Wednesday, September 07, 2011

All About Toothpicks

No, this isn't going to be a post about this clip from Rain Man—although a discussion of the depiction of autism and relationships in that film would make a fine post, now that I think about it. But not this post! Nor is this a post about this amazing piece of art created by Japanese public school students.
No, this post is about how toothpicks reminded me that one of the most persistent idol in postmodern United States culture is the idol of Business.

I'm currently between positions and looking for a new church to serve. The search process is a little bit like computer dating—my profile is out and circulating, and local churches have profiles that circulate as well. Where the metaphor breaks down is that instead of impressing a single person on my "dates" I'm actually dealing with a committee. So imagine computer dating a committee and you'll have an understanding of why the process is long and involved. It's a good process, but it takes a long, long time.

In the mean time, my wife and I have moved in with my parents. We're making the most of it, contributing to the buying of groceries with her income and generally pitching in around the house. Which is how I found myself taking a load of soda cans and bottles to the recycling center at the local grocery store. I dutifully shoved cans and bottles into the appropriate apertures, received the little paper slips, and went into the store to reclaim the deposits.

In this particular store, you reclaim deposits by taking the slips to a cashier at one of the registers—which means you have to walk through the most dangerous part of the store. The place where people get in a hurry and don't watch where they're going. The place where folk whip their carts around corners in a flurry to get to the next isle and the next thing on their list. The place where the lines for the registers get backed up. I keep thinking that there must be a name for that part of the store, but I don't know what it is—it's that place between the aisle endcaps and the register endcaps.

As I was navigating that nameless space, I noticed something unusual. There was a small girl—maybe four or five years old—squatting down in a the center of a scattered pile of colored plastic toothpicks very carefully picking them up one by one with the intense concentration of the very young. As I approached, I found a man I assume to be her father corralling an even younger boy with one hand and picking up toothpicks with the other.

Be honest with yourself for a moment. What would your very first instinct be upon discovering this scene? I think that most of us would do what I did—take a quick mental check of how much time you have and how long it might take to help pick up an entire container of toothpicks from the floor of the grocery store. Am I right?

Ah, but I had the benefit of being unemployed with nowhere to be except where I am. I too squatted down and began picking up toothpicks.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," says the father.
I shrug. "I don't have anyplace I need to be. I don't mind."

And so I spend a few minutes picking up toothpicks and observing. I notice how determined the little girl is to help. I notice how the little boy wants to be free of his father's arm and how his patience slowly erodes. I notice how well the father is actually doing at picking up toothpicks while keeping hold of his son. And I notice the people going by. I see the way they notice us in the middle of the floor and I see the way most of them studiously ignore us and go around. One gentleman even exclaims, "Pick-up sticks! That's what that looks like," as he walked around the mess without slowing. I definitely notice the good-natured way the father chuckles ruefully and allows that it does look a bit like a game of pick-up sticks.

At some point a woman I assume to be the mother returns with a grocery cart. We have a repeat performance of the "Oh, you don't have to do that," conversation. Then she helps to pick up the toothpicks, which are slowly filling their plastic box once more. The little girl is holding the box and gives it an experimental shake, clearly enjoying the rattling sound it makes. The mother deftly removes the box from her daughter, saying "Oh, we're not shaking that any more." I try not to smile.

Faster than you would think, the task was done. The family thanks me and I say "No problem" and we go our separate ways. It really only took up a tiny fraction of my day. Honestly, even on a busy day I could have spared those few minutes. If it were me it would have made a world of difference for someone to actually stop and help instead of ignoring me. Little things matter.

So I went home.

But first I took the extra 10 seconds it takes to return someone's grocery cart to the cart corral.

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh