The Russian Lesson

In the next room, I hear the unmistakable chatter of a foreign language.

Actually, I hear my bride, Inna, speaking Russian, which is not all that unusual as she was born and raised in the land of matryoshkas, permafrost, and never ending snow.

Inna is teaching Russian to one of my daughter’s friends, who wants to be a translator. Although she can speak a few sentences, they’re starting with the alphabet. Which of course, is a great place to begin.

My youngest is also sitting in. But she has an unfair advantage because she’s heard Russian since the day she was born from her mother and grandparents. Her grandparents have lived with us, off and on, since her birth nearly 20 years ago.

There’s been a lot colluding with Russians in my life since 1992.

The in-laws have spent most of their time in Russia, where my father-in-law works as a medical missionary.

Russian is a tough language. I can say probably five words – maybe.

My favorite Russian phrase is, “Good day (or good health) to you.”

Here’s how it looks in Russian: здравствуйте.

Pretty scary, right? Hardly a vowel in sight!

Let’s see how that looks in English letters, shall we?  Zdrastvooyte.

Don’t you need more vowels? Apparently, some languages eschew the lowly vowel.

I don’t wanna brag or anything, but it only took me 2 years of law school to learn how to spell the word eschew… and another 2 to know the meaning.

My daughters have had the blessing of growing up hearing Russian.

The in-laws speak a little English here and there.

“Paul.”  “House.”  “Why did you marry our daughter and bring her to this forsaken place?”

Easy stuff like that.

Ever since I heard a tongue other than English, probably when I was in elementary school, I wanted to be able to speak it. I hated it that others could communicate in ways that I could not.

I’ve tried to learn Spanish too many times to count, and all I’ve got is Pablo. See?

There was a time when I wanted to learn French. So, as a freshman at Jacksonville State University, I took a French class.

I mistakenly thought that because I was born in Louisiana, some Cajun French would be in my DNA.

It was not.

And my grade showed it. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

The Russian lesson is winding down. I am instructed to go to my bookshelf and retrieve books on Russian.

I bring back a few. One is titled “My first Russian reader.” It’s probably more at the later elementary stage though.

Not that I can read it.

But, like Professor Hill reminds in The Music Man, you got to know the territory (if you want to sell band instruments).

You gotta know the alphabet if you wanna read Russian.

I hope the friend takes this lesson seriously. We need more folks like her willing to learn more languages. (They tell me she already speaks French and Spanish so I am sure she’ll get Russian). I know a guy in Colorado who teaches awesome guitar building courses and he also preaches the need for Americans learning a second (or third) language. He lived in Brazil for a while and can speak fluent Portuguese.

My problem with foreign languages is that I really want to learn them, but don’t have the willingness to put in the time.

So, I’m content to listen to others as they learn from an expert.


An old house, new beginnings, and the importance of securing your horse

Baldwin Square, Satsuma, Alabama:  Before it was a beautiful park with sidewalks dotted with memorial plaques, under a canopy of oaks, moss, and home to a battalion of squirrels, there stood a small wooden house with a detached garage. Or as I liked to remember it – our horse barn.

Never mind that we didn’t have horses.

But we did have dogs who could pass for horses any day of the week in the mind of a four-year-old boy with lots of imagination.

There was no asphalt or cement for the short driveway, only fine granulated Alabama top soil baked in the afternoon sun.

It was also good for mud pies.

Behind the house sat a little one-room barber shop and beyond that, train tracks.

Or maybe the barber shop was past the tracks – it’s been a few years.

My dad hitched rides on southbound trains from the convenience of our backyard. As trains slowed to retrieve the mail, he’d hop on board and ride to Chickasaw, Prichard, or all the way into Mobile for work.

I spent most of my time with my sisters, dogs, and the front yard as it merged into 4th street.

The city post office stood right across from our house, probably a mere 20-30 yards away. I think that the house is still there today, although the Postal Service relocated the mail office all the way across Highway 43, near what used to be a neighborhood store.

I liked the old house better.

Once, as a three or four-year-old, I wandered away from the house and into the parking lot of the post office.

I say wandered, but it was only about 10 yards away.

I heard galloping.

I can’t imagine that there were many buggies left in circulation at the time, but some still non-conformists chose to travel by horse.

Here’s the story of the horse:

I’ll call him Mr. Ed. But because the young rider of the horse now has a grown son with that name, I’ll call him Speedy.

I watched as Speedy dismounted Mr. Ed, looped the rope over a chain-linked fence, and walked inside the post office.

Mr. Ed waited a few moments, tilted his head a few times, un-looped the rope, backed away from the chain-linked fence, and smiled at me, and said, “See ya…”

Or maybe he just winked.

