Bad At Small Talk

The Manute Bol Problem

Chances are, you’ll never do as much good as Manute Bol did in his lifetime. But cheer up. Chances are, your death won’t be nearly as excruciating.

When the NBA center died over the weekend, the initial reports referenced his cause of death as being a combination of kidney failure and “a painful skin condition.” That condition, more specifically, is known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

Here is what happens, in a nutshell, with Stevens-Johnson syndrome: Skin cells begin to die off, at first giving the appearance of a rash. But as the condition worsens, and as cells continue to die, the epidermis detaches from the dermis.

In a much smaller nutshell: Your skin peels off. And you feel it.

Here, again in a nutshell, is what most people mentioned about Manute Bol after his death: He was 7-7, Sudanese, not much of a basketball player save for his ability to block shots, seemed to be more affable than the typical professional athlete and more or less bled himself fiscally dry in his charity efforts toward the Sudanese people.

So the implied question so far: Manute Bol’s philanthropy ate most of his NBA fortune, and he died in extreme pain. Where’s the justice?

A personal aside: I wasn’t familiar with Bol as a player, or with his work in Africa. I would not have known about his death if it hadn’t happened on a day when boredom kept me online reading news. I kept reading articles until I found one that specified his “painful skin condition.” Then I went to Google.

A suggestion: You do not want to see photos of people with Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

Something my hippy-dippy stepmother used to say when I was young: “Karma is very real.”

So upon reading of Stevens-Johnson syndrome, Bol’s charity and Bol’s agony, I naturally dug further. Because, naturally, there had to be more. Illegitimate kids? A drug addiction? Dead hookers? Something?

Okay, I finally found this: He had a gambling problem. It doesn’t really balance the scales.

Here’s a quote from Jeff Ruland, one of Bol’s former teammates: “If that guy didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.”

Perhaps you’re chewing on all this, which, granted, isn’t what people come to social networking sites to chew on. But in the name of personal vanity, let’s assume you are. But you’re not a former pro athlete. You’re not going to blow your fortune on helping people (and, okay, a little blackjack.) Statistically speaking, you won’t need morphine before you die.

So let’s get into the real world. And, patience permitting, a longer personal aside.

Years ago, I had this coworker. Let’s call him [NAME REDACTED]. [NAME REDACTED] was, for lack of anything better, a doofus. He dressed poorly, looked goofy, made simple mistakes and, the downfall of doofuses everywhere, had no aw-shucks manner of admitting that he was, in fact,a doofus.

So we tore him apart.

Not to his face, of course. Adult bullying doesn’t work that way. Adult bullying takes place around the water cooler or in the parking lot, where words are said far away from the victim. [NAME REDACTED] became our pinata, our hobby, the one thing that brought us together and made us feel better.

We had a ringleader in this bullying. It was me. See, I had been the office doofus before [NAME REDACTED] came about and out-doofused me. So when it came to undercutting poor old [NAME REDACTED], I led the charge. When [NAME REDACTED] made some inevitable goof, I laughed the hardest.

Here are some other things about [NAME REDACTED]: He volunteered his time with kids. He went to church, but in the good way. He never said anything unkind about anyone who wasn’t there. He adopted a dog.

[NAME REDACTED] also joined a local community organization. He had to…we made sure he was never invited to any office get-togethers. One night, after a party at the home of one of those organization members, [NAME REDACTED] got pulled over. His blood-alcohol was barely above the legal limit. We laughed about that one, me the hardest of all. He had to take a second job to cover the suddenly-high insurance rates on his vehicle. It was a humiliating job. I laughed the hardest if all.

Not one of us, lest of all the ringleader, ever “paid” for our “crimes.” Oh sure, in the years since then, I’m sure we all have had flat tires, fender-benders, credit card debt and kidney stones. Maybe all that was our “karma.” Pretty lame.

It never got better for [NAME REDACTED]. He got laid off from one job, then another, then another. I got some laughs out of that, too. And my career took off.

Assume this for me: We don’t know what happens when we die.

Assume this for me: There’s no such thing as karma.

Think about this, then. Think hard. Which may not be what you’re in the mood for. But just do it. Sit there and consider that you, really, are off the hook. Not for things like first-degree murder or farting in an elevator, but for the day-to-day things. You’re off the hook for the little ways you sit on your friends and family because you know they’ll let you sit on them. You’re off the hook for that split-second pump you get when you’ve said something so perfect and so cruel that you know you just “won.” You’re off the hook for the little betrayals, the moments of self-indulgence, for the excusable irratability.

