Aw C'Mon God Gimme a Break

This is a story of love, of a pedicure, of recovery from bad stuff and—for me–the power of painting the nails on my big toes…and, oh yes, jellyfish.

Toes Being Prepared for Painting

Toes Being Prepared for Painting

The lesson here is not that there is joy in them thar pink toenails (or in my case, dusky beige) or even that pedicures can give you superpowers. Rather, it is that after life deals you a bad hand, you can deliberately step out of your comfort zone and do something different, resulting in a speedier recovery. A little bit of shaking up goes a long way, as I discovered by first getting a pedicure at a spa, part of bonding with my daughter in the place of my late wife, and then having my big toes painted. But you only need to change a little bit: I resisted the urge, for example, to step out of my comfort zone and into a pair of peep toe pumps—it’s not something either of my daughters would appreciate, nor was it necessary. And pumps play heck with a guy’s potential for a social life.

The pedicure stemmed from a promise made to my late wife, Sharon who, during the months before she lost her battle with ALS, wanted to make sure that those she loved would “not just survive but thrive” after her passing. And I was to be the means by which she would enable those she loved to have a better chance at living a joy-filled life (“Not my first choice,” she chuckled, “but time’s running out and you’re all I have to work with.”)

“There will come a time, after I’m gone, that you’ll need to focus on love in your relationships, both with the girls and others,” she said. “But you have to allow yourself to love again, to do something different. We’re all going to be fine. So let’s break you out. Go get a pedicure with your daughter. And don’t focus on your embarrassment, your conviction that a guy getting his feet done is somehow not quite right. If it makes you feel better, then while they’re working on your feet do something manly like burping the Star – Spangled Banner. But just going with Brittany (our daughter) to a spa, concentrating on doing it for her and me, forgetting about you–you’ll see a different world.”

And then her go-to phrase for answering all my objections: “It’s a God thing, Stuart—it’s a God thing. Examine the patterns of your life after me and try to break out of the ones that don’t work for you—and let the Spirit change you” She smiled. “Just imagine me looking over your shoulder, whispering in your ear ‘Get a pedicure, get your toes painted.’”

And so I’m sitting in a resort spa, my daughter in the other room getting a massage, and a voice whispers in my ear just as the pedicurist finishes wrapping a hot towel around my feet. ‘You’re not done. Get out of your comfort zone—get at least one toe painted.” I looked at the pedicurist and relayed the message, but went bold:  “When you’re done, paint my big toes—both of’em.”

She looked at me, her brow furrowed. “Is this a bet?” she asked. “What team?”

I smiled. “In a way—I’m betting on a future. And those painted big toes are the first step.”

The pedicurist looked at me…and rolled her eyes.

And the next morning, when my daughter and I walked barefoot through the ocean at the edge of the beach, we talked…and talked and talked and talked, about life and happiness and what it takes to recover from bad ‘stuff.’ In my head, the jellyfish were crowding around, laughing at my big toes. But in real life, they were completely indifferent; in fact, being both male and female at the same time, they had seen it all—and my painted big toes were of no interest.

“Your biggest obstacle after I’m gone will be what’s going on in your mind,” Sharon had said. “Focus on love, focus on God, on doing life differently.” And now the jellyfish were agreeing: Whether male or female and all points between, doing something out of the ordinary can bring healing and peace after walking through the valley.

“Walking through the valley,” should you not recognize the phrase, is the way the Bible refers to the low points of your life, those moments when your mind is numb, your body weary, and you wonder how you can keep going. But a healthy dose of faith, a willingness to step out of your routine and into the world, and—for me–the power that flows from those painted big toenails has been…well, positively spiritual.

Now, hand me that nail polish remover.


SHS TV Art-Oil Painting

“Hallmark channel?!” the professor exclaimed. “Are you kidding me, do you know how poorly constructed those movies are? Have you ever read an analysis of them, deconstructed them to the point of understanding just how poorly they fare as art?”

No, I said, I’ve never read an analysis of or “deconstructed” a Hallmark movie—or any movie, for that matter.  Nor will I, having little patience for analyses, words with more than three syllables or, say,  professors who are just warming up when they hit the 45-minute mark in a lecture. Life is short and often uncomfortable, and joy—a surefire antidote to the bad ‘stuff’ of life—can be an effort to achieve; so why invite more joy-stealers into your life, such as boredom and over-intellectualizing?

