Category Archives: Oddments

At Least

CalvinAndMom

From Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes”

“At least” is a mitigating phrase used to begin a response to another person’s expression of difficulty, distress or dissatisfaction. The phrase is often followed by a statement that minimizes the extent, importance or validity of another person’s unpleasant feelings: “At least you weren’t hurt when the hit-and-run driver totaled your car.” “At least you have insurance to pay for the things stolen from your apartment.” “At least you’ve got enough savings until you can find another job.” This is a phrase a listener uses when trying to discount the seriousness of another person’s concerns.

The phrase “at least” may also be used to try to lighten the tone when a listener is uncomfortable dealing with someone else’s difficulty. It may introduce a sentence about how someone else has had worse problems, or may lead to a joke about how much more awful the outcome could have been, both of which undercut the validity and depth of feeling held by the person who expressed dismay.

When a listener stays with the discomfort of the speaker for just a few more seconds and responds with an empathetic phrase like “Wow, that must have hurt!” or “That’s so frustrating,” or just “I’m sorry that happened to you,” the speaker feels respected and acknowledged. Allowing a person to sit with his or her discomfort for a few seconds and responding not by shutting the speaker down but by letting that person know that you wish things were different provides comfort, a sense of support and a validation that yeah, this is a cruddy thing and we all have a right to feel disappointment when things go badly. This fosters camaraderie and feelings of having been understood. This simple shift in response to another person’s difficulty can help those who express dismay to move forward feeling supported instead of thwarted or ignored.

People who use “at least” as a way to discount others’ feelings may believe they are lightening the load of others by being funny or by looking on the bright side. However, their unwillingness to acknowledge others’ pain without immediately providing a distraction acts as a distancing maneuver. Some feel that people who complain are weak or self-indulgent for expressing pain or disappointment. Those who find such honest expressions discomforting justify shutting down others’ expressions of difficulty or upset by telling them they’re lucky things weren’t worse. Those who are uncomfortable with honest expressions of disappointment say they’re just trying to get others to buck up and find their inner strength and move on instead of “wallowing,” by which they mean acknowledging and expressing true feelings. Some people who use “at least” to respond to bad situations with comic rejoinders may feel that providing comic relief will make others see that their problems aren’t as bad as they thought.

Either of these responses is inherently unsympathetic.

Sometimes those who rely on “at least” do so because they find sticking with their own discomfort too great, and they feel immediate awkwardness when others are suffering. Others’ complaints or hurts look to them like weakness, or remind them of their own vulnerability. Many people are terrified of looking weak, and they look down on those who embrace and acknowledge vulnerability in any form. Those who have difficulty showing empathy for others may feel scared of showing vulnerability, since for them empathy is a form of shared pain and thus shared weakness.

Instead of seeing that showing empathy is an essential element of diplomacy and building healthy relationships, and is something that leads to tolerance and peaceful negotiation in both private and public spheres, some believe that life is a zero-sum game and one can never let down one’s guard without risking defeat. They don’t understand that when we lend others our strength by being willing to help them shoulder their load, we build bonds and make others feel safer with and more trusting of us.

Those who lack empathy see vulnerability as a failing and sharing others’ pain as weakness. But true and lasting connection, whether between human beings or nations, comes from refusing to diminish the importance of others’ feelings, beliefs and experiences. And that means not belittling others by dismissing their concerns, whether on a national level or when speaking one-on-one. So please, no more “at least.”

Avoid Bullies During (and After) the Holidays

As the holidays approach, I’m reminded of multiple painful Thanksgiving dinners years ago during which I felt forced to spend time with a relative who repeatedly bullied me. She insulted me in my own house, picked fights with me in front of others and blamed me for actions I hadn’t taken and words I never said. Ultimately, I refused to be treated that way anymore, and stopped spending holidays with someone who insisted upon picking fights, telling lies and attacking me for things I did not do. Having to set boundaries with her and refuse to see her at holidays was very painful, but spending time with someone who claimed to love me yet also berated, insulted and lied to and about me was worse.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you are dreading holidays because you fear that you will be insulted or attacked, or worry that you will feel trapped and helpless, remember: there is no rule that says you must be with other people at holiday time. We have all been told that spending a holiday alone is terrifying and awful, and that holiday solitude means we are bad or worthless, unloved or unloving. None of that is true.

