Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Take Shelter (or, what is: Our Response to Dangerous Things)

Back in 2007 my best friend, Lane Moss, was working as an intern at our home church in Muskogee, Oklahoma. They cleared away some mops and buckets, and Lane squeezed a chair between some boxes and turned the broom closet into a nice little office. Lane was taking part in the internship in order to complete his degree of Biblical Literature in Youth Ministry from Ozark Christian College, in Joplin, Missouri (yeah, that Joplin). The majority of his time was spent working alongside the youth minister as they taught, led, mentored and hung out with Junior High and High School students. But, as is always the case with this position everywhere, being an intern means Lane did more than just youth ministry stuff. Because the trash isn’t going to take itself out. Plus, since his desk was made of trash bag boxes anyway, he was closest…
Really, this was a cool setup. If you ask Lane, he won’t be lying when he says he is grateful for all that he was able to experience and work through. Not limiting his responsibilities to just creating and teaching solid material to the students, this allowed him to serve in all aspects of ‘Church Work.’ In every way from helping in the nursery to making hospital calls, from managing finances to setting up and running media, he feasted on service. They even let him preach at ‘Big Church’ a couple times.
I’ve added it up. Including the two sermons Lane preached that I sat through that year, I’ve heard a lot of sermons. To make it clear: A LOT. Of the number of sermons too big to count, there are 3 I can readily recall as easily this afternoon as any other time since they first reached my ears. These three have stuck with me like house insulation sticks to a car after a tornado. They’re not going anywhere. Though they are rarely played on my ipod, the points within these sermons remain always fresh and true. In, Can Man Live Without God, Ravi Zacharias puts words on the futility I feel when I’m acting like I can act and actually accomplish anything on my own; works through the reason for, and reality of, this sense of emptiness; and speaks clearly about our source of purpose. Through Ten Shekels and a Shirt, Paris Reidhead still forces me to continually answer the questions, Why am I serving? Towards what purpose am I working? And every time Lane’s sermon comes to mind, I’m stuck singing “The bunny, the BUNNY, whoa I love the bunny…” for at least a half day afterwards. (In my last post I wrote about how streams of random thoughts link together in my mind. Check there if you’re curious.)
His last day of the internship was also his last time to preach in ‘Big Church.’ Whatever way it fit into the sermon series of the time, the elders and staff decided to have Lane preach through the text of Daniel chapter 3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. This sermon, one of the three sermons planted firmly in my mind, is titled The God of the Furnace

Along with everybody else in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar expected, ordered these guys to bow down to his statue at the sound of music (I told you it was evil). I wonder how long it took them to decide what their action was going to be. Did they reach their decision quickly? Were they steadfast about it from that moment on? Did second thoughts increase as the anxiety grew and the moment to live out their decision to remain upright came nearer?
They’re not deaf. They heard the music. Yet there they stood. I wish it was told in the text what was going through the minds of these three guys in between the moment they remained standing amongst the now fallen, and the moment they were confronted by the furious king. Surely God will save us. At least, He can save us. Here he comes. God, please save us. A Take this cup from me type of prayer.
We don’t know their thoughts or actions in this space between. At least we know their response after the king gave them a second chance to fall. “Shadrach, Meshach, and, Abednego replied, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up’” (Daniel 3:16=18 NLT).
Our brothers stood their ground. And the king stuck to his word.
Pray as they might, God did not deliver them from the furnace.
But even if he doesn’t…
Not too far below The Flood and Daniel and the Lions’ Den, this story falls in line with other popular Bible stories you’ll likely hear at VBS if nowhere else. Frederick Buechner talks about what we call “children’s Bible stories” in his book, The Hungering Dark. In the chapter, “A Sprig of Hope,” our friend Fred ponders why it is that we take stories as tragic as Noah’s Ark and turn them into cute little cardboard cut outs and coloring books to be used as activities in church kindergarten classes. The events recorded in Daniel 3 surrounding our brothers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego carry the same tragedy. He supposes as horrific as these events are, it’s at least better to color them in bright blues and yellows than to forget them all together. This way we can store them in mind until we’re ready to see them in the light of what’s going on.
Whatever the reason we do so, it is tempting to overlook the glaring horror of the situation God allowed them – Noah, Rack, Shack and Benny – to be a part of, and jump right to the good stuff at the end. It’s easy to go straight to the bearded and naked Noah dancing beneath the rainbow; the three Servants of the Most High God strutting out of the blazing furnace without even a scent of smoke. It’s good to know the conclusions of these stories. A story is not a story without an ending. But at the same time, an ending loses its weight if the tragedy in the middle is glanced over. The Waters came and with it came an ocean of death. Though they were obeying God with everything they had on the ground they stood, God did not deliver these men from the furnace.
A lot of books lining my bookcase are written by a variety of different authors who attempt to answer the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” If I want to be intellectually sound, I can’t overlook the apologies these books offer in response to this question. In at least some sense, this question has been answered. However, as is stated in C. S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed, when you and I are drowning in this present sorrow, those academic answers ring hollow in our ears. There is no comfort in these rebuttals.
I see that I have written a whole lot for not really wanting to say much. I’m not trying to answer why Moore, OK, is going through what it’s going through. Why Shawnee, OK, is going through what it’s going through. There really is only one thing I want to say. It’s what is giving me some comfort, at least some clarity, right now. Sometimes God rescues us. Sometimes he doesn’t. But in every situation, be it furnace, firing squad, earthquake, hurricane, or hunkered down with me in Bed, Bath and Beyond on I-35 and 19th St, and everyone else everywhere else in Moore, OK, while the tornado ripped and plowed its way through town, the thing that is constant is that God never abandons us in our sufferings. If nothing else, He goes into the furnace with us.
Our God knows suffering. He chooses to suffer with us when we suffer. Sometimes He rescues us from the Furnace. Sometimes He rescues us in the Furnace.  

Stay with us, Immanuel.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It Was From When The Car Had Smashed So Hard

