In Which I Pay Attention

public computers
public computers

This is a re-post from five years ago. I've been thinking about the importance of paying attention, and this story came to mind...

A while back I was in the library checking my email on the public computers. The patrons of the library's public computers constitute what may politely be called a cross-section of humanity. At my library, they don't just let you sit at whichever computer you like. They assign you one, and it's right next to the person who sat down just before you did. Which is to say, there isn't any of that natural spacing of the discreet whereby two people in an elevator stand in the back corners and the third person stands in the middle right by the door. No, at the library computers you're spang up against the next fellow. The fellow I was spang up against was managing his account at an online dating site. He was a white-haired, paunchy old boy with a long, straight nose that ran bulged off to the left just at the tip-end, putting me in mind of a train that derailed right before pulling into the station. Every half-minute or so, he chuckled at something some dating prospect or other had written in her profile, wagging his head each time and cutting his eyes over toward me. Clearly he hoped I would ask him what he was laughing about or otherwise engage him in conversation. I was determined not to. I was in a bit of a hurry--just trying to check my email and get out of there--and I wasn't up to it anyway.

Soon my neighbor wandered away from the dating site and to a medical self-diagnosis site. He stopped chuckling and instead made little murmurs of interest--or maybe it was concern. I didn't take the bait. I was locked on to that email. At last the man nudged me with his elbow. He pointed at his screen. "How would you pronounce that word?" he asked.

I looked at his screen. "Splanchnoptosis, I guess." I went back to my email.

"Splanchnoptosis," he repeated. "Prolapse or backward displacement of an organ in the abdomen." He rubbed his ample belly. "I'm pretty sure that's what I've got," he said. I glanced in his direction and gave a quick, sympathetic nod, then looked off, hoping he would get the message.

The man turned his chair to face me. "You probably didn't know that you can cure cancer with baking soda, did you?"

It finally occurred to me that whatever my email said, it wasn't going to be nearly as interesting as the things this old boy had to say. I turned my chair too, and we were face to face.

"That's right," he said. "Some doctors in Italy taped pouches of baking soda under the armpits of women with breast cancer. Six weeks later, the tumors were gone. No surgery. No chemo. No radiation. I saw it on YouTube." He crossed his arms triumphantly, as if he had been one of the Italian doctors who made the discovery. "It's all about the pH levels."

He extended a thick right hand in my direction. "I'm David," he said.

I shook his hand. If I told him my name, I'm quite sure he didn't hear it. He was off again. "But there's no money in baking soda, is there? Where would the medical-industrial complex be if everybody was controlling their pH levels with baking soda and wasn't getting cancer? What would the doctors do? You can't make the mortgage on one of those doctor houses by selling baking powder, can you?"

David looked behind him as if to be sure nobody was eavesdropping, though he was speaking so excitedly now that I suppose everybody in the computer room could hear every word, unless they were wearing foam earplugs. He leaned in close. "You know who built all the hospitals, don't you?"

I shook my head.

"The Rockerfellers. That's who. The same Rockerfellers that are in charge of everything else. You think that's a coincidence, that the Rockerfellers built all those hospitals and the Rockerfellers are in charge of our health policy? You want to know why you didn't know baking soda is the cure for cancer?" He snorted disdainfully. "Ask the Rockerfellers. Only they won't tell you."

David gestured toward the people who were lined up outside the computer room for early voting. "It's like I told one of the women out there," he said. "I said, 'Do you really think you're smart enough to vote? Do you think you can outwit the military-medical-industrial complex? Because that's who runs things around here. Do you think you're smarter than the Rockerfellers?'"

To think my natural inclination was to ignore this guy.

"But there's no telling what women want, is there?" David said. I wasn't sure if that was a rhetorical question. "I know what women want," he said, "and I know how to give it to them." He leaned in even closer than before assumed a confidential tone. "They just want somebody who will listen."

Sunday School Shooting

lamb
lamb

Last week my friend John was teaching Psalm 23 in preschool Sunday school--or trying to, anyway. A couple of the boys in the class had made guns out of Legos and were shooting the place up. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," John read.

Pow! Pow! Pyoing!

"He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters..."

Bang! Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a! Pow!

It wasn't going so well. Things had reached the point where I would have snatched the Lego guns out of the boys' grubby fists and made them sit on their hands while I gave them an earful of the peace of God. But John, as it turns out, is a wiser sort of Sunday school teacher. He looked at the gunmen and said, "I'll tell you what. We're going to be sheep. You're going to be the shepherds. I want you to use those guns to protect us from any wolves or lions that might be a danger to us."

The boys couldn't believe their good fortune. John and the other students got down on all fours and foraged around the Sunday school room while the two boys with the Lego guns secured the perimeter, blazing away at wolves and lions and sheep rustlers. That done, the boys led the sheep to green pastures and still waters.

The Scandal of Grace

ice cream
ice cream

A while back I gave the keynote address at the induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators' Hall of Fame. Here's part of that speech... I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. I don’t remember how this came to pass exactly—maybe he and I just happened to be at the ice cream shop at the same time. But I remember that he and I and another boy ate our ice cream cones outside, in the grimy hindparts of a shopping center, among the dumpsters and discarded pallets. And I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the cone off his hands, then balling up his hard little fist and punching me right below my left eye. I remember the hot shame that burned on my face as I pelted home as fast as my bike would take me.

When my parents asked about the hurt place below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. I think I wanted to protect them--didn't want them to know what a mean world they had brought me into.

But I had a very special teacher that fourth-grade year—Mrs. Romero, a beautiful Cuban woman, so kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite. In my case, of course, it was true. She was exactly the sort of person you could give your troubles to.

I didn’t give my troubles to my teacher, however, and she didn’t give me comfort. She gave me something much more important—something I didn’t even want.

Field Day at Miller Elementary fell a week or two after my ice cream outing with Jay. When the fifth-grade sprinters lined up to run the hundred-yard dash, my stomach churned at the sight of Jay taking his place. My loathing was magnified by the knowledge that Jay would probably win. The whistle blew, the boys bolted from the starting line, and my heart sank as Jay pulled into the lead like some sort of flying rooster.

Above the shouts and squeals of children came a delicious Cuban trill: “Rrrrun, Jay, rrrrun!” Jay heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement. The intent look on his face spread into a grin, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by many yards.

I glared at Mrs. Romero in hurt astonishment. Did she even know what kind of delinquent she was encouraging? If she had any idea what Jay had done to me, her favorite student, she wouldn’t have been so friendly. It was undignified—it was scandalous—for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal.

But, of course, she knew and understood much more about Jay than I did. She understood that he was still a boy, that his course didn’t have to be set just yet. And she understood how badly a fatherless boy needs for somebody—anybody—to delight in him.

The root of the word ‘educate,’ as I’m sure you know, means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero drew something out of Jay that day. I had never seen what could happen to his face when he believed that somebody felt he was worth something. I had seen smirks and sneers and the occasional wicked grin on Jay’s face. But I had never seen happiness.

Mrs. Romero drew something out of me too, though she didn’t know it. Quite by accident—just by doing her job incredibly well—she brought an ugly self-righteousness out into the open where I could get a good look at it. She was an agent of grace that day—for me no less than Jay. She showed me that there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.

I don’t think of Jay very often, but when I do, I try to remember not the beady-eyed sinner behind the ice cream shop, but the Field Day runner taking a boyish joy in the delight of a woman who loved him in spite of all.

Super Spider Powers

“I don’t think it will really work. Do you really think it will work?” If Mark heard me, nothing in his demeanor showed it. He knew it would work. I was still fuzzy on the details, and I was pretty sure Mark was too. But his confidence had nothing to do with niggling details. Mark was an idea man. His confidence came from his grasp of the big picture. And we all agreed on the big picture: when a radioactive spider bites you, you get super spider powers.

From the cartoon on Channel 17, I never really understood how Spiderman got his powers, but Mark had the more authoritative comic books. He explained the whole thing: Peter Parker was in a science lab, and a radioactive spider got loose and bit him, and then he got spider powers. We ate this stuff up.

Mark was the youngest of several brothers, so even in third grade an air of worldliness attached to him. He knew things the rest of us didn’t. It wasn’t just that he knew things; it was his casual, can-do attitude toward life’s great mysteries. This was a young man, after all, who had baptized his own dog.

So when Mark came to school with a plan to give us all super spider powers, he had our attention. He had a spider in a jar. All we had to do was to get the spider radioactive and let it bite us.

I thought getting the spider radioactive would be the hard part, but it wasn’t really. Mark had checked out a book of optical illusions from the school library. On the back cover was a swirling spiral that seemed to spin when you rocked it back and forth. He held it a few inches from the spider’s jar and set the spiral spinning.

