Schefflera

One of my favorites. Originally posted to MySpace on:

November 27, 2007:

In 2006, I wrote a four-part essay called “What Blows Around, Comes Around,” the epic account of my living in the path of destruction during two crazy Atlantic hurricane seasons. The essay began with a personal history of the jadedness I had felt toward the power of hurricanes, as most of the storms hitting South Florida from 1976 to 2003 (save for “Andrew”) were letdowns, but segued into a series of mini-essays that showed the respect that hurricanes deserved, according to what the 2004 season forced out of me. In one segment, called “To Shed a Tear,” I lamented the loss of my shed, a childhood relic destroyed by the crippled branch of a backyard Schefflera tree during the three-day onslaught of Hurricane Frances.

That event happened three years ago. Last week, in a surprising turn of events, God used the same tree that destroyed my shed to spare my house from catastrophe.

First of all, before I get into the story, I should mention something that has plagued my heart for years—something that I had escaped at times, but have never fully broken from. I’m in my thirties and I’m living in my mom’s house. Sucks.

I know, the first thought that comes to your mind is Failure to Launch. The first time I saw the ad for the movie, I thought, “Hey, that’s about me.” Who would’ve guessed I’d have something in common with Matthew McConaughy? Well, in real life I suppose nothing. But this nutbag of a character—there’s something.

I’ve tortured myself over this issue, because unlike the character in the movie, who lives at home because he has no ambition to leave, I find myself stuck here. Why? I’ve been out before. Several times. Why do I keep coming back? I don’t want to be here. I like my freedom—prefer it in fact. What brings me back time and time again? What holds me here indefinitely? I’m thirty-one years old; shouldn’t I have the means to escape for good?

Well, there’s the income issue, of course. Sure, I could work sixty hours a week—the standard time required to live in South Florida these days—and forsake my writer’s ambition while I’m at it. But what’s left? After another thirty years, will I be happy that I pissed away my life doing the stuff I hate? Will the extra few bucks a week really make my life worth it? Perhaps living at home and sparing a few extra hours of my time to enjoy life each week (working on the things that do matter to me) is a fair trade.

Such a thought for freedom is inspirational to the aching soul, but the reminder of elusive dreams diminish that temporary joy. What’s left is a husk of a man that claws for a means to fulfill his heart where he can afford the rent.

So, how does that man sleep at night? Well, he doesn’t. He’s writing this essay on three hours’ sleep.

For years I asked myself (and God), “What’s the point of my being here?” without really having an answer. I’d toss and turn, kick my fan, bicker over my ill fate. But it never brought me anywhere, including those places that might allow me to figure things out.

On Thanksgiving night, however, just a few evenings ago, I had a window into understanding.

The weekend before, my sister had gone to Tampa for her high school band’s state competition. My mom, who had devoted a lot of time to being a “band parent,” was determined to see her perform this year, as last year had thrown out some obstacle preventing her to go. The travel arrangements were made: a carpool of other band parents would pick her up and take her to Tampa. Nothing would stop her mission to see her daughter compete.

Except, perhaps, an allergy so intense that she couldn’t breathe.

Allergies don’t play nice with my mom’s system. For five months she’s been on a coughing fit, choking halfway through conversations, scaring people who don’t know what’s going on. Each fit often lasts a minute at a time, sounding like death every hack. My sister and I are used to it—we never worry anymore—but we understand the pain. It sucks, but it’s routine. Mom figured out how to function around it.

Well, on Friday night, just a few hours before she was supposed to leave town, my mom had the worst of her coughing fits. And it wasn’t safe this time. She couldn’t breathe.

I was calm, silently praying for her well-being, but really didn’t know what to do. She’s beyond medicinal comforts. She’s beyond the security of doctor visits. The allergy is continual and nothing this side of God’s hand can fix it. And this time she couldn’t breathe.

After a short stint of silent prayer, the choking subsided, briefly. She returned to her housework, though in slow motion, hoping to get something done. Then it came back. She had to rest again.

The conversation (and growing panic in mom’s voice) centered on possible triggers. The allergy intensified last June within fifteen minutes of her returning from a trip to Missouri. It hadn’t stopped since. Clearly, something native was causing this.

