Good life advice: Plan to be surprised
by Margaret Dabbs
Jan 26, 2011 | 2958 views | 0 0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Several years ago I noticed both my sons were watching a television series called "The Office." Without realizing I was cultivating a new habit, I covertly started watching old episodes on Hulu when I was home by myself. Over several months I managed to get my hands on two or three seasons of episodes made available by friends and Netflix.

Steve Carell, as the character Michael Scott, is the central core of this 7-season-old comedy series in spite of, or perhaps due to, his highly irritating and often unbelievably ridiculous personality. Loving to hate Michael Scott, I developed a soft spot for Carell's wacky humor and eagerly watched his "comedy-drama" 2007 movie, "Dan in Real Life." In that sweet, honest portrayal of family life movie, Carell plays Dan Burns, a child-raising advice columnist who is bringing up his three daughters by himself after his wife's death.

At the annual family retreat at the grandparents' cottage in Rhode Island, Dan and his brother Mitch's girlfriend, Marie, fall in love with each other within minutes of meeting. After a series of hilarious scenes where they stumble around their feelings for each other, Marie abruptly leaves in order to end her

relationship with Mitch. Dan chases after her and the entire family inadvertently finds them passionately kissing in the local bowling alley. Marie hastily drives off, seemingly forever, to avoid creating further family turmoil after Mitch goes after Dan with his fists.

Realizing that his unexpected and certainly unplanned love for Marie is not going to disappear simply because she is gone, and with the encouragement and company of his daughters, Dan drives to New York City to find her. During the drive Dan narrates the first now-syndicated column he writes after this life changing turn of events:

Dear Readers,

For most of you this is my first column in your paper. In the future I will be answering your questions. But today, I want break from my usual format and talk to you about the subject of plans. Not so much my plans for this column, more like life plans, how we make them. And how we hope our kids make good, safe plans of their own. But if we're really honest with ourselves, most of the time our plans don't work out as we'd hoped. So instead of asking our young people, "What are your plans? What do you plan to do with your life?" maybe we should tell them this, "Plan to be surprised."

I am a prolific planner as I make list after list. I try to anticipate every possibility every day so I am not caught off guard by any unexpected turn of events. I plan so I can control. Yet every time I sit down to write this column, Dan's message shines through. I may start off with one idea in the planning process and then end up going in an entirely different direction because the stories of the people I write about require a new direction, a different slant or a previously unconsidered thought process.

Finding an old

political bond

Several weeks ago I interviewed Elizabeth Petree Weber, the daughter of Sally and Jim Petree. Elizabeth recently moved back to Jasper with her spouse Shane after living many years in Spooner, Wis., a two traffic light town of about 2,600. Spooner is located in a gorgeous outdoor recreation area where January is the coldest month, averaging 12 degrees, July is the warmest month, averaging 69 degrees, and the average annual snowfall is 47 inches.

Elizabeth fit right in with my last column about successfully coming home to Jasper after many years living a life somewhere very different from our Northwest Alabama town. Age contemporaries, we talked on four different occasions for a total of at least six hours. However, with her gentle voice and easy, unassuming, manner, Elizabeth brought me at least a half-dozen other stories, one involving my own father.

In discussing her parents' deep commitment to and involvement in this community, Elizabeth mentioned that they both worked in a governor's campaign in the early 1960s. My heart actually jumped with joy when she and I realized that in 1962 her father was the Walker County Chairman for the Ryan deGraffenried for Governor campaign while my father, Tennessee Harris, was the statewide chairman.

Elizabeth found her father's file from this campaign for the 36- year-old state senator from Tuscaloosa. The mottled, ragged, yet carefully saved old file opened an incredibly informative doorway into an extensive, well-planned grass roots political campaign for this young, extceptionally bright, proven legislative leader. Ryan deGraffenried had already served with distinction in both houses of the Alabama Legislature, received a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster for his service in World War II, had been an outstanding law student, and carried the hope of leading our state thoughtfully into the future. Elizabeth remembers her father taking her to the Jasper Airport to meet Ryan deGraffenried on one of his campaign stops when she was about 10 years old.

Smiling as she recalled the event from the perspective of herself as a little girl, Elizabeth described the moment with unquestionable clarity. "He struck me as such a magnificent human being. He showed me, a child, so much respect. He was so courtly. He shook my hand and made me feel like I was not an insignificant person. I felt like I was meeting a great man." Shifting perspective and looking back with her now adult point of view, Elizabeth noted, "I got the impression that Ryan deGraffenried was a person of integrity, truly a politician who was honest and hardworking and really wanted to improve conditions in this state for everyone."

