Monthly Archives: August 2012

I recognized him the minute I saw him.  I was already seated several rows behind the wing, Writing Down the Bones ready in-hand to read once all the commotion of boarding ceased, and I spotted him at the part of the aisle where First Class becomes Coach.  He wrestled with a suitcase.  A flight attendant preceded him down the aisle carrying another, and even from this distance, it was clear he was exasperated.  Contempt curled his lip as he barked at the attendant, and a sheen shined upon his brow.  I’d had my share of service jobs – waitress, busser, hostess, dishwasher – and every part of me recoiled from a person who so openly displayed disdain for a worker.

We’d been told the flight was full, but the seat beside me – the window seat – was still empty.  The flight attendant continued down the aisle looking harassed. Please not me, please don’t let him sit by me.  Which of course he did. He heaved his suitcase into the overhead compartment then took the other from the flight attendant and tried to cram it in, too.  “Is there not going to be enough room for my stuff now?” he demanded

“I’ll find space up front,” the flight attendant said.  She would find space for his suitcase if it killed her, just to get him off her back.  She took the bag from him and started back up the aisle, her shoulders rounded from the weighty bag and from the berating.

He sighed mightily and watched her go, then finally turned his pale blue eyes on me.

Oh, I recognized him all right.  I didn’t know his real name, and I hadn’t watched the show enough to be considered a fan, but here in front of me, putting on a polite even affable social face and nodding to let me know he had the window seat, was Sergeant Renko, racist southern beat cop from Hill Street Blues, a show several years off the air now, but still popular in syndication.

I resolved at that moment that under no circumstances would I let on that I recognized him.

I got up and slid into the aisle so Renko could take his seat.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Sure.”  I sat back down and opened my book.  A book served to secure my solitude during a flight.  A book said Do Not Interrupt Me (Unless You Are the Flight Attendant with the Drink Cart).  So while Renko adjusted himself in his seat, and stowed his carry-on bag, and buckled his seatbelt, and unbuckled it again to get something out of his carry-on, casting the occasional apologetic smile my way, I tried to appear engrossed in my book.

Indeed, Renko opened a book of his own, Iron John.  Iron John was another nail in Renko’s coffin as far as I was concerned. I associated it with misogyny thinly veiled as a pro-manly-man agenda.  (An aside here to reassure some of you that I view Robert Bly, the author, with a more nuanced eye these days.)  And so, through taxiing to the runway, and hearing about what to do in case of a crash, and the usual exhilarating take-off, Renko and I read.

Then somewhere near cruising altitude, Renko let his book fall away and turned to me.  “What are you reading?”

When another person does something I find baldly inappropriate, it is a flaw of mine that I can withhold forgiveness, can cling to their transgression, even as their better traits come to light. I am somehow convinced at these moments that if I steadfastly do not forgive them, they will examine their misstep and try not to repeat it.

On the other hand, I am not rude. “Writing Down the Bones,” I told him.  I held the cover up for him to see.

“Oh.  You’re a writer?”

I said , “Yes.”

He sagged a little.  “What do you write?”  Where earlier his voice had been animated, it now sounded dull.

“Fiction.  Mostly young adult fiction.”

“Oh, yeah?” The liveliness returned.  “When you said writer, I thought you meant you were in The Business.”

“Oh, no,” I said.  “Just short stories and books.”  I paused.  “What do you do?”

“A lot of everything these days,” Renko said good-naturedly.  “Mostly I’ve been producing television, directing some.”  I knew this, actually, having read something to that effect in some LA magazine I’d read.  “Sometimes I act.  Hey, do you know this book?”  He waved his copy of Iron John at me.  His finger held his place.  He was somewhere around halfway.

“I’ve heard of it.”

“It’s great.  Bly just nails it.  It’s about how men have been restricted by masculine ideals from the 50’s, how those ideas of maleness limit men and don’t reflect their real experiences.”

“Kind of the male version of ‘the problem that has no name,’” I said.

“Yeah, like that.  Exactly that. We know something is wrong but it takes someone smart and brave like Bly to say what it is.”

We talked like that, easily, with enthusiasm, about Bly and Buddhism, writing and the creative life, men and women.

