Mike Rowe, Paul Harvey, World War II, and Christmas cookies

And what they all have in common.

I climbed in my car in a funk, irritated and discouraged, and not sure why. I did know that I needed to find my way out of the fog, and quickly. It was a rare day off, and I didn’t want my family to have to put up with a surly scrooge the rest of the day. Our final Christmas gathering was approaching, and I had to run to the store for an ingredient that I didn’t know I didn’t have for our last holiday baking push.

Before backing out of the driveway, I scrolled to my favorite app, opened up the audiobook I had recently downloaded, and pressed play. I had to get out of my head.

Mike Rowe’s unmistakable voice came floating out of my phone speakers, and my mind shifted out of my own life’s circumstances and into someone else’s.

He was telling a story about a corporal in World War II and his efforts to put a smile on the face of his fellow soldiers. The company was stationed in a European wood close enough to the German line to hear the incessant propaganda flowing from their loudspeakers. The soldier rigged up his own speaker at the top of a pole near the muddy foxholes of his friends and flipped on a switch. Out came a catchy song by a popular Jewish singer, effectively drowning out that unwelcome German diatribe that had been formerly harassing their senses.

His idea worked. The soldiers began to smile as they slid out of their own world and into the memory of another.

The ten minute ride to the store passed in a flash. Reluctantly, I pressed pause mid-scene and ran as fast as I dared into the grocery store to obtain the treasured ingredient for my afternoon’s labor. As I worked my way down the baking aisle, I noticed a box of discounted Christmas cookie cutters and looked inside. Finding a shape we didn’t yet have, I snagged it for the kids, knowing they’d be delighted with the find.

One of the store’s long-time workers passed by and noticed the Christmas item in my hand. He asked if I was still making Christmas cookies. He then proceeded to tell me a story about Christmases of past years when his kids were younger, and how the neighborhood kids would come over to bake Christmas cookies together, decorate them, and then deliver them to all the neighbors.

I smiled and commented about what a great tradition that was, and how many good memories his kids probably still carry from those times. We chatted a few minutes more, and I moved on my way. As I headed to the produce aisle, I heard him ask the shopper behind me how her dog was doing.

He was clearly a regular with the regulars.

As I lingered in the bread section looking for hamburger buns, I overheard two different store workers gossiping about the chatty stocker with whom I had just been in conversation.

All he ever does is stand around and talk. He never works! I was the complaint one of them shared with the other. The listening worker patiently sympathized, and then confessed that she just tried to do her own job.

That’s all I can do, she said, and proceeded to listen to the other employee’s slightly reworded versions of the same complaint.

After I snagged a few other needed items, I made my way to the checkout. Before I had even begun putting my groceries on the moving belt, the cashier launched into a conversation about her surprise at how quickly her nephew was growing up. It seemed he was only born yesterday, and yet here she was filling out a form for time off so she could attend his first birthday party.

I had never seen this gal in my life.

Back in my car, I realized how many other storylines were converging in that small-town grocery store. Everyone was preoccupied with their own, mostly oblivious to the stories happening parallel to theirs. Including me.

I thought back to Mike Rowe’s introduction to his book, about the power of a story to capture your attention, inspire you, and change your perspective. A devoted Paul Harvey fan (who isn’t?), he was influenced by Harvey’s uncanny ability to keep him glued to the seat of his car, catching the end of a Harvey story on the radio when he should have been running to catch a flight. (He missed it.)

And I realized that another person’s story helped break me out of the paralysis of my own my funk had lifted as my mind was freed from my preoccupation with my own self-importance.

All of our lives are a series of stories, one after another and they matter. But many of them not too much.

So thanks, Mike. Thanks, Paul. They’ve done what I hope to do with these notes about our farm: share a story, earn a smile, and lighten a load that formerly seemed unbearable.

We’re working to make the best of today’s story.

And maybe it will be okay, after all.

(Rowe’s book, by the way, is called The Way I Heard It. I highly recommend it, with one caveat: there are a couple of parts not suited to young ears. It’s not a new book; he’s got others out besides it. He reads it himself in classic Mike Rowe style. From someone who knows a dirty job when he sees it, his platform is all about elevating the dignity of working with your hands in a society that unfairly belittles it. And that’s a voice we can appreciate and respect.)

One more thing…

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