A Husband's Guide to Christmas Shopping

My wife is a very reasonable person, an admirable characteristic, but there sometimes a gift must exceed the limits of practically and reach into frivolity and extravagance.

My wife is a very reasonable person, an admirable characteristic, but sometimes a gift must exceed the limits of practically and reach into frivolity and extravagance. You might could push your luck with a new appliance, but no woman wants to open a Christmas present and find a broom or mop.

I’m sure there are many things that I don’t do well, fortunately for my self esteem I’m only aware of a couple of them: chiefly, giving gifts. Especially to my wife. It’s a whole lot easier to just tell her, “I’ll take care of the kids this evening, why don’t you go out by yourself and go shopping?” She’s never disappointed to hear that and I think it helps keep her from losing her mind while she’s raising our kids. I pride myself on being able to pick up on subtle clues that she needs a night out. Like when she says, “I need to go out by myself soon.” I don’t plan to stop doing that, but let’s face it: that’s going to be a pretty lame Christmas present.

“A good gift should be something you really want, but won’t buy for yourself.”- Zach Wells

As I begin my Christmas shopping for my wife in earnest, I’ve decided to put together some of shopping principles for husbands who struggle to buy gifts for their wives.

Wives like gifts. They might tell you, “Oh don’t worry about getting me anything for Christmas.” But let’s be clear on this, no one wants to watch other people open presents and not have something to open on their own.

Clothes are dangerous. Picking out clothes for your wife could be disastrous unless you know exactly what they want and know their size. Furthermore, if you are a real red blooded man, you probably aren’t even hip to men’s fashion, much less ladies fashion.

Pajamas are safe. My wife did inform me that I was allowed to pick out some pajamas for her. Which is to say that she doesn’t mind me getting her clothes that she doesn’t have to be seen wearing.

Other articles of clothing you are allowed to get include: gloves, sunglasses, socks, house shoes, scarves, hair thingies, and earmuffs. Buy any other article of clothing at your own risk.

Candles. Unless your wife has respiratory issues, you’re probably safe to buy her a candle. Be prepared to be overwhelmed when you walk into the candle store though. It’s going to smell like a the fire department is trying to put out a spice factory fire with perfume. Instead of sticking your nose down in the jar and huffing until you get a headache, just go by the name. I recommend something with “Pie” in the name. No one really knows what a Zanzibar Clove is supposed to smell like, but everyone loves pie. I’ve been informed that those candles do not taste as good as they smell.

Pictures. If you want to really make your wife smile on Christmas morning, then make sure she unwraps a picture. It’s never been easier to print digital pictures, and if you know someone who is handy with photoshop, your wife might be getting a picture of you crossing the Delaware with Washington, or playing guitar with Elvis. If your wife doesn’t have a good sense of humor you could always just go with one of your favorite wedding photographs.

If any of you are still confused, here’s a short list of hot items that are sure to excite any wife this Christmas.

1. New House. Husbands who give their wives a new house for Christmas get a lifetime achievement award from NAOH (National Association of Husbands).

2. New Car

3. Fix that thing she has been telling you to fix.

4. Rain Head for the shower. Don’t tell her about this, just install it and leave in on the hard setting so she’s sure to notice.

5. Dishwasher. If your wife doesn’t have a dishwasher, she’ll appreciate this.

6. Spa package. I’m not sure what all goes on at the spa, but women seem to enjoy it.

7. New guitar

Since I’m running out of ideas, this is about all the advice that I can afford to give you. Like I said, I’m bad at this. I’m sure that you’ll do great this Christmas. Hopefully some wives will pitch in with some gift idea suggestions in the comments. They might be willing to help someone else’s husband, cause their husband ought to know.

The Churn

It’s just in human nature to use things against the manufacturer’s recommended use.

We had an old churn in the kitchen. I can’t remember it not being there. Our churn was never employed to make butter or anything like that, it just kept the refrigerator door closed. It’s just in human nature to use things against the manufacturer’s recommended use.

There was a big indoor yard sale at the Cullman County Ag Center a while back, and they had a churn just like the one that I remember from growing up. I say remember, but until I saw the one at the yard sale I hadn’t thought about that churn since we got a new refrigerator in 1997.

