The alarm sounded last Monday as I enjoyed lunch in a Prescott cafe with Jerry and my sister Jodee. I had just bit into a luscious, crumbly cherry scone when the blasting, earsplitting, teeth-jolting noise interrupted the moment of cherry deliciousness.
“BLAHHHHHHHH, BLAHHHHHHH, BLAHHHHHH.”
I put my hands over my ears, as did many of the other customers in the cafe. The fire alarm kept blaring, “BLAHHHH, BLAHHHHHHHHHHHHH” and blasted so loudly the dishes on the tables shook. I didn’t smell smoke. I didn’t see flames licking the walls. I decided we had a false alarm and someone would turn it off and all would be well again, albeit with less hearing ability. Instead, the alarm continued as customers in nearby tables calmly pushed back their chairs, stood and joined a mass exodus heading out the front door. What?! We need to leave the building? My sense of survival suddenly kicked into gear. If this is for real, I’m not sticking around while the burning roof collapses on our heads. Look out everyone, I’m getting out of here! Jerry slowly followed behind with his coffee mug in hand, strolling as casual as anyone not worried about the searing pain of being singed to a crisp. Jodee exited casually as well, thankfully with both my purse and hers in hand. (Thank you Jodee. I’m grateful for your quick-thinking.) All the customers and restaurant staff stood in the parking lot, grateful to be alive. Soon, we we’re notified the danger had passed and we were ushered back inside. As we took our seats back at our table, a fire truck pulled into the parking lot. If this had been a real fire, the firemen would have arrived in time to see a smoking pile of ashes that was once a cafe.
Had something in the kitchen caught fire setting the alarm off? Maybe the well-done burger cooked a little too well-done?
“Was there a fire?” I asked the restaurant owner as she made the rounds, checking on her customers at each table.
She shook her head with a perplexed expression and said, “No.”
The act of being surprised takes us away from the same-old, same-old routine of life. It might be a fire alarm blasting as you bite into a scone, or a rainbow in vivid colors arcing over your house. Or perhaps it’s coffee that tastes so delicious your husband says sweetly, “This is excellent and so are you!” Surprise opens doors to new ways of seeing life. The kind of surprise that brings us a moment of awe triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical that can do wonders for our brain by blocking bad feelings. It’s good for us to be in awe of a rainbow or a husband’s compliment. Yet, while some surprises give us the dopamine moment, others give us a less pleasant experience, like the surprise of the-engine-light-flashing and steam hissing from under the car’s hood. It’s these kind of negative surprise moments that offer us the challenge. We can either resist it or see it as an opportunity to reframe it in a positive way.
Take the fire alarm, for instance. I now realize I may not always have Jodee with me in a crisis. Therefore, I need to buy a backup purse in the event of a future crisis, since it appears I will easily ditch my purse when running for my life. You probably expected me to say the experience made me appreciate life more, realizing disaster can happen when I least expect it. But no, I only appreciate scones more.
That said, here are other surprises I’ve encountered in the past week that I reframed in a more positive way.
1. While in Prescott, Jerry and I stayed at the Hassayampa Inn, a historic hotel built in 1927. I love historic hotels…but Jerry, not so much. However, he liked the price of $79 a night and agreed to stay there. When we checked in with our heavy luggage, the desk clerk told us we’d find our room on the fourth floor. In addition she said the antiquated elevator only works when operated by a member of the staff. She called Spencer, the bell boy. Soon a young man sporting a cowboy hat appeared, hoisted our luggage onto the elevator, closed the iron grill door, flipped some switches and we rode to the fourth floor. That was the last we saw of Spencer. From then on we were forced to use the narrow and creaky stairway as no human could be found anywhere near the elevator. “Why did they make the stairways so narrow?” griped one of the guests behind us as we trudged our way up the eight flights of stairs–two flights between each floor. Then back down the stairway for dinner. When we returned later, the elevator continued to sit vacant with no sign of human life. Jerry heaved a huge sigh and said with despair, “Back up Mt. Everest!” He looked forlorn as he began the eight-flight stair climb. I thought we might turn our lack of an elevator into fun. I suggested we yodel as we climb and think of the great exercise we’re getting. Oh-lay-deee-hooo! Well, I yodeled. Jerry did not. By the time we huffed to the third floor, Jerry mentioned in between breaths that in our future visits to Prescott I will find him at the Best Western.
2. With my upcoming trip to the British Isles, I need some warm clothing. The temperatures in the U.K. will be in the frigid 60s and here in the Arizona desert I have a wardrobe suited for the 100-plus temperatures. This means I only need as much clothing as considered legal. At my favorite resale shop, also in Prescott, I flipped through the shirts and pants on the racks while mentioning to the owner I needed long pants and shirts with long sleeves. She asked my size and then immediately pointed out a pair of raspberry-colored jeans sandwiched between blue and black jeans. The owner plucked the raspberry jeans off the rack and as I examined them I thought to myself, these are rocker jeans Joan Jett might wear. Maybe if I had a band and knew how to do some chord-shattering riffs on a guitar, I’d consider the pants.
“These are practically new,” the shop owner said. “They’re Christopher Blue. You’d pay $125 for these in any department store.”
Really? That much for jeans? I decided to at least try them on. They fit perfectly with a wonderful soft feel. Suddenly, the $30 price looked like a bargain and I had to have them. At home, I checked online for the Christopher Blue label and discovered the jeans start at $140 and go up $165. It’s interesting how a bargain will change my outlook. Now that I have rocker jeans, I want a black shag and thick eyeliner.
3. On the way home from our stay in Prescott, I asked Jerry to stop at a grocery store in Phoenix because we needed cat litter. Jerry came in the store with me so he could luxuriate in the store’s cool air conditioning. We grabbed the cat litter and lugged it to the Express Lane of 15 items or less. We had only one person ahead of us. We’d be out of there in no time. Then I noticed the lady ahead of us had one, two, …is that twenty?…uh, fifty?…well, ahem, certainly more than the 15 limit. The cashier had to be in his 70s or 90s with the appearance I imagine Santa Claus looks in the off-season. Santa moved slowly, scanning each item with delicate care. He didn’t bag as he scanned, choosing to make bagging his job after completing his task of scanning. The non-express lane next to us had twenty people in line, or at least four or five, and they moved quickly as we continued to stand and wait. Days passed as Santa slowly bagged each item. This is the kind of surprise I don’t like. My inner-dopamine meter did not move at all. I told myself I wouldn’t complain even though I had the strongest urge to do so. If the posted check-out sign had read “Annoying Slow Lane 152 items or more” I would have known what to expect. Sometimes surprises can cause irritation.
Thinking on this, I’ve decided to continue to work on tolerance for the less-than-pleasant uncertainties of life. I still struggle with this. It’s so much easier to complain than look for the moments that bring surprise and awe. And these moments are everywhere if I look for them.
Which reminds me, I love my new jeans.
Rock on, Joan.
“God put us here, on this carnival ride. We close our eyes never knowing where it’ll take us next.”
― Carrie Underwood
“Oh, that is the surprise. It’s so lovely, I pity you because you don’t know it…”
― Louisa May Alcott
“Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”