Very Cool … He Did It Because He Wanted To! (#5 of 100 Interesting People)

MagicianSometimes it would be rude to ask the question you want someone most to answer. That was the case when I met “Dave.” In a family of high-wealth, high-power overachievers, why was he a clerk in a magic and costume store?

When I opened my wallet to pay for the nun’s habit (that’s a different story), Dave noticed my Rotary Club card. “You’re a Rotarian?” he asked. “My wife is, too.” I felt an instant connection as I learned that his wife is in the insurance and financial services industry and licensed for securities and variable products, as am I. He continued, “She doesn’t understand that I can’t go to a two-hour Rotary lunch meeting to sit around and talk with people every week, because I have to be here at the store.”

He tried her job one time. In his forties, he got his insurance and securities licenses and began selling. “They tell you to start with your ‘lateral network,’ people that you know who are at a similar stage in life. It might have been easier when I was in my twenties or thirties,” he said, “but I was in my forties. The people I knew already had their life insurance, already had their financial plans. I could close any deal set in front of me, but prospecting was hard for me, and I hated that part of the job.”

I could relate. I owned an insurance agency for two and a half years, and I had a high closing ratio. Because of my product knowledge from fifteen years of product management and actuarial work, and because of my sincerity and concern for the people, they felt comfortable with me. They trusted me. “I’m glad you’re going to be my agent,” they told me, and they referred their friends to me. In some cases, they said they drove past other agencies run by men, being more comfortable with female agents, because they thought women are more likely to be concerned and empathetic and service-oriented. Yes, I could close those deals because I cared—but I hated prospecting. I could relate to Dave.

What about the difference in income? His daughter is a lawyer and earns a healthy six-figure income. “She is in her thirties and has children at home, but she works sixty or seventy hours a week. I don’t want to live that way,” said Dave.

His brother-in-law owns a successful financial services agency. “He is the typical sell-ice-to-an-Eskimo kind of guy. Whenever he goes to a party, he is off in the corner getting someone’s contact information, setting appointments. It works for him, but I don’t want to be that guy! I want to enjoy the party.

“So I left that business and I came here, to be a clerk in a magic and costume store. I always loved magic, and I love this job. I do what I enjoy every day. My wife can’t say that.”

Not many of us can say that, Dave. I admire you for it. How many of you will have the courage to do the same thing?

The Rapture of Sister Candace

On Wednesday morning, Beverly reported to the library at 8:00 and waited in the lobby until the grandfather finished tolling the hour, and then a little longer, to allow Sister Candace time to hide her bottle. When the clock showed 8:02, she entered the library to greet Sister Candace, who by that time had stashed her shine and was buzzed and ready to start the day. She was typing on the computer in her office.

“Are you working on one of your Candy Cornbread stories?” asked Beverly.

“Sure am. Candy’s talkin’ about the rapture, one of my favorite subjects.”

“The rapture?”

“Yes, the rapture, girl. Ain’tchu been payin’ attention? All them bodies of the dead are gonna rise from their graves, up into the air, and the bodies of the saints will be taken to heaven and the bodies of the damned will be cast upon the ground in shame. That’s what the rapture does to the dead: it lifts and separates.”

“Lifts and separates?”

“Like a bra. The apoca-lift.”

From “Candy Cornbread and the Rapture of Sister Candace

The Vagabond (#4 of 100 Interesting People)

After the show, “William” asked me for a ride to Midtown. Talking to a bushy-haired, scraggly bearded man in a busy coffee shop is one thing; getting in a car with him is something else entirely. I would have refused if my husband had not been there, and if I hadn’t had friends who knew William better than me and assured me that he was safe.

He had just finished playing guitar and singing “The Handicapped-Accessible Restroom Blues” at the coffee shop’s open mic, as he does just about every month. After that, he sang “The Vagabond,” about people stepping over a homeless man, no one noticing him on the sidewalk as they hurry on to their important destinations. I wondered how many times he had passed by the man before he wrote the song. He packed up his things in his duffel bag and pulled it toward the car.

“This will be good,” I said. “That way you won’t have to haul all that stuff down the street.”

“Well, no more tonight, anyway.”

What did he mean?

“I have to haul it around wherever I go,” he said. “I lost my home last year, after my wife died. I’m trying to save up enough to get an apartment at the Salvation Army.” His wife died last year from complications of diabetes. They had been together for twenty-six years, except for a period when her friends convinced her to leave him. But she came back, and they had been together ever since.

When she had to be admitted to a nursing home, the staff tried to separate them. He refused, insisting that he was responsible for her care, and he would not let them take her away. “She was my rock,” he told me. “She meant everything to me. When I read poetry at these open mics, those are the poems that she wrote, and I wrote these songs for her. This is how I remember her.”

He told me that he still had problems, although he had been clean and sober for seven years, as was his wife, right up until the day she died. He described himself as having “schizo-affective disorder,” although I was unsure if he had been diagnosed as such by a psychologist, or if he had self-diagnosed.

“But I’m going to be all right,” he said, thanking us for the ride. “I’m taking classes, working on my degree. I want to be a psychologist so I can help other people with their problems.” He hasn’t been able to find a job, but between playing his guitar, selling CDs, and applying for financial aid for school, he said, “I’m going to make it. And when I graduate, I’m going to be a doctor!”

I thought about his song, about people stepping over the vagabond without noticing him. I had seen him at the coffee shop four or five times, and this was the first time I had spoken to him, had taken the time to get to know him, the first time that I understood he was the vagabond and I had been the passerby. Not any more, William. I am not the passerby any more.

Good luck with your classes, William; and I promise that I will clap louder than everybody else when they announce your name for your diploma.

Red or White?

At the Baptist church in my hometown of Quacker Holler, Tennessee, as in little country churches all across the south, women wear red corsages if their mothers are alive, white corsages if their mothers have passed. That had worked well for as long as any of us could remember, so no one understood why one year Deacon McFadden thought it would be nice to have the church provide the roses.

It would have worked well if he had kept it simple and bought red roses for all the women, the way some of the big city churches do. Instead, he bought some red and some white and asked a couple of the boys to pin the proper rose on each woman’s lapel as she entered the church.

It still might have turned out all right if he had given them proper etiquette instruction. Sadly, it wasn’t until a guest sat down with a mortified look on her face that anyone thought to go see what the boys were doing. They stood at the door of the church, asking each woman as she arrived, with no explanation or introduction, “Dead, or alive?”

I suppose it could have been worse. As it turned out, we learned three important lessons that day:

  1. Sometimes changing old traditions is more trouble than it is worth;
  2. Sometimes giving everyone white roses, without explaining that you have run out of red roses, causes unexpected outpouring of sympathy; and
  3. Sometimes it is just the prompt we need to think about what life would be like if our mother had already passed, and to pick up the phone and call her while we still have the opportunity. Or better yet, go spend the afternoon with her.

Derby Day!

I grew up in Louisville, but I have never attended the Kentucky Derby. A Baptist preacher’s kid wasn’t allowed to go to a horse race where everyone gambled and drank alcohol. Above all, a Baptist preacher’s kid wasn’t allowed to go to the infield, where everyone was plastered and rowdy, and women flashed their boobs for beer. We went to private parties with our friends instead, where the beer was free and the flashing was just for fun.

* * *

I almost went the year after I graduated from college. My friend Melissa and I made plans to go. That was the weekend that I learned my monetary value.

I lived in Nashville at the time, and I drove up to Louisville for the weekend. She put in a request for vacation time. When Derby weekend arrived, her boss asked her to work in return for a comp day. She said, “I can’t. My friend Christy is coming up, and we are going to the Derby.”

Her boss offered her time and a half. She said, “I can’t. My friend Christy is coming up, and we are going to the Derby.”