You’re also off the hook for all the good you can give before your body gives out. You’re off the hook for the small kindness that changes someone’s mood, the way you make your pet’s sleeping area just so, the time and money you give to others, the time you spare for those who need it.

Consider that your career might take off regardless. Consider that your kidneys will fail and your skin will peel off and it will hurt. Consider that your house won’t flood, that your child will excel, that your boss can’t afford to keep you and that you will get pulled over.

What would you do, if you weren’t tethered to anything? If your ultimate reward turned out to be a punishment, and your ultimate punishment turned out to be a reward? Could you still give everything? Would you take everything? Would you fall somewhere along the spectrum?



June 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stop Poking Me There

I understand now. Completely. Those suspects left in interrogation rooms, left marinating in their own thoughts while the detectives take their sweet time, I know why they crack. Like most who like police procedural dramas, I’d always thought in the back of my mind that I’d be an unflappable suspect. I’d get my story straight. I’d look the bad cop straight in the eye.

Baloney. Complete.

I spent 20 minutes alone in a small plain room today, with nothing but contemporary Christian music softly coming from a speaker I never could find. I was ready to confess to atrocities if it would get me out of that room.

You would think, in the midst of a still-teetering economy, that an independent business would do everything within the realm of sanity to keep its customers happy and non-freaked out. A business like, say, an eye clinic, wouldn’t have bible verses painted on the walls, or nothing but Gideon bibles or Billy Graham pamphlets to read in the waiting room, or, yes, that spookily just-a-hair-away-from-being-homoerotic contemporary Christian music wafting to all rooms.

You would think. You would be wrong.

But this is not about religion, or even the right to expression. Or about customer service. It’s about those prisoners.

The wait in the waiting room was long enough. It was a busy day. No one, myself included, was touching the reading material. No one, not even the little old ladies seated together in a corner, helped themselves to a bible or a pamphlet outlining God’s plan for all of us.

So for 30 minutes I sat and stared with other people who sat and stared. Which was an unnerving effect. Because they were sitting and staring, I couldn’t stare at them without being stared at. So I’m even denied the time-passer of people watching.

I should have brought a book.

But then a tech (that’s what the nurse-types in eye clinics are called, my mother was a tech for years) called my name and led me to an exam room, where The Doctor Would Be With Me Shortly.

He was not there shortly. And there was nothing to read. A roomful of quasi-alien eye exam instruments to fiddle with, yes, but I am not a daredevil. Just me. And the music (I will stay on my kees/to keep you by my side…that sort of thing).

So here’s what I did.

I sat in the exam chair and looked at the small mirror on the wall. And even though the mirror seemed to be level with the top of the exam chair, it evidently wasn’t, because only the very top of the exam chair was reflected. I looked straight into the mirror, and I couldn’t see the top of my head. I extended my arms, and had to extend them quite a ways before they showed up in the mirror.

So I sat and pretended I had suddenly turned invisible. I made up my mind that somehow crossing the threshold into that exam room had left me with the power of invisibility. Except I didn’t feel like I had a “power” at all. Rather, it felt like an affliction. I was gone, now the ultimate sit-and-stare guy. Most people fear never being able to see their loved ones again, not the other way around.

At that point, making objects seemingly levitate or spending quality time in the women’s locker room were the furthest things from my mind. I would never actively participate in anything again, but I would get to hang around to see the world just putter along without me.

This was despair. And because the eye doctor was busy explaining cataract procedures to old people or refilling the waiting room baskets with Jesus pamphlets, I spent a good half hour in this despair. I was alone, I was convinced I was invisible and nobody seemed in a particular hurry to open the door to the room and rescue me from a life of invisibility.

When the doctor did come in, he tested my eyes’ response to pressure. He administered eye drops that stung, then numbed my eyes. Then he poked my numb eyes with a small probe.

He needn’t have done that. I was perfectly ready to confess my crimes.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pleasure To Serve You

 While living and working in the Arkansas delta shortly after college, I had a friend whose top choice for Saturday night fun was strip clubs. Now, I often had to work on Saturday nights, which also gave me something of an excuse to beg off these trips. Not that I had a problem with strip clubs per se – for a heterosexual 23-year old with a perfectly functioning endocrine system, I was pretty non-committal on the subject.

