Twenty Cents

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I spent a short time today talking to a woman who was born in 1912. This 105-year-old lady was born almost fifty years before me. It made my day and I can’t stop thinking about the brief encounter, and one nurse said it made the old woman’s day because no one stops to talk. No one stops to talk!? I thought. That’s insane, but the truth is people are too busy to stop and sit quietly with a stranger. Me too; I just happened to be there with time to kill, and I became painfully aware of how important a few minutes can be. Lesson learned.

But driving away I thought about how the small things in life matter most; or annoy us most. In both cases, the big events are anticipated, planned for, and dealt with, whether the event is a birth, death, marriage, divorce, hiring or firing—we adjust. But the small stuff can kick us in the teeth or kick us in the ass.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (PS. It’s all Small Stuff) is one of the most successful books ever. But I disagree with the sentiment. Honestly, the small stuff is all that matters. The small stuff is the difference between service and “good” service; between a good day and a great day; a relationship and true love; on and on and on, it’s always the small stuff that makes the difference.

When people say “thank you” instead of nothing, or when they say “Can I help you?” instead of staring at you when you walk to the counter, they turn a brief experience into something unmemorable and forgetful instead of a bad experience. When you let someone cut in front of you in traffic and the other person waves “thank you,” it feels good and you’re more likely to do it again, or at the very least satisfied you did it that time. I don’t believe we should be looking for a thank you every time we do a favor, but it sure makes a difference. It feels good. And it is polite.

I can afford to buy food but the free samples at Sam’s Club are fun to graze. When I rent a hotel room I just need a place to stay, but thicker towels or a strong shower head make me stay there again. Small stuff. Free oil changes when I buy a car is most likely written into the price I paid to begin with, but not having to worry about laying down fifty bucks every three thousand miles is a nice touch. If I get to save five cents a bag by bringing my own bags to the grocery store, I want my twenty cents, dammit; I don’t care how much I just saved on Breyers.

Many people can do a job, but the one who gets raises and promotions is the one who goes beyond, and it might be in small ways—the extra thirty minutes early or late, the working with individuals, the overtime. In college classrooms 4.0 GPAs are pretty common, so the recommendation goes to the student who volunteered on weekends, joined the club, or tutored the weaker students.

When I was born this lady was forty-eight years old; not that much younger than I am now and I’ve lived a lot of lives myself. She was wheeling herself down a hallway by pulling herself by her feet. I was leaning against a wall and she paused in front of me and I said “Hello.” Her reply of “Well Hello!” was weak and less powerful for her lack of teeth and breath, but she was absolutely coherent. She wore yellow pants and the way she pulled herself showed ambition. When she was born the Republic of China was founded and flight was only invented nine years earlier. 1912 was the year George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, Dale Carnegie taught his first course in public speaking at NYU, and the Titanic sank. I thought about all that has happened in the more than a century since she was a toddler, and her head dropped backwards and she said, “I like flowers.”

Flowers. At the end of the day, she’s thinking about flowers.

Forget the big stuff—the house, the swimming pool, the convertibles, and the New Year’s Eve parties—it’s the laughter, the looking in the eyes when talking, buying her roses, making breakfast.

It’s Scotch on Tuesday nights, early morning talks about the news, taking sunset pictures at the river, putting on just the right shirt, fresh sheets, a walk. The small things make us laugh, or cry, give us hope or goose bumps.

I don’t think the forthcoming solar eclipse has made many people contemplate the power of the universe, but mention that right-handed people live on average nine years longer than left-handed people and everyone bolts for a search engine. It is the small stuff. It is the human contact, it is the personal touch. Saying “I Love You” is infinitely more common than taking the time to find the small gift that only you would know she’d like.

The short time I take in the morning to stop at the ocean and watch the sunrise stays with me all day. When I move closer to this woman’s age, decades from now, I want to remember those moments at the water, or picking tomatoes from my garden, or watching birds at the feeder. I want to recall the sound of my son’s harmonica when we travel, my father’s deep voice, my mother’s laugh, the incoming tide.

My ambition is simplicity, and my hope is that after a century of gives and takes, failures and fortunes, my final thoughts are about flowers.

