After the birthday celebrations . . .

I always stretch out my birthday as long as I can.

Thursday, the actual birthday, we watched Sam play Stanley Kowalski in his theater class’s presentation of scenes from three Tennessee Williams plays. It's a proud and scary moment to see how well your 15-year-old can portray an angry drunk. 

Friday, Kit and Susan threw me a wine tasting party. Tim and Susan, Betsy, and Todd and his newish girlfriend Fiddlin’. The instructions were for everyone to bring two bottles of a favorite wine, one to taste and one to send home with me. The rigor of observing, swirling, sniffing, sipping, and note taking broke down before the wine ran out, but the company and the party were great. I have a talent for making friends.

Saturday night was one for the ages. After much hemming and hawing, I decided on Bob Dylan tickets for my birthday presents. It’s a risky proposition. Last time he played Durham, at the ballpark, the show was by all accounts horrible. People joke about his “what is he playing?” nights.

I was a bit apprehensive about asking Bebe to drop 200 bucks on the show – the StubHub price for waiting so long – but the guy is 74 and as several friends mentioned, it’s like going to church – you get to be in the same room as (perhaps) the most important figure in the past half-century of music.

After I nearly set the kitchen on fire – Bebe got new drip pans and burners for the stovetop, and the wok got hotter than it has in a long while – we ate a fine chicken stir fry and headed out to DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Our indecision cost us about a football field. Our seats were way up in the balcony. But the sight lines were good and the acoustics were better. And he was great. The band, featuring Tony Garnier on bass and Charlie Sexton on guitar, was seamless. Listening to them reminded me of the E Street Band stretching out on  “Kitty’s Back” at the Meadowlands in 2009 – old pros enjoying themselves and entertaining everyone at the same time.

Remarkably, through a feat of acoustical design or septuagenarian vigor, every word Bob sang was recognizable. And he mostly sang. Sure, he growls, barks and generally sounds like gravel in a rusty cement mixer. But he was fully present, engaged with his band, and committed to giving us a show. He played a decent boogie-woogie piano and his harmonica was biting and pure.

I got teary during the old stuff. “She Belongs to Me” was the second song and it was wonderful, gruff but beautiful. I read some reviews and knew he had been playing "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Tangled Up in Blue," so I had my fingers crossed he would play them. He did, and they were great. He sings “hit him like a freight train” gently now, without the shocked yelp of the original, but it works.

Dylanologists are always on the lookout for the varied tempos, tricky cadences, and altered words Dylan has long employed to keep his concerts from becoming Bon Jovi sing-alongs. The arrangements were faithful, but he threw a few change-ups. The saxophone he sings about in “A Simple Twist of Fate” played softly instead of far off, and on Tangled Up in Blue, “We always did feel the same / we just saw it from a different point of view” became “We always did feel the same / depending on your point of view.” Fun stuff.

But the focus of this concert wasn’t the classics and twists thereon. On this tour, the set list draws mainly from the last handful of albums, the ones after he nearly died of a heart infection a dozen or so years ago.

They aren’t stand-up-and-flock-to-the-stage anthems like “Like a Rolling Stone,” but they all stand up on their own. “Duquesne Whistle” would make a dead man tap his foot, and “High Water Everywhere” (from one of the endless “Bootleg” compilations) had everyone rolling up their pant legs.

These songs hold the essence of Dylan, in whose bones live the whole of American popular music, from Stephen Foster on. Maybe he don’t sing pretty, but to listen to him is to stand waist deep in history, from the murder ballad to the American songbook. He can do Charlie Patton and, as he showed on the last song, “Stay with Me” from the recent collection of Frank Sinatra songs, he can tap into the same mix of sentimentality, lyricism and longing that made Old Blue Eyes indelible.

Perhaps best of all, Bob was having fun. From “Time Out of Mind” on (“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”), the last few albums have been largely grim, toes on the edge of the grave grim. But light peeks from the shadows – wry, wistful observations on love and the kind of fun you have when you and your band can, with ease, play with the conventions of every idiom from Tin Pan Alley to the marital rhythms of the Clash.

These were pros at the top of their games, and it was a joy to behold. Thanks for a memorable birthday present, Bebe (and Sam and family and friends).

My Winter Staycation

Some days you wake up and everything is the same. Some days you come to the gradual realization that something is different. Or a constellation of things is different, and you gradually come to the conclusion that there’s a problem. A specific problem.

We knew we would wake up to a winter wonderland, and we did. Three or four inches of wet, heavy, glistening snow. The evergreens were bowed and branches were down everywhere. One took out one of the posts on the staircase from the deck to the back yard. For the third time in a week, the driveway was indistinguishable from the rest of the yard.

And something else was going on. It was chilly upstairs, chillier than usual. And no lights were on. I’m usually the one who gets up and gets the coffee, but knowing that school was out and work was likely to be canceled, I hadn’t set the alarm on my battery-powered clock. So the alarm hadn’t gone off, and Bebe’s plug-in clock-radio (we have so much technology but our bedsides are old-fashioned) wasn’t on. It wasn’t until she went downstairs, came back up, and announced, “It’s hard to make coffee without electricity” that it dawned on my sleep-addled brain: The power was out.

(There was one other thing wrong, too. Jasper, the youngest and largest of our three dogs, was retching. He eventually threw up on our quilt, but fortunately that storm passed quickly.)

When Hurricane Fran put a tree through our roof in 1996, what saved us was the side burner on our gas grill. Our current grill has no burner, but I had just gotten a new tank of propane, and I figured I could toss the kettle on and get it hot enough for a satisfactory caffeine experience.

The dogs accompanied me, knocking over the spare propane tank, freaking out over the blocked staircase, and then remembering the other staircase on the side of the deck. Jasper, miserable a few minutes ago, did frantic figure 8s in the snow, and Murphy dug out an old blue plastic ball and demanded to play. Sox, the boxer-hound mix, is not a natural in the snow like the other two, but she shook off the shivers and raced around with Jasper for a while.

The kettle never quite boiled, but it was hot enough after a while. Bebe found the apparatus that sits on top of the carafe to hold the filter, and soon we had coffee. Something, likely the uncertainty about whether we would have coffee at all, made the first cup taste even better than usual. I tossed a bagel on the grill, too, and with some butter, it tasted pretty fine as well.

After breakfast, I did a pretty thorough yoga warm-up and moved into a kettlebell/body weight workout, thinking I would hop on the bike afterward, even though the last couple of weeks of cold and precipitation have left me quite sick of pedaling indoors on the trainer. But the slow-firing brain kicked into gear again, and I decided I had better make shoveling my aerobic exercise.

Two hours later, I had reached the snow turrets left at the end of the driveway when the snow plow went past. (We’ve had three more or less significant snows this winter, but today was the first time a county truck made it to Bakers Mill Road.) The snow bombs dropping from the trees made it difficult to declare the job done definitively, but after a second pass on the brick front steps, I was satisfied.

The last time we had lost power for an extended period, during one of central North Carolina’s infamous ice storms, we threw on the last fake log and slept by the fireplace with the kids, waking up every time Sam kicked his covers off and cried. Remembering the high point of that adventure, going out and finding one of the few restaurants in the area that had electricity and was open, Bebe got on her iPhone and called places until she found that Monterey, the closest Mexican restaurant, was open.

Once we got through the beachhead of ice at the end of the street it was smooth sailing. Lunch was standard Mexican fare, but it was good to feel the heat and hear the music. One of the TVs had ESPN on, and they were showing the Mets at spring training. The sound was off, but I got the storyline – lots of promising young pitchers and one aging star third baseman.  The green grass of the baseball field, with no snow in sight, was lovely.

The shoveling caught up with me as soon as we got home (and I gave the steps a third once-over). I crashed and slept for a couple of hours. Something unusual woke me up. Bebe’s bedside lamp had come on. Life, though frequently challenging, is good.

My Trip to Hiddenite

One recent Tuesday I found myself standing in the middle of an overgrown, abandoned homestead in very rural North Carolina with a convicted axe murderer. Did I mention he was swinging a machete?

How we came to be standing there was a story in itself. Less than a week before, I had lost my job. After three bosses in 51 weeks and many long unhappy hours, my suspicion that I was not a frontline fundraiser was confirmed. At least I think it was. I wasn’t given any reason, just a few minutes to gather my personal effects. Boss Number Three did allow that this was very difficult for her, although I had the feeling that her mind had moved on to other things before she finished the sentence.

