Monday, July 25, 2011

Movin' On Up

The last month has been rather Hellish. You may have noticed the blatant lack of postings over the last 4 weeks. It is because I am in a funk. It's called the "I'm in a weird state of transition" Blues.

My lovely wife has recently finished her coursework at the University of Iowa in music therapy, and on June first she started her final hurdle on the road to certification: a six month internship. The location? Des Plaines, Illinois. So a little over a month ago, my dear wife, our worldly possessions in-tow, headed for the Chicago Suburbs. And I was left to fend for myself in Davenport, Iowa.

You'd think that without my wife around, I'd have nothing to do after work, so I'd be able to blog like crazy. That's what I thought. Unfortunately, an obstacle got in the way of my much-anticipated productivity. Writer's block.

It came in the form of lack of motivation. It came in the form of exhaustion, as I couldn't sleep well. It came in the form of YouTube and Facebook and working late and sleeping in. It hit me like a blitzkrieg on the London skyline. But the best way to move past a block is, simply put: start writing again. It's going to be stiff, it's going to be awkward, but it's the only way that I've found to actually get back into the rhythm.

"All Them Foreigners"

This weekend, Annie and I went down to Southeast Iowa to attend a wedding and then visit my mother. The wedding was beautiful, the weather was cool and overcast, and the rolling hills of Southeast Iowa tugged on my reminiscent heart strings.

On Sunday, we went to lunch with my mother at a little gas station-turned-grocery-store-and-restaurant (you know the type) in Farmington, Iowa. We pulled up under the converted gas awning and parked our car, the only Toyota I'd seen in at least three counties. As we went inside, I snagged a Bonny Buyer, the local classifieds rag. The cover was brightly promoting "Heartland Fireworks: Best selection, Best quality, Best price". Out of Wayland, Missouri, you know these folks are serious when they typify their final statement with five exclamation points!!!!!

As I flipped through the listings of Allis-Chalmers' and F-350's, an open wagon pulled by two scraggly-haired mules pulled up to the building. At the reigns was a man wearing the biggest cowboy hat and mustache combination I've ever seen. A girl who attended my high school sat beside the man, wearing a matching hat. Two Australian Shepherds panted lazily in the bed of the wooden cart. They strode in and sat down in a dingy booth across the room.

We chewed our pork tenderloins and country-fried steaks in relative silence and as we were finishing our meals, my mother leaned out of our booth and hollered to the couple,

"Hey guys! How are you? I haven't seen you in ages!"

With that, the couple wanders over to make small talk. I gear up for a superficial conversation with someone I've long since lost any common interests with. My mom announces,

"You remember Chris? This is his wife Annie. They're living in the Chicago area now, although I keep hoping they'll decide to come back!" She laughs at that, though there is more truth than jest in the statement.

The mustached man scoffs. "I used to drive truck through there on the way to Indiana. Always hated that stretch. Too many foreigners."

I clenched my teeth as I forced a polite smile. Below the table, Annie's grip was cutting off circulation to my left hand, signifying her disdain for the mustache clad mule driver. As the one-sided conversation continued, the man continued to explain how southeast Iowa was much better, without all the problems of the "Big City". In his mind, simpler was better.

We smiled and nodded and finally they left. We paid our ticket, and headed on our way as well, relieved to be removed from the mans closed minded epithets.

But the Mule man got me thinking. As he railed against several other ethnic identities, complained about the traffic, and besmirched the bureaucracy of city life, I realized that, from his limited perspective, these things were awful. Why would you want to interact with someone from India, who you could hardly understand, when you could talk to someone who was born and raised in America, lived down the road from you their whole life, and had the same experiences as everyone else in the county?

To me, this is what makes the city so exciting. We drove down Devon street last week, passing by shops promoting kosher meats, kebabs, sari's, Hijabs, and Bollywood films. The people who walked the crowded streets were probably Israeli, Pakistani, Iranian, Indian and who knows what else. They were likely Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist.

And I loved it. I watched every person who passed our car. Some were dressed head to toe in black robes. Others wore short shorts and tee shirts. Some had flowing robes of silk. One man had the most impressive beard I'd ever seen up close. The sheer diversity in culture as we drove down those half dozen blocks blew my mind. And they all lived in relative harmony.

To some, diversity is a frightening thing. As for me, I'll deal with the traffic to meet some people who haven't spent their whole life in the corn belt.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Urin-alyze This

In order to pass the background check for my new job, I had to jump through several hoops. Verify employment at all of my previous posts, confirm my citizenship in these great United States of America, and provide a urine sample to ensure that there was nothing illicit affecting my abilities to serve the company.

A woman called me at work one day to set up the appointment. We set the date and she rattled off a laundry list of do’s and don’ts:

“Drink plenty before you get here, although we do have a water cooler in the lobby”

“If you’re ready when you get here, plan for a half hour. If you’re not prepared, bring a book, ‘cause it could be a while.”

“Don’t try to pull something over on us, ‘cause we’ve seen it all.”
And the appointment was set.

“Anyone every tell you...?"

I pulled up to the building a few minutes before my allotted toilet appointment. It was my lunch break, but I’d refrained from eating, opting for a rigorous liquid diet all morning – four cups of piping hot coffee and close to half a gallon of cold water. I had yet to break the seal, so was primed for pee. This was going to be a piece of cake.

Upon entering the sterile gray lobby, I was met with the disinterested stare of two men in dirty camouflage hats, crusted work boots, and skeptical eyes. One was wearing a tee shirt that said “This Union Delivers” and the other was wearing a denim collared shirt that should have been retired before I was born. I approached the glass window and introduced myself.

“Hi, my name is Chris Walljasper. I’m here for a one o’clock…urinalysis.” My voice went from hushed to barely audible as I squeaked out the final syllable.

“What’s your name again?” Her voice was flat, and she didn’t so much as look up from her computer.


“Sign in and sit down. We’ll call you when we’re ready for you.”

So I signed. And sat. As I pulled up the AP news on my phone, I couldn’t help but overhear the two men across the small lobby talking. It seemed that I was the focus of their murmuring. Soon I heard,

“Anyone every tell you that you look like Jim Carrey?”

“Yeah man! You could be his little brother or something!”

I sighed and looked up from my phone.

“Every day of my life.” As I said it, I briefly considered an alternative answer.

“Really? You’re the first person who’s ever told me that. Weird.” With such an answer, I imagine a much different conversation would have unfolded. He'd say eagerly,

“Yeah, it’s spot on. I’m surprised no one’s ever said that to you before.”

“Hmmm. I dunno. Do you watch a lot of Jim Carrey movies? Maybe you just know him better than most. Don't tell me you're a member of his fan club!”

“Nah man, I haven’t seen many, but he was a hoot in Dumb and Dumber. And Ace Ventura was pretty funny! You seen that one? Where he’s looking for the dolphin?”

“No, I haven’t seen that one.” I grit my teeth. Maybe it would have been better to tell the truth.

“Really?! Man it was funny. The Mask, that’s another one he did.”

“The Mask? I think I’ve heard of that one. He has a dog, right?”

“Yeah. He finds this wooden mask that has super-powers, and it turns him all green and shit. Pretty funny stuff.”

Yeah. Hilarious.
Peeing into the Wind
Finally the aloof woman at the window called my name. I went through a heavy wooden door, passed through a long hallway filled with exam rooms, and was met by a robust woman who's demeanor dwarfed her impressive physical size. She led me into a large sterile room that was identical to any you'd find in a doctors office, save the presence of a bathroom stall. It was as if someone had removed a chunk of the public toilet down the hall and planted it in this doctors office. The woman opened a metal locker and ordered me to empty my pockets. I thought I'd been thorough, but Nurse No Nonsense proceeded to give me a quick pat down to ensure that I was not hiding any foreign pee on me.
I wasn't.
When she came across my insulin pump attached to my belt, she raised an eyebrow in suspicion.
"It's my pancreas."
The second eyebrow joined its mate. She did not see the humor.
"My insulin pump. I'm diabetic. See, it's attached to my stomach?" pulled my shirttails out of my pants and pointed to the site on my abdomen.
"Alright. I guess you probably don't have any urine in that thing."
She ambled over to a cabinet against the far wall, and opened both doors to reveal stacks of clear plastic cups, all wrapped tight in plastic to ensure sterility. Everything was so sterile in this office.
"Choose your cup."
"Don't you have anything in blue?"
Not even a smile. "It's federal law that you pick out your own cup. So get over here and pick yourself out a cup." Her tone left little room for further remark. I grabbed a cup and handed it to the woman.
"Alright. Get in there, fill it to this line. You have enough to get there? Otherwise, we'll wait. No sense in wasting what you got if it ain't enough."
"Oh I think I can get there. I can probably fill two of these things."
"Well, we only need one. You got anything else, it goes in the toilet."
I entered the stall, and was taken aback by all the signage. There were a dozen brightly colored, laminated signs, all citing federal and state codes regarding my urine and its use. I didn't realize anyone was so interested in controlling my pee.
"It is unlawful to knowingly provide urine for any party that is not the bearer of those fluids..."
"Upon completion of urination, remove sample from stall without flushing..."
"If while urinating, a burning sensation occurs..."
Enough reading. I undid the buckle of my belt, unzipped, and began to fill. Within seconds, I'd reached the top of the cup and deposited the remainder of the fluid into the toilet bowl. I sat the cup on the back of the toilet, redressed myself, and as I reached for the cup of amber urine, I did what any respectful person would do.
I flushed the toilet.
As my hand moved toward the silver lever, there was an internal struggle taking place in my brain. My instincts thrust my left hand toward the stool as it had done for years. But as soon as my mind realized what was happening, it began sending everything it could at my arm.
"Cease and desist! Retreat! Evasive maneuvers! NOOOOO!"
But it was too late. As the water rushed into the bowl, a low groan could be heard from the other side of the partition,
"Oh no you didn't!"
Yes. Yes I did.
I walked out of the stall like a wounded puppy. Without even turning to look at me, the nurse said,
"Pour it out."
"What?! Why? It's perfectly good pee!"
"It don't matter. Pour it out. Federal regulations say that if you flush before I see it, I can't accept your pee."
I dumped my pee, then began collecting my belongings. As I refilled my pockets, the nurse explained what the next steps were.
"Go out, drink about fifteen cups of water. Wait a half hour, then let the receptionist know."
The Waiting Game
And so I drank. And I waited. And I drank some more. As I sat there, glancing at my phone with mild irritation, A family fell through the door. More accurately, a loose collaboration of people whom I assumed were all-too-closely related came bustling through the door. The two women wore clothes that fit them too snuggly, showing off overly tan bits of rolling flesh that couldn't be harnessed by fibers natural or synthetic. The children bore untamed hair and tee shirts that boldly advertised remains from their lunch - ketchup and sweet and sour sauce, as far as I could tell. From the giant vats of cola the women carried in, it was clear that McDonalds was the purveyor of the stains. Slipping in behind them was a tired looking man in a torn shirt and work boots. He seemed as though this was the last place in the world he'd rather be. In that we were kindred spirits.

Against all my might and better judgment, I overheard the women as they spoke to the receptionist in unnecessarily loud volumes.

"We're here for a paternity test."

With that, I forced myself to concentrate on what the Associated Press was saying about the economy. Blocking out these women's flippant remarks about baby-daddies and child support, I failed to notice the presence of a ragged little girl in the seat next to me.

"Whatcha reading?"

I glanced to my right and discovered a little girl, with wild brown hair that smelled mildly of chlorine and eyes that sparkled with an ornery enthusiasm that overcame any fear of the unknown man in the waiting room.

"The news."

"I can read. I read all the time for school."

"Oh yeah? What have you read lately?"

"I've read lots!" She hopped off the black plastic chair and bounded over to a table that held a smattering of golf magazines and bedraggled children's books. From the stack she pulled an old Dr. Seuss. Horton Hears a Who was scrawled whimsically across the front. She clambered back onto the seat beside me and began flipping pages.

Unsure of what to do, I resumed my article on Congress and the debt ceiling, all the while aware of the little girl reading tales from Whoville beside me. Every so often as she turned the pages, I caught her glancing up at me with a hopeful grin, waiting for a chance to show me how well she could comprehend this tome. She'd look at me for only a second, then dive back into the book, tracing the lines of rhyming text with her tiny index finger and mouthing the words in a barely-audible voice.

After a few seconds, I could feign indifference no longer. I watched the child muscle through a bit more of the book and when she looked up again, I asked,

"How is it?"

"It's great! I LOVE Dr. Seuss!" She almost shot through the ceiling as she beamed. Then back into the book.

I smiled, then crossed the waiting room to the water cooler that I was single-handedly emptying with my bladder-filling prison sentence. After about seven more cups of tepid water, I returned back to my seat next to my new best friend. She'd finished the Seuss and was on to an issue of Ladies Home Journal that looked to be from 2006.

"I'm going to be the flower girl in my mommies wedding!" She beamed as she imparted this fact.

"Oh yeah? When is that?" I asked, afraid of travelling too far into this conversation.

"Next Saturday. I have a dress, and shoes, and a basket! Wanna see my walk?"

Without hearing my response, she proceeded to march across the waiting room, dramatically stretching first her left arm, then her right arm. It was as if she were endowing life-giving bread to the starving masses, the amount of care that was placed in each little swell of the arm. The woman whom I can only assume was the blushing bride-to-be bellowed,

"Knock it off! He doesn't want to hear about it! Come sit over here now!"

Just then, I decided I'd go for round two with the plastic cup. As I strode by the women, I indiscriminately muttered,

"Congratulations on your" The words trailed off as I ran out of things to say.

Upon reentering the room, the same nurse walked me through the same routine, as if I hadn't been there thirty minutes prior. I picked my cup, I filled it, and as I finished, I began to reach for the lever.

But this time, my brain won the day. I strolled proudly from that stall, bearing my cup of urine high.

"My urine, milady."

And with that, I strode out of that office a free and empty-bladdered man.

I also left that office a little more humble, and glad that I'd been able to sit and read with a little flower girl from Davenport, Iowa.