Slain, Explained

I’m standing at the front of the church with about fifty other people. We’re lined up shoulder to shoulder, stretched from one side of the church to the other. It’s not just a regular run-of-the-mill service. There’s a guest speaker in town, a Faith Healer, but so far, there haven’t been any observable miracles. The handicapped kid, immobile in his chair, wheels himself dejectedly away from the pulpit, and the woman with the skin condition is still unnaturally gold. They obviously have some unresolved sins in their lives that disqualify them from a healing.  But thanks for playing anyway, and better luck next time. Now onto the good stuff.

The healer starts on the right and moves slowly to the left, touching our foreheads with his outstretched hand. As he does, we fall down backwards into the arms of the waiting “catchers,” one by one, like a row of dominoes, or a giant team-building “trust me” exercise, or a mass execution –  death by firing squad – except we’re not shot. We’re slain – slain in the spirit.   My sister, standing to my right, has just gone down, and now here it is, my turn.

I want nothing more than to be struck down by a supernatural force, but if I’m going to fall backwards into the arms of a waiting stranger, it’s going to have to be  irrefutable, like being struck by lightning, or being hit by a taser.  You can’t get hit with a taser and not fall down, and that’s how it needs to be if I’m going to be slain in the spirit.  I am completely open to this and really want it to happen. Come on, God!

The preacher touches me on the forehead.

And I feel … nothing.

Or, maybe I’d just gotten a bum hit, which is what the preacher seems to think, because he pushes my head again, this time a little harder. I step back to balance myself, but there I am, still standing.

He pushes me again, even more aggressively, but this time, I kind of push his hand back with my head, just to give him the message that his connection to God seems to be broken.  He gets it. “Get her out of here,” he hisses. I’m not good for publicity; I’m wrecking his winning streak. The catcher grabs me by the arm and shunts me into an empty pew, where I’m left alone to stew in the pot of my own sinfulness.

Meanwhile, as I watch, the remaining dominoes keep dropping, one by one by one stinking one, the whole way across the church.  I don’t get it. What was I missing? I wanted this as much as the next guy, probably even more.

Fortunately, my sister -who’d kissed the pastor’s bad but handsome son a couple of times after Youth Group and had a lot more sin in her life than I did at that point – had been one of the successfully slain.

“When he pushed you and you fell down, did you really feel something?” I asked.

“Umm, not really,” she said, considering it.  “But everyone else was falling, so I just fell down too.”

One good thing about my sister. She always told the truth, whether it damned her or not.

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husband socks

When I was little, I wanted to marry a horse. Specifically, a little white pony named Snowball that I rode every Friday during an hour-long lesson at the Windy Hill Riding Academy in Library, PA. It didn’t matter that Snowball was a gelding. He might even have been a mare. I didn’t care. I was too young to know what marriage entailed, lesbians hadn’t been invented yet, and the moral implications of cross-species fertilization were beyond my comprehension.  Plus, if Rachel Dolezal, an obviously Caucasian woman with a frizzy perm and an all-you-can-eat subscription to a tanning salon could get a job as head of the NCAAP because she identified as black, there was no reason I couldn’t identify as horse.  rachel

The only thing that mattered about Snowball was this: he understood me. He was the only person in the entire world, besides my teddy bear, who understood me. If I was mad about something, or was just having a general pity-party kind of day, Snowball completely understood, and agreed with everything I said. If I hated one of my classmates, Snowball hated one of my classmates too. We were both misunderstood products of our own environment.  It was us against the world, at least in my mind.

My relationship with Snowball – like many of my future relationships – was completely imaginary. To Snowball, I was just another lump of humanity that got foisted upon his back every week. I might have deluded myself into thinking that we shared a great bond, but not once did Snowball greet me with a familiar, welcoming whinny. I was a mere cog in the wheel of Snowball’s life.  Thus went my childhood.

Then, about three weeks ago, I was sitting here minding my own business when all of a sudden, a little zebra-striped bubble-envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to me, which was weird. I hadn’t ordered anything online and it wasn’t my birthday, so nobody should have been sending me anything.

But somebody was, and it was Jodi. (I don’t know if I’m allowed to use their real names or if they hate it when I do that or if one day they’ll sue me for libel, but no one reads my blog except them so it doesn’t really matter anyway.)

It was a pair of socks. While some people might call them ugly socks, I would call them the most perfect socks in the whole wide world.  The note that came with them said, “I know they’re not your style, but how could I resist?”

On each sock was a little girl snuggled up to an understanding horse, with the words, “I hate everyone too,” which is exactly what I’d have said to Snowball, my erstwhile husband.

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I immediately send her a glowing thank-you note.

And that was the end of that, until yesterday morning. I was late for work and rushing to get out of the house, but I first had to run downstairs to stick a letter in the mailbox.  When I got there, I saw that we’d forgotten to get the mail the night before, and strangely enough, there was another little package, similar to the one from 3 weeks ago, also addressed to me.

Glancing at the return address, I see that it’s from one of my little sisters, but I don’t have time to think about it. It was Jodi who’d sent me the last package, so I automatically assume it’s from Jodi again.  I knew the address belonged to Corey, but I guessed Jodi was at Corey’s house when she sent it.  When I open the package on my lunch break and see that it’s the exact same pair of socks I’d received 3 weeks earlier, my suspicions are confirmed: it’s from Jodi.

“But why would she send me a second pair ?” I wonder. Was she so touched by my thank-you note that she thought one pair wasn’t enough?   If I loved them as much as I said I loved them, maybe she figured I’d already worn holes into the first pair and needed a second pair? Would she be sending me the same pair of socks every few weeks, just to be funny?

As I read through the letter she’d written, I continued to color the words with my Jodi-brush. Since we all have similar, sometimes interchangeable handwriting, the handwriting was irrelevant, and even when she started the letter by talking about Corey’s boys (our nephews) I thought, “Why is she talking about Corey’s boys? Did she have them for the weekend or something?” None of it made sense, but I made it make sense.

