Tuesday, September 21, 2021

In the Presence of Wisdom

Call me whatever you like. My name’s not important—at least not to me. Besides, I can’t control how you greet me. Fact is I can’t control anything you do—never have, never will. But I do care. Take, for example, my friend, Allen. He’s a good man—he knows right from wrong—but he does wander from time to time, which worries me.

This story goes back thirty years, but time doesn’t matter; I remember everything. It had to do with Allen’s papa who had a drinking problem. (The ingenuity of humankind always amazes me, including what they do with water, barley, and yeast.) But Papa overdid it, and he knew it. And so did I.

One day, Papa drove out of town to swap knives with a friend. The trades lasted most of the day—laced with a tide of booze. When Papa was ready to drive home, his eyes were blurred and his back teeth afloat (one of those quaint American euphemisms for a sorrowful habit).

Before leaving town, he lost control of his car, flattened a parking meter, and ended up spending the night in jail. When he faced the judge the following morning, he said, “I apologize to this court, to my family, and to my God. This will never happen again.”

And it didn’t—a promise I appreciated. To this day, I grin when I think about it.

Ten years later, I checked in with Allen. We had a heart-to-heart, he and I.

It’s been ten years since your Papa gave up drinking, I said. That’s no picnic.

“Yeah, I know,” Allen said. “I’ve been thinking about it for too long.”

Good to hear, I said. Remember, you’re gifted with four human endowments to help you do the right thing.

Allen knuckled his brow. “I don’t follow.”

Think about it: awareness, conscience, imagination, and independent will.

He squirmed ever so slightly. “Sure, I have those things.”

Well then? Don’t you think it’s time to go to work?

Allen crinkled his face, which was answer enough. His awareness called out his neglect. His conscience counseled the right thing to do. His imagination ran a movie on the process. And his independent will set everything in motion.

Within the hour, Allen took a long breath, let it wither out, and knocked on his father’s door. His papa greeted him with a smile and an invitation to take a load off.

“I have something to say to you, Papa,” Allen said.

“Oh-oh, what have I done wrong?”

Allen shook his head. “It’s not that at all. It’s about what you’ve done right. You’ve been sober for over ten years.” He glanced skyward. “That’s no picnic. And yet, I’ve never offered a word of praise. I’m sorry for that, Papa. I’m so proud of you for being true to your word.”

His father said nothing. He simply beckoned his son with both hands.

They both stood and stepped to the center of the living room and hugged each other in silence—a warm, tender reunion. The embrace was so real, so loving, so filled with peace, I could feel it from here.

As Allen drove home, he blinked his tears away, swallowed hard, and said, “Thank you, God.”

And I said, You’re welcome.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Too Big for His Britches: Or How the Girl Got Away

The boy knew nothing about love. How could he? He was only twelve years old. But he was sweet on the girl with red hair, a button nose, and a dusting of freckles. He was shy about his feelings. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he felt. But his gut flared when he saw her, like the sensation of falling from the summit of a roller-coaster ride.

It all happened on the first week at junior high school—a time when seventh-grade boys needed to prove they were bright enough, tough enough to make it in a school that looked more like a prison block than an institution of learning. Mostly, they didn’t want to do anything stupid.

On that first week, the boy mustered the courage to ask the redheaded girl to have lunch with him on the bleachers that overlooked the football field.

“That would be nice,” she said.

Her consent made the boy’s stomach flutter. The roller coaster had left the station.

The boy chewed on his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which made his mouth even drier. “Ahbe-buta-bula-ay,” he said.

The redheaded girl tilted her head—perplexed but caring. “I’m sorry?”

The boy gulped a slug of milk and swallowed hard. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said in English.

Because the girl smiled at him, he felt forgiven and not entirely dopey. He put his sandwich away and, after careful plotting, reached for her hand. It was a timid move, but it meant everything to him. And yet, once he held her hand, he had no idea what to do with it. Because it was a warm day, he felt his sweat mingle with hers. Soon, their hands made squidgy noises like fishermen in rubber boots. What to do? He worried what she might think if he slipped his hand from hers. Would she judge him infantile—dull-witted and lacking in courage and charm? It was all true, but would she think it? So many questions. Dang, girls were complicated.

He turned his gaze to the football field. Some boys were playing chase. That’s when the idea hit him. He was fast. In sixth grade, he could outrun any kid in the city. I’ll show the redheaded girl how fast I am. I’ll be somebody: the fastest kid in school. Then she’ll be my girl forever.

Now he had a reason to release her hand. “I’ll be right back,” he said as he scrambled down the stairs and onto the field. He swaggered as he watched the boys watching him. Then it happened. They started to move toward him—slowly at first, then with a jackal intent.

The chase had begun. The boy was fast enough to slip their tackles, and he felt cocky and proud. He was a rocket, the wind raking his hair back like victory pennants. He glimpsed at the girl who was watching with big eyes. Then—boom­­—a kid blindsided him. He lay flat on his back—pommeled, pinned, and appalled.

Boys don’t always know what to do when they down a prey. But a snarky half-man, surely a ninth-grader, did not hesitate. He unbuckled the boy’s belt, stripped it off like a whip, and tugged on his pants. Although the boy flailed, the rest of the gang circled like a murder of crows and clawed at his jeans until they pooled at his ankles. Then they took flight to expose their villainy.

There he lay for one horrible moment in the middle of the football field—his pants swaddling his sneakers. On a glance over his shoulder, he spotted the redheaded girl, who appeared ghostly through tear-blurred eyes.

Running the gauntlet was reckless and foolish, and the boy knew it. The lesson was burned into his brain: He had nothing to prove when he was real and everything to lose when he was false. It was a childhood awakening with a moral that endured for the rest of his life: to connect with others, be honest, humble, genuine. Tell them who you are, not who you wish to become.  And, oh yes, remain prim and proper with pants in place—always a good idea.

EPILOGUE: If you’re wondering, the redheaded girl never spoke of the spectacle—or anything else for their roller-coaster ride came to a grinding halt.

As for the boy, he’s full-grown now and almost free from shame. And just because we’re friends, I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m the boy who lost his head and his pants and the redheaded girl who got away.