Sunday, November 29, 2009

excuse me...

My sophomore year at University some phone company executive had the bright idea to give every student on campus a free, fifty dollar phone card. The catch was that you had to use it within the first week of school, and once you activated it you had only twenty-four hours to use the whole thing. I suppose they were thinking that it got their name in front of all of us and most people wouldn't use more than a few minutes, anyways.

Their marketing department didn't account for Six-Lower, a dorm full of ingenious troublemakers. We figured that we could use the interwebs to find the country codes for places all over the world. We also figured that a whole lot of students weren't bothering to collect the cards from their mailboxes, much less use them - so with a deft little twiggle of a kitchen knife we might or might not have relieved a few mailboxes of this extra bit of recycling.

Thus began a three-day marathon of prank calls to the friendly peoples of Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand and Botswana.

Now, I can assure you that while calling a random local number and asking whomever picks up if their refrigerator is running is, in fact, lame - there is a whole lot of comedic gold to be mined by asking the same question of the good citizens of Sri Lanka. The accents, for one, add a lot of flavor to the joke, and it helps that it isn't really part of the cultural heritage over there to be told that you'd better hurry up and catch it.

It wasn't all just inane jokes, though. The Six-Lower prank call protocol dictated that a healthy percentage of your calls had to be purely social, so we spent many a good few minutes asking random strangers all sorts of intriguing questions about their lives and opinions - such as where to get a good cinnamon bun in Edinburgh, or whether it seemed wise for the Spice Girls to be wearing high heels and leather pants while dancing around on the uneven desert floor.

I don't know why I forgot that story completely until last week. I mean, it's a pretty funny story - the sort I tend to tell over and over until someone informs me that, yes, this is the tenth time I've repeated it to them. Perhaps it's because it has me violating federal regulations and stealing from mailboxes - perhaps I just don't want to think of myself in that way: breaking rules and bothering strangers.

If that's the case, then it could be that all the truth-telling I have been trying to do of late will be opening up vast new anecdotal comedic vistas.

Or maybe jail cells.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


One of my more gifted students has been featured in print and online in "Charlotte Parent" magazine. I am giving you the link, so that you can look at it and know that inasmuch as he is cool and talented and worthy of your admiration, I am also these things by association.

Here it is. 

You may now love me, as well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

how's it gonna be?

It is midnight, and my son wakes up crying, drenched in sweat. He snuggles in close and through his tears I hear him say "eh-mo"; so I start singing the la-la-la's of "Elmo's Song". His cries taper off and he reaches up a tiny hand, strokes my face lightly, and in a soft voice says, "that, dadu... that". We are lying side by side on a hospital bed at Carolina Medical Center in Monroe, where he was admitted two nights ago with a high fever and difficulty breathing.

My wife had called and, unable to speak through her tears, passed the phone off to the closest nurse, who explained that he seemed to have pneumonia and that they would be admitting him into the hospital. As I drove down the highway towards the pediatric center the sun, which for two days had been blocked out by torrential rainstorms, poked through the evening sky, setting the already blazing leaves of fall afire. It seemed as though the top halves of all the trees are burning, and I was tempted to start making metaphors of death right there - but the glowing beauty of it all against the deep blue sky stopped me and I thought instead of rainbows, and hope.

I cry a fair bit on this drive, thinking about death and the fragility of my toddler son's life. But then I slap myself hard a few times, insisting that I "suck it up and be a man". My wife and son need me to be strong, I insist, so I say a little prayer for strength and drive on, tears drying.

When I get to the hospital she is indeed falling apart a bit, although Mateo is bouncing off the walls in Motrin-induced good spirits. I give her a hug and then try to anchor down my son, who soon crashes and spends the rest of our two days in the hospital alternating between being a pale, sickly-looking whimper-worm and a full-throated, screaming hellion. I can't blame him - every couple of hours someone comes into the room and pokes him with something, or makes him breathe wet air from a hissing, spitting tube, or jiggles one of the multiple tubes and wires connected to his body.

