Writing Exercise #5

He was a sharp dressed man. But apparently someone didn’t think so. He threw the door open and stormed off towards his car, not really caring what the people in the lobby thought. Jared just didn’t think it was right to tell someone that they weren’t dressed appropriately.

Style. It’s all about style. And who’s idea of style. Jared thought of himself as a stylish guy. He liked to wear sports jackets, not like the cheap salesmen at the electronics store, or the irritating guys down at the sports bar who thought that somehow the addition of a sports jacket meant they were dressed up. Those were the kinds of guys who would put a sports jacket on over a stained sweater and think they were dressed to the teeth.

Not Jared. He wore a slick sports coat, pants that matched, a dark button down shirt, and for part of the day, a solid colored tie. After the lunch the office usually gets hot and the tie becomes a little too much. Jared took off the tie, gave himself the once over in the men’s room and decided he still looked more than professional.

But that’s not what Mr. Hodgson thought. Mr. Hodgson is the manager in Jared’s section. He’s the kind of guy who likes to give the impression of being loose and fun and easy to get along with. But in reality he’s just like the guys who hang out at the sports bar and try to pick up women. He’s big on impression and small on actual substance. He worries more about whether or not Jared’s dress slacks are pleated than whether or not Jared’s customers are happy, which they almost always are.

Jared fished the keys out of his pocket, unlocked the door and slumped behind the wheel. He slammed the door and wondered for a second if he should quit his job. He was being sent home to change his clothes, with the idea that he’d come back for the rest of his shift. But Jared had other ideas. You don’t send someone home at 1:45 and expect them to come back to work. That’s exactly the kind of thing Mr. Hodgson would want you think he’d approve of, but in reality, he’d heavily frown on that kind of the thing. A big, thick frown, full of frustration and sour milk and a rainy Saturday. Not exactly the kind of frown you want to run into when you’re walking around a corner.

Jared started the car and took off down Theodore Avenue, wondering if maybe he should pick up a paper and check out the Want Ads, just to see. Just to toy with the notion of seeing what’s available and who’s hiring who. Jared was the kind of guy who would quit his job at a moment’s notice and not really care. Now Allison would probably kill him, but Alice worried about things like that. She didn’t really care for change. Her idea of change was trying out six outfits in morning. But she always left with one she was satisfied with, and it would seem silly to her to want to change in the middle of the day. Jared, on the other hand, usually kept a few extra ties in his desk in case he got tired of one and wanted to switch to another. Not only did it satisfy his spontaneous desire to dress a certain way, but it really confused his coworkers. Jared liked to do that. Keep people guessing.

That’s why this dress code stuff was crap. There’s no spontaneity when they tell you what you can and can’t wear. How are you supposed to have style when everyone’s walking around like a fourth grade boarding school with the same ties, starched shirts, and pleated pants. Jared hated pleats.

Hero Worship

Bono (front man for the rock band U2, in case you live under a rock) was on the cover of Time magazine this week. It’s an interesting story, basically a feature on the rock star and his strange commitment to African debt relief. Apparently if an important celebrity keeps at some crazy cause for long enough, they’ll put you on the cover of Time. Being a U2-addict, I immediately read the article.

Sometimes I’m beginning to wonder if my fascination for Bono and U2 is bordering on hero-worship. If there’s a blurb that mentions U2, I’m hooked. It’s not like the guys in U2 are that amazing. They do make some amazing music, and they back it up with some strong, although often vague, spiritual values. In their private lives they’re rock stars who like to party. And apparently sometimes they have a conscience. Hence Bono and the whole debt campaign.

And maybe the hero-worship comes in because at times people like Bono seem a bit like Jesus. They do very outrageous yet righteous things, and very few people understand them. As much as the church doesn’t like to admit it, Jesus had some of the rock star quality in him. Everybody knew him, and he was always at some kind of party. And if it wasn’t the first century, he probably would have had sunglasses.

The ‘Hood

And so I walked through the alley of the shadow of death. Life on one side, and pain corruption and a pizza shop-front for drug deals on the other. A cop car parks on the corner every night, and you wonder if the cop lives upstairs and turns his head to cough every morning, or if he’s in the middle of the deal, giving a sense of security when it’s really just a loan. The interest is accumulating and it’s sucking the neighborhood dry like the grass in July. The kids play in the side streets and the puddles, thumping basketballs up and down the sidewalk for want of a hoop.