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Be Nice

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I had a third grade teacher on Long Island who hated boys. This was not a secret; even my mother used to complain that the woman, whose name I long ago blocked out, despised boys. She would make us sit in the corner but never the girls, would never call on us if we apparently knew the answer but always would if we apparently did not.

And I remember once she said that boys who play outside are very susceptible to spider bites and that might be dangerous since it isn’t unusual for a spider to lay eggs inside you. In fact, she said, she knew of someone who had been bitten in the cheek by a spider, and it started to itch not long after the bite. It became uncontrollable until he ripped open the bite scar with his nails and hundreds of baby spiders crawled out and down his cheek and neck, but some had already crawled into his brain and he died not long later.

We were eight years old.

This can’t be true, I remember thinking. We live in New York, not Panama. The following summer my family moved further east on the Island into a new house in a small village surrounded by an arboretum, a state park, and the Great South Bay. There were bound to be spiders. Still, I spent most of my time during those years hiking through woods, climbing trees, walking forbidden trails to mysterious creeks, and building forts in the trees behind our house. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my life outside in nature, and I don’t think I ever had a single spider bite, let alone a colony inside my face.

But the story stuck. The following year at a new elementary school, I had better teachers who told us we could grow up to be anything we wanted, and nothing at all could stop us; absolutely nothing. Mark was going to be a musician and Norman was going to be a great athlete. I was going to play baseball. Unfortunately, I sucked. But no matter what happened, I always felt lucky. And I wasn’t afraid of spiders anyway; I just didn’t want them building canals through my dental work.

Who does this? Who so instills fear into others as to mark them for years, decades, to come? Nowadays, everyone. When I mention to my students that in my youth it was simply expected that we’d at the very least treat each other with respect, they laugh. They tell me in no uncertain terms that they believe they are entitled to treat each other how they see fit, and the funnier the disparaging comment, the more popular the person.

They call me old. Go figure. Students don’t have much hope in their future. Faculty doesn’t have much hope in students. The media doesn’t have much hope for our country. It goes on. And all of them attempt to outdo each other in securing the best sound bite to ridicule others. There are some days I long for a good arachnid attack. Still, I am an acute optimist.

I miss the time when people who didn’t agree were still somewhat respectful of each other. Such mutual acknowledgement of separate ideas would never be found on the playing field. It would be at the very least un-sportsmanlike conduct.

We make fun of each other too much. We ridicule what we don’t understand or agree with. We insult what we are threatened by. We manipulate what we need to win. We ignore our weaknesses and pay too close attention to those of others without stopping to say what we admire in others. We should change that approach. It isn’t working out.

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No Reservations

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Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be from day to day, night to night. I have been thinking these past few weeks about that exhilarating sense of waking up knowing you’re going to wander a bit and not deciding what happens next until you stumble upon it. A few years ago I lived this way in July and August every single day and night in Spain, and will do it again next year. Everyone should live this way at least once. Really.

One evening, Michael and I spent the night above a bar in Samos, Spain, and had pulpo–octopus–for dinner. Later that night a priest invited us to a private party and we stood next to four buffet tables of pinchos and wine, and we ate and stood on the balcony drinking wine and watched swans swim by in the lake behind the cloister hissing at the setting sun. Every single day outdid the previous one. I kept waiting for that golden moment, and they kept coming. Like that following morning when we walked to a nearby field and found a chapel from the 9th century alone in the mist, and some eternal sacred silence.

We slept on yoga mats in a hallway of an old church in Logrono, Spain, with seventy other tired souls after we shared dinner and walked through the basement of the five hundred year old building. For two nights we slept in comfort in the same hotel Hemingway stayed while working on The Sun Also Rises. In some small, old chicken village we stayed in a brand new albergue, which had no business being open yet. The floors and ceilings weren’t done, it was freezing inside, and the yet-to-be-inspected bathroom was three floors down. The only bar in town was closed so the owner gave us a few beers which made up for the thick dust everywhere. We stayed near Torres del Rio above a bar with fine food and a wading pool out back to soak our blistered and swollen feet. We stayed in an old monastery a hundred yards from a church St Francis of Assisi himself asked to be built. In Portomarin we stayed up as long as we could because the rooms were all filled. We hung out in a small café until 1am and then walked around the misty, cooling waterfront. Then we settled on the town square with covered walkways running next to a medieval church. Against some storefront we pulled together folding chairs and wrapped ourselves in whatever we could and tried to sleep in rapidly dropping temperatures. A kid on a bike did tricks on the steps of the church until 3 am which anyway kept me amused. At 4:30 we got out our flashlights and headed west. You can see a million stars in Spain at 4:30 in the morning, and the darkness makes the silence almost visible.

