Thursday, September 13, 2012

Essays for sale!

Oh hey. Hey there. Did you think I died? 
Not dead, no worries. And BAM! I come to you with an urgent request today. Real Simple magazine, my first and only magazine subscription, is running an essay contest that I've been meaning to enter for months now. Of course, the deadline is 11:50pm today, September 13th. The contest theme is "Think of a decision you regret--anything from a ridiculous choice of prom date to a serious lapse in judgment--and tell us what that mistake taught you about yourself." I have 3 potential essays I've thought about submitting (below) and I need your help choosing one:

1) "Almost a Philanthropist" -- This will be familiar to anyone who's read my blog. I've made only slight additions for the purposes of this contest.
2) No title yet for this one. I warn you, this one is neither light nor fun to read, but it's the first topic that immediately sprang to mind for this contest. I wanted to write about it because it's the most meaningful for me, but you will not hurt my feelings if you don't pick it. Warning: deeply personal.
3) "Queen of the 4th Grade"-- Lest you tire of hearing about my elementary days of glory, here's another tale of my former idiotness. Sort of along the lines of #2 but lighter.

Now, be a dear and read my dribble and comment back (today!) about which one you think I should submit. Constructive criticism is welcomed too, you extra milers. I love you forever and ever!

--Stef Star

1) I graciously accepted the seat that was pulled out for me by my date, and smoothed a napkin daintily over my lap to cover my prom dress. I felt beautiful, if only for the fact that I was surrounded by Salt Lake City's elite and almost counted myself as one of them for the evening.
Seated around me were some of my favorite co-workers and their guests, all looking shined-up and ready for something exciting to happen. After our black-tied servers brought us a delicious meal, the emcee began the live auction. In this economic downturn, the bids were slightly disappointing, but some items were sold for inexplicably high rates--like an enchilada dinner for 20 people that sold for $3,000. This boosted my confidence and my desire to step off the bench and join in the game—not for any real amount of money, of course, but I always want to do my part to get rich people to spend money for a good cause.

My ears perked up when a trip to Mexico was mentioned. It seemed like it would be a popular item, since some of the other, less exotic trips had sold fairly easily. Before I knew what was happening, my hand shot in the air as soon as they opened the bidding. I should have listened, because the auctioneer started the bidding at $3,500.

Gasp.” (From those seated at my table.)

Crickets. (From everybody else in the room.)

...Going once.

It was a curious feeling, like swimming underwater, but with superhuman laser-pointing eyes that zero in on one man with a microphone, making his way to my table...

....Going twice.


Heart. Palpitations. Sweaty. Palms. Swallowing bugs with less-than-daintily open mouth.

In my desperation, I turned to the nearest bid-spotter and hissed—that's right, I hissed, because a lady under duress does not raise her voice or use foul language to make her point—she hisses. So I hissed, "What are you doing? SELL THIS THING!" To which he enthusiastically responds "Oh no, you want this. This is cool!"

The nerve of that guy!
Apparently he loves sick kids more than my financial well being. Oh, my dear beneficiaries of the Ronald McDonald House, I love you. I really do. But I also love making rent. And not starving. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why nobody in the room is making a peep. Too busy eating your shrimp scampi, Mr. Millionaire? Excuse me, Baroness of the Backless Dress to my right, but could you spare a couple grand so I can sleep tonight? Contrary to my appearance and polished demeanor, I do not in fact have a hospital wing named after me. My perfect posture is merely a ruse, to mask the fact that I'm only here for the food. And to look hot in my prom dress.

Meanwhile, the silence in the room had reached bone-crushing density and the widened eyes of every person at my table threatened to dislodged themselves at any moment. I was on the verge of some quite unladylike outlets for my panic, i.e. tearing out my hair and jumping frantically on the table, when a voice pierced the fog of my certain demise. One, clear, six-figure salaried voice of mercy fought through the din and massaged a rhythm back into my heart with his sweet, affluent cry of "$3,600!"

...Sold! For $3,600!

I may have shed tears.

The collective sigh of relief from those near me was a substantial boon to our depleting ozone layer. My heart found the will to go on, my kids thanked me for their college funds, and my prom dress went to the cleaners...for reasons I find unladylike to describe.

This experience not only threatened my heart and my pocketbook, it taught me something: Being impulsive can have disastrous results, but it almost always makes for a good story. Sometimes doing something crazy just for the sake of making a memory is what makes life interesting.
2) Honestly, I have only one real regret. I know that sounds arrogant, as if I've conducted everything in my life flawlessly. This being far from the truth, I've thought over the countless small things that, sure, I would do differently if I had them to do over again. But regrets are things that keep you up at night, that come to visit at odd hours and leave you wondering how things would be different, like that old high-school crush you never had the guts to ask to prom or the team you wanted to try out for but chickened out. I have few, if any, of those kinds of regrets, and none that have so deeply shaped who I am and how I think as did that one night with Adam.

We met as restaurant servers during my last summer in college. I was 3 months away from leaving for a study abroad in Italy, which I have since learned is the perfect recipe for falling in love. We fell fast and hard and we talked about how ridiculously talented and crazy our kids would be. Is there anything as beautifully blinding as first love? As fast and as hard as it was, it happened when I was only 22 so I was painfully naïve. I bloomed late, you could say. Really late, actually. Maybe as late as 22. Needless to say, my dating experiences were few and the romantic conflict I was most acquainted with up to this point was unrequited love.

To me, Adam was an exhilarating mix of passion and dark humor. He made a summer working at a greasy buffet fun, which is no small feat for a girl who hates every customer who walks through the door (the service industry is not a great fit for me). He would catch my eye from across 20 tables of increasing obesity and wink or pull a face so I would stop scowling at everyone. Or he would just look at me in my clunky, no-slip restaurant shoes and frumpy, food-spattered apron, smiling like I was the sexiest thing in the world. And when I got myself fired because I decided to “explain” to a customer that no tip was unacceptable, he was the one who rallied the rest of the servers around the idea of having a statue of me erected in the restaurant to pay homage to my defense of the working class.

Adam oozed wit, talent, charm, and...potential. I could talk for hours about his potential. I say potential because, well, at that time he sure had a lot to figure out. He lived at home, had no car, and he was a little lost in school, hopping from major to major and dreaming so big it would take your breath away. He was debilitatingly compassionate, the shirt off his own back kind. He was also reckless and impulsive, prone to depression and anxiety. I saw little of those darker sides at first, though in retrospect I see they were always just beneath the surface of his enthusiasm.
After about a whirlwind month, he started to drop hints about how he wasn't good enough for me, how he had certain “issues” that he was always trying to figure out. It took awhile for him to eventually tell me that depression runs in the family and he was exploring medications and therapy to help his own early signs of it. This shook me up a bit, since I've lived a somewhat charmed life. I grew up in a comfortable home with a healthy and happy family, and though we've had our struggles like anybody else, at that time the weight of his words seemed completely foreign. I talked as best I could with him about it, but mostly we kept things light and fun. As long as he was up, he was around and making me laugh, so I figured none of it was too much for us to handle.

Not long after we started using words like “love” we hit a rough patch, but I don't even remember what started it. I know he started feeling distant, like he was slipping away from me. One night he came over and his shoulders hung so heavily. We went out to the back yard and laid side by side on the trampoline and talked. He started to really talk this time, telling me details about his childhood and family that were not light or fun. I listened to it all and ached for something to do or say to help. Then he came to the heaviest part: He said he was currently struggling with an addiction that was far from being resolved. He had worked with therapists and church leaders and had been unable to make any real headway and was so defeated by that. He said this unapologetically. He said it like a man on the edge of a cliff, resigned to the worst version of himself and offering it up for me to take or leave. With this declaration, he stopped talking and his unasked question hung in the air: Could I still love him now that I knew everything?

I said nothing.

I had no words. I have all the words in the world now, since I've had 8 years to conjure them up, but then? Silence. I made the mistake of thinking I had time to consider what he'd said and that he owed me a few moments to process and evaluate. Could I still love him now that I knew everything? Of course. But his everything changed everything. I was so hurt by his confession, because I hadn't yet learned that the world doesn't revolve around me. All I could think of was how this would affect me, affect us, affect him as he related to me. These thoughts started doing a dizzying dance in my head and then, after what must have seemed like hours to Adam, he got up and left.

When someone bears their soul, it is an act of love. It is a raw, pleading, desperate cry for love. And when that person is the first real love of your life, he deserves an immediate reward for his bravery, a quick assertion that what he's given is recognized and appreciated. I didn't recognize the precious few moments I had to extend that love and instead wasted the time in silence. I could feel that something big had changed after Adam left, and cried like I'd never cried before. Then I drove straight to his house and pled with him to just give me time to think. He nodded his head, granting me all the time in the world, but eventually I saw that those selfishly silent moments under the summer stars sealed off his heart to me completely. Things were never the same. Our relationship didn't officially end there, but how we kept going for the next several months is a story for another day. Though we eventually broke up and moved on to different lives, my heart still breaks when I think of what he must have felt when I let him down like that.

I have studied those moments continually over the years. At other times I've been shown my naivety and have hopefully dealt with those situations a little more gracefully, but I'm still learning just how important it is to react with love to people who need love. I imagine some future day when I have a beloved child of my own, someone with wit and charm and all the potential in the world. This child musters up the courage to tell me something he's done that he knows will disappoint me, and it does disappoint and hurt me deeply. But instead of saying nothing, I will waste no time and say, “I love you so much. Thank you for telling me. I'm proud of your honesty and we'll figure this out together.”

I don't know if those words would have changed things for Adam. I don't know that we would be together now if we had figured things out, because a lost relationship is not the source of my regret. I know that what I actually lost was an opportunity to extend real charity in a moment when it was needed most. I hope and pray I will not miss those opportunities in the future.
3) I peaked in fourth grade. Socially, that is. No really—it was all downhill from there. But for one school year I enjoyed a vantage point high above any other I've since attained, from the very top of the 10-year-old caste system. I was popular for some reason, and I knew it. For the most part I chose to use my powers for good, and benevolently bestowed my attention on others with fairness and equity (a rotating schedule for who got to sit by me at lunch saw nicely to that). I can talk about this with candor and only slight exaggeration because, of course, none of that popularity stuck with me and I became just like any other normal, awkward kid later on. And since most of what is important in elementary fades with time, much of what happened that year is laughable. But as Queen of Mrs. Barlow's class, I made some decisions that I regret. And those decisions, unlike the heady power of popularity, have had lasting effects on me. They have shaped me. One such decision:
It was a typical day in school, during reading time. I spotted a boy across the room who had probably been in my class since kindergarten, but I'd never really paid attention to him. His name was Jared and he was a nerd, by any 4th grade standards. I impulsively decided to try a little experiment with him. I gestured a sort of 'watch this' to a few nearby friends and proceeded to catch the boy's eye. I smiled. I winked. I think I even made a kissy face at one point. I basically declared love to him from across several desks. And he ate it up.
Throughout the day I kept it up, but only from a distance. He started passing me notes, embarrassingly full of compliments and adoration. I don't think he loved me as much as he loved the fact the a girl was paying attention to him for the first time. And, well...that girl did happen to be at her social peak. Anyway, I thought it was so funny that he would fall for it so easily. I remember distinctly thinking it was funny that I could make someone think I liked them just by looking at them a certain way.
When I grew tired of the game later that day, I just stopped cold turkey. I didn't even make eye contact with Jared, and passed his notes back unread. He was understandably confused, but I don't really remember anything else happening after that. Because for me, the experiment was a success and I moved on to other interesting things.
I'm ashamed that this was not the only unkind thing I did that year. It was never my nature to be a bully, but in looking back I can see several examples of my hurting other people by being thoughtless. I can honestly say that the game with Jared was not done maliciously. It was not even done all that consciously—I never thought to myself “I want to hurt this boy's feelings because he's not cool.” I thought of a funny idea and I ran with it. I'm fairly certain that I was working with half a brain at best. It was only years later that I saw this little game for what it was, and for me to learn that kindness is a decision. It is a conscious thought. Kindness happens on purpose, because it doesn't always come naturally. So often when I find that I've hurt someone, through words or neglect or humor or even vanity, it happened unintentionally. But it happened all the same, because I failed to think. I thought of myself first and realized too late that my actions have an effect, whether I intend that effect or not.

And you know what else? Kindness isn't always easy. Being mean is easy, because meanness makes people laugh and feel tough. Being kind sometimes is an unpopular, uphill battle. I know that because later on in school (after the other half of my brain started forming) I noticed the new class nerd sitting by himself at lunch. I remembered my mistakes and chose to sit by him and share some of my candy with him. It wasn't a big deal, but those small acts earned me a lot of ridicule. Funny though, I have no regrets about that story.
I have no idea if Jared remembers that day in 4th grade—For all I know he's gone on to great fame and fortune and is dating a supermodel—but I can't forget it. It was the start of something I'm still working on: Thinking before acting, and choosing to be kind when given the opportunity.