I’m lost at sea/Don’t bother me/I’ve lost my way

“In Limbo” by Radiohead

 

There are several things I am not good at. Shuffling cards. Speaking a foreign language. Playing an instrument well. Staying organized. I misplace my wallet and/or keys on an almost weekly basis. Any good friend of mine will tell you I am especially bad at getting from point A to point B. I.E. I am directionally challenged. It is truly a work of art how I manage to lose my way.

 

I am also not the best driver. On a spring break trip my sophomore year, I took a sleet covered exit ramp in West Virginia too fast in my 1997 Honda Civic and drove off the road, taking out several orange barrels. In these moments time does not exist and your brain has the inability to make rational decisions and you say a brief prayer and hope you wake up the next morning as you brace for impact. I finally came to a stop in the middle of a snow covered stretch of grass. This sent my buddy’s road trip snack flying towards the front of the car, leaving my dashboard covered in a full bag’s worth of Nabisco New England Oyster Crackers. We all sat in silence for a few moments trying to figure out what went wrong. We laughed hysterically as I casually turned the car around and got back on the exit ramp like it never happened.

 

Partly to save money but mostly to stubbornly bury culture’s rearing head in the sand, I did not buy a smartphone until I graduated from college. This was eight years after it was deemed social suicide to have a non smartphone. Because of this choice and my penchant for getting lost, I can count on my hand several times I had to make a phone call to describe to a friend where I was and what road I needed to take to get back on course.

 

This problem exists even when I am not driving. One afternoon I decided to go on what I thought was a four mile round trip run to a local park and I made a wrong turn along the way. Every house was starting to look the same and I could not find my way out of the neighborhood. I turned a corner and saw an older Indian woman kneeling in her front yard plotting flowers near a small tree. She looked up at me as I came to a stop to ask her for directions.

 

“You look lost. Where are you trying to go?” she said, before I could even introduce myself.

 

She was like an all knowing genie who most likely started her own neighborhood watch program.

 

“Yes. I am lost. I do like this neighborhood and your azaleas, but I’m looking for the arboretum off Springboro Pike”, I replied.

 

I like your azaleas? You don’t even know if those are azaleas. Are you flirting with a woman twice your age?

 

She let out a short laugh as she wiped her brow with her arm while holding a trowel.

 

“No azaleas in this garden. These are celosias.”

 

Of course. Everyone knows that.

 

After destroying any dreams I may have had of becoming a botanist, she met my need.

 

“If you’re trying to get to the arboretum, you’ll want to turn around, make your first right, and then you’ll hit Springboro Pike. Make another right and head south. It will be on your left. It is about 5 miles from here.”

 

Five miles.

 

I had already ran five or six miles by this point and my legs were slowly becoming JELL-O.

 

“Thank you mam.”

 

“Please, call me Mahati.”

 

“Thank you Mahati!”

 

Sure enough her directions were spot on and I managed to get to the park. I took a short rest atop a tall wooden tower in the middle of the park that overlooked the Greater Dayton area. It was a stunning view just before sunset. Fortunately I knew the way home and got back right before dusk. I realized I had accidentally ran almost 14 miles. So much for a four mile run.

 

That night when I finally got home, I started doing some research and realized you can actually be diagnosed with “geographical dyslexia” or “topographical disorientation.” Fortunately, I realized this only occurs with alzheimer’s disease.

 

Which in another light, made my problem appear only worse.

 

I used to hate asking for help. I always viewed it as a cop out. A lack of responsibility. This only got worse as I got older. I had this perception that being an adult meant learning how to live on your own. Pay your own bills. Deal with your own problems. Keep your complaints to yourself. No one wants to hear them.

 

On the other hand I think most of my generation falls on the other spectrum. Millennials get a bad rap for wanting to be independent adults while having our dream jobs as soon as humanly possible. When the rubber meets the road however, we’ll take anyone’s money to get us where we want to go. If we’re not asking for money, we’re asking for something even worse. Validation. We want our friends and family to support us in every way imaginable. We want our decisions, good or bad, to be held in the best light to keep us moving along.