My wife was working in Carrboro that day. We had driven in together, so I gathered my two bags worth of stuff – either I was barely there long enough to put a personal mark on my workspace, or I knew on some level from the start I wouldn’t be there long enough to make it worthwhile to put up a lot of pictures – and started off down Cameron Avenue toward the bike path.

As I walked, all the expected feelings came – hurt, anger, a sense of great injustice, shame. But I soon realized I was feeling something else, too, something so out of step with what I thought I should be feeling that at first I didn’t recognize it. I was exhilarated. I felt like I had been locked in a dark, airless basement and was suddenly out in the sunshine again. Focused on preserving a salary and pleasing people who hadn’t been very nice to me, I had hardly stopped to feel how miserable I had been. I knew panic about an uncertain future would likely set in before long, but for the moment I was really happy that it was 1:45 on a Wednesday afternoon and I was free, in all the exciting and terrifying senses of that word.

Bill, my friend and the convicted murderer, had a medical pass to take the day off. A few weeks before our trip, after a week of excruciating headaches and nausea, he made a second trip to the emergency department, where he learned that he was about two days past a stroke. Here’s how Bill’s wife, Jenny, described the discussion with the neurosurgeon in her blog, “A Life I Never Expected”: “He explained that this type of stroke is most often caused by an injury to the neck, where the artery clots while trying to heal; the clot travels into the brain and gets stuck, blocking off blood and oxygen to the neighboring cells.  He said we can never really know with things as complicated as the brain, but that he had plenty of reasons to assume Bill would make a full recovery.” 

Not for the first time, Bill was lucky. His stroke affected his balance but not his cognitive function.

After a week at home, Bill returned to work, but a few days later he was back at the ED. The ED doctors put him on Lipitor as a precaution, but the side effects caused a manic episode that culminated with him tearing out of the house and jumping on his motorcycle, something he was supposed to avoid because of the Coumadin he was taking to prevent more blood clots. Bill’s normal state is enthusiastic, so it must have been something to see. Removing the Lipitor from his drug regimen restored his equilibrium, but the doctors advised him to take two weeks off to give himself a chance to recover fully.

The unexpected break from work, though more temporary than mine, put Bill in mind to cross two items off his to-do list: visiting his step-uncle, Linford, to talk about harvesting some hardwood from the crumbling house Linford had grown up in; and showing me where he came from so I would be better equipped to write his life story. You might call it a double-cross-off to advance a home-improvement project and kick me into gear.

I needed it. It had been nearly three years since I had recorded several hours of Bill’s life story with the vague goal of writing a book, or at least an article, about his remarkable journey from troubled teen to long-term inmate to pillar of the community. (Spoiler alert: Bill is almost certainly not really an axe murderer, although at 16 his most obvious talent was an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

Earlier this year, with the tapes about halfway transcribed, nothing written, the five-year anniversary of Bill’s release from prison approaching, and a celebration at the Hillsborough Unitarian Universalist Church looming, my wife told me I had better not show up at church empty-handed. I spent Wednesday and Thursday evenings poring over 20 pages of transcriptions and – finally –starting to write. By Friday I had enough on paper that Bebe told Jenny I would have something to contribute on Sunday.

After spending most of Saturday polishing, I had three pages. As a preacher’s kid, I grew up in church and sometimes filled the pulpit when my dad (and most of his congregation) was on summer vacation. The last thing I wrote of any consequence that wasn’t a fundraising proposal was probably the eulogy for my grandmother, who died at 102 in 2007. What I had was probably more of a sermon than an essay. But Bill is a great talker and I had a lot of rich material.

When we arrived at the UU that Sunday morning, Bill greeted me with a hug and said, “I understand you have something to read this morning.” That’s when I knew for sure I wasn’t going to get away with handing him a few pieces of paper. Bill was the focus of the service, with Jenny and several of his friends and sponsors celebrating and gently roasting him. A few of the stories were familiar from our interviews, such as having to ask what sun-dried tomatoes were on one of his trips to a restaurant.  And then Jenny announced there would be one more speaker.

I was nervous and out of practice, but I got through it. My ribs hurt after Jenny and Bill hugged me, so I figured I did okay. After the service, one of Bill’s sponsors approached me and asked me about the piece I had written. It turns out she is a published novelist. She sounded amazed that I had written it in just a few days, encouraged me to keep going, and offered to be a reader once I had a draft of a book.

This could have been the “eureka” moment where I finally realized I was a writer and, loins girded by the positive feedback, dived into the Bill project and my “real” vocation as a writer. Instead, it paralyzed me. I transcribed a few more sessions, but the Bill project essentially languished from May to October.

So I climbed into Bill’s Honda CRV with an odd mix of excitement and dread. I would be entering a world that was as foreign to me as that first menu had been to Bill. My experience of rural North Carolina was largely limited to bike races and hiking, and all I knew first-hand of rural poverty was from an article I had written 20 years before. I was about to get way out of my element. And I still was not very deep into what Bill expected to be a whole book about his life’s journey.

Bill was excited about the trip, and probably a little nervous himself. He blasted country music, turning it down every few mile markers to fill me in on why we were going, other than to continue my education. His step-uncle, Linford, lives with his mother, who is 94 and suffers from Alzheimer’s. The house Linford lived in for many years is falling down, but the last time Jenny and Bill had visited there seemed to be plenty of salvageable hardwood. With their own kitchen torn up and other renovations underway, Bill was hoping to find some flooring and maybe a usable sink. Jenny had her eye on some beaded wallboard that she thought could make a cool living room ceiling. Linford had talked about knocking down the house, and Bill thought he could get a few friends, a truck and a trailer to carry what they needed back to Durham.

Near Statesville we turned off I-40 onto Route 90 and quickly got into the country. Beautiful country. There are few vistas in the part of central North Carolina where we live. That’s not a problem in Hiddenite. In addition to the gemstone that shares its name, the town is home to ridges where one can straddle the spine of the earth with great views of the Brushy Mountains, a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains that stretch out to the west. Soon we pulled into a driveway with a small white frame house and a car graveyard out back – a couple of vintage panel trucks (one bears the legend “Industrial Paint Contractors”), an old Chevy, a pick-up or two. A jacked-up black 4x4 seemed to be the only operational vehicle.

Inside, we met Uncle Linford, a large, friendly man who seemed excited to see Bill and pleased to meet me.  He joked about why I would give up a day to hang out with a crazy man, but when Bill left the kitchen to say hello to Linford’s mother, he stage-whispered, “Bill’s a walking miracle.” Linford had a few details confused – he thought Bill had become a schoolteacher – but he had the basic narrative down pat. Up from a tough beginning – “he was framed” – Bill had landed a good wife and a good job. He was doing all right.

We talked about the illegal deer hunters Linford had chased off with buckshot the previous night. He was angry about the intrusion on his private property, but was in a forgiving mood. With all the things the government has done, he told me, people are desperate. (Later on, Bill said he had forgotten to tell me not to discuss politics with Linford, but I was on my best behavior.) A few minutes later, Bill was pulling on his work pants and high boots and we were off down the road. I wore my jeans and low-cut hiking shoes. My comparatively exposed ankles seemed to be calling out to snakes as Bill hacked away some foliage and we approached what was left of the front porch of Linford’s old homestead.

Inside we found a solid core whose skin seemed to be peeling away. Most of the kitchen/dining room wall was gone, as was a good bit of the upstairs outer wall on the other side of the house. The floor was mushy in spots and Bill was easily able to pull the cabinet that held the sink away from the wall, but the staircase was remarkably solid. Bill thoughtfully went up ahead of me, and nobody crashed through the floorboards. Here and there Bill pointed out boards that would be perfect in the new kitchen floor or on the living room ceiling.

We found a collection of returnable Pepsi bottles, two ancient TVs in their cabinets, two tattered record players and an old wooden tube radio. Not to mention several issues from 1969 and 1970 of Plain Truth magazine, the publication of the radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. And a single page from an old Penthouse, perhaps left behind by a trespasser.

We peeked at the barn, also falling in and stuffed with car parts, bed frames and other odds and ends, and checked in with Linford again before leaving. A diabetic, he was slowly caring for his feet and chatting with a local woman who helps care for his mother. As Bill talked about the wood he could save and his plans to bring some guys and a truck back to get it, Linford repeatedly gestured toward the tiny woman in the hospital bed to finish sentences that began, “I would get to it but for . . .”

