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”


Add Craigslist Joe to your Netflix queue

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armchair travel: paris

parisForgive me.  I am catching my breath.

It seems like I’ve been packing and unpacking in front of my laundry machines all summer.  And while I have enjoyed each of my summer sojourns, I’m ready to sink into my overstuffed chair, put my feet up on the ottoman, and slip away into a good book.  Next week my oldest love will catch her first yellow school bus and ride off to sixth grade, and my littlest love follows soon behind.  This is my favorite time of year.  When the bustle and hum of summer winds down, when the light on the coast turns golden with the first blush of autumn, when the tourists empty the streets, and quiet descends upon me like a crisp linen sheet on a warm day.  From the comfort of my bed or from the plump of the sofa, I plan to take one last trip this summer . . . to Paris!

When they say, ‘That is not possible, ‘they mean, ‘It is possible, but not for you.’

The Chez Pannise-trained chef David Lebovitz has written several highly acclaimed cookbooks and keeps a cooking blog with scrumptious photos and recipes.  On a recent trip to San Francisco, I, of course, popped into several bookstores and stumbled upon his memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris.  In the book he writes about his early training in San Francisco and how upon the death of his partner he upped and moved to Paris with little more than a suitcase and a broken heart.  The opening chapters are hilarious, especially if you’ve visited the city of lights yourself, as he describes getting accustomed to the culture there.  From staging an intervention for a French painter who had trouble finishing up the job at his apartment to the endless lines and paperwork required to return a faulty battery, Lebovitz writes with humor that will make you laugh out loud. In short chapters he describes how to dine like a Parisian, how to dress like a Parisian, what to say and what not to say, how to navigate and negotiate your way through the myriad paradoxes that would make any prompt, tidy, rule-bound American burst into tears. The best part is that after each story he offers a narrated recipe, so I have not only been safely transported back to Paris, but I get to eat there, too!  And perhaps even better than that, there are no waiters slipping me their phone number with my croissant and café créme and no sturdy apron-fronted shopkeepers cooling me off with ice cubes or touching my hair as they exclaim,  oh la la.  I can enjoy watching Lebovitz annoy the Parisians and no one is trying to touch me or push me out the way. Not one eyeroll.  Non cést bon.


excerpts from Lines Are for Other People

Oh, were you waiting in line? more than one person has said to me when I’ve busted them for trying to cut in. No, not really, I want to come back with, I was just standing here in the supermarket with a basketfull of items at the register, since I had nothing else to do today.

In fairness to Parisians, five centimeters of space is equivalent to five feet of space in America. Leaving the slightest area open in front of you is seen as justification to slide right in there, so unless you’re standing genitals-to-backside to the person in front of you, you may as well put up a sign pointing in front of you that says, Please step ahead of me.


excerpts from Dining Like a Parisian

During my days as a backpacker traveling through Europe, I remember people staring at me as I yanked back the skin of a banana and jammed it into my craw, gnawing away at it like a savage until I reached the last nubbin, then tossing the peel aside.  Quelle horreur!

Watch a Parisian eat a banana: the skin carefully peeled back, the fruit is set down on a plate, then eaten slice by painstaking slice, using the tines of a fork with the aid of a knife.  I’ll admit that I still eat bananas like my primordial predecessors, but only in the privacy of my own home.  Outside of the house, though, I avoid fruit.  It’s just too stressful.


And to make you drool even more over this fantastic book, these are just some of his recipes I am going to test out:

Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds

Gateau Therese (a chocolate cake with only 2 tablespoons of flour)

Cinnamon Meringue with Espresso-Caramel Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce and Candied Almonds

Absinthe Cake

Oven-roasted Figs

and Proust’s favorite, Lemon-glazed Madeleines


If you’re like me and want a taste of Paris from the comfort and succour of your own home, save yourself a plane ticket and heaps of judgment and ridicule and just buy the book!  The Sweet Life in Paris is available from Indie Bound.


When they say, ‘It does not exist,’ they mean, ‘It does exist — just not for you.’

When they say, ‘We don’t have any more,’ they mean ‘We have lots more, but they’re in the back and I don’t feel like getting them.’

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