Saturday, January 30, 2010

When the Snowball Finally Rolled Outside

I listened last night to the sound of a snow ball rolling and swelling, and it wasn't pretty. We had gone out to dinner -- something we haven't done since Lori's surgery in December -- and it was fun to go out on a date after these several weeks of convalescence. It was also something of a "pre-launch" party as Lori prepares to return to work on Monday. We had taken a risk, stepping into a popular downtown restaurant without reservations; but we weren't in a hurry, and were prepared to enjoy the evening however the timing worked out. We were, after all, on a date and the food wasn't the main event. I'll admit, though, to swallowing hard when we were initially told it would be an hour-and-a-half wait. To our delight, though, one of the "casual tables" in the bar area suddenly became available and we were happily shown to our seats.

It is, in some ways, an odd little area -- an enclave of five small, slightly elevated tables set off just to the side of the bar area like a gallery over looking the rest of the restaurant. We loved it -- secluded, and yet with a delightful view of the culinary hub-bub.

We had hardly been seated and had our water glasses poured when a young woman asked if we would be willing to move to a regular table in the main part of the restaurant. For all I knew, she was one of the waitstaff -- or even the hostess, since I hadn't paid too much attention at the front desk -- until she went on to explain that she and the others in her group were wanting to have a party and they weren't being allowed to do so except in the bar area. Frankly, her story makes no more sense to me this morning than it did last night, but it didn't matter at the time. We were simply interested in a table and dinner, and replied that we were agreeable. She bustled off to work out the arrangements, while her cohorts convened around the empty table beside us.

I never really understood what transpired, except to note that we never moved. Apparently the relocation was not approved. All I know is that the next half-hour was spent at the table beside us in spiraling displeasure. I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, and most of what was said got taken up into the clatter and and clang of restaurant activity, but everything I did hear was negative.

"Bad business practice."
"We could just go somewhere else."
"You would think..."
"They said..." (presumably quoting the hostess)
"He said..." (presumably quoting the manager)
"AXuQaFFebnZ!!!!!" (you get the idea)

Each spoken in increasingly derisive, more condemning tones. Whatever the group had gotten together to enjoy -- presumably each others company at the very least -- got lost in the intensifying virus of discontent. Nothing else seemed to matter beside getting their way and noting the establishment's procedural flaws when it came to customer service.

And still the snowball grew. Haiti may be crumbling, the economy may be coughing, H1N1 may be infecting, and terrorists may be exploding, but never mind. "We want to have our party!" "We have a right to have out party!" "This mean old restaurant won't let us have our party!"

Mercifully, the "party" finally left, though I don't know how toxicity that had grown to those dimensions managed to squeeze back through the door. It had been a study in escalation -- disappointment turning into irritation, which became aggravation, then fixation, denigration, and finally the "righteous indignation" of "taking our business elsewhere."

No restaurant ever likes to lose business -- especially in this economy -- and certainly none want to leave a bad taste of any kind in someone's mouth. But I can't imagine that this restaurant, on this night, was sad to see this group leave.

I can only speak for those seated at the table nearby, and I will simply note that the air, from that very instant, got somehow clearer, and the taste of every bite, from that moment forward, improved. It was positively wonderful, in fact -- the food, the setting, the clattering restaurant din and all. As a matter of fact, it suddenly became...

...a party.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Fresh and Lithesome Hallelujah

Whatever else you might say, you have to admit they are resilient.

Early in the week, freezing rain sheathed our part of the world with a crystalline cocoon as heavy as it was beautiful. Heavy, beautiful, and perilously dangerous to walk on, but that latter part is another story. And there was a certain sadness to the encroachment. Watching the ice gradually and increasingly dominate them, you could almost see the branches of the trees weary, weaken, and finally succumb to the weight. Where once the sky had seemed the focus of their worship -- arms outstretched in perpetual "hallelujah" -- now the ground seemed their only attention, drooped in embarrassed capitulation. Some couldn't bear it and simply broke off at the shoulder or elbow; but most simply hung there in seeming despair. Frozen, demoralized zombies, unable to hide; unable to move. Joining the mood, the sky itself turned dank and gray -- the sun hasn't been seen for days. It has been as if the entire landscape needed anti-depressants.

But yesterday an amazing resurrection occurred. Temperatures began to climb -- not dramatically, but adequately -- and though the sun is still conspicuously absent, the ice began to relent. Dripping, running, loosening its grip. The twigs and branches, as though cut free from plaster casts, began to shudder and triumphantly rise. What only the day before had looked like a permanent metaphor of defeat -- woody arms hanging useless and limp -- today exudes a virtual song of resilience, branches and buds once more virile and stretching out and up.

And somehow I feel lighter, too, and more alive -- as though I, too, might be capable of some fresh and lithesome hallelujah.

Friday, January 22, 2010

It's Still Orange, No Matter How You Dress it Up

I'm hoping there is a better way. Even with the promised $40 off the price of registration and the accompanying $50 credit on merchandise offered by exhibitors, it somehow doesn't seem enough to get me to register for anything called "The Orange Conference." As anyone who knows me very well at all can tell you, I'm not much of an "orange" kind of guy. My entire congregation wore orange to worship on my 50th birthday just to harass me. Orange just isn't on my palette.

