Rejected: Lessons from the Drive-Thru

Today, I got my first ever rejection letter.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever sent a query.

The piece I queried?

Lessons from the Drive-Thru, a personal feature I wrote for my Magazine and Feature Writing class last fall.

Family Fun wasn’t interested, but in case you are, here’s the piece:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 Lessons from the Drive-Thru

“You work here, too?” she asked, her nose crinkled in a look of unmistakable disgust.

I didn’t know how to respond. The answer was obvious from the golden arches across the visor on my forehead. But her face—her sneer—put me on the defensive. How could an adult, the mother of a childhood friend, look down on me for working at McDonald’s?

I forced a smile as I took her money. Then, silently, I bagged her order and held it out the drive-thru window. “Have a nice day.”

I worked at McDonald’s for a year and a half in high school. I’d never wanted to—my older brothers were both shift managers, and I wanted to pave my own way in the workforce—but it was the only place I could work year-round, so I swallowed my pride and applied.

This past summer saw a significant rise in the employment of youth 16- to 24-years-old. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50.2 percent of young people were employed in July—14.2 percent more than last year and, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the most employed since 2007.

With numbers like this, today’s youth have more than McDonald’s as employment options, and for some, it may be easy to rule out fast food completely and judge those who “settle” for serving fries.

Not everyone sees the value of working at a place known for calories and cholesterol. I didn’t always. But looking back, I realize McDonald’s gave me more than discounted fries and a stack of checks.

McDonald’s Gave Me Confidence: Personal Value Doesn’t Come From People.

It was a November weeknight. The sun had set, and the evening school sports rush was in full force.

As I brought sundaes to the drive-thru station, I saw the bearded man I’d just served storm through the doors.

“You never get anything right!” he yelled, waving a bag of burgers in the air. “Every time I come here, you screw it up. You’re all idiots! Give me my order!”

“Can I help you?” I asked, my voice level.

“You gave me ten burgers,” he said, voice piercing my eardrums like the car horn of an angry driver. “I wanted six plain and ten regular. How is that so hard? You always screw it up!”

I breathed deeply. “What do you need?”

“My order!”

By the time I figured out he wanted six more regular cheeseburgers, tears were welling up. Back in the drive-thru, taking orders and money, I fought back sobs and did my best to greet customers with a smile. The rest of the staff tread quietly, giving me extra help and treating me gently. Eventually, my smile became real.

I learned about value that night: the value of words, the value of me. I learned that words are powerful and can have great impact whether they’re true or not. I also learned that my value is inherent and has nothing to do with what people call me or tell me I am.

Being brought to tears by a total stranger on a November weeknight in McDonald’s made me stronger and more confident.

McDonald’s Gave Me Humility: Agreeing to Disagree.

Andrea: early thirties, with thick dreadlocks, a friendly smile and the scratched-up voice of a smoker. I’d seen her before—at the library down the street from my house, usually rifling through movies or picking out weird pieces of fiction. She seemed nice, but in an unexpected way, a person I wasn’t sure whether to be open with or somewhat guarded. When I worked with her, I figured it out.

Working at McDonald’s was a lot like playing on a sports team. Swap balls for fries and points for happy customers, and the dynamics were pretty much the same. There was purpose, camaraderie and, during down time, laughs and discussions. We’d sing and dance to the background music, joke with regulars and talk politics, religion and—Andrea’s hot topic—drugs.

“Marijuana isn’t harmful,” Andrea said, smile gone.

“If you can get addicted to it, it isn’t good for you,” I said, pulling the box of barbecue sauce packets off the shelf.

She took it from me. “Coffee’s addictive. So is chocolate.”

I shrugged and reached for another box. “I wouldn’t call those healthy.”

“Have you ever heard of someone dying from marijuana use?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well?” She stared me down.

“No, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.” My headset beeped, announcing a car in the drive-thru.

