Great Expectations

allspiceThanksgiving is upon us; a time of traditions, family, and expectations.  The Burns’ have a few traditions.  We have tamales and chili on Wednesday night.  We have a special sausage from Goliad for breakfast on Thankgiving morning.  We eat around 1:30.  And at some point, we see a movie.  My vote is Care of Magical Creatures and How to Find Them.  We’ll see how compelling a case I can make.  This year, my brothers and their families will join us at our parents’ house.  I’m never happier than when I’m with my brothers.

But Thanksgiving can be a very difficult time for people, even for people who actually like being around their family.  As I prepare to make my Aunt Pat’s fabulous cornbread stuffing and a sweet potato casserole, I’m mindful of expectations.  Nothing does more damage to a family gathering than expectations.  This is where resentment and disappointment and arguments begin.

Take the sweet potatoes.  I’ve never made this dish.  I couldn’t find the ingredients I expected to use to make precisely the recipe my mom has made since we were children.  I am stressed out about it.  What if people expect it to be exactly the same?  My new motto with cooking has been to take the easy route.  I don’t have time in my life to make everything from scratch the way I used to.  I want to open a can of candied yams, mix in some butter and spice, and cover with marshmallows.  I know for a fact that that will be good.  How can I lose with yams, sugar, spice, butter, and marshmallows?  It’s a sure thing, but it may not be what my mom has been making.  Maybe she uses eggs and evaporated milk.  Maybe I should ask.  But how silly is it that I’m stressed about meeting an expectation that may not even exist? ( By the way, I just called my mom.  Simple.  Mash them with a little brown sugar and cover with marshmallows.)

With an expectation comes the possibility of disappointment.  If you expect a certain interpretation of a tradition, say mom’s sweet potato casserole, and you don’t get it, you might be disappointed, and you might resent me for causing that.  I’ve struggled with this for years.  If all of my many rules and expectations for Thanksgiving and Christmas were not met, I could be a pretty miserable soul and a pain to be around.  Expectations lead to suffering.

So why do we do this to each other and to ourselves?  Why are traditions so important that we would get upset about them?  A tradition is something we did for the very first time once and somebody liked it enough to do it again.  Take fruitcake.  In the old days, this was one of the few ways you could get fruit in the winter, and fruit was a wonderful treat.  And so fruitcake became popular at Christmas.  Fruit, nuts, and cake.  What’s not to like?  Personally, I love it.  But most do not, and yet, it is still a tradition.  And people still buy them. Perhaps you had a favorite relative who always brought them and you hold the tradition to honor them.  Perhaps it makes you think of the many gatherings with the fruitcake and some special punch.  Perhaps it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without one.    Maybe now the tradition is to complain about how awful they are.  This tradition just won’t seem to go away no matter how much people hate it.  But is it really worth it to do a tradition that nobody likes except for crazy Uncle David?  Perhaps I hold the family hostage over it.  Hey!  Don’t forget, crazy Uncle David haaaaass to have his fruitcake.  He will throw a fit.  That’s not a very fun tradition.  What an awful thing to do to a family with that expectation, and yet people do it.

You think fruitcake is too small a thing to get upset about?  Wrong!  For years, my wife’s grandmother gave us all fruitcakes.  She was very poor, and so one year she stopped buying them.  I expressed my disappointment in a really immature way in front of everyone.  “What?  No fruitcake?  Awwwwwwwwwe.”  But the look on her face told me that she felt bad and didn’t appreciate me putting that on her.

This year, we might need to make some allowances for our movie tradition.  This is a great tradition,  but this year is different;  we have 5 little ones who can’t go see a movie.  My kids are grown, but my brothers’ kids are young.  The reality is, that when you have kids, you have to make some sacrifices.  You might not get to go to the movies when you want to.  But people have expectations.  People might be disappointed by a change to this tradition.  I know I will.  I really look forward to seeing a movie with my brothers.  But it might not work out that way.  Our expectations might not be met.

I’m not willing to say that we should throw out our traditions.  I believe in the value of traditions.  What I am suggesting is that we learn to manage our expectations.  With a little forethought, I can anticipate a deviation or I can prepare myself for the possibility.  None of this is worth being bent out of shape over.  Even the expectation of always getting to see your family can be unreasonable.  It just doesn’t always work out.  Not everyone has that.

My motto this Thanksgiving is go with the flow.  The stuffing is too drippy?  Go with the flow.  The sweet potatoes are too bland?  Go with the flow.  We don’t see my movie?  Go with the flow.  Who knows?  Maybe we start a new tradition.  Maybe we stay home and play a board game so everyone can participate.  We actually bought one just in case.

From a Christian stand point, when we get together we are joined by Christ.  We are blessed in some special way;  perhaps in some brand new way.  May we be open to the possibility that God has something better in mind than our own human expectations.