This seemed mighty low-tech and dubious to me, and I said so. But the words were hardly out of my mouth when the spider collapsed in a curled-up little heap. Mark raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing nod, as if to say, “This is to be expected.”

“Is he dead?” asked one of the boys.

“Not dead,” Mark answered. “Radioactive. Now, who’s going to go first?”

We all looked at each other. In principle, super spider powers were a good thing. But actually to let a radioactive spider bite you…none of us were very sure about that. Even Peter Parker hadn’t let a spider bite him. It was an accident.

“Look here,” Mark said. There was impatience in his voice. “When this spider wakes up, he’ll only be radioactive for a minute or two.” I’m not sure how he knew this. “We need to decide who’s going to get bit. William, why don’t you go first?”

William appeared to be weighing the pros and the cons. “So what kind of super spider powers will I get?”

“You know, like on the TV show,” said Mark. “You can walk up walls. Jump over buildings. Shoot webs out your wrists.”

William looked carefully at his wrist. “Where’s it going to come out? The web.”

Mark had to think on that one. “We’ll have to cut a little hole. Right there.” He swiped a thumbnail across the soft white underside of William’s wrist.

That’s where he blew it. William wasn’t going to let Mark cut him, and neither were any of the rest of us. Mark cajoled another boy or two, and we all argued back and forth for a while, but negotiations broke off with the recess bell, and we mostly dropped the whole thing.

I don’t know what became of the spider. But I like to imagine him awakening from his swoon and stalking across the Miller Elementary playground, his eyes aglow with radioactivity. He’s looking for an unsuspecting grade-school hero—one who won’t be made to choose greatness or choose against it, but rather will have greatness thrust upon him in the form of a spider bite and the dawn of super spider powers.

Pantsed: A Story of Self-Possession and Sangfroid

middleSchoolFootball
middleSchoolFootball

Here's an old favorite from the archives of Jonathan-Rogers.com. I hope you enjoy it again.

Think of all the amusing anecdotes you know about junior high football. I'm guessing 75% are set in that "magic hour" when the boys have arrived at the practice field but the coach hasn't. Thirty junior high boys, no adult supervision. Something's bound to happen.

In eighth grade, my cousin Brett got his pants pulled down at football practice. The coach was elsewere--wrapping up bus duty or finishing one last cigarette in the teachers' lounge before facing the barbarians. Frank, the starting fullback, snuck around behind and snatched Brett's pants in front of God and everybody. It was a beautiful pantsing, not one of those awkward affairs where the victim clamps his knees together and goes into a squat, clutching at his britches and his dignity. No, this was clean and quick. Brett's pants went right to the ground.

Frank whooped and cavorted in his triumph. It was easily the best pantsing of the season. The other boys howled and pointed at Brett.

Who just stood there.

The hooting mockery swirled around him, but Brett stood his ground--pants around his ankles, arms akimbo, a look of perfect serenity on his face. The howling became nervous laughter as the mockery gave way to confusion. The boys had never seen such a thing before: the one boy who maintained his dignity was the one whose pants were crumpled around his ankles.

Frank looked fitfully toward the school, whence the coach would soon be coming. "Hey, Brett," he said, his voice broken by a nervous chuckle, "pull up your pants, man."

Brett crossed his arms and stared off into the middle distance, as grave as a statue.

"Brett, man," Frank repeated. "Pull up your pants. Coach gonna see."

Brett shifted his weight but didn't otherwise move. "I didn't pull them down," he said, with withering dignity, "and I'm not going to pull them up."

Frank looked from Brett to the school building and back to Brett. The fascinated boys had gone silent. The door from the equipment room swung open, and the boys gasped in unison at the sight of the coach's lanky form emerging. Frank hesitated. For an instant it appeared he would run away. He took one last look at the approaching coach, then circled around behind Brett. Sighing grimly and rolling his eyes, Frank pulled Brett's pants back up where they belonged.

It was one of the great moments in the history of eighth graders.

