Author: Bekah McNeel

Happy Birthday, Lewis!

We were watching “Lars and the Real Girl” a few weeks ago, and there’s a scene in which Lars asks his brother what it means to be a “man.” His brother answers that being faithful and taking care of the people you love is what makes a man (in more appropriately manly words).

It’s not just age.

Today,  33 years ago, the world got a little bit better, because Lewis Maverick McNeel was born. I wasn’t around to notice, but I’m sure that if I had been, I would have woken up a little happier without even knowing why. I think I’d have felt it.

I’ve gotten to celebrate the last three of those with this guy.

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Every year I feel like there’s not really a gift to sum up how happy I am that he’s in the world.

His birthdays have included surprise parties, flamenco dancers, five course meals…still, nothing really communicates just how happy I am that he was born.iPhone upload May 23 2013 067

 

But this one is different. This time, I am absolutely positive that the events of his birthday will show Lewis how and why I am so very thankful for him…

Today is so full of semi-birthday semi-fun that the only time he could go to CrossFit was at 6:30 am.

While he was gone (and I was just waking up), sensing the occasion, Florence decided to make a present on the floor. I could not leave the bedroom without gagging so hard my eyes watered, and so the present was there waiting when he got home. (Though, I will say that when I fled the stench, I fled to Bakery Lorraine to get him some breakfast).

The shower curtain got so excited that it fell down.

“Birthday lunch” was planned exactly 15 minutes in advance.

And his birthday night will begin with an elementary school choir concert.

Lewis diligently went to work out at 6:30 am. He came home and cleaned up the poop. He doesn’t know about the shower curtain yet…but usually when it falls down, he just gets out the ladder and hangs it right back up. He let me change the time of his impromptu lunch 2 different times, without letting on if it threw of his schedule. And he’s happily dressed to impress for the elementary choir event. Which he’s going to for our growing-up flower girl, whom he’s come to love like part of the family.

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So today, more than any other birthday, I can look at everything that’s happened and say, “This, this, Lewis McNeel, is why your birthday deserves to be celebrated. You are patient, kind, dutiful, loving, strong, and capable. And you have a somewhat compromised sense of smell, which is really helpful when the house smells of dog sh**.”

You, Lewis McNeel, are a man, and we, your whole little family, are very very thankful for each of your 33 years.

 

 

Something New and Good: Our God Sunshines

When I was really little, my new-Christian-mom and I listened to a lot of praise music in the car. Most of her favorite stories about me come from these times.

Once, when I was about 3 or 4, we were listening to a song called “Our God Reigns.” I was singing along contentedly, and then stopped and looked concerned.

“You know, Mommy, sometimes our God sunshines too.”

It’s a cute story, and I was probably just talking about the weather, but it’s also telling about something that would continue into adulthood.

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The tradition I grew up in, the Reformed nuevo-puritans, is not about a sunshiney God. Their God thunders, really.

He loves you…in spite of how totally wretched you are.

The heart is an idol factory.

The cross was a reminder of what you deserve.

All biblically accurate. That’s the kicker. God has this dark and stormy side. And we love that side. It’s the side that stands up for the oppressed and has the final say against injustice! We’re sinners too, and God sees that. But one true thing does not a whole self nourish.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about sin and idolotry. It was that I wanted to talk about something else sometimes. Just sometimes. I wanted some hope.

My spine hurt from the constant game of limbo. How low can your self-esteem go? It’s not low enough until you feel like a worm.

And that mentality had a way of working itself into every area of life. Marriage between two Wormy Sinners is a bloodbath. Wormy Sinner Parents raising Wormy Sinner Children was a jungle fight. Wormy Sinner Communities are messes. Sure does make you want to be in that club, huh? Don’t you want to be reminded what a Wormy Sinner you are in all of life’s most happy moments?

But in my head, there’s a well-trained voice that says, “That’s correct. That’s accurate.”

Maybe so. But knowing myself, and my tendency to obsess…what do I want to obsess on? God’s goodness or my badness? (Spare me the theology talk about how it’s our badness that show us how good he is and vice versa.)

So (among other reasons) I gave myself some distance from the I-am-a-Worm Club.