And I have absolutely no interest in deconstructing anything, I told him, except for a medium-rare New York Strip steak, preferably with sautéed mushrooms.

Well, he sniffed, you’re destroying your body as well as your mind.

And I smiled. I smiled because, you see, I regard television as true art, museum for the jus’ folks, viewing it with  the same reverence as my favorite theologian, Homer Simpson, who declared: “Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover!” So many of the problems of life are introduced through education and educators (university professors especially) who view popular television with the same disdain they reserve for bowling and tailgating. Life is so much more complicated, they insist,  than your average Hallmark movie with its happy ending, or a highly rated drama that wraps up in 60 minutes (42 without the commercials).

Nonsense! There is much to be learned from a typical Hallmark movie: Happy endings, for example, are possible, as is true love…and I believe in both. And so should you, if you want to recover from the unavoidable speed bumps on the road of life (hmm, maybe I should have taken up scriptwriting instead of professor-ing as a second career). And watching Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the hit drama NCIS provides a model for the stoic and confident navigation of all that life throws at you, from murder to angry ex-spouses and back again.

The lessons of great entertainment, such as NCIS or Blue Bloods or the average Hallmark movie: Life is as simple or as complicated as you make it…and attitude makes a difference. Cultivate a simple and joyful worldview, hold fast to Godly values, learn to smile after hitting those speed bumps and you will find it possible to work your way through to happy endings.

Want to learn about life? Spot the occasional rainbow? Recover after hitting a speed bump?

Watch television.

So, I’m on my way to spend some time with my younger daughter, Brittany, and do some father-daughter bonding…over pedicures.

Bonding is one of those things that we talk about but, at least in my case, had largely left to her mom and my late wife, Sharon. But bonding is what I promised I would do when Sharon was no longer with us.

“I know you don’t think that real men do girly things,” she said, part of the series of life lessons she offered before her passing from ALS. “But our girls need you every bit as much as me, and even more after I’m gone.” She adjusted her hospital bed to bring her eyes level with mine. “So you WILL bond. You will do things you never expected to do, because that’s part of what unconditional love is all about.”

And so I committed to rethinking my relationship with our girls, Brittany and Chelsea, and developing a friendship with her “sister/friend” of more than half a century, Nancy. I would explore Unconditional Love, one of the ten promises I made to her. Death, she said, brings “grief but it also brings opportunity.”

I shook my head. “Are you kidding me?

“Serious,” she said, and then giggled. “Dead serious.”

I rolled my eyes.

Remember “’love means never having to say you’re sorry’?” I nodded. “Well, love means never having to turn down a pedicure—you’re going to take my place with Brittany…promise?”

And so I promised, and committed to follow the principles she laid out for me, that I would live fully and well after her passing, and would share her approach to life with our girls and her sister/friend.

But a pedicure? I was apprehensive even as I committed. First pedicures, I thought, and then heels.. Slippery slope. Not good, especially as I’m in my second career, a professor at Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical Christian university. What does the Bible say about pedicures? Moses probably could have used one, what with all that wandering around the desert—but did he get one, say, before he visited Pharaoh? Not the first time I regretted neglecting the Old Testament.

But I committed to a pedicure in her place as the first step toward bonding. What next, I asked myself. Pink shirts? Painted toenails? The only other person I know who wears pink shirts is our department chair, and nobody says anything because…well, he’s the boss. And he doesn’t wear heels—at least not around the university.

Fast forward. Now, love for my late wife and a commitment to make the world a better place, starting with family and friend, has me on my way to a seaside resort to sit next to my daughter while someone takes a sander to my feet. And how exactly do you bond when a perfect stranger is clutching your toes and peeling your skin away from the bone?

The stuff of nightmares. Rewind. And what happens, I asked her, if I have a pedicure moment?

“Pedicure moment?” she rasped.