“Find proof and I’ll believe you,” Andrea said, happy to get the last word.

I nodded and put a smile on, arranging my headset’s microphone. “Welcome to McDonald’s. What can I get for you?”

Andrea wasn’t the only one I had serious discussions with. I talked about politics and economics with the guys working the grill, and one afternoon on my lunch break, I explained the difference between Christianity and Mormonism to a fellow crew member.

Through all these instances, I learned that, with tact and a tone of respect, I could share my exact thoughts and beliefs without upsetting people. As long as I presented things humbly, people listened. Even if the reason they argued for marijuana was because that’s what they smoked on break.

McDonald’s Gave Me Patience: You’re Kidding Me, Right?

Seven months after my first day, I was a 16-year-old crew trainer, training a woman in her thirties at the first drive-thru window.

It was my fourth day showing her how to use the register. By now, she should have mastered it, but nothing had stuck. She was as lost ringing in orders as she’d been on her first day.

“What do they want?” I asked, stepping away from the cart of Happy Meal bags I was filling with toys and cookies.

“A double cheeseburger,” she said, leaning against the windowsill.

“It’s on the dollar menu page,” I said, grabbing another handful of toys.

She watched me, not moving toward the register.

I dropped the toys and joined her at the window. “Here,” I said, punching buttons on the screen. “Hit this, and double cheeseburger is down here.”

“Okay,” she said, watching distractedly. “How do you find the total?”

I gritted my teeth. This had to be the thirtieth time I’d explained it to her. “See this?”

She nodded.

“That’s what you hit. Got it?”

She nodded again.

A few minutes later, it was the same thing over again. And a little later, she asked again. It wasn’t sticking, she wasn’t learning, and my only way to vent frustration was to hit the screen with all the force my fingers could manage.

Working with people like this—people I never would have willfully associated with—was one of the most challenging and beneficial parts of my job at McDonald’s. It took me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to be patient and kind when my preference was to throw a fit like an angry customer. It caused me to humble myself and respect those I normally wouldn’t.

And when, as a 16-year-old, I was asked by the untrainable trainee whether or not I was married, it taught me to handle the unexpected and accept the compliment that she thought I had the maturity of an adult.

Why you’ll never hear me swear

“I want to understand why you don’t swear.”

This question came from my co-worker Austin, after a long discussion on whether or not swearing was worth it and whether or not I would ever do it.

[Picture the following happening in a small hometown deli. If you ever wonder what grocery store employees talk about all day, here’s an idea.]

A: People give words meaning, so if you decide they don’t mean anything …

Me: I’m happy with my substitutes.

A: Would you ever write a swear word?

Me: If I was quoting someone or writing a character who’d realistically say it. But if I read those pieces out loud, I wouldn’t say the swear words.

A: What if I pushed you to?

Me: What is everyone’s fascination with trying to get me to swear?

A: Because you don’t! That’s fascinating!

I’m used to the people I work with pushing me to swear, doing almost everything in their power to make me flip a lid — or the birdie — but I’ve never had anyone actually try to understand why I don’t.

Notice that I say “don’t”, not “haven’t.” I’m not claiming innocence. I have sworn. I’ve used the F-word, and called people female dogs, and taken the Lord’s name in vain. But I don’t claim those moments of my life proudly.

Not because they hurt me (they didn’t). Not because they made my mouth feel dirty and my stomach queasy (they did). Not because I got in trouble (I didn’t because I swore when I was by myself).

I’m ashamed of those moments in my life and today I don’t swear because I have a God who would never tell anyone to F— off. I have a God who loves and forgives and graciously gives to those who ask and believe. I have a God who overlooks my wrongdoing even though my wrongs are the very thing that nailed His Son to the cross. I have a God who decided to take me in, adopt me as His own, and never let me go.

Why would I ever want to shame Him by calling Him my Lord and then telling someone to F— themselves?

