Thursday, February 2, 2012

Letting the Chips Fall

A pile of gambling chips.
I was getting some work done on my car and enjoying a visit with the mechanic when it happened, but I'll get to that in a minute. I like talking to mechanics and it's unusual for them to allow customers in the auto bays -- liability, you know. But this fellow's doubled as his waiting room, which, by the way, says a lot about the size of his operation. Anyway, since one of the two chairs was occupied by a morbidly obese collection of tools, greasy parts, and half-empty cans of WD-40, I sat down in the other.

I'd actually brought a book along to keep myself from distracting him with questions, but he wanted to talk and so talk we did, mostly about this and that. In which of the neighboring towns did I live, had I been there long enough to know his sister, when is the next snow coming. The kinds of things that make up life outside medical school and are common to small-town Maine. Probably small-town anywhere, for that matter.

Then he asked what I did for a living. If not the first question men ask one another, this is certainly the second or third. Men talk about work, what we do, how long we've done it, have we done it all our lives and where. It's how we size each other up, determine if we're responsible, reliable, if we can be taken seriously. I thought he handled my answer, that I was a medical student, rather well. It only took him about ten seconds to recover from the initial shock -- he did, however, turn around sharply and look at me like I'd just offered him a thousand dollars for a job he'd bill at ten -- before composing himself to ask what I'd done before. A guy my age must have done one or two somethings, maybe a few more, before sticking his neck out.

"I was a psychotherapist," I said in the most benign tone I could conjure. He picked up the theme like it was a favorite wrench he kept near at hand and related tales of family members who'd engaged the county mental health service, saying how he'd love to "get outta this garage" and do something with his life, while there was still time. Before standing on an uninsulated concrete floor in the dead of winter crippled him like it did his father. He reminded me of the bartender in Billy Joel's Piano Man.

He walked away from the window he was repairing in my passenger side door, shattered late one night by small-time crooks too stupid to realize a 2001 Honda was too old to have a navigation system they could pry free and fence for drug money. If they'd taken time to look in the window before throwing a brick through it, they'd have known. He stepped through the maze of tires and boxes, found a radio sitting on an oil drum, and switched from classic to alternative rock to country, listened a moment or two, and returned to my window. Watching him, I ducked my head and smiled; it was the same thing I would have done.

"Have you always been a therapist?"

Here it comes, I thought. No, I said, I'd also been a minister since about 19 aught 3, or so it seemed on weekends when I came home from rotations, dog tired, with two days to catch up on a week's sleep deprivation. Trying to salvage the situation, I added, but medicine had always been simmering on the back burner and just before my dad died, I finally gave myself permission to move it to the front. Too late, his demeanor had shifted as subtly as the tectonic plates and as noticeably as the Richter Scale identifying a tremor. Some things never change.

Up til then, we'd been two relatively ordinary guys talking about life and limb; a stranger would have sworn we'd known each other for years rather than 30 minutes. All that vanished so quickly it felt like it had never been there in the first place. I was a minister now and he was on his best behavior.

I didn't say it then, but I really haven't spent my adulthood with my head buried in the sand, fearful seeing the world as it was would sully my spiritual sensibilities. If I ever had them, and I feel sure I must have, they've been knocked down, brick and stone, by my own fallibility. A religion that's only good for Sunday morning rarely has much value the rest of the week. Some clerics like the interpersonal distance a collar or title provides; I like risking honesty. I like people who are sufficiently real to swear and not give a damn whether I notice.

In any case, I wasn't eager to put on my minister's hat quite yet and my friend couldn't see me wearing anything else. It's going to take some time. I'll go back to get my snow treads installed, and we'll talk again. Maybe eventually we can find a middle ground, one where he's him, I'm me, and we let the chips fall where they may.

(Creative Commons Sharealike image via Wikipedia)

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