Doesn’t matter.

One second later, he was galloping down 4th Street towards East Orange Ave.

Soon thereafter, Speedy exited the post office with his mail, but with no visible horse on which to return home.

Speedy glanced at me, somewhat accusatorily, I might add.

Did he think that I had untied Mr. Ed?

If he did, I suppose the point was moot as his horse was on the way to Gulf Shores.

He took off after Mr. Ed on foot towards the high school because, well, he had no other visible means of transportation.

The only way I know, or am reasonably sure, of the rider’s identity, is that a few years ago, I told this story to a friend.

And he told me that he was most likely Speedy, the rider who failed to properly secure his horse when he went to get the mail.

Years later, after we’d moved to the only slightly larger city of Saraland, Mr. Baldwin (for whom the park is named) demolished (or moved) that old house.

In 1982, the Baldwin family gave the land to the city of Satsuma and it now serves as a very nice public park.

In August of 1992, I brought a young Russian Princess to this place where I had a kind-of “beginning” in life. That is, my parents had moved from New Orleans to Satsuma when I was four. It’s a stretch, but work with me!

I kneeled on one knee and asked her to begin a new journey with me.

She said yes.

Our girls don’t care too much for this story, especially after the 100th retelling.

But for several reasons, I like it.

Mainly, because it reminds me of home.


Focus on the Lilies

Sunday Morning: We’re at a little church that we’ve visited several times lately. It’s really just a big country church. They’re a friendly bunch and just good people.

Nothing fake here.

There is one problem, however. And I hate to bring it up.

But …

There are several pieces of artwork on either side of the front wall, on both sides of the pulpit. It’s some kind of metal ironwork with curves and circles.

Actually, it’s a common symbol found in churches. The symbol is a fleur de lis, which is a fancy word for a lily. You’ll recognize it as the symbol that the New Orleans Saints NFL football team uses.

Geaux Saints!

Sometimes churches use the fleur de lis to refer to the Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit, or as a symbol of the Trinity.

But the lily, per se, isn’t the problem.

The difficulty here is worthy of a Sunday-afternoon-long congregational meeting to discuss. Naps would be missed, football games unseen, and meals uneaten.

So, here it is – the big problem:

When I try to focus my eyes, from our pews in the back of the auditorium, the lilies are all just a blur.

I’ve tried to focus, but my eyes get tired and I lose track of the sermon.

I mean, we love the people here and everything. They do lots of awesome stuff – sending medical help to mission fields in Central America.

I just wish they could get the lilies to focus.

I suppose if I believed, as did Augustine, that there were hidden meanings (allegories) behind every chair, tree, or lily, I might think there’s a message here.

I’d thought about asking around in the congregation to see if there was an optometrist who might be able to explain this unfortunate discrepancy with the obviously ill-conceived artwork, but never got around to it.

It’s really distracting!

The preacher is really good and actually elicits thoughts and questions. But just 8 feet on either side of him are out of focus lilies crying out for clarity.


Maybe it’s just my aging eyes.

I’ve been known to see things that weren’t there before and to completely misunderstand the meaning of things.

And sometimes life changing events can overwhelm me and make me unable to see clearly.

And it can be painful.

Sometimes these out of focus events come to me in an early Sunday morning phone call from a very upset brother yelling that our mom has just gone.

And I can’t see clearly.

Or late-night call from a distraught sister that that same brother is suddenly gone.

And I can’t see clearly.

Or a frantic call from a daughter that she was just in a wreck, but she’s okay, but that she’s gotta go because the ambulance is here.

And I can’t see clearly.

I need clarity.

So, today at church, we sit a little closer to the front.

Trust me, it was only because we were late. This would never happen on a normal day when there were perfectly reasonable empty seats in the back of the auditorium.

And there it is again.

Staring at me indignantly and out of focus.

The Artwork.

The fleur de lis.

The Lily.

But, because I’m closer, I see the Lily better.

It’s casting a thin shadow on the wall behind.

Which, from a distance, makes all of them out of focus.

No optometrist needed.

But, at this distance…

At this closer distance…

I can make out the shadows behind each curve.

And it all makes sense to me now.

And I see clearly the metal lily apart from the shadows it casts upon the wall.

It’s a good thing that I don’t really believe in hidden meanings and such.

But the view from here absolutely makes the Lily a little easier to see.

And sometimes the pain gets more bearable.

I’ve never really paid much attention to lilies.

But, today they clearly look beautiful.

Matches from Mother Russia

Not long after we got married, my bride went to light a candle. And all she had was a lousy made in America book of matches.

To be fair, she had never seen a book of paper matches in her short life. Neither did she know how to operate books of matches, became somewhat discombobulated, and began yelling at me in Russian.

“AMERICAN! What are these things?”

Or something like that.

“Where are the matches?” she demands. “This is garbage. Is this some kind of joke?”

Or words to that effect.

Her face was soviet red.

I pause and measured my words carefully.

“Let me see what you doing sweetheart.”

I take the book of matches, tear one out of the book, calmly strike it, and light the aforementioned candle.

“See, honey. It’s simple. Prosta!

I make my voice imitate a cell phone commercial that I’d recently seen that plays on the Russian word for simple.


“You’re probably used to the wooden match…”

She storms off mumbling something about her grandmother being right about the poor Americans who lived under bridges.

I remind her that we are most certainly not living under a bridge.

Sure, the parsonage has horrible green carpet, but we have a roof and such.

She continues her stomping and such.

Two years later…

Eventually, her parents make their way to the land-without-wooden-matches.

As her mother unpacked her suitcase, she unloaded approximately 10,800 boxes of Russian made wooden matchsticks.

Which, is a lot of matches.

My bride had convinced her mother that the poor Americans – in addition to having no taste in carpet – couldn’t produce a simple matchstick. Russians apparently did not use the lowly and simple (prosto) paper matches.

I’m not bragging or anything, but I’ll just add right here that we did beat the Soviets to the moon.

Oh, and we CAN make a pretty good box of matches. Just see Maryland Matches or Diamond Brands!

But, I’ll never experience the joys of using American made matches again because I have about 10,700 boxes of Russian fire-starters left to go through.



It's a long way to Miami

Who knew that bobcats hated Toyotas.
Or the Allman Brothers.
Maybe he thought the Prius was a natural enemy encroaching on his territory and he could eliminate the threat in one fell swoop.

I am driving into the main front gate at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

On a rare occasion, when the lines are backed up to St Louis, they’ll open additional lines to allow the peasants into work.

They’re considerate like that.

But sometimes I take a back route into the east gate, just to avoid the joy and excitement of waiting in lines.

The downside is that the east route is basically a twisting pig trail designed by a sadistic civil engineer with a love of roller coasters with a little asphalt for fun.

Crazy dangerous.

So, going to work is a choice between risking my life on a Deliverance themed highway or waiting in line until lunchtime.

Hard choice.

So, yesterday afternoon I am driving back into Post when I see a car stopped in the exit lane.

Three guys are standing nearby.

Which is dangerous.

So, I am curious. Why in the Sam Hill are three guys stopped in the exit lane from Fort Leonard Wood?

They all have cameras in their hands taking a photo of something on the ground.

I look closer.

There is an armadillo on the road lying in the position that all armadillos naturally assume.

They were taking a picture of a dead armadillo.

Let me say that again: they’re taking a picture of a dead armadillo.

I don’t know why.

Maybe they’d never seen such an interesting creature before.

Maybe they’re from Manhattan.

I only wish I’d turned around and asked. But really, who wants to add to the excitement of taking a picture of a dead armadillo?

There could be riots.

Last week, on the way back home for the weekend through southern Missouri, I met up with a bobcat.

For some reason, he decided to charge my diminutive Prius while I was doing nothing more than listening to my iPhone play a little Allman Brothers.

Who knew that Bobcats hated Toyotas.

Or the Allman Brothers.

Maybe he thought the Prius was a natural enemy encroaching on his territory and he could eliminate the threat in one fell swoop.

His swoop failed and quickly became soul brothers with the armadillo.

Unfortunately, in the process of taking out the enemy Prius, he caused a considerable amount of damage to the vehicle.

Which isn’t particularly hard to do with disposable cars.

Which leads me to my third point about roadkill.

When we were getting married, I drove to Miami to pick up my bride, who was flying in from Moscow.

When her dad bought the tickets for her, I am guessing that he had no geographical awareness of the United States.

And he surely didn’t realize that they put Miami at the bottom of Florida.

Or, maybe he did…

Anyway, I should have told her to fly into Atlanta.

On the way back to Mobile, we drove through the lovely retirement state. She couldn’t help but notice the incredible number of dead creatures littering the roadside.

Florida, you really need to get some buzzards or something.

Anyway, after a few weeks of diving back to Mobile, she spoke up abruptly after hours of spying the roadside:

“Pumpkin. That one was alive.”

Cute that she noticed that.

I assured her that it wouldn’t be for long.

As I pulled into my neighborhood today, I see the remnants of one of God’s creatures in a pancake position.

Never once considered taking a photo.


Pool frogs and the joys of dislocated discs

Searcy Athletic Club: I am sitting on the couch in the lobby.

Normally, I’d be upstairs working out – in the very limited manner that I do.

