straight in the eye and say, "I know what the problem is, what I don't know is if you can fix it." He stares at me, not sure what his next move will be. I then go in for my kill, "Am I going to have to bring in my car every time I get gas?" He then starts trying to explain, "You know when you get gas, you take off your gas cap to put the nozzle in the car? When you put it back on, you need to line up....." That was all I heard. Realization hit me. The GAS CAP was not a part of the car that was under the hood and/or trunk of my car. It was the gas cap that I used. All this time, I had not lined up my gas cap correctly. That was the problem. I was the problem! I could see his mouth moving but couldn't hear any words as I fumbled for bag and keys. "I understand. Thank you," I think I muttered on my way out. As I pulled out, my face as red as my car, the service manager and the service guy who had been screwing my gas cap back on for me both waved goodbye.
That was the last time that I took my car, any car for that matter, in for service. I just can't do it. But, I am very careful now to line up the ridges on the gas cap correctly when I fill up with gas!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I am the world's most unhealthy health fanatic. I devour all knowledge of health, fitness, diet, and exercise. I can tell you how many carbs are in a piece of pizza and how many points a pop-tart has in it. I subscribe to Clean Living magazine. Heck, I am even a vegetarian (most of the time; pay no attention to the KFC box in my garbage can, I was weak and broke over, don't judge). I know the latest workout fads, and have even tried a few of them. I have had a couple wonderful personal trainers over the years, both in Florida and in Kentucky. I try to only eat organic food, and am even considering the vegan lifestyle. Yet, here I sit WELL over my medically-recommended weight controlling my blood pressure and cholesterol with pills. WTF?!
I know how to do every weight machine in the gym (yes, I belong), have a treadmill in my house that will allow you to air dry 20 shirts if they are all hanging on hangers, and own a Wii-fit, aka the 2-faced devil. The Wii-fit says it is your friend and is going to help you become the person you want to be, then after choosing a cute little avatar that you think resembles yourself, you step on the scales and the thing grows until it is portly and monstrously round. It may as well have a pig nose on it! As soon as that happened, I knew my relationship with the Wii-fit was doomed. I have no desire to see my little fat avatar-self on my TV screen. But, I digress. My real point here is that I am obsessed with healthy living, but also obsessed with being lazy and eating junk food. I will no doubt talk A LOT in the coming weeks about my experiences working out, buying and eating organic food, watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (awesome show), etc. Just know that I do try these things, and maybe some day my thoughts and actions will take hold and result in me becoming healthy. Until then, if you need to know anything at all about the above subjects, I am your man, I just don't look the part!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My First Post

Ok, here goes nothing...As a lot of my friends and family know, I have been talking about starting this blog for a long time. I have even been encouraged by a few to do it. But actually sitting down and deciding to write something is a little daunting! So on this, the first of what I hope are many posts, I would like to talk a little about what I want this blog to be. I want it to reflect my thoughts and feelings and experiences as I muddle through this great big world. If you know me at all, you know that I have many stories and a lot of, lets just say "incidents," of bad luck. By retelling some of these on here, maybe I will brighten your day or give you a chuckle. I also want the blog to be a forum for all of us to help each other with information, advice, or just observations. Keep in mind that I am completely new to this, so my page and layout will hopefully get better as time goes on! With all that being said, I want to explain the name of my blog. One day after shopping at Wal-Mart, I was pushing my buggy full of great deals to my car in the parking lot. I pushed the buggy cart into a pot hole and somehow the force of the impact actually flipped my cart completely over. All my great deals were lying on the pavement trapped under the cart, with the exception of the eggs and milk, which were escaping by way of oozing out. Embarrassed, I scrambled to right-side the cart (and reattach its wheel) and then pick all of my items up and try to get them into my car. After I did this, I did what any grown man would do, I called my mother. Her only comment was, "Keith, it takes a strong man to live your life." This particular phrase from Mom sort of stuck. Over the years, my friends picked up the quote and often repeat it to me. When it came time to name my blog, it was natural I would use Strong Man in the title! The cup of tea part just makes me sound fancy and sophisticated (something I like to pretend to be). That being said, welcome to my world! Let's have fun!