At long last, the tubes come off and the boy is freed. They say he may have asthma. I drive him home and put him down for a nap while my wife goes to a pharmacy to pick up his drugs. After two hours, he wakes up sweating and screaming, so I force-feed him some more Motrin and then take him out of the "grandmother apartment" where we live and into the house where his grandmother actually lives, so he can watch TV whilst I subject him to some more moist air from the home nebulizer they gave (sold) us at the hospital.

This does not make him happy, and sets off another three-hour session of crying, screaming and coughing, with occasional blips of calm. After dinner - which he does not eat - I begin force-feeding him the four syringes of antibiotics and steroids I am required to give him. At the final squirt of the final syringe he vomits, losing all the medicine and the cup of milk he has drunk all over himself, the couch, and me. My parents have by then dropped in to help, and so I snap at mom to cuddle him while I rinse some contact-cement puke off his clothes.

As I do this, I can't help thinking, "It's not supposed to be like this." It is a phrase I hate, not just because of the "correct", non-existent reality that it presumes, but also because it implies that I, in my infinite wisdom, know what that reality ought to be. It is a phrase my wife used to say when we argued and it infuriated me because, I reasoned (in that annoying way of husbands who are oblivious to what it would take to defuse a situation), it kept us from dealing with the situation as it actually was.

Nonetheless, I say it - repeat it, in fact, over and over in my head, as I pour more of the milky-white antibiotic from its container into the small plastic cap and then knock it over as I clumsily try to fill the syringe with one hand - my other arm wrapped across Mateo's chest. I start to cry, and when mom gives me a little sympathetic one-hand back rub I snap at her again, "Not helping, mom", I say, adding, "I know you're trying to help, mom... thanks, but it just doesn't help right now". I have long been mean to my mother, and it comes out worst when I am sleep-deprived and stressed. Maybe that's why my wife is not here, I think.

She always seems to know how to calm Mateo down, and everything I am doing right now just upsets him more. As I give him the medicine a second time he struggles and cries, "Sleepy, Dadu. Sleep now. Bed." I assure him that we'll go to bed as soon as he gets all his medicine, and although he weekly says, "oh-kay", he keeps on crying.

We finish the last syringe and it stays down. At long last he quiets, nods, and begins to fall away. I put him to bed and go to apologize to mom (and, of course, to ask her to wash the puke-laundry for me. I'm not entirely a jerk, but my washing machine is broken).

Mateo sleeps nearly through the night, waking only a couple of times with a few short cries, but falling promptly away again. In the morning I hear him calling softly for milk, so I get him a sippy cup and then sit by him as he re-arranges his pillow, pulls a blanket over himself, and drinks the whole thing. His fever is gone and he is mostly happy. We make a Doctor's appointment and at nine-forty-five his mother shows up and we head back up the highway to Monroe. She is again her happy, smiling self, and I enjoy her company but cannot understand why she jokes with me and laughs when I start singing a silly song to calm Mateo. She has been gone less than two months, and the wound is still very raw and tender.

Our doctor is a black woman, an African. She is not a big woman, but fills the room with the force of her personality. She speaks loudly from only a few feet away in her somewhat thick accent, and seems to be unaware of the strength of her voice. It is a pleasant voice, though, so I am not offended by it. "Nobody in the house is smoking?", she demands, as if daring us to say otherwise. I say no and she leans in close with a friendly smile on her face, saying, "You would not lie to me, would you? Because I am watching you... I see."

Even though I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, I feel embarrassed and want to start confessing things.

My wife, feeling for me in my discomfort, interjects, "See, what happened is we're separated, and the place where I live my roommate smokes in the other room and..." the doctor doesn't even let her finish, "Whaat!", she asks, "Why you want to do something like that for? You are so young! You look like nice people - what is there so bad you cannot work through it for the good of the child!?!" As she says this she leans close to me again, and I once again feel the urge to confess. "I, um. I don't know." I say, avoiding her eyes and my wife's.

