Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Real Celebrity

I guess I have a bit of a celebrity problem.

If you've followed my writing for a while, you know my little problem has led me to take on jobs as an extra in film and television - where I met people like Lou Diamond Phillips, Allison Mack and Jennifer Garner - and that I tend to ogle the allure of fame with far more longing than I am proud to admit. I suppose that in a culture where a show entitled "American Idol" is accepted with nary the bat of an eye, I am not alone, but this doesn't stop me from feeling shallow and pathetic. I cope with this feeling by making a joke of it - by over-emphasizing my attitude to the point of ludicrousness.

For example, when I flew to California with my little boy, Mateo, to visit my brother and his family for Thanksgiving a few days ago, I insisted that every luxury vehicle I saw with tinted windows contained a celebrity - whom I then proceeded to name, based on the gender and racial profile of the actual driver. Fifty year old Asian woman? Ah, yes, well that would be Lucy Liu. Caucasian male with a handlebar mustache? Obviously Brad Pitt, getting in character for a new role.

This endlessly annoyed my brother, who kept insisting that Orange County (where he lives) is not actually in Los Angeles and doesn't have any celebrities. So yesterday morning, as I was driving my rental car back up to the LA airport, I turned to my younger brother Jason and remarked, "wouldn't it be funny if I saw an actual celebrity at LAX and got a picture with them? I could email it to Jo-Ben and just say - hey, brother: here's me with another one of those celebrities I've been seeing."

We dropped off the car and took the shuttle to the airport. Mateo and I said goodbye to Jason, as he went to check in at his airline and we went to ours. Tickets, baggage, shoes off, moving walkways, blah-blah-blah and then, just before we got to our gate who should I see zipping towards me going the other direction but Nick Vujicic.

I am ashamed to admit that I hardly noticed him at all, but that what caught my attention was this oddly-shaped foot he had. I had heard him call it in a video his "little chicken drumstick" and when it caught my eye I thought, "hey, there's that little chicken drumstick". Then I thought, "hey, it's that guy!"

All this took place in a few split seconds as he came around the corner in a motorized wheelchair, so just before he was right up on me I yelled, "Dude!... I saw your video online. It was great." He stopped and said hello in that sweet Aussie accent of his and I said, "yeah, man. I'm a high school art teacher and I showed it to all my classes."

At that point I felt a little awkward, so I started to turn away but he stopped me with a question: "did it encourage them?"

"Yeah", I said, "it really did. Thank you." Then as he said "great" I turned and walked away, thinking immediately that that wasn't what I had meant to say at all and wondering what it must be like to be accosted by strangers all the time.

Down at our gate, which shared a cul-de-sac with about five others, Mateo decided to run round and round in big, loopy circles as I followed behind, carrying all our bags. After a dozen rounds I looked up and who should be coming back our direction but this Nick guy. He and his friends(family?entourage?) parked themselves in some seats and had a sandwich, but after a while he disengaged and headed over to the window.

I saw a second chance, so I ambushed him. "Hey, man.", I said, "Sorry to ambush you there earlier."

"No worries, bud", he replied (I know... perfect, right?).

I asked him his name and then said, "I just didn't say before what I had really wanted to, which is that I watched your video right after my wife told me she was going to leave me".

He said something sympathetic, so I launched right into the story of how his video had touched and inspired me. As I talked about my pain I started to cry, and he gave me the sort of sympathy that made it worse. So there I was, standing in a crowded corner of the Los Angeles Airport, holding a two year-old (who for some reason was totally not squirming), a ukulele, a heavy backpack and a hand-bag of baby stuff. I was crying, thinking that all those people who had been watching my adorable son go all Ritalin were now wondering why I was walking up to the uniquely-shaped stranger and sniveling like I was the little kid with the carpet burn.

When I finished, he said, "Do you mind if I pray for you?".

Despite my qualms I will never say "no" to this question. Although growing up as a missionary kid has left me wary of gung-ho, obnoxious people who may mean well but spout off all the wrong things whenever they start to pray, I said an enthusiastic "Yes!" with absolutely no hesitation. The clip I'd seen on youtube was only about five minutes long and gave no real indication that he was a man of any sort of faith whatsoever. Nonetheless, when a man such as Nick Vujicic offers to pray for you, you just instinctively know that he is not going to hit you with a bunch of trite drivel that will make you grind your teeth and pray, yourself, for a meteor shower.

I cried. He prayed. The words were nothing different than I'd heard a hundred or a thousand times before but somehow they just seemed to stick. He prayed encouragement. He prayed wisdom for me as I struggled to raise my son. He prayed and a sense of rest and purpose seemed to hover over that moment. After his "amen" we talked a bit more. He was heading to Maryland to give a talk, then to Redding for some R&R. He was flying on my same connecting flight through Houston, so we spoke in passing a couple more times. Then he was gone.

Once again, this is not a story about how awesome I am. This is a story about how awesome I am not, but how despite all that, beautiful things just seem to happen all around me. I went to LAX hoping half-heartedly to see a celebrity, and ended up brushing up, briefly, against a great man. And even then - even after that - I still caught myself thinking, "yeah, but wouldn't it have been something to see a real celebrity?"

This morning when I told this story to one of my art classes, I pointed out that not only had I gotten from the incident a moment of great encouragement and a chance to meet a great man, but I had also been forced once again to face my own pettiness and out-of-whack priorities. "I mean, that airport was just full of wonderful, intriguing people, but all I could think about was that one of my high school youth leaders had peed in an LAX urinal next to Sean Connery - so it could happen to me, too."

Immediately, about three guys in the class said, "Whoa! Sean Connery!?! Now that is off the hook!" When I pointed out the irony of their response, they said, "yeah, but c'mon! Sean Connery!" And then they all traipsed off into their best impressions of the lishping shcottish actor.

I suppose we are all in this together - heck, this story gets most of its punch from the fact that Nick Vujicic is the sort of guy who has his own Wikipedia page and motivates a lot of people to stop crying for themselves and start living. In retrospect, Nick probably played an important role in my own motivation to stop sniveling and start taking responsibility for myself and my abilities by beginning to write the memoirs that I've been serializing on this blog as my "Anatomy of an Effup".

I told my class this morning that while I get really suspicious when people start telling me they know exactly how God is monkeying around with their business, I have to admit that this sort of fortuitous, karmatic event has me just about ready to claim that God is in the business of micro-managing. That may in fact be crazy. All I can say for certain is that I am extremely grateful for the unforeseen and undeserved opportunity to meet a man who, if not a real celebrity, is most definitely a really great man.



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