I recently took a business trip to Phoenix. Not a bad place to have to go when it’s 35 degrees and rainy back home in Nashville. Stepping out of the airport, I was smacked in the face by air so warm and clean it felt like angels draping me in invisible blankets fresh from God’s dryer. And apparently, the Heavenly hosts use fabric softener.
Moments like this are best shared with loved ones, so I immediately called Gabby to tell her the good news. When she answered the phone, she had just finished wiping backyard mud off our 14-year-old dog’s feet, which is almost as fun as it sounds. Kids were screaming in the background. I may have even heard a vacuum cleaner salesman outside our front door, begging to come inside and do a demonstration.
“How was your trip?” she asked.
Something told me she really didn’t want to know the answer. In all honesty, I could have sat in the middle seat between two sweaty Sumo champions, had my right earlobe sucked into the tiny airplane toilet, lost all of my luggage, been strip-searched by the TSA, and we would still call it even. Why? Because she knows I get to eat dinner all by myself in a quiet restaurant while she tries to hold negotiations with the loudest kids on the planet over how they must eat every green bean on their plate if they expect to have even one crumb of a cookie.
“You sound busy. I’ll call you back when I get to the hotel,” I answered.
Proving that the universe is a balanced place, I got lost on the way to the hotel. I have a keen sense of direction, so long as that direction is accompanied by a very polite woman’s voice on the GPS guiding me where I need to go. I finally arrived 45-minutes later to a beautiful courtyard packed with orange trees. Every branch was adorned with brightly colored, fragrant fruit. I looked down on the ground in front of me and saw that one had just fallen from the tree, so I picked it up and took it to my room.
* My orange: So perfect
Once I had unpacked my things and settled in, I peeked over at the table in the corner. There sat my beautiful orange. I picked it up and sniffed it. Unbelievable! It smelled like rainbows. And pixie dust. And fairies riding unicorns.
I started to peel the orange, and the juice immediately started dripping down my arm and rolling off my elbow. I haven’t even taken a bite, and this may be the most amazing piece of fruit I have ever tasted.
I had it half-peeled, and the juice was already out of control. Once peeled, I held the orange in my hand and bit into it like an apple. A flood of juice passed over my gums and caressed my tongue. Then my taste buds finally registered a flavor like none other.
It was like licking a lemon-scented car air freshener and chasing it with a shot of Windex. I gagged and ran toward the bathroom. Nearly puked. Sixty seconds later, I lost the feeling in my lips. I had a fleeting thought that I may have been deliberately poisoned, but then remembered that I wasn’t a medieval king or Simon Cowell.
No, this wasn’t an attempt on my life. Apparently (as I would later overhear the concierge explaining to another hotel patron) there are edible oranges and ornamental oranges. The ornamental variety are bred specifically for their bright color and fragrance. The bonus? Animals and pests leave them alone because they taste like the sludge pools at a chemical plant. People who might pick the fruit either a) learn their lesson very quickly, or b) have already been weeded out through the wonders of natural selection.
So, the truth is, I’m just a moron.
Or more precisely, an oxymoron.
I finally called Gabby back, thinking that my numb lips might trump anything she had dealt with that evening. She had a pretty good time with it, especially given one of my greatest phobias.
“How is it that you are deathly afraid of “food gone bad”, yet you’ll eat something right off of a tree, or even off the ground?” she laughed.
She’s right. I have a morbid fear of eating food that is past the expiration date. When I was a kid, I got really hungry and ate about two pounds of random stuff out of our refrigerator. Apples. Celery with peanut butter. Macaroni and cheese. French onion dip and potato chips. I couldn’t quite satiate my belly, so I dove into the dairy drawer. Tucked in among the butter and the eggs were a couple of tiny, foil-wrapped wedges of Hickory Farms gift basket cheese that had been in our fridge since the Carter administration. They did me in. I laid on the bathroom floor for the entire night.
Ever since then, I am maniacal about expiration dates. It drives my wife crazy. A day or two before something is set to retire, I get the shakes as the urge hits me to send it down the garbage disposal. Back in 2002, I almost called off my pending marriage to Gabby after she inadvertently served what are now known in our house as “The Millennium Biscuits” – some Pillsbury buttermilk hockey pucks that carried a “best by…” date of 01/2000.
But I’ll gladly eat an orange right off the ground. Or a chunk of granola bar I find sitting on the console of our SUV. Or, just yesterday, a pock-marked old Smartie I found in my jacket pocket.
“It’s about the adventure,” I finally answered.
Eating random stuff is exciting. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s a bit like opening a book and reading the first page. Sometimes, you get Dennis Rodman’s autobiography and page one makes you throw up in your mouth a little. Sometimes you get a John Grisham novel – a pure page turner that keeps getting better and better.
I remember fondly the day I stood on a chair, hanging over the fence at Gabby’s mom’s house picking fresh blackberries off the neighbor’s tree. I’m not sure if you’ve ever shoved thirty ultra-sweet, just-picked blackberries into your mouth all at once. It’s like an explosion of summer in your mouth. It was pure bliss. A non-stop dessert-fest courtesy of mother nature for nearly an hour.
So, if I happen to eat a toxic orange on my way to another memorable moment, so be it.
But expiration dates? What fun is that? You know exactly when something is going to go bad. You don’t even have to taste it. The mystery is gone. It’s pre-determined.
But now, as I reflect on my oxymoronic food rules, I think I may be missing something. Something big. There is this part of my life where I throw caution to the wind, let go, and experience life. Sure, there are times when it doesn’t work out, but I’m still standing. Breathing for another day on the planet. Ready for the next challenge. Lessons learned.
Then, there is this side of me that is filled with fear. Afraid of the unknown. It’s all about protection. Protection from something that I know deep down won’t hurt me. But in the rock-paper-scissors game of life, fear beats logic every time. So, I sit back in a safe place, never seeing that the place I’m scared to go is the place God most wants me to be.
It’s time I follow my own advice from a song I recorded a few years ago. I’ll start small. Baby steps. There is a tub of salsa in the back of the fridge that expired six days ago. Maybe I’ll wait for lucky day number seven and dip a few chips. I know it won’t kill me.
After that, Heaven only knows what adventures await.