But then we considered the timing. My sister was competing in a state championship and my mom was going to support her the next day. If the fits continued in their intensity, it would’ve been near impossible for her to go. Hence, there had to be a spiritual attack. We started praying against it.

It let up slightly, enough to give her breathing room, but it was still debilitating. We tried to think of other causes. In the brainstorm, the word “Schefflera” came up—a tree we have standing in our backyard, tall, full of leaves in the shape of shoe soles—and immediately her air passages cleared up.

“That’s weird,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” I said. “We called out the source.”

Okay, so we figured it out. Then what?

During the month of November each year, the leaves have a habit of falling from the tree. It’s unstoppable, really. They fall, they clutter the yard, they turn yellow, et cetera. They form a scattered pile around the back patio (where the shed used to stand), a few feet from where my mom likes to read. And they make her sick.

When the subject of the leaves came up, and her air passages cleared, I decided I would rake them that weekend while she was in Tampa. She couldn’t do it herself; after all, she would’ve choked. If I weren’t living there, however, she’d have to do it anyway.

The weekend rolled around and I got distracted. Saturday came and gone. I still had to rake them. Then Sunday came. Time ticked.

When procrastination had reared its head long enough, I went out there, grabbed the rake and some bags, and started piling up the leaves.

There were a lot of leaves on that ground, enough to build a new tree. After nearly an hour I had raked up five bags’ worth of thick, padded vegetation. Then I lay all the bags along the curb at the foot of the unused driveway, which the city forgot to design a ramp for when they widened the road fifteen years ago. The trash site nestled next to a small garden my dad designed when he was still alive, in the area where another Schefflera used to stand.

My job, then, was done. The trash collectors would be there Tuesday to pick everything up. I could rest again.

Monday night, however, just twelve hours before the garbage trucks were schedule to arrive, something happened.

I worked late Monday, so I missed the action, but my mom recounted the story for me. A few months earlier, she had canceled the insurance on the house so she could pay the remainder of the mortgage. She went back and forth on the decision, but decided to take the chance since her income was scheduled to decrease in a year and mortgage payments would’ve been difficult. Well, that night, around nine o’clock or so, that decision almost came back to haunt her. On that normally busy street, at the southeast corner of my property, a driver lost control of his car. No one knows what happened; there was nothing in front of him, nothing to miss. He just lost control, slamming his brakes as he hopped the curb, and careened into my front yard. The way he was positioned, he would’ve come right through the living room—or if the living room didn’t stop him, my bedroom (and specifically, my computer where my life’s work is stored) certainly would have. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His wheels, unable to stop by his own effort, got caught on the five bags of leaves, preventing him from moving forward.

So, thanks to God’s creative use of my mom’s allergy to a tree in the backyard, my childhood home still stands. What’s your Thanksgiving story?

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Grendel’s Hot Mom

Originally posted to MySpace on:

November 22, 2007

Native speakers of the English language have a terrible problem: we’re stuck reading an epic poem in high school called Beowulf. Though the majority of us forget the story’s place in history as the English language’s first written epic (Old English to be exact), some of us at least remember the story itself. A hero named Beowulf sails to a kingdom to slay a monster called Grendel and all hell breaks loose. The monster has a mom, etc., etc., and those of us who are honest with ourselves can admit that we don’t understand the bleedin’ thing because Old English is nothing like Modern English, and that remembering its origin as the English language’s first written epic is the easy part.

Well, as the proud owner of a Bachelor’s in English, I should know the story of Beowulf like the back of my cracking hand (yes, winter is approaching, hence the seasonal need for Nivea). But I don’t. Or didn’t. I read the poem. Didn’t get it. Saw the Mud Show at the Renaissance Festival (twice). Kinda got it, but not really. Felt stupid, and yet, proud to be a Floridian. Then the movie came out. And I think it’s accurate sort of. I saw it a few hours ago. Now I get it; my degree is now justified. Now I can sleep.

Beowulf didn’t just slay a monster. He secured his future as the king of Denmark (or at least the king of that particular place in Denmark—the actual kingdom is still unclear, probably because the names are Nordic and I speak the Norse languages as well as I speak Old English). And with it, he secured the sins that came with the job. Namely, the illegitimate fathering of monsters.

Now, from a layman’s point of view, it seems the only way for a mortal man to father a monster (especially an illegitimate one) is for him to conceive a child with a female monster. Those of us men who tend to think visually will agree that such a thought is hideous. Thanks to the invention of modern advertising, many of us can’t even get past that unsightly blemish or twinge of obesity that strikes some of our waylaying objects of affection, much less a green, slimy, Medusa-looking thing. How the hell can Beowulf get past that?

Turns out, he’s not the first. The king before him (name escapes me—another one of those complicated Nordic names) had the same problem. It turns out that Grendel the monster (spoiler alert!!!) is actually the king’s illegitimate monster son (actually, I already ruined it in the second paragraph, so I guess the spoiler alert is ineffective). His own queen won’t give him a legitimate heir because she’s paying him back for sleeping with a green, slimy, Medusa-looking thing. And it’s stressing him out.

Poor legitimate-sonless king.

Of course, that still doesn’t solve our question. We still don’t know how either Beowulf or the king before him could sleep with this creature. The thought—it’s awful. Right?

Right?

Beowulf is a hero. He slays the monster with his bare hands. Naked, of course, with a bunch of acrobatic flips, but he still slays him nonetheless. It’s a disturbing sight to see from the sidelines, and yet impressive at the same time. If I tried doing acrobatic flips naked, I might hurt myself. Doing that, and ripping the arm off a hideous monster—that just takes heroism. And a couple things made of steel. Beowulf is a hero.

So, he slays the monster and is given the Golden Dragon Horn (which the king uses as a cup for drinking mead) as a reward. All is well…until Beowulf’s men are murdered in their sleep. Upon split-second investigation, he finds that the kingdom’s monster troubles aren’t over. Grendel’s mom is pissed off. Her son is, after all, now a corpse, thanks to Beowulf’s hand, and now Beowulf has to postpone his journey back to sea to deal with the problem.

Beowulf has to confront the monster, slay her and rid the land of her evil. Doing so would mean peace for the kingdom. Doing so would mean solidifying his place in folklore. It’s all about the song, after all.

He enters the cave, where he wades through the enchanted water. The monster’s tail slithers. Surely, if he doesn’t turn around, she’ll be on him, dripping puddles of slime from her teeth, clawing out his heart with her rusty talons (okay, rusty is overkill, but it sounds better than chipped nail polish). He must turn around. But he doesn’t. Instead, he dives into a grotto, where he finds a cache of treasure. The tail draws close.

A voice penetrates the darkness and at last he knows the monster is there. He doesn’t see her, but she’s there. His sword is drawn. At any moment the horrid beast will lunge at him from the florescent depths. He waits, a breath, his sword ready to plunge through her callous heart. And then she emerges—the beast, the hag, the…

Angelina Jolie???!!!

For a moment, Beowulf is stunned (as is the audience for seeing what is now ten minutes’ worth of naked people in a “PG-13” movie). This monster is no monster, but a woman who might very well be the most beautiful creature he ever gazed upon. He must kill her to rid the land of evil, but she has the upper hand—she’s a hot naked woman seducing him—the hand isn’t just upper, the whole deck is stacked. What is a man to do?

Well, he fathers an illegitimate monster, of course. And then he becomes king for “killing” Grendel’s mom. Then thirty years pass, the Golden Dragon Horn returns to the kingdom (a part of the story that I don’t feel like developing here; you’ll just have to see the movie), and Beowulf’s illegitimate dragon son starts terrorizing everyone. Then Beowulf returns to the cave to face Grendel’s not-dead-mom again, finds the dragon, etc., etc., and here we go once again.

Now, though I’m happy that I finally understand the story of Beowulf, I have to admit that something about it caught my attention. These kings were seduced by this beautiful monster, to the point of intimacy, because she looked like a woman (with animatronic hair). They were captured by the words of her lips and the curves of her hips, and they gave in. To this monster!!!

That’s odd in retrospect. Right?

