I once worked for a peace organization headed by a man I regard as close to sainthood. I have no saintly aspirations of my own, but when I was anywhere near John I wanted to live up to his example or, at least behave myself.
John and I met at an eco-conscious lunch spot to discuss a new project. There I drank coffee stronger than I’d ever tasted in a mug larger than I’d ever seen. Too late I remembered that caffeine gives me the jitters.
A third person joined us for the meeting. John was effusive in his praise for my accomplishments as he introduced me to this older gentleman. Way too effusive. It’s hard to live up to such superlatives, especially while trying to keep one’s hands from caffeine-related jitters.
The men ordered soup and sandwiches. I quickly ordered the first salad listed and turned my attention back to the meeting. When my meal arrived I was alarmed. Dark, unfamiliar vegetation loomed over the plate. The leaves looked quite a bit like invasive weeds. I dug in bravely, hoping that once I’d gotten some nourishment the coffee shakes would wear off.
My tablemates had charming manners. They took small bites, wiped their mouths carefully, and added wonderful insights to the conversation only after swallowing. In the meantime I discovered the giant plants on my plate couldn’t be cut in pieces with ordinary tableware. Instead I had to bend them in half with my fork and hope that dressing didn’t dribble on the table, my clothes, or chin as I drove each bite resolutely into my mouth. To cope, I listened intently and kept my comments to a minimum.
Just as I was inserting a neatly folded plant leaf in my mouth John addressed a question to me. A serious, lengthy reply sort of question. I was in trouble. Not because I had no response. No, because the process of shoveling in a huge bent leaf took longer than a sip of soup or bite of sandwich ever could.
Worse yet, the leaf was larger than my coffee-addled brain anticipated. As it headed toward my lips it seemed to grow. Because the food was already partway in my mouth it was too late to throw the whole action in reverse. So I shoved the rest of it in, afraid that I looked like one of those mulching machines grinding a tree branch.
A conversational pause developed around the table as my lunch companions politely waited for me to answer. I hurried, hoping after a few quick chewing motions I’d be able to respond.
No such luck. As I pulled the fork out of my mouth the unexpected happened.
That hulking leaf unfolded. Like an angry vegetable on a rampage it sprung fully open and leaped to the back of my throat, instantly triggering a gag reflex.
There was nothing I could do. Reflexes do not respect politeness nor honor the presence of a saint. My eyes widened in horror as my mouth involuntarily flung open. The entire lettuce leaf emerged at top speed from my gaping maw right onto the plate. Gag related tears sprung to my eyes and gag related saliva hovered with great drool potential on my lower lip.
It is a testament to the training of those involved in the peace movement that my companions didn’t bolt from the table. They didn’t even blink.
John looked at me kindly. As if his wording had caused me some discomfort, he said without a hint of irony, “Let me rephrase the question.”