It took me 50 minutes to run that 5K. But I spent fewer minutes on that pavement than I did days locked in that hospital learning how to walk again. So that counts for something. 
Though it hasn't stopped me yet, the problem has persisted day in and day out - steadily in the background, at times in the foreground. Today marks a ten year struggle. And unless something shakes my tree again (and doesn't kill me this time), it's safe to bet this is going to be me from here on. For most of you, the basics are common knowledge. But, again for most of you, the details are unknown. I would like to let you in on my life's quiet constant.
I have a hard time determining which impairment is more challenging to cope with and manage, the physical or the cognitive. All time totaled, the physical issues are more obvious - as long as you're looking at me from the belly button down. 
A recent example:
My limp that night was more pronounced than usual. I'd hurt it a few mornings before trying my hardest to do jumping jacks - incorrectly - as I tried to mimic the Insanity crowd. I am always going to have the limp. I’ve had it for a decade and it's not going anywhere. If you've walked with me for 10 yards you know it. What you might not know is that the limp doesn't result from pain or any acute discomfort. The problem is, unless I concentrate and try reeeaal hard, I don't have any control of my left foot. The subconscious heel-toe-push of a smooth stride went away right along with that chunk of memory I lost back in February of 2003. It's a thick, dead fish below my ankle, flopping around and thudding on the pavement, passively following by body's repeated almost-falling-forward movement. This results in sloppy landings and a quickly-torn-up left shoe. And an increased potential for injury. Normally my foot just flops around absent-mindedly with no discomfort; but I will have pain for days after I try to do something requiring a level of expertise and coordination higher than that of walking. (No surprise coordination isn't one of my strengths.) That jumping jack session might as well have been synchronized swimming in Bejing. 
Cassie and I went to Cirque Du Soleil last December at the BOK Center in Tulsa. After we circled the block a couple times we found the entrance to the parking garage. The line of cars going in made it obvious the second time around. We paid $8 to get a little card so they wouldn't tow my car, and pulled inside. What didn't make sense to me was that each member of the car line ahead of us was following the leader slowly up the ramp and to the left. Are they blind? There's nothing but perfectly marked and empty parking spaces dead ahead. I broke the mold and took the road less traveled. Because it's easier this way. Less walking. The moment we pulled away from the line and into uncharted territory, we hear yelling. At us. 
"Where is your Premium Parker Pass!?" the parking garage native shouted. 
"Right here. I just bought it," as I waved our little card out the window at her. Not the answer she was looking for. 
"No! This is premium parking."
I paused to put together my plan. I gotta fight for my right to park. "We are looking for the nearest handicap spot. There, right there against that wall over there."
Her eyebrows sink.
"Err, a... What?"
"Handicap spot."
I can't guess why she said this, and why she said it this way. Offensive, her next line is also the best part of this little story: "Well, what are you, quadriplegic?"
I wanted to be offended, but I couldn't muster up the emotion. Was working too hard to keep in the laughs.
I hesitated for a second, raised and waved my working arms. "Nope. Just a basic handicap. Here's my sign." I showed my blue parking decal as she choked on her next words. 
"Oh, uh, sssorry, I uh, well uh, park wherever you'd like."
And the land was ours! 
Because of the insanity of the weekend before, I didn't even have to exaggerate the limp as I strutted by her car and towards the complete opposite-of-handicap, super-human performers in the building over yonder. 
That's the body. The brain is different. For the most part, I know what to expect from my shaky ol' legs. A steady and predictable limp with little variation. I like knowing what I can't do. But you can't have a brain injury and expect the damaged mind to not be affected beyond ways imaginable. My imagination, memory, my line of thinking - the whole kit and caboodle is squirrelly and unpredictable.  
Each brain is different. Duh. And each brain injury is different. Combine that with each background, experience, opinion, support system and personality of the persons injured and you'd need a graph as big and detailed as..uh... as something really big and detailed* to chart all the similarities and range of differences. (*Give me a break, I'm working with limited resources.) 
Only a few times post-wreck have I met another person with a brain injury. But there's an instant appreciation for one another when zig-zagged paths do cross. Was is Plato who said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Yeah, we know. 
Let me be bold, honest and vulnerable. A brain injury can be a lonely thing. Some days I'm caught off guard when this element of aloneness sneaks up on me. Not that I'm brushed away, ignored, avoided or forgotten. It's that the injury is forgotten. Maybe not totally forgotten, but since it’s not as blatantly obvious as a blind eye; and since I function well enough to keep from drawing too much attention to it (since a majority of the hassles take place on the inside) - it's easy to let the disability slip your mind. It slips mine from time to time. So it's not always apparent why I don't join in on all the reindeer games. It is for this reason of public solitude that camaraderie between the damaged blooms. 
Though we injured few function differently - those of us who can function - we can be aware of, acknowledge and appreciate the hills we are climbing. 
One day during my first month at work I was overwhelmed and overtaken by the piles of details and forms and dates and digits and exceptions and exclusions and TPS reports that are standard in government work. I don't share my news with everyone I meet. "Have I told you about my condition?" becomes a tired conversation, especially when the recipient hears it for the fourth time. I usually just struggle through. Like when I'm in a foot race for twice as long as the others, but still finish; so it is with cognitive tasks. If I fight through the fog long enough, eventually I hack my way to some clarity. Each of the days at this job, however, are in a different group. Each day's daily complications built on the previous day, solidifying the barrier between me and understanding more and more with each brick. 
The other choices I had were to quit or flounder out and get fired. So I sucked it up and went through the open door with option number three to my supervisor, Mike the Marine. 
He understands struggle. 
He hasn't suffered a brain injury himself, but he has friends who have. I joined in their camaraderie via Mike during our talk. 
Beginning forthright as I came from around the corner, closed his door and began to sit: "I have this condition..."
I didn't expect this to develop during our meeting, but this memory (in whatever shape it may be) will last way beyond my position at the VARO. It was like the surprise that comes with winning the jackpot. You wish for it with all the change you can spare, but are realistic and certain it won't happen. I gripped the lever with what hope I had as I started explaining my reason for being so lost. Somehow, the words fell out of my mouth in perfect order as I opened up. I was able to explain with simple clarity what it's like to work with a brain that's as reliable and consistent as a fickle Chihuahua. Up to this point I hadn't been able to find a way to walk through this type of conversation, putting on the table the scrambled thoughts I have in mind. The concept of a injured brain explaining itself clearly, spelling it out in a way that is easy for a sound mind to comprehend, is an awkward task. Explaining the look of the sky in the morning to a blind person takes some linguistic and mental somersaults. For ten years I've been trying to voice these squiggled thoughts, without a satisfactory picture to show for it. Until it happened that day, prodded on by my desperation as I took a gamble on a chance to be understood. 
Early on in our talk, Mike joined me with his understanding. "My friends will all say, 'I have a great memory, I just don't know where I put it.'" 
My heart lifts to the back of my throat as I choke out through my unrestrained smile. "That's exactly it!" 
I go on to explain there's a filing cabinet in each and everyone's brain. They're organized with labels from 'names of people' to 'what I did yesterday'; from 'i before e except after c' to 'old M.C.Hammer lyrics'; from 'where I've lived' to 'State capitols'; from 'where was I supposed to go?' to 'this is where you put a comma,' ... And everything else and everything else in between. There's only one difference between me and Susie Lee, I tell him. It's not that I have less files. I don't have a smaller filing cabinet. And it's not that I can't read. The difference is that the tree took my standard issue cabinet, shook the hell out of it, dumped it over and shuffled together all the files all over the floor. 
And when I'm around distractions, that's when all the big box fans in the room kick on. 
So if I'm staring at you blankly while you're giving me instructions, I'm not day dreaming or zoning out. I'm scrambling to make sense of it all as I sift and rake through the clutter. 
Due to the mass disruption of the filing system, my mind is pretty much free to wander whenever and wherever it wants. Prolonged undivided focus on reading, conversations, praying, eating - it's simply not going to happen. Due to the futility of trying to keep all the wild thoughts together, I gave up attempting years ago. Let the wild ponies run free. This is why you'll catch me at times chuckling like a moron even though I'm surrounded by zero things funny. There's always a stream of random thoughts flowing through my mind, linked to the previous one in some way. The sight of a street light out of the corner of my eye can trigger a cascade of thoughts, and the domino effect might lead to Darth Vader dancing with Pok√©mon. Try to keep a straight face. 
I remember a conversation my granddad was having while we were eating cheese dip in their kitchen a year ago. He said he likes to play the 'what if' game from time to time in regards to his life choices. With 80+ years to work with, he has a lot of material. What would his life be like if he didn't join the Air Force 60-some-odd years ago? Or was a farmer instead of a dentist? Or if he lived on the mountains instead of by the lake? This game isn't coupled with regrets, he said. It helps one appreciate and respect the present. I could be a thousand different places, and I'm here. 
The occasional run through this game for me is usually bitter-sweet*. How would things be different if I'd gone to a different university? What job would I have if I had different degrees other then these psychology degrees leaning against the shelf collecting Freudian dust? What if I'd never moved to Japan? What if I'd never come back? What would our life be like if we hadn't stayed together? (Or if I hadn't met her and given her a chance - and she giving me a chance - back when we met in the first place for the second time in 2010?)
Or the granddaddy scenario: What would life be like had I not slid into that tree and totaled my car that February night, waking up to hear about it mid March? Pre-February 21, I was more than capable. Physically and mentally I could hold my own. You could say the catch was that my ability outweighed my interest. What good does it do to be able to bench so much weight, and run so far, if it's of no interest to the user. It's impressive to be able to comprehend the material in a number of different AP courses; it's a shame to choose to easiest options. The Pre-Me just wasn't ready to live.
That's the funny thing about it. The tree knocked the abilities down a few notches. But that's what it took to realize life and to live with what I have left. 
I'm an old, beat-up and rusty car now. I can make it up the hill. I can make it to Kansas and back, it just takes me longer. It uses up more gas. And it's a hard drive. All cylinders firing at a full 60% makes for more challenges along the way. But, being willing and eager to use all 60% brings about better results than idling along. And, God-willing, this car, beat up as it may be, if regularly taken care of, kept running even on the cold nights, will make it. 
 Slow and (somewhat)steady..
*and it is more sweet than bitter.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Who you tryin' to get crazy with ese? (or, what is: Don't you know I'm loco?)

