Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zoo Cow

Once there was a Cow who lived in a zoo. He lived next door to the Panda and across the path from a Zebra, but they didn’t talk much. The Zebra was always busy and the Panda never had much to say.

Plus, they were fancy and the Cow was plain.

The Panda was wonderfully white with black spots and the Zebra was beautifully black with white stripes. But the Cow wasn’t extraordinary at all. He was just regular white except for a big black patch on his back.

Black and white.
White and black.
All three of them looked like I Love Lucy reruns standing in a field.

The children loved to watch the Panda and wished they could pet the Zebra. But when they stopped in front of the Cow’s fence, it was usually just because they needed to tie their shoes or because they found a stray nickel. Most children had seen a cow before.

One child had seen a cow on a milk carton.

Another had seen one holding a sign in a fast-food chicken restaurant.

The little boy with a balloon had even been brave and touched one once when he drove from the city and visited his Grandfather’s farm.

The Zebra loved it when the children took pictures of his beautiful stripes and watched him run across his field. Their shouts and flashes made him feel special. He sometimes wondered, however, what would happen when the children realized that he was really just a horse with stripes who was afraid of lions. They would probably think he was ordinary and boring and never come back to visit.

The Panda adored the bronze plaque that told everyone she was born in a far away place called China. It reminded her that she was rare and wonderful. She spent all day pointing at it so the people would notice, but she was secretly afraid that the children would love the monkeys better than her because they whooped and hooted and threw their poop at grown-ups.

The Cow stood in his field wishing the sticky faced children would think he was something other than ordinary. He often heard their parents call him Grade A and Prime, but somehow their comments never sounded complimentary.

One day a group of children came to the zoo in a big yellow bus. They stopped to look at the Cow, but only because their teacher told them to.

“The Cow looks lonely.”
“The Cow smells funny.”
“Why does the Cow have flies on its butt?”
“Are cows stupid?”

The children were loud and asked lots of questions.

One little girl said, “Mrs. Jenkins, is that the kind of cow that makes milk like I put on my cereal?”

“No,” Mrs. Jenkins said. “That’s the kind of cow that makes hamburgers like we’re eating for lunch.”

The little girl rolled her eyes. She was a vegetarian. Her mommy said that hamburgers would give her cholesterol. The little girl didn’t know what “cholesterol” meant, but since she already had cooties, she wanted to be extra careful.

The Cow felt trapped in the zoo. Lonely. Of course, most animals feel trapped in a zoo. That’s why it’s called a zoo and not a forest or a farm.

The Cow, however, didn’t feel trapped because of the gate. He wasn’t lonely because he didn’t get to visit faraway farms and factories like the country cows did.

The Cow felt trapped because the children and their questions reminded him that he would always be a cow - different from the other animals around him. No matter how hard he tried, he would never be as cool as the Panda or as interesting as the Zebra. He would never climb a tree or race like the wind. He didn’t like bamboo, and whenever he wore stripes, they only accentuated his already round belly. The most the Cow could hope for in life was a fresh bail of hay, a vague fantasy about a stampede, and a bell around his neck ringing to remind everyone that he was a big fat cow.

And so the Cow spent every day eating his grass – ignored and out of place – feeling like a cow in a zoo.

One day a Chinese woman came to the zoo and stopped to look in the Panda’s cage. She yawned when all the Panda did was pose and point and eat bamboo. The Chinese woman wondered if the zookeeper might have any ideas for keeping pandas out of her backyard. It made her angry every time she saw one of the black-and-white beasts snacking on her serenity garden.

The same day, an African man seemed mildly impressed with the Zebra, but in a hungry way that made the Zebra nervous.

Later that day a little boy came to the zoo wearing blue jeans held up by a belt with an impressive silver buckle. The boy walked past the Panda and didn’t care much for the Zebra. But at the Cow’s pasture he stopped and watched for the longest time.

The boy stood next to the Chinese woman as she tried to offer the Cow a piece of her hot-dog. She seemed disappointed when he refused.  An African man behind the boy whistled so the Cow would run and play, but the Cow didn’t want to run and play. Especially not when someone whistled at him.

But when the boy saw the Cow he didn’t take pictures or point. He didn’t poke his hand through the fence or make loud noises. Instead, he watched. He watched until long after the Chinese woman and the African man left.

The boy wasn’t afraid of the cow, but he wasn't impressed by it, either. He knew that cows are nothing to be scared of. He also knew that it’s better to understand something than to be impressed by it. And he already understood the Cow. Little boys wearing belts with big silver buckles usually do.

The Cow ate his grass and watched the little boy watching him. It was good to feel ordinary and unimpressive. After a long while he finally realized what the Panda and Zebra never would.

When someone really understands you, your cage doesn’t seem so small.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Christmas in Five Acts

I realize that Christmas 2008 was thrown out with the wrapping paper almost two months ago. But as many of you know, the last year has been . . . well, transitional. Chaotic. Hopefully you’ll forgive me for posting an out-of-season story that I’ve only just finished. If you do, I’ll forgive you for wearing white after Labor Day. -b

Act 1. The Problem:
Even though the last days of December are already hectic for both Santa and Jesus, I thought it was appropriate to tell history's two most popular people what happened. Since neither seems overly concerned with justice, I feel it's necessary for someone to help them update their naughty lists during the busy season.

Of course, I don't fault them with what happened. I understand that neither Jesus nor his party planner spend much time watching locker rooms at the YMCA - especially at Christmas. To do so would almost certainly be a violation of the omniscience that has made them each famous.

But that doesn't excuse the fact that I was robbed.

Act 2. The Setting:
My sister’s Christmas tree was spectacular, planted in a mulch of ribbons and wrapping paper, blooming with a hundred colored bulbs. Angels and snowmen nested in branches drooping with a harvest of fragile glass balls. The poor thing should have been the happiest tree on earth.

Kathy is a good mother. She waters her children regularly. They're so hydrated they sometimes leak at night. She even gives Santa, who only stops by for a few minutes each year, a glass of warm milk and cookies. The Christmas tree, however, endured its three week stay in my sister's house without her offering it the smallest sip of water.

For all its decoration, the tree might as well have been a princess parading through a dessert - dressed for a banquet, but dying of thirst. Parched, it probably spent the entire Christmas season wondering how an eight foot evergreen transplanted to a suburban living room and covered with flashing lights could possibly be forgotten by a family of four.

Sadly, it happens – especially at Christmas.

Act 3. The Situation:
Children’s minds get cluttered at Christmas. At least twice during the holidays they need to have their brains washed to clear the visions of sugarplums out of their heads. Bloody slasher movies do the trick, but most parents prefer things like playgrounds, trampolines, bike rides, and basketball.

Four days before Christmas, Kathy told her kids that they were going to the swimming pool and Uncle Bryan was coming too. The Children cheered and changed their clothes. The Christmas tree sighed.

“Mammals,” it thought, “have all the fun.”

It was right. Four days before Christmas, we went swimming.

Act 4. The Stupidity
Does Santa lock his sleigh so kids out after curfew don’t swipe his pack of smokes off the passenger seat?

Did Mary lock the manger door to keep loitering shepherds from stealing her family’s new stash of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

Do the elves lock their toys in a trunk every time the Tooth Fairy comes for a visit?

No. Of course not.

In a similar spirit of blissful trust and unintentional generosity, when we went to the pool I didn’t lock my locker.

Act 5. The Scandal:
The kids who stole my cash didn't care if Santa watched when they were sleeping. According to a Christmas carol loophole, by day he only knew they were awake.

If the details of their waking lives, and therefore their hopes for a coal-free Christmas morning, were protected by this technicality – why shouldn't they help themselves to the contents of a stranger's wallet?

Answer: Even if he wasn't watching when they opened my locker door, Santa will see the aspiring young convicts at the mall next year. When he does, he'll wonder where they got the money to buy those new shoes he wasn't asked to make and he'll know why they no longer need his services.

So don’t forget, little thieves, your name never gets crossed off his list. It only gets moved to a different column. This is where the two Christmas patriarchs part company. Santa holds a grudge.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Close Enough

Everybody has an airport story – that excruciating tale of waiting on the runway for four hours that's unique to everyone we know.

They’re among our favorite stories to tell because we’ve rehearsed them so often, perfected their timing and developed their characters. We can perfectly describe both the woman who filled two seats in row three and the man who somehow lost his barf bag. During each of our repeat performances, we remain confident that nobody can compare turbulence to a roller coaster quite like we can. Our accounts typically begin with subtle and understated openings like, “Not long ago I had to fly to . . .” and end with the self-conscious clincher, “well, it was just terrible.”

We usually tell these stories at parties, not because they’re particularly interesting or original, but because someone else opens the door with their own travel nightmare. And even though everyone in the kitchen is bored with the subject as soon as they’ve told their own tale, we’re convinced they’re still listening on the edge of their seats, sitting in an upright and locked position while we finish a monologue about our luggage being lost.

“Well,” we say, “it was just terrible.”

And by the time we’ve finished talking, everyone agrees. That really was just terrible.


After a recent trip to visit my family in Nashville, I was scheduled to land at New York’s LaGuardia airport. Half-way through the flight, 40,000 feet over impending doom, the pilot made the following announcement:

“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Please pardon the interruption, but we’re experiencing a few technical difficulties we’d like to make you aware of. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with the plane. But our brakes don’t seem to be working . . . “

Being a man of words, I quickly applied an editorial ear to this announcement and gleaned the following key phrases. One of them feels a bit conspicuous, like it doesn’t belong with the others. You have to bend its corners to make it fit. Can you guess which one?

1. We’re experiencing technical difficulties
2. There’s nothing wrong with the plane
3. Our brakes don’t seem to be working

If we’re (1) experiencing technical difficulties and our (3) brakes don’t seem to be working, then it logically follows that there is something wrong with the plane. Feeding a metal tube full of passengers that small spoonful of sugar does not help the medicine go down.

I wonder if the captain of the Titanic, the pilot of the Hindenburg, or any of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew ever started a speech with “there’s nothing wrong with our ship, but...”

Consider a mother panda telling her tear stained daughter, “sweetheart, there’s no need to worry. We’re not going extinct... but there’s a reason you don’t have any friends.”

Or Santa mentioning during a staff meeting, “you all know that global warming is a complete ho-ho-hoax... but I was thinking that maybe we should make our uniforms with shorter sleeves next year.”

Or a Native American man saying to his son, “the nice white people said they don’t want our land... but if you were going to pack your four favorite things into a box, which four things would you choose?”

The “but” serves the same purpose in these speeches as it does on the human body. It’s just fleshy nonsense that does nothing but cushion an impending blow to your backside.

After the announcement, a wave of quiet panic swept through the cabin. The woman filling two seats in aisle three tightened her already strained seatbelt. A man holding a curious smelling sack excused himself from row twelve. While most of the passengers wondered why oxygen masks hadn’t already fallen from the ceiling, the passenger sitting in my seat wondered how the pilot discovered our brakes weren’t working.

Did he tap the left pedal and notice a sluggish response? Considering that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, would that really be cause for alarm? I suspect that driving a 400 ton passenger jet is not unlike managing a nuclear conflict – once it’s started, it’s probably difficult to stop – and for good reason. Principals like inertia, momentum, and gravity dictate that stopping suddenly at several thousand feet is an exceptionally bad idea. To be no longer moving forward is to be quickly moving downward. Stories of airplanes stopping suddenly usually end with words like “crash” and “tragedy.”

The pilot, however, wanted us to stop not immediately, but sometime shortly after reaching the airport. Unfortunately, the airport was as much of a problem as our broken airplane. The runways at New York’s LaGuardia Airport are apparently too short for a 400 ton jet hitting the ground at 160 mph to stop using only its emergency brakes. Errant planes at LaGuardia coast off the end of the pavement and drop into the East River, never to be seen again.

In an effort to save 200 passengers the trouble of using their seat cushions as flotation devices, our pilot radioed the tower and requested that our flight be re-routed to New York’s JFK airport, where the runways are longer and don’t force emergency brakes to work under such impossible deadlines.

Geographically, the change wasn’t significant. It wasn’t as if LaGuardia closed unexpectedly and forced planes to land in Los Angeles, 3000 miles away. Our flight was simply re-routed from one side of the city to the other. Only twelve miles apart, LaGuardia and JFK are as close to each other as a person’s elbows are to his knees. The same taxis, trains and shuttles connect them both to New York’s mid-section, home to the city’s Empire State Belly Button – one of the largest outies in the world.

Despite our broken brakes, several passengers seemed concerned not that we might experience a rough landing, but that the inflatable slide might dump us out at the wrong airport.

A college student pressed her call button and asked the already frazzled stewardess, “But what about our luggage? I mean, how are we supposed to get our bags?”

The stewardess paused and inhaled deeply through her nose. “The pilot thought it would be best if we all arrived together,” she said, “so he had your luggage re-routed to JFK as well.”

“Oh,” the girl said. “good.”


When our plane finally bumped onto the runway, several people jerked awake from long in-flight naps. They wondered why their fellow passengers applauded and cheered when the plane finally pulled to a stop. Were the lights and sirens escorting us down the runway celebrating ours as the one-millionth landing? Would there be prizes? Would we each be awarded a free membership in the mile-high club?

As old men stretched and young women collected their belongings, the pilot made his second big announcement of the evening. First he confirmed that we had just landed safely at JFK, stopping well before the end of the runway. He then announced that the airline had arranged for a shuttle to take us to LaGuardia.

A few tourists smiled, obviously believing this was good news.

The rest of us wondered, why would we ride a crowded bus to LaGuardia when for $2 the subway will take us from here to anywhere we want to go?

“Must we take the shuttle,” a passenger asked. “Will it be possible to retrieve our luggage and leave from here?”

“No,” came the reply. “According to FAA regulations, all luggage must be loaded onto the new airplane that will fly us to LaGuardia.”

Airplane? Fly? Had the airline that charged $25 for each of our bags and would soon deny us a small cup of free soda really arranged for an airplane to fly us the final 12 miles to LaGuardia?

According to the pilot whom we applauded only moments before, the answer was yes. He assured us, however, that this would be a relatively simple process:

As soon as our replacement plane landed (45 minutes) and it’s passengers unloaded (20 minutes), the cabin would be cleaned (15 minutes) and our luggage would be transferred while we re-boarded the new plane (30 minutes). We would then wait for clearance to take off (25 minutes) before we flew the final 12 miles to LaGuardia.

In other words, it would take the new airplane over two hours to shuttle us 12 miles.

A handicapped toddler could carry our luggage to LaGuardia faster than that.

This news raised the terror alert on our flight from an ever-present orange to a more realistic red. Even the love-starved co-ed with a boyfriend waiting at the wrong airport threatened to join our mutiny against the shuttle. In our solidarity, we would not allow the airline to hold our luggage hostage. We would not fall victim to their ill-conceived customer service. We would not add two needless hours to this already nightmarish trip.

Like Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., we fought for our freedom.

“We have a right to ride the subway,” we cried.
“You can’t force us to the back of a bus!”
“Let our luggage go!”

When a stewardess started to cry, however, everything settled down quite a bit.

In reality, the angry passengers who complained did it mostly to each other. Their shouts were little more than the mumblings of tired and passive-aggressive passengers. A man in first class might have threatened to sharpen his seat-belt buckle into a shiv, but to my knowledge he never followed through with his plan.

Eventually, the jetway extended. Overhead compartments emptied as passengers shuffled to the front of the plane. A gate agent met us in the terminal. “Your luggage will be delivered to carousel three,” he said. “You win. You’re all free to go home.”

“But why,” he asked. “Why all the commotion? LaGuardia’s not that far away.”

An exhausted mother turned and smiled, wearily. “Sometimes,” she said, “when you don’t land where you thought you would – close is close enough.”


Once upon a time I would have called this attitude “under achieving.” I would have argued that as people built with divine purpose, we weren’t meant to smile wearily when life stops 12 miles short of where we think it should.

But that was back when things like potential and possibility seemed more definite than they really are – when the future was clear because it was still far away.

Now that the future is right in front of me, it’s terribly hazy.

Now I find myself asking my God and my resume’ to shuttle me safely to where I think I belong – to a patch of greener grass that I always assumed was mine. But maybe it isn’t mine. Maybe it never was. Maybe this patch of greener grass was grown for me.

Sometimes, when you don’t land where you thought you would, close is close enough.