Posts by Michael Riddell

A student of exploring life.

Stage Performance

So, here I am standing next to the stage.  The twelve wooden stairs that lead up to the old, well-worn timber platform seem like they go into the sky.  The stage door is closed, for now.  As I survey the crowd I see that nearly the whole town is here to watch my performance.  It is quite early in the day for this much anticipation.  Who am I to garner this much attention?  I wonder if I will give them what they expect.  The energy is radiating from the buzz of whispered voices in attendance for my show.

The man in the nice black suit stands on the stage worrying over the preparations.  The concerns crease his face at the sides of his mouth when he is not talking.  The glint of sunlight flashes off the fancy star-shaped pin on his lapel and into my eyes below.  To his side stand Judge Parker and a small crowd of local VIPs who have secured their special places on the stage so they may enjoy what I bring today. A handful of stagehands whir about as they follow the instructions and commands given.  It is quite the process to prepare for such a simple show.

The time draws near for me to climb those stairs and stand bare in front of that crowd for my performance.  I look out into the flow of faces, some familiar, some not.   Just before I mount the first step I catch the eyes of my Jenny.  She is near the back of the audience.  Her face fills with emotion for me.  I see what looks like worry, fear, and even some pride.  I do this for her.  She is the love of my life and makes me a better man.  Her father, the man above me in the black suit, knows nothing of our love. As some fathers are wont to be, he is quite protective of her, and rightfully so.  Even after all of his restrictions and protections, however, she still found her way into my arms and my heart.

One of the stagehands calls to me.  Showtime.  He asks me to come stand next to the man in the suit.  As I take each stair, it feels like my boots are made of lead and mired in wet clay earth.  I wring my hands in front of me.  Am I ready for this?  My world slows down and I am conscious of every intake of breath as my chest becomes tight.  By the fourth stair, I say a short prayer that God, if he is listening, will bolster my spirit for this undertaking.  As I reach the stage I can taste the dust in the air from the stirring crowd, the slight tinge of acid rising from the knot in my stomach, and the sickly metallic taste of iron in blood from where I worried a small hole in my lower lip.

Everything is almost ready.  I stand in front of the stage door.  My performance is imminent.  The man in the suit is addressing the crowd with a booming, baritone voice.  My heart races.  In a flash, I think of my dead parents.  What would my mother think of my performance today?  Would she stand in the audience with the hot morning sun overhead to see her boy?  Am I my father’s son?  I barely notice the stage hands around me as they make ready.

My introduction draws to a close and I look down at the timbers of the stage.  They are sturdy and strong, made from very old trees.  The hinges on the stage door are free of rust and well oiled.  I am ready for this.  This is my time.  My guts turn and beads of sweat drip down the small of my back.  Jenny’s eyes go big as I step onto the stage beside her unknowing father.  As he finishes speaking to the crowd, he slowly turns to me.  In a low voice he says, “Son, you ready?  You deserve this.”  I nod slightly at his affirmation as I look squarely into his sun-creased face.  It is my time.

I take a firm, deliberate step forward and survey the whole of the crowd. So many expectant faces here for me. All here for me.  The man in the suit moves off to the side by the VIPs. I find Jenny one last time in the sea of faces.  I wink at her with a slight smirk on my face.  She always makes me smile and feel a bit more at ease.  Then, I take a very deep breath.  I feel my chest swell.  My body stresses the buttons on my overcoat.  With that breath, I turn my head and nod again at the man in the suit. Showtime.  It is all up to me now.  I feel the knot in my stomach drop away as the stage door opens. Momentarily, I am weightless.  A snap thunders in my ears.

The show is over.  I perform perfectly.  The show is over.  From the thick hemp rope, my body slowly swings in the dusty shadow of the sturdy gallows stage.

Of Hope And Happiness On A Sunday

Flying Blind

Meeting someone new
Enjoying each other’s company
Feelings of friendship forming

The thought that a person
Can feel love towards another,
Can accept another,
And can create a friendship
That is as meaningful
As any other

In true friendship there is love
A love that, if it is not hindered
Could found a firm relationship
And when it is controlled,
There is a bond formed
That will keep the two friends
In touch for life.

