Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Oklahoma


          Salmon, lentils, rice, zucchini. They made their way to my stomach as I thought of James Joyce, the German soccer team, and listened to The Lumineers. I didn’t have to do any dishes; the music streamed free-of-charge into my desktop. A cold can of Red Bull knelt in one corner of my mind’s ring. Its opponent -- a dose of tobacco -- could taste the impending victory. As I clicked the Pandora thumbs-up icon on the Passenger tune, the basement door opened. My wife wanted to know if I’d gotten enough to eat; my daughter wanted to announce that she’d made a happy plate. Two days ago, we’d been in Oklahoma.


            Before dishing the vittles onto my plate, I printed a pair of forms. The first was a crappy The Print Shop flyer I’d made for tomorrow morning’s first customer. It contained a fuzzy image of the product I wanted them to buy, a breakdown of how much they’ll save by making the switch. The second was an evaluation I’ll fill out with my boss upon completion of the pitch. Once the USB cord was switched back to my seven-year-old desktop (from my work laptop), I closed up shop for the day and ate while the things printed. Upstairs I thanked Mama for dinner and as I returned downstairs, I thought of Oklahoma.



          The neighboring town had been Grove. The lake we gazed upon all weekend was called Grand. We did not boat upon it, bounce Jet Skis above it, or wade into it, but for most of three days, it had me. From a chair at a table on a deck I sat, dabbling in work and leisure from the company-issued device. In the mornings there was coffee. In the afternoons we swam at the clubhouse pool, and by night we drank and played card games while talking about sports, dreams, children, and sex. We consumed Stiegl Radler cocktails, scrambled eggs and bacon, ribs, salmon, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, spinach/orzo salad, artichoke dip, guacamole, fresh fruit, and sundry snacks. The four adults bonded, two of the five children played and struggled to share, and on Sunday afternoon we left Oklahoma.

            “Loathe” would not be fair but I hadn’t anticipated this being a joyful experience. The hours in the week -- ever scarce -- vanish, day by day, erasing possibilities of relaxation, creation, correspondence, completion. With each day spent on this planet, tangential fragments of time are pickpocketed from rears of busy denim pants. Such loss fosters the growth of fear of commitment, enhanced potential for irritability. Life -- whether you realize it or not -- develops time-lapse-video speed, and in a blink it’s dusk on the Fourth of July. Summarizing phrases of last year’s festivities are spoken, then gone. Lost in the exchange are most of twelve months’ contents: additional life and loss, career shifts, recognized accomplishments and ensuing possibilities, the faded memories of snow. Together, they drift into the quiet chops behind the throaty marine motors of Oklahoman vessels.

            My preoccupation with the excursion involved the fabricated stressors of having work issues, of missing an opportunity to write, of spending a weekend with a couple I didn’t know that well, of the possibility of passing judgment or having it passed. Concern for intolerance of my son’s fussing, for damaging my relationship with my daughter, for bickering with my wife, for being shirtless outside my own home, and for time away from household chores convened as a piece of gray sky above me and me alone. Somewhere in the mix of aging, added responsibilities, the desire to leave a quality mark on the world, and some form of perpetual resistance, I’d forgotten how to enjoy life. Pleasantry settled in as I felt that come back when we got to Oklahoma.

            Visions and checklists often swirl in my head.

            The picture is one of myself on a city street’s sidewalk. Sometimes it’s a busy afternoon; others it’s a cold, lonely morning. Once in a while, it resembles a rural road. But there they are, those things, twisting like winds that will form a funnel cloud, just out of reach. They look like slips of paper, each one of them unique, and I can’t see what’s on them, but I imagine some bear symbols, others a single word. Perhaps a few have clusters. But each represents a thing I want to be or do or improve, and none of them is within my grasp. Many are close, but I cannot clutch a single one of them, as though a puppeteer dares my hands and dangles the ideas for someone taller. When other people inhabit the scene, they do not see what transpires, but an awareness of an unseen audience plagues.

            At bedtime on Wednesday the nerves had planted roots. By Thursday morning they’d sprouted. As the day wound down and I went to pick up my kids, a touch of delirium knocked on my window. I could not see the unfolding of getting them fed, us getting packed, and making the drive. When my wife got home, exhaustion had set in and she could sense it.

            “Do you want to go lay down for 10 minutes while I pack?”

            From the basement couch I could hear the hurried sets of footsteps that belonged to my anxious spouse and our excited daughter.

            “Daddy,” she said. “It’s time to go.”

            Somehow, I managed to fill my backpack with all the personal essentials, save clean changes of underwear.

            Our hosts had not anticipated such a late start for us.

            “We might be wasted when you get here” was the text-message reply from Brandi when Anna informed her at 8:30 that we were en route. As we pulled in to the lake-house driveway, she came out to greet us, her husband Ron having retired an hour or so prior. Contrary to my concern with feeling like a pack of ungrateful jerks, she was understanding and kind. Anna and I had a pre-bedtime beer and tucked in our little ones.