Next up was lunch in Taylorsville, the county seat. On the drive over Bill was agitated, irked that Linford was dragging his feet on knocking down the house. The wood will probably go bad in the next two to three years, he told me, and if Linford dies, his kids will sell the property with no thought as to who could put that wood to good use. There seemed to be no good side to take, so I rode in silence.

We stopped for a bottle of Coke and some water at a country store, a squat cinderblock building where a woman used a hot plate to warm up roast beef for sandwiches for some workers on lunch break. The shelves were sparsely provisioned, but the parking lot had a sweeping view of the adjoining valley. Bill cheered up as he told me about riding his bicycle 15 miles from the house to our next stop, his favorite swimming hole. When we got there a man was fishing. The tree from which they used to swing out over the pond was gone, but the spot was lovely. I believed Bill when he told me that despite all the terrible things that had happened to him, life in Hiddenite was pretty good a lot of the time.

We continued to Taylorsville for lunch (local historians disagree about whether the town is named after our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, or North Carolina’s first State Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Louis Taylor), making another brief stop at the Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area, a nearly new park located at the site of an old quarry. Two sheriff’s deputies pass the time in the parking lot while Bill chats with an older couple and I take pictures of climbers on the serrated rock wall. The quarry operated from the 1920s through the 1940s. A prison camp was located nearby, and Bill tells me prisoners taken to work there were sometimes shot off the granite walls. Coming from someone else, that might sound like a dark bit of local color; from Bill it is a chilling reminder of how much goes on beyond the notice of people like me.

Bill paid for lunch at the S&S Family Restaurant, where it is worth waiting for the fried-while-you-wait chicken breasts. He ordered the first livermush sandwich I had ever seen and pronounced it as good as he remembered. After we ate Bill called his one and only girlfriend from before he was incarcerated, who lives nearby with her husband and daughter, a high-school senior. With Jenny’s encouragement, Bill contacted her when he got out of prison. She has visited them in Durham with her daughter. He is proud of the fact that he is the only boyfriend her mother approved of, and tells me how her older sister drove them around town, acting as chauffeur and chaperone. Later we drive by the house where they held hands and kissed on the front porch.

We also pass a surprising number of places where Bill lived in foster care, including the place where he tells me his foster “father” physically abused him repeatedly when he was between 11 and 13.  He’s told me several times that it’s important for me to see where he comes from so I can understand his story. I was about to see the heart of it all.

After a beautiful drive up Pea Ridge Road, with the hazy Blue Ridge in the distance, Bill pulls off the road beside an overgrown lot. He shows me the driveway, although I don’t think I would have picked it out on my own. It doesn’t look like anyone lives there now. The brush appears impenetrable, but without a lot of difficulty we push through into a clearing slowly being reclaimed by nature. A pile of stones, the tub from an old wringer washing machine, and a rusted section of a woodstove are the only signs of the tiny house where Bill lived between short, mostly unhappy stops at foster homes and juvenile wilderness camps. An outhouse – Bill remembers digging the hole for it – is the only structure standing on the property, although some domesticated shrubbery and bushes suggest that someone once did some landscaping.

As we make our way to the barrel where spring water used to collect, Bill warns me to watch out for the bottles. He had told me they were everywhere on the property, scattered on the ground and buried in mounds. Full-size liquor bottles, airplane liquor bottles, mason jars – the image they convey of life with abusive alcoholics is as treacherous as the footing. When I ask, Bill tells me his step-father got drunk and burned the house down one night in the mid-90s. He would be happy, he says, to come back in 30 years and not be able to find any trace of the place.

A few minutes later he is happily – or at least more happily – hacking the spider webs away to clear our way to the second of two gardens he helped tend as a boy. That’s when the absurdity, the human comedy of it, hits me. Here I am in the middle of nowhere (there’s a farm down the road but not close enough for anyone to hear me scream) with a convicted murderer waving a machete. I’m a bit sad, in mourning for a mostly lost childhood, but I’m not scared at all. I’ve left this guy alone to play video games with my younger son and I trust him as much as friends I have known far longer. He sheaths the machete and the tour continues.