Songs On A Plane

This happened to me on a return trip to New Orleans after visiting a good friend in Washington D.C. for a weekend.  I absentmindedly wrote it in a note on my phone thinking that I would revisit it later when I got home and only recently rediscovered it this week there at the bottom of my list of random notes and grocery lists.  It is a theme that I have struggled with for about three decades.  The challenge for 2018 is to embrace both sides of this coin and try to accept my heartbreaks while also to living my life to the fullest when possible.

May 14, 2017
As I fly home, my music plays on shuffle in my noise-canceling headphones.  The first song arrives during takeoff and is “Empty Promises” by Black Label Society.  It’s a dark, sad, metal anthem from their latest album, “Catacombs of the Black Vatican.”  Settling into the instrumentation and the guitar flourishes of Zakk Wylde, I start to read my book.  As the next song rolls up, I immediately lose all focus on my book and laugh out loud in the plane because the follow-up song is “Clouds” by Zach Sobiech.  There are likely no other two songs in my music library as opposite in style, music, and message than these.  Zakk Wylde sings to me of empty promises and destruction of trust, while Sobiech’s song is that of celebrating love and to keep living life to the fullest after the loss of a loved one; in this case, himself.  It is a hopeful song he wrote for his girlfriend as he faced a terminal cancer at age 18.

In a greater view of my own life, these two selections are so pointedly symbolic of the stark dichotomy playing throughout my brain and body in every aspect I face daily.  I have a constant tug to choose one option or another in my words, my actions, my emotions, and even my thoughts. It is a battle I do not always win or choose the best side.
Side Note:  Only now today did I realize that both songs are from a variation of a Zakk/Zach.  Weird.

We Need To Talk

No, this is not looking back at that time when your ex-girlfriend said this moments before she crushed your soul.

I want to talk about another epidemic that borders on psychopathy.  I am talking about people who drink Diet Coke.  They are insatiable, persistent, and possibly clinically insane.

As a restaurant server, there are plenty of stereotypes that exist for one reason or another, but this is one that has always befuddled me.  It is almost as if the chemicals in Diet Coke change a person’s brain function.  Here is a typical interaction:

Me: (Addressing the table and turning to seat 1…) Hi, my name is Mi—
Seat 3: Diet Coke!
Me: Alright. (as I type the drink in on my tablet…  *btw, we fancy at our restaurant* )  My name is Michael.  Would anyone else like something to drink?
 Seats 1,2,4: Coffee, water, Coffee AND water, etc.
Me: Great!  (tells daily specials before I leave.)
**I go make the drinks and return to the table.  Drinks meet the appropriate guests and straws are placed on table.  I turn to address Seat 1 to ask about their food order—
Seat 3: (Apparently trying to suck the ice cubes through the straw…) Can I get some more Diet Coke? (Rattles empty glass in the air at me.)
Me: (Trying to suppress the urge to punch them violently in the throat because I have not even left the table yet.) Yes, of course.
**I get the food orders for Seats 1-2.  Turn to Seat 3, shoving down the impending personal rage for what I know is about to happen.
Me: And for you?
Seat 3: Oh, let me see…I’m just not sure.  There’s just so much on the menu!  (10 seconds of staring uncomfortably at the guest pass. Slowly.) Can you skip me and get the next person?
**Gets Seat 4 order in 0.3 seconds because they are a normal human who understands how restaurants work.  Returns to Seat 3.
Me: (way too chipper and smiling) Made any decisions yet? (knowing full well this psychopath will not have a clue about food for 5 more minutes because their brain is too low on vitamin DC, having gone longer than 30 seconds without a fix.)
Seat 3: I’m just not sure.  Can you go get me some more Diet Coke and I’ll try to have an answer by the time you get back?
Me: (Internally: NOOOO, YOU CRACKHEAD!  THAT IS NOT HOW THIS WORKS!!!) Yes, of course I can.
**Meanwhile, two more tables have arrived in my section and they all deserve the proper attention expected for our guests, but I am now held hostage in server limbo due to this crazy person.  So, another small layer of stress is building within me because now I have to rush this refill of crack soda for this person and still get a food order, all while my other two unsuspecting tables perceive that they are now waiting on me.  It is the restaurant equivalent of someone blocking both lanes of traffic while trying to make a left turn at a busy intersection that is clearly marked “No Left Turn.”

