Friday, January 27, 2012

The Daunting Rescue of Mr. Snappy

I have a theory. It's not a deep or overly complex theory, but I believe it to be true. I believe that most, if not all, of the conflicts in our modern world are directly tied to man's inability to focus on empathy. I don't care if it's war or arguing over a parking spot. It's all the same. Notice I didn't claim that we lack the ability to be empathetic. Only a complete sociopath truly lacks all empathy. Rather, it's the fact that we lose focus on empathy. As soon as we assign ourselves a little task to complete, other people's adjacent tasks or objectives simply become obstacles.

Think about it. How many times have you had a time sensitive task to accomplish, only to be delayed or sidetracked by everyone and everything around you? If you're like me, the answer is EVERY time. That's not bad luck. It's the fact that you've lost focus on the fact that our society is a very complex and delicate balance of needs versus resources. When one's need imposes on another's resources the system breaks down. This is true from the simplest of tasks all the way to the causation of haves and have nots. So where does the fault lie? In you? In that other person in your way? How about the innate unfairness of reality itself?

This goes back to one of the most key lessons my father ever taught me. You can not control other people. You can only control how you react to other people.

This requires a focus on empathy and perspective. Human nature is selfish. It's not that people are selfish. No, I don't believe that. I believe that a majority of people, if prompted, tend to behave in a socially equitable manner. The problem is that once we become adults there are fewer prompts in our lives. That's why it's so important to select a partner that has the ability to truly help you maintain perspective. If left to your own devices, your focus will most likely turn toward some false importance to your tasks, forsaking the needs and resources of those around you.

My hometown, Purvis, MS, is a painfully small town. All the sidewalks are promptly rolled up far before sundown. Streetlights tell time and steeples litter the skyline. It's in South Mississippi, so it's very hot most of the year. This leads to finding creative ways to stay cool. My parents had a pool installed when I was a young child so, for me, that was never a problem. However, those without a pool were left to their own devices. This usually led to swimming holes and creeks.

If you've never swam in a creek, let me educate you a little. First off, creek water is damn cold. I mean blue lips, shaking legs, and chill bumps cold. The only thing that slows the onset of hypothermia is the fact that you must constantly swim for you life in fear of water moccasins. If you're not familiar with water moccasins, let me educate you. You know how, when referring to snakes, people say something like, "oh, it's more afraid of you, than you are of it." Those people are NOT referring to water moccasins. They are terribly aggressive and they love hanging out in creeks.

The safety precautions associated with creeks are not what I would call thorough. Usually, you just walk up to the edge, look for snakes swimming on the surface (for about 7 seconds), and jump in. The initial shock of 45 degree water takes your mind off of the snake issue, broken bottles everywhere, even the rusted out washing machine. I never understood why every creek near our home seemed to be an outdated large household appliance repository.

As if this experience wasn't enough of a test of wills/manhood, the boys in my town inevitably took it a step or two further. One specific creek out in the country was crossed by two bridges that were adjacent to one another. The smaller bridge was for cars to cross the creek, while the larger bridge was a rail crossing.

The car bridge only sat about 12-15 feet off of the water and was our backwoods version of a high dive. The rail bridge, and I'm guessing here, was probably about 50 feet off of the water and was thus used for only one thing, a man test. Now I never saw anyone jump off of it in person but the stories of those that did were that of legend. Let me set the scene for you. To reach this bridge you had to climb up a very steep hill, mostly composed of gravel. Once at the top, you would walk out to the center of the bridge and peer down at a landing zone which was only about 12 feet wide. There were no depth markers and you definitely couldn't see the bottom, due to the mud. You had no way of knowing your plunge would land you smack dab on top of a discarded Maytag.

This may sound like a crazy venture, but the combination of shame and boredom is a powerful cocktail. I was not insane, and was sure that I'd probably chicken out, but that didn't mean that I shouldn't at least climb to the top to appear brave. I still remember the climb up. My friend Allen and I struggled to reach the top, all the while attempting to compromise, while still saving face, over who would be the first to jump. But something happened on the way out to the center of the bridge. As fear led me to stare down at the cross ties of the rail line I saw something amazing. There, wedged between two of the ties was a giant turtle. He had obviously slid on to his side and become stuck.