My Bride is upstairs in the exercise (i.e., torture) class.

Disgustingly healthy people are passing by me with their fru fru water on the way to the weight room, racquet ball, or one of the classes (i.e., torture room).

They look at me smugly as they sashay by.

Maybe I remind them of a mangled car wreck.

It sure looks that way by their looks.

Meanwhile, one of my lower back disks is continuing to press upon the sciatic nerve going down my left leg like, well, like they do when they aren’t content to stay in place.

And it all happened this time because of a frog.

And I don’t even like them.

These little green guys love to swim in our pool. Problem is that when they are finished swimming, they can’t find their way out. And eventually, they are pushed over to the skimmer where they drown.

Along with the other thousands of insects.

Seems strange for a frog to drown.

Sometimes I find rats in the skimmer.

I don’t want to see the frogs die.

I don’t mind rats dying.

Sometimes I find the frogs before they drown.

It’s always a nice surprise to look into your skimmer and find frogs still croaking.

So, on this unfortunate occasion I checked the skimmer and there he was. A goodly sized bullfrog who still had a few breaths in him.

I’ll call him Mr. Green.

“Give me at outta here,” gasped Mr. Green.

I obliged and lifted the skimmer. Water poured out revealing a plethora of deceased insects. If only we had had the pool when my daughters were collecting bugs for their eighth-grade science class. But I digress.

I empty the contents of the skimmer onto the grass as I normally do and Mr. Green falls to the grass. He was bloated with pool water of course, but he was still alive.

He hadn’t croaked.

Well, he couldn’t really croak with all that water inside him.

Here’s the fun part; I squatted down and inspected Mr. Green.

He seemed okay.

Well, besides being 12 times his normal size because of the water.

Then I abruptly turned to my right, while still in the squatting position, and felt and heard the sound of crunching cellophane crumpling.

That was my spine.

About .02 seconds later the pain arrived.

I could not walk, or do much of anything else. Except for writhing in pain.

Because I had my cell phone with me I called my daughter who was merely a few feet away inside the house.

She rushed outside to see me in an unfortunate state of agony. Since then: lots of pain, physical therapy, and a few surgical consults.

So, until I get better, I’ll stick to the lobby couch while the bride works out in the torture chamber upstairs.

No word on the whereabouts of the waterlogged Mr. Green but I have a contract out on his family.


Hershey the Wonder Dachshund

In a few seconds, she’ll be asleep.

She’s lying in my lap all snuggly and warm. Wait – there she goes – fast asleep.

Hershey, our newest addition, is a full-blooded mini Dachshund.

And by full-blooded, I mean temperamental, lazy, and loves to snuggle.

And is ALWAYS hungry.

Oh, and she’s pretty smart too.

She takes several naps every day and has no apparent plans to cut back.

I drove to Georgia to get her.

My oldest daughter scoured the Internet for months to find the perfect mini dachshund.

And apparently, the perfect Dachshund was 600 miles away in south-central Georgia.

On the way there, I drove through Plains, Georgia. I figured I would never get a chance to do that again so why not?

Who knew there weren’t perfectly acceptable Dachshunds in Arkansas?

On the way there, I drove through Plains, Georgia. I figured I would never get a chance to do that again so why not?

It’s certainly not on my usually traveled path.

Americus, Georgia was nearby. I’ve always liked that name for a town.

For as long as we have been married, we’ve had a dog – 24 glorious years. That’s a lot of dog years.

First, there was Snoopy. Snoopy was a girl. I explained that Snoopy was a boy, but my Russian bride was set on the name Snoopy. So it was Snoopy.

I acquired Snoopy I (yes, there were subsequent Snoopies in our family) from a guy in Theodore, way out in the hinterlands of Mobile County actually. But I had to go through Theodore to get there. She made the move to Arkansas with us but then she was stolen. We were sick about this for months.

Snoopy made the move to Arkansas with us, but then she was stolen – twice actually.

We were sick about this for months.

I (kind of) remember the first dog my dad brought home. He was a Chihuahua and he was in my dad’s front shirt pocket. At least that’s what I remember. Because we lived on a busy road, one that’s even busier these days, not many pets lived long at the Swann house.

I’ve witnessed my share of dogs getting run over on Celeste Road. And now my sister tells me that they’re turning it into a 5 lane mega road. I can imagine the number of dogs that it’ll claim in the future.

I’m hoping Hershey will never have to deal with that kind of danger. She does stay outside some, but we live in a quiet subdivision.

The real dangers are hawks and owls.

Plus most of the time she’s lying next to me or another of the Swanns fast asleep, probably dreaming about her next meal.

I’m glad you’re here Hershey.