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It might take me the rest of my life to really believe that God sunshines, and that I can just bask in that without self-flagellating. It may take the rest of my life, but I’m going to do it. With the help some good, honest “God loves you” preaching. I’ve needed it.

But recently, I really missed the nuevo-puritan’s revamped hymnal, so I bought some CDs and revisited the days when I used to listen to worship music in the car. I had to laugh though. Even the titles of the praise music reveal a slight preference for “hard truths.” There are a lot of titles like “Come and Mourn,” “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” and “Come Ye Sinner Poor and Wretched.” Not all, just more than you’d expect.

In the end, the nuevo-puritan revamped hymnal has not left me high and dry. If I had to pick an anthem for my slow and halting return to the disciplines of grace, it would have to be this more eloquent expression of my childhood assertion that God sunshines:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

Source: http://www.hymnal.net/hymn.php/h/706#ixzz2iaVfpBVU

Florence’s So-Called Life: Season 1, ep 6

In which Florence loses control of her destructive behavior.

(read in the voice of Florence, which sounds uncannily like a 14-year-old Claire Danes)

Sometimes…I just…destroy things.

I thought I had it under control. Chew on some socks or underwear occasionally…and I’ve been working my way through the rug for months. And there was the blue pen incident (which was blown way out of proportion by the humans). But it wasn’t, like, a daily compulsion or anything.

But then, like…a switch flipped? I dunno. I just really…need…to destroy things.

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And it used to just be stuff left on the floor or dangling off of chairs.

But now…it’s just all right there…on the table…on Bekah’s desk…it’s just there. Calling me to tear it to shreds.

There’s the sod in the back yard…

Credit cards…

Sunglasses,,,

Post-it notes, but only the ones with phone numbers and notes on them from Bekah’s office…

And whatever Lewis was working on all night at the dining room table…

And the weird thing is, even when they discipline me, and shove it in my nose. I just don’t even care. My tail wags and I sort of just like the attention.

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Bekah and Lewis were convinced that I just needed better toys.

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But something happens at 6:30 in the morning…when I’ve been crying for 30 minutes because they think they can just feed me and let me out to pee and then go back to bed…and I get this rage. I don’t want their stupid toys. I don’t want to be placated. I want to be PLAYED WITH. And then I black out. When I come to, there’s plastic and paper everywhere…

I think I need to go to rehab.

Pregnant Lady or Hobbit? [Second Breakfast]

I’m pregnant. I think.

I wake up ravenous.Yesterday morning I had to be out the door by 6:30 am. So I grabbed a chewy granola bar to take the edge off, telling myself I’d have a tiny, nutritious snack when I got back home around 8 am. Okay, tiny or nutritious. You can’t have it all.

I came home, considered my options, and went for two hard-boiled eggs. I don’t like hard boiled yolk, so it would be just the whites. What is that, like 60 calories total?

Juuuust as I dropped the eggs into the boiling water, I realized that at my current hunger register, two egg whites would hold me over for approximately 45 seconds.

But two poached eggs…now that sounded more amenable my hormone-addled brain.

Snatch eggs from boiling water (with fingers). Add vinegar and salt to boiling water (don’t measure, just pour). Crack eggs into cup and lower into the water, and voila! Poached eggs.

But poached eggs by themselves? How will I sop up the yolk? (Never mind that the yolk was not entirely runny, thanks to the eggs’ brief dip into boiling water back when they were to be hardboiled)

Better add toast…umm, er, make it two pieces, one for each egg.

Mmm…doesn’t the smell of toast always make you want tomatoes? (Probably not…unless you are very British or pregnant with a constant craving for tomatoes.)

Tomatoes, poached egg, and toast. What’s missing? Of course, Parmesan! Finely grated Parmesan – the strangest impulse buy I’ve ever made at Central Market. Yep, sprinkle that on top.

Now that is what I call…SECOND BREAKFAST!

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As I get rounder, I have to wonder…am I going to have a baby? Or is Gandalf going to show up at my door on March 16 and send me off to Mordor?

Pumpkin Carving

Usually I’m a Cinderella/fairytale/rascal pumpkin kind of girl. I like the magical harvest look more than the Halloween look.

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But this year, thanks to my cousins,  Lewis and I made a valiant attempt at having a jack-o-lantern on our porch. Jack-o-lantern may be a deceptive term. Why would we do something traditional, when we can have “that pumpkin.”

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I love my cousins. I love having people in my family with whom I can share faith, family lore, and traditions. Like pumpkin carving. If you could look back at the Stolhandske/Dahlberg family home videos you would year after year of intense little boys laying into the piñatas with perfect batting stances and determined grimaces.

When I hear that we’re having a “pumpkin carving contest,” that’s the image that pops up in my mind. A colorful paper-mache star swinging wildly while parents clear the other kids from the vacinity.

Fortunately my cousins married the right women.

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After a lovely evening of backstrap, beer, and strategy…

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There was cleverness to go around, and Lewis’s brilliant move of using a drill to create an avant garde design, a la West Elm, was a hit. It was not however, structurally sound, and we may have done too thorough a job, scraping out the innards.

This picture does not do justice to Lennox (who later had a tiny pumpkin named Leroy in his mouth) or Jack, whose nose was the pumpkin stem.
This picture does not do justice to Lennox, who later had a tiny pumpkin named Leroy in his mouth; or Jack, whose nose was the pumpkin stem.

The pumpkin lived on our porch for exactly 12 days, slowly deteriorating into something truly ghoulish. So Happy Halloween, jack-o-lantern. Thanks for hanging in there. I’ll put you out of your misery tomorrow.

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Something New and Good: Baby

So…three years of marriage, and still I have not experienced the bloodbath I’d been afraid of before I got married. Lewis and I have yet to go to bed angry. I’ve never wished he would just go away. I’m not bragging. I’m the girl who had a panic attack two weeks before her wedding because she was afraid that marriage was going to be a 50+ year battle with untold casualties. No bragging rights here.

I’m saying that marriage has been wonderful beyond my expectations.

But now…a baby on the way. And the voices are back, telling me life is about to get really, really hard. So many were these voices that I put off getting pregnant for as long as I could without pushing poor Lewis over the edge. We are happy. We have balance…why upset it? Why invite what, according to a lot of people I know, is the most emotionally draining and difficult thing they have ever done?

Because it’s time to believe that God makes all things new.

People love to tell you how you’re going to mess up your kids, just like your parents messed you up. They like to tell you how you bring all of your baggage into parenting. They want it to be freeing, to tell you that you don’t have to be perfect, because nobody is perfect. They want it to remind you that you need grace as a parent.

I get that, and I appreciate it.

And it’s true that we’re born sinners. Sure thing.  Got it. My children will not be perfect. I will not be perfect.

BUT, here’s the deal: New life. What could be more of a picture of God’s grace that is new every morning than an actual. NEW. LIFE.

This baby will not come out cynical and jaded. She will not have years of baggage yet. She will be fresh and new, and her experience of the world, the church, and family will be her very own.

This baby, to me, is a celebration of hope. When I feel like so much has been ruined or twisted or corrupted, an entire new person will exist in the world who knows nothing of that. And maybe she will experience her own pains, but she will also have her own joys and see God’s faithfulness to her in her own life.

I’m sure that when she’s two and rolling on the floor screaming…or thirteen and rolling on the floor screaming, I will be glad for the wisdom that prepared me for her humanity. I’m sure I will be glad that someone warned me that I can’t be the perfect parent. Lewis and I are both first children, and we’re having our first child. We will win the award for most neurotic house on the block.

BUT, that is not what sets me free. That is not what makes me feel new and good. What gives me hope is that God makes all things new. And there is something new happening here (between my abs and my bladder) and it has the potential to be good. Not the kind of good that doesn’t need Jesus, but the kind of good that brings him glory. This little girl has her own story, and Jesus loves her. And I have every reason to believe that her difficult toddler/teenage years are nothing in comparison to the person God is already making her to be.

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“Sometimes It’s Best to Lie”: Poetry for the Young Realist

Dear World,

Please please please don’t take this little poem too seriously…I really really really don’t intend to start a conversation on how it’s never best to lie, how you would tell the truth even if it hurt someone in the short term, the exact nature of a lie, etc. It’s just some late night musings on the times when you realize that, “yes, the whole polite world expects me NOT to say exactly what I’m thinking at this moment.”