In O’Cebreiro there was no room and we nearly walked out of town to camp when a man waved us toward a back door at an inn and we ended up with a beautiful private room for practically nothing at all and just outside the door were a few tables on a stone patio overlooking valleys that stretched across Galicia. In the morning the fog sat below us in those valleys, and the sun came up like we were looking at the ocean until the clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue and the green hills welcomed us.

When we first crossed the Pyrenees into Spain’s small village of Roncesvalles, we stayed next to a chapel Charlemagne used and at night we went to the basement and spent hours drinking gin and tonics and talking to the innkeeper. In the village of Zubiri in Navarra, just before Pamplona, we stayed in a new place on the fourth floor and shard a room with a couple from France. We were all quiet that night. My son took pictures from the Roman Bridge outside our window. A few days later on the eve of the feast of Saint James, patron of this pilgrimage, we stayed in a small inn run by a single mom who made dinner for us, a woman from Madrid, and two men from Germany. We shared a delicious Italian meal and drank clay pitchers of red wine and talked about the distances. We laughed in three languages and despite someone snoring most of the night we slept well enough to leave an hour after everyone else making our journey quieter and more perfect. We didn’t worry about how far we walked or where we might stay. We walked and we would find a place. Like the fly-infested villa with tremendous views, or the albergue with dogs who insisted on sleeping on our laps, or the room above the garage with a killer bar at the street; or the stone building down some slope where we met some girl from Texas and a father and son from Amsterdam. After paying at the restaurant we drank the best hard cider in Spain.

In one neighborhood as close to suburbia as we ever saw, some couple opened an albergue in their house and we got the first two of five beds, the others occupied by a salesman from Madrid, a woman from Barcelona and another from Mayorca. We all had dinner on the back porch where all the flies in Spain gathered to join us, as well as a dog named Bruno, and the sun was brilliant and we slept well. Once, we stumbled into some tiny town, another chicken village, looked like a movie set for an old western, and we slept in the bunk room with fifty other people. In the morning we picked up a few supplies at their shed they called a store, but man oh man the lemon chicken was awesome.

Everything we did was deliberate.

Everything we ate was delicious

Everyone we met enriched our lives. It should be this way all the time. At home. Anywhere. We live in a phenomenal world for a disturbingly short period of time. It should always be this way.

Every single day for more than a month, and when we came home we slid quietly into the old routine, stumbled back upon a world where what was and what might be constantly drown out what is, where few live in the present, where few talk to each other. Where people stand around hissing at the setting sun, passing through life quietly, hoping before they pass away that they can raise their voices and just once join in one last swan song.

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Angel Appearing to a Shepard

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It’s Fourth of July week and I’m about to get older, and I’m in a café on the Bay thinking how I’d love for this place to be open at night, late, like 4am, and sit and have beers or wine and talk to strangers about where they’ve been, literally and figuratively. It kind of reminds me of a place I used to go to that burned down.

We called it The Shack because it had no name.

This happened about twenty years ago.

Just off the Gulf of Finland not far from an exclusive hotel but well in the woods was one of this world’s coolest bars—a dive really—a place to drink and sing and meet people you’d never want mad at you. It was small, with broken-down shed-like walls and windows which barely kept out the storm blowing off the Baltic one May night in the nineties. It was well after midnight and we ordered a bottle of Georgian Merlot and several plates of shashleek, a Russian shish kabob dish. A gypsy band showed up, including a guitar and violin player I’d met before along with a friend of theirs, a woman singer. Hours passed as we sang and drank. There were four of us, three of them, a waitress, the owner and his cat, and we sang and drank while what must have been that hurricane from The Perfect Storm slammed to shore. This duck blind of a building sat amongst birch trees, but that simply made me more aware of the weather, wondering when one might topple through the roof. It was exhilarating, an adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with the wine. It was being alive, right then at 3 am, with total strangers, live gypsy music, Georgian wine, and shashleek, that kept us awake. It felt dangerous, subversive, but it was just a bar in the woods.