And why would I shout profanity out of frustration when my savior Jesus Christ hung on a cross and — rather than cursing those who put Him there — lifted His eyes to Heaven and asked His Father to forgive them for they know not what they do

Why would I ever want to smear that name?

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8

That’s what I try to do. I try to focus on the good that God has blessed me with and share those things with the people around me. Not the bad. Not the things that go wrong. If I mess up, I remember that God’s plan is bigger than fixing my mistakes and He can use my mishaps to create great beauty.

Is there a need for the F-word or the S-word or the B-word?

No. Not really.

Artists love me and I love trail runs, or Why Sunday is already my favorite day of this week

Yesterday was summer done right. Pushing 80 degrees — hot (for upstate New York). Humid — all the joints were greased with sweat. Sunny — only fluffy white clouds in sight.

Sundays aren’t often my favorite day of the week, but yesterday was an exception from beginning to end. Here’s why.

The sermon was on friendship, meaning I got something out of the message. As a pastor’s kid, it’s tough to find my dad’s sermons helpful. Hearing his voice from the pulpit when I hear it on a daily basis can be like beating on sore ears. But friendship has been on my mind a lot lately, and the passages he pointed out (Proverbs 17:17; 18:24; 27:6,17) hit home. I’ll be writing on friendship later this week.

This was my writing/transcribing space at the Smithy
Image
Who wouldn’t feel motivated with that much natural light and a horsehead staring you down? I finished my piece for the Smithy and started transcribing my CrossFit interviews right away.

An artist (62) called me adorable, and said I reminded her of herself at my age. By her description: brown eyes, light brown hair, tall and — believe it or not — thin.” I’d like to point out that I noticed her brown eyes immediately on meeting her. They’re basically the best.

I drove my little siblings home with Gospel music in their ears.
Four of my little siblings, ages 6, 8, 10, and 12, to the voices of Isaac Caree, James Fortune & Fiya, and Marvin Sapp. Need I explain further?

Went to Gilbert Lake, the lesser-known state park because Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass gets all the attention. I actually prefer Gilbert because it’s smaller and more isolated — less tourists, more woods.

Ran the trail around the lake in 10:52.53. I like trail running. It’s a nice change from pavement and grass. More interesting, slightly scary for the ankles, and a fuller workout for my legs. I usually walk part of it, but this time I pushed myself to run the whole thing. Afterward, I rinsed off in the lake, swam a bit with my siblings, tossed a frisbee, and roasted marshmallows.

What’s been your favorite day so far?

7 things I learned from a CrossFit trainer

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to interview Dan Murdock of Cooperstown CrossFit for my intern project with the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been learning about CrossFit since last fall, but yesterday was my first time stepping into an actual CrossFit box (that’s what they call their gym). What I took from the interview spanned the range of life lessons and basic facts.

1. CrossFit focuses on practicality.

Will you ever do a bicep curl outside of the gym? Unless you have dumbbells at home, probably not. A CrossFit workout will never have you use your muscles in ways you wouldn’t use them in everyday life. Many of the workouts use bodyweight exercises — pull-ups, push-ups, squats, etc. — that work several muscles at the same time. The reasoning?

“You’re going to have to pick yourself up at some point,” Murdock said.

It reminded me of the scene in Batman Begins, when Alfred is trying to move a flaming beam off of Bruce Wayne:

“What is the point of all those push-ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?”

2. “Only perfect practice makes perfect.” 

Meaning if your form isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how much you’re lifting or how quickly you’re completing reps. Before upping the ante, make sure you’re doing the exercise correctly.

Squats: make sure your knees stay behind your toes, and keep your shoulders back.

Push-Ups: don’t let your head hang, and be sure to get the full range of motion.

Pull-Ups: keep your shoulders back, and don’t swing your legs.

3. Many factors impact your physical performance.

Murdock showed me a couple of his CrossFitters’ journals. They keep track not only of their times, weights, and PRs, but also their diets, hours of sleep, and moods. One CrossFitter, a member of Cooperstown Hawkeyes baseball team, will crush a workout one day and, late to bed because of away games, barely finish the next day’s workout. Keeping track of different factors gives CrossFitters an idea of why they succeed or fail at their workouts.

4. You can have a routine without getting bored.

Every day, Murdock designs a workout from warm-up to cool-down. It’s a routine: CrossFitters show up, do the warm-up, work through the strength and/or skill sections, do the WOD (workout of the day), and then do the cool-down. But every day, the workout is different. The warm-up, strength, and skill sections are all designed to prepare you for the WOD. And the WOD doesn’t repeat often. Boredom won’t happen — even though you’re in a box.

5. Ego can be more helpful than modesty.

Ego not in a macho way, but in the sense that you expect a lot of yourself and then you strive to meet those expectations. As fellow CrossFitters see you throw yourself at new challenges, they encourage you and proceed to challenge themselves similarly. Their attitudes are influenced by your attitude and . . .

6. Your attitude is influenced by the attitudes of those around you.

No man is an island. As much as we like to think we’re independent of all that’s around us, we’re actually hugely impacted by those who surround us. This is true in exercise — whatever regimen you ascribe to — and it’s true in the rest of life.

7. CrossFit changes lives.

Cooperstown CrossFit offers a 20% discount for active and retired military, and a number have joined. Murdock teared up when he talked about one in particular, who came back from Iraq and was “in a really bad place.” By joining CrossFit, this veteran gained a community that cares about and challenges him. The attitudes of those around him helped lift his attitude toward life.

Yesterday, I interviewed a CrossFit trainer. It was awesome.

Artist’s Landscape: a conversation with Jane Carr

Image

The following is a piece I wrote for the Smithy Center for the Arts as part of my internship with them this summer.

Jane Carr, 74, has considered herself an artist since she was eight years old, when her parents started sending her to the Baltimore Museum of Art for classes.

Every Saturday of my life I went there,” Jane said. “I loved it.”

Jane studied sculpture in art and graduate school, but in her late 50s, she left her 20-pound hammer behind. She returned to painting with egg tempera, a medium her high school art teacher introduced her to. Now, all she wants to do is paint.

SCA: You do a lot of landscape painting of the area. How long have you lived in the Catskills?

Jane: I moved up here in 1980. I lived for nine years in a house that this man and I built in the woods that had no plumbing and no running water and no telephone. It was fun, but it got old. When you get old, living that way is kind of difficult.

SCA: How did living in that house change your art?

Jane: Because we had no lights in our house, I had to only work during the day at a window. I started making these little cutout wooden houses. I’d make maybe ten at the time and paint them all the same. They were modeled after buildings in this area. I did one of the Smithy. In fact, I gave them all to the Smithy. That’s how I made my living. I sold them for $20 each. And then I moved here, and I have a big studio and I paint every day. I don’t do the little houses anymore.

SCA: What sort of artwork did you return to when you returned to electricity and indoor plumbing?

Jane: I returned to egg tempera.

SCA: Tell us about egg tempera.

Jane: First of all, it predates oil painting. Egg tempera was used back in Egyptian times and Byzantine times.

What it is is very simple. All paint starts with dry pigment, but you have to add something to the dry pigment to make it flow onto a canvas or a board. If you mix oil with pigment, it becomes oil paint. If you mix with liquid plastic, you get acrylic. If you mix egg yolk, you get egg tempera. That’s all it is.

You mix egg yolk with pigment, and very little water with the egg yolk. When you make your yolk, you have to squeeze out the inside and throw away the little sack that the yoke is in.

When egg tempera dries and cures, it’s so indestructable, I suppose you could take a knife and scratch it, but it doesn’t fade and it doesn’t yellow and it doesn’t lose its color. Things that were done back in Egyptian times are still brilliant.

SCA: What do you like about egg tempera?

Jane: I love the color. I love how simple it is. When I teach people, I tell them—it’s kind of a joke, but it’s really not a joke—I say, ‘The thing about egg tempera is you keep adding layers until it looks right. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just keep adding layers. It’ll turn out, sooner or later.’

It’s very forgiving. If you don’t like something, you can paint right over it, and it even makes it richer, because you’re seeing everything underneath peeking out.

SCA: One of your pieces currently on display at the Smithy is a portrait of an Inuit man. You’ve done a number of these portraits.

Jane: I did them all in one year. I was going up to this Inuit festival in northern arctic Canada. I went there seven times teaching egg tempera.

SCA: How did you start teaching there?

Jane: I went camping in Alaska with this man that I lived with. I really wanted to see where Jack London used to live in Dawson, so we crossed into the Yukon and I saw this welcome center for the Northwest territories. I’d never heard of the Northwest territories.

We drove up this road and it went to this little village called Inuvik. There wasn’t much going on there, except there was this art festival that was on the last day, and there were a couple of little old Inuit ladies sitting there carving. I said, ‘I got to come back here. I can’t believe I missed this whole festival.’

When it was the fifth year, I went back. And I went back the tenth year, the fifteenth year, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth. But the reason I went the second time was because I contacted them and said, ‘I’m a painter and I’d really like to come up and see the festival.’ And they asked me if I would teach and give workshops.

SCA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jane: One of my teachers—I can’t remember who it was—told me, ‘Jane, put your hand to art every day, even if it’s just sitting at the phone doodling while you’re talking.’ And I’ve done that. I have done that every day. Some days, it’s not a hand scribbling. It’s sometimes picking up a book out of my bookcase, leafing through it, and learning more about some artist. But I do that every day. It’s my life.

Jane Carr currently has three pieces on exhibit in the Smithy Center for the Arts gallery. A Smithy show of her landscape work will open on August 12, 2013.

Singlehood’s Embrace

Look at people as people, not prospects.

Those were my words of wisdom to my brother, whose high school graduation we celebrated yesterday.

It was a good graduation party — the most successful we’ve ever hosted — starting off with talk and food, and eventually segueing into a barefoot game of soccer at the park with about 20 people.

For me, it allowed some entertaining encounters with kids I barely know and a nice conversation with a friend I haven’t seen or talked to in about three years. During soccer, I kicked the ball beyond the field (my favorite thing to do), got hit in the face (resulting in a bloody nose, I found out later), developed a few thumb-size bruises on my calves and — through all of this — mulled over a conversation I’d had earlier, considering compatibility with the converser.

“Something happens when you go to college,” I told my brother, “and I’m going to warn you about it: you start reading into every conversation, every interaction, every passing glance that you have with people of the opposite sex.

Suddenly, the people you talk to aren’t just people. They’re potential life companions, spouses, husbands or wives. And if you’re single — even if you’ve always been — singleness is just a passing phase. Your real life has not begun. It doesn’t truly begin until you’re attached to someone else.

That seems sufficient to make the single 20-year-old female (i.e. me) feel pointless. Better find somebody — pronto! Otherwise, you’ll be stuck by yourself, and everyone knows that’s no way to live.

But wait a second. If I don’t want to spend my life with me, why would anyone else want to spend their life with me?

I spent a solid half hour the other night reading this article from The Atlantic. It touches on a lot of aspects of and reasons for single womanhood. I don’t agree with everything it expresses, but I thought it made a good point on the whole my-life-doesn’t-begin-until-I’m-hitched issue:

We are far more than whom we are (or aren’t) married to: we are also friends, grandparents, colleagues, cousins, and so on. To ignore the depth and complexities of these networks is to limit the full range of our emotional experiences.

If I am so focused on developing one relationship that may not ever work out, how does that impact my other relationships as a friend, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, aunt, and employee?

