littlest gets the keys to the castle, uh-gain

We read to know we’re not alone.

~ William Nicholson, Shadowlands

Yesterday littlest love and I ventured out into a light rainfall for books and Betty’s Burgers.  I know.  What a perfect thing to do on a rainy Friday afternoon, right?  Well, when we get to the children’s section of our local independent bookstore, she notices a slim tall glass case with heaps of special books inside, books she loves like the hardbound collector’s editions from the fictitious Dr. Ernest Drake, renowned 19th century dragonologist.  These are beautiful oversized, jewel-encrusted books with pages of detailed “scholarly” notes, unearthed diaries and handwritten letters tucked into wax-sealed envelopes.  Pencil drawings and laboratory specimens like dragon scales and gilded unicorn hairs.  Imagine flipping through Professor Indiana Jones’ archeological notebooks and you’ve got the idea.  I have absolutely no clue what the books are about, but they are beautiful to look at and exquisite fun for imaginative children.

Littlest wants to see one of the books in the case, but there’s a notice taped to the glass that says, please ask a clerk for assistance.  So I send her off to ask the schlumpy shaggy man behind the information desk.  He’s casually talking to a woman with long silver hair in stretch pants and flip flops who looks as if she’s stopping by to say hello on her way to yoga or the organic farm.  I catch myself caught up in a Portlandia tableau as they both pause from their peaceful tête à tête to look down at her and smile.  The clerk moves out from behind the counter but continues to stretch his conversation with the woman into a reluctant schlumpy goodbye all while following littlest over to the case where he perfunctorily opens the door, takes the treasure out, and places it into her hands.  I’m caught up in this tranquil exchange, the gentle couple, the ease with which he moved from the desk to the cabinet and without any effort or even a glance helps my littlest love, when just like that!  Just as he turns to shuffle back toward his information desk a woman swoops down from out of nowhere and snatches up the book!  It was the clerk who caught me cheating!  It was HER!  Oh, no!  I thought.  What did we do now?  I’m here to buy books from you, the independent bookseller.  I promise!  No more Amazon.  Well this lady, she’s very calm and without a trace of humor, and people like that, you know, they scare me.  Sure, she has gobs of book recommendations, but all that thinking and judging going on underneath that center-parted mop of gray-brown curls.  Behind the blank stare.  We’re screwed.  She now has the treasure and looks down and says to littlest in a condescending voice, You know, these books are VERY special.  They’re collector’s items and not for looking at in the store.  People who buy them want them to be in perfect condition, so I will hold it for you and show you some of the pages.  Would you like that [little girl]?  Bwah Ha Ha Ha.  I knew in an instant, this was going to be good.

photo 3The book was called Monsterology and contains “scholarly” research on mythical creatures.  The persnickety clerk begins to flip a few pages for littlest, who starts in on her gently by recognizing just one or two of the so-called monsters.  Oh, is that a Kraken? she demurs.  The clerk needs to look and read a few lines before nodding her head.  Ooh, the Chimera . . . and look, littlest says pointing to another page, there’s a Hippogriff.  I watch the clerk take in littlest’s slight size and ask her what grade she’s in.  They chat about dragons a bit, and I can suddenly feel the molecules quicken between them as the clerk decides to walk us over to some dragon books she thinks littlest might like reading, but unfortunately she’s read them already.  With marked determination, the clerk adjusts her tact and heads for another shelf, maybe you’d be interested in this book?  It’s a slim illustrated anthology of Greek myths.   Well, littlest says trying not to hurt her feelings, we’re actually reading The Odyssey right now.

I could be dramatic and say the edges of the room blurred.  The din of the bookshop fell silent.  A beam of angelic light burst forth from the heavens and danced on their faces.  But they just stood facing each other there in the aisle surrounded on three sides by walls of books.  With all hint of condescension removed the clerk asks her, and what translation are you reading?  Robert Fagles, I offer from a few steps back, feeling a little self-conscious but loving it all.  Oh, that’s a good one.  I usually recommend the Fitzgerald for young readers, but Fagles is very good.  She pushes me aside with a returned gaze to littlest and asks her, how do you like the language in Fagles?  “I think it’s really poetic,” she says.  Now I’m starting to get used to what happens next, but it never ceases to make me smile.  The clerk takes the Monsterology book she had been keeping in her hands and says to her, I think you understand how truly special this book is.  I’m going to let you take it and look at it.  I think there’s an open bench over there under the window, and when you’re done if you decide you don’t want to buy it, just bring it back to me.