“Has she lost her mind?” I wondered. “Did she forget that she already sent them to me a few weeks ago?”

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When I get to the end of the letter, and read, “Love, Corey,” I still don’t put two and two together. The socks were from Jodi – why was she signing her name Corey? It took me at least 30 seconds before I started thinking, “Wait, they’re from Corey? How could they be from Corey?”   I had to go back and start all over again, more slowly this time, with different eyes. Only then did it hit me that the 2nd pair actually were from Corey.

I’m still a little blown away by this.

Not just that – independent of one another, within weeks of each other – two of my sisters send me the exact same pair of the most fitting socks in the world, although that was pretty cool.

But it was also this, and  I had to google it to find out what it was called.

Confirmation bias: a type of selective thinking in which one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.

Despite all the facts that were in front of my face, facts didn’t matter. I had already made up my mind who had sent me the second pair of socks, and regardless of everything that unfolded before me, I refused to let the facts speak for themselves. I refused to believe what I saw. For someone who likes to think she’s a pretty objective, critical thinker who finds out all the facts before coming to a conclusion, this was a very strange moment.

In this case, seeing was not believing. I had interpreted what I read through the lens of what I already believed, so it was actually the other way around: believing was seeing. I didn’t see what was actually there until I believed it.  How much of what I’ve seen or what I know is actually incorrect? I’m now so confused by this paragraph that I don’t even know what it means, so just forget it. This whole paragraph is stupid and nothing makes sense.  I feel like the Farside Cartoon where the little guy on the beach spells out the word HELF on the beach, and the rescue plane cancels the rescue because it was only HELF and not HELP.  HELF!helf

In the meantime, as I contemplate the possible wrongness of my entire Weltanschauung, I sit and wait for the arrival of a third pair socks from my final sister.  Given recent events, I’m sure they’re probably on the way already, even as we speak. Then and only then will my sisterly collection of perfect Husband Socks be complete. Given my final sister’s infatuation with All Things Goodwill, giving new meaning to the term Goodwill Hunting, I expect that this last pair will show up without a hang-tag, slightly used, but still in decent, wearable condition.

Which will be nice, because I really don’t want to wreck the pristine perfection of the two I already have.

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ode to joy

I’d just finished looking over the potluck buffet for the second time, making sure I didn’t miss anything good that might have showed up late. That’s when the trouble started.

“Where did he even come from?” I thought. It was like he materialized out of nowhere. How could I get myself out of this?

The room – an impersonal condo-association rec room – was too large for the Christmas party that was being thrown. There were people seated at a long folding table on one side of the room, but the rest of the room was empty. It was just the two of us all by ourselves, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.  I thought about slipping past him with a glancing “Hi!” and pretending there was someone on the other side of the room that I urgently needed to see, but there was no one on the other side of the room, let alone anyone I urgently needed to see.

A conversation was inevitable. Crap.

Previous encounters revealed that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other. He was flamingly liberal, as crunchy as they come, with scraggly shoulder-length hair and an air about him that made people wonder if he was possibly homeless. I could’ve asked him how his non-profit was going, but his answer would have depressed me with its foregone conclusion:  “We’re still not making a profit.”

“Err, hi,” he says. For a brief second, I think he might just leave it at that and let us move along, but he doesn’t.  He settles himself in for conversation.

“Err, hi,” I say. It’s Christmas. I think. Be merry! Be bright! I buck myself up, fix on a smile, and give it a good old college try. Except, I was never very good at college.

There’s a weird, uncomfortable silence.

“So, how are things?” he throws limply into the bleak abyss standing between us.

“Good,” I say. Time slows to a halt. “And, for you?”

“As good as things can be, I guess,” he says. Time now starts marching backwards, to the beat of our luminous conversation.

I’m trolling around in my mind for something – ANYTHING – to say, so that we don’t have to stand here staring wordlessly at each other for the next five minutes. Finally, it comes to me, the safe and ubiquitous topic that has brought us together for this festive celebration: Christmas!

“I’m going home to Pittsburgh next week,” I say. I babble on about how fun it is before Christmas, with all the preparation and activity, and how depressing it is afterwards, with the desolation of January staring you in the face.  My goal was merely to fill the void with cheerily-spoken words, so we could both get this over with as soon as possible. In my vast repertoire of painful conversations, people in the middle of painful conversations generally don’t care about content. As long as someone else is doing the talking and the words are flowing at a reasonable pace, they’re generally not going to ding you on the content. They’re generally not even listening.

This time, however – and to his credit – I’d underestimated my audience. My audience had been listening. The mild-mannered, tree-hugger looked pensive for a few seconds, then said, “Interesting.” He smiled before continuing. “You know, YOU are an example of something that I really hate about a lot of people.”

He said this so nicely and quietly that it took a couple of seconds for his actual words to register.  I mean, I’m sure I’m an example of something a LOT of people really hate, but usually – USUALLY – people keep their thoughts to themselves so I don’t have to actively know what people think about me, and as long as I don’t know, it’s ok. Ignorance is bliss, and I prefer to keep it that way, lest you get any ideas about enlightening me in the “comments” section.

“Funny,” I say retrospectively. “Because YOU are an example of something that I really hate about a lot of people, too!”

Had I actually said this, the story could have ended with an uplifting Brady Bunch-like moral: be honest and you’ll always find your common ground. We would have found our common ground, even if it wasn’t particularly pleasant, and the conversation would have taken off from there.  It wasn’t that I hated “him.”  I didn’t. He was a nice, well-meaning fellow, if a little hard to talk to.  I just didn’t like any of his ideologies.  Also, it might have ended in a fist fight, and that would have been an exciting way to end the story too.

