Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Me. Ow. - John Rosenbaum

Dear Reader, this is John's 3rd (and 4th) submission to the Fire Bowl.  What follows are two pieces that I have posted together for your thoughtful perusal.  Please note that the Fire Bowl is a creative writing community that explores variations on a theme.  The current theme is stories about bad times that turn out for our good.  John's two short submissions here contain some...ahem...honest language and for that reason, we are warning you ahead of time.  Thanks, John, for these posts...rated PG-13.



God, I’m disgusting.  Look at me, practically wallowing in my own filth.  Not that I would have to, but that jackass hasn’t cleaned out my box in days.  It’s like he even enjoys my filth, despite all the ruckus and insults he throws my way about the stench.  Always demanding perfection, cleanliness, even “shit that doesn’t stink.”  Guess what, dude!  I’m an animal!

Man, I’ve gotten so fat.  This comfortable life is my own gallows.  I can leap small buildings in a couple bounds, and I can do it with perfect balance and grace.  If I wanted.  Oh sure, I will cry and wail wanting to go outside, stare out the window for hours, and try to weasel my way out the door given the opportunity, but you know what I do once I get out there?  Immediately regret it.  These four walls have made me soft.  With all my fur and the pudge around the middle that I pass off as fur you would think I’d be able to stand even an afternoon in the cold, but no.  The life given me by this jerk has even ruined me of my own nature.

Damned if you do!  Sure as hell damned if you don’t!  What a lot is this?

Somehow I picked up this A-load of fleas, these parasites crawling around my portly body like anxieties that won’t shake.  Fleeting little buggers!  Every time I think I got a hold on one (and there’s plenty to choose from) the little bastard slips through my teeth, vanishes like a whisper, and I’m left chewing on my own flesh.  Not that that is a deterrent from trying and trying again.  It’s like eating away at my own flesh, creating my own open sores which are infinitely worse than the pricks caused by my tormentors, is somehow control.  I am not accomplishing anything save gnawing off parts of who I am, but it’s the only thing I can seem to do.  Not that the tyrant would have to expend any energy on my behalf—a couple drops of medicine once-a-fracking-month and I would be free from torture, freed from my own destructive behavior, the sin of self-mutilation under the thinly-veiled guise of comfort.  It’s in that jackass’s power, but what do I get?  A few sympathetic comments thrown my way and hands that prod my self-inflicted wounds.  Agitation, not restoration.  Wow.  Thanks for caring.  I’m treated worse than a pet, but you will parade your progressive self flouting the term “animal companion.”

With all this ranting I think I’ve worked up an appetite.  Or not, but I’ll eat anyway.  And commence with the routine: I jump up on your precious countertop and cross the proverbial line.  You spray me in the face with that squirt bottle of yours and after a couple of rounds of that I’ll get what I want.

God, you’re worse than the Dursleys.

Meow and Forever

Oh, you little cat!  Why do you keep jumping up there, forcing me to spray you?  How I wish I could explain to you that your last owners did you a disservice by leaving out a bag of dry food for you to just munch on as you saw fit.  Not only is dry food bad for you, but you shouldn’t graze; you need set meal times.  We got to get that extra pudge off of you!

Speaking of pudge, I got a string here that I can wave in front of your face if you’d like.  Man, I could do that for hours, you’re so cute.  You don’t seem to want to go outside, even though I’ve done what all the cat experts have advised—I’ve helped you chase off those other cats so we can establish your territory.  So until you learn to trust my perimeter we got to get you exercise some how.  Remember: I got yo back, cat!  Now chase the string!

Come here!  I know you don’t like when I comb through your fur picking off fleas one by one, but what choice do I have?  It breaks my heart to see you chewing yourself to bits, but I can’t afford flea medicine until I work off that vet bill; I’m still not sure what was causing you to throw up all the time, but I’m sure glad your tummy has been doing better.

Ow!  I’m not sure if you know this, but your front paws are wrapped around my wrist and your hind legs are ripping my forearm to shreds and your little, razors-for-teeth are sinking deeper and deeper into my tender, nerve-ridden hand.  Oh, man.  You’re bringing me to tears!  I’m going to wait it out, though.  Whew, I want to smack you so you get off!, but that isn’t going to help you; your little instincts will interpret that struggle as a challenge, but I want you to know you are safe and loved and don’t need to protect yourself from me.