Thirty years ago Bill ran away from a training school with another boy. They slept in and vandalized an apartment before hiding out in a barn. When the old man who owned the property saw a light and went to investigate, the other boy hit him on the head with an axe handle. Bill cowered in the dark until the police came. The other kid’s family had money for a lawyer, who laid the blame on Bill. The kid did six years in prison, where Bill heard he bragged about getting away with murder. Bill’s public defender did little defending, and Bill ended up with life. Not long after the trial, Bill told me, the attorney went to jail himself, for embezzlement.

As I stand in that clearing, listening to Bill talk about the vegetables, I’m thinking Uncle Linford is right. Bill is a walking miracle. If it weren’t for overcrowding in our state’s prisons, he might never have even gotten parole. Today he is married to a social worker and has a responsible job with a nonprofit organization. He often acts like the 16-year-old kid he was when he went inside, but he’s grown up in all the important ways.

Our day isn’t over quite yet. We cross the road to visit Bill’s grandmother’s house, where he points out a broad plank that he reckons might fetch $200 and I snap an eerie picture of some dresses that have been left hanging in a corner for many years. On our way out of Hiddenite, we stop back at Linford’s house. He has gone out to run an errand, and the caretaker is reluctant to let Bill in to kiss his step-grandmother goodbye. As I watch him at the door, I recall his words over lunch, when he told me that while he feels he belongs here, he can never come back. “I will always be Tom’s son to them.”

On the way back to Durham, we take Route 54 and stop at the Fiesta Grill on the outskirts of Carrboro for a Mexican dinner. While I eat the excellent enchiladas molé and drink a glass of Spanish red, he texts about a client issue at work. I’m a little bit jealous. I’m not a fan of texting at the dinner table, especially about work, but Bill has found a job he loves. I, on the other hand, am about to start a job search with no idea where it will take me.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Anne LaMott, the novelist, essayist, writing guru and spiritualist, says it’s okay to admit that you have no clue what to do next. I admit it. I don’t have a clue where I will land. But I’m sitting across the table from a pretty good example of what can happen if you don’t give up. 







Facebook on a Cloudy Day

I had to take a 24-hour break from Facebook last weekend. I was involved in a vigorous discussion about the Ferguson case with two friends (and I’m pretty sure they’re both still my friends) when a woman I’ve never met jumped in to say, “David Rice needs to STFU.” (If you need to ask, it’s an acronym for a less polite way to say, “Be quiet, please.")

Once I calmed down, I recalled something I read when email was the disruptive technology of the day. In a column about using it to trash the boss or converse with your office lover, the author advised users of this then-new technology to think of an email not as a sealed letter but as a post-it note tacked to the bulletin board in the break room. (If you need to ask, letters were how lovers plighted their troth in the several centuries preceding this one.)

I’m not sure what is the proper analogy for Facebook – think of it as drinking with twitchy-fingered outlaws in a Western saloon instead of with friends in your living room? As showering with strangers? Tossing a stink-bomb into the break room? – but I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised to find a typographical broken chair flying in my direction, flung by a stranger I didn’t realize I had offended, didn’t even stop to think was listening in

Maybe Facebook is more like a polyamorous wedding in which the guests include family members, childhood friends, your high school and college friends, your wife’s high school and college friends, your old coworkers (and your wife’s old coworkers), guys you played softball with two decades ago, parents of kids who played in sports leagues with your kids, and everyone that all of them ever knew. You start a line from an old Marx Brothers movie or “Animal House” and your brother or best friend jumps in to finish it and you all laugh uproariously – while the stranger who just joined you stares at you like you’re mad.

Or maybe it’s more like a bathroom stall, where the graffiti careens from Zen-lite observations to clever non-sequiturs to Jenny’s phone number to the inevitable crudely drawn genitalia.  Some are funny (I’m partial to “Things I hate: 1. Vandalism 2. Irony 3. Lists”), while others make you ashamed to share a gender with the guy who wrote it. (If you need to ask, it’s 867-5309.)

And that’s where Facebook gets tricky. I can happily argue with any number of friends on any number of topics. Sometimes they surprise me with their wit, sometimes with their sheer stupidity (i.e., they disagree with me when I’m sure I’m right). But only on the rarest of occasions, at the rawest of times does anyone go away angry or with bruised feelings. Usually we give up trying to convince each other and promise to reconvene over a beer with a new set of nonsense to jaw about.