He never said, “Hey, I used to be on a highly successful TV show and was nominated for an Emmy for my role on it.”

I never said, “You know, actually, I do know who you are.  I’ve seen Hill Street Blues.  You were good.”

Wherever his fortunes once had been, Renko now flew in the coach section.  But he was still at it, still worked and found pleasure in it.  He was interested in his inner world, and he wasn’t at all put out that I seemed not know who he was.  He appeared happy enough to connect with me without his celebrity being in the mix.

Of course now I wish I’d said something – precisely because he was the sort of person who wasn’t riding on his past glories, the sort of person who is interested in people and wants to know what someone is reading.  I do hope he figured out how to be nice to service workers.

I also hope the next time he encounters someone who knows him that they say to him – with feeling – “Hey, Charles Haid. I recognize you!  You were on Hill Street Blues.  You were good.”

When I lived in Sweet Home, you could tell the boys who chewed tobacco from behind, even when there wasn’t currently a flat can in the back pocket of their jeans. Over time, the cans wore a faded circle into the pocket and told the tale.

I am reminded of this phenomenon as I notice a trend among one set of Portland’s hardcore bicyclists: among certain of them, when they bike to and fro, the preferred place for their Kryptonite U-lock is jammed into their back pockets.  Anyone who has seen a U-lock knows that it strains the capacity of even the hardiest jeans pocket.  Over time, this practice fades the pocket into a U-lock shape.

I suspect this trend emerges from a mind-set not unlike that of competitive swimmers, who were said at one time to have shaved their heads and bodies in order to cut down on the friction in the water and thereby improve their times. Those who pocket their U-locks are invariably the same bikers who have stripped their bikes to a bare minimum to decrease weight and increase speed.  They have eliminated such non-essentials as fenders and brakes in service of this goal, so no way would they attach a bike-lock holder to their frames.

I have no neat little summation today, except perhaps to note that I am always intrigued with how I can start with something like noticing U-lock-filled pockets, and find myself remembering the ring from a chewing tobacco can, and the single-mindedness of the competitive swimmer.  My mind gives a little sigh of satisfaction when some connection is made between two or more seemingly disparate items.

It’s happened again.  It is such a weird thing to have happened once, that for it to have happened again has left us perplexed and suspicious.

Three days ago, a small blue dresser showed up at the Free Bench.  It was so cute it seemed it would only be a matter of time before it would disappear.  So yesterday morning around 5:00 a.m., when I heard thumping sounds and a car idling out front, I thought that was surely what was happening.

I was not prepared for the sight that greeted me: the dresser remained, but where the drawers had been, there were now only gaping rectangles, revealing a less-than-lovely interior.

This rash of drawer-less dressers has led our house mate, Tom, to speculate that perhaps, unknown to us, drawers have become a necessary ingredient in the making of meth: two parts anti-freeze, one part ephedrine, and three dresser drawers.  Garth suspects one of my blog readers is pulling a prank (I defended you mightily, O’ Readers). 

I have no theory.  I am simply, once again, confused by human behavior.

Today I am sharing something (with permission) from someone else’s (Jessica Shaffer’s) blog because I liked it so much.  Enjoy.

“It was during a lunch rush.  I was waiting tables at the time and had a table of three, two men and a woman.  One of the men was obviously hurting.  He was in deep conversation with his friends and intermittently would burst into tears.  I gave the table a wide berth while quietly servicing their needs.  I had a casual thought that this guy could use a little perk in his day, and so I reached into my tip earnings, grabbed a dollar bill, and bought a sugar cookie from the bakery counter that was part of the café.  When I presented their bill, I gave the man the cookie and said, “I thought you might appreciate a reminder that there is still some sweetness in life.”  That was it.  They left.  I never saw the man again.

“A few hours later, after the din of the lunch rush, I saw someone carrying a tremendous bouquet of flowers into the restaurant.  I remember being struck by this image because the bouquet was so large it completely obscured the face of the person carrying it.  The effect was a swath of color and texture hanging as if suspended in air.  To my surprise, the flowers floated over to me.  The face that emerged from behind the bouquet belonged to one of the friends of the distraught man from that afternoon.  He took my hand and said, “These are for you. You have no idea what you did earlier today, but your sugar cookie changed the path of one man’s life.  We will always be grateful for the kindness you showed.”  Then he left.