I want to tell this strange, powerful black woman that it is not my idea or my fault. That it kills me. That I would do anything to convince my wife to come back. But this is not entirely the truth. The truth is, all I can say for certain is that I do not understand what happened, and that every time I see my wife, I notice again how beautiful she is. I want to throw myself at her feet and beg her to come back to me, to change her mind. Again and again I think those ugly words: "it shouldn't be like this", and feel waves and waves of rage, sorrow, and confusion crashing against the walls of her determination.

I read something recently about strong black women, and how although they get a lot of flack for what is perceived as a domineering attitude, it is a way of operating that they have been forced into by a generation of black men who, for complicated reasons, have abdicated the place of leadership in the black community. This doctor reminds me of them and makes me think that perhaps this strength is not a forced response to an ugly reality, but a vestigial genetic heritage, handed down through generations from a wild past on a dangerous continent, where village women still carry the heaviest loads and form the backbone of deep, rooted communities.

I want to turn to this woman, to look her in the eyes and ask, "Why?"

Why does it seem so clear to her  - this woman so unaffected by our ugly, broken culture that she can speak her mind with love shining in her eyes - that we should just work it out for the good of our child? She is herself, in a sense, a child - unfettered by a culture that equates lies with maturity, and assumes that ugliness ought to be excused, apologized for, walked away from, or ignored. I want to ask her how she has done this, but she has already flown back into an explanation of Mateo's medical issues. She takes a final crack later, saying, "he is crying  because he thinks if he cries more it will force his parents to stay together. They know... they do" and then she calls a nurse to check his blood oxygen and is out the door and on to other patients.

I avoid eye contact with my wife as we leave the room. I am awkward and nervous, afraid of what she will say about this woman. I feel her memory as a beautiful, elemental force, and I do not wish to hear her maligned. We put Mateo in the car, and as I pull out of our parking spot my wife turns to me and says, "Apart from barely understanding what she was saying with that accent, I like that doctor. I think maybe we should stay with her. What do you think?" I mumble agreement as we pull into the street.

This world - this life - is a beautiful mystery. I do not understand even the smallest things. The sun shines hot in mid-November. Mateo whimpers and falls asleep in the back seat as my wife leans back to cradle his head with her hand, so he won't be jostled. I catch myself quietly singing a line from some song I don't really know, "I say a little prayer for you". I sing it over and over, so softly that I am almost humming. My wife laughs, folds some cloth to prop Mateo's head, and settles back into her seat, coughing.

She tells me of her plans to get the rest of her things moved into her new place this evening. She is smiling, and I do not understand. I sing it again, and again she laughs and adds, "you know I'm going to have that stuck in my head all night." We drive as a family in silence down the road, between rows of gold and crimson oak trees, and I catch myself thinking, "this is how it should be".

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tell Me a Story

ActorAustin asked me last night why I hadn't written yet about our little adventure at a club in Charlotte called Coyote Joe's, and said he was waiting in suspense to see what dry, witty bit of snark I learned about life via steel-guitar playin' Russians, giant singers with giant-er egos, and the oppressive, dystopic hat restrictions.

It wouldn't be that hard to come up with something, either, because the whole experience was so bizarre (from the standing, snarling grizzly bear in a glass box, to the senior citizens groping each other on the dance floor as the semi-country Rock band chanted "It's Getting Hot In Here, So Take Off All Your Clothes") that very nearly everything in the place had a story. But my heart just hasn't been in it.

What I have been wanting to write about is marriage: specifically, why I think it's freakin' awesome. I suppose this is odd, coming from a guy whose wife left him less than three months ago, but I have a bit of a bone to pick. One of the really bothersome things about the experience of being wife-dumped has been the way a number of my good friends - people whose opinions I generally respect - have just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, "well, it's a bummer there's a kid in the equation, but I guess sometimes things just don't work out. Hope you find somebody else". I call Bull-Excrement and, shaking my fist, yearn to ascend the soapbox.

When I told ActorAustin this, he demanded that I write a narrative essay - which is to say, a story that hooks the reader into living the narrative with the characters and engaging the idea in a more holistic way, rather than just with that little bit of mind that handles reason and argument. He argued that it will last longer and be more effective than if I try to argue them into my point of view.

