I love people.
Rude, insensitive, selfish, stuck on doing things the way they always do—and then, without warning, polite, caring, self-sacrificing and embracing change and challenges like it's what they were born to do.
And curious! Wow, are we curious. We want to know everything. Like that's possible. But limitations aren't necessarily a road block. If we can't get answers directly about why a rose is red, why sound doesn't carry well under water, or why our neighbor had to go to the hospital and doesn't want anyone asking about it, we'll just find a way to come at it sideways. We infer. We deduce. We learn from other examples and apply that knowledge. We ask Google.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the "what separates us from the animals" question, and my answer, at the moment, is "We ask the question, 'What separates us from the animals?'"
I think I get too stuck in my own head sometimes and forget that people make for the most interesting and entertaining stories, if I'll just pay attention. When I was a kid, right up into my mid-twenties, this was easy. My circle of influencers and associates was much smaller, much more direct. My friends were endlessly entertaining to watch as they nearly killed themselves.
A good friend, whom I will call Ray (because he's a family man now, and because he may have figured out by now the intricacies and benefits of filing defamation lawsuits) was a constant source of entertainment for me, growing up. On several occasions he risked his life for my amusement. Maybe not on purpose. We'll call it a side benefit.
Once, in our early 20s, our small group of friends took a beach trip to Surfside, only a handful of miles from our home but still the bare bottom edge of Texas. Today I wouldn't set foot in the water there, mostly because of the growing number of shark attacks, but also because the Gulf of Mexico, in that region, seems filled with some sort of grit and sludge and oil that makes me feel like I'm covered in night sweat and body grime all the time.
But back then, it was tolerable. Or I was more tolerant. One of those.
Ray drove a couple of us to the beach in his beat up small-frame pickup, which he'd tricked out with a top-end stereo and speakers that took up more space than passengers. The stereo was cool, but it was a drain on the truck's battery, and we frequently had to use speaker wire to jump start the truck to life. Safety first.
In the back of the pickup was the typical assortment of accouterment and accessories and detritus you'd expect from a Southern boy's pickup.—a length of chain, a sheet of plywood, a hydraulic jack, a collection of empty 32 oz. styrofoam cups from Buc-ees. These are the essentials of daily existence for boys with pickups, and I feel almost ashamed that the bed of my truck contains nothing at all, and I'm freakishly obsessed with keeping it that way. But Ray's truck was 100% pure Southern Texas ready and approved.
We parked on the beach, along with a few other cars packed with friends, and stripped to our shorts and swimsuits before running headlong into the water. Sunscreen? Who needs it! Did anyone bring a towel? Air dry! Is this glass in my foot? Maybe!
Chest-deep in the water, waves crashing around us, talk of the girls who'd come with us but were too chicken to swim because they didn't want to get their hair wet, we wrestled and generally tried to hurt each other as much as possible in our typical "don't be a wuss, bro!" way. At some point, Ray decided to bury his feet in the sand.
You've done this, I'm sure. Dig your heel into the soft sand under the water and let the gentle suction sweep more sand over your foot. You can feel the pull, like the sand is inviting you. It's fun. And then, for extra fun, you try to pull your feet out and HA-HA! you can't! You're held fast! It takes a few strong tugs, and you can almost hear the PLOP! of suction as your feet pull free, and you laugh and do it again.
If you're normal.
Ray has never been able to do things halfway. He likes extremes. "If two teaspoons of sugar will make this iced tea taste good, a pound of sugar will make it taste amazing!" And, if burying your feet in the sand is fun, burying half your body will be the ultimate thrill ride!
Ray dug in, starting with his feet, then stooping to shovel handfuls of sand away from his legs, digging deeper and deeper until finally, after a lot of effort on his part and not a little help from me and our other friends, he was buried to his waist.
There was much joy and merriment. Especially as he jerked his body upward in various directions, demonstrating his partial immobility. We laughed, we cried, it became a part of us.
And then the wide-eyed look of horror came over him.
"Guys," he said, whisper-quiet but somehow imminently audible over the sounds of crashing waves and seagulls and people laughing and playing music on the beach. "Guys, I think the tide is coming in."
What followed was a frantic series of body jerks, a struggle to extricate himself by any means necessary, and complete and utter hilarity.
"Go to my truck!" he said. "Get the chain and tie it to the bumper, and put the other end around my waist and drag me out!"
This I found truly profound. It had apparently not occurred to him that the chain couldn't possibly be long enough to stretch from the truck to where he was buried waist-deep in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond that, it seemed not to have occurred to him that he would surely be ripped apart, and then I'd have to explain to his parents why he was half the man he used to be. He'd apparently lost his mind, which was becoming more and more noticeable as he struggled against both sand and tide for his freedom.
I decided to help.
I took a position behind him, put my arms around his chest, and pulled upward with all the might I could muster. Which, considering I was nearly twice his weight, was pretty substantial.
There was the sensation of vertebrae cracking and popping, and once taut muscles going slack. "Kev," Ray croaked, breathless and defeated. "Kev, stop" he said, his voice weak and pitiful. When I let go he sagged slightly, the waves carrying his body a bit, like those inflatable fan men you see at car dealerships.
"I think I broke him," I said to the others.
After he'd had a moment to recover, it finally occurred to one of us that maybe, just maybe, we should try digging him out. Three or four of us now bent to the task of scooping handfuls of sand away from his body, until he had enough leverage to pull himself free.
He immediately made his way to the shore, collapsing in a heap on the dry sand, which was covering him in grit and irony. His ordeal over, his energy spent, his life saved, we carried on.
I don't remember exactly how the rest of that day went, but I'm reasonably sure it involved shenanigans. There was sure to be sunburn. There was sure to be the consumption of beverages (mine, always soda—I wasn't much of a drinker back then). It was probably a really good day, and we went on. No one was ripped in half, and we all lived happily ever after.
Now who would I be if I didn't have that story to tell? Boring, that's who. And I have a few million more like that. And I could have even more, if I'd just get out of my own head long enough to pay attention.
I think I see Ray every day, metaphorically speaking, trying to metaphorically jerk his body out of the wet sand of the world, trying to kill a single wasp by locking himself in a closed room with a can of bug fogger, trying to stop an out of control vehicle ,with no brakes, by stomping the clutch frantically until we crash through a metal gate.
I see Metaphorical Ray doing things like trying to learn to clean his bare feet with a pressure washer. I see him trying to save a pot of boiling-hot Crisco by pouring it back into its cardboard container, which promptly bubbles and erupts and spews hot oil everywhere. I see him pouring coffee on his pancakes at an IHOP at 3 a.m.
Only some of these Metaphorical Rays are me. Most are people I meet and get to know and come to truly love along the way. All of them have stories I can tell, masking their identities under thin pseudonyms, for my perpetual amusement but also for their profundity. If I did that more, maybe I'd learn something.
God, I love being a writer. It's the best excuse in the world to pay closer attention to people.