Double Hustle Opera Night

hustler – a person who employs fraudulent or unscrupulous methods to obtain money

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One of my favorite things to do is see the Dallas Opera with someone I love.  There was a new-ish opera based on the novel Moby Dick aptly named Moby Dick.  I’d never seen an opera from this millennium, and so I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it didn’t really matter because I would be seeing it with my twin brother.  We would have fun, no matter what.

Although I love to see the opera, I do not like the journey there, other than stopping for a fried pie in the Arbuckle mountains on the way (apple, raisin, pecan, by the way; a seasonal offering).  It is the most stressful drive I make on a regular basis. Although I’d never been late once, I was always worried that I would miss part of the show.  I left from Oklahoma City at 2:30, which should have gotten me there around 6:30; an hour early.

Mistake #1, I left without a phone charger.  Mistake #2, I left navigation on the entire trip. Mistake #3, I listened to a few hours worth of The Moth story-telling podcast.  My battery was all but drained.  All I’d really needed navigation for was the last 30 minutes of the trip to get from I-35 to the Windspear Opera House in the Arts District of Dallas and I had wasted it on a straight shot down the interstate

I began to panic.  I switched my phone to ultra power savings mode, which would save it from dying but would prevent me from using the navigation app.  I intended to switch it on at the last minute, but as I approached I realized that I would not even have enough power to do that.  I called Paul and asked him to talk me in.

Paul had been a resident of Dallas before and now he lives near Garland.  It was a simple trip to him.  He told me what exit to look for.  By now it was dark and the traffic was slowed to around 10-miles-an-hour because of construction so I was a little disoriented. I didn’t make the exit.  I was on the road to Waco.  Paul told me that I might not make it in time.  I prayed this prayer.

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change.”

I relaxed a little and decided to take the next exit and buy a car charger.  I found a dive of a convenience store.  As I pulled up, I could see that I was about to get hustled.  There was a ragged looking man hanging around the front door.  As I approached he opened the door for me with much aplomb.  He was clearly pretending to be blind.  His eyes were closed, but he would take little fluttering blinks to, presumably, see where he was going.   I knew that he was going to hit me up for something eventually.

When I entered the shop, I could see that it was Pakistani (or some such) mom and pop store.  Minimum credit card charges required, English second language clerk, tons of sketchy energy/potency products, plexy-glass enclosure around the counter, AND a million cheap phone chargers hanging off the front of the enclosure.   There were two guys hanging around the register, not buying anything.  As I searched for the right charger, I said, “You guys go ahead.”  But they didn’t pay me any attention.

I tried to slide the charger under the plexy in the change dish but he already knew the price, or was making up the price.  When I came outside, there was the “blind” man furiously wiping off my perfectly clean windshield with the sleeve of his filthy jacket.  He said,  “I cleaned that for you, mister”   I pushed past him to the door and he said, in a raspy voice,  “Hey man!  I got chargers, too.”

Curtly, I said, “No thanks. Goodbye.”  And I almost said, “I have an opera to attend.”  But really? How bougie would that have been?

These were the lamest attempts at hustles I’d ever seen. There were two poorly constructed hustles.  The concierge/door man and the window-wiper.  In the concierge hustle, a guy pretend’s to be an employee of a business who should be tipped for his service.  He holds the door, carries your bag for you, and gives you directions. And in the window wiper/lawn mower/car watcher/whatever, they perform a service that you might have paid for otherwise and they make you think you should pay them.  But he didn’t have the will to follow through with it.  Honestly, he would have done better with me asking for money for drugs.
I was late to the opera so I had to watch the first half on a screen in a little auditorium off the lobby.  The opera was fantastic, both in the auditorium and in the house.  When I left, I was on cloud nine.  It was past eleven, and I had a three hour drive ahead of me so I stopped at another mom and pop to get some caffeine.  I pulled up next to a beat up old Chevy with an old black woman and a young man.  Already, I was suspicious at anybody hanging out in a convenience story parking lot at midnight.

When I came out, the very typical gas station hustle began, but with a twist.  The woman hung her head out of the window and said with great command, “Young man!  I say young man!”

I made a mental calculation of how much money was in my wallet, three dollars.  There was something about being called young man by a formidable, albeit strung out, black woman that triggered something in me.  I don’t know if it was some sort of latent white guilt, or a respect for the elderly, but I reached for my wallet expecting the typical hustle.

“Young man, my son and I have a long ways to go, and we need some money for gas.  Anything you can give will help.”

“Well, I have a little bit, but not much, ”  I said as I handed her the money.  But without even saying thank you she shoved a clothes iron still in he box in my face.

“See now, it’s still in the box!”

