Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Woe

Most of these reminiscences have been humorous, and there is plenty more of that to come. But not everything lying around in this basement is safe. There are places down here where children shan’t play. Where rusted edges jut, splintered corners lean, dank pools form and shadows seep. Why, oh why would I direct your attention to one of these areas?

Because there is a line we must walk, you and I.

Whether you think the stories I have shared so far are funny or not you must sense by now that I think they are hysterical. Know then that if my perspective were just a bit different each one of these events could have been tragedies. Each tale could have been a brick in a fortress of bitterness, shame and anger; each instance an exhibit in a court where I plead my life’s unfairness. If that were the case I should be such a person as would have no joy, worrying slights and turning them over in my hands as Gollum did the one ring. Happily that is not the case. My life has been unfair only in that I was given joy instead of the anguish that I deserved, mercy instead of justice. And so though it is cliché, the ability to laugh at one’s self truly must be retained. Herein lies one side of the line: the temptation to take every slight personal. It leads to an obsessive unhappy state. Celebrating your own indignities is a great way to keep the sense of proportion that we call humor.

The other temptation is the reason I bring you this tale today. The opposite temptation is to take nothing seriously. The reason it is tempting is because it seems like a way to escape pain. The person who laughs heartily at hard calamity is less human than the one who fixes their gaze unwaveringly on their own accumulated sufferings. Humor truly needs a sense of proportion, the ability to wave off the trifling against knowledge of the truly dreadful.

And so, I burden you with this woe. Please note that like the light stories before it, it could be told in a comedic manner. But I like knowing that you would feel the same unease in its inappropriate manner that you would if I attempted elicit sympathy from my funny stories as if they were horrors. Laugh at what is funny, cry at what is sad and keep walking that line.

My second senior year at college I moved into a freshman dorm with three other upperclassmen. (It’s okay to laugh at that part) The other guys were in Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship with me and two of them were the presidents of the two halves of our chapter. For this reason we referred to our rooms as the Presidential Suite. On a happier day I will tell you of a horrible embarrassment I suffered in the bathroom between the two rooms. The other non-president resident was my good friend Joshua. Josh lead a small group Bible study in the lounge one night a week and I helped out. There was a really good turnout as we had posted flyers and personally visited the dorm rooms of the students who were good enough to fill out a card indicating interest at Bronco Bash. Among those attending was a short, pretty Japanese girl named Akiko. As Providence would have it Jason, one of the Presidents, was also in the Bible study and was pretty fluent in Japanese having spent some of his schooling abroad. He was able to communicate with Akiko when the language barrier got above knee height, but Akiko had pretty good English.

Her prayer requests often focused on dealing with depression. She had recently converted to Catholicism and was excited to take part in the study of God’s word. One night Jason got a call from Akiko. I was the only other roommate there and he indicated that Akiko might be in trouble. I put my shoes on and we went down the elevator and to her room. When we got there she was sitting on the floor by her bed. Another Japanese transfer student was with her and he had put a large shirt on her. He looked worried. She brightened when we came in the room but she looked really out of it. She started talking to Jason and tried to pull the left sleeve of that big shirt up on her arm, but the guy (his name might have been Kenji or Kenshi) tried to prevent her. I saw blood on the inside of the cuff. She told Kenji/Kenshi that we could be trusted and took off that big shirt. There was blood on her dress from her arm. Her arm looked like it had been chipped. It reminded me of the big turning spit they use to make gyros at a Greek restaurant, only it was red and white instead of gray.

Japanese antidepressants aren’t as strong as those in the US. They come in powder form. No antidepressant should be consumed with alcohol. But I think Akiko had been accustomed to getting away with one glass of wine with her old meds. When she tried that with her American scrip she went mad. She had gone into the bathroom and found a razorblade that belonged to her suitemate. She had gone to work on her left arm with that blade trying to die. I guess she had attempted suicide on earlier occasions. She told me that cigarettes were poisonous if you tried to eat them. Jason stayed with her and I went for the Resident Advisor, a girl named Jamie who couldn’t have been more than a sophomore. She was one cool cucumber though. She assessed the situation and contacted the Hall Director. The decision was made to call the ambulance. Jamie had to explain what was going to happen and why to an increasingly alarmed Akiko. It wasn’t until the EMT’s arrived and took over that I saw how scared Jamie had been. Seeing that made me more impressed with her, not less.

Akiko started freaking out when the Med-tech’s got there. She had to be restrained on the gurney. When her arms were strapped down she stopped struggling. She gently called my name and said:
“Can you do me a favor?”
“What do you need, Akiko?” I said. I will never forget her eyes when she responded. She held my gaze. Her voice was calm, frank, sincere.
“Will you please kill me?”

They wheeled her away and she started struggling again. They told me she was going to the ward where she would be on suicide watch for a while. They said we could visit her at the hospital later. When we got back to our room Jason and I prayed for our friend.

