Saturday, March 15, 2008

White Elephants

Garage sales are places of learning. If you pay attention you'll learn that items, if not sold at ticket price in the first hour, become prime candidates for even bigger bargains. For instance, a pleasant, mannish woman will kindly take 17 DVDs off your hands for a generous $1 a piece after waiting for an hour and a half. After glancing over the stack featuring Godzilla and the first installment of the Spiderman trilogy, I'm not sure who's getting the better end of that deal.

You may also learn that the rummage salers that darken the doorstep of any garage, yard, or estate sale 15 minutes before it is supposed to begin are quite confident in what they think items should be priced at. I watched one man mark down himself a ceramic bowl he wished to purchase by pointing out each nick, chip and scuff. You can't take your eyes off them. Not even for a paper-cut. Not even if you break the skin. Given the opportunity, I think that breed of person might try to talk down the price of blood transfusion while in critical condition.


There was a blood drive held in what looked like a RV converted into a small clinic on campus yesterday in Red Square. I didn't go, but not because of any sort of needle phobia--my freshman year at Western I used to drive out to Meridian to give plasma. Yes, I did receive money for this. No, I do not consider it prostitution. No, I am not allowed back--I have been permanently deferred from donating plasma. Something about my liver. I don't want to talk about it.

I don't donate blood anymore either. Chalk it up under Things I Can No Longer Bear, right below Lunchables and DuranDuran. But I think it's a good cause. When I was a senior, my high school was doing a blood drive. I had donated a couple times before, so I was familiar with the rundown: paperwork, pin-prick, needle, relax, cookies, juice, etc. I was looking forward to doing my part. You know, giving of myself for the greater good of mankind...


Almost stranger than what's bought is what is donated to garage sales. I would never expect to find packages of disposable razors or facial tissues. A water-pick, maybe. I'd be skeptical of the obviously used electric razors. And the unmentionables...well, I'll leave them unmentioned. The books/movies section usually has some gems like the cult film Ghost World in the midst of lutefisk cookbooks and pulp fiction.


In ancient times, physicians often practiced bloodletting, thinking that to drain one's blood would heal and prevent illness. By the 19th Century they used leeches for this practice. Now it's been proven that bloodletting doesn't work out so well for the patient losing blood. However, we also know that putting a person's healthy blood into someone else's unhealthy system (in certain cases, of course; I'm no doctor) can be quite beneficial.


As someone with a wider foundation in the rummage sale scene, Seth has some philosophies on garage sales, pricing, etc. "I like to aim high," he says, the profits from the garage sale helping subsidize the cost of mission trips for a goodly sum of INN students. He also likes to draw attention to the bigger items. You know, show the buyers what they'd be missing out on if they don't buy now, Now, NOW! "This couch is so comfortable," he sighs and leans back with a book and his coffee mug, really driving home the relaxing luxury of the well-worn loveseat.


Things went really smoothly as I filled out my paperwork while waiting to see the nurse. I don't even think I flinched at the pin-prick. I probably made some sort of face as the nurse squeezed the life out of my index finger, leaving it with a stiff, pale complexion usually reserved for bitterly cold days. And I bet I tensed up as the needle burrowed into the bend of my elbow, but everything was cool. I was cool. I was giving my A-positive blood and making a difference by the pint.


At a garage sale, you may also have epiphanies. You may realize that you are painfully ungifted at haggling. You may hear the word "shafted" a lot. It may be revealed to you that you often require a calculator for simple math. That patrons with cash suddenly add mounds of unnecessary pressure on the critical thinking skills you had once been proud of.


Maybe I didn't eat a hearty enough breakfast earlier that morning. Maybe I didn't drink enough water throughout the day. For whatever reason, when the nurse pointed me in the direction of the cookies and juice (across the width of the gym) I managed about halfway there before I realized I was losing my vision. Everything was getting darker. I had no peripheral. Then most of my visual field was black and cloudy. I'd had this experience before. It's like when I stood up just after the anesthesia wore off when I had my wisdom teeth removed. Or trying to get out of bed after having the stomach flu, feeling sweaty, cold, dizzy, and simply disoriented. I usually end up on the floor, though with no idea how; I just know that my shoulder hurts and my headaches.

I didn't end up on the floor that time. I focused on keeping my hands in front of me, my feet one step in front of another until I felt the refreshment table. After I regained my vision, I grabbed a handful of cookies and a Styrofoam cup of apple juice and found a chair.

"Dave, you're really pale. Are you okay?" someone else asked.

No would have been the right answer. "Yeah, I'm fine," I said, and smiled because a smile means everything is okay. Always. No exceptions. "I just need to sit for a little while."


The beauty of a garage sale is cleaning out. People can donate all the things they don't want or use anymore, like old T-shirts from the Thomas family weekend or a tea set still containing a used teabag. They can get rid of their Dance, Dance Revolution floor pads (though they may never be completely healed of the disease). All of this so others can find enjoyment in the many, many, many items strewn over tables and shelves. To find new purpose. To rediscover everything, in shame of nothing.