Of course, if you are now wondering if you are the extended family, neighbor, or friend who was lied to, the answer is most certainly, “of course not.”

Sincerely,

Bekah

Sometimes It’s Best to Lie

I.

You’ve always learned to tell the truth,

And surly you must try.

But sometimes to be kind or couth

You have to tell a lie.

Don’t ever lie to save your skin.

Don’t lie to hurt another.

A lie is not the way to win,

It’s a way to love your brother.

II.

When your sibling’s choice couture

Be it dress or tie

Makes them look like furniture

Sometimes it’s best to lie,

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III.

When dear granny’s getting old

And she forgets your size

Her gifts may smell of cats and mold.

You’ll have to tell some lies.

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IV.

When your host has burnt the beef

Or undercooked the pie

There’s no need to cause him grief.

Just tell a gracious lie.

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V.

When your buddy’s lost a game

You know how hard he tried

The brutal truth would cause him shame

You’ll be glad you lied.

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VI.

When great-auntie buys you junk

That makes you wonder, “Why???”

Don’t act like an ungrateful punk

Just suck it up and lie.

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VII.

When sharing cold hard facts of life

It’s easy to be jaded.

But when your thoughts could stir up strife

They may be better shaded.

Though few would outright tell you this,

They would say be polite

But manners, tact, and thoughtfulness

Are knowing when to lie.

Autumnals and Anniversaries Part 2 – Sicily

Usually mine and Lewis’s vacations are less like a relaxing getaway and more like well-structured 240-hour game show to see how much we can possibly hike, eat, swim, explore and experience before a buzzer goes off and we’re sent home.

We like to go places we haven’t gone before. Which means we’re on a mission to see as much as we can before we leave.

But this time, we were tired. Work had run us both ragged and I was spacey and tired from all the baby growing I’ve been doing. So we were looking to really VACATE. We wanted to sleep in, go slow, and make very few decisions of importance.

So where better than Sicily, where our main objective was to spend quality time with our friends the Garber family? We took in some sights, hiked around a little on Mt. Etna, and ate some gelato (and discovered granita, which is even better!) but the pressure was off, because the whole point of choosing Sicily was to see our friends, and that mission was well-accomplished. We even got in a game of Settlers of Catan.

These are the Garbers. Gil is in the stroller.
These are the Garbers. Gil is in the stroller.

Some highlights:

Hiking on Mt. Etna with Elliott. The volcanic tuff trails and evergreens winding up the side of the volcano seem a world away from the olive groves of the Sicilian countryside. And with the fog rolling in, the whole place felt almost isolated and private. Even with a merry band of German trekkers right behind us.

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The friends we made in Agrigento, on our two night stay at a quirky little B&B overlooking the Greek ruins.

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Lewis fulfilled a lifelong dream of driving in Europe. And we had all the classic experiences. Driving the wrong way down a oneway street, circling endlessly on the roundabout while we figured out where we wanted to go, and wedging ourselves into the tiniest of tiny spaces. The locals seemed entirely unphased by this. I think that’s what Itallians really have in their favor. In a country where “parking space” refers to any place you leave your car (sidewalk, middle of the road, whatever), people are super laid back about flustered tourists running stop signs and breaking other road “rules.”

The stunning views.

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Scala dei turchi. If ever you find yourself on the Mediterranean, this is really worth a stop. On our entire trip, this was the most spectacular thing I saw.

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Our romantic dinner in Agrigento. It was preceded by a high-stakes parking predicament and followed by a dash through a movie shoot. We stopped and ogled with the crowd as a car full of classic Italian hooligans drove up to a storefront and assumed gangland stance (or at least the Hot Cops version of such) over and over and over. If it was menacing they were going for, they were missing it by a mile. If it was entertaining they were trying to achieve, they hit the nail on the head every time.

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The medieval trumpeters rehearsing outside the Garbers fantastic hillside home across the street from the castle. Yep. You read all of that correctly.

Taormina. A lovely day in a picturesque world.

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The antique market in Catania, which was really more like a citywide garage sale. Becca Garber perused antique toys, and I got some Italian leather shoes for 2 Euro. Happy Leather Anniversary to me! I also enjoyed the chaos and junk tables slowly close in around Lewis until I could tell that even if we’d stumbled upon a work of early Renaissance high art, he would not have been able to see it for all the rotary phone parts and doll clothes.

Gil and Lena Garber. Lena won over “That Man” to the world of little girls. Good thing too…

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Autumnals and Anniversaries Part 1 – London

I’ve taken an “autumnal” trip for the last six years. I was 23 when I first escaped the lack-luster Texas fall for the brilliance of the Berkshires and the company of my best friend.  The next year it was Washington DC. Then Tennessee. In those first three years, more than one person snickered at my annual getaway, another of my indulgent little habits.

I have a lot of indulgent little habits, apparently, and in my early 20’s it was wisdom-chic to tell me that I would not be able to carry on in such fashion forever.

To those who doubted my resolve, I say this: do not underestimate my wanderlust.

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In 2010, I conveniently married Lewis McNeel in October, thus replacing my invented holiday with a tradition even the most strident money-manager will recognize: an anniversary.

This year for our anniversary, which doubled as a babymoon, we decided to take some good friends up on their invitation to visit them in Sicily. Becca, Elliott, Lena, and Gil Garber have been in Sicily for two years (well…Gil’s been there for 8 months, but he’s also been there his whole life). It was high time we paid them a visit.

And you just can’t cross the Atlantic without a good multi-day stopover in the best city in the world, my personal favorite, London. It’s been six years since I left, and I had been dying to show Lewis around (and indulge my own nostalgia).

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And that is how Anniversary #3 (or Autumnal #7, however you see it) came to be.

London was almost exactly as I left it in many ways. In others it was like a whole new city. That’s the secret to London’s success, I think. Curated evolution. New skyscrapers dotted the landscape. The blocks around my former residence on the fringe of Bankside were now startlingly posh. The Olympic Park exists. We visited a new Zaha Hadid designed space in Hyde Park.  And yet…there was the Swan. Covent Garden. Spittalfields. Brick Lane. I was able to give Lewis directions for a running route along the Thames without wondering if the landmarks had changed.

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London’s public transport system still gives me a schoolgirl-like swoon. Sitting on the top front seats of a double decker bus heading west on the Strand, I felt so completely satisfied with life.

There was also the familiar frustration, recalled from deep within my memory, of trying to navigate a city developed as a series of shortcuts and courtyards that eventually became roads. “Grid” was not an Anglo-Saxon idea. However, because the British have a little nugget of genius embedded beneath their stalwart nonchalance, no matter how lost you think you are in London, you are somehow always just around the corner from your destination, magically happening upon the restaurant, shop, or tube station just in the nick of time. (We contrasted this later with Italy, where an apparent total lack of civil engineering means that even when you think you are headed straight for your destination, you are in fact getting further away.)

Of course the most fun new thing I found in London was Lewis’s perspective on it all. Seeing the greatest city in the world with an architect is like going to Napa with a winemaker, or the symphony with a composer. The little treasures that would have been whimsies to me pre-Lewis – like when we stumbled upon Sou Fujimoto’s “Cloud” at the Serpentine Gallery- were moments of real (and well-informed) excitement. The Olympic Park would have been a lovely place to read a book, but with Lewis is was a place to read the park itself.

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When we stepped out of the tube at London Bridge, even an ordinary errand became a sightseeing stop. I was marching around looking for the ticket kiosk, a little disoriented because things were not as I’d left them. Meanwhile Lewis looked up and exclaimed “We’re AT the SHARD!” And so we got to explore while I looked for the kiosk. Which is now quite slick in it’s new Shard cladding.

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I loved sharing old things with him as well. Nando’s, pub food, Borough Market…okay, it was mostly food and shopping. But also just walking though Bankside and seeing it differently because I was not a bleary-eyed grad student in search of wi-fi and warmth. It’s actually a pretty romantic little neighborhood, what with it’s cobblestones and narrow passages. Who knew?

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And jetlag? Not bad when you’ve got someone else awake with you at 2 am.

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All in all, the London leg of the autumnal was a return to Neverland. London was the place where I took a one year hiatus from driving and being committed to things. And to return with Lewis didn’t diminish that magical feeling (as reliving nostalgia usually does), but it added yet ANOTHER layer onto my “I love London” cake.