Now, there are plenty of things that happen in the restaurant environment that may annoy most people, but I have done this for a long time and most of those things are lost on me now.  The restaurant industry is definitely not for everyone.  I have seen hundreds of servers come and go for one reason or another.  After all these years, the Diet Coke drinker, however, is a constant thing that seems to eat at my soul whenever it happens.  It is odd.  You immediately know that you will refill that empty, rattling glass at least fifteen times in the next twenty minutes while the coffee drinking friends at the table, who are more commonly considered the caffeine addicts in society, may need two or three refills for the duration of the meal, and that will slow down every other guest interaction and server responsibility you may have for the next hour.  The only answer is to bring a new Diet Coke any time you are returning to anywhere near that table to pre-empt the crazy sitting there.

I know it may seem small, and yes, it is part of the job.  It is a phenomenon that I cannot explain and it perplexes me every time it happens.  I simply ask that if you see your friends do this, help them seek treatment or keep them at arm’s length in your life because they may be hiding bodies under their houses or in their back yards

IPSD 2018

IPSD: International Pipe Smoking Day is every year on February 20th.  While I celebrated late that evening, I am a week late in writing this post.  I wanted to indulge earlier in the day, but life got in the way.  There were responsibilities which needed my attention.

Pipes and pipe tobaccos are a hobby that I acquired my first year of being in the Army.  That was, shockingly, fifteen years ago now.  Some buddies in my unit at Ft. Bragg, NC wanted to go to the cigar bar every once in a while for drinks and smokes.  At that point in my life I had only ever smoked a few cigars in my life and nothing else, not even a single cigarette.  I knew that I did not mind cigars, but I also did not particularly care for them as a pleasure either.  The largest dislike was the ashtray taste in my mouth the next morning.  So, while wandering the local mall in Fayetteville, I stumbled into a store called The Tinder Box.  It’s a franchised chain found across the country filled with tobacco goods and knick-knacks like carved chess boards and inlaid wooden boxes.

That was when my buddy and I decided that we each needed to buy a pipe and see if that would bridge the gap for our group of friends at Happy Hour.  It did; maybe a little too well.  I quickly found enjoyment in discovering the different shapes, textures and materials of tobacco pipes as well as the seemingly thousands of types of tobacco.  It stayed a fairly small hobby in my life for about the next five years as my time in service came to a close.  Both of my deployments to Iraq had a trusty pipe or two along for the ride.  It is something I enjoyed sparingly and at odd times of inspiration.  Many times it could be a month or two before the light bulb blinked on and my brain said, “Oh yeah! I should smoke a pipe today.”

Now, today, fifteen years later, That bulb flickers on a little more often, but still sparingly compared to the other people I have met in the community.  About six or seven years ago I realized that I had gone the entire summer, which is much longer in Mississippi, without visiting my box of pipe tobaccos.  I ended up throwing out a handful of really dry and stale tobaccos then, for good measure, cleaned out the few pipes I had.  To scratch the itch, I went to a local strip mall tobacco shop next to the Winn-Dixie grocery store and purchased a small amount of some cheaper tobacco.  That was a passable answer for my immediate dilemma, but it did not satisfy the need or urge.

Now, in 2018, I have been about four years in pipe hobby high gear.  I have purchased a handful of new and different styles of pipes.  I currently have no fewer than twelve different types of tobacco open, but properly stored in jars with labels.  I have also started a tobacco cellar in a sealed storage container with a humidity pack inside to maintain the stash for years to come.  When good sales happen, I grab a couple of brands I enjoy and throw them in there.  Some tobaccos are actually made to be aged as long as ten to fifteen years for an optimal flavor.  My enjoyment of wines and whiskeys made it very easy to understand that concept and the need for proper storage solutions.  I even purchased a good humidor and stocked it with good cigars for the times I get the weird urge or if friends are over.  I have still never smoked a cigarette, though.