Don't get me wrong, the fruit is fine -- even the pumpkin. And I can endure it. After all, the school colors of my junior high alma mater were orange and white, and the colors of my wife's educational employer are orange and black. It doesn't send me into a rage or fling me over the toilet to puke. I just don't like the color. I have no reasonable explanation for my distaste. Why, after all, does one like Pepsi but have no interest in Coke? I don't know why I don't like the color orange. To the best of my recollection I was never attacked by an orange dog or a intimidated by an orange bully. I simply don't like the color.

And so it was ironic that today I received my invitation to register for this event called "The Orange Conference" set for April in Atlanta. Merely on the face of it, it doesn't sound like my kind of thing. Orange, for crying out loud! Why orange? My question, exactly. Here is how the organizers try to sell it:
"Orange. It's what happens when you mix yellow and red. It is what happens when you combine the light of the church with the love of the family. You get a different color AND you get a unique strategy. Join thousands of churches as we embrace the obvious¦ that the church and family were meant to work together."
The "light" of the church -- presumably yellow -- and the "love" of the family -- apparently red. Ah, I get it. Clever. But count me out. I just don't do orange. I appreciate the discount offer and the merchandise credit, but I will have to find some other -- hopefully better and less aesthetically offensive -- way to flex my yellows and reds.

Some other time, perhaps. At least some other color.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Uncomfortable with my own Comfort

Since the terrible news broke about the devastation in Haiti I have been trying to picture what their situation would be like -- trying to imagine my basement becoming my main floor; trying to feel the hunger pains while smelling the rotten food...and flesh; visualizing wreckage everywhere I turn and body parts protruding lifelessly helter-skelter from the rubble. I've been trying, but of course I can't. I see the images on television and the photographs in the newspaper; I read first-hand descriptions from those who are actually seeing it all. But while I see their devastation, my imagination has not been up to the task of putting me there.

My streets are too clean. My friends and family members are as close as the phone. My house, even in its routine clutter, is too ordered. My refrigerator -- and three freezers -- are too stocked. I am too aware of my need to lose weight because of my overeating to manage any visceral empathy for those desperate for a bite of anything that will keep alive. I have no reference point for the ache, grief, shock and desperation that are now epidemic in this entire and already destitute country.

Maybe this kind of impairment is what has led so many in the media to intellectualize the tragedy, politicize the pain -- even theologize it in what I have found to be generally nauseating attempts to derive some deeper meaning. Perhaps we ascend to these heights -- or is it descend to these depths? -- because we find it so difficult or undesirable to simply feel.

And so I sit here comfortably by the fire, an ocean or a universe away, newspaper in my lap, reading of the death toll updates and accounts of relief workers battling the difficulties of merely delivering emergency supplies to the needy -- saddened, but with a disconcerting detachment. Uncomfortable, I suppose, with my own comfort.

This isn't a news story, I keep reminding myself, these are people. People just like me -- and their homes and their neighborhoods and their pets and spouses and children. These are their very lives trapped and crushed beneath these broken walls and fallen roofs.

Perhaps we will eventually discern some deeper meaning in all this, even if we haven't thus far. For now, it is enough I think to simply hurt...

...and do what we can to help.

Near or, as in my case, far.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Before Taking the First Step

There is something evocative -- almost magical -- about looking out over a broad field blanketed by new fallen snow, unbroken by footprint, hoof, or paw. Standing at the edge of its crystalline virginity all I can think to do is stare, enchanted, frozen along with it, hesitant to trample in and scramble its perfection.

All of a sudden there are plenty of those snow covered fields around, draped by the inches that have fallen since Christmas week and hardened by the sub-zero temperatures that have simultaneously hardened the rest of us. Very few have wanted to travel very far, and certainly not out into the calf-deep snow well above the protective warmth of boots.

But just as suddenly there is a different sort of virginal field stretching out around and in front in the face of which I feel similarly reticent. Here it is, the Monday of the first full week of the New Year. Fifty-two weeks of 2010 stretching out unbroken, untrampled, unsullied; only 354 shopping days until Christmas. Resolutions are the customary way to get ones hands around and fingers into the prospects, but I am more prone to pre-conceiving -- to sitting quietly here beside the fire and the lighted Christmas tree on its final day, thinking about the works already in process, the plans already on the calendar, the relationships already forming or fraying, the hopes and dreams and apprehensions carried with me into this new beginning, and wondering how they will all unfold and who I will be in the midst of them. Some of this, I recognize, is tantamount to crossing bridges before I get to them -- wringing my hands over milk that isn't yet spilled, and if 2009 taught me anything it was how suddenly the road can turn. And, to be sure, there is room in all this pre-conceiving for imagining what all could transpire that I never would have thought of -- fantasizing about all the left fields out of which one surprise or another might come. But while anything is possible, and while surprises will certainly come, it is only the calendar that is starting fresh with a brand new page, not life. Life is well underway and for the most part is simply carrying forward.

Still, the interruption of the holidays and all their space apart has been beautiful, and the pause restoring. And though the field is out there in front of me waiting, stretching seemingly infinitely ahead, I still hesitate to take that next step -- to leave that first track in the snow. After all, at this point, everything is still utterly and completely perfect -- just how I imagined it to be.