April Fool's Day

pond
pond

On April Fools' Day my grandmother and her sisters packed their lunch pails like any other school day. Their mother walked them to the dirt road and kissed them goodbye, but instead of turning left to walk toward school, the girls turned right toward the train tracks. They walked up the tracks a piece until they got to a little marshy pond, a favorite spot of theirs. They lay beside the pond in their school dresses and watched the clouds drift by and giggled at the thought of their classmates sitting at their desks that bright spring morning. They pulled out their lunches and ate them. It was only nine in the morning, but they felt like eating, and it was April Fools' Day, and who was going to stop them? They caught some bugs and picked some wildflowers and got mud on their dresses, and then decided to catch the last half of the school day. So they walked back down the train tracks and up the dirt road toward the school. When they passed the house, their mother waved at them from the porch.

When they got to school the teacher said, "Where have you girls been?"

"At the marshy pond," they said, "beside the railroad tracks."

"And why were you at the marshy pond?" the teacher asked.

"It's April Fools' Day."

The teacher made the girls stay in from recess for a couple of weeks--a punishment they willingly accepted. From what I understand, this happened more than once. Apparently it was sort of a Dowdy family tradition, to act the fool on April Fools' Day, and to receive the punishment for that foolishness without complaint or rancor.

I love that picture of my great-grandmother waving to the little truants as they pass back by. Having given them room to try out a little harmless foolishness, she waves them on toward its logical outcome, not intervening on either end, but rather letting her daughters experience the truth that wisdom and foolishness are a matter of choice, and that choices have consequences.

A Tricycle, a Leg Trap

My friend Hilton grew up poor in South Alabama. He and his older brother didn't have a lot of toys, but they did have one tricycle to share between them. Only Hilton's brother wasn't much of a sharer. He rarely gave five-year-old Hilton a turn, and when Hilton did get on the tricycle, his brother was likely as not to knock him off and ride it himself. Which made it hard to relax and enjoy any tricycle time he got. One day the two boys were playing at a creek not too far from the house when the older brother stepped on a leg trap--picture a snap-jawed bear trap from the cartoons, but smaller and without the teeth. Still plenty painful, though, on a little boy's bare foot. The older brother howled in agony while Hilton sweated and grunted, trying to open the jaws of the trap enough to free the foot. But he was only five. He couldn't do it. The two boys together, in fact, couldn't open the trap. "Go get mama!" the brother bawled. "Get her quick!"

So Hilton lit out for the house, as fast as his little legs could carry him. He pushed through palmetto of the creek bottom and onto the sandy road, his brother's howls ringing in his ears. "Got to get Mama," he said to himself as he ran. "Mama can fix it." He turned up the long drive that led to the house and kept running. He could feel a little stitch in his side and he couldn't hear his brother's howls so clearly now but he kept running. "Got to get Mama," he said. "She can fix it."

The house had just come into view when Hilton pulled up short. There, under the shade tree, sat the tricycle, unattended. There was no older brother. Nor was there any danger of anybody sneaking up from behind and knocking him off. For the first time in his life, the opportunity for a leisurely ride on the tricycle presented itself. So he hopped on. "I rode it three times around the house before I went in and got Mama," he said. "Each time I came around the front, I could just hear my brother yelling down at the creek."

Audience Participation Friday: Valentine’s Day Disasters

valentines
valentines

When I was in college, I worked one Valentine's Day at a florist's shop. The florist, a favorite among students at my school, hired several students to deliver flowers on that very busy day. On my first delivery, the recipient met me on the stoop before I had even rung the doorbell. She blinked in wonder, and it appeared that she might hyperventilate. I thought to myself, This is going to be a good day. I looked at the tag tied around the vase. "You must be Melissa," I said.

The woman stopped mid-gasp and slumped against the doorjamb. The joy drained out of her face; she suddenly looked very plain. "I knew those weren't for me," she said. "It's all right."

"It's all right," she said, before I could even say I was sorry. And I was sorry indeed for getting the street number wrong and winding up on this stoop, raising hopes that Valentine's Day could never fulfill.

That's the problem, really, with Valentine's Day. People load the day with hopes and expectations that it is insufficient to bear. The poor day collapses under their weight, and we are left with Valentine's Day disasters, the stuff of anecdote.

After my blunder, I went back to the florist and and, like a football player who asks to be taken out of the game after getting his bell rung, I asked for a job inside the shop. I was assigned the task of sorting the orders and tying the cards to the vases. It seemed safer back there where I wouldn't be face-to-face with the human drama of the day.

But as I paged through the orders and saw who was sending flowers to whom--many of them students I knew--the heartache from a breakup months earlier began to stir itself like a dragon awakened by the celebrations of nearby villagers.