He's right, too. Last Wednesday I asked my third period class - the one I have just after chapel - what they thought of the speaker.  There were a whole lot of shrugs and one girl said, "he was all right, I guess."

"What did he talk about?", I asked.

This is typically a pretty chatty class, but no one volunteered an answer. With a little more prompting, one guy said, "Um, I think there was something about light". A few other students agreed - and remember that this response was coming about fifteen minutes after the guy had spoken his last word. Not exactly rousing, memorable oratory, I think you could say.

My third period class is primarily comprised of freshmen. Two weeks ago they all got out of fourth period to hear award-winning young-adult author Gary Schmidt speak over at the middle school. So I asked them what they had thought of his talk. Most of them chimed in with enthusiasm.

"I was expecting it to suck", said one typically un-involved boy, "I thought he'd talk all about how to write paragraphs or something, but it was really interesting."

"What was your favorite part?" I asked.

And at that point, the whole class jumped in, recounting parts and pieces of each of the three stories he had told over a forty-minute period. They had all been engaged. The funny thing was that although they remembered the stories distinctly, they didn't remember being taught anything. His main point had been clear, though, and when I brought it up, they all remembered and relived it. Because he had said it in a story, they had all easily absorbed what Schmidt was trying to teach them

"I guess that's the problem I have with these chapel speakers", I said. "They fail to tell good stories, so they never answer the question 'why should you trust me?' The only people who are going to get anything out of it are the people who already agree with them - and even they won't really remember anything. This is because in order to matter as a speaker to people who don't have an overwhelming pre-existing reason to trust you, you have to tell them a story."

"That was what was cool about Jesus.", I went on, "He didn't provide answers, he just sort of explored the questions with stories, so that as listeners we could place ourselves in those stories and, hopefully, buy into the truths they were meant to convey. Jesus loved people and took care of their practical needs, and therefore had probably earned enough credibility that they would have listened to some dry theological homily. Nonetheless, for the most part he did nothing but tell stories - and look at how long those stories have been remembered, and the number of people they have affected."

My class listened politely, as they usually do. I am, after all, just a teacher - telling them one more time and in one more way what to believe. Maybe some of the things I rant about will sink in, but what they will probably remember a lot more clearly is the stories I tell them - about my failed marriage, or the adventures I had in Peru, or the crazy things I did as a tree planter in Canada. The cumulative effect of those stories and the lessons I have learned from them is bound to have a greater impact on the way these young men and women (or "future slaves of corporate america", as I referred to them this morning) think and act.

ActorAustin listened politely as well as I recounted and re-ranted all this. Then he changed the subject to fear, and how I've been saying we do all sorts of destructive (and sometimes even good) things because of fear. Then I changed the subject and said that I would qualify that we do a lot less destructive things than we otherwise would because of the under-woven influence of love, and then we talked about Russians and movie-making and emotion-manipulating, and about two nights ago when we went to the crazy redneck bar with a couple of friends and sat awkwardly out of place, sanctimoniously laughing and watching the unfortunate implosion of our cultural heritage. ActorAustin and I are like that on the phone - we just blabber on about all sorts of things, weighing out ideas. We do this because we're friends, and are therefore in a story that we both find interesting enough to engage.

For my other friends - the ones I don't see any more who think it's cool to just end a marriage if it doesn't seem to be working out - perhaps I ought to just put the diatribing treatise on the back burner. Perhaps our stories have diverged too much, and they're unlikely to be swayed by any argument I make. In that case, I guess I ought to just keep on keeping on with my "Anatomy of an Effup".

Perhaps if I can share honestly the very humanness of the mistakes and failings that have brought me to this place of brokenness, they can walk with me through it and see as I do with the rose-tinted glasses of hope. If I have told a true enough story, it may be that they will experience through it a glimmer of the grace that I believe has the capacity to transcend the petty failures of all our lives and build of them a beautiful, restored mosaic of relationships.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

go to jail

Since we hate to read things that are not short, clever or entertaining, I will merely link you to an article that shows how totally messed up the American prison system is. I submit that if you still think everything is hunky-dory, you should consider reading this.

(thanks, Ben)