The detached garages are depressed, houses for cars in need of a boost. The windows are broken and the kids know what’s there. Anything worth taking has long since been pawned at the gawdy shop with the neon lighting around the corner. Block by block the neighborhood changes, from the upstart Ethiopian eatery that serves Corona, to the upscale coffee shop with college art work gracing the walls. From the three-quarters empty, obscure denominational tree branch church with the hokey signs out front, to the new and sharp looking Episcopalian church on the corner that had a rummage sale in the basement last week. If you go far enough down the block you hit a park and you know you’ve run the gamut.

The cats and dogs and joggers of the early morning hours know what’s really going on. The buses that rumble through and the high school kids strolling to the bus stop, trying to decide if today’s a day worth skipping. Some days you wonder if we’re all too caught up in our eaves and lawns, our front rooms and our Cadillacs. Some days you wonder if the kids roam free and the parents work late because they really love to feel like their neighborhood, sloping down like the hill, melting slowly like the school yard ice rink, drooping like the front porch or the discarded sleeper-sofa.

Giving Up for Lent

For the first time in my life I’ve decided to give something up for Lent. Actually I didn’t decide to give something up, my wife did. I’m just along for the ride and it seemed easier and safer to give it up as well. We decided to give up going out to eat for forty days. This is a spiritual sacrifice, as well as a budgetary god-send.

For the first time in my life I also have a rough idea of what Lent actually means. Growing up in a Baptist church, Lent is one of those strange religious practices that the kids who go to church but really don’t believe it do. These are the kids who for forty days will suddenly not do something, and when you ask about it, they shrug their shoulders and say they gave it up for Lent. It always struck me as a sudden bit of religious conviction from an otherwise atheistic person. Being a good Baptist, I always figured that Jesus had died for us and paid for everything, so there was no reason to abstain from anything, no matter what kind of spiritual discipline you were talking. Bring on the potluck.

But Lent isn’t some religious show that people put on. It’s a chance to be reminded that we are mortal. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about. The ashes are a reminder that we come from dust, and to dust we shall return. All this material stuff around us isn’t important. Lent is a symbolic sacrifice to prepare us for Christ’s coming. Certainly people can just go through the motions with Lent, but the same is true of any other symbolic spiritual tradition, like Baptism or Communion.

It always amazes me how the different denominations refuse to understand each other, and instead of trying, just shake their heads, point fingers and accuse one another of straying from the narrow road. Maybe we should look around and notice that we’ve all lost the plot.

Mmm… Broomball

I’ve never been in any kind of championship anything at any point in my life–until Tuesday. Our undefeated and unscored upon broomball team, the Haz Benz, won our semi-final game on Monday night, and it was time for the championships. Our ragged collection of staff players and their spouses that compete every year in the Bethel College intramural league against teams of younger college students had once again defeated the strapping young lads and was prepared to fight swinging broom and flying shoulder against one last team to claim the coveted prize: T-shirts for the entire team.

Now I’m not much of an athlete. Team sports has never been my thing. This was the first time I’d ever played in a championship game. Our goalie said she wanted to throw up, and I understood how she felt. The whistle blew, the game started, and it was a grueling and punishing game. The other team was tough; they were fast, they were precise, and they were skilled. The first half was evenly matched, something we rarely encountered throughout the year. But halfway through the first half their star shooter put one into the net, and for the first time all season we were losing.

To be honest, I was the worst male player on our team. But unbelievably, my teammates didn’t seem to care. We would sub players, usually having two or three guys sitting out a time. When someone called for a sub no one jumped to be first. They’d ask if someone else wanted to go, or outright tell me to go in next. I’ve never seen a group of guys so committed to winning, but still realizing that playing the game and having fun as a team is more important. Even though every one of those guys had scored more goals than I could ever score in my lifetime, they still wanted me to play.

The second half was a little tougher. On my shift I started to feel the pain. A sprawling dive brought a stiff pain to my left knee, in spite of my pads. I needed to get out of the game, and I started watching for a break in the action when I could safely call for a sub. But a break never came. I shifted from offensive to defense and back again, continually looking to the bench to see if I had time to switch. But then the ball was going up the boards again, and rushed to join the offensive rush.

