[Interlude] Deep Joy, Sorrow and Hope

The Christian will express deep joy, deep sorrow, and deep hope.

Deep joy is laughter in the face of imminent death. Each of us will die, either in a moment from now or in decades, but die we will. And because the Christian knows that this transition leads only to a new and unending chapter of life with her Creator, she is joyful. She can’t help it.091909.blue marco People see it. It flows from her social intercourse and from the way she looks at a tree. She will be joyful in the way a child is playful. Neither thinks about it.

Deep sorrow grieves that there is even one person in our community of 6.5 billion who doesn’t know this deep joy. Hell is real. Even if one doesn’t believe in a place of eternal separation—a belief that neither proves nor disproves any fact but is based on as much faith as claiming there is such a place—I can vouch that hell is real on earth. If you haven’t had a personal experience with complete isolation and separation, just read the morning news and you’ll see hell in all four corners of our earth. Deep sorrow identifies with those who are in a living hell now and others who may spend eternity in a living hell. This is painful for one who watches, and it causes a sense of helplessness to sense the pain of another that even the pain bearer himself can’t verbalize or articulate, and to be unable to fully assuage it. The one watching feels like a parent, not patronizing but rather caring: one who wants to bear the pain for the pain bearer. He would be tempted to trade places if he could. Deep sorrow is tears cried for another. Deep sorrow is what God felt for us, and deep sorrow is what motivated Jesus Christ out of love to give his life for our sake. He experienced the deepest sorrow so we could experience the deepest joy. He was not “tempted” to trade places with the pain bearers of irrevocable separation and isolation. Rather, he willingly did it.

And this is our deep hope. Christians will express the sure faith that God himself took the sorrow and isolation so we can take the joy and community. Deep hope knows that God is making all things right, even working through the hell that some women, men and children are in now—because he is God. Deep hope is sure faith cast as knowledge that there is a God and that he can see a way when there appears to be “no way” in our view. My eyes are covered with contact lenses yet are still fairly functional, and I can look forward and peripherally. Yet God looks with perfect “eyes,” which see 360-degrees, across and outside of time, and into and through dimensions that our minds can’t even come up with words, pictures, or numbers for.

Just because a snail can’t see around the block doesn’t mean there isn’t a mansion five miles away that has a big front yard with really tasty leaves.

photo: Blue/Marco

Advertisements

Bennett’s First Birthday [Part 2]

After floating in the Guadalupe River near Hunt, Texas, looking for arrowheads at the bottom of the shallow water, and while eating burgers at Fuddrucker’s in Kerrville, my three sons were to return to their city of eight 091109.Wade_from_Oklahomamillion in less than a week.

We live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where in our zip code of 10024 there are more than sixty thousand people. We circulate among a few blocks: our apartment, the kids’ school, our church, the playgrounds we go to, the stores we shop in, are all within a few blocks’ radius. Their friends live within walking distance, which was not the case when we lived in a Massachusetts town of 3,000 for their early years. We might as well be in a town the size of Tuna, Texas (see Part 1), for our lives are nearly as provincial in terms of mobility.

The day before I left for the Texas Hill Country to join the Lovely K and boys, who had been there for two weeks prior, a complaint I had emailed to the headquarters of Gristedes grocery store here in the city was followed up within several hours with an email from them promising a response to my concerns, which ran from spoiled ground beef, to problems with their dairy products, to inattentive and rude staff. Normally, I am not a complainer; rather, I am a compulsive people-pleaser. But I wanted the store to improve for the sake of the neighborhood and for healthy competition among its peers.

The next morning at 7:30, there was a voice mail on my cell phone from the store manager—apparently informed by corporate late the night before—wanting to come by sometime, and by 8:00, as I was rushing to leave for work, there was a buzz downstairs. I ran down the three flights of stairs to greet two men, Sal and Chris, who had walked over to make sure all my concerns were addressed. They asked me about the litany I had emailed, no fewer than five bullet points of bold text written by a sheepish writer sitting in his leather armchair. I had launched long-range missiles, and the marines had shown up at my door to respond.

I started explaining how Karen had purchased some ground beef that was brown, not red, and was rancid.

Sal, a department manager, looked at Chris, a stock clerk, as he said, “I told Bob that he needed to stop flipping my damned meat over on top of itself.” He looked back at me, having started his (convincing) presentation. “When you flip the meat over so that the plastic wrap is the only thing that separates the two packages, the meat turns brown. I keep tellin’ the guy to stop doing that, but he ain’t listenin’. You had mentioned something about yogurt?”

“Oh. Yeah. We’ve bought a number of yogurts that have been…disturbed…when we opened them.”

“What do you mean by ‘disturbed’?”

(Me and my use of euphemisms to avoid conflict.)

“I mean they were all mixed up inside, like they’d been shaken up.”

“Oh!” Shock, and again the look toward Chris. “That’s probably [unintelligible],” as he uttered a man’s name that seemed to explain everything to his coworker—looking back at me now—“our distributor. You see, Chris here is brand new to the store and is on probation for another month. He was worried about his job when the yogurt was mentioned.”

I felt guilty at this point and basically decided to shop at Gristedes at least once more as penance. “Oh, so sorry guys, I didn’t mean to get anyone in trouble.”

“No problem. Ya see, we’ve been having problems with our night crew. Anytime they do something wrong, it affects us in the day. Anything else?”

“Well, there’s probably not much you can do about the pricing difference between you guys and Fairway, right? I mean, they’re hard to compete with.”

(There’s also a world of difference between products, as is the difference between Burger King and filet mignon. But I didn’t want to appear the Upper West Side snob, which I basically am, and decided to keep the discussion on the basis of comparing prices on staple items.)

Chris spoke up for the first time. “Let me tell you, I’m a former Fairway guy. At their upper west side store? If you pull away the produce stands outside, they got baby rats all back behind there.”

OohRah! These guys were playing for keeps. I clarified, “You mean the store at 125th Street?” I.e. not the one at 74th, where we shop.

“Yeah.”

Well, I had to hand it to them. They took customer complaints seriously, and they also pulled out the heavy artillery against all comers. So what if no one on 84th Street shops above 86th Street. Chris was confessing to the zit on their nose and diverting attention to the oozing boils hidden beneath the Oscar de la Renta dress of their competition.

Sal reminded me to personally see him between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the store and he would set me up with ground beef. Chris would be there after 7:00 a.m. I thanked them and turned to go upstairs and finish getting ready. The men walked off confident, I suppose, that they had gained back another customer. I wrote to the contact at Gristedes HQ and thanked him for the prompt follow-up.

~

Karen went to Gristedes last night—now almost four weeks since our return from summer vacation, six weeks after my visit with Sal and Chris, to get supplies for our middle son Bennett’s ninth birthday, which is today.

On September 11, 2001, when Bennett turned one, we had planned to have the requisite cupcakes at Noon. It was a Tuesday, and we were living in Massachusetts. It was a weekday, and because we lived on the campus of the graduate school for which I worked, my coming home for lunch from work was a daily benefit.

As with first son Carter, we had planned to let Bennett go crazy with chocolate-covered cupcakes in his highchair as we clicked away with our camera, getting shots of his brown-smeared face the way all 1-year-olds should be remembered.

We did take photographs, but only as the TV in the background showed images that we would watch for hours and days to follow, and as we held the camera steady against our faces—quivering flesh, wet with tears. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Bennett, whose smile revealed two lower teeth and two upper ones as well.

[To be concluded]

photo: Wade from Oklahoma

Bennett’s First Birthday [Part 1]

The Cowboy Store in Kerrville is gone.

Karen had agreed to accompany me on my search for a pearl snap shirt, a semi-annual ritual during our summer and Christmas vacations to Kerrville, her hometown, from New York City,090909.HaMeD!caL mine, and where we live now.

I became somewhat taken with this style of shirt upon seeing it worn by a young buck working at Crider’s (spelled with a rope on an overhead billboard), a rodeo and outdoor dance hall in Hunt, Texas, that recently celebrated its 80th year of operation. Karen had told me early in our relationship that only cowboys and dorks wore snap shirts. Despite her clear delineation of coolness, and regardless of the near impossibility of my venturing into the livestock business, I have never been deterred.

Since my purchase three summers ago of a Wranglers snap shirt—white embroidered cotton with ¼-inch blue vertical stripes—I have been on the lookout both in stores and online for such western attire that can be worn in midtown Manhattan by a man who was born and raised there but wants to bring a little Hill Country to the Big Apple.

My four shirts have come from The Cowboy Store, which country music singer Jason Aldean has pitched on the radio, specifically on KRNH-FM 92.3 “The Ranch” and on KRVL 94.3 “Revolution Radio” before they changed their format from Texas country to classic rock. In fact, I couldn’t say that Billy’s Western Wear, off Sidney Baker Street in front of The Home Depot, was ever on my radar until Karen and I saw that The Cowboy Store was no longer in business. Billy’s is about 100 yards from interstate I-10, which gets you from El Paso to Houston in 10 ½ hours, or to your cousin’s in Beaumont in just under 12. This expanse within one state, however, doesn’t isolate the many small towns and larger cities from one another; rather, it draws them together through a sense of state pride unlike, for example, the dynamic mosaic of California, a state of restless or fleeing transplants from the East Coast, Mexico, the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia; or New York, battleground between upstate and downstate—New York City versus everything else, even though the city provides Albany with much of its revenue to serve the rest of the state. Texas is one state and has been its own nation. The one thing I’ve noticed Texans don’t laugh at is any slight directed at their state, whether intentional or innocent.

It was this sense of community that allowed the cashier at Billy’s to tell me, when I asked, not only what happened to The Cowboy Store but also the family narrative of their own business, into which she married. To wit, it’s not often you get a Happy Meal at McDonald’s and learn that the fry chef is the granddaughter of Ray Krok. It’s also this sense of community that gives shows like “Greater Tuna” its bite, charm, and poignancy.

Tuna, Texas, the fictional third-smallest town in Texas—losing its second place status “when Irene had triplets,” and a town where all the characters on stage, men and women, are portrayed by four male actors—is kept informed about local and national news by two gregarious and carefree radio announcers who announce such offbeat headlines as when there is a “Nuclear plant disaster!…Six states affected….” Dramatic pause. “Texas not included. And onto other news…” It is the town where Stanley, the sociopath son of a tormented woman whose adulterous husband keeps her weeping over her children’s foibles and dead-end futures, laughs over the coffined corpse of a judge who earlier sentenced him to reform school. Stanley then proceeds, in soliloquy, to confess—after almost 80 minutes of laughs by the audience at the idiosyncrasies of small town life—that it was he who injected air bubbles into the ailing body of the bed-ridden septuagenarian, killing him. Moments earlier, the killer’s aunt, sister to the cuckolded mother, stares down at the judge’s body as she, too, laments to him—to us—that she should have never fallen in love with him years earlier. And then she fulfills a promise. She starts to sing a song, having told him she would sing over his grave. We see that it is those who are deeply alone, who have been abandoned or shamed or dismissed, who are the most hideous in their character. We see the show performed a regional theater troupe that included the local high school science teacher and my father-in-law’s barber, men showing the full emotional expression—exaggerated though it might be—of the men and women of Tuna, Texas. It is delightful, and—in the arcane sense of the word—terrible.

Sartre was wrong. Hell is not other people; hell is isolation. Or perhaps it’s eternal isolation pressed against other people.

And so as you read about pearl snap shirts and dorks—a title I wear at times whether I like it or not—and as you travel down my narrative into murder and vaunted love, you may wonder where the theme of “community” could have diverged into trails of joy and despair.

They diverge when the judge throws the book at the 16-year-old sociopath (when he was but a troubled youth) and he spends only nine months in a reformatory that so thoroughly deadens his humanity that he takes mortal revenge on his enemy.

The trails converge again at the Guadalupe, as my nephew William, along with three school-age sons Carter, Bennett, and Teak drive to Mo Ranch outside of Hunt to swim in the river. They converge as five sun-tanned bodies float in the water wending between limestone cliffs—our goggles are on and we are staring at the river bottom 18 inches down. We are searching for an arrowhead that missed a deer more than a century ago. The father, a man who grew up in the city and knows more about finding an air-conditioned car on the downtown #1 IRT subway than about Indian artifacts, has offered $20 for the first arrowhead found by a boy 10 or under. The race is on and when it seems hopeless that an arrowhead will be found, the oldest son calls for a new challenge. The father, seeking to extend their time on the river—water at about 80 degrees, air at about 92—says he will pay 25 cents for every shell the oldest boy finds, 50 cents to the middle boy, 75 cents to the youngest. (The father is less concerned about economic justice than about quickly finding another reason for them all to stay.) In the end, of course, the cash winnings vary and the temper of one son flares, but 30 minutes later when they are eating hamburgers and recounting their day, they are content. The five males share a circular booth in the corner of a Fuddruckers in Kerrville, miles from the Guadalupe but still on the trail that had converged in the river. They all agree it is the best booth in the restaurant.

~

A week before I left for Texas to float in the river that afternoon, at eight in the morning, Sal and Chris from the Gristedes grocery store on 86th and Broadway in Manhattan paid me a personal visit because of a complaint I had emailed to the company’s corporate office the evening before.

[To be continued]

photo: HaMeD!caL