Immortals are never alien to one another.
~ Homer, The Odyssey

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seeking human kindness

People are overwhelmingly trustworthy and generous.  ~ Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

holding-handsSo as I mentioned in a recent post, littlest love and I have been reading The Odyssey together.  (Her idea, I swear!)  As much as this is an epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ adventures on his return home to his family in Ithaca, it is also a story of its people and their culture–the palpable interconnectedness between them and the divine, their sense of fate, destiny, their own humility and their obligation to honor one another with kindness and hospitality.  Part of the joy of any story is that imaginative act of being transported–and we are loving journeying through this mythical land of kings and goddesses, gilded palaces and warm Aegean breezes.  Homer’s seductive Dawn, with her rose-red fingers . . . .

So we’ve finally reached Book 4–the last chapter of Telemachus’ journey–and littlest has been attentively listening each night as Telemachus travels from one kingdom to the next in search of news of his father.  She loves the interplay between Athena and the mortals and I suspect enjoys imagining her in disguise among the courtly atmosphere.  And perhaps she’s even enjoying the language and the other-worldliness as much as I am.  The way Telemachus is cared for and welcomed. The way his hosts greet him with wide open arms and offer him seats of honor at their tables, the best cuts of meat, their finest wines.  Why, he’s even bathed and anointed by his royal hosts’ most beautiful daughters–and they don’t even know who he is!  He’s an uninvited guest–a complete stranger–and even when wandering into an elaborate wedding feast, the hosts drop everything they are doing and rush to greet him and offer him hospitality.  Help yourselves to food, and welcome! says Menelaus.  Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are.  Does that even happen anymore?!  I suspect if you crashed a wedding banquet in Beverly Hills today, you’d be swiftly escorted to the curb.  No Cristal and caviar for you, and certainly no hot oil rub downs so sorry Charley.  Buh bye.  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

We certainly have devolved into a culture that is immediately suspicious of strangers and selective with our generosity, haven’t we?  I don’t pretend to offer any theories but only know that, even though I like to think of myself as charitable and kind, I have grown hardened to that woman walking up and down the median with the sign reading Help! Need bus ticket home. Only $50 short.  I look in her eyes and see the dark circles of addiction.  A hooded sweatshirt covers her stringy hair, but I can tell she’s only about twenty years old.  A bus ticket my ass, I’m thinking.  And I can watch everyone else thinking the same thing, too, as they turn away from her.  We tell ourselves,  If I give her money, she’s going to spend it on drugs.  But as I type this right now I know that I should be more generous with her, that even if I gave her money and she did spend it on drugs, the gesture alone would extend some kindness to her.  And if enough people did that, maybe she’d grow more hopeful . . . .  But yet I never roll the window down.  She’ll just mock me and call me a sucker,  I tell myself as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot and head off to pick up my daughter from school, a brown paper bag in the backseat piled high with canned goods bound for the local food bank.  As I drive past women like her, I often wonder, if only she held an honest sign that read Forgotten: need drugs to numb the pain, anything helps, would I be more generous?

I think we are a suspicious cynical people when it comes to strangers, especially strangers that seem in the most need of our help.  We are selective and direct our acts of charity to known communities and organizations rather than to unfamiliar people, I think because we don’t want to feel cheated or duped or vulnerable.  Reading Homer with my littlest love is making me wonder if there isn’t some small way we can try to let go of some of that fear and be more hospitable, kind and generous.  To look at the Homeless Vet Needs Work sign and see instead, Lonely and Cast Aside.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Craigslist Joe, which was about this very notion of hospitality.  In the film, unemployed twentysomething Joe Garner decides to travel the country for a month with no money or car or cell phone contacts.  He vows only to use the internet swap meet site Craigslist to connect with people in hopes he will find work, food and shelter from the strangers he meets.  It’s a spiritual quest of sorts intended to test our capacity for kindness and generosity.  Now, Joe looks nothing like a wan-eyed meth addict.  There’s nothing counterculture about him–no tattoos, no piercings, no patchouli or dread locks.  He’s a clean, well-educated suburban kid with a cameraman in tow, not to mention a two-parent safety net and a living room full of friends to welcome him home after this experiment is over, so of course he’s not bound to draw suspicion on the road.  While this may be a small flaw in the film, I don’t think it detracts from his journey in any way because what you see much more than him are the strangers he meets.

His plan is simple:  he looks for community on Craigslist, and once he connects with a person or group, he asks for their hospitality.  He answers all kinds of ads–advertisements for free dance classes, calls for open mic comedians, requests for tutoring or soup kitchen volunteers.  He shows up and participates in the activity and then hopes he can find someone willing to put him up for the night and share a meal with him.  What you see in the film is stranger after stranger inviting him into their home.  He also uses Craigslist to locate drivers looking for travel companions, and these take him from LA to Portland and Seattle, across to Chicago and then on to New York, down through Florida and New Orleans, and then back to San Francisco, which I am sad to say is the only city that shut him down and forced him to sleep on the street.  In each of these other cities, he meets kind and generous people who shelter and feed him.

