A Spade or a Shovel?

My alarm went off early last week and I woke thinking “What am I going to talk about for my classification talk at Rotary next week?” and then I thought “If you had to bury a body would it be better to use a shovel or a spade and if I choose a shovel then would it be better to use a smaller shovel with the heart shaped end blade or a larger shovel with the blunter blade?”

Then I decided I would also need a tarp to put all the earth on so there wouldn’t be any tell-tale traces of my excavation and that reminded me of the time I went to Home Depot and asked for a tarpaulin and how Home Depot is the only place where my manhood is consistently questioned and often found lacking.

So I asked this dull-eyed young man, who probably majored in hammering in high-school and now wore a grubby orange vest, if they had a tarpaulin. “You want a what?” he said. I repeated myself and said “I would like a tarpaulin please.” I hoped that politeness would inspire understanding and together we would cross this communication gap. He then looked at me as if I was a small child and said “Oh you want a tarp”. And this is what it is like when you are born in America but grow up in New Zealand and come to this country in your early twenties with all your idioms.

I still say “rahnch” and my wife has to whisper “raanch” each time we go through the McDonalds drive- through and I am required to ask for salad dressing.

How did my family end up in New Zealand? It is a genealogical misadventure. My ancestors had the choice of starving to death in Ireland during the potato famine or becoming indentured servants to the English, then traveling halfway across the world in a wooden boat facing all of the perils of the open ocean, only to arrive on the shores of New Zealand with the burden of working off their debt.

I don’t know why it did not occur to them to become indentured servant to the French. You can practically swim across the channel, the food is better and the French have a 30 hour work week and 10 weeks vacation. Servitude in France hardly seems onerous, but they didn’t.

This lack of imagination is why I am the 5th Max Stillwell in a long line of Irish Stillwells. The only naming deviation is a great uncle Patrick.

So I too, found myself at twenty migrating back to the place of my birth, America, where my mother and father twenty years earlier, had applied for and won a grant that allowed them to travel from New Zealand to study in the great state of Illinois which was where I was born. Once their studies were completed, they returned back to New Zealand.

In the states I continued my studies and got an undergraduate degree in mathematics that destines you to a life of “Hey you’re the Math guy why don’t you figure it out” and if you ever make a mistake, it comes with the inevitable “Hey I thought you got your degree in Math”. To which I think silently, yes I did and then start doing a certain kind of math in my head.

You look about 5’ 10”. Weight about 170 lb. I think I could get you in the truck of my car. I calculate that is it about 7 minutes to a secluded place in the woods where I have a shovel and a spade neatly wrapped in a brand new tarp.

See, Math can be fun!

I worked 18 years at a Public Library, starting in the IT department and then rising up through the organization to the executive level. This means that all my practical skills have over time eroded, and I am now highly skilled at sitting in meetings and listening, which is disturbingly similar to what my grandmother does at the nursing home.

We all have our own story: the story that we tell ourselves and the story that we tell others. Stories provide hope and stretch our imagination. Stories reach out to the horizon and allow our minds to wonder and wander freely.

Life ends up being our greatest teacher and I have learned more enrolled in the school of hard knocks that I ever did behind the desk in a classroom.

The public library is the only institute that preserves these stories and understands their value. It guarantees access to all. You do not need a shiny e-reading gadget, a pocket full of money or a high speed connection. What you do need is the ability to read.

I asked a 5 year-old “Why do we need libraries”? I asked a five year-old because I believe that five year- olds are the only ones still capable of telling the truth.

She looked at me and thought for a moment and said:

“Well if you don’t have a book, you can go to the library and get a book.”

And no greater truth has been spoken.

If my ancestors had had access to this information, I could have been a Pierre or a Guy and they could have been gainfully employed lopping off the head of French royalty which munching on a croissant.

So it is 6:30 am and I am just finishing up writing this talk and thinking what else I might share with the group. I have been married to the same wonderful woman for the last 22 years. I have a dog and a cat. I love America and I have lived here now, longer than I lived in New Zealand.

So in ending, I wanted to make this solemn pledge that if I ever do find myself one dark night in the woods burying a body, you can rest assured it will be an Englishman.


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