Level 9: So Much For Taco Bell Part 1


“Short cuts make for long delays.”

—Pippin

To be fair, my mom didn’t know the night I had just been through. To be accurate, I had tried to warn her. She promised not to touch me. She promised to keep to herself. My trap had succeeded beautifully. Even before she arrived I knew there was no way she could keep her hands off me. Once her darling boy started hiccupping and moaning she would instinctively swarm, and when my mom set her mind on something there was no stopping her. Mad Prophet Nathan knew this, in fact he was betting on it. Craftily he decided to capitalize on a bad position. He made her promise to do something he knew she couldn’t.

Exhausted and sweating, I sat with my ass on the edge of the tub and spat bloody residue into the toilet. Sauron had annihilated me again, the Death Star had not been destroyed, my board was tapped out and my opponent was about to swing with the team. Still, there was a moral victory to be had. I was going to get to yell at my mom.

It took 10 minutes poetic for strength to return to my jittery limbs and another 20 before I could stand. As I recovered, I planned my speech. In the last four days the only thing I’d kept down was a little water and two blue Ex-Lax. I was in bad shape but we’d worry about it later. This was a time for celebration. I picked up the frequency specific machine and let the four contact pads dangle to the ground. They had come off in the explosive aftermath of my mother’s ill-fated attempt to protect me. I pulled up my boxers with one hand and slid the door open with my toe. I could hear her moving about in my apartment. I put on my meanest face and shuffled through the door.

My mom was in the kitchen brewing a concoction that involved boiling water. “Double, double, toil and trouble,” she cackled to herself.

I crawled into bed, each movement painful. Like an old dog, I situated myself slowly, making sure everything was just right. When I was certain things were where I needed them to be, I struck. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked.

“What, honey?” she called from the kitchen.

“What’s wrong with you?” I repeated louder.

She brought in a steaming cup. “Drink this, it’s –”

Was she ignoring me? Was my voice too weak to hear? I tried to muster another angry face. “You can’t touch me when I’m hiccupping.” I tried to yell, but it came out as a mutter.

“I know. You already told me.”

“But you did it anyway.”

“Your contact pads had come off.” She offered me the cup.

“No, they hadn’t.” I tried to push it away.

“Yes, they had.”

Now we were having an argument about the relative position of the contact pads. I knew her strategy. If I somehow got her to admit they had not slipped off, a near impossible task, she would throw up another excuse. We would then bicker about that and never get to the heart of the problem – her broken promise. Maybe if I had the strength to fight her I could eventually win, but I didn’t.

“Drink this,” she repeated. “It’s called Nin Jiom and it should soothe your stomach…”

I rolled over, wishing Tobolowsky was my mother. He would have felt the proper amount of shame for pushing me over the edge. My mom didn’t know the meaning of the word. She set the steaming cup down on my nightstand and went back to cleaning. I tried to imagine a world without pain.

An hour or so later we were on the road. The only thing worse than excruciating stomach pain was excruciating stomach pain in the passenger seat of an SUV at rush hour in downtown Denver. To make matters worse, we were lost. Even under the best of circumstances I couldn’t find my way out of a cardboard box and these circumstances were far from the best. We were running late so I tried to find a shortcut through the heart of the city. It didn’t go so well. We were circling back for the third time when the hiccups set in. The Nazgûl were hunting us through the forests near Buckland and Strider was nowhere to be found. I tried to stay calm and find Zen.

My mom wanted me to listen to a CD about some kind of revolutionary new voodoo magic or other. Rather than argue about how the speaker wasn’t worth listening to I began to moan extra loud. She quickly turned the stereo off. We swerved and dodged through rush hour traffic; trying to undo the knots my navigation skills had gotten us in. I laid my seat back and tried not to die.

“I can’t believe we’re going to that demon den,” said my mom, referring to Boulder. “I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it!”

Boulder was the hippie capital of Colorado, home to every cult, shaman and witch in the state. When my mom called it a demon den, she wasn’t speaking in metaphor. She believed that actual demons from Hell inhabited the city, toying with its citizens and spreading Satan’s work. She had believed this since I was a kid but always managed to find a reason to visit this modern day Babylon, drawn like a fly to organic honey by the promise of herbs and magical lore. Diane Dvirnak, religious zealot, voodoo witch.

“Call them! Hiccup. Just call them,” I whisper-yelled between moans. I had been thrashing about and groaning so violently people in adjacent cars looked to see what was going on. Winnie the Pooh’s Tummy Full O’ Honey Belly Rub Technique was beginning to lose its potency. I’d been rubbing the place where Sauron laired so much it was getting sore. I had to space out doses.

“OK. OK.” my mom finally gave in.

We were late. We were always late. I was mortified. We left my apartment behind schedule because my mom was attempting to heal me. I made it worse by trying to find a shortcut through the city. We made quite the team.

“Yes, hello, Carol? Diane Carson here. We’re stuck in traffic on the Boulder Turnpike. Yes, uh-huh, we’re going to be a little late. OK! See you soon.” She hung up the phone.

“Why do you do that?” I asked. It drove me nuts. Just admit you left late and your idiot son got lost and leave earlier next time.

“What?”

“Lie.”

“I didn’t lie,” she scrunched up her face. “We’re in traffic on the Boulder Turnpike.”

“You said ‘stuck’ – hiccup  – in  – hiccup – traffic which is different than  – hiccup, hiccup, hiccup”My mom was nuanced but she didn’t understand nuance. Debating the finer points of grammar with her was about as easy as training a slug. “Never mind. You’re  – hiccup – not allowed  – hiccup – in the chiropractor’s office with me.”

“What?”

“When we  – hiccup  – get to the chiropractor  – hiccup  – I’m going in alone.”

My mom loved healing, every part of it. A visit to the doctor’s office was, to her, like game day. She got to put on her jersey, order her favorite cocktail and swagger about the bar showing off her knowledge. Her questions weren’t questions, they were sentences that proved how much she knew. I could see it now…

“I don’t know, stomach comfort contains slippery elm which coats the cilia, maybe food enzymes would be better?”

“Mom! You’re paying this man for his expertise, if you don’t  – hiccup  – care about his  – hiccup  – opinion, why’d you  – hiccup  – drag me  – hiccup  – here? BLARGH!” Black death shit vomit as I lost Zen and spiraled out of control.

Yeah, there was no way my mom was coming in that room, I’d fight to the death to make sure of it.

“Fine, your highness,” she said sarcastically, “I’ll stay in the waiting room.”

My mom had conceded a point without a fight. What was going on? Maybe the vomiting incident had gotten through to her after all. Maybe I looked more sickly than I thought.

Eventually, impossibly we arrived. Boulder, blessed Boulder, hippie capital of the world, demons and all. Groover Clinic was nestled in a strip mall in the heart of the city between a Thai restaurant and some other store I don’t remember. We pulled into the parking lot and found a spot. My mom always took forever to get out of the car. By the time she’d gathered her purse, tea, cell phone, book, magazine and baggies full of supplements, an entire soccer team could have suited up for practice. I left her to the task and limped inside.

This is Karen Groover, the receptionist at Groover Clinic where my mom took me for some NUCCA. In the story her hair is white, but this was the only picture I could find of her. I don’t know if time changed the color of her hair in my mind or on her head, memory is funny that way.

The office was nice: hardwood floors, leather chairs, open space with a yoga mat, exercise equipment, and a bunch of giant, four-foot-tall, egg shaped crystals with warm light glowing inside them. These strange totems were no doubt some sort of spiritual focus, attracting powerful demons for the chiropractor’s séances.

“Hello!” said the cheerful white haired lady behind the counter.

I couldn’t stand upright. I was hunched and haggard, with a four day beard on my face. I gave my best smile and limped over to her desk, leaning my weight on the counter and wishing I could collapse onto the floor. “I’m  – hiccup – Nathan.”

“Oh, Nathan! Your mother said you’ve been having a rough time,” she looked at me sympathetically. “I need you to take off your sandals.”

“My sandals?”

She nodded. I removed my flip flops and slid them into the corner. Some doctor’s office.

She handed me a clipboard and I began filling out Important Questions about my medical history. It was horrible. I couldn’t focus. My hand shook and the cramped, letters zigged and zagged all over the page. My writing normally looked like a third grader’s, now it seemed that third grader had filled out the form while riding a roller coaster. My mom came in with her arms full of stuff. “Mom.” I gestured vaguely at the unfinished paperwork and hobbled over to the yoga mat. She went to the counter and took over, I collapsed onto the floor.

“Dr. Groover is finishing up with a patient, then he’ll eat dinner and be with your son,” said the receptionist.

I had fought with my mom and gotten her to call ahead so the doctor wouldn’t be offended by our tardiness. Now this dude was making us wait so he could eat dinner? Holistic folk, I tell you.

I love dogs more than anything, especially tiny, pettable ones with big floppy ears like this guy! Karen Groover wouldn’t tell me the dog’s name because she uses it as a password for her computer.

The floor was far less comfortable than it looked. The office dog came over and started licking my feet. I loved it when dogs licked my feet. The pooch came in for a pet and I rubbed him behind his ears. Then something funny happened. The intensity of my hiccups faded. Not completely, but enough so I noticed. Did this hippie dog have healing powers? I sat there staring at the animal while my mom chatted with the lady behind the counter. Their dialogue followed the formulaic swordplay that was the hallmark of most conversation. They went around and around in a brilliant display of one-ups man ship, neither one listening to the other. This wasn’t unusual, everybody did it, but what was strange was it seemed my mother was loosing.

“Nathan is a graphic designer,” she said. “He’s back in school getting an engineering degree.”

“My son is a doctor who visits on the weekends when he’s not flying plane loads of medicine to needy children in Zimbabwe,” countered the receptionist. Advantage, receptionist.

Apparently “my son” was a fight my mom couldn’t win – I was nowhere near doctor status. I was curled up in a ball on the floor of her office. My mom changed the subject. “Nathan has been so, sick. Poor dear couldn’t even keep down water.”

Karen Groover didn’t know how to email a picture of herself but when I hit up her Facebook account I found this little gem.

My son died of AIDS,” said the white haired old lady. Killing blow! Death was hard to beat.

“I’m sorry for your loss. How long ago did he die?” My mother was loosing her edge, engaging in conversation instead of attempting to trump her opponent’s statement.

“Oh, he’s not dead. He resurrected himself so he could continue to care for starving babies in tyrannical African nations.”

And on and on. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman more self-absorbed than my mom. The specifics of my retelling were poetic, but you get the idea. Neither one cared what the other was saying. Lots of people make the same mistake.

Life Lesson No. 3

The Ping Pong Theory of Conversation or Dialogue Determines Destiny

This one is easy and obvious but many people haven’t figured it out. They miss out on boatloads of potential friends because nobody taught them how to play the conversation game correctly.

Conversation is like Ping-Pong, it requires a certain amount of back and forth. If you are a phenom with an overhand serve only a Chinese prodigy can return, your potential friends, clients or significant others will get frustrated and leave. You might win a game or two, but soon you’ll be alone. Conversely, if you let your opponent’s serves bounce past you and never return them, she will soon grow bored, leaving in search of a more worthy opponent. Either way you end up playing with yourself; pun intended.

The main difference between Ping-Pong and conversational pingpong is that in conversational pingpong, you’re not trying to defeat your opponent. The challenge is to keep the ball going and the best part is, if you master it, both players win. Like actual Ping-Pong, conversational pingpong requires a lot of practice, but with a few tips you’ll be well on your way.

First you have to be honest with yourself. This is also the single most important skill in living a healthy, successful life. I know because I suck at it. Sometimes the consequences of denial are unimportant – you continue wearing the cowboy boots that make you look ridiculous – but sometimes they’re deadly. The reason this story is called Confessions of a Diarrhetic is not because I started throwing up on May 12, the night the Nuggets lost to the Lakers. I named it that because I ignored the chronic diarrhea that infected me while working as a fisherman in Alaska for 10 years.

I’ll say that again.

The reason this story is called Confessions of a Diarrhetic is because I ignored the chronic diarrhea that infected me while working as a fisherman in Alaska for

10

years.

On May 12, the third-of-a-lifetime I’d spent lying to myself and others erupted out of me like a blackened god of death. If I had been honest with myself, if I had acknowledged I had a problem, I could have avoided contracting an incurable disease that wrecked my mind, body, finances and friendships. Turning the mirror inward and recognizing your faults is the first step on the long road to change. It is a powerful tool and if you master it, you will transform the world: not for everyone, but for yourself, and believe me, it’s worth it.

Do you wish you had more friends? Do you sometimes get the sense that people are avoiding you? Look in the mirror and honestly evaluate what kind of player you are. If you talk too much it means you’re like the dude with the invincible serve. The ball is always yours and your opponent doesn’t stand a chance. You need to back off a bit. If you decide that you’re the shy, quiet type, it means people are hitting the ball your way, but getting nothing back. Eventually they get exhausted and leave. Fortunately for both players the solution is simple: listen and ask questions.

People love to talk about themselves. Remember that scene in Fight Club where Marla is leaning on Cornelius’ shoulder at the therapy session and she asks, “Why are you doing this?”

He replies, “I don’t know. When people think you’re dying they really listen to you instead of –”

She cuts him off, “Just waiting for their chance to talk?”

There is a profound truth hidden in that scene. People are desperate for conversation, but they don’t want to talk to themselves, they need someone else to play with. Why? Because we are communal beings. We want to know and be known. We want to share and give and receive. It’s a wonderful thing, but it takes two to make it work. In prison movies when the protagonist has offended the evil warden, they throw him into solitary confinement. They separate the hero from human interaction and he shrivels like a plant in the sun. Conversation isn’t just the awkward thing that happens before and after wedding ceremonies, it’s necessary for survival. We are herd animals. In the words of Tobolowsky, “We survive by contagion.” The latest fashion styles, the pendulum swings of political power, the new television show everyone is watching; these are not just meaningless trends, they represent the manifestation of humanity’s collective will.

“Hey, guys! This is good!” says a dude to his group of friends. If they agree, the fashion, idea or TV show spreads, gaining power and influence. If they disagree he gets laughed out of the bar and never wears a fanny pack again. Some people are tail waggers, they jump on the latest trend and build the bandwagon everyone else eventually rides. These men and women are reformers, the tip of the spear. Other people sit back and wait. They won’t buy The Latest Thing until it’s been discounted twice and the store is about to donate it to Goodwill. These people make sure the tail waggers don’t lead us down some awful path. Both are important. Without the former, society would stagnate. Without the latter, it would tear itself apart.

The societal norms of a given time, the zeitgeist, if you will, are decided upon by the collective choices of the tail waggers, the discount rackers and everyone in between. The ideas that shape a culture are fickle and respond to the environment its people inhabit. They infect the culture with wealth or poverty, war or peace, joy or sorrow; and the means of transmission is language. Spoken or written, the pen truly is mightier than the sword. If you are an outcast, if your overhand smash is too brutal, if you never return a serve, you exist at the mercy of society at large. The Pingpong Theory of Conversation is not just important to your personal well-being, it means your ideas will help shape tomorrow.

Why am I telling you this? Yeah, you, nerdy guy in the back of the room. Because the world needs you. Your mind is brilliant. I know, I’ve been here for a while. You have hidden depths. You have answers, but no one will know unless you tell them and no one will listen until you stop zinging the ball past their paddle or ignoring their attempts to engage. You have to learn to play the game.

So look in the mirror and honestly evaluate yourself. If you decide that you talk too much and you want to get better at the game, I have an assignment for you. The next time you’re in a conversation, shut up. Don’t say a word about yourself. Instead, listen to the other person, even if it’s boring, even if they’re dumb. When an opening arises – you know, that moment you usually use to butt in and talk about yourself – ask a question. Not a question that proves how smart you are, “So what you’re saying is that string theory cannot be tested and therefore will never be proven?” does not count. The question must be honest, open-ended and require more than a yes-no acknowledgment that your assertion is correct. Then listen to their response and ask another question. If they askyou something, limit your answer to a single sentence and follow up with another inquiry.

Try it five times with five different people and see if they don’t stick around longer than they used to. Watch their body language change. Instead of turning toward the door and taking awkward steps away, they will face you and mirror your actions, that means they’re engaging. Trust me, it works. How will you know the conversation is over? They’ll tell you. “Nice talking to you, man. Gotta go.” Then don’t say another word. Don’t drag them back in. You’ll see them again, and the next time they’ll be happy to see you as well.

For you quiet types, the task is similar, and the best thing is you’re already good at the hardest part: listening. Next time you’re talking to someone, when you feel the conversation slow, don’t stand there awkwardly. Instead, fire off a question and get them going again. If they ask you something about yourself, respond, but you get more sentences than those talky types. Try to fill a paragraph, then finish with a question. Feel the conversation shift? Back and forth, back and forth, this person likes you! It doesn’t matter that you’re shy, they’re lonely too. They just want to be heard.

As you practice you’ll get better. You’ll be able to sense when it’s OK to talk for an hour or two, when it’s fine to spill your guts. You’ll also know when the time is right to listen, when the person you’re engaging needs to be let out of solitary.

The Pingpong Theory of Conversation is a powerful tool for social outcasts and regular folks alike and it’s important that you master it because dialogue determines destiny. Ideas shape the world and words are the currency of change. Society needs answers and together we can find them. Your voice matters. Make sure someone is listening.

to be continued

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Tied to a Tree

Here’s a new track Jordan recorded and sent me from Germany. Jordan is one of my most invincible weapons. He gets my pages early and advises me on what should change. I love him and can’t wait to meet his new daughter.

Lies, Greed, Misery

This song’s “you did it to yourself” break down was perfect considering the confession I made in the life lesson for this level.

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