But, did I actually say that? Of course I didn’t. That’s what the word “retrospectively” means. I can only think of fun and interesting things to say when I’m sitting at my computer, months and months after the fact, queen of the late and unstated comeback.

When his words DID finally register, and as he got more and more warmed up and began to expound in detail exactly what it was about my kind of person that he hated, I floated up towards the ceiling and watched the little drama from above.  I was really just standing there listening to him tell me about what was wrong with my kind of people! The smile may have stayed on my face, but it drained from my eyes by degrees.

Apparently, someone had appointed him Dictator of Christmas, and it was up to him to decide not just when and how you were allowed to put up your tree, but how you were allowed to feel when it was all over, too.

“Christmas starts on the 25th, and not a day before,” he declared. “WE dug up a tree from our organic tree farm with the roots still intact so we could plant it later.  It’s ridiculous, these people who kill real trees and put them up in October.”

“I would never kill a real tree and put it up in October,” I say. Although one time, I did put up a fake tree in November, November 1st to be exact. I don’t mention this.

“Even a WEEK before Christmas is bad!” he decried from his vegetarian soapbox, no longer smiling. “I cannot relate to materialism or commercialism at all and have no sense of the post-holiday depression that you describe.”

I try to imagine the kind of cheerless, organic Christmases he must’ve had, starting on December the 25th and not a day earlier. What about the letters to Santa?  What about having your picture taken at the local shopping mall with one of Santa’s leering “Helpers”?  What about dressing up as one of the camels in the school Christmas pageant? What about Christmas Eve, and the reindeer, and the plate full of cookies and milk?  What about trying to figure out how Santa could possibly make it to every single house, not just in your neighborhood or state, but in the ENTIRE WORLD, all in one night? And how did he know to come to YOUR house, but not Mrs. Blash’s house next door, who only had one adult son named Bernie who didn’t need any toys?

I pictured a drafty old farmhouse, someplace cold and remote – Missouri? – with overcooked vegetables and beef-flavored tofu served by unkempt women with frazzled grey hair. Socks for presents – hand-knitted socks that bagged around the ankles after the first wear, and maybe an orange or two, if he were lucky.  A tree wheeled in at the last minute, decorated with clunky paper chains made out of coarse, recycled construction paper.  Hell. It sounded like pure, joyless, tasteless hell. I contrasted this with the bright, copiously-decorated home of my childhood, loud, busy, and festive, with Santa and Jesus, the two Christmas superheroes, battling it out for equal consideration, while someone’s Uncle Bub ran through the streets at midnight, jangling his sleigh bells with fervor.

No wonder my little friend couldn’t relate to post-holiday letdown.  He never had any holiday joy, and without the joy, you’re spared the letdown.

I will take the letdown.

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the most prolific act of my senior year

I’d been dreaming about the prom for years. It all sounded so romantic: the dress! the moonlight! the hot date!  It was like a Wedding Junior.  So when I transferred to a small Christian school for my senior year, I hit the jackpot:  I got to be in charge of the prom.

To be fair, it’s not like I got voted in for the job or anything. There were only 11 of us in the graduating class, and no one else wanted to do it.  But still: this was my big moment.  I got to decide everything: the theme, the colors, where it was going to be held. I even had a date – a junior named Scott – who wasn’t hot at the moment but who had a hot dad and thus had the potential to become hot in about 10 years, which is a big selling point when there are only 11 people in your graduating class, and only 5 of them are guys.

Not to toot my own horn, but I just so happened to be the moral compass of the school that year. The faculty loved me, the second graders fought to sit next to me on the bus, and every Saturday, I went to the mall and saved people. I was practically sinless (on the outside where it mattered most), but the same couldn’t be said for my classmates.  A couple of them were pretty good, but the rest?  Their commitment to the Cross seemed dubious.

Therefore, as Captain of the Prom, it was my job to provide them with a prom that was completely devoid of Satan’s usual battery of temptationary tools. Rock was the devil’s music, the demon was alcohol, so there’d be none of these items at my prom. I couldn’t trust the ability of my classmates to fight temptation and stay out of hell, so I’d give them a prom where there were no temptations to fight.

That is why, when someone suggested that we have the prom on the Gateway Clipper, I immediately said no.

“But the Gateway Clipper would be a lovely place to hold a prom,” they countered. “There’s no better way to experience the beauty of Pittsburgh than a cruise around the Three Rivers. Why would anyone in her right mind not want to hold a prom on the Gateway Clipper?”

Because, in order to provide a temptation-free prom, I had a strict rule about where the prom could be held: in a place that had never seen, served, contained, or even breathed an item of alcohol … ever, in its entire existence. It wasn’t that the Gateway Clipper was going to serve alcohol to us; that would have been illegal.  It was because there was a bar on the Gateway Clipper, and drinking had been done on the Gateway Clipper, at some time, by some people.  It was contaminated by association, forever tainted, and it would be enough to send my fellow prom-goers backsliding into hell. If they were going to lose their places in heaven, they could do it on their own time.  They weren’t going to do it at my prom, under my watch.

After squashing the Gateway Clipper idea, however, I quickly ran into a problem. My strict rule left out pretty much every venue in town, including some of the churches if they served wine at communion instead of grape juice. And you couldn’t exactly hold a prom at a Burger King. I could find no acceptable place to hold a prom, so I did the only thing I could do: I cancelled it, and thus my date with Scott.

It turns out, however, that you can’t just “cancel” the prom. Parents get mad at you when you cancel the prom. They don’t like the idea that their children are about to be gypped out of a major Life Event. Or more specifically, Scott‘s MOTHER got mad when she learned that SCOTT was about to be gypped out of a major Life Event.  She went right over my head, and without consulting me at all, booked a room at the Edgemont Country Club.

