Monday, March 7, 2016

Practice Makes Perfect Progress

(Originally written in November 2011)

It’s Thanksgiving morning, and—holiday or not—I’m up for my 5 a.m.-7 a.m. writing ritual. This is not me. I didn’t crawl out of my comfortable pillow-top bed and leave the perfect warmth of three dogs and a 98.6-degree Fahrenheit partner. Some alien invaded my body overnight—some foreigner with much more discipline than I could ever muster. And yet, even the alien has writer’s block.

I stare at the clock. Its brown rim. Its cream-colored center. It’s now 5:20. The seconds hand is mesmerizing today. I watch it round the bases: One. Second. At. A. Time. I wonder why the tick is louder than the tock. The clock ticks in Dolby surround sound. Amplified. Annoying. With each tock, the brown-wood-rimmed living room clock reminds me that another second has gone by. Producing nothing.

I’m wide awake now. The laptop is booted and ready to take on thousands of words, one agonizing letter at a time. I take a sip of coffee and stare at the blank screen, wondering whether I should write fresh stuff, or go the easier route and obsessively edit an old piece that I tackled sufficiently the last time I was awake on a major holiday at 5 a.m. It would be easier than risking writing something new.

How deep do I want to go today? Do I really want to write hard stuff? Today? Why not tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow might be better. I’m not sure why, but I’m certain of it.

It’s Thanksgiving morning, but neither food nor my latest short story is cooking. Still, I sit before my laptop to write because I hear my friend’s words echo, “Practice makes perfect progress.” I spend a few seconds adjusting the font settings because I might have more inspiration in Bookman Old Style. And that’s when a childhood memory pops up to distract me.

Mrs. Stallneck, my third-grade teacher, introduced me to the craft of writing short stories. I flirted with writing, and fell in love. One of her standing assignments was for the class to write a short story every week. I wrote faithfully, for I had found a new best friend. For a shy loner, writing was a comforting, supportive, and always adventurous pal. Mrs. Stallneck encouraged me to be creative—to imagine beautiful scenery and interesting people who did amazing things. I had literary puppets to play with.

“You can write about anything,” she encouraged. “Just imagine it, dream it, and then write it.”

In good penmanship, I wrote stories about talking dogs and treasure islands, and I turned in these pieces with pride and joy. I remember that I had a favorite place and time for writing: afternoons at the kitchen table. I had found my first love, and I remained true.

My classmates were not as dedicated. One day at school, Mrs. Stallneck demanded that those who had not turned in a short story in the past three weeks write one during recess. I was the only one on the playground that day. I had all the swings and monkey bars to myself, yet they weren’t as fun. I was alone and lonely. I wanted to be inside with my classmates, surrounded by the smooth glide of ballpoint pens pressed to faint-blue lined notebook paper. Instead, I sat on the swing and wrote an epic adventure in my head.

Third grade was an amazing year. But now I’m back in today, in my living room, staring at the clock and its ever-louder tick tocks. The coffee is still hot, yet my fingers are cold. I must get them moving, but the words aren’t coming. I look around the living room, searching for an object to describe in as much detail as possible—just to get warmed up. My eye catches a current picture of me and an eleven-year-old boy. We’re both in our Taekwondo uniforms and we’re grinning like drunken sailors. Devin is holding up the identification card—the one that tells the world he’s now a black belt—that I just awarded him. I’m so proud. He’s so happy. It was a magical moment.

That same boy grew to become a fine young man—passed me up in height as a teen. Devin now towers over me, and I have to lift my heels to get a proper hug.

Devin is now attending Yale University. (I love to name drop his school. I want you to know that I know a smart person.) He was in town for the holiday, so last night we met at a Thai restaurant. Over a sinus-drooling-induced red curry, he asked how I learned to become a better writer. More specifically, what did I do in college to improve my skills? When he first enrolled at Yale, Devin set an intention: He wanted to become a better writer by the time he graduated. Although he had written many essays and research papers since freshman year, he still didn’t think he’d grown very much.

“My sentences are still stale,” he said.

This boy is worlds ahead of where I was at his age, I thought. I never gave weight to the freshness of my words when I was in college. (Of course, I drank a lot of alcohol then, so fresh words weren’t my primary concern.)

“So what did you do?” he asks again. “I’m perplexed.”

I take another bite of curry, a sip of water, and then say, “Facts.”

I’ve been lucky. I’ve had few moments of writer’s block in my life because of how I grew up in The Word. As a journalism student in high school and college, I didn’t have the luxury of devising iron-clad plots or ruminating on the psyche of a character’s motivation. I had a deadline to meet, and gruff editors didn’t care about colorful words. They cared about facts. They needed to see something in writing—now.

