Sunday, September 18, 2011

Professional Couch-Surfing

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone born of the Spirit." --John 3:8

I wouldn't call myself homeless, per se. Every night I sleep happily underneath strong, protective roofing built by someone else many years ago. I stay on my father's couch, or my grandmother's bed. On a fold-out futon in a friend's living room, or in another friend's guest room. Sometimes I stay in someone's teenage daughter's upstairs loft. I guess you could say what I really am is room-less.

"I'm sort of a professional couch-surfer," I told my friend Mario via online chat a couple of weeks ago.

"Hey, do you mean on couchsurfing.net, or the non-internet, real-life version?"

"The non-internet, real-life version."

"It kind of works like this," I went on. "I live with my grandmother... only until I don't. If I have to go into town, I catch the bus early that morning and stay all day, sometimes not coming back until the following day."

Mario was incredulous. "Do you just not want to be at your grandmother's house? Do you dislike it there?"

"No, no," I reassured my friend. "I am involved in Toastmasters [International] in town and cannot get there if I don't take the bus early in the morning. It's supposed to work where I'm only in town Tuesday and Wednesday and am with my grandmother the rest of the time. But if there's a special occasion like Labor Day, I don't mind going out to celebrate it."

Before leaving Korea, I had the chance to experience couch-surfing for the first time--and I felt God move through it in a whole new way. Just after finding out that I had two weeks left at my job, and subsequently in my apartment, I debated about whether I should pay to stay in the apartment for one extra week. I knew the hagwon was closing at the end of May and as I prayed through my dilemma, I felt the Spirit say, "Move out May 31."

Plans were already formulating for me to join Holly Schoephoerster in Southeast Asia sometime in June, but if I left at the end of May, that meant there would be a critical time gap between vacating my apartment and traveling. Where was I to go until then? From out of the woodwork, God started bringing girlfriend after girlfriend who offered me not just support for what I was going through, but places for me to stay.

December, who worked close to my school in Dongtan, was the first to step up. Though it was only twice the size of my Korean apartment (i.e., less than 500 total square feet), she said I could crash at her place anytime I needed. She even offered to hold part of my luggage while I was away in Thailand.

My Korean friend Young Sook, who lived less than a mile from December, wanted me to bring my stuff over to her place simply because she had one whole extra room (including a bed) more than my American friend. "Your luggage-y, big and December apartment small," she said matter-of-factly. At one point, she too offered her apartment as somewhere for me to be.

"Jenny-pah," she said as she gazed intently at me, "stay. In Korea, you stay."

"I can't stay," I told her. At that moment, visions of my family and their need for comfort raced through my head. I knew couldn't.

At the same time, my Korean co-worker Grace Teacher also offered her place. "I would love you to come stay with me," she told me over the phone. "With my mom."

I was astounded by all of the people who wanted to come to my rescue and I knew that they offered themselves through the prompting of God. I never felt so loved or cared for than during those moments. In the end, more because of convenience than anything else, I chose to room with December.

But I wasn't the only one who started a couch-surfing career at that time: So did Frankie. Though my friends wanted me to stay with them, they weren't too eager to also entertain my cat. December was highly allergic, Young Sook deathly afraid, and Grace didn't think her mother would very much approve. So what was Frankie to do without me?

"I'm taking your cat," a new friend of mine, Kealy, asserted the first day I met her. We were out at Hangang Park celebrating Holly's last Sunday in Seoul with swan paddle boat races on the Han; I had just told her about my need to vacate my apartment building in less than two weeks. Though I had had one other offer to take Frankie already, it was still unconfirmed because the girl needed to check with her school first. "I'm taking her cat," Kealy repeated, telling everyone within earshot.

And so it was settled. Just as my mobile life had begun.

"It's fun, but it's not a good way to settle down," I confessed to Mario that day online.

"Getting tired of the couches?" he asked.

"I've been doing it so long it's kind of the new norm I guess. I just want to take control of my own something."

"That's a real shift from having your own everything in Korea, eh?"

A sobering thought, Mario. In my need for control, I have to stop and ask one question: If the LORD provided for me then, in the midst of a foreign people speaking a foreign tongue in a foreign land, why must I doubt that He can provide for me now?

I've certainly seen a lot of Texas towns while under someone else's roof: Somerset, Kirby, Converse, Schertz, Temple, Killeen. I've visited or reconnected with no less than five local congregations. I've also had a chance to spend copious amounts of time with dear friends and family in this new season. Being room-less isn't all bad.

Confessions of a Used Car Salesman

*Originally performed live August 30, 2011 in Universal City, Texas*

The Toastmasters Area Contest was held earlier today on the north side of San Antonio. In honor of the Christian speech club that I have recently joined, and such an auspicious occasion, here is a look at the original speech I entered this year. Sadly, it was not eligible to go on to larger, more prestigious contests--no thanks to my forgetfulness or its length.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you "Confessions of a Used Car Salesman." Laugh at your own risk. Please note, any and all flirtation recorded in the preceding may or may not actually have been true.

***

HHHHow many of you ever want your daughter to grow up and declare, “Oh, dad, I really want to be a professional hustler!” Standing before you, ladies and gentlemen, is a woman who—on her honor—almost became one.

Like a lot of people in this country, I’ve been out of work for two months now. Last week, my uncle called up to tell me about a job fair the following morning. He had heard about it all on the news. He said the news anchor suggested candidates “dress for success”—which meant smoothing out your best dress suit, straightening your wild locks, and sharpening your Stilettos. The next day, there I was in my dad’s immaculate Mustang convertible headed out to take someone for a ride.

After registering my name and email address with the vultures in the foyer, I was handed a 37-page pamphlet and ushered in to the coliseum. Just like Daniel in the Lions’ Den. The leaflet was crammed with too many useful bits of information to be helpful, so I stuck to reading the map. My first booth, a trade school.

“I wouldn’t work in this industry,” the young man confessed as I stood there with my arms full of resumes. “It’s really more of a business.”

Oh really? I’ll trade you professional job-seeking, and throw in broke, for a chalkboard. “Do you have any room for English teachers?”

“We don’t teach English, no.”

I was beginning to wonder if they used it in the classroom at all. “Can I give you my resume anyway?”

“Sure.” He looked down at the first location on the page. “You worked in Korea?”

“Yes, I did.”

“How was it?” he asked eagerly. “I’ve been thinking about doing that myself.”

“It’s worth it. You should totally go.” There I was, putting myself out of a job—in another country no less!

I scoured booth after booth looking for a warm body to pawn off my 8-and-a-half-by-eleven “I Love Me” stationery. And each time it was the same response: “Oh, we’re not taking resumes. Apply online.” The only reason that first guy took it was to get my number.

Moving along, I quietly passed a power company. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I was told as I skirted the booth, “we don’t have openings for secretaries or office work.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. Shouldn’t there be an equal opportunity here? Or is this industry just rigged? Success for them must have meant a well-proven track record of grit under the fingernails.

Before I rounded the bend in the event hall, I came across an opportunity to be a corrections officer for the GEO group. Translation: professional jailor. I could teach a class on how to win friends and influence prison wardens.

Finally, I had reached an oasis amid the throng, a booth nicely decorated and peopled about with gleaming upper management. They still wouldn’t take my resume, but at least I was qualified for the job. The position? Professional complaint consultant at a local call center. I would be up all night with the screams of protest ringing in my ears. I could have made a career out of this growing up for all the times my twin brother rained on my parade… Wait, maybe I could still cash in! …

Further down the line of headhunters was posted a sign for a mattress company. Expert salesmen needed, it read. Conscientious need not apply. Now, I wasn’t one to swindle anyone out of a good night’s sleep, but what I saw next to the booth was my golden opportunity.

Just opposite the mattress guys stood a flashy display that caught my eye—either that or it was the skinny guy next to it making googley eyes at me. “Drive Time” read the bold, green letters across the top of his nametag. At least as a used car salesman I’d look the part.

I only hesitated a moment before offering my hand. “Jennifer.”

“Ryan,” he said as he slipped his fingers over mine. It was official—we were now engaged… in conversation.

As any betrothed couple does, we chatted about the most important things—the weather, Korea, my job history. But, alas, we had come down to business. “Well, Jennifer, if you can communicate like you’re doing now, you can sell a car.”

What?! That’s almost like saying, “If you have a pulse and breathe air, you’re hired.”

“But I can’t sell a thing!” I sputtered at him like a beat-up station wagon.

“Let me take your resume and have you talk to my supervisor.” I knew it—he just wanted me for the Stilettos!

I was ushered past other potential tricksters right up to the man himself. “Dominic,” he stuck out his hand. “So what has my colleague told you about Drive Time?”

“That you’re… looking to expand your network,” I told him sheepishly.

“Good. We’ll set something up this week.”

There I stood, writhing like shark bait. I, too, would be asked to lay down my chalk to become… a used car salesman.

The next day as I sat relaxing peacefully at a friend’s house, the dreaded phone call rang three different times. These guys are nothing if not persistent—that, or someone on the other end is desperate.

They must have decided on a different approach because I soon began receiving made-to-order email spam. “I called the number on your resume and left a message,” read one of the notes, “but I thought an email might be ignored just as well.”

After three days of email tag, my inattentiveness had worn them out. They must have seen through the fa├žade of hair and makeup—and the Stilettos—to where my real interests lie: in waiting out pesky used car salesmen. “I’m sorry, Ms. Lowery,” the note read sweetly, “but we’re looking for someone who… will answer our emails.”

I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a professional swindler! “After many attempts to contact me and subsequent follow-ups,” I wrote to my dad, “the good folks at Drive Time have asserted that they… just can’t keep up with my laziness.”

So I didn't become a car salesman. Maybe it's because I didn't live up to my potential--but really, who wants to be involved in legalized what collar crime? Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen, that your pocketbooks are safe with me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

P. O. A.

“And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, My people, lest you share in her sins and lest you receive her plagues.’ ” Rev. 18:4


“I have a question for you,” he suggested nonchalantly as we steadily hiked up the rocky pathway towards the summit of Woraksan. “What do Christians think about dating non-Christians?”

My heart pounded below my blouse. “I”—gasp—“would”—gasp—“love”—gasp—“to answer that question, Ben,” I told him as my chest rose and fell like a tidal wave. “When I’m not heaving!”

“Okay,” he shrugged as I dutifully trudged on beside him.

It was a beautifully brisk afternoon that May in Korea. After winter had grasped the peninsula in its frigid grip for the previous six months, it felt good to get out into the fresh air and stretch our legs. Ten or so yards below us, our friend Dan was trailing behind without fighting to keep up. I was only so close because of the company.

As Ben and I approached a clearing mere meters from the top of the mountain, I quickly began to realize I wouldn’t be good for the final push up the trail. Not having been on a vigorous hike since our last walk four months prior, I was a worn-out rag doll. I also discovered that 70 degrees was a temperature still too cold for my asthmatic lungs to be sucking in so rapidly. When Dan arrived, I advised the still-energetic Ben that he should probably go ahead without us.

“Be back in forty-five,” Ben breathed as his boot struck the dirt. While we waited for his swift return, Dan and I settled in on the concrete ledge in the middle of the clearing, and thoughts quickly turned to our absent friend.

Dan, a professed believer in Christ, had been watching Ben’s and my interaction the last three months, privy to confessions on both sides of the aspiring relationship. He knew that Ben and I had walked through serious heartache together when a friend of ours had jumped ship early in March. He also knew that we had become each other’s best friends since that time. “The feelings are there,” he affirmed. “All you gotta do is light the match.”

He knew what the Scripture said about not being yoked together with an unbeliever (ref. II Cor. 6:14), and, aware of Ben’s lack of faith in Christ, began persuading me to look elsewhere for romance. In addition to his spiritual reasons, Dan also gave other sound advice as to why Ben wouldn’t be the best choice. “He’s leaving in three months—” he began.

“I’ve thought about that, too,” I cut him off.

“Jennifer! The match has been lit!”

I looked down at my feet as his admonition hit its mark. Even then, I knew something had to be done about whatever it was pumping so loudly in my chest. I quietly took up the rear as we descended the mountain, conviction weighing down my limbs more heavily than my fatigue.

It wasn’t until the three of us waited for the bus back to Chungju that night that I realized the totality of Ben’s numbness to Christianity. He’s clueless, I thought as Dan and I tried to share the gospel with him. Nothing we said seemed to penetrate his blank stare.

“It’s okay to have feelings for him,” Dan later told me at Starbucks. “It’s just not okay to act on them. You need a P. O. A.—a plan of action.” He sat back a moment and then looked pointedly at me. “You can’t come to Chungju.”

Since I had moved into my new place the previous March, I had been to see Ben several times. Once, he came up to help me move my things into the new apartment. Another time, we had met in Seoul for a Costco run. Just prior to the hiking trip, I had come to see him for a national holiday and found myself stuck two hours away from home—overnight. Even if I weren’t in Chungju, I knew the struck match could still light a fire.

Facebook had become the sole means of communication for Ben and me—a quick email here, a short post on his wall there. We had even begun to chat together if the two of us were ever online at the same time. If I were to limit what I “Facebooked” him, perhaps I could put out the blaze before it started. No more random posts on his wall, I resolved; and if I emailed him, I couldn’t say anything that I wouldn’t want others to read. “Jennifer Lowery,” read my status update a week later—“has her POA.”

***

Fast-forward a year and three months to August ’11, a year since Ben left the ROK and nearly four months since I’ve been back myself: I hardly think about him anymore. With Ben no longer in my physical world, my POA is all but a non-entity. I wrote him, though, just to see what he was up to.

“I’m back in Korea,” he answered jovially, “with a job that I’m blessed to have. I’m here in Jeju [Korea’s prized tropical island paradise] and have been back for two weeks now.”

While in Korea, I hadn’t given Jeju a serious thought—but now, it looked so appealing. With my new passport in hand, all I would need to get there was to get my federal background check back from the FBI. Maybe my next job would be on a sub-tropical island only a short flight from Seoul. Then again, maybe there would be another tsunami.

Recently I noticed another of my friends from the ROK online at the same time as I, so I messaged him. “Maddock!” I had met him the September before, just days before he left the peninsula for Argentina. As I chatted with him, I typed in Spanish to help his language acquisition in his newly adopted country.

Estoy tan impresionada con tu espanol, mi amigo,” I wrote him. I’m very impressed with your Spanish.

Y tu tambien,” he volleyed back. And you as well. Despues de once meses, necesito saber ALGO! After eleven months, I need to know SOMETHING!

We must have talked in our respective second language for a half an hour or more. I secretly relished the idea that I could turn off my English for so long—and that he was so impressed with my abilities. “Anyway, Maddock, it was great to catch up and chat in Spanish,” I told my friend at the end of our talk.

“Most definitely,” he replied. “Glad to talk to you… Wish I’d met you earlier when we were both in Korea.”

***

In an online Bible study that some friends of mine and I do together, we’ve been studying the prophecies and parables in Revelation. So far, we’ve made it to Revelation 18, the fall of a harlot named Babylon. “All nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication,” reads verse 3 (NKJV). Another version calls it the “maddening wine of her adulteries.”

In an effort to allow us to understand these things spiritually, our discipler had us understand them physically first. “What do prostitutes do?” she asked us. “Simply put, they receive seed from many different sources.”

Earlier she had argued that this “seed” represents words. We know from the parable of the sower, for example, that the “good seed” sent out into the field is the Word of God (ref. Luke 8:11). This harlot, Babylon, didn’t receive the good seed—and in fact, has mingled it with the seed—words—she has received from others. The “maddening wine of her adulteries,” suggests my teacher, is her mixed words.

Last week, I began thinking about this harlot in terms of my own fallenness, emotionally if not physically or spiritually. When have I received seed from many different sources? Whom have I prostrated myself in front of? Harlots make themselves beautiful and attractive to their lovers—so when have I played the harlot?

My POA really need not have anything to do with Ben anymore. And it has nothing to do with Facebook, either. Rather, it’s about the heart of my own prostitution. I prostrate myself if I make myself attractive to different men through my words—and if I accept their words about me.