A COUNTRY CLUB! A country club, where the overriding mission was to drink as much alcohol as possible, at all possible times, during all possible activities! If you’re trying to avoid the spirit of alcohol, a country club is the last place you want to be, next to a bar, of course.   The Edgewood Country Club made the Gateway Clipper look like a Disney Film, but by then, it was too late.  Scott’s mother had already paid the deposit. Of course she had.

By the time I learned of this usurpation (they hid the news from me for a week), Scott already had another date – also his mother’s idea. Apparently, I was too much of a flight risk. I’d already cancelled the prom once. What if I had a moral breakdown at the last minute, and refused to go?  Scott needed a Sure Thing for his major Life Event. I was not a Sure Thing.

By that time, unfortunately, everyone else in the school had already paired up with everyone else. I’d have had to dip into the 5th grade to come up with a date, and that would have been some sort of a crime. There I was, dateless to my own senior prom.

“I know someone you can go with,” said my goody-goody friend Mary, who was 17 going on 53. “Todd! He’s a good Christian like us.”

“Is he cute?” I asked.  He could have been as good a Christian as Christ himself, but if he wasn’t cute, I wasn’t going to the prom with him.

“Yes,” she reassured me. “He’s very cute.”

I was still upstairs in my room putting on my poofy-sleeved Gunny Sack dress when the doorbell rang.

My dad answered it.

“Shalom, my friend,” said Todd.

The most important lesson I learned from the debacle of my high school prom (second to “don’t trust a 17-going-on-53-year-old’s definition of the word “cute.”): if the first thing out of your blind prom date’s mouth when greeted by your dad at the door is, “Shalom, my friend,” kill yourself immediately.  Do not go to the prom. We had nothing to say to each other, not a single thing in common, and I spent the ride to the prom smashed up against the passenger door, as far away from Todd as possible, praying that the Rapture would happen within the next fifteen minutes.

Now – while I had no choice but to accept that the prom would be held at a country club – there was one aspect of the prom that I could still control: the music. People could dance at the prom if they must, but if they wanted to dance, they were going to do it nicely, non-suggestively, to nice Christian Music. There would be no dirty dancing at my prom, and no Satanic Music  (“Satanic” being defined as “anything you’d hear if you turned on a regular Top Hits kind of radio station.”)

Fortunately, it just so happened that our milkman – yes, our milkman, the guy who delivered milk to our doorstep every week – was in a great Christian band (“great” being defined as “I’d never heard them play before, but it didn’t matter; they were Christians, they played Christian music.” That alone made them great.)

And even more fortunately, Tongues of Fire, the band’s Pentecostally-inspired name, just so happened to be free that night. Jackpot!

By the time Todd and I showed up, the Milkman Band was already in full swing, bringing glory to God through every poorly-arranged note. The dance floor was empty, except for the guidance counselor and his wife, who were gamely trying to show everyone how “fun” it was to shuck and jive to jazzed-up versions of hymns and prayer songs. It didn’t work: the dance floor stayed empty all night.

And that concludes the most prolific act of my senior year: how I singlehanded ruined the prom.

__________

Years later, we had a reunion of sorts. It was unofficial, in someone’s basement. We were down a couple of people –  one had moved to Louisiana, one had come out of the closet just in time to commit suicide – so it was a very small gathering.  I don’t even know if there was any furniture. It had the feeling of us all sitting around on a concrete floor with our backs against the wall, passing around a bottle in a brown paper bag. My, how far we’d come.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was the worst prom ever. I singlehandedly ruined it.”

“Yeah, you kind of did,” one of them said. “It was pretty bad.”

“But it’s ok,” said another, one of the “bad” ones. “We still had fun.”

“How did you still have fun?” I said. “There was no fun at that prom. I made sure of it.”

“Didn’t you see us leaving, and then coming back?” said the bad one. “We had stuff in the car. We kept going out to the car.”

“Stuff in the car? What do you mean, “stuff in the car”?” I said.

“You know,” he said, puffing on an imaginary joint and tipping back a flask. “Stuff.”

I turned to my other goody-goody friend. “Missy, did you know they were going out for “stuff” in the car?”

“No,” said Missy. “I don’t even know what they’re talking about now.” Missy was still as good as I’d once been.

“Oh my lord,” I said, turning back to the sinners. “Here I am, trying to keep you people out of hell and this is what you do behind my back? You SNEAK out to the car, for STUFF?  NO, I didn’t notice. Maybe I thought you were going to the bathroom. You were drunk, and high, at our senior prom?”

“Of course we were,” they said. “That was the plan all along.”

Proving once and for all: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t keep him out of hell.

You guys are on your own from now on. Good luck.

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The Yellow Light of Sobriety

I am not a good smoker, of anything.  I once attempted to smoke a cigarette at a bar to fit in with my bad-ass cousin, but she was onto me immediately.

“You don’t really smoke, do you?” she said.

“No,” I said, and quit cold turkey after two puffs.

Adding treats to the smoke never helped much either.  On the four or ten occasions I tried to smoke pot, I had to be coached through the entire process, with someone talking me through it every step of the way.  “Ok, my thumb goes where? Now what do I do? How about now?”  I could never get the hang of it, especially if it involved complicated paraphernalia, and people would just end up getting mad because I’d cough it all out prematurely and waste their expensive stuff.   In the end, I decided it was too much hardship for too little joy: the smoke hurt my lungs and there was nothing joyful about sitting around all night thinking people were plotting against me. Just say no, Nancy Reagan? No problem.

But, because I didn’t smoke it, it put me at a disadvantage. I never noticed when other people were smoking it, and I could rarely tell whether other people were high or not.  When I’m not doing something, I always assume that no one else is doing it either.