My best defense against writer’s block was to write about real things in real time and focus on the facts. That way, the story wrote itself. Every story was believable because every story was true. Real, stupid, and fallible people doing awful things. And occasionally, real, honest, hardworking people being heroes. I wrote far more article about real, stupid events (everyone knows that tragedy and outrage tops feel-good stories at the newsstand), but I had a soft spot for the kinder, gentler profile piece of quiet heroes in the community.

I look Devin in the eye, and add, “But more importantly, practice.”

While a student at San Antonio College, I worked on its weekly newspaper, The Ranger. I wrote whether I liked what came out or not. I never seemed to have writer’s block back then. Writer’s block would have gotten me kicked off the staff. So I wrote about the subject I was assigned, not what I curiously preferred. I wrote about topics and situations that made me uncomfortable, but I did it—I could dig deep that way—because it was a job. I could ask tough questions of authority figures that normally scared the breath out of me. I could confront situations and dilemmas without fear. I had a story to write, and it was always due NOW. I didn’t have the luxury of writer’s block then. I had to write—something, anything—and do it by the end of the day.

Practice has served me well in many areas of my life. Taekwondo. Chinese calligraphy. Making a good, strong pot of Tim Horton’s coffee. With practice, I have always improved. And so I tell Devin not to worry so much about how the sentences come out. Invite all types of sentences to join the page in practice. Edit later. Improvement will happen naturally, oftentimes without notice. For now, just practice.

When my newspaper career ended, I started to care too much about what I wrote, how I wrote, and what it sounded like. I wanted every word to be perfectly placed and every point to be well-timed. I essentially wanted perfection at the beginning, and if I didn’t think I had it, I hesitated to write it. I’m an editor, and I know God created editors to improve others’ writing. God created them because no one writes perfectly—especially in first drafts. But I’m odd: I felt embarrassed if my work didn’t come out right the first time. I’m an editor, for crying out loud. I should know better.

Still, I told Devin, “Practice.”

These days, I’m trying to embrace the imperfection of the first draft—to allow myself the opportunity to write true crap and not change a damn thing at first glance or hide its raw ugliness from editors who will confirm that, “Yes, you have just written true crap. But, wait, there’s a nugget here. Right behind the semicolon. There’s something there. Do you see it? No, not the one near that coffee stain. The other semicolon. Do you see it now?” And then I do.


Just put your fingers on the keys and see what comes out. With or without coffee. Early mornings or late afternoons. Holidays, weekends, or birthdays. Before the kids wake up or after they’ve gone to bed. In the quiet and the chaos of life. On major holidays and amid the dull, monotonous days of summer.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Gift of Resentment

“What do you want for Christmas?” my wife asks me every December as we decorate the tree.

I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know how to answer. I’m afraid to answer. I don’t want to want anything. I don’t want to wish for something I might get. I’ve done that before, and it’s left a sad pang in my heart.

But she really wants to know, so I say, “Let me think.” And that’s always a mistake because those three words invite childhood memories to randomly flash through my body, prompted by bright red, yellow, green, and blue tree lights. Like the fact that we never had a real Christmas tree because Mamma feared the lights would start a fire. So one year she and Daddy went down to the corner automotive store and bought an artificial tree. My parents let me and my sisters decorate it however we wanted. Then Mamma doused the tree with a pine-scented spray and set a tall spice-scented candle on top of the television. She never burned it because of the whole “it’ll start a fire” fear, but the candle still made the living room smell nice. In the mornings, closer to Christmas Eve, she’d bake pumpkin or pecan pies. I’d wake up to the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg dancing in the air and feel warm and safe.

Those were a few of my favorite things.

My sisters and I got excited about Christmas just like most kids, and we wanted all kinds of things. But we knew better than to ask for anything specific. It wasn’t because we were poor. We had a home, a hot meal every day, and clothes to wear. Daddy’s job at the brake shop made sure of that. Not much more, though. Daddy’s alcoholism made sure of that, too. We were taught to never expect a gift, even though beautifully wrapped presents began appearing under that artificial tree as Christmas Day neared. When I was old enough to understand that Santa was a myth, I joined family members in their quest for the perfect surprise gift.

That was what my family decided Christmas should always be about: surprises and gags. We rarely could afford to give each other specific material items, so we focused on giving each other “gotcha” moments. On meager savings, we’d think of a gift that went beyond the unexpected and share a jubilant joke that became an instant Polaroid moment slapped into the family photograph album.

I knew I wanted to be a writer since the third grade, and the Christmas of my freshman year in high school, as I sat on the floor beside the tree, I unwrapped a bright yellow toy typewriter from my mom. She stood before me grinning, a maniacal-looking giant in an evergreen polyester pantsuit. “Sorry we couldn’t get you a real one!”

