I sat down this morning to write the second post about the power of story. As I began to organize my thoughts, I thought I would write about the elements of a good story–you know drawing on the elementary aspects (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and my favorite denouement– mainly because I like saying French words with confidence), and then I remembered the day in college when we discussed the elements of story my friend Rob fell out of his chair after falling into a deep sleep. Then, instead of boring you to death, I thought that I would discuss the distraction versus attention nature of story, and then, deep in thought, I too fell out of my chair like Rob.
The thing is, I’m not writing to the search engines, I’m writing to the handful of people that have actually given me a few minutes of their time, and I genuinely hope that I don’t betray you with some self-promotional BS hype.
Instead, I’m going to tell my own story.
Last year, I took a trip to a small village called the Colonia in Tijuana, Mexico to help out in an orphanage and serve some people who make their living by picking through the recyclable scraps from a landfill. Before you get any misleading ideas, I’ll be straight from the start. If you wikipedia search missionary or social servant, there will be no mention of Jeremy Floyd on those pages. As the person that hog tied me into going said, “this isn’t about you serving them, it’s about how they’ll change you.”
Anyway, there were two strict rules for the trip: (1) Stay with the group, and (2) no matter what DON’T DRINK THE WATER, which included a subset of clarifications (don’t use the ice, don’t drink tea, don’t brush your teeth in the bathroom as to not be tempted to put your toothbrush under the sink, etc.). As a person that can contract stomach viruses from across the room, I made sure to pay special attention to the second rule. No water. Got it.
The week and the water thing went amazingly well. In fact, I had practically forgotten that indoor plumbing existed. No tap water. No problem.
One morning mid-week we went to the market and bartered for some food to take into the Colonia. We loaded hundreds of pounds of beans and rice in the back of our van, split it into smaller portions and then drove through the Colonia giving out two week’s portions of food to the families. Most importantly, we had a dozen bags of Tootsie pops, and once word spread through the village that the crazy Americans had Tootsie pops we had droves of new friends. This experience was undeniably the highlight of my journey.
That afternoon we decided to take a few kids from the orphanage down to the the beach. So we strolled from the van down along this fence that created an iron chasm between Mexico and the United States. The beach was beautiful. The water was ice cold, but after a few of my Mexican friends showed me the way, I dove in to the
arctic Pacific ocean. They played for about 30 minutes. Me, I was good for about 30 seconds, and it was time to dry off.
Then it happened. I was talking with Sasha, one of the workers at the orphanage, when a beach vendor approached us. She dug through his mobile cooler to find this delicious looking cone of goodness. I immediately thought it was Piña Colada and dove in to get myself one except it wasn’t Piña Colada…it was egg nog. Now, there’s nothing wrong with egg nog, except for the fact that (A) it was summer, (B) I was expecting Piña Colada, and (C) there was no rum in sight. So I asked the vendor, “Piña?”
“Si! Si!” he responded, and back from the far reaches of this cooler on wheels, he plucked out a pineapple popsicle. Now, let me compare the egg nog treat with the pineapple popsicle. The egg nog treat was commercially prepared and the packaging had a 4 color, professionally printed label. My pineapple popsicle, on the other hand, was a little more, um, “homegrown” (like my kids make in molds) and stuffed in the type of plastic bag the newspaper carriers use on rainy days. Yet in my “blink” decision, I thought it was safe, so I handed the vendor my dollar and I was about to quench my longing for a fruity cocktail, sans the juice.
Just as I took my last bite, the leader of our trip approached me. “Whatcha eating there?”
“A Piña popsicle.” I was showing off the fourth Spanish word that I knew.
“Really? Mind if I see the wrapper?” He smugly said as he held out his hand. So I pulled the crumpled 1 mil cellophane bag from my still damp swimming trunks and handed it to him. Half joking he said, “what do you think they used to make that popsicle?”
No dummy here, I quipped, “Pineapples, sugar and Water?!?” and in that instant Rule #2 echoed around in my head until foretelling nausea set in… “Mexican Water?”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine” he said, and we walked off to return to the van.
You know how this story goes. What started off as a slight stomach cramps turned into the full blown Montezuma’s Revenge over the next twelve hours. And over the next two days, I unsuccessfully consumed the just-in-case medicine that my doctor had sent with me.
Finally, on the last day of our trip, it was apparent that I needed to seek medical attention. The staff and friends on the trip loaded me into a car, and we journeyed into the streets of Tijuana to find a doctor that would treat me. To say I looked like warmed death would be an understatement. I put the “green” in gringo. We developed a routine on the ride, every time the car came to a stop, the passenger door would open and I would hang my head low and make animalistic groans.
The car stopped. I peered out, and my driver said, “we’re here.” In my dehydrated, malnourished state of mind, I longed for relief in the sterile, secure comfort of an emergency room with lots of stainless steel and the air of disinfectant wafting through my nostrels. As we walked in the side-alley doorway, I wasn’t sure if I was in a 1950’s abortion clinic or a veterinarian clinic. The lobby and the exam room were pretty much right there together. You know that white paper that they have on the examination tables? Yeah, there was none of that. In fact, it seemed like I could see traces of blood and other fluids on the exam table where this twenty-something fella was patting, “Here, have a seat.”
I started to sit, but my body decided to gag instead. Fortunately, nothing was left but the last bit of my pride, and with that I collapsed on the table. I was there for thirty minutes or so as he turned the right side of my rump into a pin cushion. Needle after needle he injected. I was hoping there was methodology to these injections and not like my cooking–a little of this, a little of that.
As the medicine started to kick in, I was in a dreamlike state where I was on my deathbed in a Mexican Veterinarian clinic and people were in the background speaking Spanish that I didn’t understand, and every time the word Piña was mentioned the room would fill with belly laughter. It was one of those dreams where you try to say something but your voice doesn’t work. I kept trying to say, “ARE THOSE NEEDLES STERILE?” But instead I just heard laughter.
Finally, I came to. The only part of my memory that was a dream was that the doctor was in his twenties. Now that I was more lucid I realized he was in his late teens at best, but his cocktail of meds in my rump seemed to be working. I couldn’t complain–the doctor’s magic brew worked, for the time being. I mended quickly and was able to attend an amazing Quinceañera that afternoon and make the return journey home the following day. To this day, I’ve never tasted another pineapple popsicle…you just never know where that water comes from.
Believe it or not, this story actually has second part, which involves blackouts, terrorism threats and airport security.
Stories don’t have to be heroic or profound
- They have to be authentic.
- They need to make you feel something (either laugh a little or a little lump in your throat)
- It’s helpful if they are relatable.
- Some part of the story should be memorable.
- Finally, the story should live on in the listener/reader’s head longer than the time it took to hear/read it.