I waved it away, and walked to my car.  I don’t know exactly why I thought so, but my immediate assumption was that she was trying to legitimize herself to me in some bizarre show of affluence.  An hour down the road, the more rational but no less peculiar idea occurred to me that she was luring me in with the need-money-for-gas hustle into the peddling-irons-out-of-her car hustle.

The journey back was more or less uneventful.  I drank Red Bull and coffee, listened to an odd selection of Gloria Estefan and The Bengals all the way home.  The heart wants what the heart wants. When I got home, I took two Benedryls and fell to sleep immediately with the song “I’ll do anything for you” in my final thoughts.

I’ve been hustled in San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Jamaica, and at home.  One guy, also black, started his hustle by showing me a tattoo of a swastica scratched on his forehead. Yes, a black man with a swastica.  It still haunts me to think of how it got there.   Here’s a fictionalized account of the real story. Lost and Found Street Hustle. I don’t really smoke Marlboro and wear boots as the character in the story does, by the way.  I just wanted it to be gritty.  He thought I looked like the kind of guy who had a little weed on him.  Once, a guy one tried to grift me with a tuba.  I almost bought it.  But most of them are too strung out to come off as believable.  I feel compassion for people trying to make it on the streets.  I help when I can, but there’s something about the dishonesty of a street hustle that makes me a little less generous.  The most honest panhandler I have met sat on a corner in San Francisco with a sign which read “Too lazy to work.  Need money for weed.”  No hustle, no lies, just straight up begging.  I gave him five bucks and thanked him for his humility and honesty.

The Cool Teacher

Back in the 90s, before I was a software engineer, I was an elementary music teacher in Moore, Oklahoma. I was starting to get into keyboards using an old book I had swiped from my dad which was designed for people who had been taught the classical method but could never just play from a chord chart.  I practiced often on my breaks in a closet which doubled as an office for me.  There, I had a keyboard and a piano with which to practice.  I’d bought a book called a fake book which contained dozens of songs with only the melody and chords.  I learn how to play 20 or so classic pop songs including Bill Whithers’ classic “Just the Two of Us”.

Around that time, Will Smith made a rap using “Just the Two of Us”.  It was a mega hit and all of the kids knew it.  And so, when I gained the confidence to begin wheeling my keyboard around to my classes, I decided to try out the song.

The kids, who were merely tolerating my lessons, lit up with recognition.  Suddenly, I was the cool teacher who could relate to them in ways that their other teachers could not.  They didn’t realize that it was based on an old song for old people.  Every time I came to a third grade class, especially, they demanded the song, and I happily obliged.  After three years, I was finally a hit.

In my last days of being a teacher before taking a job in Tulsa as a software engineer, the school counselor, who had heard through the grapevine of my recent success with the kids, asked me to come up with a song for the kids to chant at the district-wide anti-drug parade. I was hitting the big time now. And this is when I came up with the brilliant idea of using my hit song.

I began crafting anti-drug lyrics to “Just the Two of us”.  “Just the two of us, building big castles in the sky”  became “Every one of us, we don’t need drugs to make us high.”  I was to lead it in the school assembly to get them ready.

I’d already accepted the position in Tulsa, so I knew that it was likely that I would never march in the parade that year, and boy would they miss me, the most popular teacher in school.  The cafeteria was packed from pre-K to 6th grade.  I’d been afraid to teach the 6th graders the song because they didn’t like me.  My manner was more geared for young children.  But I felt that all of that was about to change.

My keyboard was plugged into an amplifier, and I was set up with a microphone waiting for my cue. I was about to become a rock star. The principal turned to me and nodded.  I hit the drum track and I was off.  I would sing through it once and then shout, “Everybody sing!  Everyone of us…”  But it didn’t come out right.  I messed up the words.  I hesitated.  And then it happened.  The big kids on the back row began to laugh.

That’s when I realized who I’d become.

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Around that same time, Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer were doing a bit on Saturday Night Live parodying middle school music teachers trying to be cool by playing the top 40 hits of the time on the keyboard in a ridiculously square style.  Of course, they were a joke to the kids at that school who regularly heckled the them.

I finished out the song, deflated.  My big idea had failed and everyone knew it including the principal who said at the end something like “Alright, Mr. Wilson-Burns, thank you for your hard work.  That was truly unique.”

I was comforted only by the fact that I would be leaving at the end of the week; a week in which I showed movies non-stop.

I learned an important lesson that week, kids can spot desperation in adults and they find it very unbecoming.  Being the cool teacher has it’s perils.  Today, when I teach kids in my church I don’t even try to be cool.  I’m much better at goofy.  Kids enjoy an adult who can be silly once in awhile, but what they really love is to feel that they can do great things.  And for kids to do great things, they need a great teacher who doesn’t care about being cool.

Oh, and don’t do drugs!