Cassie and I found out just a day after we got married that I say some crazy stuff while sleeping. And as we found out last night, the stuff gets totally insane when I'm sick.
Here's one example.
I've been sick in bed since Saturday night with many mild symptoms - death by a thousand cuts. Body aches, migraine, sore throat... The most notable symptom was a 101.4 fever Sunday morning. Well, that and the crazy eye. I've been miserable, but she's been good to me.
Once I'm deep asleep, nothing short of a major earthquake will wake me. But after I've snuggled into bed and before I've reached comatose status - that weird blend of wake and sleep, reality and dreamland - my startle reflex goes through the roof.
These past few nights, right as my body is really settling in and my brain is shutting everything off, whichever symptom is feeling the most ignored will fight back. It'll bulk up and slap me around just enough to keep me from falling into oblivion. (And sometimes, for an added kick in the sack, they'll call for the mouth to open the floodgates so I'll rest my head in a soggy mess.)
Last night my brain made the mistake of clocking out before making sure the body had fully shut off for deep slumber. For this reason, it wasn't until Cassie was laughing to the point of hyperventilation that I crawled back up to reality.
Enough with the setup; let's get to it.
She and I were both mostly asleep when she brushed her foot against my leg as she turned (I was hogging the bed). She said here's when all my limbs went flying like a newborn as I let out a big gasp, blindly and frantically searching around the room. "Wha.. what's going on!?"
"It was nothing, go to sleep," she says as she's finishing her repositioning on her narrow side of the bed.
I start to roll over and turn my back to her, while slowly rolling my head towards her. With fury and rage burning out of my narrowed eyes, I growl, "You're a tricky whore." With that, I finish my turn and get back to work trying to fall asleep.
Cassie was slightly offended, more confused, but mostly laughing. She punched me in the arm and said, "You just called me a tricky whore."
That brought me awake. Having no idea what had been going on since I first settled in with some 'knock-me-out' flu medicine some hours before, I looked at her, totally confused by her waking me up to begin this type of conversation, and said, "What's this about a tricky whore?" like I'd never heard the phrase before in my life.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodness. It's been a while. Twitter is easier bacause I don't have to write so much. Follow me there if you don't want to see so many words. @jacobepperson1.
And if you do, you should also follow my brother, @ericepperson. We share at least one name. And you should make a habit out of reading his blog. Ericepperson.blogspot.com. We share blogspot. Follow him if you want to read a blog more often than once every couple years.
Speaking of years, there's a new one now. Each year, Eric invites a few people to write blogs about their year. I'm honored to be invited to do so this year. I'm copying over what's posted there in case there is anyone who still reads this.
And we begin:

Number Ten
“How does a good story begin?”
“Umm...There once was this boy.”
“Ok, what’s next?”
“Who was wearing one shoe.”
“Great. And then…”
This is an activity I do early on while working with groups. We go around the circle adding to the story one sentence at a time. Coming up with their next sentence, each person has an idea of a direction they want this thing to take. Of course, it doesn’t end up going where anyone’s steering it on their own. With the story on its second or third lap around the room, Person 5 is able to say ‘But then he saw it was a Dragon!’ only to have Person 6 trump the line by saying, ‘But, luckily, it wasn’t a dragon at all, but a horse dressed in drag.’
This story doesn’t end until, as a group, we reach the ending. Point A to Point B can be a wild ride - especially considering the producers. Needless to say, I’ve heard some good stories. And I’ve heard some great lines. (Some people are so lucky to have a good line ready, and have things fall into place allowing them to make the delivery.) These are the lines that bring the most laughs. However, the more I do this group production the more I realize there is a group of lines that I value more than the zingers. Due to the structure of the story, Person 8 might be stuck with the simple ‘And so he walked.’
The Horse in Drag is great, but there’d be no Horse/Dragon if the persons before didn’t have The Boy walk on the green grass and around the brown wall. There’d be no excitement, nothing funny, if it weren’t for the mundane progress.
John Piper wrote Don’t Waste Your Life. I bet the book has something to do with the first of the Ten Things I’ve learned this year. I’ve had some big, funny, interesting, and/or intense things happen these last 365ish days. But a big, fat chunk of my days are as boring as ‘And so the boy ironed his shirt.’ My boring times - this is what life is made of. I’ve learned to appreciate the day-in and day-out. This is where I learn and develop the skills and things that enable me to hold my own when I see the Dragon around the corner. A key to not wasting my life - not wasting a day - is to be aware that most of life occurs in the mundane. Trudging along during these times is more beneficial than a big victory is impressive.

Number Nine
Be direct and to-the-point.

Number Eight
You know those times when you’re stuck between two options of equal pull and can’t come up with which direction to take? It would take what seems like years for me to make these types of decisions. I can’t put my finger on why this is so. I’m just indecisive. (And cheap, but that’s only part of it.)
But not anymore! Ever since a beating I gave myself for choosing the lamer of two options, now when I’m given a choice, I choose the bigger. For a recent example, not long ago my step-brother invited me to join him at a gun show. With guns. Lots of them. Miles and miles of thousands of tables piled high with millions of guns. I’m not sure if I either know or care less about guns. But it was either that or eat a Pop Tart and watch my dog stare at a wall. So I went.
It doesn’t matter if it was fun or not. I wasn’t sitting at home wondering about if I should have gone.
Doing the Big Thing has given me experiences worth writing about. And making these decisions within seconds and moving forward has freed up my mind to think about important things.