The yard sale made me think of the churn. This kind of thing happens to me all the time. Something will trigger my memory and I don’t just remember, I’m there. I think that’s why I like to go to yard sales and and thrift stores.

The churn took me back to the kitchen with it’s ancient white and black tile in a curious pattern. There was the refrigerator with it’s faux wooden inlays on the handles. Inside the fridge was the mystery Country Crock containers that Mom used for leftovers. Once she sent a bunch of them full of Mexican Cornbread (or something like that) to work with Dad so he could share with coworkers. One poor man opened his container to find actual Country Crock. I think we used Country Crock instead of butter because my grandfather had died of a heart attack.

The new refrigerator door stayed closed, so the churn was retired to the mud room. We were too emotionally attached to it to get rid of it, ugly as it was. The lid was long gone and it the finish was cracked and chipped, but because it had been with us so long it had earned a permanent spot on the register of Wells Home Furniture: we were not getting rid of it. It’s funny how you can become attached to a thing no matter how useless it has become.

When I was a teenager, we had an extended guest who broke the churn after carelessly moving it. I think my Mom cried. Because it had outlived it’s original use and it’s ad hoc use we didn’t replace it, its only function was sentimentality, a curio relic from a bygone era.

It would have been impossible to replace it anyway. It would be like replacing a family member. Shopping for a new one would have only made you sad about the one that you lost.

Look at that. I’m tearing up about a churn. I didn’t buy that churn at the yard sale. But I did just buy a new refrigerator the other day. It’s got an alarm that dings at you if the door is open.

Camping

My earliest memories of camping were Dad taking Zach and me out to Black Jack, a vast wilderness owned by the paper company I think. We would set up a little dome tent and build a fire. Dad would let us play in the fire with a stick, probably the best part for a little boy. We always camped in the fall, no sense in camping with mosquitoes and rattlesnakes. 

Most of the time we roasted weenies and marshmallows, but one particular time Dad went all out and made some barbecue chicken quarters over the fire. He seasoned the chicken, wrapped it in aluminum foil and placed it on one of those flimsy folding metal grills that set over the fire. We sat patiently around the fire on our five gallon buckets staring into the flickering flames.  Just before the chicken was finished cooking it began to rain. First softly then a steady drizzle, then we retreated into the tent as the bottom dropped out of the sky. The water began to rise as we sat huddled in our sleeping bags hoping for the rain to subside. After about a half an hour and half an inch of rain in the tent, Dad decided to abandon camp. We loaded our essential belongings into the truck and headed home. We ended up leaving the tent to retrieve another day, but the saddest part was that we never even got to try the chicken. I don’t think we ever camped at Black Jack after that.

From then on we camped on some relative’s property that had a small lake where we often fished. Looking back now, I realize how little I was, out of diapers, but not in school. It was Dad’s rule that you had to be out of diapers to go camping. In the mornings, we would go hunting not far from where we had camped. I would sit against a tree with Dad while Zach sat by himself a few yards away. He probably had a better chance of killing a deer by himself, because I was making too much noise playing with action figures. I never did catch the hunting fever like my brother, but I still like to go camping, and it just doesn’t feel right to go camping without a gun.

Zach and I camped with Jared and Creed once on the back border of their Dad’s property. Mr. Sherwood McDaniel, their father, had cleared the perimeter and it was here that we spent many hours playing. Zach and Creed were old enough to work at the store, so Jared and I were supposed to tend the fire until their shift was over. The gainfully employed older brothers had gone shopping before hand and brought some provisions for that night. I’m sure they got some good food but what I remember is the knock off Grapicos, they were nasty. We, the keepers of the flame, discovered that a can of Coke, knock off or genuine, will explode with a tremendous noise if you place it in the fire and forget about it. Creed and Zach were not as impressed.

While Zach was still in high school it was not very hard to talk him into camping. We’d often make the decision ten minutes before the store closed and then rush to set up in the dark. I can’t tell you how many times we camped like this as teenagers. 

The older we grew, the less sleeping we did when we went camping. The most miserable part about camping is waking up about half frozen and filthy with smoke, your breath tastes like you been eating dirt all night, and then having to clean up all of the camping gear. There was a point when we stopped fooling with bringing a tent and just stayed up all night. This made it easier to camp at the drop of a hat, all we really had to pack was food. Food is the best part of camping when you’re a young man.

One night it snowed on us, a rare occasion in Alabama. It didn’t last long, but it was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. A big bright moon shining on freshly fallen snow, a few guys sitting around a campfire not fully appreciating the moment. 

I do not recommend taking your wife camping on your first anniversary.

This morning the air was crisp and cold, and full of that certain smell that comes with fall, a cool damp fragrance that almost burns. These are the conditions in which to camp. 

Last year my church organized a men’s camping trip. We had two fires, one to play in and one to cook in. It drizzled rain on us all night, but the little boys that went hardly seemed to notice. I still enjoy playing in the fire, and you better believe that I still enjoy eating around the fire, but as an adult, what I like most about camping is the comradery. There is something significant about the gathering together of men for the sole purpose of fellowship.

2018 Men & Boys Camping

“We’re going camping on November 1st Wesley.” I told Wesley a week ago.

“Do I need to start packing?” He replied.

J. L. Parker

“You hang in there like a hair in a biscuit.”

It was at Youth Camp that I was first introduced to Brother JL Parker. He had white hair, a friendly countenance, and an expressive tongue, verbally and physically. He had a million one liners, but he also had a way of running his tongue out of his mouth that conveyed a lot more information than any words could. I was still a teenager and I could not resist smiling when he was around. He was the Sunday School director at his church and had brought a load of teenagers to camp and stayed around as a counselor to make sure they all behaved.

I was playing guitar at that Youth Camp, probably rather poorly, but I was giving it all I had. After that first service Bro. Parker came up to me and talked about guitar. As a young person it was encouraging. 

“I’ve got a Gibson The Paul guitar at the house.” He said.

“A Les Paul?” I asked, not familiar with the The Paul model. 

“No.” He shook his head. “The Paul, baby.” He stuck his tongue out a little bit.  

The next night as I was playing guitar, he made eye contact with me from the back of the sanctuary, and made a motion like he was playing guitar.

There was a girl that I was interested in that week at camp. When you’re a teenager, you think you’re being sly and no one notices who you like. Let’s be clear about this: old people know. Bro. Parker caught me that week right after I left off having a conversation with that girl. 

“I just want you to know that I’m pulling for you son. I’m on your side, you just hang in there like a hair in a biscuit, she’ll come around.” After I was through laughing, he switched gears on me. “But let me tell you something, y’all better not be playing licky face!” 

JL Parker had the unique ability to be the most affable person in the room without losing the respect of the people he was leading. He was serious about things that were important, and was not afraid nor ashamed to let you know it. 

“I made up my mind a long time ago that I was going to be the friendliest person that I could be. If someone meets me, I want to be the nicest person that they met on that day. If you do that, you won’t have any trouble making friends.” 

I moved back to Alabama in 2017 and began attending church with Bro. JL Parker. He was so full of energy, so funny. He had lost his wife a year or so earlier. “I loved that woman.” He told me more than one time. “It’s really hard to imagine losing someone you’ve lived with for forty years. I miss her every day. Being lonely is hard.” Bro. Parker could just say the facts.

JL Parker

For the past year or so his health has been rapidly declining. He shook my hand one night after church,“I need you to do something for me.” he said. There are some people that you are willing to do anything for. 

“Yes sir.” I said, with ready ears.

“I got that old The Paul, I want you to put some new strings on it. I’ll pay you for the strings, it don’t matter what kind, your preference.”

“I have a pack at the house that won’t cost you a dime if you let me play that guitar at church one night.”

“You got a deal!”

The following Sunday I was playing the newly strung and serviced guitar during service when Bro. J.L. Parker walked across the platform during the middle of a song.

“You like that guitar?” He asked in my ear.

“Yes sir, this thing sounds great.”

“Well you can have it!” He said as he walked off.  