“I was floored.  It was a moment of impact that literally stopped me in my tracks.  Here I had been wallowing in self-doubt, consumed for months by a feeling that I was floundering in life, and suddenly, a perfect stranger showed me that my simple, off-handed, $1 gesture had made a difference in the world.   A big difference.  And that’s when I started to understand in a deep and visceral way that things are not always what they seem.

“In my Reiki classes, I often talk about balancing the form and the essence of the practice.  There is a simple protocol one follows to practice Reiki.  This form is important and provides a container of support.  But there is also the dynamic essence of the Reiki energy which flows through and often transcends the form.  The essence is what illuminates the practice.  This balance between what we do (form) and how we do it (essence) is at the heart of everything.

“What I learned that afternoon over 20 years ago, is that the form a life takes matters, but only in that it provides a channel for the essence of something greater to flow through.  True, I was just a waitress, but that day, I touched a man’s soul by the way I showed up in my role as waitress.

“No matter what we find ourselves doing, we have the potential to be agents of grace.  We do not have to be “healers” to heal.  If we are aligned with some deeper place of flow, we can allow our quiet compassion and our humanity to peek through our day-to-day contributions.  Then the simplest act can impact those around us in profound and often, unseen ways.  And even a sugar cookie can change the world.”

In a chiropractor’s waiting room today, an elderly woman stood at the reception counter discussing her next appointment with her chiropractor and the receptionist.  She looked about 80 or more and had white hair cut so short I thought of nuns, only this woman wore a brightly colored shorts-and-blouse set, the skin on her arms and legs crepe-y and tanned.

The chiropractor pitched her voice loudly to make sure the woman heard her.  “What I’m saying,” the chiropractor repeated, “is that if you come see me on Wednesday and I adjust you again, I don’t want you doing any tumbling between now and then.”

“But will you have me ready to go by the 25th?” the woman asked.  “I have to be able to tumble by the 25th.”

The chiropractor shook her head.  “I’m not sure.  We’ll have to see after Wednesday.  But for sure no tumbling between now and then.”

The white-haired woman accepted this with mild disgruntlement.

I cannot help but grin to think of this again.

Yesterday, as Garth and I were leaving the house to go on an errand, we found three street kids hanging out at the Free Bench with their dog.  It was already pretty hot out.  The kids looked beat.  The skin on their faces had that sort of oily sheen and puffiness that skin gets when it has endured heat and sweat for days, and one guy in particular seemed a little befuddled in a way I associate with poor sleep and inadequate hydration.  The young woman held a coffee mug she’d picked up from the Bench, and Garth asked if she’d like some water in that cup.  She gratefully said she would and they came in the house together to get some.  I asked the guys if they’d like some, and brought some out for them as well.

Here is what I notice as I reflect on this small exchange.  1) I would have been friendly and welcoming to these kids had I encountered them on my own, but I might not have made the fact of their simple need for water conscious enough to act on it; that took Garth.  2) Once someone showed me the way, I naturally wanted to help.  3) And, still, it didn’t occur to me to offer them food, which they probably needed also.  Anyone who has opened our refrigerator knows it is always embarrassingly jammed with food, yet it just didn’t occur to me to offer some of it to them.

I am not guilt-tripping myself and asking for an emotional rescue, here.  I am simply struck by these very basic things that did not readily make themselves conscious in the moment.

I love the cinema’s Depression cliche where some traveler arrives at a woman’s door in search of a plate of food if he could chop some wood or do something for her in exchange.  She invariably promises rice and beans at first, then softens and gives him more food – which she doesn’t have especially a lot of herself.  How much more complicated these exchanges have become, how distorted by mistrust, small-ness, and block-headed clueless-ness, such that I seemed to need prompting to make the most basic of human offerings.