Number Seven
Important things, you say? Part of the reason for choosing the gun show was because it meant time spent with a couple step-brothers. One flies helicopters for the Army. One is a businessman in Tulsa. The three of us don’t have much time together that often.
Here’s the Seventh thing on my list: Whatever the activity, whenever the time, wherever the location - I want to be with the people I care about, and who care about me. This trumps the "neat" or "exciting" any day.
I’ve been able to do some cool things in my life. Spending that year living on Mt. Fuji is nothing to shake a stick at - and it’s not something I’ll regret. Heck, watashi wa nihongo wo hanashimasu for goodness sake. But after the honeymoon period and jet lag wore off, it was just me on this iconic volcano reading about my loved ones on Facebook.
I hope you don’t hear me sounding ungrateful for this totally once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was a very important year for me. I am a better man because of it. I’m mentioning it now in this way because it’s an example of the point I’m making. What became clear while I was a day ahead of you is the importance of your continued fellowship. Give me a 8-to-5 job in Muskogee, OK, doing the mundane if it means I’m around you. The pictures taken here aren’t as far-out and cool as the ones saved on my hard drive, but to say time with you is more impressive to my life than any day in Japan is an understatement.
So suck on that, Godzilla.

Whaddaya say we get to Number Six
There is honor in staying in a challenging and trying situation, riding it out through the dump, the cold winter times and the worst days until there is resolution.
And there’s also wisdom in knowing when it’s time to quit.
It takes courage to do both. I respect people who make the decision to do either.
God help us find guidance and peace in these times.

Number Five
It’s ok to try new things. If I’m not careful, my natural tendency to be timid (and lazy) will come out of hiding. Pointing back up the list, I don’t naturally like doing Big things. I don’t like doing New things all that much either. I’m comfortable flowing with routine and letting everyday happen. Whether this makes you cringe or not, I would almost be ok with working at the same job, spending time with the same people, eating the same things at the same places. I’m a creature of comfort and habit. I have been for a long time.
But boy, has the excitement really kicked up this year! Being willing to break my mold, take a deep breath and jump in has allowed for things to happen that I would have missed if I’d stayed in form.
I won’t tell you all the reasons I decided to go out on a limb at the times I did this year. What is important is that something clicked and I began to change things. I started speaking up, sticking my neck out and my foot in the door and taking on more control and responsibility. I shot higher than my norm and ended up scoring big points. I took (healthy) risks in relationships and ended up moving forward in honesty and intimacy with those I’m around.
I still move with caution, but also with wisdom and courage. I am willing to take more risks. The payoff is worth it.

Number Four
I can’t deny that all things will work out for good for us somehow, someway. They have so far for me, and I have no reason to believe this will not continue. Example? One of the greatest things for me came from my car hitting a tree and me finding out about it a month later.
That’s an entirely different blog. For right now, since this worked out, I’m confident other "bad" situations can be turned around as well. It about did me in, but now I’m going forward.
If I live, then I’ll run with a limp.

Number Three
I don’t want to name the artist who wrote this - don’t want to up my street cred any higher if I can help it. Using the artist’s initials will be good enough.
Early in his book is what I see as the most important sentence. Just pages in, almost to prepare the reader for what follows, J.Z. says to tell a story about a kid with a gun, but to not tell why he has the gun in the first place, is telling a kind of lie. There is no need to write that I don’t encourage kids to walk around with guns. That’s not the point of this line, anyway. The point is, the Kid doesn’t wake up one day and just go get a gun. It is the background that leads to this: the danger of his surroundings; the actions he’s seen modeled since early on; the fear he has been burdened to carry. These are the things that have boiled up in his past - and present - that led him to carry the gun today.

This doesn’t excuse present violence. But it does help me understand. Empathy for this Boy comes quickly when I open my eyes to what he’s up against, to what he has been up against.
This line of thought ties in directly to conversations I have with people on a daily basis. People don’t just wake up one morning and decide the type of person they want to be, or with what they will struggle. We don't know what they’ve been up against as we bump into them throughout our lives. But knowing that they’re in the middle of a long fight helps me treat them with understanding and compassion.
I wish I could remember the man’s name who belongs to this quote. He sums it up in a sentence: “Be kind to everyone, for we are all fighting a hard battle.”

Number Two
Don’t worship idols.

Number One
“Mountain tops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valley.” ~ Billy Graham
I will not spoil this with commentary. Thank you, God, for providing me with valleys. Thank you for teaching me in valleys. Thank you for showing me you’re with me in valleys. I will not be afraid.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Fly (or, what is: It Keeps Coming Back)

Anticipation grew as I chewed my food. I gave a little teaser before the bite by telling her a story of a Halloween party had just popped in mine. It was going to be a long story, and I had a lot of a burrito to finish, so I tried the best I could to have the best timing with both food and words. I chewed. She waited. I made a point to show through facial expressions that I was chewing as quickly as I could. I refuse to talk with my mouth full; simple as that. The piece of burrito in my mouth was bigger than I’d thought. As her interest steadily grew, she gave up all dinner activity. It was clear she did so to be sure to waste not a watt of energy on anything unessential, handing over all available neurons - and then some - to her auditory system and pathways.
The story began..
“A few years ago I was at James’ and Christina’s new house one Halloween evening. I’m on the porch out front with a group of people I’d lever met before when, from out of nowhere, comes a guy slightly stumbling with an empty, red-stained wine glass, crying out for a refill. Come to find out..”
She cuts me off: “..Yeah, I’ve heard this one.” “Really?” She proceeds to give me the Cliff Notes version. It was more of a favor than a thing of necessity. Gave me a chance to have another bite.
I was a bit let down. All that waiting for what was old news now. Plus, that one is a story I really like telling. Looking for a way to keep from wasting the excitement, I ask her if she wants another Halloween story in place of the rerun. She said yes before I had the chance to come up with anything. “You want me to make one up?” “Yeah, you can do that.” “I’ll just shoot from the hip then and see what comes of it,” hoping that in these three seconds of speech would buy me enough time to come up with a winner..
“Several Octobers ago,” I began... It was obvious that it must have had to occur in October for it to have any weight of believability. Any other month and it couldn’t have been a Halloween story; rather, nothing but a rambling hinting at psychosis. But I degress. “Several Octobers ago, some friends came over to my house out in the country. Two movies were brought over, by two different people. Choosing between The Shining and The Fly took up more time and effort than really either of the two are worth. Someone finally evolved into an Alpha Dog for a moment: ‘Enough with the board meeting! We’re watching The Shining. Anyone have a problem with that?’ The passive silence was a convincing enough motion of agreement. Still ruffled by the time wasted, Ashley [That’s always my fallback lady name if one’s needed on the spot. Consider yourself lucky if you’re name is Ashley, I suppose] let out what was more of an Alpha Dog grunt than a sigh as she walked to the machine and put in the disc. Only in hindsight do I recognize the eeriness of the house phone ringing right as The Shining slides in and The Fly is brushed off to the side. I automatically walked into the next room over to answer it without any thought.
‘Hello?’ ‘You should have watched The Fly. I really do wish you had decided to watch that movie.’ Why someone chose to stay silent during the deliberation, only speaking up after the decision had been made - and doing so by an ‘anonymous’ phone call, none the less - was beyond me. Consider The Shining as punishment for not speaking up, I thought. I recognized the voice, but couldn’t quite put my finger on to whom it belonged. I was forced to decide between continuing to talk with the passive partaker of the night’s activities, or simply hang up without a goodbye and get back to the other room. I’d seen various parts of The Shinning many times before, and figured I wouldn’t lose much by giving in to this quick little game of guess who. ‘What’s wrong with The Shinning? You’ve obviously got a big enough problem with it to call and pull me out of the room?’ I wanted to get the person talking so that I could use the voice and the answers to help me figure out their identity. I could spare the time. The thing is, this moment I can think of more reasons to choose another movie over The Shinning than this person gave. This person maybe let out only a handful of words in opposition to Jack and the woman’s constant screaming before devoting every other breath to the praise of not only The Fly, but also to the praise and adoration of Jeff Goldblum in general. Obviously this person could not be serious. This quickly ceased to be a game for me. I’d rather watch the movie playing in the next room than hear nothing but empty praise for an actor, one whose brightest time in the limelight was when the T-Rex picked him up off the pot - if that was even him; I can’t quite remember the plot details of Jurassic Park. As my irritant was talking, though, there was one element which held my attention and kept me on the phone. One thing I am a fan of is impersonations. I wish I could sound like a celebrity. If you listen close, you can sometimes hear a hint of Christopher Walken in my voice when I say ‘Wow.’ But that’s as far as it goes. The thing that intrigued me at this moment (at least more so than the same old scenes from the screen in the next room) was that whoever was speaking could do a pretty good Jeff Goldblum. The pitch was a little higher than I remember, but the pauses, stutters, elevations of the tone - it was all there. Impressively close to the real thing. I was envious...and irritated. Some friend in the next room has been holding out on me. Now wanting a quick answer more than a game, I peeked my head around the corner to see who was missing from the room and on the phone. My mind went blank of all answers when I saw everyone was present - either hooked on the movie or falling asleep. Why I didn’t think of this at first I do not know, but after a short state of my ignorant staring - jaw loosely hanging open and all - I remembered the caller ID on the handset. A mild state of confusion overcame me again when I saw Sarah’s number; and saw Sarah asleep with a bag of M&M’s spilling out of her hand. ‘Sarah,’ I called. (It was fun watching her startled response.) ‘Sarah, where is your phone?’ It took her a moment to come back to all of us in the world, her looking aimlessly around the room with her big, wide eyes wider than normal. She and I both end up scanning the room, both sets of eyes falling on her phone behind the couch on a table next to the wall. Automatically again, yet this time with a curiosity too faint to lay a finger on, but compelling enough to move me forward, I stepped somewhat cautiously to the flip-phone laying open. As I walked, everything else faded. I had ceased to realize that I still had the house phone next to my ear, the high-pitched Jeff Goldblum voice unceasingly complimenting any and all of Jeff Goldblum’s vast amount of distinguishing qualities. When I got closer to the phone I noticed a fly was sitting on it. Instinctively, I swatted at the fly with my spare hand and killed it. Simultaneously, the voice stopped. That was when I understood. That explains everything. Turns out it was a true story.”

That’s the story I told her in place of the re-run. I deemed it necessary to apologize such a story took, with such a Goosebumps ending, but she said she enjoyed it.
I still had a lot of burrito to eat. We finished up and went on. I think we plan on going back to the restaurant sometime.
And our next stop marked the beginning of a peculiar chain of events:
After dinner she and I drove to a park down the road, near to where her mom lives. We parked in front of her mom’s house, and it was no real surprise to see her mom walking in our direction. After some catch-up, her mom had an unexpected thought seemingly rush to the front of her mind and out her mouth before any of us had time to prepare for it. I was happy to be invited to dinner and a play with her and her two daughters - “Oh, I’m sorry; unless you mind; unless you think it’s a girls’ thing.” Daughter number one smiled and shook her head. It wasn’t a problem, and the invitation stood. Realistically, I knew then and there I wouldn’t be able to make it. It was to be on a Thursday, the night before - better said, a few hours before - I was to leave again to Japan for work. Still at least honored by the offer, I asked questions once we were on our way again. They were planning on meeting at 6:30, eating at some restaurant and watching some musical (believe me, I was paying attention). Musicals are not on the top of my list. As we walked by a swan, I told a story about our grandma forcing my brother and me to watch The Sound of Music before we could watch Dick Tracy. (Gram should have stayed with us for at least 5 minutes after putting in the movie before going upstairs to take a nap.) She said she likes that one; I said I don’t. I told a random story about watching a high school’s production of Guys and Dolls, and the aftermath which followed. She likes that one; I don’t. But one we both like is The Music Man. I sung out, “Seventy..tah-ta-da” and “Gary..hum-hu-hi-hm” as we walked on to the car.
On the next day, my last day to piddle around town(s) to take care of some things before I left, I dropped by a video store to pick up something for my mom’s birthday. Not wanting to go straight back to find what I was looking for, I meandered around the store for a few minutes. In the middle of the entry way right as you walk in were two crates full of DVDs marked down to $2.99, begging to be bought. It was like walking into a pound and seeing the dogs stare at you from death row. I thought I’d at least humor the movies. We all know that no one is going to buy all those Jean Claude van Damme or Stephen Segal movies, no matter how cheap they are. I stopped to ruffle a few movies around. Then, as I flipped over one more box as I turned to go on my way, I uncovered Pittsburgh - one which neither I nor anyone else has ever heard of before. The only reason it caught my eye was because standing right there on the front cover was none other but Jeff Goldblum with that big smile of his, dressed up as none other than the lead role of The Music Man. No joke. Look it up if you must. (No need to watch it though.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gulliver (or, what is: Who Travels Better Than Me)

Two stories. The second one is a sequel:

November 8:
What a night. I'm driving now. I'm one of only two teachers who has a license, and the other is on vacation for 2 weeks. I had very little training before he left. There is a little store a few minutes down the road. It's a straight shot. I did that a few times trying to get used to being on the opposite side of the road and car. I got the hang of it after a few times. But I only drove into the city twice before Jerrad left. It's so strange. The roads here are not lined up well; traffic signs and signals are difficult to understand (partly because they are in a foreign language, partly because they are just different); more than half of the streets don't have names. The ones that do have names - well, they're in Japanese. After I showered this evening, Lanifer and I hit the road. We picked up Bobby and hit a department store. Then we went to Basken Robin's 31 Flavors/Mos Burger for big scoops of Chocolate Mint ice cream for me, hamburgers and Coke for them. After that we dropped off Bobby and got back on the highway to go home. We were going to make it back just a few after 9 - giving me plenty of time to shave and sleep early so I could wake up to walk in the wee hours of the next morning.
I can handle the driving. I've gotten used to it - at least, enough to get around. The problem is I don't know my way around the place. It all looks the same. Flashing lights. Little cars. Crazy signs in crazy languages. I'm becoming more familiar with the place, but I still need help. Lanifer rides shotgun (on the left side of the car) and I assigned her my navigator. She's the one who is supposed to say, "Turn left at this next light". That type of thing. There are only two problems with this setup. One, English isn't her first language, so sometimes gets her left and right confused. And the big problem is that she doesn't say turn left up ahead, but, rather, says, "Oh no! You were supposed to turn left back there!" That type of thing. It's never a big deal. We just go forward a block or two and then turn around. Something happened tonight that turned out to be a big deal.
We are on our way home, and I'm eager to go to bed. We get on the highway heading back, and are approaching an exit up ahead. I said, "Lanifer, do we take this one?" Nothing. I ask again if I need to take this exit. For a moment she still looks ahead. Finally speaks up and says "Keep going." Once we pass it she said, "Oh no! We were supposed to take that one!" I was just an ounce frustrated. It's more my fault than hers, but it's really no one's fault. I knew it was going to make a funny story. I would hop on the next exit, turn around, no problem....But then we kept driving. No exits. Then we kept driving some more. No exits. I had no idea where we were going. I kept this realization in my mind, as to not freak out Lanifer, but I sensed we were going to be on this stretch of road for an unspecified amount of time; we were in it for the long haul. Then Lanifer sees something. She speaks with a sense of something that sounded like a mix of defeat and fear - and full of urgency: "Oh no! We're on a toll road; and we are heading to [some city with a Japanese name]!" She didn't have any tears, and there wasn't a whimper in her voice, just a tremble noticeable enough to call it as such. That's when I dropped my guard and let some of my true state show. After she said her line, I took a breath, opened my mouth, and all I could say was a quiet "Oh shit." I didn't realize I had said it. She didn't tell me I had said it until maybe 20 or so minutes later after I had paid 400 yen at the tolls, did a big loop in the next town, and we were on our way back to familiar roads. She fisrt became nervous at the missed exit. I knew she was. But she was doing the familiar "Really, I'm fine" girl thing. But she told me that once I said my two-sentence line, that was the moment her heart really started beating. She went from nervous to scared.
She was silent most of the way home. We got back around 10:30. As we were within a few minutes of our place, she would say, "It's really ok; don't worry about it." She'd pause for maybe a minute, and then say the line again - I'm not sure who she was trying to reassure. Once we got back to our place I had to do some touch-up work on the next day's schedule. She helped, and I could still tell my her breathing that she was still a little shaken. I told her that I might not always be able to guarantee that I knew exactly where I was, but I would be able to guarantee that she would be safe, wherever it was that we were. It was true, and it is true (I would just be better to know where I was).
Her room is next to mine. We passed one another as we were going to bed. For the first time since our little journey I could tell she was calm again. She said not to worry again. This time I knew she meant it, and was at peace with it. She then said, "That really is funny what happened." We laughed about it and went on our ways. I knew it was going to be a funny story by tomorrow. I'm happy it's a funny story tonight.
I'm tired. I'm ready to go to bed. It feels good to be in bed, and it feels great to be at home!

November 27:
Another driving adventure. I really have no idea no idea how this happened. I could have sworn I knew exactly where I was, and where I was going.
This afternoon was the beginning of our 3-day holiday (we call weekends holidays here; no, I don't know why) and most of the teachers had other weekend-get-a-way plans. Lanifer and I were the only two left. We decided to go to an "American steakhouse" called Bronco Billy's. It's the closest thing I've found to the real deal. No buffalo heads stuck on the wall; but we did eat our steaks while listening to "Johnny B Good" and "The Leader of the Pack". We finished and went to Aeon (a shopping center) from; and then Starbucks for a while after that. I'm familiar with all these places. Driven to each of them many times now. As we were leaving Starbucks and on our way back home, I, for some reason, decided to take another route - to save us time. We ended up in another city. At some point, while a feeling of confusion overcame both Lanifer and I, Lanifer said the familiar line: "Oh Jacob, we're on a toll road again; we are in [the name of some other random Japanese city]!" I didn't say any bad words this time. I almost said the "F" word, but I stopped myself. I pulled into a gas station that we happened to be approaching. [By the way, gas stations here are great. They run up to the car and take care of it for you. Put in however much you want, maybe check tire pressure, clean your windows - and they don't accept tips. The pay they receive is what they work for, and, if they were to accept a tip, it would be like telling their boss they are not paid enough; an insult.] Some broken English, and some broken Japanese was exchanged, and we were soon back on our way, in the opposite - and correct - direction. I, once again, had a pretty good idea of where we were. I had the van in the far right lane as we were pulling up to an intersection. As we were coming close, Lanifer said, "Oh, you are supposed to turn left here!" "No, Lanifer. I know exactly where we are. I know what we need to do. Trust me." "No, Jacob, we need to turn left." "No, Lanifer, you need to trust me, I got turned around a moment ago, but now we are on track. Trust me." "No, Jacob. Really. I mean it. This is our turn. Turn left here. I promise. I really mean it." My thought at this point was, Fine, I'll turn left here. Soon she'll realize she was wrong, and we can turn around again and go the correct way. Turns out she was correct. We were back on a familiar road....And then, some how (I still don't know how) we got turned around again. (Still no bad language, though!)
We finally did make it back. And we made it back in one piece. And we were both smiling.
Getting lost this time was a lot less stressful than the last time. I was more comfortable with driving, and Lanifer was more comfortable with riding with me! She knew I was telling the truth when I would say, "I can't promise you I will know exactly where I am at all times; but I can guarantee you that you will be safe with me every moment." This was another example showing I am telling the truth when I say that.
We are back right now. I wouldn't be able to go to sleep right now. I was a bit worked up. I was focused, by my heart was working fast. I might watch a movie. Then go to bed.
It is 11:08, Thursday night. I didn't die, I made it home safely; those are 2 things to be thankful for!
(Oh yeah, and did I mention that it was very dark, and raining the entire time?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Date (or, what is: Everything But)

Judging by her name, I assume the title character of a current television show has the reputation of being one who seals the deal. They call her The Closer. I could be called The Everything But. I consistently play the game wonderfully - up until the very last moment. I’ll tell two stories.

