Happy. Healthy. Heathen.

Traveling, training, thinking, talking, typing


March 2013

Sometimes you just get lucky

I’m at the American Atheists convention and I have a blog queue that is about to bubble over.  There have been great speakers, big laughs, a costume party, old friends, and I have every intention of posting about all those things.

However, something happened last night that bumped all that down the list.  I met Earl Smith.

This American Atheist convention is the 50th anniversary of its founding, and it’s being held in Austin, Texas, where Madalyn Murray O’Hare began the organization in 1963, after the landmark ruling of removing prayer in public schools.  It’s 4 days of activism, socializing, speakers – all the usual that go along with conventions.  We’re meeting and staying at the Hyatt in Austin, which is one of the subjects I want to post on.  I have been astounded at the job they have done in accommodating us is so far beyond what is usually expected.  I have tried to express my gratitude to the waiters, check-in staff, and security as the opportunity presents.

Earl Smith is the director of security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas.  He’s a tall, snowy-haired, good-natured African American, and we (Eliott and I) warmed to him immediately.  Last night, he shared the following story with us.

Earl was drafted in 1966, and served with the 173rd Airborne brigade.  That unit sustained losses of over 10,000 American lives, and Earl returned home weary and lost at 22 years old.  He struggled to find his way, and was sent to prison a year later for a 5-year sentence for robbery.  He was given clemency in 1977, and when he was released, he set about rebuilding his life at age 25, with a war, a prison term, a broken marriage, and the racism of the south in his past.

Earl started with the Marriott in Chicago, and began working his way through the hospitality industry, finally taking the job as the head of hotel security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin in 1998.  In 2008, as you may remember, the final debate of the Democratic primary was held at UT Austin.  In a stroke of logistic hilarity, or maybe staff ineptitude, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their respective debate teams stayed at the Hyatt in Austin.  When Earl was telling this story, he couldn’t stop chuckling relating the efforts the hotel staff went through to keep distance and peace between the groups in the hotel.

Earl found himself on an elevator with then-senator Obama.  In Earl’s pocket was his military patch from the 173rd Airborne, which he had carried in that pocket for 40 years.  Earl asked Mr. Obama if he could give him something, and of course Mr. Obama said he could.  Earl handed him the worn, frayed patch, and told him that he wanted to offer it to him on behalf of the American people.  When Earl told me this part of the story, using hand gestures that spoke even more than his words, he said, “I just felt so relieved to give it to him”.

The story now has to take a leap through time, to January of 2013.  One morning, when Earl arrived at his office, his staff was all atwitter about a phone call he had received – from the White House!  President Obama’s assistant chatted with Earl on the phone and via email over the next few days and arranged for him to come to Washington DC for the inauguration.  Earl was delighted, and set about arranging his budget and time schedule in order to go.  Earl’s employer, surprise surprise!, arranged for him to have a room in the packed and expensive Hyatt Hotel within walking distance of the Washington Mall.  When his tickets to the inauguration were delivered to his room, they came with a little more news:  President Obama wanted Earl to visit him at the White House the following day.  The question was also asked:  What else did Earl want to do while he was in our nation’s capitol?

Here was Earl’s list:  he wanted to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the brand new Dr. King Memorial.   On a cold January day, Earl Smith attended the second inauguration of the first black president.  He said he loved every freezing minute of it.  Then the former Army private visited the memorials.  In telling this story full of emotional highs, at this point Earl became emotional, describing the feeling he experienced walking that sloping sidewalk, along that cold, reflecting granite, far too full of names.  40 years vanished, he said, and those names and faces came right back to him, reminding him of where he had come from, why he was where he was, who he had lost.  When Earl then visited the Dr. King memorial, he said moments from the past – JFK’s assassination, the war, the civil rights struggle – all came to him as he stood there, taking in the monument.  But there was still one more highlight.

It was time to go the White House.  Earl found himself sitting in a chair in a hallway, not really sure what was in store for him.  He said after he returned from a nervous trip to the bathroom, his escort was nowhere to be seen, so he just took a seat in the chair, and just then, walking down the hall, was a tall, thin, African American man extending his hand saying, “I’m so glad to see you again, Earl.”  Then, at the end of that hall, Earl walked in to the Oval Office, that iconic rug on the floor, the desk, all of it.  Earl and his President chatted for a bit, 20 minutes in fact, and Earl repeated to him the purpose of the patch; that he wanted the president to have it on behalf of the American people.

Please take the time to visit the link and watch the video.  What an honor and privilege it was to have met Earl and hear his story.  He’s a lovely, kind, gentle man, and if you are ever in Austin, go out of your way, even if you don’t stay here, to visit the Hyatt and ask to meet Earl.

I'm so proud of this picture!
My friend, Earl Smith

Thanks for reading!

Edit 4.1.13

Awesome level:  Maximum
Awesome level: Maximum

Bookshelf Post

Never fails.  I’ll go months without writing,  then I’ll write 3 posts in a week!

I’m going to have to come up with a new category, maybe called:  Cottage Living.  I’ve already posted about my plumbing experiences, and now I have the most wonderful experience to share!

To review:  I live in a 75-year-old country cottage.  My family lived here when my children were little for several years while we were building the big family house on the farm.  This house was a little crampy with 4 children and 2 adults; now that the children are grown and gone, it’s just the perfect size.  Some of the time it’s just me and the dogs, some of the time the Squeeze blows through as he can with work, some of the time we have friends who come stay a bit, and when I’m really really lucky, one or more of the kids comes for a day or two.  This precious house is perfect for all of that, even if it does only have one bathroom!