One of the most unexpected parts of this endeavor is the pipe smoking community.  Many people may read that sentence and chuckle or think it’s weird.  Well, it is, but it is just as weird as any other group of enthusiasts I have come across in my time wandering this planet.  Here in New Orleans I have discovered a small Pipe Club that has been extremely welcoming group of people who are present simply for the shared enjoyment of all of the aspects I listed above.  The very first meeting I attended was a group of around twenty people of all types with every type of pipe imaginable to fit every personality.  There were at least as many different tobaccos on the tables, all open for anyone present to try.  One blend was a tobacco that is absolutely sold out in the United States, yet it was being passed around and smoked like anyone could buy it tomorrow.  Even the whiskey people are not that open to sharing their stash

Now, there is a 47-year-old tobacco store in Jackson, MS called The Country Squire.  It is fairly well-known in the community across the country.  I have always known about it from growing up in the area, but I never knew of its true popularity.  I have since been there quite a few times in the past five years.  In a twist, the New Orleans Pipe Club had just recently scheduled a trip to Jackson for that very reason.  It made me laugh at how small this world is.  Unfortunately, I was already engaged on the day of the trip, or I would have gladly attended the group fun.  It is probably better for my wallet, though, because almost every third time I enter that little building in Jackson, I end up with a new pipe or a handful of their wonderful tobaccos to smoke or store away.

So, fifteen years on, the pipe has become something fairly integrated into my life, but not an everyday need or desire.  My friends do not look at me quite as funny when I have one lit, but I still get some jibes and barbs when the right situations arise.  That is one of the hallmarks of the greatest of friends: they will gladly accept you for being you, but they will assuredly make fun of you for being you at the same time.  I will take it.  I have gained so many moments of welcome contemplation and learning while carefully packing the bowls with the tobaccos or while quietly puffing away during a brainstorming session.  It is simply a hobby I have acquired and fostered through the years.  I would not give up that life education for anything.

 

Get a Ray In Your Life

A lot can be said about good friendships.  There are just some people in this world who we meet and they stick with us.  Real friends have helped each other, fought each other, disagreed with each other, and stood by each other through myriad situations.  These friendships can happen in a week or over the past 30 years.  Some friends come into, and stay in, your life due to specific shared situations.  Many times you can be separated from your friends for weeks, months, or years, yet the next time you see them it is like hardly a moment has passed.

I have watched my father, who is a Colorado native, live in Mississippi away from his friends and immediate family my entire life.  I have also spent these 40 years watching him foster one of the most amazing friendships of which I know.  The man in the picture above is my father’s best friend, Ray.  I even share his name as my middle name.  They have known each other since high school.  They have lived through decades of joys and tragedies together.  They call each other to check in at random intervals, often to make a joke at the other’s expense.  In a financially questionable deal, they have also had a longstanding continuous bet involving the Denver Broncos season record vs. the New Orleans Saints season record.  That bet alone has created many laughs, empty wallets, and a host of jokes between the two during the seasons through the years.  I have made some very good friends through the years, but theirs has always been my gold standard.

Just yesterday I was at work and feeling a little down.  Not depressed, but unsettled with my day as it had unfolded to that point.  I managed to get off work in time to watch the 2nd half of the New Orleans Saints game with a group of my friends, of which I have known between this past year and all the way to over 30 years.  There was an immediate release of my inner funk.  I felt a catharsis and serenity while living in the moment with these people as we watched our football team try to win the game.  It made me cherish that time even more because I realized that I have the opportunity to see my friends on a fairly regular basis should I so choose.  My father and Ray have not had that opportunity.

There is not really a closing point to this because all of it is still happening.  So go find the people in your life and keep making good, deep friendships.  Play a little joke on your friends.  Buy them a 6-pack of their favorite beer for no reason, but only give them 5 because you drank one.  Foster that friendship with someone who knows you so well that they can get under your skin, in a good way, from 6 states away.  Find yourself a Ray.