Everyone laughed. I didn’t think it was very funny. In fact, it hurt. I almost cried.
Minutes later, Mamma shoved another gift across the floor toward me.
“Here, try this one,” she said with the same crazy grin.
I was afraid to open it.
“Open it!” my sisters chimed.
I did: It was a real baby blue Smith-Corona typewriter. I almost cried.
“Gotcha!” Mamma said.
She did.
Christmas held many surprises for my family. Some were not so pleasant. Daddy’s after-work alcohol habit guaranteed it. He drank daily, unless he was on probation for a drunken driving offense. Mamma was angry daily, too. Together, they made some unsteady peace treaties on Christmas Eves so that my sisters and I could have pleasant memories—enough to last the next 364 days of a chaotic life amid substance abuse.
Mamma wasn’t a good actress, though. Her mouth curled up in an uncontrollable smirk when she was lying. She could rarely hide her disgust for my father’s addiction. She tried, though. Boy, did she try. And one year, she surprised Daddy and me with the ultimate gotcha gift.

It was the year that Daddy was tossed in jail for the second time for drunken driving. It was the year that the family was, as a result of expensive legal fees, tapped on disposable income. It was the year I was crushed when I showed up for free guitar lessons at my school with my plastic six-string and my classmates laughed. Everyone else had a real guitar. I was so embarrassed that I never returned for Lesson Two.
That Christmas, Mamma announced to my sisters and I that presents would be scarce, but that she decided to break her piggy bank and give Daddy a creeper so that he wouldn’t have to get his back greasy when he worked on cars. She’d already wrapped it by the time we came home from school, but she described it in detail: A cherry wood-base with a black vinyl headrest, smoothly mobilized by four black plastic rollers.
I was excited for Daddy. Every day, I’d gawk at the pine-scented tree with the pretty red, yellow, green, and blue lights and see Daddy’s huge, rectangular gift underneath. I imagined his surprise when he opened it.
“Daddy, I know what Mamma got you,” I’d tease.
“What is it?” he’d play along.
“I can’t tell you!” I’d cry.
The next day, the teasing continued.
“I know what you’re getting!” I’d sing. “I know what you’re getting!”
“What is it?” he’d ask.
“I can’t tell you, Daddy, but you’re going to love it!”
We did this every day, and it made me happy. The gift represented a more permanent cease-fire between my parents. It was a sign of hope that calmer times were ahead, that uncertainty and fear would dissolve, and that my parents would love each other again and that Mamma wouldn’t be so angry all the time. In a way, the creeper was a gift to all of us, and I clung to its hope with giddy excitement.
As usual on Christmas Eve, Daddy came home drunk and Mamma was mad. But there under the tree—surrounded by several other cheaply yet beautifully wrapped presents—was Mamma’s gift to Daddy. All would be right with the world soon.
We unwrapped gifts one at a time, marveling at the various looks the presents brought to one another’s faces. Finally all that was left was the oblong present. I rubbed my hands together and grinned.
“That one’s for you, Daddy!” I said.
He managed a drunken grin, barely conscious in his recliner.
Mamma walked slowly toward the tree, grabbed the ends of the gift, and slid it away from an overhanging string of lights. Excitement grew. I began clapping as Mamma hoisted the package and began walking toward Daddy.
Then she turned and walked toward me. She sat the package down in front of me as I sat on the floor, and my brows bunched in confusion.
“Open it,” she says. “It’s yours.”
I was stunned. I looked around at everyone. Daddy still wore his clueless, drunken grin. He had no idea what was happening either. But everyone else stared at me, smiling. My sisters were in on this gag, too.
Part of me didn’t want to open it. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted it to be Daddy’s creeper. It needed to be Daddy’s creeper. And it wasn’t. Still, I was a kid and I loved gifts. It was the last gift, too, and I loved being the center of attention. But it just felt wrong.
I slowly peeled the tape off the edges of the foil-like wrapping paper, at first tearing the pieces apart carefully so as to not damage anything, then finally ripping the wrapping away in what-the-hell fashion. From the top of a cardboard box, an image appeared: a dark brown neck with white, luminescent dots almost evenly spaced, separated horizontally by shiny metal bars.
Graph paper? I thought. They got me a big, box of graph paper for Christmas?
As I tore off more of the wrapping away, a dark black hole appeared with a huge, brown teardrop hugging the side. Now the shape of a curvy woman appeared, all tied together by six shiny strings.
It was a guitar. A real guitar.
I screeched. Everyone grinned wider. I ripped the rest of the paper off, and Mamma helped me open the stapled cardboard box that housed a beautiful black case, held secure with a single clasp. I flipped the clasp, opened the case, and stared silently at the most beautiful work of art I’d ever seen.
I pulled the guitar out of its case and hugged it to my waist. It fit. I was finally old enough for a real, big-girl guitar, and as I strummed the strings randomly, I felt grown. Mature.
Mamma smiled wildly. My sisters gawked and squealed.
“We got you!” Mamma cried.
Yes, they did.
Daddy tried to show excitement, but his eyes had long ago drooped and his head periodically bobbed as he headed toward his nightly passing out phase.

