January 2009


First confession:  I didn’t vote for Obama.  I converted to political conservatism in my late 20’s and have mostly voted Republican since then.  Obama was too liberal for me, plus too inexperienced in the larger political arena. 

Second confession:  I’m white.  Always have been.

Nevertheless, when I read Obama’s inaugural address yesterday, I was stirred–even inspired.  I thought it was a great speech.  Frank on the problems that face us and the hard work needed, yet it had a motivational aspect to it that made me WANT to sacrifice and make the needed efforts. 

An African-American coworker was watching the address live online, as was I–over his shoulder.  At the close of it he turned to me and said, “I feel empowered!  I really do!  I feel like, more patriotic or something!  When I was a kid in school, if I said I wanted to be president some day, the teachers would say, ‘That will never happen.  Forget about that.’ ”

I asked him if that came from a white teacher and he said, “White AND black–black teachers would say stuff like that too!  But now…”  And he shook his head and appeared pleasingly stunned. 

I couldn’t help but be moved.  There was nothing in my life experience to compare to this, so I couldn’t really put myself in his place; but the power of this moment in his life (and not just his) was evident, and I felt some of it.  Like the reflection of light off metal, like asphalt radiates heat even after the sun has set, some of it affected me.  And I more fully realized that something more, something bigger than just a new president taking office, was happening here.

So where does that leave me?  Well… I’m still a conservative.  Obama is still too liberal for my tastes, and I still wish McCain had won the election.  Also, I just checked and I’m still white. 

But I do feel some excitment, and I feel happy for a segment of my fellow citizens who are more excited and proud than maybe they have ever been in their lives.  And I feel hopeful that perhaps this election will ignite something in this country that goes beyond politics and lasts longer than just this administration. 

What can happen when a large group of people “feel empowered,” when they see new possibilities that they previously felt were unreachable?  What kind of hope can that stir up and how will it affect a whole nation?

I’m eager to find out.

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Matt rounded the corner and entered the front door of Nick’s Lounge, a bar at the intersection of Ninth and Arapaho.  It was ten minutes after seven on a warm August night.  His light blue dress shirt was open at the collar, his sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up, his sport coat left behind in the car.  His shirttails were threatening to come untucked from his khaki slacks.  He looked like a man ready for some serious unwinding.

Inside it was cool and the lights were low. On the jukebox a woman was singing, declaring her undying love for a man who had left her.  Matt smiled, but somehow it didn’t convey pleasure. There were two open seats at the bar. He picked the one closest to the door.

The bartender glanced up. “Hey Matt,” he said in greeting. “What can I get you?”

“Hi Tony,” said Matt. “Gimme a Bud.”

“One ice cold Bud, coming right up.”

Matt pulled his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and set them on the bar. He swore, realizing he’d left his lighter in his coat pocket.

“Got a light, Tony?”

Tony was way ahead of him, setting a full glass of beer and a disposable lighter on the bar in front of him. Some foam slid down one side of the glass and soaked into a dark green napkin. He lit up and took a deep drag, then pulled a five out of his wallet and set it on the bar.

“Liz trusting you out on your own tonight?” Tony teased.

“Every night, Tony. We split up.”

“You and Liz? Come on.”

“I’m serious. I’m here to celebrate.”

“Had enough, huh?”

“Well, she overheard me talking to a girl at a party last week. Just fooling around, flirting a little. No big deal. But Liz acts like I was proposing to her. She’s always overreacted to that stuff. The ball and chain type.”

Tony smiled. “Especially for a guy like you,” he said. “You like the ladies.”

“Hey, I just like to have fun. She didn’t even want me smiling at another girl.” He shrugged. “It’s for the best.”

The man on his right spoke up. “Liz your wife?” he asked.

Tony looked at the man, a little surprised at this breach of bar etiquette. It wasn’t any of his business.

Matt blew cigarette smoke out over the bar. He tapped an ash into the ashtray and smiled. Then he looked at the other man.

“You a divorce lawyer?” he asked. “Business a little slow?”

The man smiled back. “Nope,” he said, sipping his drink. “Marriage counselor.”

Matt laughed, then gulped some beer.

“Okay counselor,” he said, putting the cigarette to his lips for another drag. “She’s my girlfriend. We were living together. I’m going to move real slow before ever getting married again, believe me. Maybe I never will, I don’t know.”

“You’re divorced?” the man asked.

Matt smiled, but again there was no pleasure in it. “Twice,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson. How about you, counselor?”

“Nope. I’ve been married almost 28 years to the same woman.”

“You must practice what you preach. Maybe I could learn a thing or two from you.”

The man shrugged. “Could be,” he said.

“Tell you what. I’ll buy you a drink; you give me some good advice.  Deal?”

“No thanks. One’s my limit, and it’s after business hours.”

“Come on. I’m obviously pretty screwed up, right? This is your big chance. Hey Tony! Bring me another Bud and my friend here another one of whatever he’s got.”

The man smiled and shook his head. “Make it a Diet Seven Up,” he said to Tony.

“Okay,” Matt said, “help me out here. Make me a better husband.”

The man shifted slightly in his seat and looked at Matt. “Okay. First tell me your definition of love.”

“Whoa!” Matt said in mock surprise. “You’re going to make me think? Okay. Um… let’s see. Love is… passion, and a feeling of excitement between a guy and a girl. They can’t wait to see each other, and then don’t want to leave each other.” He paused, then shrugged. “There. How’s that? I’m better at multiple choice.”

The man chuckled. “Okay. Passion. Excitement,” he said. “So how do you maintain that over the years?”

“Hey, I’m not the one to ask! You tell me!”

“I don’t think it’s possible.”

Matt frowned. “Well then, what…”

“Your definition of love is all based on feelings. Feelings come and go. Love needs to be based on something solid.”

Matt flicked an ash off his cigarette. “Something solid,” he repeated.

The man nodded.

“Like what?”

“Like commitment.”

“Commitment?”

“Right. When the feelings fade commitment holds you together until they come back. Otherwise you’re constantly splitting up and chasing the next pretty thing. In my experience, when you stick with the commitment the feelings will always follow. But when you go with the feelings, commitment never comes into play at all–and then you’re bouncing from relationship to relationship.”

Matt studied the foam head on his beer. He frowned slightly.  “So you think I’m coming up short in the commitment department?” he asked.

The man shrugged. “I don’t know for sure. You said you’ve been divorced twice?”

Matt nodded.

“How long did your first marriage last?”

“Almost four years.”

“Why did it end?”

“I… got involved with someone else. But it was in trouble before that.”

“Did you marry the other woman?”

Matt shook his head. “No. It only lasted a few months.”

“How long was your second marriage?”

“Two and a half years.”

“Why did that one end?”

“She was the suspicious type. Had to know where I was every second. Drove me nuts.”

“So that was why you divorced her?”

Matt hesitated. “Yeah. Well… Towards the end I did meet someone else.”

“Liz?”

“No. Sharon. She was a lot of fun. We moved in together, then a little later she started thinking she owned me too.”

The man was silent for a moment. “So that eventually ended.”

“Yeah. At first we had a lot of fun, then she gets all clingy on me. She ruined it. It could’ve been great.”

“Would you say…” the man paused thoughtfully.  “Would you say you’ve ever really been in love?”

“Yeah! I was in love with all of them.”

“You like that feeling? Being in love?”

Matt smiled. “Sure! It’s the greatest. When you meet a girl and there’s that ‘zing.’ So you ask her out and it works.  So you ask her out again. Yeah, I don’t have any problem meeting girls and falling in love. It’s the part after that I have trouble with.  Making it last. They always change.”  His smile slowly faded. He took a puff and blew the smoke straight up. “I suppose I do too. I can’t put it all on them.”

Matt rested his elbow on the bar, his cigarette near his cheek. The smoke made a twisting white line that rose toward the ceiling. Both he and the other man appeared to be deep in thought. Tony glanced over at them curiously but stayed away.

Finally Matt spoke, quietly. “I think I’m beginning to see what you mean about that commitment thing.”

The man sighed. “There’s more,” he said.

Matt turned and looked at him.

“If you like being in love,” he continued, “but no love has ever satisfied you for long, then maybe you’re actually in love with the idea of being in love..  And if that’s the case, real love is something you haven’t discovered yet. Maybe what you’re looking for isn’t found in what you’ve been pursuing.  Maybe you’re aiming at the bull’s-eye, but it’s the wrong target.”

Matt’s eyes narrowed and he stared at the man. He quickly crushed his cigarette out.

“You know something,” he said. “Tell me!”

The man shook his head. “If I shoot the bull’s-eye for you, that won‘t help. You need to do it yourself. If I were you, Matt, I’d start shooting at something else.”

“What do you mean?”

The man met his gaze. “I’d find out what real love is.”

Matt looked puzzled. “Well how am I supposed to do that?”

“Look at what you’ve been  doing.  It hasn’t resulted in anything lasting, right?”

“Right.”

“So maybe you don‘t find love by pursuing every exciting new relationship.  Maybe you find it by not giving up on the same old one you’re already in.”

Matt thought about that. “Is that how you made it for 28 years?”

He nodded. They both sat silently for a moment, neither of them looking at the other.

Finally Matt sighed. “Don’t you ever get…bored?” he asked.

“Sometimes.  Sometimes my wife does too. But we’re still together. And I can honestly say that I love her more now than I did 28 years ago.” He paused, then looked at his watch.  “Which reminds me; I’ve got to meet her down the street. We’re picking out new carpeting.”

“Whoa, hey; nowthat  sounds fun.”

The man smiled.  He finished his drink and stood up.  “Well what are you  doing tonight?” he asked.

Matt bent his head and stared into his beer. Then he said quietly, “Probably sitting right here.” And he reached for another cigarette.

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright 2004

 

 

Since so few people read this, I feel safe in letting you in on a secret:  Twenty eight years ago I was recruited by a special branch of the CIA and trained to be an assassin.  It was a program where they picked very bland, nondescript losers who wouldn’t arouse suspicion, and made them into Jason Bourne-like killing machines.  The pay and the hours were pretty good; the down side is other people want to end your life.  At least it was nothing personal–I’m pretty sensitive and that would’ve hurt my feelings.

Anyway, that’s background info to what happened to me on the way home from work yesterday.  The car in front of me stopped very suddenly and I tapped his rear bumper.  I angrily got out to ask him why he hit the brakes like that, but he got out and stood there smiling at me.  Odd behavior, I thought.

It was when he pulled out a large gun with a silencer attached that I realized he was a former target that I THOUGHT I had assassinated 25 years ago in Cairo.  Imagine my surprise (and my ethical dilemma–should I pay back the money I received for that job?)!

Fortunately the old instincts took over and I ducked, spun, and used my right leg to sweep both of his out from under him (I pulled a muscle too).  Except it didn’t work–he jumped over them.  But it made his shot miss, and I guess that’s the important thing.  In the old days, while ducking and spinning, I would’ve pulled out my gun, but these are the new days and I don’t carry one anymore (my company is against it: “We do not allow guns on these premises” it says at the front door). 

Quickly recalling I had two legs, I used my left one to kick the gun out of his hand (which flew into the door of a passing Saturn, and I’m not sure if my insurance covers that).  As I expected, he immediately pulled out what appeared to be a really, really sharp knife.  I hate those things.  So I came up with large chunk of very dirty ice and hit his knife hand.  It was kind of a “rock smashes scissors” moment, and he dropped the knife while screaming a word in Turkish (which I didn’t quite recognize; it was either “Potato!” or something else) .  Oh, and it also broke his thumb.

In the old days I would’ve pressed my advantage at this point, and in the new days it still sounded like a good idea.  So I clubbed him in the face with my trusty very dirty ice chunk (I really should carry these with me all the time).  This seemed to cause him a great amount of pain and he fell to his knees. 

By this time I had become angry, so–just to show him I could–I grabbed his arm and broke it at the elbow.  Fortunately I still carry nylon zip ties with me so I secured his hands behind his back.  The broken arm was especially easy to handle because now it swiveled.

Well, to make a long story short, the cops came, and after identifying my would-be assassin they called the FBI, and I spent a few hours explaining everything to a very by-the-book (but otherwise nice) inspector, who finally let me go when I told him my code name from 25 years ago (“The Leper,” it’s a long story).

And so honey, THAT’S why I was late for supper.

P. S.  If anybody’s interested, next time I can tell you a little bit about our government’s Former Assassin Protection and Relocation Program.  But only a little bit.

I’ve got a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine.  Each issue has a short contest they call “Your Story,”  in which they give you an open-ended prompt and you write a short story from it (750 words or less). 

The last one I entered came from the prompt: “You receive a box that contains a pirate’s eye patch and a note.”  So I wrote the following story.  (Which didn’t win the contest, by the way.  I try to avoid winning contests or getting published because I believe success would spoil my art)

 

I’ve Got My Eye On You

By Michael Anderson

 

I knew it was going to be one of those days when I woke up to the sound of a bullhorn-enhanced voice yelling from my front yard, “Sean Carter, you are surrounded! Come out with your hands up!”

I’d really have been worried if my name was  Sean Carter. But let me go back to the beginning, which was yesterday…

It was on my front steps when I got home: a small box wrapped in brown paper, an uncomfortably-shaped egg, laid and abandoned by some strange bird. It was addressed to me, no return address. I don’t get many deliveries so I was eager to open it. I was sure I’d won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. I would open it up at my kitchen table and ten million dollars would spring out and then float back down on me like large confetti. A band would appear, and a smiling person would shove a microphone in my face.

I was close. Inside was a pirate’s eye patch and a note that said, “I’ve got my eye on you.” It was signed, “L.”

I’ve never been good at pondering, but this got pondered real good for at least six or seven minutes. Then my wife came home.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Pondering,” I replied.

“You’ve never been very good at pondering,” she helpfully pointed out.

“I’m getting better.”

She leaned over my shoulder and looked in the box. “Why did you order a pirate’s eye patch?”

“I didn‘t,” I said.

“And who’s L?”

“I don’t know anyone named L.”

She went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “Well their name  wouldn’t be L, it must stand for something.”

“Like Lucy?”

She stuck her head out of the fridge and frowned at me. “Who’s Lucy?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It starts with L.”

“You don’t know anyone named Lucy?”

I shook my head.

“Then why did you say Lucy?”

I shrugged again. “It starts with L.”

She put her head back in the fridge. “Lots of names start with L. My  name starts with L.”

“Did you send this to me?”

She took out yesterday’s tuna casserole and put it on the table. “No, of course not. I wouldn’t send you something; I’d just give it to you. Here, move this box so we can eat.”

She picked it up, then glanced at the label. “They spelled your name wrong.”

“They did?” I leaned forward, embarrassed. In all my pondering I had missed that.

“They put Sean  Carter, but you spell it Shawn.  Whoever it’s from doesn’t know you very well.”

The phone rang. If I’d known, I would never have answered it.

“Hello,” I said.

A male voice said, “Good evening, Mr. Carter.”

“I’m really not interested in–”

“Did you get my package?”

I put two and two together. “Is this L?” I asked, and my wife’s head snapped up from the tuna casserole.

The voice chuckled cruelly. “How very astute of you, Mr. Carter. Yes, this is L, and I think you know why I’m calling.”

“No, actually, I don’t. Why did you send me a pirate’s eye patch? Both of my eyes work fine.”

The cruel chuckle again. I was already tired of it. “You’re very good at acting dumb.”

“I’m not acting,” I protested.

My wife whispered, “Maybe they didn’t spell your name wrong; maybe they’re looking for Sean Carter instead of Shawn Carter.”

I covered the phone and whispered back, “That’s the same name.”

“But different spellings!” she yell-whispered.

I saw her point.

“You know, L,” I said back into the phone, “I think there might be some mistake here. This package was addressed to Sean  Carter, but I’m Shawn  Carter.”

“That’s the same name,” said L.

I explained the spelling difference to him but he wasn’t convinced. “Listen Carter,” he said, “you know what I want, and what will happen if I don’t get it. How would you like it if I made a phone call to the police?”

“Actually, that might be a good idea,” I said.

“We’ll see if you think so in the morning! If you change your mind, you know how to reach me.”

“Actually I–” Click.

Fortunately my wife went to work early the next morning, so she was spared the embarrassment of seeing me in the front yard in my pajamas with my hands up.

“You’re looking for Sean  Carter and I’m Shawn  Carter,” I said to the policeman.

“That’s the same name,” he replied.

 

 

Michael Anderson

 

Copyright October 2008