My heart began to race with fear for the turtle. What if a train came and the cross ties shifted? He could be crushed. After all, there was no telling how old this turtle was, or how long he'd been stuck here. Allen and I quickly devised a plan. We would each pick a side and see if we could slide him out.

We obviously took into account that this could be a snapping turtle. Everyone had heard the legend that if a snapping turtle were to clamp down on your hand, only a strike of lightning would make him release his grasp. Who's got that kind of time?

It took us quite some time to extract the big guy. Once we got him out we were faced with a very precarious situation. There was no way we could just leave him to be hit by the next passing train. So, we picked him up and walked to the hill that we'd painstakingly climbed just minutes earlier. We looked at the gravel, and the incline, and decided that there was no way we were going to be able to get him back down the hill without one or both of us falling to certain peril.

That's when we devised our master rescue plan. It was so obvious. It was staring us in the face the whole time. Turtles are armored and amphibious.

Satisfied with our plan we quickly shuffled to the center of the bridge, counted to three, and released our new friend to his life of freedom.

As we peered down, I became more than a little concerned at his rate of descent. He also began a troubling tumble. I began to doubt if he would be able to stick the landing. My 11 year old brain assumed he would make a small splash and pop back to the top to the cheers of the crowd, like an Olympic diver. I was a little off. It seems that we both GREATLY overestimated the strength of his armor plating. Apparently, when a giant turtle hits water at 80+ mph they tend to explode as if they'd been rigged with dynamite.

Silence hung in the air, as time froze, so that our minds could fathom the unspeakable horror we'd just witnessed. We screamed in unison. I've never been so distraught over something my own hands had caused. That was the hardest part. As soon as I saw the first errant piece of Mr. Snappy fly through the air, the wind expelled from my lungs, and the obvious idiocy of our plan crashed down on me in pure, unadulterated shame.

This whole time, we'd only focused on ourselves. We were so excited to be "helping" this creature survive this horrible ordeal, that we'd lost touch with his reality. Sure, being stuck on a bridge sucks. But it's freaking club med when compared to being tossed off of it by two dumb kids. We viewed ourselves as saviors, never realizing that our method of salvation was completely idiotic. What in the hell were we thinking?

How could we possibly think that a turtle could survive a 50 foot fall? The truth was that we never even considered it. The logical option was cast aside for fear that we might be hurt. Instead, our little brains chose the option that was easiest for us, with hardly a thought as to the physics of the operation.

Our perspective was that we were heroes. His perspective, if he was capable of logical thought, was that we were executioners. All the good intentions in the world couldn't make up for the fact that we failed to maintain perspective.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Flawed Logic and Trembling Hands

Every new parent does it. We're told the truth, but we refuse to see it. "Our kid is different. I can tell," we say. So one week after Johnny is born, and the little guy gets a bad case of the farties, we all claim that not only did he recognize me, but that we shared a smile. "He was so happy to see me that he smiled his little cheeks off." Instant connection for sure. The truth is, babies giggle at gas. Hell, I'm a grown man and it still makes me chuckle.

This little delusion is the first lap in the marathon of parental milestone chasing. Everything in our lives is measured and captured. First poop, first words, first recognition of appendages, and even our dietary milestones. As an infant, the milestones are day to day. The older we get, they tend to spread out over years, and eventually, decades. Somehow, me getting to work on time at age thirty-two doesn't exactly necessitate that my parents dance around the living room proclaiming my brilliance.....sadly.

It cracks me up, and is a little confusing, every time I see one of those wacky commercials for a revolutionary product that will supposedly teach calculus to a two year old. I mean, every parent surely knows the importance of your infant's ability to design a suspension bridge! Meanwhile, the kid still craps in his pants. I don't get it. Why has the parenting world somehow forgotten the importance of the natural maturation process. No house has ever been built roof first. There is no reason to rush toward milestones. One day they will only exist in blurry pictures and even blurrier memories.

Not surprisingly, some of the milestones of my life were surrounded in humorous and somewhat uncomfortable situations.

I'm the youngest of four children. As I've written before, I'm much younger than my siblings. In 1985 I was six years old, while they were fifteen, sixteen, and nineteen. Most everything I learned at an early age stemmed from my eavesdropping on teen and adult conversations. I tried my darnedest to make sense of the world far before I should've. This sprint towards understanding came to a head one fateful night during a forty-five minute car ride.