“Sort of like a senior moment,” I said, “But for a guy, with worse consequences.” What if I mentally drift, and allow polish on my toenails—am I still a man, can I remain a professor at a Christian university? Before I joined the faculty at Liberty I was a consumer merchandising executive, a tough operator used to leading—“you remember—a manly man,” I said. But now I’m a university professor…but, I mused, if any guy could get away with wearing toenail polish it would be a professor.

She laughed. Good to hear. “Go with dusky beige,” she said. “It will play off your tan. You tan wonderfully.”

Then, ever the devout Christian, she came through with a bit of Bible: “Fear not,” she said, bonding and giving, “even to the point of pedicure,” is part of unconditional love. Let unexpected setbacks “such as my passing” give you permission to break out of old patterns. In fact, all setbacks do.” She lay back, exhausted from talking. “That’s tonight’s lesson.”

And so, 11 months later, I’m on my way to meet Brittany and do the spa thing. And, the more I think about it, dusky beige polish would, in fact, play off my tan!

But most important: As that great theologian, Meat Loaf, with whom I once hit some balls before a golf tournament in Davenport, Iowa, the only time I’ve been close to a hall of fame philosopher, so aptly put it: “I would do anything for love…”

Thinking about God while in church—better, of course, than thinking about NFL football, which is what I usually think about on September Sunday afternoons. Or the New York Jets, which some might argue is not really NFL football.

Whatever. Back to God. The pastor was doing his pastor thing: Thank God for the blessings in your life, for when good things happen He’s blessing us. When bad things happen—well, you need to live a more Godly life. Look at how you’re living and try to get back to Him.

Uh, really? That does a disservice to God and a disservice to us. God is not an ever-present judge, dishing out punishments and rewards according to our thoughts and behaviors of the minute. God’s better than that, a comforter and Lover-in-Chief who wants more than anything for us to live with hope and assurance. Faith in God and His love is critical to getting us through the tough times—which happen, in varying quantities, every day to every one of us. . “Stuff Happens,” remember?

My first reaction, having been born in New York City and never having lost that Big Apple polish, was to…well, never mind, as I went with my second reaction. I muttered under my breath “Fuggedaboudit!” and followed it with an emphatic “Getoudaheah!” –which deprived me of the company of the row of seniors to my left.

So let’s bring it back to you and not just surviving, but thriving. Let’s do some real theology from a real God of real comfort. Do some Bible stuff, and take a look at Job and the other boys in the band, and read it the way it is meant to be read. Sometimes, when good things happen He is, in fact, blessing us. Sometimes when good things happen He’s not–it’s just life, where good things happen as well as the bad.

And as for the bad: well, God don’t do bad. I still remember my wife’s face when a visiting friend consoled her with, “Thank God that you’re important enough to Him that He gave you ALS—it gives you a chance to show us how to bear this burden..”You know the classic country song, “Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life”? Well, her eyes said “Dropkick Her Stuart, Through the Front Door of Our Home.” However, just her eyes—she was too gosh-darned nice to say it.

God doesn’t originate the bad stuff of life. That comes from another direction, down below, the same place that’s in charge of hiring coaches for the New York Jets. But stuff happens. And having faith, believing in Him can help in working your way through them. Prayer helps—but the best thing about prayer is it brings you closer to the ultimate comforter. That’s the God I know—the one who supplied the Bible quote that my late wife carried in her wallet for all of her adult life: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Living the years of uncertainty and terminal illness, watching her strengthened by the presence of God—she was a living, breathing sermon, teaching those around her the joy that a love of God offers when you’re undergoing the stresses and strains of life…and life’s end. He was with her in her suffering; He was not the cause of her suffering, nor is he of yours.

Which brings us back to church and pastors. As long as I’m doing country, if his sermon were to borrow the title of another classic country song, it would be “Your Head Hurts, Your Feet Stink, and You don’t love Jesus.” But the song I was singing under my breath was yet another country classic, “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd”

Nor on some days in some of our churches. Wonderful places, but at times not so much. But that’s part of working your way through “stuff.” Consider carefully the advice you get and understand that good people—like this pastor or my wife’s friend—can get things wrong…and you just have to use the discernment that God gives us to sort it all out…lovingly, always lovingly.

And sometimes, make sure to step carefully on your way out of church.