Now please remove your claws because I got to clean out your box.  Your shit stinks.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What God Arranges - Mark Barrentine

This is Mark's 2nd post in the Fire Bowl (read the 1st one HERE)

In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Galatians 3:11b states, “The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him.” I think this statement sums up the current Fire Bowl topic beautifully. 
At the beginning of this year, I took a test to become a supervisor at work. After passing the written and oral portions of the exam I placed 3rd on the hiring list. I was in excellent shape to be promoted, because there were 4 open positions. Administration interviewed the top 7 individuals on the list. 
Well, I was not selected. As a matter of fact, I was jumped twice to hire number 4 and number 6! I was very upset. I began to suspect some sort of conspiracy. I racked my brain wondering what went wrong and why administration didn’t “like me?” I became bitter and disgruntled. I kept telling myself, “There’s a reason for everything.” But I didn’t really accept it.
Shortly after the promotions were made, my wife got real sick. Her illness required me to take off several days from work. My wife really needed me. Not just as moral support, but on a couple of occasions I had to act as her advocate to be sure her voice was heard. After a couple weeks she recovered, and I was able to return to work.
A couple months later, I was pondering the promotions again and asking God why I hadn’t been promoted. I explained to Him how embarrassing it was to have been passed over twice. I shared with him how desperately we could have used the raise. I told God how upset I was with the arrangements He was making. Then our most gracious and loving Father reminded me of my wife’s illness. I was able to see, that if I had been promoted I would have been unable to take the time off that my wife needed me to take in order to care for her. And quite possibly, I would have been away at Supervisor’s school when she suddenly got ill. He did not grant me favor with the decision makers, so that I could be the man and husband He created me to be in a very crucial time.
I have a new found respect for how God arranges things, and a greater desire to embrace those arrangements. I am still slow on the uptake, but He is patient.
Peace and all good, my friends.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bad Turned Good - Aron Smith

This is Aron's second post here in the bowl.  You can read his first one HERE.  The topic for the next few posts are about how God can make bad things into good things...or, at least, a learning experience.  Thanks for stoking the fire with a good story, Aron!

This is a hard topic, Chris!  Write about something that seemed bad and turned out to be good?  It would be far easier for me to write about a situation that seemed good initially and soon enough went bad.  After all, isn’t that how things usually go in life?  I am reminded of the title of Chinua Achebe’s wonderful novel Things Fall Apart.  This seems to be nature’s way:  Today in full bloom, tomorrow gone to seed; all good things must end.  This, of course, has been a pervasive theme throughout literature and scripture.

My personal favorites on this subject are Psalms 146:3-4 and Shakespeare’s famous “all the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It.  We are reminded by Ecclesiastes 3:1 that there is “a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Having been impressed at an early age by the profundity of this simple statement in the lyrics of The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” I recall being shocked when, as an adult, I discovered that it is actually in the Bible!

But something that starts out bad and turns good?  That seems to run counter to the natural course of events.  We don’t start out ancient and decrepit and somehow energize to youth and vitality.  We may have everything and lose it all, but, Mega Millions and Power Ball notwithstanding, we don’t start out with nothing and end up with everything.  No, this is not nature, this is what we refer to as a “miracle.”  Man destroys, but only God creates.  This is Lazarus being raised from the dead.  This is the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  This is the Children of Israel going from slavery to freedom.  This is the very concept of salvation.

And yet, there seems to be some type of spiritual law of physics at work here, a divine E=mc2.  Everything has good and bad aspects and nothing really changes from one to the other.  It’s just a matter of perception.  The woolly caterpillar doesn’t look anything like a monarch butterfly, but there you are.

In 2009 and 2010, I was out of work for eight long months.  Four years earlier, I lucked out by hopping over to a different type of work just before my former employer closed its doors.  This time, however, I was not so lucky.  Things had started to go bad at work at the beginning of the year, but I was very well paid and couldn’t find anything else with a salary even close.  As the months wore on and the situation deteriorated, my wife (always my steady ballast) urged me not to quit so that, in the worst-case scenario, I could at least collect unemployment.  By October, I was doing just that.

In retrospect, I was fortunate that my employer chose not to contest my unemployment claim.  My sudden joblessness threw me into a funk from which it would have been difficult to effectively fight a denial of unemployment.  I updated my résumé, networked with all my contacts and got on the Internet to apply for everything in sight.  It was lucky that my wife had some seasonal data entry work for a few months that helped slow the exit of funds from our savings account.