I’ve always hated when my older brothers have spewed their relational worries — of never finding someone, of being alone forever, etc. — on me. What about right now? I’ve wanted to ask. What about being my brother? I’ve never had a problem with you being just that.

What is it about singlehood that makes us want to tear it off like a sweaty soccer uniform and scrub its nervous sweat off our backs?

I think it’s high time we embrace wherever we are relationally and stop neglecting full living out of our worries for the future. It’s time to quit seeing people as prospects, and just see people as people. 

Unshackled

Do you ever feel tied down by fear? That your fears, however serious or illogical, have you shackled to the ground? Do you ever fear that your fears aren’t so much yours as you are theirs?

I do. Every other hour of every passing day.

I don’t remember when I first noticed how fearful I was. Maybe when I remembered my 11-year-old self staying awake at night worrying about her future livelihood and living situation (how do you find an apartment? how do you pay for it? how do you even make money?). Maybe when my innumerable dreams started to look possible, nearly doable.

My fears have controlled me a lot in the past year. Immobilized me. Clamped my feet to the ground and duct-taped my mouth shut.

A year ago, I realized that I’d never imagined or pictured myself at 20 years old. As a person who’s always looked to the future and seen myself in it, this realization scared the bejeebers out of me.

Why have I never imagined myself at 20? What does it mean that I haven’t?

My logical, vocal self brushed these questions off: “Meredith. Stop being ridiculous.”

My inner, fear-filled self decided it was because I would never turn 20.

Last summer, my main initiative was to get my driver’s license. I’d driven 7 times the previous summer and I was determined to more than quadruple that, pass my driver’s test, and return to school a college junior with the ability to drive.

Learning how to drive wasn’t easy for me. I’m convinced if you put any beginning driver in a manual Ford with a sticky clutch, a loose shift stick, and brakes that don’t engage until your foot’s on the floor, you’re not going to have pretty results. Add that my dad — who’s not the greatest communicator or the most patient coach — starting me off by explaining the car as a something-ton missile with a heavy projection and the ability to destroy, and the likelihood of this scared pup calmly entering a test is pretty slim.

On top of that, put my conviction that I’m not going to make it to age 20, and what do you get?

A 19-year-old who’s convinced that not only is she in her last year of life, but she’s going to leave this world in a car crash.

Welcome to my mindset less than a year ago when I failed my first driver’s test. And my second one.

Was I governed by fear? You bet I was.

Sure, the car was a piece of junk — I will always confirm that fact — and the testers were basically awful, but the main factor was I was a bundle of nerves. And I was a bundle of nerves, because I was scared to death.

Needless to say, I made it to my 20th birthday, I’m still living, and the third time I took my driving test — over Spring Break this past March — I passed, but don’t get so caught up in what has happened now that you miss my point.

Without a driver’s license, I felt unprepared for life as an adult. And rightly so. Unless you live in a major metropolis (meaning D.C., New York, or Chicago) or have the moolah for a car service (I don’t), you can’t be independent without a license. I needed a license. I needed to be able to drive.

But I was tied to my fear. My fear that I wouldn’t make it to 20 because I’d die in a car crash kept me from accomplishing something I needed to accomplish.

Don’t let your fears do that to you.

Don’t let your fears take your ability to accomplish something, to do something great and necessary, and nail it under the floorboards it’s shackled you to. Don’t let your fears put the shackles in place. Whatever fear you have, use it to drive you to accomplish exactly what you’re afraid of.

Since my 20th birthday and the ultimate realization that not only did fear control me, but my fear was irrational, I’ve begun recognizing when my fears start to clamp my arms to my sides. And before they have my elbows locked in, I wrench free and tell myself, “No. I’m not going to be controlled by fear.”

In these moments, I often think of 2 Timothy 1:7:

God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Fear may exist. But it has no place in my life. And it has no place in yours. So don’t leave room for fear. Say no to shackles.