Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Drive thru shootings

It would begin as a simple task: proceed to Starbucks and acquire one venti black drip coffee.

I set off for Clarkston, Washington, our quaint little business friendly neighbor to the west that we share a border with across the Snake River. This town has got it together. Not only did they lure mighty Walmart out of Lewiston (much to the chagrin of the Valley's finest business high-brows) where the world's largest retailer will open a behemoth Super Walmart right next door to Costco, Clarkston also has Starbucks double-dipping on Bridge Street where one store anchors a strip mall across the street from Albertsons (with a Starbucks inside).

Comedian Lewis Black likens this to the universe swallowing itself. On one corner you have a Starbucks, and you turn around and look across the street and stare at -- double take -- another Starbucks.

"Hi, welcome to Starbucks," a friendly voice offers from a tiny speaker on the drive thru sign. "What can I get started for you today?"

The greeting alone is a cut above other drive thru greetings. Even my kids notice that about Starbucks, which is saying something, because Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston surely have the most drive-thrus per capita than any other western blue-collar area in the US.

Fast food is fine dining here, as evidenced by the carb-laden grease gauntlet referred to as 21st Street. Many sit down restaurants come and go while franchises pop up like spring dandelions and thrive.

"What's your coffee of the day," I ask.

"Pike Place," she replies.

Crap. Pike Place is used aircraft oil; it assaults the palette like a World War II beach landing: in your face, overwhelming and certain death if not dealt with appropriately and with sufficient counter measures. It's an abysmal cup of Joe, and I can't figure out who mandated Pike Place as Starbucks' mainline drip coffee, served almost exclusively except for holiday specials like Christmas Blend -- probably some latte-sipping nancy boy who hates drip coffee.

We all know Starbucks is struggling since the era of Pike Place took over. It's obvious, right? I'll grant the possibility that maybe Starbucks overshot its penetration goals just a tad (see above about the two Starbucks stores on Bridge Street). But I think it has more to do with the dripping battery acid called Pike Place. Like a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, Pike Place is eating away precious Starbucks profits and costing many cushy executive jobs in Seattle.

Wake up, Starbucks! Please pour one cup of the hot monkey urine and take a sip. Taste for yourself the injustice in your mouth. Do it! Control your gag reflex and reflect on what you've done to your customers. Save us from this wretched swill!

"I'll take two large -- I mean venti -- cups of Pike Place," I order. "Black."

What the ...? What am I going to do with two cups? My soul-sucking migraine tells me to drink one -- as black and disgusting as it was -- and do it fast, then whatever I wanted with the second one.

Trapped behind six fellow Starbucks customers, unable to maneuver out of the drive-thru line, I ponder my lack of conviction and willingness to cave to the caffeine gods. It was a long eight minutes self loathing.

Finally reaching the drive-thru window, I put the truck in park and reach for my gift cards. I was getting my game face on because I knew in a few moments my taste buds would be doing battle with Pike Place. Fumbling for the right card and offering it through the truck window, I was immediately struck by the sparkling, most penetrating amber eyes I'd ever encountered in my life.

"God, you're pretty," Migraine and me instantly agree, but silently (to our credit).

My mind wanders a little bit as she checks the card balance. I stare distantly through the windshield at the intersection, all the while a little bit smitten and embarrassed. True beauty has always done this to me. I'm unable to just appreciate it when it's staring right back at me. So I look away.

Migraine laughs at me because another weakness got exposed in the span of only a few minutes -- coffee and beauty. Being married is another solid reason to not leer at a beautiful woman.

"You owe me three bucks," she leaves hanging in the air for only a second but felt like a lot longer. "Sir, you owe me three bucks... this card is empty."

Laughing, eyes darting, and probably sounding just like one of the many nut-jobs she has to serve at the drive-thru window in a shift, "I've got this one too."

I watch this time, because I need to act concerned and that enough of the gift card is available to cover the purchase, and reassure that I'm not a street bumb in a Tundra looking to rip off some Pike Place.

"This one's good," she reports with a smile, and hands me the coffee.

Soul-sucking Migraine informs me that I'm leering this time, "You idiot, what about the tip?"

