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@the Olive Garden

breadsticks2We ate at the Olive Garden tonight, the one that used to be a specter, the one that would show up on search engines but that we could never find. Until they finally built it… and people came.

Of course it took us nearly six years after they arrived to make our way to the faux Italian ambience and cookie cutter nature of the restaurant that shares its name with one of my most hated foods.

The woman at the front told me we would have to wait “about 20 minutes,” but the time between getting our fancy pager and actually being seated was more like five minutes when all was said and done. I think I spent more time getting situated on the bench out front than I did waiting.

Kelly was our server, but it wasn’t about her, not really. It hardly ever is when we go to restaurants. It’s really about the people sitting around us, about the inevitable conversation that floods our ears as we wait for our own food to arrive.

…a kid was crawling between the legs of his family members as his adults tried to corral him back into their booth, threatening him with having to sit in the high chair if he didn’t shape up.

Tonight there was a birthday party in the small semi-private room to our right, and I got the feeling this was a regular Friday night occurrence, as another group with balloons took up residence when the ones who were there when we arrived left the building. Luckily we escaped the awkward moment when the cake is about to be cut, and the serving staff all gather ’round to sing off key to the birthday boy/girl. Apparently they’re too evolved to do that at the Olive Garden.

On the other side of the little divide between the booths a kid was crawling between the legs of his family members as his adults tried to corral him back into their booth, threatening him with having to sit in the high chair if he didn’t shape up. They used a couple of choice phrases under their breath, and I hoped my own children didn’t hear them. I needn’t have worried as my two were desperately trying to win at Tic-Tac-Toe at our own table. They had no time for shenanigans, or to learn new swear words.

5ee240bbb237e2e736a6d27bf72da23dOther servers swarmed in the background, always there but somehow only shadows of themselves, melting into walls, blending in with their surroundings like stage hands dressed in all black. Until they arrived at their tables, when they suddenly had everything in hand and smiles on their faces. Kelly showed up when we needed her, but she didn’t hover. She really couldn’t anyway. There were lines up front the entire time we were there, and they probably continued long after we left.

The food was good too, just like we had it at the Olive Garden in Philly, at the Olive Garden in New Jersey, at the Olive Garden in Missouri, pretty much at every Olive Garden that has ever existed, because that’s their shtick, isn’t it?

They’re classic Italian, but they’re not classic Italian, if you get my point. They’re big on the breadsticks, which are first to the table and first scarfed up. Then the appetizer, which was more bread, but this time with cheese. Then the kids’ meals, the main course, and the desperate attempt to get us to order dessert. I don’t blame Kelly. It’s her job. All the while the music played on level one overhead. What else? Italian jazz.

At some point during the evening a glass broke, the sound of shattering reverberating in my ears long after it was reduced to shards and cleaned up — erased from existence. I don’t get these newfangled devices that sit on the tables, the ones that allow us to order desserts and appetizers, to call our server over, and to pay our bills. Eventually, if I stare at the screen long enough it will do what I want on its own. I know it will.

Tucked inside its warm bosom were four mints, carefully wrapped in Olive Garden finery…

But it didn’t, and I had to learn how to use my fingers to press options on the screen, to slide my card through the reader, and to sign as well. It’s strange, not putting my card in the padded envelope, not handing it back to the server and hoping there’s enough money in my account so she doesn’t come back and tell me it was declined. It’s a brave new world out there.

The padded envelope was there, though, almost a ceremonial homage to all things restaurants used to be. Tucked inside its warm bosom were four mints, carefully wrapped in Olive Garden finery, the perfect end to a transaction that passes for a traditional Italian meal anymore. Just ask those people we passed on the way out, seated on the bench with pagers in hand.

Sam

This Is Acting

sia-this-is-actingLife is a series of actions and reactions, the interactions between us and others, between us and our surroundings, and between us and our own minds.

We wrestle with decisions every day, fighting against thoughts that could tend to derail us. We have expectations that we strive to achieve, provided we actually believe they are possible to achieve. We adjust to the things that happen to us, and are praised when we do it in a particularly solid and creative way.

Yay! We made the best of a bad situation! Congratulations! We got it done when others thought it couldn’t be done!