I enjoyed the movie Ghost World once. I read the graphic novel for my comics literature course last spring. Lisa just shook her head when I bought the VHS. I didn't care.


Chances are I'm fine to donate blood. I just need to make sure to eat and drink properly beforehand. So maybe I will eventually donate blood again. Maybe. Someday. But not in Red Square. Not in an RV converted into a clinic about the size of my body.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

For the Impressionist

Submitted for consideration at The Believer.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

As Luck Would Have It

The highway community of Grand Mound lies just north of Centralia, approximately ten miles as the crow flies. It's a speck along I-5, and aside from the elegant concrete guidepost welcoming weary travelers, Grand Mound is home to a mere handful of gas stations, burger joints, and, as luck would have it, a Dairy Queen for pilgrims with a sweet-tooth.

I was traveling south from Bellingham on a weekend with a few friends of mine, hoping to meet up with some other friends in Portland. One of my weekend getaways. We were driving Sarah's car late into the night. Conversations rolled from the day-to-day to Marry, Date or Dump to playful arguments heavily laced with sarcasm.

"Lisa, do you kind of feel like this is a mission trip?" Jake asked as we pulled off the freeway. "I mean, you're taking a trip with a bunch of students."

"No," Lisa replied, shaking her head at the steering wheel. "Usually when I'm on a mission trip and driving somewhere, I handpick who sits shotgun. Someone who I think will be good at navigating."

We all look at Sarah, who occupied the position. She tightened her lips, sighed, and looked out the window.

"And," she continued. "I'm usually driving a rental."

"Well," Sarah retorted. "Just remember you're not driving a rental this time."

"You should go to the 76 Station over there to get gas," Jake said. "I've got a gas card."

"I do get a gas card on mission trips, though." She pulled up to the stop light and turned right toward the gas station.

We all soon realized that the road we were on would not take us to the 76. In fact, it would lead us right by the parking lot but with no means of getting inside. This was about the time that I finally conjured a clever Marry, Date or Dump: "Gary Busey, Nick Nolte, and Gary Cole."

"Who's Nick Nolte?" Sarah asked.

Wasted. Fantastic. "Hey Lis," I said ignoring the flat reception of my look-alike trio. "I don't think this is going to take us where we want to go."

"Thank you, David," she said in a tone that implied she was not at all thankful for my contribution. "Let me just find a place to turn around." Finding a wide place in the road, she pulled the car onto the shoulder and made sure there were no cars coming.

"Just remember, Lisa," Sarah said. "This is my car. This is not a rental."

Lisa spun the wheel and pulled out over both lanes of traffic to make her U-turn. As she did this, we all noticed the growing headlights of an oncoming car.

"Lisa!" Sarah blurted. "You almost got us killed!"

"Relax," Lisa said, effortlessly navigating the car into the returning lane and gassing it. "You'd think this was your car or something."

"It is my car," Sarah pouted.

"Oh," Lisa laughed.

We found ourselves again approaching the 76 Station, but with no idea how to enter the parking lot. With a shrug, Lisa turned down the only other road that even appeared to take us to our destination.

"Oh!" Jake said. He pointed to the sign now in front of us that read To 76 Station above a large, red arrow pointing down a dark road that evidently had not been paved since the gas station was erected. "Thanks." When we stopped, he got out, filled up the tank, and reentered the car.

As we left the parking lot, we found ourselves behind a semi turning onto a different road. "Why didn't we find this road on our way in?" Lisa asked.

"I don't know," I replied. "It looks like it should take us back to the main road."

"Doesn't it?" Lisa said. "I'm going to follow this truck."

She did. She followed the truck out of the parking lot.

"I wish there was a Dairy Queen here," Sarah said whimsically.

"You mean like that one," Lisa pointed through the windshield, across the median, and beyond an intersection.

"Yeah! Can we go there?" We all agreed there would be nothing better.

Lisa turned left onto the new road, still following the truck in front of her. And, just like the truck, she ended up back in the 76 Station parking lot. "What! Well, I guess we can't get out that way." She pulled out from behind the truck and began speeding up. "Oh goodie!" In front of us was a large pool of standing water. Maybe it was from the earlier rainstorm. Maybe it was left over from the recent flooding. Either way, Lisa was headed straight for it at increasing speeds. Sarah tensed. Jake laughed. I laughed. The car bottomed out just as the displaced water reached its peak.

"Lisa!" Sarah cried again. "This is not a rental!"

"Sorry," Lisa said through giggles. "I keep forgetting."

Lisa finally found the way out of the gas station and back to the main road, turning off into the Dairy Queen parking lot. "What does everyone want?"

"I think I want a strawberry sundae," Sarah said.

"I'll have an Oreo Blizzard," Jake said.

"I want a Snickers Blizzard," I said.

"Okay," Lisa turned to the speaker. "We'll have one strawberry sundae, a Butterfinger Blizzard, an Oreo Blizzard, and..."