Of course, maybe I’m crazy to think that all monsters look like Shelob (the giant spider from Lord of the Rings) or Elmo (the annoying red thing that giggles when kids tickle it). But a monster is still a monster, right? So why the hell sleep with it?

Call it lust if you want, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s human condition. The Bible says that man looks at the outward appearance while God looks at the heart. Well, obviously Beowulf was looking at outward appearance when this beast seduced him, because who in his right mind would sleep with a monster if the monster’s true appearance were present? A politician? Well, that might be a hidden message of the movie, but that’s not where we’re aiming. No, no one. So why let a monster that looks like Angelina Jolie have a privilege that only a woman should have? At the end of the day, as hot as she is, Grendel’s mom is still a monster. The exterior is merely a hologram. The interior looks like a golden lizard. And Beowulf slept with a scaly, slithery lizard. A little creepy if you ask me.

Anyway, Beowulf discussions aside, I started thinking about the nature of women again, trying to figure out what my current preferences are, if they’ve changed at all, or if I’m still as unyielding as ever. And I can still agree, after many years, that I’m still not interested in bad girls, materialistic girls, or deceitful girls (aka, the monsters). Yeah, there can be something sexy about them (the bad girls, not the materialistic or deceitful ones), I’ll say that much, but they can’t really offer anything worthwhile. At the end of the day, they may look good, but they can also destroy kingdoms and produce headaches. I’m pretty sure that’s something no man needs.

Oh well, that’s that. I gotta get up in a few hours, so I should probably go back to sleep. And I think I’m done with movies for the week.

Transparency

A few years ago, a friend wrote a blog about nakedness, specifically about her young son deciding it was no longer cool to run around naked. I don’t remember any of the details anymore, but it was one of those “growing up too fast” blogs mixed with self-reflection on her own sense of transparency, if I recall.

Sometime after she had written it, she sent me a message:

“Did you read my blog? It’s way more emotional processing than it is well-written, but I was hoping I might hear from someone as to whether or not they could relate, or do I just sound crazy?”

The following is my e-mailed response. I’m posting here for the same reason I’m posting everything else on this site; it is loaded with life lessons, understandings, and things that I think are relevant to growing up. It’s basically an interactive blog.

This was written on November 12, 2007:

Well, I don’t think I’d be quick to call it crazy—there’s too much truth in it to be crazy.

Here’s my take on it: nakedness is scary for anyone over the age of five. When we’re four and under, we don’t care about who sees us, or how. Between five and nine, we’re okay with our parents seeing us (they have, after all, seen us our whole lives, so there’s nothing weird about it), but only our parents (and other close relatives). Then from nine and up it becomes a personal thing for just us and maybe our doctors.

Which means we’re very private people come adolescence, which is fitting considering that becomes the time when we start guarding our secrets, too.

The physical shyness and the emotional shyness go hand in hand. Call it a self-awareness or shame (both are interchangeable) if you want, but it happens simultaneously.

And it happens to all of us.

If you remember the story of the Garden of Eden, it started there. We take on this other life that becomes incredibly scary, and it becomes scary because we’re afraid of people seeing who we really are—either because we have something to hide (as was the case with Adam), or because we’re afraid of what others might think (which was also the case with Adam).

It’s an inherent thing.

How this relates to your explosion of freedom—I think it’s a natural response. I remember a few months ago you wrote a blog about being more open and accepting of people in your group. You talked about how scary it was to hear about a friend’s battle with [her issue] (I think that was the struggle), and how important it was to accept her anyway, of letting her share her vulnerability in an attempt to heal or even to turn away from it, rather than to judge her. It was scary for her, and scary for you as the listener, but that was what it took to do the right thing for both of you. Bringing this to the present, I think the issue is the same: you’re afraid of what transparency will yield, even when you’re walking in a place where it’s okay to be transparent.

I’ll make this personal to show you how relatable this is:

A close friend of mine left her husband a couple of months ago.

You probably remember all the difficulties I had with trusting women after the stuff that’s been happening to me over the last three years (mostly with abandonment over frivolous and absent reasons). This was one of the few people that kept me believing in something good because she stood by her husband, despite her leanings toward unhappiness, because she knew it was the right thing to do. She reminded me that it wasn’t about “good feelings” or any of the nonsense, because to be a good woman was to stand by her man, no matter what. She said so in words, and proved it in action.