But the secret is much more damning, that we generally let the world happen around us, and we are pushed along with its ebb and flow like detritus caught in the waves. The positive things that happen in our lives are usually the result of being in the right place at the right time, or of capitalizing on something that happens to break the right way.

There’s a strong element of chance in how things go for us, even when we do our best to make things happen the way we want them to, and on some level we all know it. Think about when a team wins a championship and the star player thanks god for giving him or her the ability to compete at that level, or when a television producer gets up at an awards show and says how lucky he or she was to be in front of everyone accepting whatever award.

How much is chance, or luck, involved in what ultimately happens to us? I think about my own relationships — my friendships, my marriage — and I realize how much that can truly be applied even just to me and how things have gone in my life. If I hadn’t liked a particular band, and if my wife hadn’t liked the same band, and if we both hadn’t decided that band was worth it enough to join its internet mailing list…

The “Ifs” are endless, because every move we make is a move we didn’t make in another direction. We can’t possibly know how every single one of those moves would have turned out if we had made them. Is that chance, or is that destiny? Is that us making our own way, or is it something so far beyond our capability that in a million years we couldn’t make the same combinations occur if we tried?

clapper-02You know, on a daily basis we do way more reacting than acting. We let things happen to us instead of going out and making things happen. That’s why we’re generally surprised when someone says they went out and made something happen. “Good for you!” we say, with our jaws hanging on the ground, and we say how we are now inspired to go out and make thing happen for ourselves.

Then we go right back to reacting. It’s human nature. I would say I have genuinely acted on two major occasions, and both times were major risks, but I took them because the possible outcomes were important enough to me not to leave them to chance, not to let the tide take me back out again with the other refuse.

You’d think since both those times turned out so well (one of them was deciding to move here to be with the woman I love) that I would take that as a sign I need to do more acting instead of reacting, that I should stop letting “destiny” bounce me around like a beach ball.

I am working on it, but it’s hard to fight human nature unless there’s something large at stake otherwise. The problem is seeing that each instance is something large in and of itself, that the possibilities are endless, that opportunities are vast and potentially phenomenal for those who take control of their own future.

I’m still working on it.

Sam

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.” ~Genesis 2:2

resting_god_by_rainingsakuraFor the longest time I thought this was what we were supposed to do, the idea that with God as a model we were to emulate his day of rest. You can’t blame me for feeling this way. I did grow up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which believes precisely that. “God rested on the seventh day, so we should rest on the seventh day.” It was set in stone, like the “1892” carved into the side of the church building I practically grew up in, hollowed into the bones of my soul.

I believed that, because of some ancient tradition, all the Sunday churches were doing it wrong, that God wanted us to celebrate his creation of the world by taking the final day of the week off from labors.

But there’s often a difference between what is understood and what is actually practiced. We often fall into the margins where that is concerned, somehow missing the irony of the choices we often make. Because Saturday mornings in my household were anything but restful. We were up at the crack of dawn so that all of us could get cleaned up and into fancy church clothes. The time spent “getting ready for God” took longer than any regular weekday morning ministrations did. Those mornings were generally a hustle and bustle atmosphere that had nothing to do with rest.

Then it was off to church where appearances very much mattered. A scuff on a black church shoe could be gossiped about all day. A wrinkle in one pleat of a dress could be the topic of conversation for weeks. So we had to paint smiles on our faces, to practice our conversation before they happened, to endure the kisses of ancient ladies who smelled like moth balls, because that is what we did. From the moment we walked into the edifice we had to be “on,” a state of perpetually being front and center, which was quite the opposite of restful.

All day it was this way, every seventh day of the week, so that eventually it became obvious to everyone involved that we weren’t resting, that we weren’t reflecting on the goodness of God over that past week. We were putting on a show to rival any on Broadway, and the grind of always performing wore on me more than I think I even realized at the time. All I knew was that there was no end in sight, no actual Sabbath to save me from the grind of those seventh day marathons.

it-is-time-to-rest1So I quit. And no, it wasn’t all about the idea of actually resting. No, it wasn’t the grind that wore me down. It wasn’t even the fake people and their unrecognized pretensions. What really drove me to run screaming from the one religion I had ever known was how it all made me feel about myself, and about a God who would condone such a display week after week. I was torn into so many pieces over the decision, but I knew I couldn’t keep going to a place that wasn’t about communing with God, that was more concerned with what I called “the art of fellowship.”

Funnily enough, now I do rest on Saturdays, for the most part anyway. I get up whenever I’d like (or whenever the kids come storming in and throw back the shades). I enjoy my family instead of hustling into the shower to put on my face, then squeezing myself into uncomfortable clothes to look “presentable” to those in the congregation. Saturdays are about resting now from a long week of working two jobs and ferrying the kids from one place to another in a seemingly endless loop. Saturdays are about a change of pace, a chance to commune with my own spirit.

Even God rested. If there’s anyone who would understand then it’s him. And I’m secure in that, because I feel like I can hear his voice more clearly than I ever could through the chaos and cacophony of what the church considers rest.

Sam

Growing Up Seventh-Day Adventist Archive

That R.E.M. Song

“…and that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind. Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.” ~Better Than Ezra

remsplitI always wondered what “that R.E.M. song” was, which one from their vast catalog made such an impression on a young Kevin Griffin (lead singer of Better Than Ezra) that he immortalized it in his own song. The song is about the death of a young friend, who after graduation had a car wreck and died, the lyrics a poignant reminder of the brevity of life, and how quickly it can be taken from any of us.

With that in mind, I began to dig deep into what could possibly be the mystery R.E.M. song from the lyrics. It’s a good thing, then, that I own the entire R.E.M. catalogue, because it would take a hell of a lot of digging to arrive at the ultimate truth. For starters, here is the full list of the band’s songs that hit 3:26 – 3:34 on the scale (prior to 2001, when the Better Than Ezra song was written)…

Gardening At Night (3:30)
Disturbance At the Heron House (3:34)
Romance (3:27)
Good Advices (3:30)
Begin the Begin (3:28)
What If We Give It Away? (3:34)
I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (3:28)
Let Me In (3:28)
Moral Kiosk (3:31)
Perfect Circle (3:30)
Departure (3:30)
Low Desert (3:32)
Half a World Away (3:28)
Time After Time (3:34)

That’s an awful lot of songs, so I tried to break them down by lyrics, by which ones might be depressing. I realized as I was doing this that most of R.E.M.’s catalogue is full of depressing, sad songs. Kevin Griffin literally had his choice of songs to complement his own, just by the sheer volume of sad songs to choose from, even from this relatively small list.

For a very long time I thought the song he referenced was “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” from the Monster record. It fit nearly every aspect of a depressing song that would hearken back to a premature death. “I’m looking for an interruption. Do you believe? Some medicine for my headache. Hooray.” The only thing that didn’t fit was the length of the song, because while I thought my range was pretty good, the lyric of the song was “Three and a half minutes,” and if I was being literal that one would not fit.

In fact, the more I thought about it the more I thought the song I was looking for was exactly 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which left me with Departure, Perfect Circle, Good Advices, and my personal favorite, Gardening At Night. In fact, the lyrics of “Gardening At Night” are very compelling. “We fell up, not to see the sun. Gardening at night just didn’t grow. I see your money on the floor. I felt the pocket change. Though all the feelings that broke down that door just didn’t seem to be too real.” Something about the shifting reality, the yearning to do something that seems right but doesn’t have positive consequences, it clicked in me.

But that wasn’t it. Here is the full lyric of the verse from the Better Than Ezra song from earlier…

“And I know I wasn’t right, but it felt so good
And your mother didn’t mind, like I thought she would
And that R.E.M. song was playing in my mind
Three and a half minutes, felt like a lifetime.”

5b8a1cb234e9b2d7ba2ad332ab262588That part of the song has always hit me like a hammer to the gut, the idea of something feeling so good but not being right, of approval out of nowhere, not for the means to an end, but for the end itself. It’s almost like it is a eulogy, not for the person who has died, but instead for the enterprise itself, for being adventurous. That R.E.M. song felt like a lifetime because when it ends the glory of a life lived for adventure ends as well.

The song was “Perfect Circle,” by the way, the idea that life is indeed this circle. We are born to die, but in the space between the wails of birth and the silence of death we either truly live or we go through the motions. “Perfect Circle” is all about truly living, taking the moment and wringing every ounce of glory from it so we can live on the nostalgia of that moment for years to come.