I loved that guitar for years. I strummed and picked out popular tunes by ear and made up my own songs. I lugged it around to college dorms, first jobs, and multiple apartments, thinking one day I’d take lessons and learn to have a real relationship with its sound. But it never became a part of me and I never quite understood what repelled us.
We weren’t meant to be together.
The day after Christmas that year I received the guitar, my father realized that he didn’t get a gift from Mamma at all—that she spent money we didn’t have on a guitar for me. He found out that she bought the gift in defiant, “I’ll show you” resentment of all the heartache and financial troubles that his drinking had caused that year. We didn’t have the money for a guitar, but she bought it anyway.
Mamma took all the money we had in our savings to buy the guitar because, as she told Daddy, “I have the right to spend money we don’t have, too.”
I’d learn the truth years later as Mamma and I shared a plate of smoked brisket with all the fixings. We were retelling our favorite Christmas “gotcha” moments. Mine was the typewriter. Hers was the guitar.
“I really showed him that year,” she said matter-of-factly.
The potato salad suddenly tasted sour.

Before I even knew my mom’s motivation behind the guitar gift, I sensed something wasn’t right about that instrument. I never played it to its potential, and many years later, I gave it to my 15-year-old niece, Crystal. The guitar’s once-firm black carrying case was weathered and misshapen, but Crystal cherished it. She had dreams of learning to play it, moving to Nashville, and becoming the next Lee Ann Rimes.
So far, none of that has happened, and I’m beginning to wonder if that guitar is jinxed. Spiritually, it makes sense. Gifts given in resentment start out tainted, and so much negative energy went into this instrument’s purchase that maybe some of that energy was absorbed into its smooth wood and sound.
If my niece ever wanted to sell the guitar, I think I’d retrieve it—and then maybe burn it. At the very least, I’d hire an energy worker to come exorcise its demons and redeem its true worth. After all, it’s not the guitar’s fault it was given in resentment.
“So?” my wife says. “What do you want for Christmas?”
I don’t hesitate anymore. “Underwear and socks,” I say. “Warm, comfy socks.”
“Well, that’s exciting,” she jokes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rage Against the Christmas Tree

Thanksgiving 1990 kicked off a tough holiday season, gift wrapped by an all-too-familiar holiday depression. Irritability and irrational anger took hold: I was pissed off at society, that the day after Thanksgiving I was expected to be bustling with good-neighborly, holiday glee. I wasn't happy, damn it, and all this forced jolliness was about as disgusting to me as runny baby poop.

Vacillating between a short-fuse temper and depression, I planned to sleep away the holidays. My co-workers at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times had other ideas. They encouraged me to get a Christmas tree.

"It'll brighten your spirits," the one editor said.

"Yeah," another editor chimed in, "come on, Cathy. Get a tree. You'll feel better."

"Maybe I don't wanna feel better," I snapped.

At home the next day, I tossed and turned on my couch, thinking of childhood Christmas Eves when I’d be silly: put bows on my head, tie ribbon around my face, and wedge myself under the family's artificial Christmas tree, playing out my annual role as a jeans-clad baby Jesus. Christmas wasn't always so bad. There were some good moments. Until Daddy came home.

Until I started going to those damn Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, I thought. Those fuckers have ruined my childhood.

"Oh, hell!" I growled, rolling off the couch and putting on my shoes. I was off to get a tree.

Minutes later, I stood in the seasonal forest that emerged every December outside the local Albertson’s grocery store. The scent of pine was invigorating. I caught myself smiling. Finally, I saw it: a big tree with few bald spots. I paid the clerk, who helped me load it onto the roof of my Hyundai Excel, and I was off, singing along out of tune with an Amy Grant holiday cassette tape. Back home, I pulled the tree off the car roof, lugged it into my townhouse living room, leaned it against the wall, and gave my two cats a “no climbing” lecture. Hand over fist, I pulled out the lights and the garland and the bulbs and the tree stand from the under-the-stairs closet. Still humming tunes from the Amy Grant tape, I loosened the screws in the tree stand and lifted the tree’s trunk into place.
It didn’t fit.