Her boss offered her double pay and a free holiday of her choice. She said, “Christy, I have some good news and some bad news….”

He Had a Good Wife (#3 of 100 Interesting People)

“Jack” had just finished reciting some of his lyrical poetry. I was pleasantly surprised to hear poetry from someone who was obviously a construction worker or manufacturing employee because of his physical size, his large hands, his pitted, weathered face, and his rough clothes. I knew it shouldn’t have surprised me that a manual laborer writes poetry. When will I learn not to judge people based on their appearances?

After my performance, Jack asked me, “Can I tell you a story of my own?”

“I would love to hear it!” I said.

“It was years ago, when I was studying for the bar exam.”

“Wait, what?” I asked. “You’re a lawyer?” If the man whom I had judged a construction worker that wrote poetry was instead a lawyer who wrote poetry, what other surprises did this man have? How many other things had I misjudged?

He said he had been working a temp job while he waited for the results of the bar exam. On the day the university published the results, Jack had to go to the university after work, find his secret number on the list, and get his pass/fail score. He told his secret number to his wife, saying, “Please don’t do anything with it. I know I didn’t do well, so I’ll have to take it again, but I’ll go over there after work and check it anyway. I’d like to go out after that. I’ll need to drown my sorrows.”

While he was at work, she went to the university, checked his exam results, called him at the office and said, “You passed! You passed!”

As his coworkers and his manager congratulated him, he said, “Yeah, but still, she didn’t do what I wanted her to do. What if I had failed?”

Taking his hand in both of hers, his manager said, “Jack, she was a good wife. Instead of doing what you wanted her to do, she did what was good for you!”

* * *

That’s good advice for husbands and wives both. I suspect I’ll be using that line on my husband whenever I do what he doesn’t want me to do.

And if I ever need a lawyer, I’ll call Jack. Quick judgments based on first impressions are rarely accurate, but I misjudged him more badly than usual. What if I had blown him off? What if I had rushed out of the coffee shop and not taken the time to listen to his story?

I would have missed out on meeting another interesting person.

Twin Cities Storytelling: May 5

Hey, y’all need to go to this! The first Thursday in May, at Anodyne Coffee House on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis, I’ll be telling the story of “The Summer that Grandmother Got Her Shine Back.” Come listen and help me decide whether to include this in my upcoming Minnesota Fringe Festival show.

Email me at for more information, or look at my upcoming performance schedule.

The Real Reason I Bought a Kindle

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

The real reason I bought a Kindle? To sleep better.

I like to read myself to sleep, lying on my back and looking up at the book. When I doze off, I drop the book on my face, which wakes me up, and I go through the process again. Seriously, Ken Follett‘s The Pillars of the Earth is an amazing book, and I read it late into the night, but mostly because it weighs  in at one full pound and it hurt every time it fell on my face.

My new Kindle weighs barely half that, at 8.5 ounces. Even loaded with War and Peace, it weighs only 8.5 ounces.

I resisted the ebook readers for so long because I am an incurable bibliophile. I love the written word in any form. I studied the classics, the great books of western civilization. I own thousands of paper books, and I take pleasure in the tactile sensation of the book, the feel of the pages, the smell. It felt nice to cozy up with a book in bed.

The touch test

That’s why the latest ereaders are so wonderful for bibliophiles. Forget about looking at the specs. Go to your electronics store and try out the displays to see which one feels best. My new Kindle has rubberized plastic on the back and texture on the front, so it does not feel like a cold hard electronic device. The E ink technology looks remarkably like paper and has no backlight to cause eyestrain. It feels like reading a paper book, except that it fits more easily in my purse and is half the weight of The Pillars of the Earth.

Seriously, forget about the specs, go check out a display, and see which one feels best in your hands. The Barnes and Noble Nook was a close second, but its front was smooth plastic that didn’t feel good. I never would have picked up on that by looking at the box.

(Thus proving that you can’t judge a Nook by its cover.)