My plan of action doesn’t simply mean not writing something I don’t want others to read; rather, it means refraining from saying something that makes me feel good or attractive to multiple men. If it nets me intentional masculine attention, whatever seemingly innocuous action it might be is wrong.

“I saw what you wrote on Ben’s wall,” Dan told me that day I was with him in Starbucks. “And I thought to myself—what is this girl thinking?! [With your post] you’re saying, ‘Oh, I’m thinking about you. I care about you.’ That’s gonna drive him crazy!”

Men love innocence—they’re drawn to it. And I can’t be so innocent as to think my innocence can do no harm.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Labor Day

Mary-Ellen helming the turn-of-the-century steam locomotive
located just outside Temple's railway station.

A couple of weeks ago, a dear, sweet friend from college, Mary-Ellen Tolliver, had asked me if I would come up to see her sometime in Killeen, Texas, a three-and-a-half hour ride from my hometown. Her original plan was for me to come up during the week, spend time with her after school, and then the both of us head back toward Seguin and San Antonio for the weekend. As it worked out better that I could come up to see her for Labor Day weekend, off I went.

Having not yet found gainful employment, nor subsequently a reliable means of transportation, there I was the Saturday morning before Labor Day in line for the 7AM train. I had thought about a bus ride, but the train sounded so much more exotic and adventurous. During the weekend, Mary-Ellen affirmed that, indeed, it was most appropriate for me to have made use of this particular mode of passage on such an auspicious occasion: the anniversary of the railway workers' strike that provoked the inception of Labor Day itself.

In May of 1894, in what would come to be known as the Pullman Strike, railway workers across the nation boycotted the service of Pullman rail cars. In sum, the strike cost the rail industry at least $80,000 in damages--which is more than $8 million by today's standards. The incident was bad enough to call in US Marshals to control the mobs and prevent further defacing of public property. Legislation quickly passed through Congress as a way to pacify the angry workers, and thus Labor Day was born.

The Saturday of my trip, I woke up at 5:15, left my house on foot by 5:49, and caught the 6:03 bus into downtown, just so I would be at the Amtrak station the advised thirty minutes before my scheduled departure time. As I approached the depot, all things stood at the ready. Workers puttered in golf carts around a train parked on the tracks to my left, to check for what I thought were last-minute adjustments. The further I followed the train, however, I realized that the growing crowd in front of the little station belied my calm assessment of the matter.

"The 7AM train to Chicago is still going to leave on time?" I heard the guy in front of me ask the solitary clerk behind the checked-baggage desk. Skirting eye contact, the clerk reassured all within earshot that indeed it would. At 6:40, the still train sitting outside was supposed to have left one hour and ten minutes prior to the inquiry. Apparently whatever grim circumstance rendering the present locomotive motionless wouldn't have anything to do with my own train.

Or so I thought.

After purchasing my reserved ticket, I crowded outside the small station with the other anxious passengers to await our promised ride. Without a timepiece I couldn't tell just how long we stood together with our eyes fixed on the immovable locomotive. Just as the predawn light began to baptize the gathered vigil, a second train pulled onto the pair of tracks closest to the crowd and the masses climbed aboard.

No sooner had we settled in for the ride when the wheels started turning--backwards. We must have headed in the opposite direction ten minutes or more! I was beginning to think that the quickest way to head north was south, until we began inching back the way we came. As we passed San Antonio's east-side graffiti so slow that we could read it, we asked the steward why the hold-up.

"Our trains run on Union Pacific railroad," he said. "It's because of all the freight trains in front of us." Hmm. A forty-year-old rail line that doesn't even own its own tracks? Isn't that like being thirty-five and still living at your parents' house?

This curtsy to his big brother UP cost Amtrak an initial hour and a half off the starting block, as well as untold hours of other delays throughout the trip. Regardless of the setbacks, however, I was thankful for the opportunity to ride a passenger train in the US for the first time. "Thank You for allowing me this trip," I wrote to the LORD in my prayer journal that morning. "I know You didn't have to, but You knew it was something I would like."