There are few times in life where you laugh and cry at the same time. This was one of those times. If this was him showing me how much he loved me, the message certainly got through. He had a way of doing things in a big way. I glanced back to where he was now standing, and he stuck his tongue out and played a little air guitar.

The guitar and corduroy strap that JL Parker gave me.

Bro. JL Parker passed on to his reward today. It’s a tall task to convey the character of a man like JL Parker in any amount words, but if I could only use one it would have to be: Faithful.

JL Parker was my friend and I loved him. And I’m going to miss him.

Mule Day

Pop used to have a couple of Percheron draft horses named Hawk and Holly. They were huge, I think Hawk weighed over a ton. He used to take them to events like the Homecoming and Christmas parades in Vincent. I love a good parade. The coolest parade by far that we ever participated in was Mule Day .

Mule Day happens in Winfield, Alabama every year on the Fourth weekend of September. It’s a festival that includes all manner of equestrian culture, but focuses mainly on Mules, hence the title. Aside from the parade, I think there are no less than a million things to do.

In order to make better time next morning, Zach and I spent the night with Pop. I don’t even think that Pop told us what we were going to do, we just assumed it was work. The next morning Pop woke us up before the chickens, “Boys it’s time to get up and eat some breakfast.” We rubbed our eyes and wondered where we were, staring blankly out the window into the darkness, before trudging into the kitchen to eat some cereal. I don’t ever remember my hunger being satisfied by cereal.

When we got to the barn and began loading the horses onto the trailer, I realized that we weren’t going to be hauling hay, and wished that I had picked out different clothes. The drive to Winfield was two hours long, and I remember fighting sleep. For some reason I thought Pop would be disappointed if I fell asleep in the truck; so I toughed it out and stayed awake.

By the time we got to Winfield the Sun was up and I was almost fully awake. I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the event. There were thousands of people. There were stage coaches, a glass hearse, horse drawn fire wagons, buggies, and covered wagons. Imagine what a classic car show would have looked like circa 1860 and you’ll get the idea.

After combing Hawk & Holly’s shiny black coats and manes, we spent an hour or so talking to Pop’s friends who had brought their Mules. There was a man named Big Jerry, who had a pair of mules named Jesse and Jackson. It made me think of my grandfather, Tinker Reynolds, who was want to name cattle and pigs after people that he knew. He had a cow name Joann, whom he had purchased from Aunt Jo-who makes extraordinary dressing at Thanksgiving. He also had a pig named Penny. I don’t think it’s a great honor to be named after a pig so I won’t tell you her last name.

Pop’s wagon was equipped with car tires. Which, while not historically correct, made for a much smoother ride when pulled through modern streets in a parade. This comfortable anachronism may have something to do with why the local Varsity Cheerleader Squad was placed in our wagon; which caused more than a little distraction if Pop was depending on Zach to help him.

It’s one thing to watch a parade, and another to be in the parade. Nothing quite compares to being in a parade with a wagon full of cheerleaders pulled by two of the biggest horses in the world. It was amazing how many people waved at me that day.

It was a full day. On the way home I leaned up against Pop and didn’t even fight sleep.

Sports Page

I’ve always thought it was a strange to ask the losing coach what happened after an upset.

When I was growing up, the comics section was sometimes located in the Sports Page of the Birmingham News. Which created a bit of tension as the funnies were the most valuable part of the whole paper in our household: everyone read the comics. Added to their desirability was the fact that the crossword puzzle was attached to the comics; and Mom and Dad loved to work “The puzzle”, as Dad called it. It was a nice activity to exercise mental prowess and created a welcome diversion from a busy day.

The Sports section was only read by Dad and Zach. From time to time there would be something interesting in the Sports Page. Like when Perry Hodge shot a thirteen foot alligator not far from where we used to go fishing. Or the time an eleven year old boy killed a wild hog that weighed over half a ton and had five inch tusks. He shot it with a pistol. That kind of stuff is interesting, but the rest of the sports page I found pretty boring.

A friend recently sent me a job posting for a newspaper publisher. Not for the Birmingham News, but a smaller paper. I guess he thinks since I’ve been writing for a few years that I’m qualified to be a newspaper publisher. Do you ever wish that you believed in yourself as much as your friends do? Not that I hate my job, but I am for hire. All the happiness in the World can’t buy you money.