I came up the center and around the defenders, watching as my teammate finessed the ball along the boards, suddenly handled it around the defender guarding him and shot the ball toward the net. It was coming in fast, bouncing along the ice, but it didn’t have the sailing speed most of my teammates’ shots had. I stood six feet out from the net and watched as the ball came bouncing in. The goalie sprawled to cover the net and I realized the ball was coming to the far side, directly in front of me. Like every cliche, cheesy sports movie, everything turned to slow motion. I stopped the ball with my stick and lifted it into the goal, over the sprawled goalie. It was quick and easy, without any time or room for my usual clumsiness. The game was tied.

What an unbelievable feeling. For the rest of the game I didn’t care what happened. My teammates were amazed and impressed that I had scored, it was the story cheesy sports movies were made of. We ended up losing in overtime, but I was still smiling. I had scored in the championship game, sending it into overtime. I don’t mean to brag about my accomplishment, since I really didn’t do anything. I couldn’t have had a better assist. But you just have to love the feeling. As non-sports minded as I am, I finally understand the adrenaline of competition and the thrill of victory.

Junior High

Middle school is a time of life that should be forgotten as quickly as possible. I remember middle school, but I wish I didn’t. Those were the culminating years of dorkhood for me. All that factors that go into making someone a dork came together for those few years. The orthodontia and glasses from fourth grade, combined with the lack of friends from fifth grade, combined with the awkwardness of puberty all came together in one spectacular loser. That was me.

In sixth grade I decided to spike my hair. It was what I wanted to do in second grade, but never did because I had more common sense. In sixth grade I threw caution to the wind and just did it. Unfortunately I didn’t become the coolest guy in Language Arts on Monday morning. I got a few laughs instead.

Middle school was a time of endless alliances. You had to choose your friends carefully. You had to have friends. That was usually my problem. My lack of friends meant I hung out with whoever I could, and that usually meant I was the butt of jokes. The only thing I had going for me was that I was smart and could actually do my homework. This meant others would suspend their foolery and accept me as one of their own. That is, until they stopped caring about homework and decided writing on my shirt with markers was more fun.

Middle school was an awkward time between the vast freedom and overwhelming potential of high school, and the complete lack of options that is elementary school. You were old enough to want to be far, far away from your parents, but you didn’t have the capacity or a good reason to make it happen.

You also had to worry about puberty. You actually noticed girls, and for more than the fact that they were girls. They made you feel queasy and lightheaded and stupid all at the same time. They had flowing hair, and smiles, and the beginning of breasts, and their bodies were beginning to look less and less like little girls, and just a little bit like the high school girls they would soon become. They had hands you could hold. And that was enough for any middle school puberty-prisoner.

I remember sitting in our rows in gym class, waiting for the big, whistle-blowing goon in jogging pants to start class. I sat there awkwardly in the second row, third one back, wearing an old t-shirt and shorts that felt too small. The gym aid was a seventh grader, and he sat in the first row. He had hair on his legs. Lots of it. After seeing him I’d look at my legs and wonder what happened. I could count the hair on my legs. I’d run my hand up my legs trying to make the little hair I had stand up so it looked like I had more.

I remember riding home on the bus one of my friends kept telling me that I needed to start shaving. Apparently I had the beginnings of a mustache going. I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to shave, and learning how meant asking my father, something I wasn’t incredibly keen on doing. It’s not that my dad wouldn’t have been glad to show me, it’s just that it was one of those awkward things you really don’t want to have to ask about. Like sex. Nobody wants to initiate a conversation with their parents about sex.

So rather than brave the awkward question, I sneaked into the bathroom alone and shaved off the beginnings of my mustache. It wasn’t that hard. You just took the razor and raked it across your upper lip. I didn’t use any shaving cream or water, because I didn’t know any better, and ignorance was anything but bliss.

That lasted a month or two, my friend continually pointing out the peach fuzz on my upper lip, my brother’s razor leaving a serious burning sensation. Finally I had enough and asked my dad to show me how to shave. He was sitting in the orange chair in the family room, watching TV on a week night. I stood in the living room, just out of sight, trying to dredge up enough courage to ask my dad.

“Um, dad?” I asked, my toe trying to bore a hole through the kitchen linoleum.

“Yeah,” my dad said, not looking away from the TV.

“Um… will you… I mean, I need you to… um… will-you-show-me-how-to-shave?” I finally blurted out.