Are we at a place in our society with you know the technology of the internet and websites and human interaction where we can take care of each other? ~ Joe Garner

It’s a remarkable concept for a documentary, and as I watched the film, I was conscious of how each of his hosts seemed a little off the grid, some more so than others.  They were eccentric or lonely or cast aside in some way and perhaps in need of his companionship.  They were people I would be suspicious of–POWs as I have been known to call them– pieces of work I’d size up and dismiss as too much trouble.  But Craigslist Joe was forced to put his trust in them and opened himself up to their stories, and we see instead of their strangeness, their kindness and humor and generosity.

Some of their interactions were deeply moving.  In New York at Christmastime, Joe decides to begin placing his own ads for volunteers so that he can provide assistance to anyone who needs it, and one of the best portions of the film is a scene where he and another volunteer visit the home of a woman dying of cancer who posted an ad asking for help of any kind.  They have no idea what they have signed up for and arrive at her apartment ready for anything, only to discover she is not only suffering from cancer but is a mentally ill hoarder with quite a story to tell.  When you witness the kindness they show one another, it will remind you that these sorts of meaningful encounters can only happen if we put aside judgment and instead are open and trusting and generous with one another.  Because aren’t we all in some way, each of us, holding a sign that reads Seeking Human Kindness?

Craigslist JoeThis was by far and away the most inspiring experience of my life–the generosity of people–the stories they shared–the connections I made in one month were so deep . . . just meeting everyone and telling them my story and the journey–having people invite a complete stranger into their homes and feed me and invite me to go out–it was truly inspiring to know that we can take care of each other.  ~ Joe Garner AKA “Craigslist Joe”


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when the gloves come off

warning: there’s some unflattering language up ahead

I think it’s just me.  Is it just me?  I mean, do you never cringe just a little when the diminutive mother with a toddler clinging to each knee stands next in line at the bank rifling through her handbag muttering to herself, Oh for fuck’s sake!  Where is that god damned check!  Shit damn MUHthurrrFUCKer!  If I lost it . . . Jesus H. Christ and holy fuck fuck FUCK!  Oh.  There it is.  She turns to look at you smiling for sympathy.  Fucking hate that shit when you can’t find things, dontchyou?  And she’s not toting a worn out pleather handbag and chipped nail polish, either.  She doesn’t smell like an ashtray or cry out for a root touch up.  Nope. Elegant as an English rose and cursing like a sailor.

sedarisflamesDavid Sedaris writes about a similar experience aboard an airplane in his essay “Town & Country.”  He’s seated next to a natty couple he describes as in their late 60s and looking as if they’d just attended a horse show,

him in a cashmere blazer and her in grey tweed jacket, a gem-encrusted shamrock glittering against the rich felt of her lapel . . . . as I stood in the aisle to let them in, I felt the shame of the tragically outclassed.  The sport coat I had prided myself on now looked clownish, as did my shoes, and the fistful of pine straw I referred to as my hair.  Excuse me, I said, apologizing basically for my very existence.  The couple took their seat and just as I settled in beside them the man turned to the woman saying, I don’t want to hear this shit. I assumed he was continuing an earlier argument but it turned out he was referring to the George Gershwin number the airline had adopted as its theme song.  I can’t believe the fucking crap they make you listen to on planes now a days.  The woman patted her silver hair and agreed with him, saying that whoever had programmed the music was an asshole.  A cock sucker, the man corrected her.  A god damned cock sucking asshole.  They weren’t loud people.  They didn’t even sound all that angry really.  This was just the way they spoke — the verbal equivalent of the everyday china.

This was just the way they spoke, but why is it so funny?  To imagine a tony couple, silver-haired and manicured talking like guests on the Jerry Springer show?  I wiped stinging tears from under my eyes and nearly peed my pants listening to this story in the car, but I’m acutely aware that it’s usually just me laughing hysterically.  I mean, is grandma and grandpa talking shit on the plane even really funny anymore?  Do we even cock our heads and tune our ears anymore?  Do we even raise an eyebrow?

Last quarter I had a particularly charming if not vocal student who dropped the F-bomb during class discussions, in peer groups, in general conversations with those around him.  I was repeatedly amused at his cavalier profanity, but then again, why should I be?  It’s indiscriminate and everywhere.  I’ve strolled back from the beach with our parish youth group and been just a few paces ahead of middle school students engaged in similar ribald banter, in front of their adult chaperones — on a church outing.  And even my daughter’s ten and eleven year old giggly classmates give chase on the playground, calling each other douche bags with the toss of a ball.  Most parents wouldn’t laugh nervously or cringe as I did when I first overheard my daughter use this word in the backseat of my car recently.  It really is just me.  I’m an English teacher, and well, you know, I’m judgy and keenly dialed in to irony and all that.  But more than anything, words have a way with me.

