The United States of Carmela
The United States of Carmela
In the Summer after sixth grade, my parents must have dumped responsibility for me on my brother who was three years older. He suddenly began saying things like, “Take a shower and wash your hair and you can go hang out with me and my friends at the pool today.” By “pool”, he meant the local recreation center swimming pool where all kids from our neighborhood spent summer days. And by “friends”, he meant his pal Speedy who was always at the pool.
Speedy was the first of my brother’s friends to treat me like a regular person instead of the younger sibling nuisance that I was. I suspect part of the reason was that Speedy also had a younger sibling appendage he was looking to pawn off. His younger sister was a year older than me. Let’s call her Carmela — not her real name but close enough.
Carmela and I saw each other a lot that summer and I learned some pretty useful stuff from her, like how to let just enough air out of my lungs and lay on the bottom of the pool long enough to scare the crap out of the lifeguard. She also taught me how to light a cigarette without choking on the harsh smoke. Those were both serious accomplishments for a 12-year-old.
The next Fall, I began my first year in junior high and Carmela was there. Because of our age difference, we didn’t have any classes together, but my friends were seriously impressed when the older girl stopped and said “hi” to me in the hallway. That continued off and on until I entered ninth grade, by which time Carmela had moved on to the local high school.
During that summer of 1969, Carmela seriously blossomed. She developed the figure of a Hollywood starlet, the hypnotic eyes of a magician and the teeth of a dental ad model. But I wouldn’t learn all that for another year because the neighborhood pool had shut down and Carmella’s family had moved across town.
When I arrived at Garland High School a year later, guys in the locker room used to rate hot girls on the “Carmela Scale” where Carmela was a “10” and even the hotties were an “8”. I can only remember one certified “9”. There was absolutely no way I would have claimed to know Carmela because those guys would have all frogged me on the arm and called me a liar.
By the Spring of my junior year, I’d developed a routine of coming home from work at 5:30, scarfing down whatever my mom had fixed for supper, and heading out to cruise around town, either alone or with a friend. I had a 1968 Mustang convertible with lots of horsepower and a top that was never up unless it was raining (hard).
Imagine my surprise when cutting through the neighborhood behind my favorite Dairy Queen, I spied Carmela, standing in a yard, watering the flowers with a garden hose. I screeched to a halt and backed up to her curb. Fortunately, she recognized me before running into the house to alert her dad (Dads didn’t like the long-haired, glassy-eyed version of me very much.) I was perplexed that my old acquaintance who had become the hottest girl in my school wasn’t out on a date, so I asked why.
Carmela complained to me that guys just didn’t ask her out much so we talked a bit about dating, and dysfunctional school culture, and plans for the future, and anything else we could catch up on. In fact, we made it a habit. About once every week or two, when the weather was good, I’d swing by her house in the evening and we would listen to Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, or The Rolling Stones on my 8-track, and yep, we’d talk (just talk). The only other people I’ve ever talked with who were that open and honest were friends in AA.
Now, if you’re a guy, I know exactly what you’re thinking — “Why didn’t you ask her out dumbass?!” I know that because my two best friends, Wayne and Ronnie, used to hit me with that question on a weekly basis. There were two reasons. First, even at that psychologically inept age, I was smart enough to know my fragile ego couldn’t withstand having to tell Wayne and Ronnie that she said “no”. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why other guys didn’t ask her out either. Second, I didn’t want to blow a long-standing friendship by bringing the whole dating thing into it.
As it turned out, I made the right decision. We had some great conversations that Spring, and l figured out a lot about people. For instance, if Carmela’s nose had just been just a little crooked, or maybe if she had gained a few extra pounds, guys wouldn’t have been so intimidated, and she would have had way too many dates to waste time talking to me. I also learned that a lot of girls didn’t like her just because of her looks — talk about a weird form of bigotry.
So here’s the deal. You and I are living in the most successful country in the history of the world. On average, we have more spare time and more disposable income than anyone else on this planet. We’re also more educated and have more to talk about. So, why is everybody closed up in their own personal silos, too paranoid to approach other people? Why are there not a hundred times as many social clubs and civic organizations? Why are you reading this email on your computer or phone instead of sitting in a coffee shop, having a face-to-face conversation about it, with someone you know, better yet, with a total stranger?
If you’ve never read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, order it today and read just the first chapter about the town of Roseto. I guarantee you will not stop there. Then, start figuring out a way to turn your town into another Roseto instead of continuing to reside in the United States of Carmela.
I find it much easier to counsel than to be counseled, to reach out to a friend in my small group who is feeling insercure than to reveal my own inseurity. The truth is we don’t much like being dependent. We don’t enjoy admitting how desperately we long for someone’s kindness and involvement. It’s so humbling.
— Larry Crabb
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Great Christmas Reads & Gifts
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell
“Everybody Matters” by Bob Chapman
“Unoffendable” by Brant Hansen
“This Land of Strangers” by Robert Hall