Not so when a stranger strikes out in anger. I’m a sensitive enough soul to need a Facebook timeout after that.  Even worse is when I lash out over something and am almost instantly horrified to realize I have been way too personal with someone who might actually be a delight, if you talked about the right things. There is an excess of anger in the air these days and it doesn’t take much to set some of us off.

Facebook can be educational. Not long ago I reconnected with an African-American friend from church youth group days. The week of the Ferguson non-indictment he described in horrifying detail being pulled over by two cops in Harlem, allegedly for having a clear plastic cover over his license plate. Two other cops appeared on the sidewalk when he pulled over. I’ve never seen a cop reach for a gun while I reached for my registration, but Dexter has. Some anger is justified.

Facebook can be wonderful. Twice recently I have had instant-messaging chats with old friends, one from high school and one from college. They’ve both turned into wonderful, caring adults. Another college friend reached out to ask me if her daughter, a college senior, could interview me about the Moral Monday rallies I’ve attended in Raleigh. I keep up with my own kid at college as he rides bikes and hikes and, we hope, studies. I see the fish my friend Joel has caught and converse with his siblings, all of us fellow formerly rebellious preacher’s kids. And I read a lot of good stuff I wouldn’t have found without my Facebook friends.

But fighting with strangers is futile. I won’t convince them that we’re still fighting our way to the surface of a sea of racism, and they won’t convince me that it’s not as simple as a good cops encountering bad people. As my friend Tim Tyson commented on Facebook the other day, we need to keep protesting no matter how tired and frustrated we get. And we need to be prepared to lose some friends if we can’t keep quiet. But losing friends we haven’t yet made is pointless.

I’ve been reading a lot of westernized Buddhism as I discover where my own personal journey will take me next. All those quotes you see on Facebook about anger are right. Outbursts always have two victims, the deliverer as well as the recipient. When you’ve been on social media too long, you can feel it, from the top of your head down to your fingertips, like bad electricity. We are all interconnected, and we were put here to love one another. And to turn off the computer and read a good book every once in a while.

Bill Rasor is going to Disneyworld

Imagine being an intelligent 41-year-old, going to a restaurant and not having a clue what half of the items on the menu are. Having a curfew. Or getting excited by junk mail.

Jailed at 16 and paroled at 41, Bill Rasor missed out on a lot. More precisely, he postponed a lot. He’s been making up for it ever since.

Take the junk mail. “It’s hard for people to understand how I can be happy about getting junk mail,” he says. “It’s mine! It’s in my name. It’s coming to me.”

Or his first flat tire. “I had a flat tire and I called Jenny jubilantly about having a flat tire, and she said, ‘Why are you so happy about this?’ And I said, “Because I have never had a flat tire, I got to change my own tire.” Even when the new experiences extended to a worn-out transmission, Bill was undaunted. “You know, it was like, this is living,” he recalls. “I feel really alive.”

What most of us see as life’s little misfortunes, Bill experiences as an opportunity to exercise his hard-won freedom. For him the glass isn’t half-full, it’s a brand-new glass full of milk with a double serving of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.  “Although I was making some decisions in there,” he says of prison, “I was not making life decisions. In there it was a routine and you just get up and do it. Out here, every day it’s decision, decision, decision, and I like that.”

Flat tires and blown transmissions – things that make you or me say “Oh, God, here we go again,” – are part of the big adventure for Bill. Even sleepless nights can thrill him. “There are times when I get up at night and I sit in the living room or I go get on the computer or I go pour a glass of milk or I go out in the front yard and sit in one of our lawn chairs and it’s like 2 a.m. and it’s awesome,” he says. “It’s really coming around. I’m getting to experience adulthood.”

To watch Bill play X-Box with our son Sam is to see a 40-something with a lot of 12-year-old left in him. But there’s something remarkable and admirable beneath the ever-present black hat and behind the boyish grin. He's been lucky the past five years, but to a large degree he has made his own luck.

Bill made a huge mistake when he was 16, and he paid for it. As a poor kid with a lousy lawyer, he probably paid too much and for far too long. But he’s done a lot right since earning his release from Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in 2009. Beginning with a dead-end restaurant job with an abusive manager – one he left at some peril to his freedom – he moved on to carpentry work with a supportive boss and then to an increasingly responsible position with a nonprofit that helps people with mental illness learn how to live in the community.  Without a college degree – he has a GED and a folder full of certificates from his prison time – he has become a successful professional. If anything, his luck in love and friendship has been even greater.

Bill credits TV a for some of his post-prison success – “The only good thing about commercials is they tell you what’s out there.” But mostly, he redeemed what could have been wasted years by paying attention. “I didn’t always have to make the mistakes that everybody just makes,” he says. “I could learn by hearing them talk about the mistakes they made, which is a gift. That’s not to say I don’t still make mistakes, but I don’t tend to make the mistakes that I’ve heard other people talk about.”

Bill saw many people leave prison, and too many come back. He learned that you don’t buy stuff cheap from a stranger on the side of the road, and that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  He learned what not to do. More important, he learned what to do. Piecing the parade of individual failures into patterns, he developed a list of five things he would need to do to stay free if he ever got out. ‘’Things,” he says, “that I saw people who were staying out were doing, the people who were coming back weren’t doing.”

First on Bill’s list was consistent employment: “Because that gave you goals, it gave you something to move forward with.” Next was building relationships: “It had to be healthy relationships, not relationships that were going to get you back in trouble.” Third was volunteering: “Just doing it, without any expectation, giving of yourself to something outside yourself.” Fourth, spirituality: Not necessarily a specific faith, but a belief system that teaches respect for others. Fifth is treating substance abuse problems: “I’m an exception, but most offenders have a drug or alcohol problem. They have to address it.”

Bill didn’t adopt his list from a self-help book for a successful life after incarceration. “I came up with it by talking to people, guys who I saw coming back over and over,” he says. “It would break my heart. I would be like, “If I could just have one chance.”

His chance finally came. He hasn’t messed it up.

He put in dozens of housing applications before finding a place that would rent to a convicted felon. He found a job, and then a better one. He volunteered at Carolina Tiger Rescue and began to mentor others who were making the transition from prison to life outside. He built an impressive circle of friends, many of whom spend extensive amounts of time and money at the Bean Traders coffee shop near Jenny and Bill’s house. Out on passes while he was still in prison, he began attending what he calls the pagan services at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Six days before his release, he met Jenny at a Celebrate the Circle ritual at the Unitarian Church.

It hasn’t all been easy. There were dark moments when he feared that quitting his job might be a violation of his parole. Getting backed into on his motorcycle in the parking lot of his next job led to physical pain and financial discomfort. And then there was Jenny.

Although he jokes that after 26 years in prison he was interested in every woman, Bill settled on Jenny very quickly. It took Jenny a little bit longer. Needing some work done around the house, Jenny asked one of Bill’s supporters at the church for his contact information. Already smitten, Bill explained that he was an all-or-nothing guy and it would be difficult to be at her house as a worker when what he really wanted was to date her. “There was no way she was going to date a guy who just got out of prison for murder,” he says. He asked her out, more than once. “She was like, ‘No, I just want some work done around the house.”

Bill took the initial rejection hard. “I remember laying on my couch, just crying, brokenhearted, every time she said no,” he recalls. “But I was not giving up. I know she’s a good woman and I’m not letting this get by me.” Finally, Jenny relented. Their first date was at his place, the only place they could meet without violating his 7 p.m. curfew.

Their early relationship was anything but smooth. “It’s a bumpy road,” says Bill. “I’m having to deal with issues and just coming out and learning what a relationship is really about.” Jenny was recently divorced and hesitant to commit to this self-confessed all-or-nothing guy. At one point the whole thing nearly came crashing down over the thorny question of whether a country music-loving man and a rock and roller could ever coexist happily.

But Bill is nothing if not persistent, and a year and a half ago dozens of us gathered at a rustic lodge by a lake to celebrate their marriage. The ceremony blended Bill’s Native American and Jenny’s Wiccan beliefs. The crowd – blood relatives, coworkers, the sponsors who guided Bill when he was first out of prison, the many friends whom Bill and Jenny have incorporated into a raucous extended family – told you all you needed to know about Bill’s awe-inspiring ability to build healthy relationships. During the ceremony, we stood and turned as one, to the East, West, North and South, celebrating the journey that brought Jenny and Bill together and promising to support them as they built a new life together.

Five years out of jail and done with parole as of Mother’s Day weekend, Bill Rasor is doing all right. He has a plan to celebrate his remarkable journey. He’s going to Disneyworld. He’s earned it.