It’s got a big open kitchen, a large living room and master bedroom, a cute office for school, and a sweet little guest room.  It has a back porch with a swing, a front porch, a carport, and a patio where we have Cocktails at Sunset.  The yard is huNORmous, with room for the bonfire ring, big old trees with perfect limbs for climbing, even blackberries across the back fence.  Here it is in springtime:

Freethought Cottage
Freethought Cottage

It’s located on 8 acres of paradise, with barns and a pond, farm animals…stay tuned for the Spring Break post when daughter Glenda comes home to help with springtime farm stuff – fencing, chicken-coop mucking, garden tilling.

All of this preliminary description to try to get my point across:  I love this home.  It’s cozy and comfy and mine and I am so happy to live here.  Having said all that, there is a need I have that this house hasn’t been able to fulfill.  Til now.

I try not to be too materialistic.  I try to value people and relationships over things.  I try not to be too attached to my possessions, and most of the time I’m successful.  I love my car, I admit it, but I recognize and realize it’s just a car.  I’ve already said I love my house, and I know how fortunate I am to have this lovely place to live.  But the thing I own that probably means more to me than anything else I own is my book collection.

I have books from my childhood, books from my adolescence, and books from my adulthood.  I have history books, and philosophy books, and books on humor, and nutrition, and economics, and the environment.  I have mysteries, and thrillers, and horror, and science fiction.  I only part with a book with a good reason, and “because I’ve read it” isn’t one.

After the plumbing affair, I asked for a reference for a carpenter from the wonderful plumber, and he referred to me Earnest Stem, cabinet maker.  After a few phone calls and a visit to the house, we came to an agreement, and shortly thereafter, Earnest set to work.  Now we’ll let the pictures tell the story, again.

Here are the temporary bookshelves I had lining the walls
Here are the temporary bookshelves I had lining the walls
Books on shelves, books on top of shelves
Books on shelves, books on top of shelves
Books on books
Books on books

Here’s the point in the story when Earnest enters.

This is a fun shot of the guest room with all the books crammed in to make room for construction
This is a fun shot of the guest room with all the books crammed in to make room for construction
Here's the maestro at work
Here’s the maestro at work
and here's the work in progress
and here’s the work in progress
Here's another In Progress shot (you see I couldn't wait to start putting books out)
Here’s another In Progress shot (you see I couldn’t wait to start putting books out)

And now….Here’s the finished product!!

Look at this sight!
Look at this sight!


Aren't they beautiful!?
Aren’t they beautiful!?
This is the children's section
This is the children’s section
The Lewis and Clark section
The Lewis and Clark section

So here’s the link to Earnest’s page.  I unreservedly endorse and recommend him.  He got this work done in 2 days, he was there exactly when he told me he would be, his rates were very reasonable, and he did a fabulous job.  Tell him Gayle sent you.

One more shot.  We had to move a built-in corner unit in order to install the shelves.  This corner unit must have been in place before the carpet was added, because when we moved the unit…

There's a real possibility that the next installment of Cottage Living will involve this floor.
There’s a real possibility that the next installment of Cottage Living will involve this floor.

So check back!

Thank you Earnest, for my beautiful library,

and thank YOU for reading!


My first Blog award!

This will be a very short lesson on why you don’t give an award to an obnoxious overachiever (think:  Hermione).


My internet friend, Marisa, nominated me for this award.  Here is her blog, so check out her work.  She writes about art, music, cinema, plus she’s funny and smart and has impeccable taste in blogs.


Part of the dealio is that I am to tell 7 things about myself.  Because I’ve had this blog going for so long, I’ve told almost everything, so some of this may be a repeat.

1.  I have an extensive nutcracker collection.  I started it accidentally, and now it’s out of control.  When I put them all out at Christmastime, sometimes in the light of the tree, with all their sparkly clothes, and swords, and movable chins, they creep me the hell out.

They're amassing behind me
They’re amassing behind me

2.  I don’t like chocolate OR ice cream.  I just don’t.

3.  Since 1990, I have ridden my bicycle across Iowa at least a dozen times.

This line stretches for 70 miles
This line stretches for 70 miles

4.  I would rather read than watch television.  Anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

5.  I hate country music, but I love the titles:

If You Want to Keep Your Beer Ice-Cold, Keep It Next To My Ex-Wife’s Heart

How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Her Teeth Was Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure

6.  I backpacked through Europe when I was in college, complete with Eurail and hostel pass, and went to Greece without telling my parents.  Because I went by myself, they wanted my itinerary before I went (this was the dark ages of phones – you had to go to a telephone building to make an international phone call).  Greece was nowhere on the list.  My dad’s still mad about that.

7.  I have an insane, irrational fear of cockroaches.  Dad was a Navy man.  I grew up in Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola.  In a trailer.  With giant, flying palmetto bugs.  Me, 4 years old, the sheet pulled over my head, eyes squeezed shut, hearing those hideous things flying in my room at night.  **Shudder**  Not so irrational now, huh?

Another part of the deal is that I have to link to 15 of my favorite blogs.  Here you go:

1.  JT’s Patheos blog

2.  Greta’s blog

3.  My girl Susan’s blog

4.  Son Sam’s blog

5.  The Bloggess

6.  Drs. Mike and Mary Dan’s Protein Blog

7.  Ted’s Blog

8.  Bookshelfporn

9. Joe. My. God

10.  Jesse and Julia’s Blog

11.  Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Blog

12.  Whole 9 Life Blog

13.  Dr. Peter Attia’s blog

14.  Pharyngula

15.  Eggton

And there you have it – thank you again, Marisa – this was fun!  I thought I’d have a little trouble coming up with 15, but I actually had to struggle to edit it down.  I’ll try to do another post with another 15.

Thanks for reading!

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