 

Both of these approaches to life have a little bit of helpful truth in them. It’s good to take responsibility for your actions and pay your own bills. It’s also good to strive towards what you are passionate about. But, these two ideologies by themselves can become dangerously unhealthy cycles.

 

For me, my search for purpose could only be achieved by myself. The last thing I wanted to do was burden someone else. For others, their search for purpose could only be achieved through trying to please everyone on their way to their ideal life. Both will leave you miserable.

 

One will turn you into a little person running around in your brain with your thoughts trying to find a shimmer of light but you’re too blinded by your own pride to see your friend standing in the door providing an exit. The other turns you into a giant balloon. Colorful on the outside, getting larger and larger, rising upwards, but eventually the money runs out and the false belief and bad advice from shallow relationships pops your fragile shell, leaving you deflated.

 

Two birds searching for rhinos.

Before you can find purpose in your work and in life, you have to find opportunity.

 

Enter the Rhino.

 

Rhinos come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Some are well connected in their industry or community. Some are extremely knowledgeable in a specific product, service, craft, or skill. Some are billionaires, some don’t have a dollar to their name. Rhinos can be extremely different however there is a common thread that weaves through each one. They all have found purpose and are inviting others (birds) to join them.

 

Rhinos don’t just consume, they create.

 

One of the first rhinos I met was Scott. Scott was a creator.

 

I am convinced there are some people in this life you meet and you never really know if they are one-hundred percent human. I think God took an extended lunch break one day in the early eighties and created cartoon characters that took on human characteristics. One of these creations was Scott.

 

Scott was a customer at the bank I was working at. He was in his early thirties, six feet tall, slightly overweight, with an almost black, slicked comb-over haircut, which had so much sheen from hair product you could almost see your reflection staring back at you from the flourescent lights in the lobby. He had the cheesiest smile when he walked through the glass doors. This paired well with his robotic wave of his hand at a 90 degree angle as if he were swearing into office with Chief Justice Roberts. He would waddle up to my teller station and say “Withdrawal please!”, showing all his anterior teeth. I would hand him a withdrawal slip to fill out and he would ask for several crisp, blue, one hundred dollar bills. As he shuffled the bills on the counter in a neat stack, he would tell my coworkers and I about his weekend plans which usually included driving up to Michigan to fish on Lake Superior. Scott was always busy.

 

One day he waddled in like he always did, took off his sunglasses and walked up to my station. Before I could slide him a withdrawal slip he said “Quinn, want to learn a new business?”

 

At first, I thought he was asking me to join the Irish mob with him. He’d probably make me do beer runs at first and organize charity events for local catholic churches in Dayton before I got into the illegal stuff. Of course, this was all in my head. Besides, I don’t think my thin frame would be much help in the inevitable bar fight.

 

“Sure, what’s the business?” I replied, willing to do just about anything besides cash checks all day.

 

Scott (to my knowledge) isn’t in the Irish mob. He actually runs several independent MRI labs all over Ohio. Because his labs are outside the hospital network, patients who need scans of their broken fibulas or torn ACL’s can get them at a fraction of the cost. The only way his business succeeds however is if he drives in physician’s patients on a regular basis. Fortunately for Scott, he had a passion for sales that I have yet to see in anyone else. He told me on my days off from the bank, I would ride along with him to doctor’s offices and clinics and he would teach me his sales techniques.

 

The first day, I drove to the MRI lab and we got into his light blue Chrysler 300. It had a distinct smell of cigarettes and mint.

 

“So, you ready to get started?” Scott said to me with his cheesy grin.

 

“Yeah, where are we going today?” I said, still trying to figure out how to breathe in his Shanghai on wheels.

 

“Well, we gotta pick up Bill’s Donuts first. Everyone loves Bill’s donuts. Buckle in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”

 

I laughed at his cheesy joke and looked out the window.