So I’ve been entertaining the thought of being a newspaper publisher. It must be something in my romantic nature to rally for dying causes like film photography, and print newspapers: and I like to day dream. The first thing I thought about was what would I do with the Sports Page? I mean, there has got to be a way to make it more interesting. If nothing else, it would confuse the tar out of a few old men who look forward to reading a football article every weekend.

Something fresh that I’m certain would get people’s attention would be to publish the half time marching band set from the lowest ranked football team in the wrong division. That article would need to be on the front of the sports page. I’d also like to get some post game analysis from some of the inebriated fans as they were leaving the stadium after their team lost. I’ve always thought it was a strange to ask the losing coach what happened after an upset. What kind of journalism is that? Did they not watch the game?

Covering some of the more odd ball sports out there might be fun. Cycling, fencing, chess, maybe thumb wrestling. Someone once told my brother, “I never knew that eating was a spectator sport until I met you.”

Let’s face it, most people in Alabama don’t even really like football; they just like Auburn or Alabama. Furthermore, I wouldn’t quite classify the attitude toward football in Alabama as a sport. The closest definition of sport offered by Webster that could apply to football is: a source of diversion. You can hardly call year round coverage of a seasonal activity as a diversion.

I’ve often made sport of the football situation in Alabama by referring to it as the State Religion. While I find it humoring, there are many who may wince at this because it hits close to home. During football season, many will not make it Sunday because their god was defeated on Saturday.

So if I ran the sports page, I would do my best to offer a genuine source of diversion. It’s safe to say that at this point in my life I can name more Grand Sumo wrestlers that I can football athletes, whether college or professional. What if the sports page covered Sumo Wrestling? Grand Sumo is a year round sport; but then again, it is also quite literally a religious ceremony. The only difference is that the Sumo Wrestlers don’t hide this fact.

There are something things in this life that I know I will never understand. Maybe the comics and crossword puzzle should always be in the Sports Page.

Boiled Peanuts

Dad used to take me on Saturdays to the Flea Market in Wilsonville. It was a cultural exposition. If you really want to know what life is like in the South, you need to visit a flea market. Flea Markets are what yard sales dream about being when they grow up. It’s a place where you can get everything from live chickens to a leather belt with your name tooled onto the back. We just went for the boiled peanuts.

Stop by most any gas station in the South, not one of the big truck stops with clean bathrooms, but a proper gas station that serves homemade biscuits and has a bench out front. Inside you’ll notice that there is usually a crockpot next the jar of pickled pig feet. The crock pot is full of boiled peanuts. If you’ve never had them before, the best way I can describe them is they taste similar to a roasted chestnut. If you’ve never had a roasted chestnut at least you’ve sang about them at Christmas time. Boiled peanuts have a salty, savory, umami (I learned that word on the radio) flavor. They have a firm texture similar to al dente bean. Trust me, my description is falling short. Boiled Peanuts taste like my childhood weekends.

You can try the gas station peanuts and they’ll probably be pretty good. Be sure to get something to drink because that salt water is going to pucker you up. I’d recommend buying boiled peanuts from a man in overalls selling them on the side of the road from underneath one of those pop up canopies. Even better, just go to the Flea Market. Not only do they have peanuts, but it’s a great place to inhale some second hand smoke and possibly see a fist fight.

The Boiled Peanut booth at the Flea Market in Wilsonville had two huge steel pots of peanuts, Original and Cajun. The man served them up in plastic grocery sacks, double sacked so you wouldn’t get peanut juice all over your car. Which was a nice gesture, but I still made a mess as a kid. The Original were the archetype boiled peanut and set the standard for me. The Cajun were just like the Original with the perfect amount of heat, but there was always a chance of accidentally eat a habanero pepper. Which might not sound appealing to you. But I enjoy adventure, so I always got Cajun.

I could write a lot more about boiled peanuts. Those who have tried them would say amen, but no amount of reading can equal to you trying them. Somethings are meant to be experienced and not just studied. Boiled peanuts are one of those things. You just have to try them. Unless you’re allergic to peanuts.