The band took a break and came to our table and we spoke in broken Russian and English about the storm and how we hoped it wasn’t high tide soon since the water was just a few hundred feet west, maybe less. Then Alexi, a two hundred eighty pound drunk Russian who hated Americans started screaming at us like he had the first time I ever met him, the first time I walked in the place a few years earlier. He had kept to himself mostly since then, sometimes talking to me, mostly not, but this night something got under his skin and he screamed at me like he did that first time, “I hate Fucking Americans.” He startled me, but he had a drink in front of him, and another regular customer, a friend of the gypsy band, was sitting with him and told him to quiet down so he did.

But then I saw his eyes. They were deep and vacant, like he’d seen a ghost, and when he saw me watching him he stood up and said, “I hate fucking Americans!” and he tossed his beer at me. Sasha, the guitar player, stood up and yelled at him in Russian. But just then thunder, with a sound like the sky opening up and dropping two tons of hard earth on our shack, rattled the walls and ceiling and we all cringed. I thought for sure one of the birch trees cracked and was going to kill us all. I went down on the floor with my friends and the gypsy band, and Alexi cursed and fell against the back of his chair. He suddenly looked so small, and the thunderclap crashed on us again, this time blowing open one of the windows, and rain and wind sheered a path across our booth and against the other wall. Dima put his violin under his coat and our shasleek flew off the table onto the floor. The shack cat went for it but the wind and rain chased him back under the bar and into his bed.

Another flash of light lit up the shack and Alexi was trying to hide under his table but he was too big, and just as he glanced out the window on his way to the floor, he stopped and stared. I was watching him, and he looked out the window for some time, then looked at me, and with a nod he said, “Horosho. Horosho” which means, “okay. It’s okay.” And he looked out the window again when the window slammed back and forth. He grabbed it before it hit him and he held it a second, staring out over the Gulf. He looked at me as if to ask me to come see but he didn’t know how. Instead he closed the window and latched it again and turned and sat down. He nodded to me, “Horosho. Edeesuda.” It’s okay, come here. A few of us gathered and sat at his table, and Dima took out his violin. Alexi smiled at me, looked out the window and peered with a stoic face, then turned and smiled again. He looked at the waitress and said “pivo,” beer, and he motioned to us all so she brought us all beer. The rest of the night we laughed and sang songs. I asked Alexi what he saw outside but he just nodded at me and said, “I hate fucking Americans,” and we laughed and toasted and Dima played, then Sasha joined in and then the woman singer, and the beer tasted good. Alexi sat quietly the rest of the night.

The storm passed and the sky quieted down. I almost had stayed at the hotel that evening, turned in early, read in bed. Those are all good things, quiet ambitions which keep me grounded and invested in whatever happens next. But that night I didn’t. Like the time a friend of mine and I went Ghost Hunting at midnight at the Saint Augustine Lighthouse, or when my son and I sat up all night in the town square of Portomarin, Spain, because we couldn’t find a place to stay. One time a friend of mine and I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls and it took no longer than it would have to drive, but coming back wasn’t so lucky; we walked for eight hours along dark roads through small towns. But if we had been given a ride right away, I’m not so sure I’d remember we even made the trip to begin with.

Sometimes you have to stay up until dawn to understand what’s hiding behind the night. It’s the rest stop at three am with two truckers and a couple of local high school kids farting around; or the sound of wildlife in the desert brush, or tall pines scraping together in winter in the woods with no light but the moon. It’s walking up an Arctic Path at four am in snow-deep March with Northern Lights bouncing past like a bull whip; or lying on my back on a cot in a compound in Africa beneath more stars than could possibly exist, the distant sound of someone chanting the Koran. It’s walking out of a shack in the woods after a storm passed, the sun just lifting over the raised bridges, ears buzzing from loud live music.

On that night, we stood for a second in the quiet morning light, the four of us, and we watched the sun rise over St Petersburg, then we walked home.

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