Ryan deGraffenried was defeated by George Wallace in the 1962 Democratic primary runoff after receiving about 44 percent of the vote. So deGraffenried went to work almost immediately on the 1966 governor's campaign and many thought he had a good chance to be elected. On Feb. 9, 1966, the day after he qualified to run in the primary, deGraffenried was campaigning in Fort Payne and planning to fly to a speaking engagement in Gadsden. The airport manager urged him to drive since storms in the area made flying conditions dangerous. Concerned about getting to Gadsden on time, he and his pilot made the decision to fly and both died when the plane crashed.

Two little girls growing up in the 1960s in different towns never met until they were grown women. But they shared an unrealized common bond as they both grew up in families with a dream of Ryan deGraffenried as governor- an extremely capable man with the leadership ability to move Alabama forward in the most difficult times, while making us proud to be Alabamians. The existence of the bond was absolutely unanticipated, making its discovery even more rewarding.

Taking Note of Arley

For many years I drove up Winston County Road 41 on my trips to Decatur for business and then for swim meets when my boys swam on the Jasper Swim Team. I never paid any real attention to the Town of Arley as I always had something else on my mind or my attention had to be focused on a carload of loud boys who were loaded with energy that could only be released once we made it to the pool in Decatur. Even when I made the right turn at Meek High School to head to our friends' cabin on Smith Lake, I did not look around since I always got lost on that journey and had to drive back to Arley in frustration to call for more directions in the days before cell phones.

On my most recent drive to Arley to attend a meeting of the Arley Book Club, my mind was similarly occupied with thoughts of finding my destination, the Arley Public Library, and wondering if I would know any of the book club members since I was invited as a guest for their discussion of Carl Elliott's memoir, The Cost of Courage. The library was easily found, a clean-lined new building, basically right across from Meek High School.

Opening the door into the library, and not at all sure what to expect, I was invited in by warm, welcoming colors in a bright cheerful room, and librarian Jennifer Stewart's genuine smile and eagerness to know how she could help me.

This compact, comfortable reader's haven was built with the volunteer spirit of a tiny, devoted community and motivated local leadership.

Library authority board member Evelyn Bobo, whose spouse Jack was the library's building project manager, proudly explained that the community enthusiastically raised money to build the library in a myriad of ways including grant writing, a Valentine's Day dinner at Hidden Cove, a take-off production of Hee Haw at the Arley Baptist Church, sponsor tiles, individual donations, and contributions from local lawmakers. The project also received a monetary award from the American Library Association.

Initially, the library's second floor meeting area was to be left unfinished until a later date. However, an anonymous donor gave money for elevator installation, so the floor was finished with volunteer talent and expertise. The Arley Book Club, the library's summer reading program, and other community organizations take advantage of this open space with a handy kitchenette.

The Arley Book Club was started about five years ago by community member Beth Sargent. Over the years, the club has more than doubled in size. Each month a member, the facilitator/hostess, selects the book to be read, plans a program around it, and provides a light lunch. This group represents a broad mix of states including Maryland, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee and Illinois as well as an interesting combination of cities- New Orleans, Carbon Hill, Chicago, Memphis and even Arley.

Some of the members of the Arley Book Club were born and raised in the region and returned in retirement. Others have no type of connection at all and were attracted to the area for its natural beauty, reasonable cost of living, accessibility to larger cities, and slower pace of life. Evelyn explained that after living in four states and one foreign country, she and Jack made a list of 21 attributes they wanted their retirement location to have. The Arley-Smith Lake area won out as their choice because it had 19 of the attributes on their list.

The Arley Book Club monthly book selections are as diverse as the group itself. Discussions develop and head in many, often unpredictable directions with choices such as Three Cups of Tea, The Time Traveler's Wife, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, and anthropologist Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God. Classics like William Faulkner's The Reivers and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gifts from the Sea have been explored. Alabama's Rick Bragg (The Prince of Frogtown) and Mississippi's Kathryn Stockett (The Help) are part of this book club's list of authors. The Well and the Mine, written by Montgomery native Gin Phillips, a novel about a depression-era coal mining family in Carbon Hill, was also selected.

The club's most recent discussion of The Cost of Courage featured guest Mary Allen Jolley, whom Carl Elliott described as "my right arm" from 1954 when she came on board with him until the end of his political career. With Mary's dual insight into Elliott as a man and as a public servant, the book discussion covered a broad spectrum of topics and took several interesting turns with this smart, lively group of thoughtful readers who were also careful listeners.

In years past I merely drove through Arley without really thinking about it. On this last trip, while happily and unexpectedly discovering two real treasures, the library and the book club, I believe I also found a huge part of the heart and soul of this amazing community.

Quite often life throws us curves and shoves all lists, plans, and expectations aside. As we realize the gratifying aspects of these curves, training ourselves to simply plan on being surprised may be the only plan we need.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.