 

“Quinn”, Scott said to me.

 

“Yeah?” I said, turning back towards Scott.

 

He was now wearing his sunglasses, while resting his arm across the top of his steering wheel like Vin Diesel in one of the eight Fast and Furious films, waiting for the next heist. I was now wondering if I wasn’t too far off from the Irish mob scenario I thought about the other day.

 

“I wasn’t kidding about buckling up. Seriously, fasten your seat belt. It will actually be a bumpy ride.”

He wasn’t playing any games. As soon as he heard the click, we took off towards Bill’s Donuts, flying down several backroads. During the drive he called into the donut shop and ordered 12 dozen boxes of donuts. In what should have been a ten minute drive, we arrived in five. Scott flipped down his visor and grabbed one of the hundred dollar bills.

 

“Hi Jenny, just picking up my usual!” Scott said, handing her the bill as I started picking up the boxes to take out to the car.

 

We flew past semis up I-75 into the neighborhoods of north Dayton. Scott would pull into a Speedway each day and come out with a pack of Marlboro no. 27’s and a 24oz coffee. His bladder must have been in the 99th percentile because he finished his whole cup in a matter of 15 minutes. He’d light up his cigarette while explaining his method to his madness.

“Everyone has their vice. Mine is smoking. Don’t smoke. It’s a nasty habit. But, I enjoy it. Life’s too short to not enjoy life.”

 

As I was seconds away from pointing out his lack of logic in this statement, Scott dropped one of those lines that give broke writers their five minutes of fame as they accept their Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as they try to remember to be human with the likes of Meryl Streep staring up at them during their acceptance speech.

 

“One thing about people you should know. They love to give advice. Frankly, most of it just ends up on bad over-priced Hallmark cards in CVS. Or worse, you end up hearing it on The View. You might be thinking ‘It sounds like you’re about to give me some advice.’ Well, you’re right. I’m also a person. I can’t change that.”

 

Scott took another pull on his No. 27 and tapped the ash on the window.

 

“But what I can change is how interested I am in other people. The more you’re interested in other people, the more questions you ask. The more questions you ask, the more you learn. The more you learn, the faster you figure out where you’re going in life. The rest of life is just mayonnaise on a sandwich. Might add a little bit of flavor, but there’s no real substance in it.”

Mayonnaise on a sandwich.

 

I’ve always hated mayonnaise so this really resonated with me. We weren’t even at the first office yet and I felt like I had learned more in that statement than in the last year.

One by one Scott would work his charm with his warm greeting and box of donuts. He was like a dog doing backflips and hurdles for his audience. With every joke the group of receptionists were throwing him treats of laughter with their applause. Most of the offices we were stopping in had only been Scott’s second visit. Miraculously he was able to recall every name, favorite color, year in school, and family member with a chronic disease for each front desk employee. This approach granted him the five minutes he needed with the doctor to share his message of patient care.

 

I am terrible with names. I was in Michigan a couple months ago and there was a girl that traversed with myself and a few friends up to Traverse City and the sand dunes up north for the weekend. After almost 48 hours when we were exchanging goodbyes, I called her by the wrong name. She immediately corrected me and I was so embarrassed I don’t think I acknowledged my mistake. I’ll probably never see her again, but I am convinced she will never forget that moment. There is not a worse feeling than someone forgetting your name while saying goodbye. To this day I feel horrible about the situation.

 

I was never that terribly interested in sales or MRI scanners, but the more time I spent watching Scott, I realized his approach could be applied to almost any situation. Any good salesman knows you have to first develop a level of trust with your prospect before you sell anything of value to them. Trust is only developed if you spend time listening to them. Consuming what they have to say. Asking them questions. Discovering their needs. Being interested.

 

Then you can start talking. Creating opportunity. Giving answers. Inviting others to learn from you. Being interesting.