To my adventurous spirit, it was a chance of a lifetime--an experience I was determined to taste to the fullest. I leaned back in my extra-roomy captain's chair on row 205 and noted the soft light of dawn filtering through the window shades, determined to enjoy the ride. It was only after the sun came up full and strong that I discovered the observation deck one car in front, with its shade-less, floor-to-ceiling window panes that allowed for optimally viewing the gently passing countryside. It was here that I spent nearly half of the remainder of my trip.

A surprise awaited me in this new rail car. "Here in our Observation Deck," announced a woman over the intercom, "we have a special guided tour, part of the Trails and Rails program put on by our partners, Texas Parks and Wildlife. They will be sharing stories and details about the scenery around you through to Fort Worth."

Unfinished book in hand, I suddenly lost interest in the printed page and strained my ears toward the commentator's stories. She regaled us with moments of epic heroism by the Alamo freedom fighters, educated us about unique tidbits of old San Marcos structures, and reminded us about the beauty of the natural parks surrounding us. Her oral history of Texas was all very interesting, almost like listening to Homer or another ancient harold. I was only sorry that I couldn't listen to the park ranger all the way up to Fort Worth.

There was another thing I strained to hear on the trip: the announcement that the dining car was open for business. Instructed not to pass through or even to approach the car unless it was time, I had patiently awaited the lunch hour throughout the morning. As the come-and-get-it call rang out, I grabbed my wallet from my window seat and headed forward.

In front of me inside the dining car was a woman about my age; behind me, a mother and her daughter. Anticipating that the already-cramped space would soon fill up, the server asked the woman and myself, unknown to each other, to sit together. Moments later, the mother-and-daughter team were asked to sit adjacent to us.

The server approached them as they took their seats in the booth opposite ours. "When I asked you to sit across from them," he instructed sternly, "I wanted you to sit across the table." Slightly embarrassed, the two women scooted over a few yards to face us. It's not every day you get to eat lunch with strangers.

By this time nearly 12:15, more than forty-five minutes past the time we were originally scheduled to arrive at my destination city. Noting how quickly the car was filling up with guests, and how slowly our strained waiter was at getting back to us, I was fairly certain my opportunity to try an on-board meal was pulling out of the station without me.

Just as I was deciding between a club sandwich and soup, the announcement came to confirm my thoughts. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen," the conductor called. "We will be arriving to Temple within five minutes." This time, the train would be on time.

I quickly left my new friends at the table and made my way back towards row 205 and the rest of my things. As the locomotive rolled to a complete stop, I jumped off and landed in the rail yard in front of expectant new passengers. I approached the immense turn-of-the-century station to look for any sign that would inform my friend of my late arrival.

"Jennifer!" I heard to my right as Mary-Ellen bounded toward me. Apologizing for the unexpected delays, I quickly loaded my bags in her trunk and off we went in search of adventure.

The following Monday, Labor Day, the two of us headed back to the depot to await the train that would ferry me home, scheduled to arrive at 4:45. As I approached the old-timey counter to pay for my new reservation, events from the weekend slowly began to repeat themselves.

"It looks like the train won't be pulling in until 6 or 6:30," the clerk relayed sadly. "I was hoping I could go home on time tonight."

"Does this happen often?"

The clerk smiled wryly. "It happens more often, yes. It was on-time Friday." A one-in-four chance of matching the posted schedule. It was like guaranteeing your professor you'd miss a quarter of his lectures: a one-way ticket to a failing grade.

While we sat there, the ETA of the Texas Eagle grew to a whopping three and a half hours past its timetable. It was slowly looking like I wasn't going to be able to catch it for my return trip after all. "That's why people don't take the train!" I heard my dad say as I informed him of the news. At least Mary-Ellen had offered her place for me to stay until she could drive me back home.

Browsing through the bargains of Borders' closing doors, I came across a book that might help me make sense of my recent misadventure. It was called Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. The author, James McCommons, spent a year of his life on Amtrak time, riding the rail from Los Angeles all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. And his research question has a strong implication for where not just Amtrak, but the greatest nation on Earth, is really headed.

"Why has the world's greatest railroad nation turned its back on the form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible?" he asks. And what can be done to renew its strength?