Work Your Way from the Outside

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” [Mark 7:2]

Mom tried to save me. For the most part, she did an admirable job.

In high school, I was a nerd and geek before those terms were popular. As the guy with black-rimmed glasses, I felt more comfortable reading books than relating to people. But occasionally, if only because of expectations or longing (or both), I attempted to escape my geekdom. One event that created tension between risky longing and safe habits involved my high school’s Senior Ball. To go or not to go became my Hamlet-inspired query. Wasn’t I obligated to make an appearance?

Question: how many high school dances had I attended?

Answer: 0.

You read that last sentence correctly . . . zero, nada, none, zilch, to emphasize the factual, actual reality.

  • Did I know how to dance? No.
  • Had I ever worn a tuxedo? No.
  • Would I have to ask (plead, cajole, barter) to use Dad’s 1965 Chrysler Imperial? Yes.
  • Would I have the courage to ask a girl to be my date? Gulp.
  • Would I have the courage to ask a girl to be my date? Gulp.
  • Would I have the courage . . .

I recall glaring at the phone while doubt roiled my mind. For days I pondered—feared, dreaded, sweated—dialing those seven memorized numbers. Call. Don’t call. Now. Later. Help!

I called. She said yes. A tuxedo loomed in my future. Dancing beckoned. What had I done?

And yet when life is bad, it often manages to get worse. At some point, in the negotiations for the date’s details, I suggested going to the FANCIEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN. She, of course, agreed. How wonderful Larry, she purred, I always wanted to go there.

As noted, I’d never worn a tuxedo, but was fairly confident that my sloppy jeans and the creased, polyestered, fancy-pants shared one thing in common: you put one leg in there, and the other leg into the other side. Ta-da. I pretended the cummerbund was a bad belt.

Several friends and I—all confirmed due-paying members of Geeks Gone Mild—practiced dancing. As frightened as I was of 1) touching a girl, 2) getting both feet to move in unison, and 3) doing this in public . . . I’m a baby-boomer. Since the 1950s Chubby Checker had trumped Fred Astaire. We wouldn’t be waltzing. The Twist and its progeny dominated the dance floors. With a fast dance, I’d move multiple body parts as rapidly as possible and survive. (If it was a slow dance? I’d offer to refill her punch!)

But the restaurant was climbing Everest. It represented the frayed section of the ancient map beyond the last known land mass with the printed warning, “There be monsters here.”

Around the family kitchen table, life was simple: spoon, fork, knife. But at the FANCIEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN, I’d heard rumors of obscure utensils. A parade of forks. Spoons of various configurations. Knives that performed one task and then were whisked away by devious waiters. Hors d’oeuvres. Salads. Second courses. Fifth courses. Oh my!

Thus, I consulted Mom.

My mother said, voice calm and reassuring, “Work your way from the outside.” Words to live by! Directions that made sense! A plan, a goal, a strategy.

Let’s pretend this was the set-up: 111 -O- 22333. All those 1s on the left? The myriad forks. The middle -O-? The plate! The 2s are knives and the 3s are spoons. Whenever the first dish arrived—say a salad I’d never eat at home—I knew that a pronged utensil was expected. Who used a spoon for a salad, right? (Unless it’s a fruit salad, but I repressed that horrific possibility.) Which fork to use for the salad that arrives first? Work your way from the outside. Thanks Mom! If there were more 1s, or fewer 3s . . . no problemo. Mom’s rules guided me through the maze of forked paths and knife-edged precipices.

How odd we humans are. No culture is without its arcane rules, the written or unwritten guidelines to determine insiders and outsiders, the experts from the amateurs.

Why are your disciples “eating with defiled hands,” religious authorities asked Jesus? Follow the rules! The insiders know. The outsiders should either follow or be humiliated or worse.

So many rules.

What matters? The heart. Not the outside sequence of utensils or the pretense of hollow traditions, but who we are within. And, here Jesus was so literal, what comes forth. To this day, I hear my mother’s voice. Work from the outside. Her response has (literally) served me well over the years. But there is also the “voice” of the Jesus I try, try, try to follow: live from the inside. Each day, that’s a faithful struggle, with unwritten guidelines that remind me what really matters.

Senior Ball was great. Except when I got lost while driving Dad’s ’65 Imperial and then there was that (lack of a) goodnight kiss.


Glad there was only one Senior Ball in my life!

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