 

Scott pulled me outside my nest and taught me how to rewire my brain to make life a lot more enjoyable. He would ask me all kinds of questions about my interests which in turn drew me to spend more time on them. I started writing more. Instead of ending the day with TV, I jumped on the bike instead. A little more sweat and soreness. I recently started dabbling in painting, one of my brother Drew’s interest. He is extremely talented (this includes almost any other form of art, see this series’ graphic design work). I asked him how he even begins to tackle a portrait. He walked me through the process. It’s a lot of trial and error if you are trying to get the colors just right to match the skin tone of the person. Portrait painting is a little like a puzzle too. Every portrait piece he creates, he begins by drawing a grid on the photo of the person he is painting. Then he lightly draws a grid on the actual canvas and then starts painting in the puzzle pieces until the face, eyes, nose, ears, and shoulders are exactly proportional. I tried this on an abstract portrait. I don’t have the patience or skill for that matter for photorealism. It was a lot like stumbling around in the dark, but I eventually converted a blank canvas into something I could hang on the walls. I wonder if this is how former President George W Bush felt for the first few weeks picking up painting for the first time. Surprisingly, he has a knack for it. I think he even has a book of portraits of veterans he painted.

 

It’s amazing how much you can learn from simply asking somebody about their work and why they enjoy it. Sometimes you experience a taste of that same joy.

 

A little less boredom. A little more creativity.

 

While some rhinos like Scott excel in providing hands on experience for birds willing to learn, like myself, other rhinos excel in connecting birds with even more rhinos.

 

One of these individuals was Dave. Dave is married to my cousin Shannon, who I am convinced is the nicest person on earth. It so happens to be that Dave is one of the most genuine and helpful persons I know. It makes sense they ended up together. Dave is a an administrative pastor in North Carolina. He is one of those rare individuals that posses the ability to be good at everything he does. He once planned an easter egg event for hundreds of small children involving a helicopter dropping thousands of plastic eggs full of Reese’s chocolate and Jelly Beans all over a soccer field. I wish I could have seen the ensuing chaos of pre-schoolers running out to pillage the candy.

 

Dave came to Dayton for my grandparent’s 60th wedding anniversary party. We were all eating chocolate cake in the backyard. I don’t really care for cake, but I was trying to be a good sport about it. It’s mostly just speeding up plans for an unproductive afternoon. Above the streamers and balloons, we started talking about jobs and where we were trying to go. I told him about working at the bank and my experience with Scott. Without blinking an eye Dave said “Well if you want to do something similar in North Carolina, let me know. I know a guy.”

 

I know a guy.

 

Three months later I moved south.

 

The older I get and the more time I spend reflecting on changes in life,  I have realized that most of them can be linked back to the most uncalculated conversations and meetings with friends, family or complete strangers that all start with the same question:“Where are you trying to go?” Rarely does a change in life, whether be a job, geographical move, or a new relationship involve a simple resume or a formula.

 

I have a confession to make. I lied in the beginning of this series. The relationship between the oxpecker bird and the rhinoceros is not purely a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. The more research I did, I stumbled upon recent developments that scientists have discovered the oxpecker can actually harm the rhinoceros by pecking at its flesh when there are no ticks and fleas to consume. For an entire day I got really bummed I had just spent entire days of writing  about a theory that had a gaping hole in it. A writer’s nightmare truly worse than writer’s block itself. It is a good thing I did not have to inform a publisher or agent about my grave mistake. But then I realized I could contort it for this ending.

 

There are times as a bird when your rhino is heading in a different direction than you are trying to go. You lose your passion and drive and you become bitter. You stop eating the ticks and fleas and you start pecking at the rhino, causing it to bleed. This helps no one. You stop searching for other rhinos. You become caught in the juxtaposition of not wanting to be bothered while having lost your way.

 

Quit pecking. Lift your head up. Mahati is waiting to ask you “Where are you trying to go?”

 

You’ll find her planting celosias.