            In the morning, I handled a few work responsibilities while Brandi made a ham-and-egg bake. I caught a glimpse of an exchange inside that resulted in her son Kobe being grounded from the Xbox for the day. Ron made himself an iced coffee and perused his laptop before he and Kobe and I went to Wal-Mart. We procured the items from our list and, at a parking-lot fireworks stand, Kobe selected the evening’s finale package.

            Back on the deck I worked on a project while the kids had lunch and napped. Ron slathered a rub on the baby backs, lit some coals and soaked some wood chips. When all were awake, we walked the short distance to the pool and swam for several hours. Once the kids had gone to bed, we played several rounds of Apples to Apples, and watched enough fireworks for a lifetime. After enough beverages had been consumed, we summoned our inner high-school selves and played a few hands of Bullshit. Saturday morning the women ran the errands while Ron and I logged our token 90 parenting minutes.

            While Brandi arranged various foodstuffs for lunch, I washed a community load of laundry (which included my new seven-pack of underwear) and resumed my post on the deck. In the early evening we made another trip to the pool where the children swam and Kobe and I split a pair of Gutterball victories. We ate, put the kids to bed, and played more cards. On Sunday there was more breakfast, some tidying up, a bit of lounging, and a pre-lunch movie session for the girls. Ron and I spent most of the morning on the deck, half working, half philosophizing.

            “In case you were curious,” he said inside to his wife, “we got a lot of the world’s problems figured out out there.”

            As naptime drew near, we loaded the car and left Oklahoma.

            I picked a gas-station exit near a Dairy Queen and we stopped for ice cream. Back home, I unloaded while Anna got the kids ready for bed, which left me with just enough daylight to cut the grass and shower.

            And there we were, back in the fold, set to turn in, prepared to return to the things.

            That was all there was to Oklahoma.

            Before I loaded the car for the drive home, I asked Brandi what she would like for us to do.

            “Stay ‘til next Sunday,” she said.

            Just before we climbed in to drive away, she spoke again.

            “See you guys Thursday,” she said.

            “What’s Thursday?”

            “When you guys come back for the next weekend,” she said.

            Some swimming, a few meals, several drinks, a handful of card games, a good bit of sitting, and an abundance of conversation was what it had taken to make the getaway a delight. It took (a bit of) the drive home and an entire day back at work to realize the simplicity of it all. It took reflection and introspection to recognize that the chores at home will be there when we get back, that the self-imposed project deadlines do not have to come with huge stress tag, that it’s good to be aware of where you’re at and where you want to be in the areas of health, happiness, and success. It took a break from the routine to understand that if you spend every day freaking out about what your life is not, it will soon be too late to do anything about that. It took being out of the elements to see that other people have goals and ambitions and struggles, too, that people you want to be around are working together to get to where they want to be. It took a lake in Oklahoma to descry that, just because you have energy, doesn’t mean you’ve put it in the right place.

            The problem with all of this discovery is that I’m 95 percent idealist, five percent returnist. I often see that image of myself with the swirling, unreachable wants, and I think the tendency is to identify and shrug. Seldom do I see myself get a step-ladder or a grabber and make a home with it. Change, it would appear, is something with which I’m having an emotional affair. I’m in love with what might be on the other side of it, but a pair of clumsy cold feet keeps getting in the way of making that first step toward a consummate commitment.

            Distant remain the ideas of fitness, of meditation, of discipline, and well-being, while frustration, motionless in movement, lingers with intimacy.

            In my adulthood road travels I’ve twice gone to Indiana, a time or two to Chicago. I’ve trekked out to Oregon once, California on couple of occasions, and made my way to Arizona. I’ve visited St. Louis about a dozen times and I long since lost count of my Colorado excursions. These have been journeys of noteworthy length, and while each adventure produced growth, I’ve always returned home the same person.

            Grand Lake in Oklahoma might be the shortest trip I’ve ever taken and it turns out you don’t have to travel far to see the most profound. I know there are sayings and quotes and pieces of inspiration out there that include the phrase “in your own backyard.” My guess is that I’ve been aware of them but didn’t acknowledge them to be more than noise. Stealing one of those would be, um, trite. Hackneyed, even. So I’ll make my own:

            If you take a moment to look, chances are you’ll find the things you need -- the sugar, the flour, the butter, the salt, the baking powder, and the buttermilk -- in your own backyard. Once you’ve found them, it’s easy and pleasing to make your own biscuits. Everything else is gravy. And of course, by “Everything else” I mean milk, flour, butter, chicken stock, heavy cream, bacon, salt, pepper, and Tabasco. It helps if you have a stove, a pot, a whisk, and a little bit of patience, but I imagine a stick, a clay bowl, and a fire pit will do just fine, too.

          Whether I show it or not, I am always thankful for my wife, our kids, our home, our jobs, our health, our friends, our ability to grow. Today I am thankful for all of those things, for those things I do not yet realize I should be thankful for, and above all, for Oklahoma.