Thursday, July 13, 2006

MY CAUSE WAS SLOTH

That I have stopped walking for two hours every day does not mean I have stopped exercising. Because to stop exercising would be to begin dying. Yes, I know I’m dying whether I exercise or not, but a soft body is its own little subdivision of lifelessness.

The longest I’ve ever stagnated is two months. And that’s since December of 1974.

It was on Christmas Eve of that year that I tried to lift one of the large presents under the tree with my name on it—you know, so I could shake it a little. Well, not only could I not shake it, I couldn’t budge it. I couldn’t raise even a corner of it off the floor. It was then that I said to myself, Holy smokes, Dad has gone and got me a weight set.

How could he have done something like that? What was he thinking? I went into my room to figure out how to let the old man down gently. Maybe I would open the present, look surprised, say, “This is really neat!” and then quickly ask for some eggnog, or grab a handful of tinsel and throw it around the room and yell, “Look how light and shiny this stuff is!” Or maybe I would ask how many Christmas cards we had gotten. I would ask if we broke last year’s record. Then I would say to my mother, “I bet it’s hard getting Christmas cards out every year. I don’t know how you do it. Do you ever get writer’s cramp? You’re amazing, Mother.” Then, after all this, I would let my eyes wander back under the tree and find a present for someone else. “Oh, look, Father," I would say. "Here’s a present for you. And look! I can lift it! It bet it’s not a @%!$# weight set!”

Honestly. What made my dad think that a fifteen year-old would want to lift heavy things for the sake of his health? I’d be better served, I thought, with a television for my room.

The more I thought about it, the more troubled I became. How could anyone lay such a burden on another person, let alone a loved one? Let alone an innocent youth? It was like giving someone a puppy. “We just thought we’d get you a little something to love and feed and worry about for the next fifteen years. We hope you like it. Please pass the fruitcake.” It was like giving someone a Mount Everest expedition. “It was such a great deal, we couldn’t pass it up. You’ll be flying to Katmandu on January 6th to acclimate, and the climbing party sets out in late April. Hey, open the one with the blue bow next—it’s your ice pick.”

I drove my head into my hands and paced my bedroom. My family would begin opening presents in an hour. I had to be certain of the justness of my cause; I had to believe wholly in it, for only then could I convincingly defend it.

My cause was sloth.

I paced and groaned and considered. I thought of my dad’s feelings, but most importantly, I thought of my feelings. But then I thought of my arms. I thought of my dad’s feelings again, in order to forget about the feeling I'd just had about my arms. Then I thought of Christmas cookies. Then I accidentally thought of my stomach muscles; then I accidentally thought of girls. I thought of my shoulders then—by accident. I tried to think again about my feelings, and succeeded. But then I thought of Mt. Everest—don't ask my why; I really didn't mean to think of Paula Mareno, but in she came, right after Mt. Everest. I thought of my dad’s feelings again, in the nick of time. But then I thought of my calves; hmm; what calves? I thought of resistance and the audacity of fighting it; that was a much better thought, and helpful. But then I thought of Laura Anne Williams, who sat next to me in Algebra—not helpful. I thought of my dad’s feelings again, but this was interrupted by the thought—the accidental thought—of removing my shirt in front of Laura Anne Williams; then—God help me—I thought of removing Laura Anne Williams’ shirt—I assure you that this was a complete and utter accident. For a diversionary tactic, I tightened my abs; nothing happened. I looked in the mirror and tried to find my stomach muscles. Lord Jesus and Santa Claus—where are my stomach muscles? In a panic, I looked into my eyes; I stared at myself. This was a big mistake because, as I stared at myself, I heard a strange voice, and the voice spoke clearly to me—inside my head—and the voice said: I think you want to do this.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I left it there. I walked from my room into a strange new world. Some would call it a darkened hallway leading to the place where the Christmas tree was, but I knew it as a new world. I understood then that climbers leaving Everest base camp felt more alive than other people. With every step toward that heavy box, I ascended a good slope. It was a slope of the simplest beginning. I knew then, for certain, that a man could change his own life.

I lifted those weights three days a week, religiously, for an entire year. I did not miss a single workout—not one. I found an inner strength and a personal resolve I never knew I had. It began on Christmas Eve, 1974, and sustains me to the present hour. I have applied it to all other aspects of my life. It is the second most amazing gift I have ever received, and it is all due to my dad.

My dad died two years ago, but he lives in me now, through everything I accomplish.

I am who I am because of him.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)
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© 2006 by Martin Zender

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

Every year after the Fourth of July Fireman’s Festival, I do a strange thing. I wait a day or two until all the rides and the concessions have been packed up and put away, and I go to the grounds and try to imagine that a festival had so recently been there.

On Sunday night of the festival—the last night—our family stays late for the fireworks. Usually we sit down at the edge of a large tent at the main eating place and watch the fireworks together. By my slowed-down standards, this is a heck of a good time. The lights of the midway, the smell of the food, the darkness, the teenagers ambling about, the leftover heat from the day, the good feeling of shared experience, American independence, family togetherness, the smell of French fries, community under the tent, the festive weight of the air—all these things combine for a delicious feeling, bittersweet at the same time because the feeling cannot last. Fall will come, the teenagers will go away to school, winter will come, some of these people will be gone from the earth, and nothing can ever be repeated exactly as it was.

So I return to the grounds to wallow in this, to take stock of it, and to try to imagine how it could recently have been what it was but is not. Early morning may be the best time to do this. The early morning after a nighttime festival may be the prime wallowing time for those so disposed to it.

This year I determined to record it.

Early evening Sunday I went about with my camera recording scenes, people, lights. I played the last two games of Bingo with my son Jefferson, photographing him in the warm and cozy light of the tent—a perfect moment in time.

Snap, snap, snap I went again, all over the festival grounds, recording it as it was so that I could record it, for you, as it is, and demonstrate for you the competing miracles of being and not being, and the terrible nature of change.


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My friend Charlie and I have agreed to meet, in the coming eon, at the site of the small brick patio next to my house. We were sitting there late one evening a couple years back—drinking coffee and looking up at the stars—when we decided that sometime during the thousand years of peace we would return to earth and meet at this precise place and marvel at how it had been, and how we had been then. We would be celestial beings, but in full possession of memories, knowing well how it was during the time of our humiliation. This present earth would remain for a thousand years subsequent to our change, we knew, being destroyed only later and replaced with a new earth. For a thousand years, then, the precise coordinates of any location on the current planet would be known. We would certainly know where this porch had been, and we would come here. And we would marvel and ask ourselves:

Is this really the place where we once sat, marveling and wondering at the stars? Was this truly the site of a wooden house in which the greater part of a man’s life was played out, where he loved a woman, raised a family, shared joys and shed tears? Is this truly the place? Could this really be it? We know that it is—we know that these are the precise coordinates—yet it does not seem possible that it could have been here. It is all so different. We are so different. And yet—confirm it—this is the place. We sat precisely here in wooden chairs in our bodies of humiliation, staring up at a world that was then so foreign to us.

I finish now with a photograph of this coordinate. It is know among the celestials by a name other than that given it by mortals. They know that we will return here. I believe that, since Charlie and I made a pact here and that we shall one day be seated at the right hand of God, it may well be a grand event. I want you to see how it is now. Look at it and remember it, for you shall see it again as it shall be, from the perspective of a future change soon to be spoken of in the past tense.

Present; future; past. What are these? Stare at this photograph and sear it into your mind in case you one day wish to find out.

© 2006 by Martin Zender

Saturday, July 08, 2006

JOE COKE IN THE PURGATORY OF PORK

I love the Fireman’s Festival and Fourth of July parade. This grand weekend always occurs in July, a month that is famous here for warm weather. It isn’t always warm, but we’ve a better chance of it now than on Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Easter, or even Memorial Day, when the last of our vast snow piles melt.

Like any good pagan, I cherish the sun. I cherish anything that brings people together and makes them happy, or makes them think they’re happy. A person eating cotton candy on the Fourth of July falls victim to this, including yours truly. I reserve my fluffy passion for this weekend, and generally buy two bags of 100% cotton candy, sometimes three.

Cotton candy is a piece of heaven come to Earth. Sugar, I think, is a scaled-down version of something divine. The earthly version is deadly sweet and so pleasurable that it eventually kills us, while it’s heavenly counterpart—whatever it is—gives life. Whoever dreamed of converting sugar molecules to this light, airy substance outmarveled Einstein. An angel touched this clever individual, I do believe that. God inspired a modern-day prophet to turn the miraculous substance blue and yellow and orange and green, and another spiritual pioneer, unnamed, thought to twirl it onto a stick.

The parade is only a part of the greater festival, headquartered at the village reservoir grounds behind the old high school. It is here that the Ferris wheel scoops up its waiting passengers, the ponies tramp patiently around rings of sawdust, and a matronly woman in an apron becomes willing—for only two dollars!—to measure the speed of your best-thrown baseballs. Guess the speed of your third pitch and you win a prize worth seven cents. A miracle akin to cotton candy occurs here: people bartering two dollars for seven-cent prizes walk away winners.

