I have been learning how important it is to accept people exactly where they are at, and to welcome whatever it is that they have to offer. When the odd man with an awkward nature so rudely interrupts my conversations in order to give me an ugly cartoon he drew during church, I thank him genuinely. When the woman who has a tendency to take advantage of me suddenly extends her hand, I welcome her encouragement without questioning. And when the man with the kind, sad eyes and boyishly rumpled hair simply cannot offer anything, I accept it as goodness. I am becoming quite experienced at accepting whatever people have to offer (or not offer), for people cannot be anywhere other than where they are at. We are all doing the best that we can.
But even with all of my awareness and practice, nothing prepared me for the challenge that awaited me onboard a Northwest flight to Baltimore today.
As I made my way toward the back of the plane, I saw him: Gilligan-style bucket hat, a comic book t-shirt, and his eyes fixed on me. I got closer; he started talking: “Are you 43E? That’s right here next to me. Here, let me get out. Scoot on in – and put on your seatbelt! Is it on? You sure? Good. Do you want a blanket? Planes have a tendency to get cold. This is my second flight ever in my life – I’m coming back from Hawaii. The big island. I think it starts with a K. What are you going to order from the drink tray? If I talk too much, just tell me to shut it.”
Are you kidding me, God?
There was no escape from this kid. Fifteen years old with a baby-fine mustache, he smelled suspiciously of the Czech Republic: all body odor and poppyseed paste. I was sandwiched between him and a large man who was spilling over the armrests into my space. Misery. But I decided to put my “acceptance policy” into practice, and turned toward him to converse. Bring it on, kid.
What follows are actual, word-for-word quotes. I wrote them down stealthily on a scrap of paper under the guise of writing in my calendar. I could not make this stuff up if I tried.
“I’ve lived in Minnesota my whole life, except a few weeks one time in Canada. Canada is so awesome – they have mountain cats. Bobcats! Not the machinery – the actual wild animals.”
“You would not believe what you can sneak past security at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. My parental units would not approve, that’s for sure. Enough liquor to fill up this entire plane.”
“Do you like rollercoasters? Have you heard of Steel Venom? It takes you back and forth and back and forth, until you can almost touch the fangs. Have you heard of Wild Thing? You haven’t? They even wrote a song about it. That’s how good of a ride it is.”
“So what are you – in your early 20’s? Oh, almost 25? How old do you think I look?” Sixteen. “In your dreams – but thanks for the compliment.”
“Sudoku, eh? You’re still working on the 3 by 3’s? I’m surprised you haven’t moved on to the 4 by 4’s. No thanks – I hate Sudoku.”
“What’s that CD? Your demo? Would it be acceptable for me to listen?” Uh, sure. [Puts the disc in his Discman and is blessedly quiet for several minutes as he listens. Eventually takes the headphones off.] “Well, the first song was good. The second one had high notes that hurt my ears. Here – listen to this – it kind of reminds me of your music.” [Assertively places his headphones over my ears, and starts playing Nickelback.]
“Do you like computers? You have a Mac? Is that like an Apple? I’m a Windows guy. You can do so much more with Windows. Did you know that you can open the C drive, and have access to tons of programs? They’re crazy. Things you never knew were there. I play a lot of Solitaire.”
[The plane turns so suddenly that my blood tilts, and then drops, depriving my stomach of its solid anchoring and suspending it uncomfortably close to my throat.] “This? Is SO AWESOME.”
“Have you heard of Naruto? You haven’t? You haven’t heard of Naruto? Orange jumpsuit ninja? Wow. I… I don’t even know what to say.”
It was unreal. I had no way to respond except with an astonishing, heaven-sent openness. Sweet kid – in the most annoying sense of the word – but still. Sweet. And I do believe that even he is doing the best he can, in his Anime-watching, manga-reading, Steel Venom riding sort of way.