Oh right, the tip. Serving coffee is hard work. And good people, regardless of beautiful amber eyes or charming, should be tipped. I only had two lousy bucks, but at least the math was good ($2.00 tip for $3.00 worth of coffee... 66 percent gratuity). I don't tip at any other drive-thru except Starbucks... weird.

"Ahh... that's sweet," she laughs. "Most people don't tip at all."

And that was that. Done. I continue on my way thinking how great Starbucks is, and what a pleasant experience it was just getting coffee. As Starbucks coffee is always really hot, I allow it to cool a bit and replay the experience in my mind a few times. Her eyes would haunt me for a short time. Reflecting, I pick up the coffee largely with my guard down and take a big swig of Pike Place.

"Holy crap that is bad coffee," I scream in the truck, gagging the euphoria and jerking me back into reality.

"Welcome back to your life, loser," soul-sucking Migraine taunts from his happy place.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Punch drunk therapy

"You can't fix it; no matter what you do, you can't. So why don't you quit trying?" Those words were uttered by the marriage counselor in our last session. It confuses the hell out of me. Were we not sitting in a room paying quite a bit of money by the hour in an attempt to fix our marriage?

Confusion is a wicked fighter. I dodge surgical jabs at my precious intellect, and deflect direct shots to my insecurities, but eventually she hits pay-dirt and I quickly find myself dizzy from bone-jarring blows to my very core.

"I don't get you," catching Confusion's master -- the therapist -- a little off guard. "You said I can't fix this. Then, you ask me to list a few possibilities or ideas for my wife and I to be together more often... and that feels a lot like trying to fix this."

She's a professional, so she lets me finish my thought. Expressionless, and with a slight tilt of the head, she listens patiently while processing my accusation.

"A month ago I pleaded that it was unreasonable to ask for things from my wife if I knew she really couldn't deliver," I continue. "It's a me problem. It's me."

"I need to adjust me in order to help solve this. You said that was impossible and unrealistic; then you, literally, went on and on about how much you've had to adjust yourself in how you deal with your husband on a daily basis. You wouldn't give that to me -- you just said all the things about changing you to deal with your husband the way I should change myself to start dealing with my wife... and you wouldn't let me have that."

I clearly touch a nerve as pursed lips and narrow eyes begin raising the room's temperature.

"It's damn confusing," I conclude. "I don't get you."

She pauses, and turns in her chair to put her notes back on her desk, then spins back around to face me directly.

I take a deep breath and listen intently, nodding occasionally, eyes darting around the room, arms folded but with one raised so my fingers can tap nervously upon my chin (my known tells, probably because that's what happens when I'm being criticized).

It was certainly a carefully crafted reply, voiced in a measured, reassuring tone, and aimed at calming me down and regaining control of the session. But, it might as well been the teacher from Charlie Brown, "WAA WAA WAA WAA WAA WAA," because I don't recall a single word.

On purpose or not, I tune her out completely.

In therapy, you're supposed to be honest and share feelings.

So how am I feeling? It's me against them; that's how I'm feeling. And that's a problem, because feeding that very belief -- as honest as it feels -- will probably prove counter productive to the overall process.

My wife, to her credit, sees the whole thing being boiled down in front of her. Not only do I spar with her over 14 years of hurt feelings, unmet needs, and constant blame, I'm beginning to view our therapist as a growing source of conflict -- on my wife's side and in her corner.

Maybe it's just me, but when marriage counseling begins to feel like a boxing match between half of the couple and the therapist then maybe it's not working.

Naturally, I'd rather not participate. After withstanding the tolls of an emotionally charged marriage all week, we cap each 7-day period by meeting with Iron Mike Tyson where the beatings can end on a high note -- with a proper ass kicking by a paid professional.

By 6 p.m. every Friday night, I'm feeling less like a recharged individual with new skills and heartened hope to go out and meet the challenges in my marriage but more like a battered prize fighter trying to recover from yet another demoralizing butt whooping.

Positive thinking and being a "grown up" about the whole thing are hard to remember when you can't breathe or can't see what you're supposed to do next.

Getting back into the ring week after week seems to be getting harder and harder.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Social phobias and Facebook

I'm facing a little bit of an identity crisis. Two vastly different personalities have taken up residence in my body and now contradict each other daily. I can't tell if it's a 50/50 split where one side will eventually kill off the other half to dominate forever, or more like a symbiotic relationship where both sides mutually benefit from the other's experience and proximity.

As recently as two years ago I opted to forgo my 20-year high school reunion. It came and went and I didn't really think much more about it. Sure, there were people I would have loved to make small talk with, catch up and all the rest. But, I just wasn't feeling a big pull to participate.

That's how I explained it to my wife, parents, close friends, and even classmates. In fact, I probably went to greater lengths to downplay my reasoning for fear that my real motives might have been too obvious. And it wasn't even a lie; I was merely choosing to volunteer certain facts.

Truth be told, I was terrified.

Crowds and I don't mix well. Even the thought of crowds get my heart and mind racing with imagined scenarios, settings, and social obstacles. Put me in an actual room with strangers or friends and I'm toast. Sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and a slow boiling anxiety conspire to make certain I bolt for the door as soon as possible. School fund raisers and marketing functions of any kind kick my butt the most. Church? Not often.

I can't even hide it well. I keep to myself, avoid conversation, and probably come off as a pompous ass. My goal is to blend into the room like a piece of understated furniture. Handsome, stoic, within earshot of a few nice compliments, engaging when approached, withdrawn between idle chat, constantly observing the ebb and flow of the social sea crashing around me. Just survive... just get through it.

There's a name for my pain: Social Anxiety Disorder.
A person with social anxiety disorder is afraid that he or she will make mistakes and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The fear may be made worse by a lack of social skills or experience in social situations. The anxiety can build into a panic attack. As a result of the fear, the person endures certain social situations in extreme distress or may avoid them altogether. -- webmd.com link.
That's the guy I see in the mirror everyday. It wasn't always the case, but that's how it is now. Some even consider it unhealthy -- modern science has a cure called Prozac (or one of many of its variants). I visited life and the occasional social scene with the help of my little buddy the pill as wingman. Let's just say it didn't work out. Buddy wanted more than I was willing to give, namely my soul.

Cope. Manage. See therapist. Live.

Enter Facebook
I'd known about Facebook for a bit before I gave in to its unrelenting charms. On the face of it -- no pun intended -- Facebook offered a very attractive and practical approach to human connectivity.

Sign up, search, click, accept, explore. Almost overnight, names and faces appeared out of distant, almost forgotten memories and places from periods in my life. One to one disconnects were soon hard-wired again, and with tools to breathe life into once meaningful relationships that had fallen victim to the passage of time's cold, tight grasp.

Like a kid discovering the wonders of a new park or zoo, I soon marveled at the breadth and many varied intersections created by simply living on this rock. My schools, jobs, passions, etc., populated with people I care about. (And quite honestly, filled with people who kinda care about me too.)

Facebook offered a target rich environment to engage with people -- so from out of nowhere I dove in with both feet.

How is this possible for a social hermit? Social anxiety dude doesn't recall discussing an exact approach, proper tactics, or adequate boundaries to assist in navigating the social networking scene. Social anxiety dude observes everything and deals with the aftermath of embarrassment and many "I told you so" moments, while social networking dude acts on instinct, commenting too much, updating too often, and trying desperately to fit in.

I can see that the relationship between the two is far from perfect (and far from reality). As fun as all this is, would I actually go hang out with these people? Maybe. Maybe not. Ok... probably not.

If I'm alone in a room on a computer, am I really out there? No.

My two sides have enough sense to reconcile the differences between real-life human interaction and doing it all from the comfort of a computer screen. But it's also quite apparent that the outgoing half didn't just show up one day. He could've been asleep or on an extended vacation in the deep recesses of my mind, but he certainly didn't appear out of thin air. Facebook awakened something inside me that was long dead. A part of my old self.

And welcome back. Welcome back to the guy I couldn't see any more in the mirror every morning when I shaved. That guy who engages in the process. That confident individual, who prefers to meet life on his feet, and is passionate about living it. That guy who doesn't retreat. Welcome back to that guy who likes being around others... because it feeds his soul.

Summed up: it's growth. The two sides can co-exist. And maybe, just maybe, the two can move their host into healthier waters again.