Besides the parade, the best part of the festival for Melody and me has always been manning the Coca-Cola trailer. We are asked every year by some of the firemen’s wives to man the Coke trailer. I cherish it. It is such blessed relief from my regular job.

For 364 days of the year I am an evangelist akin to Paul, suffering evil as an ideal soldier for the sake of Jesus Christ. For one day of the year, I sell Coke. It is a glorious day. Why? Everyone wants Coke. Everyone wants ice-cold carbonated sugar water. We are gods of this eon, Melody and I, whenever we sell the premier product of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Some people do this for a living; I can hardly imagine. I can hardly imagine the crush of accompanying love. “For God so loved the world that He sent them a sweetened beverage colored with caramel and flavored with phosphoric acid.”

I once asked a man who worked for the Coca-Cole Bottling Company: Have you ever been persecuted? He said no. Not even by Pepsi people? No, not even by them. One day out of the year, I taste this blessed state of belonging.

No one approaches the trailer to question our doctrine. For our doctrine is merely this: Drink Coke. No one questions our motives: Just why are you selling this carbonated beverage? No, we never get that. Who dares to attack the virtues of Coke? No text of any kind is ever brought against us to refute our position. For our position is merely this: Drink Coke. We are spared even the effort of announcing our evangel. Our evangel announces itself: ICE-COLD COKE HERE. This alone brings us more disciples and worshippers than we care to count. We are the friend of man, woman, and child. I never realized before manning this trailer how fond I could be of unfeigned love, respect and acceptance. If not for the shortness of the shift and the gig (three hours, once a year), I would give up everything and travel the country in this trailer. God, in His mercy, curtails the joy. But never so much as this year.

This year, Melody and I got overlooked for the Coke trailer. I was devastated. “They want us to make pork and beef sandwiches at the main building instead,” said Melody. I thought she was joking. I thought she was telling me a Coke joke. But no. There would be no Coke trailer for us this year. This year, we were damned to Pork and Beef Purgatory. I was damned to it, that is. Melody got assigned to cake and pie duty, leaving me to my torments.

I walked into the building after the parade and announced to one of the firemen: “Here I am. Do with me what you will.” He set me in front of several vast vats of shredded pork and beef. Some of the vats were pork, some were beef. Beside the vats were piles of hamburger bun packages and sheets of foil. The fireman showed me how to hold the bottom of the bun, scoop on the meat, top it with the upper bun, and wrap it. “Good luck,” he said. I asked if I would see him again, and he said, “No.”

I did my work as unto the Lord. I would become the best sandwich maker ever. With God as my witness, I made sandwiches as fast as I could. It was barely sufficient. Demand was great, for we fed the after-parade crowd, precisely at lunchtime. I scooped and bunned and wrapped with singular purpose. It was hot work; I did not care. In the midst of the battle, I caught myself dreaming of the Coke trailer. Each time the fantasy came, I banished it; I could not afford a pause, not even a refreshing one. I went back to work.

From my pork and beef purgatory, I caught brief glances of Melody. She carried pieces of cherry cheesecake, Texas sheet cake, apple pie, and many other kinds of delicious pie. She grinned and laughed with some of the other women. I dug my big metal spoon back into my meat vat and slung another load of muscle onto the round, white bread. Five hours later, it was over.

(Below: the building in which I slung my meat.)

“Did you have fun?” Melody asked.

“No,” I said. “No one loves me. No one loves the sandwich man.”

“I love the sandwich man,” she said.

I touched her hair and looked into her eyes. “I bet you say that to all the sandwich men.”

“I do,” she said.

We walked around the festival grounds and remembered being there when our kids were little. It was bittersweet—to think of the kids so small—and we were ready to cry, so we bought two large Cokes from the lucky person in the trailer and went to see how fast I could throw a baseball.

I walked away a winner.

© 2006 by Martin Zender

Thursday, July 06, 2006

THE VILLAGE PARADE

Our Fourth of July parade here was fun. It always is. The police shut down traffic on the state highway for the Saturday event, and I always feel bad for the first car or the first trucker stopped. By the time the parade is over, the traffic stretches clear out to Kat’s Iron Skillet to the east of town, and Eastman’s Funeral Home on the other side. I personally believe that these two businesses are in cahoots, but that has nothing to do with this story.

There is not one traffic light here on Main Street. Main Street is the state highway. It is busy, busy, busy. My office is on Main Street and ordinarily I am busy as well. For one glorious day each year, however, Main Street becomes the parade route and the only thing occupying me is getting folding chairs out to the sidewalk and jockeying for the best spot. Being a Main Street businessman, I have an inside track. Not that I need it, but it’s fun to think that I do.

Three quarters of the town’s residents come out for the three-quarters of a mile parade. That sounds like a lot of people until you consider that the town contains less than 2000 people. In fact, this is not even a town, it’s a village. The difference between a town and a village is Kat’s Iron Skillet.

The parade is probably terrible by any standard other than ours. The entries that always stick out in my mind are the little baton twirling girls and the flag squads. No two girls are ever doing anything in unison. Not ever. It is as if the adult leaders of these groups tell their charges before the big event: “Here’s how it works, girls. It’s every girl for herself. Try to stay with the group, if you can. If you can’t, then we’ll see you at practice on Tuesday. Just move your flag around, is all I ask. Use it to swat flies, twirl it, scrape it along the road, scratch yourself with it, it doesn’t matter. Just keep moving. Those of you with batons, make sure you drop them every fifteen seconds or so. Throw them and drop them. Got it? We’re going to be aiming a Bob Seger song very loudly at you from the back of a pick-up truck for no apparent reason. Now move out.”

Lots of people throw candy during the parade, either from firetrucks, old cars, or tractors. In fact, this should be called The Candy Parade. It’s candy, candy, candy, non-stop for an hour. The candy comes flying in at your feet in waves so that you don’t even have to leave your seat to snag some. There are Tootsie Rolls, Smarties, Bit-O-Honeys, Fireballs, Sweet-Tarts, Pixie Stix, Dum-Dum suckers, and every brand of hard sweet known to man. Some of the local businesses on floats throw Frisbees. With a little planning and luck, you can snag a Frisbee first, then use it as a plate for your candy. This is the ideal, but few people obtain it. I have never obtained it. But I know that it’s possible.

The out-of-town marching bands are usually pretty good. For some reason, our local marching band is never good. The kids blow through their instruments and beat their drums, but no music comes. I remember the time the director wanted my son Jefferson to play trumpet in the fifth grade band. Jefferson wanted to play drums, but the director said she didn’t need another drummer. She said that what she needed was brass. She said she could train monkeys to hit drums. I had heard her bands, and I asked her when she would be teaching the monkeys to hit the drums at the same time.

Local firemen put on the parade and festival, so there is always a Fireman’s Queen, and she is always young and beautiful—this year was no exception. I do wish, however, that someone would some year teach the Queen to wave from the heart and not from the wrist. I’m not saying that we spectators want “howdied” like farmhands, but we would like to see something other than the standard mechanical parade wave. You know it well: the fingers are cupped and glued together, the hand rotates slowly from the wrist as if on a swivel—thirty degrees to the right, then thirty degrees to the left. And always the parade smile, tattooed on the face and sincere as the glossy fa├žade of a teen mag. What we would not give some year for a living Queen, a genuine waver, a heart-inspired shower of teeth, a Queen who possesses her beauty as well as capturing those of us sideliners wanting to worship her. Until then, we look to the politicians—and avert our eye.

The politicians drag their kids and spouses from bed at 7 a.m. and drive them here armed with balloons and pens and buttons and flags. “Vote for Bill Reid, County Commissioner,” says a plastic trinket. I don’t even know what a County Commissioner is. If I did, I would not want it to be Bill Reid. I would vote for the man wise enough to stay home on the Fourth of July with his family, or take them to a parade they could watch and not prostitute themselves in. How dare Bill and his ilk use this national celebration for political advantage. I always hope that the politicians step in the fruit from the equestrian entries. If any politician on parade wants my vote, he or she can at least enter early and throw a Frisbee. I need a plate for my candy; I need a County Commissioner who cares that I get a plate for my candy.

The parade ends as it begins, with firetrucks blaring. The sirens are super loud. Kids stare google-eyed and dogs bark. The firemen are showing off their vehicles and their sirens, as well they should. I believe they wash their vehicles every day twice a day before the parade, because you have never seen anything so shiny as a firetruck on the Fourth of July, with the possible exception of the top of a politician’s head on the Fourth of July. The firemen deserve our homage, and we give it to them while our hearts move at the behest of their sirens. Our hearts are always moving, thanks, in part, to the firemen.

The truckers coming through after the parade are always somehow in a good mood. This is nothing less than a miracle. I guess they give up and give in to the parade. Most can’t see it, but they all get candy handed to them through their windows, which they gratefully accept.

Well, it’s the Fourth of July in the United States of America.

© 2006 by Martin Zender