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Gym-nation Politics

Recently I switched gyms. Such a good move. My new gym, a YMCA, is clean, friendly, and well air-conditioned. Everything my old gym was not (which is why location after location appears to be closing, like slow-moving corporate gangrene).

Really, the cleanliness of this particular YMCA is remarkable. It smells clean. I think it could have something to do with the fact that there is a spray bottle and microfiber towel on EVERY SINGLE weight machine, and most of the ellipticals. Several are lined up on the wall behind the treadmills. Those spray bottles are everywhere.

And it’s a good thing, because there’s a lot of DNA, bacteria, and yuck on those machines. I’ve seen people sneeze into their hand and go right back to their pull-ups. Or just sneeze straight onto the elliptical!  Skin cells, sweat, mucous. It’s a forensic nightmare (fortunately there are not many crimes happening at the Y).

Those spray bottles have a big job. And there seems to be a sort of social contract at work about how to not become the origin of the plague.

So I began to notice how people used the spray bottles as well, and thought that this might reflect something of our broader outlook on personal vs. communal responsibility. Could how you use the spray bottle and microfiber towel say something about how you vote?

Those who clean the machine before they workout, but not after

These are the libertarians of the gym nation. They believe that that it’s up to each weight lifter to make sure that his machine is sanitized. If you get sick because Joe licked the chest press for some reason, well it’s not Joe’s fault, it’s yours. Should’ve pre-cleaned.

In society these are the people who believe that it’s up to parent alone to educate their kids, that hard work will necessarily pay off, and that there shouldn’t be a public version of anything that can be privatized. They would like to pay for their gym membership with gold doubloons.

Those who clean the machine after they workout, but not before

These are the bleeding heart liberals of the gym-nation. They have put their full faith in the social contract, believing that everyone will abide by the big posted sign that says: Clean the machine when you are done. The believe that even that meathead checking himself out in the mirror between sets has their best interest at heart.  And so they do their duty, and trust that no matter what strain of flu is going around, that we will all survive by taking care of each other. (Or maybe they are just rule followers.)

These are the ones who dutifully put their kids in inner city schools, believing that the reasons those schools are failing is because all the concerned parents pulled their kids out. They pay their taxes without looking for loopholes. They participate in Park Clean-Up for parks in other neighborhoods, and they vote yes to public programming and environmental efforts every time.

(Full disclosure: I’m one of these people at the gym, and for the most part in public life too…verdict still out on the public school thing.)

Those who clean the machine before and after

These are the “trust but verify” types.  They’re doing their part to prevent the global pandemic, but they are also doing their part not to get any of Joe’s mucous on their hands. These people often came from gyms where the machines were visibly dirty, or they have used the keyboard at a public library.

In civic life, these are the wealthy/middle class liberals. Their kids are in private school…even though they vote for public Pre-K programs. They have private insurance, even though they believe in Obamacare (or some variant thereof). I had a British friend tell me that while he believed that the NHS was vital to civilized life in Britian, he used a private practitioner. These are the ones who live in the suburbs and work/volunteer/donate in the city.

(It has been noted that many conservatives would fall into this category via church and volunteer activities. There’s more than one way to take care of others!)

Those who do not clean the machine at all

I really wish there was some sort of monitor to make sure these people were chased down and required to go back and clean the equipment. When we all die from some beefed-up superstrain of the flu in coming years, I’m pretty sure it’s origin will be on the freeweights at an American gym. Not only are they germs…they are fit germs.

The only time I habitually did not clean my workout machine was when I was stuck in a contract with the worst gym on the planet. The machines were constantly breaking, the management was apathetic, and the cleaning supplies were never ever available. They had one spray bottle and one roll of paper towels that was never anywhere to be found. It was a failed-state gym-nation, and I, like many people in a failed state, turned to anarchy.

These people in society are the criminals and freeloaders. They are not taking care of themselves or others. Some of them are just slime, while others are operating as best they can in a society that they feel has failed them. Some of them need to be locked up, and others need to be helped to find their place in society.

The point in all of this is that we have differing views of our obligations to ourselves and others, and those views might manifest themselves in more than just our ballots. The point is also that we should all wash our hands after we work out, regardless of our spray bottle habits.