“Pull your dress on and stay real close. Who might leave you where I left off? A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends…”

Three and a half minutes. Felt like a lifetime.

Sam

The Dark Side

Dear Journal: Fox Lingo

cute_sitting_fox_journalDear Journal,

When I was 10 I got my first journal, and I named it Fox because it had a painting of a fox on the cover. It was rather generic, but I was excited about it anyway. It was my excuse to go into my room and put my thoughts down on lined paper instead of scraps left over from shopping lists and whatnot.

Of course, as happy as I was having a journal at long last, I didn’t know how to begin writing in it. I had no precedent, and I knew no one else who admitted to keeping a journal, only girls with diaries. So I just took out a pen and started writing on page one. It went something like this:

Dear Fox, I am writing in you because I got you as a gift, and I don’t want you to be bored. I don’t know what I will tell you, but I promise I’ll keep you safe. Well, I can’t promise that because there is no lock on you, but I’ll keep you under my bed and no one ever goes under there. I’ll write in you more tomorrow.

I didn’t write in Fox that next day, or the one after it. I got busy with life, and it was three months before I wrote in him again (it took me forever to determine whether he was a girl or a boy). By that time I had pretty much forgotten why I needed a journal in the first place, but I came back to him anyway, and I’m glad I did. Because I finally had some secrets to put down on paper. And put those secrets down I did.

For the next several months I wrote in Fox more days than I didn’t, which was the beginning of getting my thoughts out, thoughts that I would never dare share with another living soul. When I look back at it now, though, it’s funny how irrelevant those secrets and thoughts really were back then.

Dear Fox, thanks for listening.

Sam

Signal to Noise

sound_waves_by_zerosilverfang-d469d3aThese walls are so thin I can hear the ocean from here, its tide crashing against the shore, storing up energy for the return trip out to sea. I sit here in a padded metal chair, but the padding is just for show, all cracked but otherwise nondescript. It is the only feature in a featureless room in the exact middle of a three-story building that I’ve never visited before, yet it feels familiar.

I can hear the others screaming from so far away, or from the next room, whichever makes more sense. They are always raising their voices as if the heavens could hear and judge them from so far away, as if their very lives depended on the ability to stretch their lungs to contain God in a breath. I do not join them, although I know I am always welcome, and indeed I used to be the loudest one, but I have changed. It was subtle at first but it has taken root and blossomed in my soul.

My headphones are on the other side of my self-imposed prison cell, lying haphazardly in the corner as if I left them there as punishment. Which I suppose is a sort of truth in and of itself. I was listening to Peter Gabriel earlier, but I kept missing the sounds of the ocean, and the sounds of the others, and the sound of my own heartbeat thrumming in my chest, reminding me that I am alive. I had to keep checking to make sure I wasn’t a zombie, so I tossed them where they now lay.

But I’m driving myself crazy with the wondering, with the constant fear that at some point in the near future this will all go away, that no sound will survive the apocalyptic season that I know will come. I wonder if anyone even knows I’m here, listening, creating stories for the sounds I hear, wanting to be immersed in them but remaining on the fringes of a world I can only surmise. It’s been so long since I joined in that I’ve become a specter, a shadow on the wall of experience.

I can hear the whispers in my head, all the voices I can’t stop creating, or letting come through me. They swirl around in the dust bowl that is my scattered mind, reminding me that I’m not alone even when I so desperately want to be. These quiet aphorisms drift in my mind, calling out to me in the supposed calm, taunting me as only they can. As only I can. And as much as I want to be rid of them, they comfort me too, because they provide evidence that I’m alive as surely as my heartbeat does.

These walls keep me in, but they don’t keep sound out, so I pound on them, a beat so steady it begins to blend in with the other noises that crowd out my periphery. I open my mouth and scream into the confined space, but I know they hear me on the outside, just as I hear them, even though they don’t respond. And I guess that will have to be enough. I lean back in my uncomfortable chair and scream into the dissonance, adding my voice to theirs, adding one more brick in the wall of sound around me.

And I long for Peter Gabriel to drown it all out, as he did once before, as he will once again. If I let him. I glance across the room at my headphones. Where they sit waiting for me. In silence.

Sam

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