For example, when I went to Hatteras for a week to learn how to kite and the higher-ups were always having “Safety Meetings,” I thought they were having real and actual Safety Meetings. Kiting could be dangerous, especially when you’re first learning:  Of COURSE they’re having Safety Meetings! I was GLAD they were having Safety Meetings.  Go! GO to your Safety Meetings! Keep me safe!  I marveled at how calm and patient they were with me (an angry, impatient learner who would try the patience of a saint), but I just thought they were that calm and patient, naturally.  I didn’t find out until Thursday what a Safety Meeting actually meant.

“WHAT?” I said, shocked. “You’ve been holding out on me all this time?” (“Holding out on me,” I said, as if pot was one of my great passions.)  That night after dinner, I got someone to talk me through the step-by-step process, and I immediately drifted off to sleep in the hot tub, and almost drowned myself. And I thought kiting was dangerous?  (I’m just glad I didn’t die that way; that would have been embarrassing.)

Then, years later, I went to work in a kite school and was told that the guy in charge was a “wake and bake” kind of guy.  Initially, I thought this meant that he liked Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken so much that he’d wake up and eat it for breakfast. I knew he smoked, but because I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t see it when it was happening (which was apparently a lot). If I thought it was odd that he’d go out on the boat with five kiteboards and return without any of them (“I don’t know where they all went! They all just floated away!”), I chalked it up to the forgetful brilliance of a master instructor.

“No, no, no, no, no!” my coworkers informed me. “You know when he takes his little man-bag, straps it on his shoulder, and then leaves for an hour or so? Where do you think he’s going?”

“I thought he was going to lunch,” I said. He usually went out around 12:30 and then came back around 2:00. “A really long lunch?”

“Ha,” they said. “Just watch.”

“Well, I’m not really good at noticing stuff like that,” I said, “Next time he does it, walk by my office and give me a sign.”

Sitting on my desk at that moment was a little yellow kite-line management tool that someone had given me to test.  It was an invention that was supposed to guarantee that you’d always hook up your kite lines correctly and avoid getting dragged to your death via your own stupidity.  Ironically, the only time I used it was the ONLY time in five years that I ever hooked up my lines incorrectly.  Had I not re-checked them before launching my kite, I’d have surely been dragged to my death.

The tool was made out of high-quality bright yellow plastic, and it looked like the world’s most perfect flashlight. That’s what everyone thought when they walked into my office and saw it sitting on my desk. “Oh, cool! Is that a flashlight? What an awesome flashlight!”  It was the perfect size, nice and substantial, and it felt good in your hands – not flimsy and breakable like some piece of crap you’d find at the Dollar Store. You could clonk someone on the head with it and probably do some damage. It would’ve been the best little flashlight in the world, if only it had had the sense to have been born a flashlight.

At that moment, while looking at the best little flashlight that wasn’t, I had one of the best, most inspired, albeit simultaneously unprofitable Eureka Moments I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t have them often, so I remember them when I do.

“The Yellow Light of Sobriety!” I cried, swinging the little yellow thing around by its cord the way a lifeguard swings around a whistle. “Behold, the Yellow Light of Sobriety! When the Sanctity of Sobriety is being violated, let the Yellow Light of Sobriety be swung!”

And from that day forward, whenever Wake ‘n’ Bake would go running off with his little man purse, one of the guys would emerge from the main office, look at me pointedly, and swing the Yellow Light of Sobriety.

Under such brilliant illumination, dozens of strange little mysteries suddenly started to make sense, and never again did I have to wonder how five large kiteboards could magically float away unnoticed.

 

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Say it with a Smile

I learned to kite during a week-long clinic in Hatteras.

BEST

More accurately:  I continued to learn to kite during a week-long clinic in Hatteras.  This was after 2 or 3 lessons in Newport, another 6 months just flying a trainer kite on a beach in Connecticut, and then 10 days getting skunked in Cabarete.

I wasn’t the only one “learning” to kite that week. Three other guys were part of the clinic, and while it wasn’t exactly a contest, no one (read: ME) wanted to be the last person to get up on the board.

One (Fitz) was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who didn’t seem to care if he ever learned to kite or not. If he did, great.  If he didn’t, he would, eventually, at some point in his life. He’d go out for half an hour, poke around, not get anywhere, and be content with his one attempt for the day.  If anyone was going to get on the board first, it was not going to be Fitz.

The second guy (Stefaan) was a natural, a real top-of-the-food-chain kind of guy. He picked up kiting right away: he rode the board the first day, stayed upwind the second day, and was jumping on the third day. Stefaan didn’t count. Stefaan was just unfair.

The third (Gianni) was a native Italian with a thick accent who learned to speak English by watching old black-and-white movies.  At first, he’d thought the word “motherfu&ker” was a compliment that meant the person had a hot mother that everyone wanted to fu&k.  He was a great story-teller, and kept us all entertained.  He didn’t always mean to be funny; he just was funny. When he wanted to practice patience, he’d go to the post office, stand in line, and then leave when it was his turn.   But the best part about Gianni was that – like me – he was a slow and angry learner.

Collectively, we hated Stefaan, and seethed around in the waters of the Pamlico Sound together, attempting water-start after water-start, swearing and angry like two Tasmanian Devils, glaring malevolently at Stefaan whenever he’d ride past us on his board, smiling and jumping and making kiteboarding look fun and easy.  It was a dark and difficult time for Gianni and I, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one having such problems.   Misery loves company, and Gianni was the most miserable company I could have possibly had.

He was a much different person in the kitchen, though, than when he was stewing around in the sound.  A real live Italy-born Italian, he took it upon himself to cook dinner for everyone in the house, every night.  It was his self-proclaimed job, and he didn’t trust that anyone else could do it as well as he could.  He had definite ideas about how pasta should be cooked and eaten, and treated the improper handling of pasta as if it were a punishable offense.

“Theese people… these Amer-ee-cans,” he’d say. “They break-ah thee pasta in half, and throw eet eento the water. You must NEVER break-ah thee pasta!”