It was the middle of July, 2007, and I had some time to kill before visiting a couple friends at a home they had recently bought. I had a book to read, a hankerin’ for a mocha, and a perfect solution. I parked my car outside of a Tulsa Starbuck’s across from the mall and took the comfy seat in the corner next to a small table. I could have sat anywhere. Besides the one other guy frozen to his chair up against the far wall, the place was empty. I had my heart set on the pillow-soft, checkered-brown seat; and the location couldn’t be beat, how it allowed me to see all the inactivity of the place. It was just after 5 that evening when I sat down. I knew I didn’t have much time. My friend would be getting off work soon, and would be calling any moment. I figured I wouldn’t be able to get much more than a chapter read of Donald Miller’s advice when it comes to dragon-management. 5:30 rolls around - still no call. I could have drunk my drink more slowly; I didn’t have to read as quickly as I had read. Once 5:45 hit, the frustration kicked in. If my friend wasn’t able to meet up, he could have at least called to let me know. I decided I’d enjoy the few pages left of the present chapter before I gave up on him and got moving home.
And then it happened.
My line of irritated thought came to a screeching halt when the door opened to my right and the warm breeze met my mumbling lips. The angels begun to sing the moment my eyes caught the sight of her. She was wearing scrubs and carrying a book. It screamed she was as intelligent as she was lovely. Captivating. You should have seen her smile. Oh, and her eyes just above it! She had no notice of me. And why would she? Angels think of higher things. But I noticed her, to say the least. Because of my perfect location, I had no problem watching her walk up to the counter and order whatever it was for which she came. I instantly stopped reading. I moved my eyes as to give the appearance of it, but could give my attention to nothing but her. I peered over the top of the book, peeked around the side, whatever I had to do to keep my eyes on her - without appearing catatonic as I stared. Then she turned. Then she started walking in my direction! She passed chair..by chair...by chair - closer and closer with each step. I held my breath.
Mind you, the place was all but empty. She could have sat anywhere. Even if the place was full, kings would have given up their seats for such a beauty.
I gave up my game of secrecy. I made eye contact and shot her the best smile I could muster. Frank Sanatra begun singing Strangers in the Night as she returned my gaze, directed that smile right at me. That was when I noticed something. By this time she had stopped, just a few feet away from me! Not showing that I jumped to the euphoria section of Cloud Nine, I worked to keep the smile from reaching both ears, as to not blow my cover of cool, calm and collected. I stayed locked on to those eyes as I cleared off the table for her so she could sit in the identical chair just on the other side of it. I said some perfect and simple words before returning back to my book. Still no call from my friend. (I had quickly forgotten all about my friend.) I had plenty of time to play it cool. I started reading again, but, at the end of each line, my eyes continued right just a little further. I didn’t want to lose site of her. I couldn’t not look at her. And, get this, one time I caught her looking right at me! We shared one of those great moments - the one where I knew that she knew that I knew that she was looking at me. Her head quickly snapped back to looking straight ahead, as did mine. The time had come. I’m in! I had made the decision and was about to move into phase 2.
That was when, God bless his soul, my friend killed the moment.
My phone rang and I nearly lost all concentration. I answered, said I’d be at his house soon, and had to think fast. I had to think on my feet as I stood to my feet. Turning to her as I held out my hand, I asked if I could throw away her trash. There is nothing spectacular about this gesture. You ask a stranger if you can do a small act of kindness for them and they either give you a programed, ‘Thank you,’ as they hand off their rubbish; or they say ‘No thanks,’ proving that they can take care of themselves, thank you very much. In response to my offer, she caught me with those eyes once again - this time, if no other time, I was hooked - and said, “Oh, thank you so much. That is so kind of you to do such a thing for me!” Yeah, I was in. With a cool, calm grin on my lips, as I grabbed her cup, I replied, “Hey, no problem; that’s what I do.” And, believe it, with my free right hand I shot her the gun. Get this: and she bought it! Eye of the Tiger began to play as I walked to the trash can. Thinking over and over, ‘Please don’t trip; please don’t trip,” I half didn’t realize what I did next. I wasn’t any closer than 5 feet from the can when, without realizing what I was about to do, I pulled my arm back and tossed the first cup into it’s final resting place. Nothing but net! I repeated this motion with the other cup. Again, nothing but net! That’s when the internal dialog started playing in my mind: “Well done! Jake, you have never played so well. This can be the result of nothing less than divine intervention because your actions are far beyond even your greatest of natural abilities. You have captivated the angel that has captivated you. Well done!” By the time the trash had settled I had turned around and caught her eyes as I started for the door. Yes, she was looking at me. Staying Alive blared in my mind as I walked smoothly towards her, past her, then out the door. I kept my eyes focused on hers. I slowed as I walked past and said something to the effect of, ‘I had a wonderful few moments with you. My day is much better now having the privilege of having met you. I hope your day is great.’ I say this as I walk out the door, noticing she is stuck by every word. My peripheral vision shows me that she is repositioning herself, in order that her eyes can follow me out of the door and into the parking lot as far as she can before I leave her last possible line of sight. My inner voice is now screaming: “WAY TO GO! YOU HAVE NEVER BEEN AS GOOD AS YOU HAVE BEEN THIS PAST HOUR! A MOVIE COULD BE MADE ABOUT YOU! YOU COULD ASK FOR HER HAND IN MARRIAGE AND SHE WOULD BEG THAT THE DATE BE TODAY! Unable to stay collected any longer, I grinned like a moron as I got in my car and got on to Memorial Dr.
Then it happened.
The moment I crossed 71st St., the inner voice changed it’s tune. Still screaming, but, this time for a different reason. It said, “Do you realize what you’ve done!? You didn’t even get a number! She would have paid you to take her number! And you didn’t even bother to get a name! You don’t even know her name! How could you be so dumb to not at least get her name!? She doesn’t even know your name!” The screaming went on like that as I continued to drive north. But not for long.
I reached a point where I couldn’t stand it any longer and did an illegal U-turn at 61st and Memorial - almost hitting a car. I started driving back. I could not let my heart go on unfulfilled, I could not go on and let her dream go on unfulfilled. Driving back I came up with what I was going to do. I was going to walk in, catch those eyes again as I handed her my card. I’d say something about how I could not allow myself the punishment of not speaking with her again, and I would be honored if she would call and joined me for dinner. I smiled. Yeah, that’s smooth. The inner voice disrupted my moment by saying, “Why in the world do you think you have a card?” Point well taken. I quickly switched my plan to walking in and giving the same lines, only, this time, giving her a piece of paper on which I jotted my number down once in the parking lot. Much better. Less pompous.
I pulled into the parking lot and glanced to see that she was still present. Looked like she was right where I left her - a bit broken-hearted due to my absence, of course. I parked and only then did I realize I didn’t have a pen in the car. NO! Surely there is one in here somewhere, I thought. I frantically looked...and finally gave up. I knew there was not a pen anywhere. I came to my senses and realized that the best I could do was simply go in and give her all the lines, and hope for the best. No matter what happens, I’m going to look foolish. So it can’t hurt anything. I get out, shut the door, lock the door, and head back for the door.
And I see that she is now gone, nowhere to be found.
I stay frozen, standing out in the Starbuck’s parking lot on the corner of 71st St and Memorial on a hot July day until my heart comes back out of shock. It took everything I had to get back in my car and drive to my friends’ house. Goodbye, my love.
That’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Just a few days later I happened to be in Tulsa again. At 5:15 that day I drove back to the same store, got the same drink, and sat in the same spot where the magic had happened just days before. I waited for her to return. But she didn’t. I happened to be in town 4 days after that. Same store, same drink, same chair, no angel. But that’s ok. I was going to be in town the next week. I ended up finding the time to spend another hour going through the same routine. No angel.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone through the motions. But I can say this: after several months have passed of the returning and waiting routine, I have now been able to go to Tulsa and resist the urge to make this stop. Mind you, this is not saying that I no longer go through the motions from time to time. On occasion, when I’m in town, there’s still a chance that I make the same familiar detour. I’ve studied statistics. I know that with each time I am there and she is not, my chances of her being there the next time are that much greater...

