Monday, December 21, 2009

A Safe Place

It's two o'clock in the afternoon. My wife, two friends, and I park at the unmarked entrance of a nondescript building. A phone call is made. The door opens and we step out of the bright sun into a dim, fluorescent-lit corridor. We are escorted though a maze of hallways, each under the scrutiny of monitored surveillance cameras. We are being watched closely. Each door we pass through requires a key or badge. Security is at its highest. This place is not a government bunker or a maximum-security prison. It's the Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, a safe haven for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. They've experienced firsthand the kind of violence that most of us only encounter in nightmares that leave us with racing hearts and sweaty skin. But these women have made the decision to leave, and, perhaps in the dead of night, they've fled their homes, leaving behind their old lives—along with many of their possessions—in order to start a new one. We're here to cook Christmas dinner for them. It seem like such a trivial thing to do when compared with the list of other needs they each must surely have.

The kitchen is in the middle of the residence, and "clients," as they're referred to, peek from their rooms and around corners as we make our way through the hall. Though small, the kitchen has sufficient room to work. We begin to unpack the rolling cart, suitcase, and cooler with the food and tools we will need to cook. On my team today are Margo, a friend and coworker (who I am convinced is my sister, Evelyn, incarnate), her friend Kristy, and my wife, Mary. They have graciously volunteered their time to help prepare the large meal. As we begin, I'm a little flustered. I'm not in my own kitchen, which throws me a bit. Fortunately, Mary steps in and makes the logistics flow. She is the Tom Cruise to my Dustin Hoffman.

Margo and Kristy chop apples, peppers, and onions while I retrieve from the cooler one of the two turkeys we'll be cooking. I smear butter and herbs in the pocket created by separating the skin from the meat with my fingers. Chopped apples, onions, and herbs go into the cavity of the turkey to act as aromatics and add flavor. The children's laughter bouncing through the halls surprises me. I don't know what I expected. Of the four or five years that we've cooked for the shelter, this is the first time we've cooked on site; the first time we've been in close proximity to the clients and them to us. A little girl suddenly appears at the kitchen door.

"Boo!" she says loudly. "Did I scare you?" We all feign surprise and shock, assuring her that we were, indeed, scared. She giggles and runs off. Moments later she is back to scare us again. And we are just as scared the second time around. And the third. And the fourth. Eventually the other children come into the kitchen to check things out, watch us work, and stand on tiptoes to peer into bowls being filled with chopped apples, peppers, and onions. A woman with a positively cherubic baby on her hip slips into the kitchen quietly and opens a cabinet door.

"I'm sorry, I just want to get a coffee cup and I'll be out of your way," she says. Out of our way? Is this another symptom of having been abused? The assumption that no matter where you are or where you go you're in someone's way?

"I think we're the ones in the way," I say with a smile and a slight laugh. A smile forms on her lips, hesitantly at first, then spreads across her face, crinkling her skin.

"No, we appreciate y'all coming in here and cooking for us," she says. The baby grabs a handful of Mom's hair and gently pulls her fingers through it. This child is beyond adorable. With chubby pink cheeks and eyes as blue as the Mediterranean, she is the kind of child who turns rational adults into babbling idiots. We all fawn over her, which delights her and her mother to no end. As they leave the kitchen, we all return the little one's bye-bye waves—not so much waves as fat little fingers repeatedly scrunched as if grabbing at invisible butterflies.

Both turkeys are now in the oven. Margo, Kristy, and Mary are a blur, cutting focaccia bread into cubes and sautéing onions and peppers as I chop celery for the rustic bread dressing. Mary has had the presence of mind to bring the iPod and a portable speaker. As we cook we're serenaded with Christmas tunes by Harry Connick, Jr., Chicago, Bebe and Cece Winans, and others. The pots on the stove release wisps of steam into the air, which is warm and thick with the smells of holiday food. Another woman steps into the kitchen, hands Margo an envelope, and quickly walks away. Margo opens it and begins to read the enclosed card to us. As she reads, her voice becomes strained and tears well up in her eyes. By the time she finishes, we are all overcome and unable to do anything remotely resembling work.

"Me and my children would like to thank you all for making Christmas dinner for us. It touches my heart that you all take time out of your own lives to touch someone else's. Thank you and God bless you."