Dad broke his gaze from the TV and looked up at me and said calmly, “What?”

A few minutes later we were in the bathroom and my dad was officially showing me how to shave with my brother’s razor. I learned all the intricacies of shaving cream and applying it to the areas to be shaved. It was nearly rocket science, and it was over in five minutes. I probably could have figured that out myself if I just thought about it.

Middle school is the no man’s land of adolescence. That day when I asked my dad to show me how to shave I didn’t become a man. I didn’t grow up that day, and there was no great ceremony marking my entry into manhood. It was just another minor milestone on my quiet journey through dorkhood.

Red, White, and Blue Isn’t Always Tried and True

America is the land of freedom. Until a time of national crisis, when patriotism outshines all wrongs. Katie Sierra is a 15 year old high school girl who was suspended last fall because she opposed the war in Afghanistan. She buys clothes at the Salvation Army and scrawls messages on them, like “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America.” Her freedom of speech was denied because it incites her fellow students and disrupts the educational process. She’s now being home schooled because of fears for her safety.

She’s peace loving and anti-violent, yet her view isn’t accepted. Her fellow students and even strangers calling into talk radio shows don’t understand her lack of patriotism. She’s been threatened and attacked, and this is the ideal we call democracy. Why does patriotism seem to be accompanied with blind stupidity?

Of course Katie is fighting a hard battle. Most people in the U.S. think retribution is acceptable after September 11. The bombs falling in Afghanistan are acceptable, because what else can we do? We must fight back. But such unrestrained judgment isn’t without consequences.

On January 24, 2002 in Uruzgan, Afghanistan U.S. forces stormed two compounds, killing as they went. Cries of “We surrender,” and “For the love of Allah do not kill us,” could be heard as sleeping men were woken and killed. Two slain men were found with their hands tied behind their backs with nylon zip ties. 27 men were taken prisoner and an undisclosed number were killed. A leaflet was left behind with the words “God Bless America.” But perhaps God won’t bless our righteous vengeance, especially when we consider that these raids weren’t conducted against Taliban fighters, but friendly Afghan soldiers, loyal to the new government in Kabul. Apparently mistakes were made.

War isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the red, white, and blue isn’t always tried and true.

When it rains it pours. Just ask Noah.

Anger frustration and all of the things that flood to your mind in the time of trial like a whirlwind and it’s a wonder anyone can carry on. Forgive and forget, right? Or are you going to live in your hate? Hate never cured anyone. Hate never solved anything. It seems like love is the only thing that ever solved anything. For God so loved the world he made it better. Too bad many of us wallow in our own crapulence.

It just frustrates me. Why are we so quick to go with the worst answer? Can it ever be our first reaction to turn the other cheek? Or are we stuck with simply raising our fists, even if it’s only in our mind. Mental fists are probably worse than real ones, because you don’t know to protect your face–you just get hit when it’s the last thing you expect.

Why are people so mean to one another? Why is the world full of self-centered, self-loathing people? Can’t we all just get along? Why is forgiveness such a harsh medicine? What are we afraid of? Can’t you just talk about it and speak what’s on your mind? Why can’t “I don’t know” be an acceptable answer? There’s times in everyone’s life when they don’t know. Why do we always have to be so logical until we don’t make sense anymore? What’s the hidden agenda behind your question? Why can’t you realize that appearances do matter–if you look like you’re going to hit me, I’m going to defend myself. Can’t we be a little more forthright? Can’t we just be honest? Why do we have to hide it all inside?

Why do we have to ask questions about writings we don’t understand? Don’t we have enough problems of our own? Don’t we have our own issues that need to be dealt with, that shouldn’t be buried in the darkest corner of the shed to fester until they’re long forgotten and thornier than anyone could ever deal with? Can’t I just write my frustrations and speak my mind and let it all hang out and not worry about how it’s going to be read and who’s going to say what and who’s going to wonder what? It’s like a voyeuristic trip inside a mind; keep your hands and belongings inside the car at all times, don’t ask questions, and enjoy the ride. You were invited along for the ride, but you weren’t promised an explanation.

It feels better if you let it all out. Like a drowned man retching on the shore, you’ve got to let it go. You can’t hold a grudge against the ocean, when you’re the one who doesn’t know how to swim. You better learn to swim baby, because when it rains it pours. Just ask Noah.