Dumbfounded, I stared at the tree. It didn’t make sense to me that the trunk wouldn’t fit in the stand. I loosened the screws as far as they would go and tried again.

The tree still didn’t fit.

“Huh,” I said, stunned and a bit perturbed.

Grumbling under my breath, I leaned the tree against the wall and marched into the kitchen to grab the knife I used to carve my first Thanksgiving Day turkey a few weeks earlier. Like a woman possessed by a bah-humbug demon, I assumed a deep, solid horse stance from my Taekwondo days, held the knife handle with both hands, and began carving chunks of bark from the tree’s trunk. I sliced and I shaved, sliced and shaved. After a few minutes, I stopped, lifted the tree, and tried to place the trunk into the tree stand.

It still wouldn’t fit.


Rage raced through my body. I hated that tree much like Mamma hated an always-drunk Daddy. A memory flash of Mamma pummeling Daddy with a fresh loaf of Buttercrust bread sparked my next move. In a Tazmanian Devil-like trance, I took the handle of that knife and began shaving the tree’s trunk repeatedly and wildly in a herky-jerky attack, screaming a string of obscenities.

Shaving, shaving, shaving, shaving, shaving, shaving…

I snapped, and then blacked out.

When I came to, I stood frozen before a mangled and mutilated tree trunk with the knife still in my hand and sweat rolling down my cheeks. Chunks of bark were scattered all over the teal carpet. Gooey sap, too. And blood. There was blood on the knife, blood on my T-shirt, blood on the tree, and drops of blood on the carpet. In my maniacal state, I had sliced my thumb open.

I stepped back from the tree in shock. What just happened? How did I get so out of control? The rage seemed to come out of nowhere. And all over a tree? Really?

I dropped to my knees, exhausted, bleeding, and shaking. I was terrified at what I had done. But the longer I stared at the tree, the more I slowly became repossessed.

Pacing in half-moon circles like a shark preparing for an attack, I lunged forward, grabbed the tree, and placed the trunk in the stand.

It still didn’t fit.

“Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!” I screamed, stomping up and down.

I yanked the patio door wide open and with Herculean strength hoisted the tree on my shoulders and heaved it outside with an angry grunt.

“Die, you motherfucker piece of shit!”

Slamming the door closed, I stomped into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of rum, and returned to the same uncomfortable couch where all this mess started. I got drunk and wrote stupid Christmas cards, trying to fake jolliness. I didn't realize until three months later that, in my alcoholic stupor, I had addressed some of the cards to the wrong people.

"We got your Christmas card," my sister Susan said in March. "Who's Lynnette?"

Seven months later, I stopped drinking. I haven't mutilated a tree since.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Letter to a Student on Failure

In a recently Facebook post, I shared a letter I wrote to one of my Taekwondo students, a staunch perfectionist, after he and another classmate failed a tense and difficult promotion exam. The words resonated with readers. Some friends loved how I used my own failures to help teach the students that it was possible to recover from such a ghastly event. Others loved that my colleagues and I allowed these students to experience failure at all.

There’s a national debate these days about whether we coddle our kids too much. Buzz terms like “helicopter parent” describe moms and dads who try to protect their children from the harsh realities of life. I have no stake in “how-to-better-parent” debate. I’m not a parent. I’m just a martial arts teacher. And an imperfect one at that. My concern is for one kid at a time. My concern today is for the young man standing before me with tears in his eyes and a broken heart—that he understand “this too shall pass.”

Here’s the letter:

Dear O.,

Son, I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how hard you worked, and I know how much you wanted to complete all portions of the test perfectly. It didn't turn out that way, and that reality stings. I’ve been where you were this weekend, and there's no flowery way to say it: It hurts.

When I flunked my first attempt at black belt, I did so in front of a roomful of teachers and peers. It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken. And I won’t lie to you and say that that kind of imperfection doesn’t still make me very angry with myself. Like you, I’m a perfectionist. I want to ALWAYS be perfect. And yet, I’m too often not. In fact, far from it.

I’m sending you the below blog post so that you might know that you’re not alone, and to warn you that the drive for perfection has a pretty sharp double-edged sword. I’m still working on not being perfect—on just trying my best. Sometimes I succeed. I’m getting better at accepting who I am—celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses without such harsh judgment, and enjoying the journey of discovering what I’m good at, what I’m not, and deciding whether I want to work harder to improve the latter.