As the months rolled by, I became increasingly panicked and began applying for jobs all over the United States.  I kept a little outline map that I highlighted with an orange marker.  Soon, I had 23 states filled in.  I decided I probably didn’t want to go to Alaska.  North Dakota, however, I would consider.

Yes, I said North Dakota.  Any Dakota would have been bad enough, but I had to choose the northern one!  Images of blizzards danced in our heads.  My wife started to wonder why she married such an idiot.  Was this plan in pursuit of a wonderful position that paid six figures?  More like nine dollars an hour.  I had a phone interview and they seemed to like me.  I started perusing maps.  My poor wife started to panic.  At about that time, I learned that the city of Devils Lake, N.D., site of said job, had a little problem with flooding that rendered most of the housing stock uninhabitable on a more or less annual basis.  This resulted in a little situation with mold.  Luckily, my wife put her foot down this time.

Next was the job in Massachusetts.  This would have meant transporting all of our household goods and belongings three thousand miles across the continent.  I felt badly about dragging my wife so far away from her family, but how else were we going to pay for rent and food when the needle on our back account hit E?  I figured I’d try to make the best of it.  After all, I did have some distant relatives living in the area, and as I reminded my wife, we’d be located only three hours from New York or Boston.  Oh, did I mention that I’d have to make a lot of trips to corporate headquarters in Nebraska?  Not Omaha or Lincoln, mind you, but a little town out on the wild prai-ree.  I am the original white knuckle flyer, but I figured, hey, I’d just have to get used to it.  After the second phone interview, I never heard from them again.

After that was the job in Washington State.  At least this one was in a place we had been to before.  My wife took a few days off work and we drove up to Olympia.  We even arrived on a day when it wasn’t raining.  And we happened upon a gorgeous view of Puget Sound.  The Pacific Northwest was starting to look better and better.  The interview went fairly well and I was told that the finalists would be asked back for a second round of interviews in a week or so.  Donna couldn’t take off more work, so I started lining up family members who could help me make that long drive.  I waited by the phone like a teenage girl for a call that never came.

About this time, my depression started mixing with an unhealthy dose of anger against those at my old job who were determined to see me gone.  I started sleeping all day, rousting myself out of bed just before my wife got home from work.  I began reading entire books of the Bible aloud with as much dramatic flair as possible as a vent for my frustrations.  I started playing chess with a local shut-in as a means of getting myself out of the house for a few hours.  And I applied and applied and applied, for just about anything I could find, no matter how far the distance or how low the compensation.  We started planning on moving in with relatives.

Then I got onto a kick about moving to Dothan, Alabama.  I had heard online about a group that was paying the moving expenses of people relocating to that town and even helping them to find jobs in the area.  I applied immediately, even though I knew it didn’t look good.  “Unemployed over-the-hill geek with a never-used law degree and data entry operator wife wish to take advantage of your generosity before penury and homelessness set in.”

I started posting Facebook updates listing the number of weeks I’d been unemployed and the number of jobs for which I’d applied.  Amazingly, no one unfriended me, but then again I stopped getting comments on my Facebook status.  It’s just as they say, “laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.”

I decided that perhaps a job in the public sector would be more stable than a mom-and-pop shop like the one I had been summarily tossed out of.  I spent hours at a time on USAJobs with the feds and on every state’s personnel website.  Being a New York boy, I had no special attachment to California, but since my wife had lived here all her life and wished to stay, I regularly checked the websites of each of our state’s 58 counties.  Well, almost each one.  I actually found a few counties that still don’t have their own websites.  Applications went out via email and fax to county governments from Yreka to San Diego.  Many of the positions I applied for were clearly not job matches, but it made me feel better to do something rather than nothing and to be able to make another notation in my little notebook.  I started hating the sight of that notebook.  For me, it served as a symbol of double failure — failure at my last job and failure at finding another.

One Saturday night I spent three hours writing the essays required to apply for a managerial position with the court system in Riverside County.  A position for which I lacked the requested experience, I should add.  I asked Donna to help me come up with ideas for some of the difficult essay questions, but I did not tell her that the job was located in Blythe, an outpost on the Arizona border located eight hours from Fresno and nearly twelve from her family.  I had been through there on the interstate a couple of times on the way to Phoenix, so I figured it couldn’t be too bad.  I looked around online for information about Blythe and quickly learned that they typically have less than two inches of rain per year and temperatures over 100 degrees for at least six months out of the year.

When I finally got up the nerve to confess to my wife, she was a very unhappy camper.  I think she accused me of wanting to take her to hell, being out of my mind, and a few other choice things that I’d just as soon forget.  I wasn’t really that concerned, assuming that this application would meet the same fate as all the rest.  It didn’t become real until a few weeks later when I was asked to come for an interview.

We drove down the day before the big show and camped out in Motel 6.  The temperature was 107°.  Donna and I looked at each other and knew that this entire venture was insane.  We cranked the AC in our motel room and avoided going outside.  “Can we leave and just say you did this interview?” she asked.  I was very tempted to go along with this plan, but decided that I may as well go through with it since we were already there.

Well, nearly a year and a half has passed since that June day and I am pleased to say that, praise God, we are happily ensconced in Blythe.  Both my boss and my staff have been very good to me, I have learned a lot and we have even gotten (somewhat) used to the horribly hot summers that are the norm here.  As the memory of my troubles with my former job in Fresno and my eight months of unemployment begin to recede into the distance, I realize that being fired and going through the existential struggle of being out of work were not all bad things after all.  They did lead me to a better place in my life and to a location that I am convinced was God’s destiny for us.  We have met many wonderful people here and everyone has been friendly and helpful.  I like to tell out-of-town visitors about our neighbors, one of whom climbed on our roof to fix our air conditioning one night when it was 110°, and the other who takes in our mail when we are away and has become a friend to my wife.  Back in Modesto, we barely knew who are neighbors were.  And in Fresno, we got to know our neighbors very well, because they’d get drunk every weekend and throw things at each other.

Can something that started out bad turn into something good?  You betcha.  Or maybe all I chose to see was the bad when there were good aspects that I had yet to notice?  I think the lesson here is to avoid the temptation to see things in black and white.  Just as man contains both the good and evil inclinations, so does every situation have its positive and negative aspects.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Drama in the rain - Chris Whitler

In May of 1991 I was in Romania.  This was my second trip to the freshly democratic country that had undergone violent revolution just two years prior.  Missionaries were sounding the call.  The time was right for the gospel in this hurting nation.  People were hungry for hope.

I was there with a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) team of 20 or so in response to that call.  We were serving full time missionaries and churches by doing what we could to gather people together and communicate the story of Jesus to them.  It was the early 90’s, it was YWAM and that means drama.

Not drama as it has come to be referenced these days with indignant bobbing heads and snapping fingers and a “I can’t believe she comes in here and creates all that drama!”  I’m talking about mime make-up, costumes, a translated sound track and some amateur thespians acting out the great story to the best of our ability.  We were performing a play called ‘Toymaker & Son’, an allegory with dance, physical theater and colorful costumes that was part Nutcracker, part Cats and part Shields and Yarnell.

As people gathered into the soccer arena for the “spectacol” so did the storm clouds overhead.  We had set up the sound equipment and the props.  We had marked the dirt square as our stage area.  And now we were afraid of those dark, heavy clouds.  So, we started to sing.  We didn’t want rain to drive people away and postpone their chance to see this story.  We sang, we prayed, we asked God to move the storm along.  People still gathered.

As we fervently beseeched like we had never beseeched before for that storm to pass, a beam penetrated those clouds and the heart of the storm was shot through with light like the birth of a Thomas Kinkade painting.  It happened suddenly and we all exclaimed excited praise and thanks.  The show would go on!  God is good!

Infused with faith and adrenaline, we took our places.  I sat in the dirt, awaiting my cue.  The music began.  On that introductory trumpeted note, the rain began to fall - a sprinkle, some drops and then a full on shower.  The dirt became mud.  We all started laughing.

We carried on.  We slipped through creation.  We splashed through man’s rejection of God.  We slid through Christ reaching out to his broken creation.  We sloshed through the crucifixion.  We splattered through the resurrection and the ultimate defeat of evil.

At the end, a local pastor invited people to the hope that Christ offers and many responded, coming forward to pray.

As it turns out, storm clouds break apart and storm clouds gather.  God is still good.  Sometimes rain is an invitation to have a little more fun.