My oldest sister, Diann, attended Jones County junior college in 1985. The school was about forty-five minutes from our home. I'm not sure what type of performance she was involved in, but whatever it was, it required the attendance of my mom and I. So, we loaded up in mom's BOAT of an Oldsmobile, and hit the road. My memories of this night are somewhat blurry, but that car is cemented in my mind. It was a dull red monster of a car, with a bench seat in the front, and a door that was three times my body weight.

Only a few miles down the road, my mother's peaceful drive became traumatic as I turned and asked, "so mom, santa claus isn't real is he?" She paused and then resolutely confirmed my suspicions. I remember her asking if it made me sad. If I remember correctly, I was more satisfied that this knowledge would certainly propel me into early adulthood. No more kiddie tables for this guy!

Once the seal was broken, I couldn't be stopped. For this day would bring about a reckoning. Over the next few interstate exits, we covered my conclusions on the actual state of the world. Santa was only the first victim of this conversation. His death was soon followed by both the tooth fairy and the easter bunny. With every question I grew stronger and sat a little taller, while my mom slinked into her driver's seat unable to come to grips with the reality that so many of her last child's milestones were collapsing at once. At this point she could barely look at me. She stared forward at the road as if her next glimpse would certainly find me sprouting whiskers and singing bass.

That's when she made the near fatal mistake of inquiring if I had any more questions. In fact, I did. I took a few seconds to get the wording just right, then turned to her and asked, "mom, what is sex?"

Now look, I have to give my mom some credit. She remained surprisingly calm as her blood pressure spiked to life-threatening levels. The blood rushed from her face and she quietly responded with, "well, (enormous gulp) what do you think it is?" I then began to explain, in a very elementary fashion, the fractured logic that I'd pieced together from many random conversations. As my skewed explanation reached a crescendo, my mom did the only thing her sanity would allow her to do. She diverted. She nodded her head and assured me that I was right, all the while praying that my questions would cease or that the exit for the college would come soon.

Satisfied with my understanding of human biology, I stepped out of that car a new man. "Good. Now that we got that out of the way, I can certainly turn my attention toward world peace." My mom, on the other hand, was scarred. Her disappointment had turned to horror. Her legs were weak and no eye contact would be had as we sat through my sister's program. I can only imagine that she was somehow trying to figure out a graceful way to explain to my dad the traumatic events that transpired during our trip. Poor thing.

Post Script - My crude concept of human sexuality would lead to a very embarrassing scene some years later. I only remember sitting in my seventh grade health class, eyes as wide as saucers and hands trembling as I silently mouthed the words "SHUT UP."

The following years were relatively vacant of milestones, as I'd rushed through so many at a young age. During these years I focused on music. I played trumpet and sang. In junior high, I attended our local church, and was a member of the youth choir. At this young age, pre-puberty, I sang soprano. My voice was very childlike and I was more than happy to sing anything Bro. Von Kanel put in front of me. In those days, churches regularly participated in youth choir tours. This mostly involved traveling to a nearby state, singing in their local churches, and leading vacation bible school during the day.

This particular year, I was selected as the protagonist in the musical and was given a few critical solos throughout the score. For the first few churches we visited I sang my songs, in the intended keys, and did pretty well, for the most part. However, at some point during the middle of the week I began to feel a hoarse feeling in my throat. Something wasn't right. The more I tried to clear my throat, the worse it got. For some reason, those high notes that were once so clear, were now miles away.

Over the next couple of days I went from having a slight, soprano voice to a disturbingly low bass voice. The disturbing part comes when you consider what the members of the congregation saw. Out on the stage would walk this tiny little kid, with a suspiciously symmetrical bowl shaped hair cut. Expecting a mouse of a voice, they were shocked to hear something that more resembled a record player that was too low on batteries. My cute little upbeat songs, were not droning along like a funeral dirge. The pleasant smiles of the churchgoers were replaced with a combination of confusion and boredom. I was literally singing grown adults to sleep. It's hard to lift people's spirits when they are terrified that the performer may, in some way, be possessed by the devil.

These days, I'm thankful that most of my milestones have passed. I'm more than happy to age uneventfully and focus my attention on the milestones of my kids. But I swear to the Lord, if Jackson catches me alone in the car, and begins asking too many questions, I'm going to just pull the car over and walk.