Well, that collapsed in September. Turned out there was a lot of makeup over that trusting façade. Her husband was undoubtedly devastated (still is after two months), but as a close onlooker, I was just downright shocked. Everything I came to know about this friend was make-believe. She didn’t stand by her man. She ran to someone who made her “happy.” My feeble trust in women plummeted from that. How could I know if anyone was even remotely genuine or good after that experience?

I hadn’t spoken to her since she left.

You have to understand that this was one of my closest friends, one of the few people I didn’t mind knowing me for who I really am, because I know there’s no judgment there. And I haven’t spoken to her in two months. The fact that she put up a front the last seven years is frightening to me.

Understand that I’m not angry with her. I haven’t refused communication. I just don’t know what to say. I hang out with her husband every week, and every week I have to watch the heartbreak fly when he gets his two minutes to talk to his son (whom she took with her when she went on what was initially thought to be a routine visit to her parents’ house). To start talking to her again as if nothing had happened is just a surreal thought to me, and I’m afraid of what initiating a conversation might do. It’s too easy to be caught in the middle of two warring tribes, and there’s always that fear of being ripped apart in the process.

But I also understand friendship, so a few minutes ago, I bit my lip and initiated an instant message (about the The Office writers’ strike). I’ve torn myself left in right trying to decide if it’s better to stay in the background as I’ve been doing, or attempt to let a friendship continue despite the circumstances surrounding the family (and the distrust that popped back into my heart). So far I haven’t gotten a response, but at least I tried. At least I won’t be at fault, if such a thing applies in this scenario. I gave transparency a chance.

We’re always caught in situations that frighten us. The fact that [your son] was looking for his underpants proves that he’s entering into that realm (as hard as that might be for you to accept). The fact that you’re scared of transparency, despite your explosion of freedom, also proves it. I’ve known you for a little over a year, which is admittedly not long in the grand scheme of time, but in that whole time, the one thing that seemed to be constant was your fear of transparency—of people seeing who you really are and turning away because of it. You’ve been afraid of what people think of you for reasons I never really understood. And when you hold onto that, your own fears of transparency will continue.

So to answer your question (if I haven’t already), you’re not crazy. You’re about as normal as normal gets. Granted, being normal is a little crazy, but you’re not in a place that’s unique of everyone else. The fact is every one of us can relate to your blog; all too well. The “emotional tsunami” is just a dramatic way of bringing reality to light. And that’s fine, because that’s your personal take on the situation. You can compare it to the fiction market. There are thousands of writers publishing the same seven stories. People still buy it because each person has a different way of writing it, even if the idea is the same. And we all can relate to the core of those seven stories, as we can relate to the vulnerability you’re expressing.

As a small counterpoint, I will say that privacy has its place. I don’t agree with the comment made on your blog about wearing your heart on your sleeve. I can tell you from experience that that doesn’t work in your favor. It’s great to be transparent to some, but you need to decide who has that right to see you as you are. Unfortunately, ninety percent of the world is untrustworthy, and the other ten percent is risky at best. For your own growth you need to trust that remaining ten percent anyway, but even then you have to be ready for disappointment, as none of us can have open arms all the time. Walking with transparency will give you a great sense of freedom, and I think that’s important, but make sure you guard yourself from the predators—the people who get off on hurting others. They’ll just ruin your sense of acceptance if you let them.

I don’t know if this helps, or just confirms what you already know, but that’s my take on it. I used to be transparent to anyone who called me a friend, and a lot of those people don’t talk to me anymore, so there’s a clear risk. But the ones who still do, I tend to trust more than I don’t, and I can feel mostly free around them. Complete nakedness is still uncharted territory, and I don’t think I’m in a place where that’s even remotely comfortable, but walking around in just a pair of shorts, showing off those spot-hairy shoulders (:p), is comfortable around some. It’s about choosing your range of safety.

Well, that covers that. I hope that answers the question you posed from the blog. If I missed anything, let me know. A part of me feels like I’m only answering half of your question, so clarify the other half for me if that’s the case.

[The rest is unrelated to the subject.]