The next night Kenji, Josh, Jason and I and perhaps a few others from the Bible study went to visit Akiko. She wanted us to be there when her father arrived. She was nervous. She wasn’t looking that great when we got there, but her arm had been bandaged and she was happy to see us. I had her Bible and asked if there was any Scripture she wanted to hear. She wanted to hear the first part of the fifth chapter of Mark.

Here it is in the NIV from
Mark 5
The Healing of a Demon-possessed Man
1They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.[a] 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil[b] spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" 8For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!"
9Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"
"My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis[c]how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

The fifth verse struck me when I read it to her. I asked Akiko what she thought of the whole passage and she gently wept.
“I try to believe.” she said, “I try to believe.”

As the evening progressed word came that her father was on his way. I only include this next bit because it happened that same night and it was so bizarre, but I am not sure what connection it had to what was going on. I feel that it was part of it, but can’t quite say how. I went down to the hospital entrance to meet Akiko’s dad and guide him to the correct floor. When I got to the entrance it was dark. It looked closed. There wasn’t a sound. There were no door guards, orderlies, nothing; just the antiseptic lobby floor shining in the glow of the arc sodium lamplight streaming through the automated glass sliding doors.

“Oh, there you are!” came from my left.
A woman was walking toward me out of a dim hallway. She had graying straggly hair hanging on either side of her face. She had no teeth, but her eyes were lit up.
“I was wondering when I was going to meet you.” she said.
“You recognize me?” I asked.
“I have seen your face in my dreams. Sometimes I see monster faces, and then I throw a fireball in their mouth.”
I don’t know why I said what I said next. I guess I might have still been in some shock over the events of the night before. Everything was so weird and surreal. Maybe part of it is my non-confrontational nature. Who knows? Enough excuses, I’ll just tell you.
“Well please don’t throw a fireball in MY mouth.” I said.
She laughed.
“I wouldn’t do that to you. I’d know the difference.” and with that she walked past me and into the gloom of the hallway to my right. I looked around but there were no people around to help. I felt like I should probably tell somebody that this woman was walking around loose, but I didn’t know if that was part of her routine there or not. Maybe they let her take walks or something.

Anyway Akiko’s father arrived and we boarded the elevator. I don’t remember whether he came to my entrance or if Josh found him first, just being in the elevator with Josh and him. He worked for Fuji Film. Josh told him he used Fuji film and he told Josh that he was a good customer. That made all three of us smile. When we got there Akiko and her dad embraced and spoke in Japanese. I didn’t understand a word, but I saw the love and concern that was communicated. Akiko’s father told us that he was glad she had friends to come visit her and look out for her.

Akiko had to drop out of school that semester. The next semester she went to school in England. We got a letter from her saying that she had made some good friends there who had taken to calling her “Kiki.”

Friday, March 03, 2006

This gift of speech

Some have a face for radio and some have a voice for writing. I have come to the conclusion that it might be profitable to restrict my permission to address women.

My wife and I were enjoying a day at the beach with other couples. Lake Michigan's waters were surprisingly warm that day and the ripples were so inspired they aspired to oceanic wavelengths. So we were out there battling the crashing waves, moveable dunes heaping themselves up with the sheer joy of the day. One of the lasses that was there, let's call her Sarah, was floating on her back and as the wave crest lofted her she rolled over flinging glittering droplets from her outstretched fingers. The positioning of her arms, held out straight, struck me (not physically, but in reminiscence) similarly to the positioning of flippers, on some sea creature, as it would play. And so I said:

"Sarah, you rolled over just like a Manatee."

I don't need to tell you that the aquatic life form I chose (based on the positioning and usual movement of its flippers, mind you!) was not a flattering choice of image as a whole. You see, it is hard to explain the delicacies of comparative armature movement amongst mammals to a lady whom you have verbally and publicly just likened to a sea cow.

Wednesday, I proved once again why my interaction with females other than my spouse should be strictly monitored. We had just returned from our trip to the Cleveland Clinic. When we got a call from a dear friend who had sent us an encouragement just before we left and who is able to relate because of her own experiences, let's just call her Sara. My wife was feeling terrible so I got to be the one who told Sara how the trip had been and what tests and such we could look forward to in the future. One of them is a colonoscopy. Sara also has to have one and an endoscope too! And so I said:

"Wow! Like a barbecued hog on a spit."

I immediately realized what an awful inappropriate thing that was to say and apologized.

"I am so sorry that was a really horrible metaphor." I said.

"Yeah." she said.

She was very gracious to continue talking on the phone to me and the fact that she was able to remain polite is an indication of what a great person she is. I looked at my wife and she was shaking her head at me. She had that look on her face that she gets when I have screwed up so bad that all she can do is laugh but she is trying not to.

And now, a final example that takes me all the way back to junior high. My buddy Josh and I were in a youth orchestra at church. We played trumpets and there was this cute girl who sat next to me and laughed at some of my jokes, let's just not call her anything. There was only one problem. She wouldn't tell me her name. I really got on her case about it one time but she flatly refused. I decided humor might be in order to break the ice. And so I said:

"What? It's not like you have some ridiculous name like GERtrude or something!"

I never saw her again. Her cousin played trombone. You already know what he told me the next week.