 What made me uncomfortable was that my friend operated under the assumption that there was always at least one stripper that liked him. As in, there was a real connection made beyond the usual strip club offerings. He had claimed, without verification of course, that he had slept with more than one stripper after hanging around after the strip club had closed (we’re talking around the 4:30, 5 a.m. range.)

 I realized the kind of spell he was under when I hit a rare Saturday with no work to do. It was the kind of Saturday that’s familiar to any single person in their 20s who is working in an unfamiliar environment – you’re not sure about where you’re at and where you’re heading, and you would do just about anything to leave your endearingly discombobulated one-bedroom apartment because you know that if you stay there throughout the night, all you’ll be doing is thinking about where you’re at and where you’re heading.

 So I rode with my friend to the strip club.

 By “the” strip club, I mean a place called The Wild Rose. It doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s when I realized just where my friend was coming from. Because a well-known and profitable strip club resided in a metro area that was about a 30-minute straight shot up the interstate. But that’s not where we were going.

 Sitting in the passenger seat of his silver pickup truck, I watched as the lights of our town faded and we boomed down empty delta highways. We passed soybean fields, tractor dealerships and Wal-Mart-less towns like Grady, Gould, Dumas and McGehee. After about an hour, we entered the bayou town of Lake Village and pulled over to the side of the highway. That was where The Wild Rose stood.

 I remember one of the strippers having thick glasses and fat rolls. Another had to be in her late 40s. One was pregnant. The strippers would go from table to table and visit with the men, visits that would end in offers for lap dances. This made me uncomfortable. The place didn’t serve beer, but allowed people to bring their own, so kids from a nearby agricultural college would come in with giant coolers, pound beers and heckle the strippers. This I found excruciating.

 We had come here because my friend “knew” the people there. He knew the DJ that introduced the strippers by their fake names. He knew some of the patrons. And, of course, he knew the strippers. They came by, said hi, asked him about his job and his dog. Then they offered lap dances for the standard issue price.

 I don’t remember how many lap dances my friend had…I do remember him once scurrying to the dusty ATM located in a corner, and wondering what the surcharge would be. I didn’t get any lap dances myself, not because I was above such behavior or any such thing,  just because the strippers really weren’t that attractive. We left after a few hours (I had subtly talked my friend down from his proclamation earlier in the evening to stay until closing time) and took another hourlong ride back home. My friend was glowing. I was exhausted.

 I think I’ve been to strip clubs twice since then. Even when the strippers are attractive, strip clubs just don’t do it for me. There’s a weird self-consciousness thing that sets in, coupled with the fact that I’m really not paying for anything.

 But I do go other places. I go to the Starbucks near the interstate on mornings that I’m in a rush to get somewhere. Or sometimes I go there to write, study or do a bit of off-site work. There is a bar right down the street from where I work, modeled after an Irish pub. I like it because it has a good beer selection, bartenders that know their craft and a distinct non-meat market atmosphere. I go sometimes with friends and sometimes with myself and sometimes with a book. It can be a fun place and an adult place and a quiet place. I like it.

 The barista at “my” Starbucks knows my name and I know hers. We chat as she gets my coffee or tea. If there isn’t a line, we chat longer. We know each other’s names and have a cursory idea of what the other is doing these days. I joke with my friends about having a Starbucks crush, but then am quick to also joke that I would know about as much to do with a young recent college grad as I would with a live rooster.

 Yes, but that’s not really the point, is it?

 I know the people at the bar a bit better. That happens when alcohol is involved and when you get a reputation for tipping fairly. I know the bartender who just graduated from college and hopes to move to Florida with his girlfriend while pursuing a masters degree for teaching English as a second language. I know the tattooed waitress who grew up outside of Mountain Home, who likes Mel Brooks movies and natural foods. She’s trying to get her shit together and she’d like to go to school someday because, really, she does like to learn on her own terms. She also doesn’t own a car, sometimes stays at the bar because she can’t get home, and she sleeps with many strange men. Looking back about a month ago, I realize I probably could have been in line to be one of those men had I stayed at the bar and kept drinking with her.

 At the time, and still even now, I also kept in mind that these were parts that were being played. I was paying for something, not just service but recognition. That sweet status as a “regular” that can feel so good, especially to those people who don’t fall into the groups that are presented to us as options in our normal day-to-day lives.

 Yes, but that’s not really the point, is it?

June 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment