Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Blindest of Dates: Utah County Romance at its Finest

Most of you may know this story, but it’s worth telling again, in honor of the impending Valentine's Day.  Chelsea courageously copes with the emotional scars I still bear from my many years of post-mission dating in Utah County.  The following recounts my first, and most traumatic, dating experience upon returning from my mission.

Dating in Utah County is completely unique to anywhere else on Earth. Take, for example, the RM factor. Returned LDS missionaries return to their home life and schooling not unlike a newborn entering the world. They're all a little shocked about what's going on around them, have wide, unblinking eyes, are almost completely incapable of social communication, and need to be slapped periodically to remind them to breath. At least, it was that way for me. They also return trailing a habit that was indoctrinated and ingrained in them each moment of each missionary day--a complete and utter terror of the opposite sex. Hugging even your own sister is a little weird when you first return. The problem is that to everyone in LDS culture, an unmarried RM is a loose cannon. To them, it seems few if any RM's can long survive the traumatic rebirth into real-life if they are single. The longer he goes without a girl's hand clasping his own, the more likely he is to watch Family Guy, drink Doctor Pepper, or swear.  Therefore, it becomes the duty of every faithful Latter-day Saint to line up their returned missionary brothers and sisters. (I think it's in the D&C somewhere.)

I think whoever termed it "lining up" had an execution in mind.  It feels a lot that way sometimes.  Take my first "line up" experience upon returning home:

“Stuart!  Welcome back!  This is your old home teacher!”

“Brother Martin!  How are you doing?”

“Really well, thanks!  Just wanted to call and welcome you home.  Also, I was wondering, we’re going to be having leftover pie on Sunday night.  Would you like to come help us out with it?  I think it would be good for us to hear some of your mission stories.”

One of the first things I learned upon returning home was a returned missionary is happiest when talking 
about his mission.   “Absolutely Brother Martin!  I’d love to!”

“Sounds great, Stu.  We’ll plan on you at 7:00”

The following Sunday Brother Martin came up to me in church.  “We still on for tonight?”  He was a grizzly man with a stout body and firm handshake.  He intimidated me like crazy.

“Absolutely!  I can’t wait.”

“Well, we’re excited to have ya.  Oh, by the way, I’m going to have a niece there I want you to meet.”
My stomach rose and my heart sank.  They met somewhere around the bottom of my lungs.  “Oh, um, ok.  Great.”

His eyes twinkled.  “See you tonight.”  And he walked away.  The Machiavellian bastard. 

That night, I went down to my room to get ready and, on my bedside table, spotted my missionary tag bearing the title “Elder Back.”  It had gotten me through some pretty uncomfortable moments.  I couldn't help it.  I grabbed it and put it in my pocket, a little black, plastic security blanket.

 I showed up on the doorstep.  This time my heart had seemed to migrate to the top of my throat.  I had just spent two years knocking on doors.  Why was my hand so hesitant to touch this one?  I knocked heavily.  It swung open.  “Stu, come on in!”

I stepped into the Martin living room.  There were couches one two of the walls and a series of plush chairs on the third.  On the left side of the room sat the girl’s family—three younger sisters and austere looking parents.  In the chairs to my right sat the Martin family—Brother and Sister Martin and their son.  On the couch on the far wall sat a pretty, but nervous girl with blue eyes and long blonde hair.  She was flanked on either side by what I immediately deduced were her grandparents, definite progenitors of Brother Martin, powerful, stocky, and rough.

In the middle of the room, some distance from the fourth wall, sat a single kitchen chair.  It might as well have had a nameplate reserving it for me.  I sat down.  “Sarah, this is Stu.  Stu, Sarah,” Brother Martin said, not without a slight flourish.

“Good to meet you,” I said as I shook her hand.  It was protocol.  I shook hands.

“You too,” she said.

Then there was an awkward silence.  I wasn’t sure what the procedure was here.  Preach My Gospel didn't cover these situations.  My sudden impulse was to ask someone to pray, but I luckily swallowed it.

“So,” I asked, feigning comfort, which more likely sounded like desperation, “Um, do you do anything for fun?”

She smiled.  “Yeah.  I love tennis and singing.  I also love to read.  How about you?”

“Hey, I like to read too!  Have you read anything good lately?”  This was going well.

“I recently just reread Pride and Prejudice again.  It’s my favorite book.”

“Hey!  I read Austen in high school.”

“Oh really?  What did you think?” she was excited.  This was going really well.

“Wasn’t a big fan, really,” I said.  As the words were coming out of my mouth I realized I was making a dire mistake.  She looked a little affronted, a little crestfallen, and a little annoyed.  I was a little mortified.  I tried to recover. “Well, um, I mean, it’s just that I don’t understand the way girls think all that well.  I didn’t really get it.”

The smile stayed on Sarah’s face, but her eyes fell distant.  Hushed murmurs of disapproval wafted from the audience.  I had the distinct feeling that Sarah’s passion for tennis had come from her family.  They were quiet spectators quietly watching our volley.  Neither of us was winning.

“So, do you have any pets?”  It wasn’t yet 15 minutes in.  I had absolutely no idea what to ask.  She told me about her pet cat at home, but that she wasn’t a big animal person.  “I love animals.”  Crap!  Where’s my filter? The score fell to 30-love, Sarah.

25 minutes in: “Have you ever been to Washington?”  I was playing to my strengths with this one.

“D.C.?  Or Washington state?”


 “I haven’t.  I heard it’s pretty, though.”

 “Oh man, it’s so pretty.  I seriously miss it really bad.”

 “Do you not like Utah at all?”

 “I thought I did until I went there.” That sinking feeling I get when I say something stupid had by this time turned into a sort of dull ache.

 “Oh.  Well I’ll have to try to visit someday.”

 There was an awkward silence.

 40 minutes in: “So what’s your favorite book?”

At our next awkward silence, I realized in horror that I had been out of anything constructive to say for over half an hour.  I had been off my mission for 9 days.  There wasn’t a lot of common ground to cover.  I grasped at the small black tag in my pocket, willing for it to strengthen me.  I suddenly got a flash of inspiration.  I was good with kids!  I was totally comfortable around kids!  I turned to her sister, who couldn't have been any older than nine.

“And what was your name?”

“Jessica,” she said, blushing.

“Jessica, how old are you?”

“I’m 8.”

“8?  So that would put you in 3rd gr. . . “

A grizzled voice cut me off mid-sentence, “Hey, you’re here to talk to her!”  It was Sarah’s grandpa, making a rough gesture in her directions. She was also blushing.

The awkward silence that followed was so intense, my tag started to bend in my pocket from my grip.
Ten minutes later, out of sheer boredom—it certainly wasn’t out of mercy—Sister Martin said, “Well, who would like some pie?”

I ate my obligatory pumpkin pie, and stumbled out of the house.  Is it any wonder that eight years later, I'm still recovering?

"Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway" -John Wayne

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Zen and Now

I work with this eccentric, hilarious Indian gastroenterologist named Dr. Sandhu.  I've met people that are passionate, but Sandhu redefines the term.  Every few months, it seems, some new fascination has latched on his brain, and he begins seeing the world through a completely different lens.  Paleo dieting was among these crazes, and for months, we found the good doctor in our breakroom analyzing the paleo propriety of our lunches.  Some nurses accused him of paleovangelism and he softened his pronouncements upon our plates, relegating himself to a milder form of endorsement.  During his golf obsession, he was often to be seen reviewing instructional videos on YouTube and, on one occasion, I walked in the room as he was practicing his putt by swinging a colonoscope like a golf club.  These obsessions dominate his conversations and offer him new analogies on how to view life.  (I heard how life was like a fairway so many times, I was about ready to knock myself out with a 5-iron.)  The man's zeal for his interests is unsurpassed.

A number of months ago, my friends Jeff Harris and Natalie Thorsen suggested a book called "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle.  Trusting their judgment implicitly, I bought the book and read.  I then bought the audiobook and listened.  I picked up the book again to review.  Review wasn't enough so I read it through a second time within five weeks.  Every time I went to the gym, Eckhart's soothing, German-accented voice preached peace and presence as I groaned out another few bicep curls.  The book was one of the most powerful and influential books I've read in my life.  I couldn't get enough of it.

Tolle's premise is that if we abandon regret and concern for the past, and surrender angst and anticipation for the future, we can be happy, regardless of circumstance, in the present moment.  As a relatively analytic person, I was somewhat confused by his concept that "you are not your thoughts."  Our brains are tools we use to analyze and process, but we are not our minds.  Our identity, according to Tolle, is far more intrinsic and eternal.  Our worth is unimpeachable and unconditional.  If we learn to disassociate ourselves with the judgments of thought, our "egoic mind," we can find a deep, abiding peace that transcends every circumstance and a value that doesn't need justification.  Tolle's message is one of worth, joy, and peace.  And I didn't buy a word of it.

For me, I've always dwelt on problems, concerned myself with the future, and lived in past mistakes and experience.  I figured that was how I could improve as a person.  Learn from the past, prepare for the future, and seek to improve.  Sounds healthy, right?  In some sense, it absolutely is.  But as I read, I started to question, by degrees, my modus operandi.  Instead of analyzing past mistakes, was I instead dwelling on those mistakes, effectively reliving them and punishing myself repeatedly for them?  Undoubtedly, yes.  Instead of planning and preparing for the future, was I often stressing and dwelling about potentials that were complete fictions?  Guilty.  The "what if's" about the future often flash through my mind at such a pitch, I'm effectively paralyzed by them, rendered unable to even prepare for the very potential I dread.  Instead of learning from the past and readying for the future, I agonize over moments that no longer exist and grow intensely anxious for moments that may never exist at all.  Clearly, I can suck at life.

Upon identifying the destructive potential my fixation on the past and future became and how pervasive those fixations were, I began to listen to Tolle.  He points out that the past and future don't exist.  The past is a "shadow of things that have been."  (very Dickensian, really.)  Our memories are so imperfect that we often see the past through a very skewed lens.  And the future, while we feebly try to predict it, simply does not exist, and can't be at all reliably anticipated.  He suggests that our western paradigms (as opposed to eastern, Buddhist or Taoist paradigms) are terminally focused on falsehoods, things that no longer are, or things that don't yet exist.

Arguing that our "egoic mind"--the false sense of self we derive from our thoughts--is the source of all this, he offers suggestions on how to disengage from that identity and simply be present in the now.  Among these are--oddly--"mindfulness," an ill-termed moniker for attentiveness and connection to the five senses in a deep way.  I rarely notice what it feel like to actually breathe, to feel the oxygen fill my lungs and get ferried off to every corner of my body, a constant refreshing that is done independent of my conscious thought.  I rarely concentrate on the ambient sounds--the hum of the computer or the whir of the heater in my apartment, for example.  I never check in with my body to see what it feels like to have the cotton of my t-shirt rest against my chest, or to feel my heart beat, or to smell my newly-vacuumed carpet, or taste the residual mint post-tooth brushing.  While sight is our most commonly used sense, I rarely notice the beautiful, irregular complexity in the patterns wood grains sketch across the top of my desk.  All this to say that if I'm utilizing these senses, in the most literal way being sensual, neither the future nor past is at all concerning.

In simpler vernacular, Tolle's viewpoints are really a fresh view on the Chinese-Buddhist philosophy of zen, which is defined by the regrettable website as: "A state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts."

Sparked in part by Tolle, and fed by other thinkers like Dr. Jon Kabat Zin who authored an amazing book called "Full Catastrophe Living," mindfulness and Tolle's version of zen have been gaining momentum in western thought, even being vindicated by scientific study. Time magazine's most recent cover addressed the subject well, and books by the dozens are adding their voice to the movement.

By the end of Tolle's book, I was a disciple.  While I don't buy every word wholesale, I feel that I have been vastly benefited by the counsel it offered.  Moreover, it meshes so well with my own spiritual beliefs (another post for another day, perhaps), that it has been very easy to fold into my daily life.  I now make an effort, among other daily habits, to meditate ten minutes a day.  The effect has been staggering.  I'm more at peace with life now than I've ever been.  I'm more grateful and happy much of the time.  And, at least when I'm actively applying the principles, I'm always at peace.

One day while in the middle of a stranger's colon, I casually asked Dr. Sandhu if he'd read the book.  He gasped, looked away from the screen and peered at me, his eyes flashed with the excited zeal I've come to recognize.  Dr. Sandhu and I had respectively stumbled into a new fixation at the same time.  We have since been eagerly discussing the application of thoughtfulness as taught by Tolle, Zinn, and others.  To the consternation of any nurse unfortunate enough to work with us, Dr. Sandhu and I talk excitedly--with frustration at times because we both have so much we want to say--about being zen, and now, and mindful, and at peace.  Who knew that you could be zen during a colonoscopy?  I have Eckhart Tolle, Jeff Harris, Natalie Thorsen, and Iqbal Sandhu to thank for that.