You’ve come a long way from the boy who cried when he didn’t win first place in end-of-class games at Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute. Remember that boy? You’re not that same boy. You’ve grown so much since then. And your weakest part of the test WASN’T board breaking! But I know: It’s just that days like Saturday make people like us think we haven’t moved an inch. That’s why we need mentors who tell us the truth. So I hope you get something out of reading my story. I hope to see you Tuesday.

And don’t forget one very important thing: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Holiday Staples

My first Christmas season working retail was at a San Antonio mall five-and-dime called TG&Y. I was a petite, pimple-faced 16-year-old with zero social skills and constant, low-grade fear, but I wanted my own money, so I was hired that summer and remained on part-time throughout the school year and into the holiday season. I did everything there: cut keys, cut fabric, straightened baby clothes and novelty T-shirts, and manned the women's and men's dressing rooms. But my greatest feat involved the daily OCD challenge of clocking in and out at the perfect :00 second on the store's old gray time clock.

TG&Y sold everything: Star Wars action figures and bandanas, spark plugs and baby wipes, fabrics and Starburst candies. And because of the variety, the store was packed every day that season. It was my first taste of the holiday shopping rush, and looking back, I know now why people use the word “rush” to describe the frenzy of shopping activity. It’s addicting and panicky, stressful and motivating. Andy Williams sings that the holidays are the “most wonderful time of the year.” He obviously never worked a December at TG&Y.

True, many people are selfless and generous during the holidays, being more mindful and willing to help others in need than the other 11 months of the year. But put a germ-laden-handled shopping cart with shimmying wheels in front of these same people as you announce on a loudspeaker that there’s a sale on chocolate covered cherries on Aisle 4 and a multipurpose wrench set in Automotive and they become possessed by gift-giving demons. They will run you over with that cart to get what they think others want. You will die and they won’t stop to cry over your body as you lay there with greasy wheel marks on your chest and a store flyer smashed into your face.

This was an everyday the scene my first holiday season with TG&Y. Instead of fighting the other shoppers as a shopper, I had switched teams. I was on the service side now, and these people who were once my own now terrified me down to the corpuscles. I had a job to do, though, so I showed up to work, tied on my polyester blue smock, and did my best to smile.

I was still a newbie at running the cash register. These machines didn’t have quick and easy barcode scanners that registers have today. No computer chips. You had to punch in every number hard with your fingers and calculate the tax on a scratch sheet. I was a writer. I avoided math at all costs, so I found this task stressful. I was terrified that I’d miscalculate, make an honest mistake, and give the customer back the wrong change. Then that patron would lunge at my neck with both hands from across the counter.

These were my real fears.

The store manager saw the terror in my wide eyes and the tension in my shoulders, which were now inseparable from my ears, so on the busiest shopping days of the season, he relegated me to bagging duties. This, I thought, I could do. I was a copilot of sorts, taking a lot of stress off the checker by not having merchandise pile up at the end of the counter. I was the cheerful person who made tiny talk with the customer. I was the person who asked if they wanted the receipt in hand or stapled to the bag.

This I could do.

Until Christmas Eve.

A whole new monster emerged that day. I had never seen an Eve from behind the counter. Why did all these people delay in shopping? There were so many of them. It was as if someone had dropped a sandwich on the ground, and overnight, armies of ants swarmed.

Again donned in the store’s trademark blue smock, with not one but two pockets, I tried to be as cheerful as always in my bagging duties. And we seemed to be on a roll. In a zone. The checker and I were in sync, an efficient assembly line that would make Henry Ford smile. We were getting customers through the checkout line with ease. As least that’s what it appeared from the outside. On the inside, I was in a panic. If there were two people in the line, if someone had to stand and wait, I thought they were mad at me. My heart raced and I felt as if I might faint. Occasionally, though, I felt the chi flow of bagging. The tightness in my chest was gone; my shoulders dropped to chin level, and half-calmness enveloped my body—when I was in my body.

Which explains how, when stapling a customer’s bag, I missed the bag completely and stapled my right thumb. I didn’t even realize it. I kept bagging. It was only after the next customer asked why there was blood on the white Peas on Earth T-shirt she was purchasing that I stopped and traced the blood trail to…me. That’s when I saw the thin, half rectangular metal sticking out of the center of my thumbnail.

The sight of anyone’s blood was enough to make me faint. But the fact that it was my blood made it all the more jarring. For a moment, it confirmed my fear of dying at a young age. At 16, I would suffer a painful minimum-wage death and my obituary would read that I expired like a coupon from a single staple wound to the thumb.

How embarrassing.

The customer and my cash register cohort saw my thumb, then my face, and the customer suddenly forgot she was pissed off about the blood on her T-shirt. Like a MASH medic, the customer dug into her purse, pulled out some Klenex, and had my thumb wrapped tighter than Baby Jesus in a manger—with only the shiny staple exposed. My coworker sent me to the customer service office, where the store manager was already waiting for me, wearing his usual white, short-sleeve, single pocket-protector shirt and ugly blue polyester tie with a lunchtime hotdog mustard stain. He was smiling eerily, holding a shiny pair of pliers.

This unsettled me greatly.

“Heard you had a little accident,” he said. “It’s going to be O.K. I’ll get that out and you’re going to be fine. Come with me.”

He guided me upstairs to his office, an oasis of calm from the frenzy shopping energy below. It was a soft, quiet cocoon. From his wall-to-wall office windows, I could see every inch of the store. I could see a customer picking her nose in Fabrics at the back of the store. I could see two of my coworkers kissing in Housewares. I could see the burly man wearing a flannel shirt and Dallas Cowboys cap in Lingerie holding up two pink nightgowns as if they were doggie poop bags, obviously uncomfortable being near that much femininity. I never knew my manager had this view of the store. I was in awe, and that awe was good, because it took my mind off the reality that in a minute, as nice as he was, this man was going to try to yank that staple out of my thumb, and—from the rafters of his office—I was going to squeal like a baby pig. Everyone in the store would hear it. Everyone would look up to the heavens in fear. They’d later recall the story to priests and therapists about the Christmas that they were traumatized by the awful sound of a screaming angel at TG&Y.

The manager sat me down in a chair that sat perpendicular to his desk. He unwrapped the tissue and told me to try to relax.

“Breathe,” he said. “Now, this might hurt. I’m not sure, though, because I’ve never done this before.”

That’s reassuring, I thought.

“Hold still. Breathe,” he said as he held my thumb firmly.

I tried to relax by staring at the mustard stain on his tie. I studied the edges of the stain as it blended into the fabric. I looked hard, beginning to think that the stain resembled the face of the Virgin Mary.

“I’m going to take it out in one, two,” he yanked out the staple with one, strong pull, “three! Got it!”

A Christmas miracle: I didn’t scream. Not even an under-the-breath grunt.

The manager grabbed a clean tissue from the floral-patterned box on his desk and began wiping away the oozing blood. He took another tissue and pressed it against my thumb to stop the bleeding.

“You did great!” he said.

I said nothing, still in shock.

He soaked a cotton ball with hydrogen peroxide and began gently rubbing my thumb. Then he pulled off the strip ends of a Band-Aid and wrapped it around my thumb.

“You O.K.?” he asked.

“I'm fine,” I said, feeling numb.

“You go on to the break room and relax for a few minutes. Don’t worry about coming back to the register just yet. If you’ve had enough for today…”

Here it comes, I thought. I'm about to be sent home. Woo hoo!

“…we’ll find something else for you to do. There’s plenty of work for everyone today. O.K.?”

“That's fine,” I said, disappointed.

He rose from his chair. I followed his lead. We both walked downstairs, returning to the frenzied shopping air.

I spent about 15 minutes alone in the break room. Potluck dishes covered every inch of table space, and strings of red and green lights gave the dimly lit room a holiday glow. I twiddled my one good thumb, hoping someone from the floor would come barreling through the door to nosh, but I remained alone. I finally got so bored that I willingly—voluntarily—reenlisted for another tour of the holiday war.

The rest of the day is a blur. I know I came home after the store booted out the last patron because my mom took a glassy-eyed photo of me (still in my blue smock) in front of the Christmas tree, but I don’t remember it.

Since then, I’ve never looked at the holiday shopping season the same. I now have great respect for all those retail employees who must endure the madness and stress because, every other 11 months of the year, they really like working where they do. It’s not easy. If you’ve never been on the other side of the counter, you should try it sometime. It’s quite the eye-opener. And if you’re lucky, you too could staple your thumb in front of hoards of shoppers—and live to tell about it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