I never cave. I pride myself in that. I get a hint of pleasure out of going round and round with salespeople, making them think their tactics are working. I’ll wear an interested look on my face as they give me their lines, while taking internal notes and rating their performance. Some impress me more than others; some impress me with the use of creative techniques when attempting to sell me their products. But nothing works. My empty hands signify my victory, notify their defeat.
As is the beginning of some of my note-worthy encounters, I had some time to kill on a Monday. My plan was to go to the Apple store to check into something before I had to make it to Muskogee for a meeting that afternoon. As I came down the escalators, I didn’t make a B-line to the big white room. Various things caught my eye as I moved forward in the general direction - one thing, specifically, being a lady with curly hair, a brown shirt, and eyes aimed right at me. She must have noticed nothing but me, because she was locked on and motioning me towards her little hut in the middle of the walkway. Before I noticed it, I was but feet away from her, and my hands softly in hers.
Turns out she sold lotion for a living. (I assume for a living, because, for the price of the stuff, I don’t think she’d have to do much more in order to survive!) She grabbed hold of my hand, placed some gunk in them, and said, simply, “Rub.” And so I rubbed. I was able to keep my eyes on hers as I gave my hands an efficient rubbing. She began to give me lines about all the beneficial aspects of this lotion from the Dead Sea, how the salt from this area is rich with what-have-you’s. The game was on. I realized I was going to be there for a couple minutes either way, and reasoned that I might as well play along. After she mentioned the Dead Sea, she asked me if I knew where that was. I told her I did. (I don’t have a minor in Humanities for nothing!) Thinking she might call my bluff, she said, “Oh, well, where is it?” With no hesitation, and much confidence, I said, it’s a body of water near Jordan and Israel. Obviously impressed, she replied with nostalgia that Israel is her home country, a wonderful land. She stated that that was the reason for her accent, for which she apologized. I countered her apology by telling her that there is nothing for which she needs to apologize, that her accent is lovely. In response, she said that I was very kind, and that she is having a wonderful time talking with me. Obviously.
At this point she begins rubbing something-or-other on my arm, talking about all the great benefits of this action. And then she puts stuff on my face. She couldn’t keep herself from it. She couldn’t keep her hands off me. My kindness broke her out of her ordinary routine and she couldn’t stick to her usual game plan of just hands and forearms. I assumed because she was thrown off, she moved in for the kill more abruptly than they normally do: “So what will you buy?” I kindly responded that I couldn’t buy anything that day, and that I had to get going. For a moment the gloves came off. “Well, where do you have to go in such a hurry?” I was momentarily thrown off by her question, and told her about the meeting, which was just an hour away by this time. Like she didn’t hear a word, she moved on and reiterated that the benefits of my purchasing the lotion would be worth the delay. I let out an internal sigh. I’ll go at it another route. After I asked the question, she said that the two things of lotion would only cost me as little as $49 each. I was taken aback by her thinking she could make such a price seem like a steal to a 20-something man who obviously doesn’t have much care about fancy lotion. I apologized for taking her time, that she was very kind, but that I simply could not afford to make that kind of purchase. She grabbed my hand again. They were still smooth due to the lotion, but her grip was tight enough that I couldn’t pull away without a small struggle. She pulled me close. I mean, she pulled me very close.
She and I were standing nearly nose to nose in the middle of the mall with crowds shooting us confused looks as they passed. Forgive me for not having a measuring stick at hand which would have enabled me to measure out an accurate distance between us. A 12-inch ruler would have been in excess. I felt her words on my face as much as I heard them in my ears. I could have kissed her. I might as well have kissed her. I should have kissed her. That way at least the two of us would have walked away with something to show for this exchange. With our eyes as close as ever, she told me that, because I have been so kind, she would cut me a great deal - a deal that she really should not be giving to anyone. She said she would give me one of the things of lotion for $35. “What do you say, mister?”
I started laughing. I knew exactly what she was doing all along. I knew at that moment what she was doing; I still do not know what I was doing, what I was thinking. I’m still not sure why I told her I would buy her stupid, magical lotion. But I did. I knew as I gave her my card and took the tub in my hands that this thing would surely find it’s place in the back of the cabinet as fast as any inanimate object can. But I forked over the money anyway. As I was leaving, she told me that she had a great time, and that, if I came back on Wednesday, she would give me another great deal on the other thing she was trying to con me in to buying, whatever it was.
I came up with another plan.
I did go back on Wednesday. I made a trip back to the mall, because it really wasn’t too far out of my way - the few extra miles were a small price to pay for the story that was going to come of it. As I would walk back to her little hut between the escalators and the dude selling glasses, our eyes would meet again across the distance. As I moved closer, her smile would grow bigger. She’d ask if I had come back to get the second thing of lotion. This is the response I was going to give: “I’m sorry Michelle, but I just simply can’t afford to pay for something like that at this time; but what I can afford is this: I would like to take you out to dinner tonight. I can pick you up here when you get off, or we can meet at whatever restaurant you choose. I don’t mind either way. I’m only in town for a week longer, and I would hate to pass up the opportunity to spend at least one evening with you while I still have the chance. What do you say?” That right there is golden.
So, I take the long way around so I can have a quick go-over of the script in my mind. I turn the corner and feel the magic warming up. I clear my throat as my eyes watch the stretch of mall walkway that stands between she and I grow smaller. And then I see it. My foreign love, talking, just like she did with me two days prior, with another man. Same distance. Same smile. Same grip of hands. Everything. I walked by with my eyes straight ahead, circled the nearby escalators, and passed by her again without the slightest sign of recognition.
I lost. The undefeated was defeated. This was no victory lap. I decided to finish my walk of shame quietly and go about my day with an ending to the saga which was much less fulfilling...
...But there was one last trick up my sleeve. Go for broke...
On my way to fulfill the encounter I had played out in my mind, I passed a lady selling some what-have-you’s for hair styling. Either as a product demonstration or a last minute personal fix, I noticed this tan lady looking into a mirror and giving much attention to her long, curly hair. It caught my attention, but it didn’t stop me. I had something to do. As I made my way back around, however, this tan beauty popped back into mind - as well as popped back into my line of sight. She was still at the mirror, still playing with her hair. I don’t know what she was trying to do, but the look on her face made it appear as if she felt unsuccessful. I had lost once that day, but I still had some fire in me.
I redirected my path so that I would pass close behind her. Her back to me, I was able to catch her eye in the mirror. I’m now close enough to her that I can speak just above a whisper, close enough so that she can feel my words. She lost attention in herself and quickly turned to catch my gaze more clearly. As she was still making the turn towards me, I stay turned towards her. As I walked away slowly backwards, I kept my eyes to hers, shot her the smile, as I said: “I want to let you know that I’ve past you both ways, and you still seem fixated on your hair. You should know that you have no need to be concerned. It looks great today; and you look great. You can put the stuff down and relax. Trust me.” With that she nearly melted. She didn’t know what to say. Or, if she did, she wasn’t able to say it. The breath had been knocked out of her. All she could do was let a mix of a sigh and a giggle pass through her lips as I smiled and raised my brows one last time before turning back and continuing on my way.
I limped away with a victor’s grin on my face and my head held high.
It was more of a strut than a limp.