Do you even know what a douche bag is?  I asked her.  I mean, do you really KNOW what you’re calling one another when you use that word?  Because when you find out what it really means you might think twice about using it again.  “Is it a bad word?” she asked with concern, because truly, she doesn’t like what she calls “unflattering language” and shoots me sideways glances if my television shows contain an off remark or modest show of affection.  Well, not really, it’s kind of a funny word I guess.  And here’s where most people would stop.  They’d let it go.  I mean, come on.  The kid doesn’t even know what it means, so what’s the harm, right?  But see, I can’t let it go because that word is having its way with me and so I’m picturing four foot boxes of Summer’s Eve Feminine Wash running around on the blacktop, and on top of that I’m thinking about what kinds of women actually buy those boxes, too, and I’m giggling nervously and appalled at the same time and so I proceed to tell her, A douche is a vagina cleaner.  “A VAGINA CLEANER?!  GROSS!!!!”  And after a few seconds the laughter subsides when she asks, “But . . . what’s the bag for?”  Well that would be what you put the cleaner in before you squirt. it. in. to. your. vagina!  “GROSS!!” she screams.  “That is so DISGUSTING!”

I’m not sure what’s more disgusting, though, me describing this to my littlest love or the fact her friends blithely kick these terms around to our amusement.  It is funny to me.  I do laugh at my f***ing student, at my daughter and her friends.  But I’m also drawn more and more to Audrey Hepburn movies, to Nora Ephron and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  To humor softened with grace and dignity and charm . . . the gloves are off everywhere you go, the waltz is over, and suddenly I find myself that tsk tsking old lady shooing those rascally kids off the front porch with a sweep of her folded up Reader’s Digest.  I am THAT lady.  Me!

And yet can we blame our kids for picking up foul language when it’s become the primary means of artistic expression?  It’s woven into so much of our popular culture, in music and storytelling that seems more and more designed to shock and horrify than anything else.

This past week Showtime launched a media campaign for their new series, HAPPYish, billed as a dark satirical comedy starring the brilliantly deadpan British humorist Steve Coogan (A Trip to Italy, Philomena).  I love Steve Coogan, I love British humor, and I love quirky dark comedy (Election, There’s Something About Mary).  One quiet evening last week, while everyone was downstairs getting ready for bed, I popped a bag of microwave popcorn, settled myself on the couch and reached for the remote when I stumbled upon this show and didn’t think twice before . . . CLICK!

After a brief trailer promoting another Showtime series, the screen cuts away to an image of Mt. Rushmore.  A digitally drawn arrow points to one of the chiseled presidents and Coogan begins this off screen monologue,

This is Thomas Jefferson, founding father of my adopted home of America, which I love with all my heart.  But then, FUCK, he had to go and write that line: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Life, sure.  Liberty, I understand the basic concept.  But happiness?  I mean, What the fuck is happiness? . . . A BMW?  A thousand Facebook friends?  A million Twitter followers?  I wish he’d been more honest.  I wish he’d just said Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness whatever the fuck that is.  Just don’t keep us guessing Tom.  Guessing and pursuing and failing . . . FUCK YOU Thomas Jefferson!

And it was all downhill from there.  More bad, derivative writing.  More profanity.  So not funny.  Not even FUNNYish, but I’m not in the best position to stand by that assessment because I stopped watching after ten minutes.  That’s all I could take.  Coogan and Hahn play a progressive middle aged couple with what looks like a five year old son cast no doubt for his adorable inability to make Rs.  The opening scene has the family gathered around a birthday cake in their woodsy New England home, pissing and moaning about middle age with another equally whiny couple and their young son, who in the first few minutes both the dads call an asshole, a fucking asshole.  As they all laugh and contemplate his doomed fate, the boy’s parents eventually agree they’d be happy if he just turns out to be an average prick.  A run of the mill dick, the stepdad says.  When Coogan wonders if his own boy might turn out to be a pussy instead, his wife shrugs over the dishwater and says, Well. I would rather have an asshole than a pussy.  With the opening credits still fading in at the 3 minute 55 second mark, I’m cringing and wondering if the television isn’t turned up too loud.

Like the couple in the Sedaris story, this was just they way they spoke, about assholes and pussies and shit.  And I know the show’s supposed to be about disillusionment, the yawing malcontents looking around and wondering, is this all there is?  I get that.  And I suspect the writers want the show to be edgy and cool and shocking, but how miserable.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m no June Cleaver by any means.  I’m only sighing is all, and wondering if you are, too.

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