Several years ago, I heard an interview with Muriel Spark – or was it Mona Simpson? – who bemoaned what might be lost as we more and more only hang out with those people we are comfortable with.  Fewer and fewer of us live in the sort of small-town setting where, like it or not, we historically encountered people of all types from whom we could not fully escape.
I was reminded of this interview today talking to a client about her family.  She has struggled for years with her two older sisters who are not, despite her best efforts, interested in processing and deepening their relationship with her.  A lightbulb went off for me: family is now, for many of us, the only thing standing in the way of us entirely surrounding ourselves with people like us, with whom we have fewer conflicts since one of the reasons we chose them in the first place was because of how much easier it was to be around them than some of our family members.  There is something I like about this phenomenon.
At the moment, there is quite the discourse out there about how many of us only talk to people who agree with us politically, spiritually, etc. and how this has polarized us even more.  So, here’s to family: they keep our heads in the game like no one else and may be the thing that gives us the opportunity to stay flexible and compassionate.

A writing teacher of mine reported that writer Ursula K. Le Guin delighted in the letters she received whenever she published a short story in one of the various science fiction or fantasy publications that exist. She anticipated hearing her readers’ questions, challenges, and enjoyment; and so years ago, when she published her first piece for The New Yorker, she looked forward to hearing from a new readership. What she heard from that readership was a deafening silence. Not a single letter appeared.

This story made conscious what I’ve probably always known: writers don’t just like to get paid for their work, they like to know that someone reads them, too. So though I am compulsively resistant to sending anything that could be called fan mail, a situation arose recently that – urged along by the Le Guin story – caused me to rethink my stance.

Six weeks ago, I was spending a great deal of time on the “I suck” end of the Writer’s Continuum (the other, more buoyant end being, “I am a genius unparalleled”).  It felt relentless enough that once or twice I considered chucking this whole writing enterprise.  Then I encountered, in a months-old issue of Poets & Writers, a delightful, inspiring essay that returned some hope to me.

I basked awhile in the grace brought by the piece, then happened to glance at its author. It was written by none other than Marion Winik. When I moved to Austin, Texas in 1989, Marion Winik, was already something of a local celebrity.  She was a regular contributor to Austin’s weekly paper who  wrote personal essays that never failed to make me laugh. So when a new friend invited me to submit something of mine to her writing group, and mentioned that Marion Winik was in the same writing group, I was awestruck and particularly grateful to have made the cut.

As it turned out, Marion and I only attended two, maybe three group meetings in common – before she went off to have her second kid and I moved to Pasadena. But I continued to follow her career, from her memoir about her husband dying from AIDS and a subsequent Oprah appearance, to a number of commentator spots over the years on NPR, all leading to June of 2012 when her words uplifted me at a time when I needed them a great deal.

There was nothing for it but to write Marion Winik a fan letter.

I’m glad I did.  She said it meant a lot to her to learn that something she’d written had been meaningful in precisely the way she’d intended.

It is easy for me to think that those in the public eye are somehow Other, and Above the rest of us. But when Ursula K. Le Guin says it matters so much to hear from her readers that the silence she encountered The New Yorker readers soured her on it a bit, well – it’s a reminder that though one’s writing is hopefully not undertaken with the reader foremost in mind, to hear back that one’s efforts have made an impact brings about a satisfying conclusion to the process the writer set in motion.

Okay, not an Ode exactly since I do not have that talent.  But I would like to express my love of the Juice Glass.  We have a small number of mismatched ones, and they bring me great pleasure.  Each was chosen either for its pleasing shape (one is hourglass-like) or for how evocative it is of the juice glasses of my childhood.

I recently had occasion to think about juice glasses, and I believe I love them so because they remind me of the small, savored pleasures of my childhood.  We had juice probably twice a month when I was growing up, usually at a Sunday breakfast, usually orange, and always in a juice glass.  The size invited us to contemplate the transience of this juice, and therefore to relish its consumption.  And we did.

It was a shock to me, as I got out into the world more, to encounter people who kept juice in their refrigerators as a staple.  This seemed to alter juice from a precious commodity to something ordinary.

I drink juice often these days, though it  tends to be of the carrot-beet-ginger-apple or kale-celery-cucumber variety.  This juice invariably comes in a glass larger than a juice glass, but I still drink it as if there were barely more than a thimbleful of it.

I am grateful to the Juice Glass for helping me remember to take care with what I consume.  I don’t always take care, of course, but it is a good thing when I do.