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Paul Tevis

Entries in fourth friday challenge (12)


When We Stopped Laughing, We Explained

As I was getting ready to leave work, I put together a Frequently Asked Questions document for the project I’ve been working on. Which reminded me of a moment last summer, when when I was in our office in Lausanne.

One of the developers there was getting ready to move to a new job, so he’d put together some documentation to help with the transition. Like the rest of the people who work in that office, his first language was French, so he spoke fluent but slightly accented English. As he reported out to the team he made repeated and punctuated references to the FAQ he’d prepared. I know some people who spell the acronym out when they say it out loud: “F-A-Q.” I tend to treat it as a word, one that rhymes with “back.” He did the latter as well, though with his accent the vowel landed somewhere between an “e” and a “u.”

I’m sure I’ve said similarly funny things in other languages.

As part of our Fourth Friday Challenge series, Becky says: “i want the funny! share with us a little gem from your happy memory box, a story or a visual or brief moment that always makes you chuckle.”


Fitness: One Hundred Pushups, Week 1, Day 3 (8-10-7-7-13)
Sun, Moon, and Stars: 362 words, 316 seven-day average, 262 average, 29846 total, 154 to go for the week

I Am Here

It’s the fourth Friday of May, which means today’s question comes from Becky:

Paulie, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog (which is being updated EVERY DAY, EVERY RELENTLESS DAY), I recently lost someone close to me. So I ask this time for comfort. Perhaps its something you’ve read or something you turn to when you need reassurance; maybe its a story about someone who made you feel better. I would like to hear something that may soothe me or maybe make a little more sense of the swirl of life.

What Becky doesn’t realize, of course, is that this is something that often makes me nervous. While there are signs that I’m a reasonably emphatic person, grief is something I have — thankfully — little real experience with. It can be hard for me to support people going through the grieving process, because I don’t know what it’s really, viscerally like. I don’t have answers to the sorts of questions that people usually ask. And it scares me that I will say something wrong.

All that said, I have three things to offer, Becky. The first is a song that popped into my head as soon as I read your email.

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer. let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

The second is part of another song, which jumped quickly into my head, hot on the heels of the first:

And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours I feel sure
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edges of a thunderstorm
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother’s restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run

Who says: hard times?
I’m used to them
The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears

The last is this: I am here for you. I can listen when you need to talk and I can be strong when you need someone to be. I don’t know how to fill the silence, but I can help you fill it if you need to and sit with you in it if not. I am your friend, and I am here if you need me to be.

That last bit, by the way, goes for all of you.


Fitness: Rest day
Writing: 270 words, 269 average

Fear Itself

I don’t like sharks. Snakes give me the willies. I have difficulty looking at a sharp object without imagining it cutting me. And I once screamed my head off demanding to be let down from a Ferris Wheel. But what really scares me is change.

Now you probably think that this is odd, given how much I talk about improvising, being agile, and adapting to change. And perhaps it is odd; I’m not sure. Regardless, the biggest fear I have is permanent, irreversible change that cuts off possibilities. Almost every time I feel a pain in my knee after a workout, I think, “What I’ve screwed up my knee and I’ll never be able to ski again? Or be able to run a marathon?” Never mind that I’ve never run one; the idea that I could suddenly and irrevocable become unable to makes me shiver. I occasional think the same thing about my vision. What if I go blind? I’d never be able to see a Monet again, or watch a movie. There would be a whole realm of experiences that would be closed to me forever.

And while a lot of these concerns are centered around physical disabilities, I am no less afraid of long-term social fallout, either from my own actions or from others. I sometimes hold back in conversations and relationships, worried about saying words that can’t be unsaid.

I think this is one of the reasons Johanna’s blog speaks so clearly do me. She is facing the exact sort of things that I fear. She is doing so bravely, and she is writing courageously about it. Which, I suppose is only way for hope to triumph over fear.

As part of our Fourth Friday Challenge series, Becky asks:: “Fear. A thing, a concept, a person, a monster. What is scary to you? And not just a list, but why? I want my heart rate to rise by a noticeable amount, either by sympathy or empathy, when I read what you have to say.”


Fitness: Ran 4 miles
Writing: 317 words, 290 average

Onward to Richmond

“Who was where when?”

I’m sitting at the dining room table in my buddy Ken’s townhouse in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. It’s August, 2009, between my sister’s wedding and GenCon. We’ve just finished setting up For The People, GMT’s card-driven game of the American Civil War. I’m the Union player. And as I’m looking down at the board, that’s what I’m asking myself.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Civil War. Staring at that map, though, I realize that I have no idea how to even begin to emulate the historical strategy. I’ve got some names — Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta — and I can see where they are in space, but I have no idea when they are in time. The lines of advance, the critical operations: I have no idea how to get to Appomattox Courthouse. I know that Grant started in the west before he came east, that Sherman marched through Georgia at some point, and that’s about it.

It should come as no surprise that I did not fare very well in the game.1 That was the second event in a few months that reinforced how big the gaps in my knowledge about the geography of the Civil War was. The first was a Final Jeopardy answer on an episode of Teen Jeopardy that I happened to catch. It was something along the lines of “These two states contain the northernmost and southernmost Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Parks Service.” I’d been playing along and rocking the answers, but on this I was utterly lost. Even when the answer was revealed — “What are Pennsylvania and Mississippi?” — I had no idea what the battles were.2

The sudden, embarrassing awareness of those gaps pushed me to finally read the copy of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative that had been sitting on my shelf for years. As it turns out, that question — “Who was where when?” — was the one I most wanted the answer to. As I read, I discovered I needed to put things in space in order to orient them in time. Foote’s maps were good, but I wanted more. On Ken’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, a monstrous tome3 filled with period maps.4 I even ordered copies of Columbia Games’ Sam Grant and Bobby Lee just so I could place the brigades and divisions on the map and move them around as I read.

Fast forward to the end of February, 2010. I’m at my own dining room table, in Santa Barbara, California. Across from me is my friend David. Between us stretches that same game board. Only this time I look down at the tangle of river crossings and realize why Forts Henry and Donelson are so important. Further down the Mississippi is Island Ten. At the far end are Forts Philip and Jackson, guarding New Orleans from Union ships. Swinging east, there’s Missionary Ridge; I can’t get anywhere close to it now, but I know that unless I can march overland through Alabama instead, it will be a roadblock on my way into the heart of the Confederacy. And in Virginia there’s Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley — all those spaces where I will never be able to make substantial gains but will have to pour men into in order to keep from losing. Richmond seems almost within reach. Grant is over in Kentucky. If only I could bring him east…



As part of our Fourth Friday Challenge series, Becky asks: “Can you talk about an aspect of the Civil War that you have not covered previously in your blog? Anything you want — the emotional, historical, narrative, geographical, etc.” You can read her thoughts about General Grant over on her blog.

1 That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it was after midnight when we finished anyway.

2 Gettysburg and Vicksburg, respectively.

3 Open, it’s two feet wide and a foot and half tall, and it weighs ten pounds. So when I say it’s monstrous, I’m not just whistling Dixie.

4 His undergraduate major was cartography, so I trust him in the matters even more than normal.


Curse You, Physics

Picture, if you will, a water-skier being pulled behind a boat across the surface of a lake. Now replace the lake with a livestock show ring, the boat with a sheep, and the water-skier with an eight-year-old me.

Growing up, I was one of those kids who was involved in everything: Scouting, choir, band, debate, cross-country, baseball, basketball, etc. Unusually for a city-dweller, I also participated in 4-H. My father grew up on a farm just outside of Sioux City, IA. When I was five, we moved to Sioux City from across the state, and after that point I spent a reasonable time on the farm. We had sheep there; Suffolks, to be precise. When I was old enough, my father found a 4-H club, bought me a yearling ewe, and signed me up.

The very first show I attended was the National Junior Suffolk Sheep Association Show, held that year in Des Moines. I’d practiced my showmanship techniques a few times at the farm, but this was the first time I was going to be in the ring. I was embarrassed that I would be showing my ewe with a halter on, as the rest of the kids (who were probably all five years older than me) were doing it barehanded. My dad helped me get the sheep from the pen to the staging area outside the ring, then joined my mother in the stands.

When it was time for our lot, the rest of the kids pulled the halters off of their ewes and headed in. I tried to get my sheep moving, but it wanted to stay where it was. I tried giving a pull on the lead, but with about as much success. One more pull finally yielded a result, though it wasn’t the one I wanted. The ewe bolted, running toward the ring. So I put both hands on the ends of the rope and braced my feet.

Important thing to know about this sheep: it weighed about 160 pounds. That is to say, it weighed roughly twice what I did. Also, the floor of the show ring was covered with wood shavings. These facts combine to give you the picture from the beginning of this post.

With an audible gasp from the crowd1, I was dragged from one end of the show ring to the other as the ewe tried to escape. As it turned a corner, I fell over, at which point I grabbed a nearby bench with one hand as I held on to the halter with the other. I kept a grip on both long enough for some the show ring assistants2 to grab the sheep. One of them was assigned to wrangle it for me, and the rest of the event passed without incident.3

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the rest of my 4-H career rather successful. I should tell you sometime about my gerbil, who competed at the Woodbury County Fair in the “Best Dressed Small Pet” category.

This post is part of the Fourth Friday Challenges that Becky and I are issuing to each other. Here’s what Becky asked for:

“I want a little Paul story. A snapshot of a moment of your youth — big or small, bad or good. Firsthand or secondhand (from reliable sources). It has to have been from a time that you were under 4 feet tall (younger than about eight).”

1 Which included my mother, who I’m surprised didn’t have an immediate heart attack.

2 In my mind they’re like rodeo clowns, but in reality they were high school students in jeans and boots.

3 I did discover that setting up a sheep to stand properly is a lot easier when you have all of your limbs available for the task.