Butterfinger Blizzard? I thought. That must be Lisa's order. I wonder why she's so hesitant to order my Snickers. Did she forget? Maybe I should--

"...and a Snickers Blizzard."

Nope. She got it.

"That'll be $10.09 at the window," the speaker replied.

We pulled forward, fishing around in our pockets for cash or cards. "I can't wait for my Snickers Blizzard," Lisa said.

The rest of us looked at each other with shared confusion. "Lisa," I said. "You ordered a Butterfinger Blizzard; I ordered the Snickers."

"No," and suddenly Lisa's face shifted to match ours. "Oh no!" When we reached the window, Lisa waved exasperatedly to get the servers' attention. "Excuse me, I think I misspoke."

They were able to change the order right away, and when they asked for the $10.09, Jake said, "Ask if they can make change for a $100." Something one must know about Jake is that he's a giver. He gets things--like $100 from his parents--and wants to give it away. To let the people around him enjoy it as much as he would. "I've got this one, guys."

I wasn't going to argue. Apparently, neither were the girls. We exchanged the money for ice cream and moved on to enjoy. Sarah took the lid off Lisa's Blizzard and repeatedly offered it to her before we reached the road. Lisa finally said, "Sarah, I'll take it when we get on the freeway. Just give me a minute," like Sarah was trying to hand her a flaming bowling pin when she was already juggling two knives, a chainsaw, and an ostrich egg. I didn't feel inclined to comment at the moment, seeing as I was occupied by a Blizzard; but had I, I would have explained to Lisa that God created us with a lap for a reason and that one should not turn down ice cream when it is offered or one risks losing said treat.

Back on the freeway, we continued south. Anything that was said was mumbled through gobs of soft-serve. Twenty-six miles later, Jake began patting down the backseat, twisting and turning, and lifting up jackets and miscellany. "Hey guys." The statement piqued my interest in a way that I knew that the inquiry that would follow would not be humorous. "Did we get our change?" Or convenient.

This question. The way this question was phrased, had, at its core, the same revelation as when my brother would leave his orthodontic retainer in a fast food napkin. The napkin, along with its contained appliance, was invariably discarded, and his realization would only come later. Only after we were back on our way. Only when the solitary solution would be to return and dig through large bins of fast food waste because, most often, nobody could remember which trash can we had thrown our trays into.

Somewhere along the way we had forgotten all about our $89.91 change. Maybe it was the ice cream: I'm inclined to forget everything going on around me when ice cream is involved. But this is only after I already have the ice cream. There was a time at age 4 when I would not smile for a portrait despite my mother bribing me with a milkshake. I was grumpy, probably needed a nap, but I was simply not going to smile. I suppose that's another story for another time, though. We had forgotten a fine sum of money back in Grand Mound and now the freeway had no visible exits.

Jake tried calling Information. Unfortunately--and this is something to remember in times of distress--411 cannot locate a place by its county. We had not noticed which town we had been in until later, only that it was in Thurston County. We thought hard: Millersylvania? Centralia? Chehalis? Nothing fit. We finally found an off-ramp and turned around, hoping we would retrieve the money. We also managed to blame each other, blame the DQ staff, suspect their intentions, and even suspect ourselves the plot of a Mary Higgins Clark novel (though there was only one passenger who had read anything by Clark; I was not her).

"This will make a good story for a talk," Lisa said.

"No," I replied. "This will only be a good story if we get the money back. Otherwise, this will be a really bad story." But I still wasn't worried about it all. I don't think any of us were all that desperate.

I don't know what's changed. Maybe it's my generation, maybe I'm just growing up, you can decide. But I'm curious when I reached a point that I'm able to step outside my surroundings. Had this been any Dave prior to the one I am now, my blood pressure would have been off the Richter scale and I'd have developed an ulcer before we had a chance to turn the car around. As it was, I was concerned, but I wasn't going to let it get to me. It would not have ruined my weekend.

I went to an amusement park with a friend of mine from high school a couple summers ago. We rode one of those water attractions that completely soaks its passengers. As luck would have it, the ride ruined my cell phone. But I didn't really care. I was disappointed, but I got over it by the end of the afternoon. Months later, my friend was still apologizing for the incident, even though he had no control over the situation. I'm learning how to roll with the punches. Jesus says, "Do not worry, saying 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we wear?' See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin." Bono once sang, "Don't let the bastards get you down" on my favorite U2 album, Achtung, Baby. Worrying about things doesn't really get you anywhere, especially if you worry about flukes that happen in strange towns like Grand Mound or at amusement parks. I'm still learning how to practice that. There are days I get all bent out of shape about the state of things in my life, but I'm a long way from where I started.

Back in Grand Mound (40 minutes after we had left it), we were banging on the windows of the now closed Dairy Queen. "I tried to give you your change, but you drove off too quickly," the manager said.

Oh, so you want to blame us, I thought. Typical.