One night at dinner, Fitz was merely trying to add olives to his pasta and had his fork and knife posed over his plate.

“Is it okay if I do this?” he asked Gianni, in reference to the olives, because – with Gianni’s stringent rules over the proper treatment of pasta – you always felt like you had to check to make sure that you weren’t violating some sacred Italian rule. Gianni, who hadn’t been paying attention, looked over when he heard his name, and seeing Fitz with a fork and knife poised over his plate, assumed Fitz was about to cut his pasta, and reacted as if someone was about to slaughter his firstborn child.

“Oh, Feetz, Feetz, Feetz!” he cried. “No, Feetz, pleeeeease, don’t do that … no … no … noooooo!”

It horrified him the way Americans ate all of their courses at once … the meat with the potatoes and the vegetables and the salad all on one big plate at the same time.

“In Eet-aly” he said, “We do not meex our foods. We generally have five courses, and eat them one at a time. We do not slop everything together on a plate like pigs. Eeet is so much more civilized in Eetaly.

“My first Thanksgiving here, I deedn’t know what to do. Eeet was rideeculous! The people, they piled their plates with food! PILED them! Me? I had fifteen courses!” he said, waving his hand around with the proud air of a rich and lazy king who’s just had the feast of a lifetime. “It took me four hours! The cranberries, and the potatoes, and the …”

“What about the gravy?” someone interrupted his dreamy reminiscence.

“The gravy? Ennnnh,” he said, waving the idea away with his hand. “The gravy, take it or leave it. The gravy could have been better.  Gravy’s not meant to be eaten as a separate course, but what could I do?”

On and on, we toiled …. Gianni and I, day after day, getting nowhere. We just could not figure out how to use the wind to get ourselves up on our stupid kiteboards.

“It’s not ‘Gee-ahn-ee,’” he said, regarding the pronunciation of his name. It drove him crazy how Americans pronounced it.  “It’s Zjon-y.  Two syllables, not three.  Zjon-y. ”  In order to get it right, he made us turn up the corners of our mouths, as if we were smiling, and then say his name:  “Zjon-y,” he said. “Say it with a smile.”

Like many other New Yorker City people, Say-it-with-a-Smile didn’t own a car.  Instead, he had a bike, a heavy old clunker, which he seemed to fall off more than he actually rode.  One day while riding around in Central Park, he was riding behind some random girl, when all of a sudden:

“The beetch!” he says of the girl.  “She makes a turn right in front of me, and whaughf! We are both on thee ground.  She has a black eye and her nose is bent. I am covered with blood but I do not know this because I am wearing a red shirt. Then, she gets up and RUNS AWAY, and leaves her bike behind!”

That same day, while he was riding along on his heavy old clunker: “I pooshed down hard on the pedal, and eet came off and at thee same time, the fender broke down eento the wheel and … pffooosh …. I go catapulting ten feet into thee air and I do a … a … (he searches for the right word, making circular motions with his hands) … I do a fleep …. and I land right on top of thees policeman. Right een front of him! And he starts screaming at me: ‘geet out of my face, geet out of my face, geet out of here you beeg mutherfucker! Geet out of here!’”

And that was the end of the old clunker.  He immediately went out and bought a new, lighter, swifter bicycle, and as he was careening down Fifth Avenue with his earphones turned way up, he accidentally but illegally sped through a red light. As he’s cruising away from the scene of the crime, he sees, “Out of thee corner of my eye, something that lukes like a big sea lion. A short little guy, meedle-aged, out of shape, bald, with a beeg belly (gesture to indicate pregnant-like belly), and he’s rideeng on one of those … policeman bicycles …. and he’s pumping as hard as he can and I can see that eets a struggle to keep up weeth me. And maybe the day before, on my old clunker bike, I would have stopped. But now I’m on my new bike, and eet’s like, no WAY, vat is he THEENKING, I’m not going to stop for him, so I luke over at heem, over the top of my sunglasses, and I give him thees luke – a “who are you kidding, you idiot” look – and I … foooooosh! Take off!  And he doesn’t have a chance!”

Finally, on the last day of the clinic, I get up on the board and actually ride it for about 15 seconds.  This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s huge.  I finally know what it feels like to ride the board.  It will take me another 4 months before I can repeat this with regular consistency, but none of us, especially not Gianni, knows this yet.  For all intents and purposes, I have arrived, and I’ve left my partner-in-misery behind.

With my newfound confidence,  I embark, the next morning, on a solo mile-long downwinder which should take no more than 15 minutes. “Not so fast, bucko,” the Universe says with a smile.  I quickly become detached from my $1000 kite and bobble around in the water, able to do nothing except watch it go tumbling off into the sound. It is soon a mere dot on the horizon, and then disappears completely.

In the meantime, when the people who are waiting for me at the downwind location see my disappearing kite and realize I’m not attached to it, they start an unofficial search for the “lost kiter girl.”   At any given time, I am technically no more than 500 yards away from civilization, but no one can find me anywhere.   As the hours go by, excitement builds, and everyone starts gearing up for the titillating prospect of my tragic demise.

Six hours later, after swimming, trudging, and clawing my way through various patches of wild, unfriendly marshland, I finally show up, simultaneously relieving and disappointing everyone in equal measure.  People are mad at me, as if I staged the whole thing on purpose.

Gianni is there too, and I feel stupid and humbled. If this doesn’t make him feel a little better about my 15-second rise to fame and glory the day before, it should. This is absolutely the best I can do to make up for it.

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popularity contest

Two hours after being appointed Location Manager of the New York Best Kiteboarding Lesson Center (no additional compensation, just the glory!), it became painfully clear to me that I didn’t actually want to BE a Location Manager. It was a lot more fun bossing people around and yelling at them when you didn’t have the authority to do so. It’s one thing to complain about the two-hour lunch breaks people liked to take; it was another thing trying to make sure the people didn’t take them. I wasn’t just the co-worker with a valid point anymore; I was now the bad guy (and not a very nice bad guy:  kind of a mean bad guy.)