She includes her first name and those of her three children—something not usually done in these circumstances. We compose ourselves and soldier on. It's time to toast the bread cubes and start the cranberry compote. Margo and Kristy have buzzed through chopping vegetables and bread. There's not much left to do except wait for the turkeys to finish cooking, so I tell them that if they want they can leave. I do have two other dishes to make, smashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and nutmeg, and green beans with a balsamic shallot butter, but these will be easy. After Margo and Kristy leave to be escorted back out, a little boy comes into the kitchen, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, and asks, "What're you doing?"
"We're cooking dinner," Mary responds.
"Wif what?"
"Well, there's turkey. Do you like turkey?"
A head shake no.
"How about dressing. Do you like dressing?"
Another no.
"What about sweet potatoes. Do you like those?"
Yet another no.
"I bet you like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese," Mary says triumphantly.
Finally, a nod yes.
"Well, we're going to have some for you here in just a little bit. Would you like a cookie for now?"
A vigorous nod yes.

He clutches his cookie close to his chest like an otter holding a clam and skips out of the kitchen, only to return a few moments later. I can see him eyeing the suitcase full of utensils and dry goods. Picking up a masher, he asks, "What's dis?"
"That's a potato masher," Mary says. "You use it to mash up potatoes."
"I wanna do it."
"Um...OK." Then to me, "Are the sweet potatoes ready to be mashed?"
"Yes they are," I answer.
Mary sets the foil roasting pan on the lid of the cooler and together they mash the sweet potatoes. Several more utensils get pulled from the suitcase, each with the requisite "What's dis?" and "I wanna do it." After helping bring other dishes to completion, he darts off to play with the other children.

As the afternoon goes on, we begin the process of cleaning up and packing our things back into the cart and suitcase. The women are now milling around outside the kitchen, peeking in occasionally to smile, say hi, and tell us how good it smells. Their gratitude for such a small thing is overwhelming. I can only imagine the ways in which their worlds have been turned upside down. Perhaps something as simple as a meal can lend a sense of normalcy to their lives.

As we head down the hall, a stampede of children rushes us from behind and surrounds us, reaching and hugging, giggling and thanking us. After every hug has been dispensed, we are escorted back through the maze of hallways to the exit. We are thanked one last time by the advocate on duty and the door closes behind us. It is now dark and cold outside, but I know that the women and children inside are enjoying a warm Christmas dinner in a safe place.


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Hickey

When you're eleven years old and bored out of your mind, whether due to a lack of creativity or a lack of intelligence, the idea of shooting pecans at each other with a high-power slingshot sounds exciting. My best friend growing up, Bill Cook, had an enormous back yard that was perfect for a game of slingshot tag. The only ingredients needed were a five-gallon bucket of pecans, a slingshot, and a sense of adventure bordering on stupidity. Unfortunately, we had all three. The rules were simple; run around the back yard like an idiot until you either get hit with a pecan or cross into the safe zone: Bill's mom's flower bed. Bill was up first as the "runner." I took my position and loaded my first pecan as Bill prepared to make his run. Due to my inaccuracy with the slingshot and Bill's winding pattern through the back yard, not a single pecan found its target. He bobbed and weaved, dodging each of my shots. Finally, a pecan made contact with his torso, meaning it was my turn to take to the yard.

It turns out that since the slingshot belonged to Bill, he was significantly more accurate with it. Every time I got within twenty feet of him, he'd nail me with a shot to the leg, chest, or back, requiring us to trade places. This went back and forth for some time, and I began to build up quite a collection of bruises. We took a short break to get something cool to drink and get out of the hot sun for a few minutes. Afterwards, I felt renewed and took my place ready to run. I took off like a shot, tracing a serpentine figure around the yard. Even Bill's marksmanship was no match for my clever maneuvering; I faked left, then right, then left again, stopping and starting, jumping and ducking my way around trees and through open areas, getting closer and closer to the safe zone. Bill’s face was red now with frustration, and as I wove an intricate pattern toward the flower bed, I hoped he would begin to fire out of desperation, substituting quantity for quality. Instead, he seemed to be channeling his frustration and converting it into a frightening mix of anger and accuracy. The pecans began to get closer to me, and I could hear and feel the whiz of air as they rocketed past me. He was launching them really hard now, stretching the bands of the slingshot into long, thin strands of rubber. But he hadn't hit me yet, and I was only steps away from the flower bed now. As I made my final dash for the safe zone, I decided to add a little panache and leap across it. And that? Turned out to be a really bad decision.