And then, in the "Deliver To" line of an order form, I saw the name of my old girlfriend.

The smart thing, I suppose, would have been to give the order to somebody else to fill. But it's not like I was trying to snoop. I was being paid to read the order forms and tie the cards to the vases. So read the order form. The person sending flowers to my old girlfriend was one of my current roommates.

So, there's my Valentine's Day disaster. I bet you have one of your own--either one you experienced first hand or one you know about. If you can bear to commit it to writing, today's Audience Participation Friday topic is Valentine's Day disasters. Here's hoping your anecdotes are more amusing than mine.

In Which My Uncles Are Mistaken for Bank Robbers

modelT
modelT

My grandmother's brothers were driving across Florida in a Model T Ford--this was eighty years ago or more. The car had no windshield, so the bugs that would normally get splattered on the windshield were instead getting splattered on my uncles' faces. They were resourceful young men; they got paper bags at a grocery store, cut eyeholes in the bags, and pulled them over their heads like hoods. Then they went on their merry way, bugs popping against the paper bags like pistol shots every few seconds. They hadn't gone very far before a policeman stopped them. I suppose they pulled the bags off their heads well before the officer strode up to the driver's side of that Model T--surely they did--but I like to imagine them turning to face the policeman with the bags still over their heads. They lean back and adjust the bags with their hands to line up the eyeholes so they can see the policeman. "Hello, Officer," Oliver says, his voice muffled by the paper bag. "Was I speeding?"

The policeman gives them a long squint. "You weren't speeding," he says, "but with them masks over your heads you look more like two bank robbers than anybody I ever seen."

Bonus broken windshield story: My father's uncle Buddy was tearing down a dirt road in a Model A or Model T when he saw a buzzard picking at something in the road ahead. Buddy didn't slow down, confident that the buzzard would flap off before he got there. The buzzard tried to flap off, but it miscalculated the speed of the car's approach. It has scarcely gotten off the ground when there was an explosion of feathers and flying glass. The buzzard crashed through the windshield and landed in the passenger seat beside Buddy, still flapping and clawing. The car hadn't quite come to a stop when Buddy jumped out the driver's side. "That buzzard was welcome to the car," he said. "I just didn't want to ride around with it any more."

Charlotte

Charlotte
Charlotte

Author's Note: The following anecdote first appeared in a comment on this blog. My store of anecdotes is finite, as my long-suffering wife can (and often does) attest. I can't afford to bury them in, say, the fifth comment on a post about some other subject. That's just a rookie mistake. In blogging, as in buffet-style dining, one must pace oneself (especially if one has already re-posted most of one's pieces from The Rabbit Room). In that spirit, and in honor of the fact that I am writing this on a plane trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, I hereby promote the following anecdote from comment to post. I hope you find it edifying. I went to college at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville was close enough to Charlotte for me to form opinions about that city. They were largely unfavorable opinions. I don't remember the details of my case against Charlotte, but they were summed up by the bon mot, "I've got no use for a city whose goal in life is to be the next Atlanta!" (I had opinions about Atlanta too.)

Not long after we married, my wife and I were driving through the Carolinas, and as we approached Charlotte I once again laid out my strong anti-Charlotte position for her benefit.

"It doesn't seem so bad to me," she said as we passed beneath the shadows of the great glass buildings where bankers were going about their bankerly business.

"Pshaw!" I said.

"I'm hungry," she said. Do you know any good places to eat in Charlotte?"

"How would I know?" I said. "I've never been to Charlotte in my life!"

I don't suppose I'll ever forget the expressions on my wife's face at that moment. A look of astonishment gave way to an angry scowl that shaded into a squint that said, if I read it right, "What have I done? I have just attached myself intimately and irrevocably to a man who speaks very articulately of things he knows nothing about." I could see the wheels turning as she wondered how many of my other well-considered opinions had not basis in reality.

I am happy to report that I have mellowed on the subject of Charlotte, North Carolina. My prejudices were no match for the reality of the place, which is actually quite pleasant and populated by fine people who have plenty of other hopes and dreams besides trying to be the next Atlanta. Incidentally, I've decided Atlanta isn't so bad either.

Bonus Fact: Charlotte is the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, DC.

Bonus Story Recommendation: In his short story collection Here We Are in Paradise, Nashville writer and Charlotte native Tony Earley has a brilliant story called "Charlotte" that I commend to you. I also commend to you everything else that Tony Earley has ever published.