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do this for very long. A week after my appointment, we decided to close New York for the season. It was just too cold. The Center didn’t have central heating, and despite the best efforts of R2D2 to heat the main area, it just wasn’t enough. While our individual offices were warm due to the little heaters we had underneath our desks, trips to the kitchen to get lunch were mad dashes against the clock before your fingers went numb. We were like convicts in solitary confinement, banned to our own individual islands in Siberia, unable to come out until spring.

IMG_6178 (Small)

I packed up my jeep and headed back to Florida.

The Florida Office also had a Location Manager, named Tyler, and ever since my appointment, Tyler seemed to have turned the whole Location Manager thing into a popularity contest that he – and he alone – was determined to win. I was still on the Florida Office distribution list and was aware of every one of Tyler’s socialistic attempts to win the favor of his constituents by providing them soup-kitchen-like sustenance on a regular basis.  If it wasn’t his wife’s warm, homemade brownies, it was: “Guess what, everyone! I’m so great! I mean, great news! I entered a raffle at Chipotle with my business card and won, so it’s free lunch for all! Join me in the conference room at 1PM!” People were eating it up, and there was no way I could compete with him on that level.

Whatever he was doing was clearly working: unpopular decisions seemed to go over much better on a full and subsidized stomach. Fine. I had a lot to learn, but it didn’t have to be a contest. Under his tutelage, I’d return to the Lesson Center in April a new kind of Location Manager, ready to be loved by all.  The next time we spoke on the phone,  we joked about how great it would be to have two Location Managers in the same place at once, and decided that our first act together as Location Managers ruling from the same office would be the purchase of crowns, robes, scepters, and – of course – a royal chalice from which we would both drink while making joint decrees. It was going to be great.

My first day back in the Florida office, however, I fire up Microsoft Office, all ready to face the day with a newly-turned leaf, and this is the email I find, from Tyler, to the entire Florida Office:

From: Tyler [mailto:tbarnes@bestkiteboarding.com]
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 8:58 AM
To: FL-OFFICE@BESTKITEBOARDING.COM
Subject: Bages in the ‘kitchen’…

… are up for grabs, unless your name is Stacey Fonas.

If your name is Stacey Fonas, and you’re looking for food … well … too bad.

Enjoy, everyone!
-TB

 What? This wasn’t robes, and crowns, and royal chalices. This wasn’t an unstoppable team of Location Managers. This was somebody throwing down the gauntlet.

Fine. I’ve stolen Christmas presents from orphans before; I certainly wasn’t above hijacking bagels from Tyler.  I march out to the microwave, grab the bagels (not “bages,” Tyler, “bagels”), take them into my office and set them up on my filing cabinet. I arrange the cream cheese, napkins, and knives into neat little Martha-Stewart-like piles, and then launch out the following email:

From: Stacey [mailto:stacey@bestkiteboarding.com]
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2008 9:04 AM
To: ‘fl-office’;
Subject: RE: Bages in the ‘kitchen’…

Hey, everyone ..

There are bagels in my office, if anyone’s hungry!

-SF

 

A few minutes later, Joel, the shipping manager, comes in, loads up a bagel, and thanks me sincerely.

It is a beautiful moment.

 

 

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dan james and his cookie plate

(Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Every Christmas, my mother makes a cookie plate for Dan James. She gives it to him right after church in the parking lot, and he eats its entire contents during the ride home. He licks the platter clean before he even pulls into his own driveway.

We are 99% positive that this is how it all goes down.

We wouldn’t mind so much what Dan James did with his cookies if my mom made lousy Christmas cookies. But she doesn’t. She makes beautiful, delicious, time-consuming cookies, which deserve to be tasted and enjoyed on an individual basis, and if Dan James is just going to push them into his face without really even tasting them (nom nom nom), covering the front of his coat with crumbs, we may as well just buy him a box of Little Debbies, or re-gift him some cookies from the next-door neighbor and let him feast on those instead.

Why do we care so much what Dan does with his cookies? Why we get so upset when he eats them in one fell swoop before he even makes it out of the church parking lot? Why do we think we should be able to dictate and control how he chooses to enjoy his own Christmas cookies?

The same reason we feel we should be able to dictate and control everything: we just do.

And also, it’s a little bit of a church thing. Dan James is a CHURCH friend and he should KNOW that gluttony is a sin. Yet year after year, he sits there one minute, listening to Bible Doctrine, only to rush out the door the next, shoveling cookies into his head like the Tasmanian Cookie Monster. Hasn’t he been paying attention? We had no choice but to take the matter into our own hands.

The first year, we started out gently. While my mom boxed up the cookies in a festive tin, I wrote a jaunty little Christmas poem, wishing him a Merry Christmas, and warning him of the sin of gluttony, stating that if he didn’t want to end up in hell he should probably not eat all of them at once on the ride home. This should’ve been enough: who wants to go to hell for gluttonously eating all of his Christmas Cookies in one fell swoop?

Nonetheless, we’re pretty sure that – despite the note – he ate all of them, at once, on the ride home again, anyway. He didn’t even read the note until he got home, we found out later, his face all covered in powdered sugar, no doubt.

So, the next year, we decided to turn up the volume a bit. If he couldn’t control his voracious appetite and keep himself from the fire of Hades, it was our responsibility as the cookie givers to protect him from himself. It was not my idea. I merely carried out the plan, wrapping the entire box with layers and layers of duct tape, transforming my mother’s pretty festive cookie box into a cookie box so covered in silver-grey duct tape that it could have survived the Titanic disaster, lifeboat shortage and all, without the least bit of water damage. There is absolutely no way that Dan would have been able to break into the box on the way home, unless he had a chainsaw sitting on the seat beside him.