…and they have a ballet barre

I’m a martial arts geek. I get excited whenever I see shrines, flags, and incense holders. I feel safe and centered when I’m surrounded by classmates who meditate before and after class. I soak up custom, ritual, and tradition as if they’re religious experiences. Last night, the geek in me was happy. I took my first class in Seido Karate at Sun Dragon Martial Arts, and this little dojo had it all. It felt like coming home to a family-style dinner with all the fixings.
I’ve felt at home before: First when I stumbled into Kyoshi Ivan’s dojo almost 20 years ago in San Antonio, then at U.S. Martial Arts Institute when my newspaper career brought me to Austin, and again more recently when I stepped into Sifu Aaron’s ving tsun kung fu school in Central Austin.
Years ago, Kyoshi Ivan set the tone for my martial arts journey with a huge “Don’t Quit” sign; the example of crisp, graceful, and powerful, jaw-dropping technique; and well-timed, sage advice. Oddly, one of the things I miss the most today, though, was his example of flexibility. Literally.
On my first day in class, he set my ankle on a ballet barre, and that’s where I learned that I was much more flexible than Kyoshi or I previously thought. At every school since, I’ve looked for a barre. No luck. It was even the one thing I wanted in my own school that I never had.
When I walked into Sun Dragon last night, there it was: a beautiful ballet bar securely bolted to the wall next to the shrine. It was a welcome sight, for now more than ever, I need to hone mental, physical, and spiritual flexibility.
My first class at Sun Dragon required a lot of flexibility. Mentally, I had to remember to say “Osu” when responding to Sensei Joy instead of “yes, ma’am”. (This was not an easy habit to break.) Physically, Seido Karate stances are deeper than those of Taekwondo, and due to osteoarthritis in my knees, the stances were challenging. It was a welcome feat, though, and this morning, my knees feel fine. And spiritually? The group meditation and sense of community helped me feel safe, welcomed, and loved enough to be vulnerable again—to be the white belt who is supposed to make mistakes.
There are a ton of schools that are all about competition: winning medals, judging one another’s techniques, and one-upping peers to feel superior. Lots of egos out there, folks. There are just as many good schools that hold very defined boundaries with students—they are not a community, they are a martial arts business. And that’s fine. Both schools attract the students who need what they provide. What makes me want to give all of my spirit on the mat, though, is a loving community. I don’t care if you’re a 105th degree black belt, great-great-great-grandmaster with lineage that goes back to the creation of man himself, if you erect a wall to separate yourself from your students and promote fear and intimidation instead of love and compassion, I’m unlikely to feel a connection and probably won’t stick around. My days of bowing down to the sensei who insists students “do as I say, not as I do” are over.
I’ve trained at a lot of dojo/dojang homes in my years in the arts. So many have been great experiences. Only a few have been full-on duds. I’ve only black belted in one style, so who knows how long I’ll be at Sun Dragon. Regardless, it’s nice to be home again—to feel like a member of a community that will help me become more flexible than ever.
I can’t wait to use the ballet barre.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Humbling Moments of an Egotistical Instructor

I don’t like admitting that I'm egotistical and arrogant. But if I’m going to expect my students to practice Basic Rules to Live By No. 3 (“We must be honest and truthful at all times.”), I must admit that I have a long way to go toward enlightenment.

My students see the serene, powerful, and deliberate actions of a confident teacher. Humble and confident, but seldom arrogant (or at least that’s how I think I come across). Get me in a room alone with me, myself, and I, though, and boy do I know how to throw one heck of a judgmental and self-pity party.

Years ago when I worked my first 4th Step inventory of Alcoholics Anonymous with my sponsor, self-pity was high on the list of defects of character. They say in AA that after completing the rest of the 12 Steps, it is common for your defects of character to disappear—or at the very least, ease. I got the latter. I’m better than I used to be because I have strong, wise friends—and a great wife—who will call bullshit when they see it.

Over the weekend, I called bullshit on myself.

On Saturday, I attended a black belt ceremony for an adult student who I'd taken from yellow to probationary black belt. Jenny came to my school from the University of Texas Taekwondo Club, and she was just supposed to train with us for the summer while everyone else from the club was on summer break. She liked it so much that she stayed. She was the typical poor, starving student, so I allowed her to clean the dojang to pay for her tuition.

Jenny was a phenomenal student. A technical perfectionist. She asked great questions and always practiced hard. I saw the look in her eyes: No matter whether she graduated (she did), got married (she did), or had a stressful job (she did), she wouldn’t quit. She’d get her black belt.

As it turned out, I was the one who quit—sort of. I desperately needed a sabbatical, and Jenny was one of my unfortunate adult students who was left in limbo while I took an extended break. It was hard for me to recommend that she go train with my master instructor, Dawn Owens. But I did. My mentors have often reminded me that you should never stand in the way of another’s spiritual progress. It was hard to do, but I had to let her go.

For a long moment on Saturday, when Master Owens tied on Jenny’s black belt, I must admit I felt awful sad (read: self-centered self-pity). I wanted to be the one to tie it on. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t the person meant to take her on the last leg of her current journey—and beyond. That was quite humbling. But I promptly got out of myself, much quicker than I’ve emerged from any other self-pity party, when my ego realized it’s NOT ABOUT ME. It was her big day. She had worked awful hard to earn this honor, and it was woefully disrespectful of me to feel sad.

In the end, it turned out to be a great occasion—and I’m incredibly proud of Jenny.

By the way, she looks great in black.