As I leapt into the air to cross into the safe zone, Bill fired one last pecan, which tore through the air toward me like a little brown missile. I could see it coming straight for me, and there was no way to get out of its path. It connected with the left side of my neck, just above the collar, with a resounding THWACK, knocking me off my flight path and dumping me into the begonias like a sack of dirt. As I lay in the midst of the flowers with a hand over my stinging neck, I heard Bill saying, "Gotcha!" as he laughed hysterically, and I knew he would taunt me mercilessly about it. However, over the weekend the large red welt developed into what appeared to be a massive hickey. Mom tried to help me find a shirt with a collar to cover it, but the middle of May wasn’t really turtleneck weather, so she suggested that I simply make the best of a bad situation by taking preemptive action. Bill was always late for school on Mondays. Always. It was just a fact of life, like leaves changing color in the fall, and I decided to use it to my advantage. I arrived at school a little early on Monday, wearing a collarless shirt. The other members of my fifth-grade class instantly gathered around me to point and stare, their eyes and jaws wide with amazement. The rumors began to spread like a flame consuming a trail of gasoline. By roll call it was common knowledge that I had gotten a hickey from a seventh-grade girl—instantly propelling me to rock-star status—and by the time Bill arrived there was no convincing anyone otherwise. So Bill, if you’re reading this? Gotcha.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Holiday Request From Me to You

Dear friends and family,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I want to take a moment and ask for your help. For the past few years Mary and I have worked with the Benton County Women’s Shelter, now the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter. These ladies and children have gone through physical and emotional abuse that, thankfully, most of us will never experience. In many cases they’ve literally fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. We cook either a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for current residents (usually 20-30), and we also purchase Christmas gifts (for the most part simple necessities like clothes and shoes—of course, the kids also get toys and books) for as many of the families as we can. Between now and Christmas, I’ll be coordinating with the shelter on how many ladies and children will be in need of Christmas gifts­­. I’ll have a wish list for each lady and child a little closer to Christmas. And you don’t have to buy for a whole family; you can purchase just one or two items on any list.

Also, we’ll be cooking Christmas dinner for them this year. If you’d like to contribute to that instead of (or in addition to) the wish list, by all means do. Anything you do is helpful. These ladies and kids are amazingly sweet, appreciative people despite all they’ve been through. If you’d be interested in helping, here’s how:

For locals friends, just send me a message on Facebook and tell me you want to help, or use the option below.

For my out of town friends, I’ve set up a PayPal account to which you can send money online. And I hope this goes without saying, but for the worry warts out there, please keep in mind the following:

  • This money is not for me. I have a nice job with a nice salary. I have my own money. I don’t need to steal yours.
  • This is voluntary only. If you’re not able or don’t want to help for whatever reason, don’t sweat it.
  • I won’t be able to see any of your credit card or personal information. Again, don’t need it, have my own.

Ok, now that we’ve crossed that bridge, here’s how to send money via PayPal:

  1. Go to and click Send Money at the top.
  2. In the To box, put my email address,
  3. In the From box, put your email account.
  4. In the Amount box, put the amount you’d like to contribute.
  5. Click the Personal category tab and select Gift, then click Continue.
  6. On the next page enter all your information just as you would for any online purchase.

Finally, if you want to help the shelter but you’re not comfortable with sending money to me, go to their website, and click Donations. You can do a PayPal donation there. It won’t go to this specific effort, but it will help them with everyday costs. If you have any questions, just send me a message here on Facebook. Thanks so much!


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where I Am

Ok, I admit it. I'm having a hard time, and I don't want to tell anyone because I'm 1) ashamed of myself for having such a hard time with something as seemingly innocuous as food, and 2) convinced that those who read this won't understand. And most probably won't. Fact is, until you've stood in front of a vending machine, dollar in hand, fighting the urge to buy a package of Ding Dongs, you won't understand. What makes a grown man want to sneak food into a bathroom stall and devour it while perched on the toilet like a big fat gargoyle? I have no idea. I mean, logistically I understand not wanting to be seen eating foods that, as a diabetic, I'm not supposed to have. I also understand the urgency to eat it quickly, destroying the evidence of my failure. If it were a carrot stick or a stalk of celery, I'd have no problem being seen with it. I might even flaunt it. What I don't understand is why I feel compelled to eat things that I sometimes don't even truly want. Sometimes the food has absolutely no flavor or texture, but the mere act of consuming it is a physical and emotional release. And then afterwards I hate myself with the fire of a thousand suns. Ok, that's a little dramatic. Let's say a hundred suns. Then, the voices start floating around in my head, telling me that I'm never going to beat this and that I might as well give up. I know better, but I can't change the station. That comes from my depression, and recently it's been worse. I'm getting close to the end of my freelance contract at work. To say that I'm anxious about my January 31 contract renewal would be like saying that I have a little weight problem. I don't want to go through another year, or even another month, of unemployment. I don't want to leave this job. I love my job. I love my coworkers. I've made friends and found a place where I finally feel like I fit in and enjoy what I do. The thought of losing that coupled with the prospect of job hunting in this economy has delivered a psychiatric one-two punch that has me reeling. So that's where I am. But things will get better. They almost always do.