My mother’s cookies were so tempting and delicious, however, that we could imagine that he’d try to break through the duct tape anyway, holding onto the steering wheel with his left hand, clawing at the tape with his right hand, his Jeep screeching and swerving all over the road, cookies being shaken and smashed to pieces inside the box, Dan himself swearing and angry, steam coming out of his ears like a cartoon character, until he eventually swerved off the road and into a tree.

Since we’re not entirely heartless and didn’t want him spending the holidays in the ICU, we did allow him one little treat, one perfect cream-filled ladylock, which we wrapped in Saran Wrap and gently secured to the top of the box with a hangtag that read: “ONE FOR THE ROAD, DAN! One! Uno. Not two, not three. Uno!”

We were sure that once he was forced to savor his solitary treat, he’d realize the error of his previous gluttonous cookie-eating ways, and would emerge from his Jeep a changed and better man, complete with a self-imposed cookie-rationing plan that would last him well into the New Year.

“Well,” he said, the next time we saw him in church. “I see you packaged that one a little better than you did the last time. I couldn’t even get to the little one on top! Uno,” he chuckled quietly to himself. “I liked that part. Uno. Not two, not three. Uno.”

Ahhh, the sweet taste of success. At least this year, the cookies survived the journey home! Baby steps, baby steps. They may not have lasted through the next hour, or even the next five minutes, but at least they got a foot in the door, which is the farthest they’ve ever made it before in their lives. This year, through the door; next year, the moon!

While we might not always be around to protect Dan from his old sin nature and help him make the right choices, we can certainly be there for him on the holidays. Because that is what the holidays are all about: caring about other people and dictating the way they eat their Christmas cookies.

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motherhood

When I first heard about test-tube babies, I thought FINALLY! I never wanted to go through the whole nine-months-of-being-pregnant process – I couldn’t even last six weeks with a cast on my wrist – but now that there was a way around that, I might actually consider having a child. I envisioned a large, cavernous lab, dark and empty except for a giant glass test tube in the center, lit from within by a glowing yellow light. Inside, submerged upside-down in a special liquid, floated a translucent thumb-sucking baby that you could visit every couple of days – maybe even attach a set of headphones around the glass and play it some Rachmaninoff.

And in nine months – voila! You picked up your full-term baby. No morning sickness, no messy afterbirth, no stretch marks, and no post-partum depression. If you were in a rush, maybe they could even crank up the heat a little and speed up the processing time. Or, if you had a thing against crying babies and Terrible Twos, you could just leave him in there until he was old enough to be checked into military school. Maybe I could do this mothering thing after all!

Last year, however, when I learned the truth about test-tube babies, that kind of ended it for me right there.

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Might as well face it, I’m a dick with a glove

Misheard lyrics, oh how I love them. I could waste hours on the Kissthisguy website.

And the explanations from the people doing the mishearing make the lyrics even funnier: “I thought it was a song about Michael Jackson and I asked a friend if he’d heard this song. He had me recite the lyrics. He laughed at me for days.”

I laughed at him for days, too. In context, “addicted to love” sounds exactly like “a dick with a glove.” It makes perfect sense … kind of like how my misheard lyric made perfect sense, only my misheard lyric wasn’t exactly a misheard lyric. Mine was more of a Misunderstood Sexual Saying, which would have been fine, if only I’d left it in the display case at Spencer’s Gifts. But I didn’t. I took it home, pinned it to my “Welcome Campers” staff shirt, and wore it on opening day while greeting all the parents.

In my defense, I didn’t know anything about sexual sayings. I went to a small Christian school, was saving myself for marriage, and anything related to sex went completely over my head.

Also in my defense, I’d actually been a really good counselor for my first 4 weeks on the job. Everyone loved me, and if you weren’t in my group, you wished you were. But after the first 4 weeks, the shine was wearing off. Being a counselor was hard work, and I was not looking forward to the start of the second 4-week session, when a fresh new infusion of little girls would show up at the gates, snapping their gum and waiting to be entertained.

Instead of showing up at the gates, what I wanted them to do was stand on the side of the road and point their little butts to the sky … so I could drive by in my car and run them over. THAT is the statement I thought I was making with my Spencer’s button, except my Spencer’s button said it in 4 little words. The message was a bit subtle, but what else could those 4 little words have possibly meant? I didn’t really want to run campers over with my car; it was just a metaphor. All it meant, in context, was that campers were a pain in the neck. I was sure the parents would get it, and that they’d be delighted that their daughters were in the hands of someone with such a scintillating, sarcastic sense of humor.

“I feel the same way too,” I pictured one of the camper’s dads mock-whispering to me in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way, as he slipped me a $100 tip. “Why else do you think we’re sending her away to a 4-week camp?!”

To be clear, this was not some rinky-dink run-of-the-mill camp where you slept in log cabins, ate beans out of a can, and expected all of the counselors to be stoners. This was an expensive summer horseback riding camp for preppy little rich girls, held on the campus of an expensive all-girl’s boarding school. Educated, rich, entitled people spent a lot of money to send their children to this camp, and they expected the counselors to be intelligent, responsible, and respectable.

Therefore, I can’t say that any of them were all that thrilled that morning when they rolled up in their fancy cars and saw me standing there, welcoming them in with a big “BEND OVER, I’LL DRIVE” button pinned to my chest.

It’s a good thing that this happened before everyone had cell phones, or I probably would’ve ended up as the Human Interest segment on the nightly news, with an entire nation of people sitting on their couches shaking their heads at my picture in disgust, wondering how such a rude, offensive person could make it through the screening process and become a camp counselor.

I don’t know, man, I just don’t know. ♫ Might as well face it, I’m a dick with a glove.♫

Grier-School-6-760x504

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