If you dread the holidays because you fear you have no alternative but to walk into the lion’s den and be eaten, know that it is perfectly okay to stay home (or go away someplace) and celebrate the day in your own way. You can be thankful and be a good person even if you eat a bowl of soup by yourself or with only your partner or immediate family, then take yourself out to a movie. You can sleep in and catch up on your novel, or binge watch your favorite TV show, or listen to podcasts while you do puzzles, or take a long walk with your favorite dog. You can eat spaghetti instead of turkey. You always have options.

The biggest concern about opting out of powerfully painful social interactions is often about how others will view you afterwards: will they shun you, punish you, talk about you behind your back if you don’t attend? They might. Your refusing to attend an event could cause a family rift. Not attending Thanksgiving with your in-laws or sister or dad might mean getting angry phone calls about it later, so there is a trade-off and a risk of future pain. But if you are miserable being with other people because they treat you with contempt or disregard, is that a healthy dynamic to perpetuate? If they (or you) become abusive when provoked, especially in the current political climate when so many of us are fragile, thin-skinned and worried about the future, engaging with others in anger after one too many glasses of holiday wine could be not only emotionally but physically unsafe.

If being with a person, even one whom you love, makes you feel sick, sad, worthless, angry or frustrated and efforts to interact in a healthier way haven’t worked, clinging to that relationship even though it brings out the worst in you and others can be very damaging. Being unwilling to accept another’s bad behavior just because it comes from a family member does not make you monstrous. Avoiding abusive situations is just good self care.

Depression is often exacerbated over the holidays when we compare what we think we need to feel fulfilled with what seems to be available to us. We may be reminded of past hurts, losses, shame and regrets, and they may overwhelm our feelings of love, happiness or safety. If you fear that being with certain people is not safe for you and will bring on destructive feelings toward yourself (or them), remember: you don’t have to engage. You don’t have to attend events. You can have a quiet holiday on your own without falling apart. Others may respond with hurt feelings, and you may have to deal with your own feelings of guilt (often not deserved) if you prioritize your own mental health above placating those who cause you distress. But if you’re an adult, you do have a choice about where you spend your time and with whom. Please don’t put yourself or others in harm’s way.

 

The Echoes of Careless Words

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My father, who was absent throughout most of my life, was a difficult and destructive man, and I was probably better off without him in my life for the most part. Still, like most neglected children whose parents ignore them, or don’t respond to their calls or letters, or don’t show up for visits and only call when drunk, I dearly wanted his love and acceptance. I wanted proof from him that I was worthy of love and support, and I did everything I could to entice him to visit me and help me feel that I mattered to him. Yesterday I learned through his own writing that what I feared most was true: I didn’t really matter to him. He didn’t miss me. He told lies about me and sullied my character in describing me to others so that he could justify his lack of concern for me to himself.

My father could be an awful person.

Although he died over two decades ago, I had never gone through the last small box of his papers until yesterday. I thought all that I had left unread were some newspaper clippings and some of his medical records—he had serious health problems throughout his short life for which I had always had great sympathy. I had often used the obvious pain of his disabilities as an explanation for why he self-medicated so frequently with alcohol and drugs. I thought it explained his withdrawn and angry personality. Yesterday I decided I would sort through these last few papers as part of the winnowing I’m doing of all my books, papers and other long-stored bits of memorabilia—why keep duplicate medical records and clippings, I figured? Sadly, among the medical chart notes I found a copy of a letter that I don’t think my father would ever have wanted me to see—at least, I hope he wouldn’t.

In the letter I found, my father wrote of his relationship with me to one of his doctors. He painted a distorted portrait of me, softened the truth about himself, and betrayed a coldness toward me and made ugly and wrongheaded assumptions about my relationships and behaviors that would chill the heart of any child.

Throughout my childhood I tried to prove myself worthy of his love and attention through letters, presents, cards, visits and earnest efforts to make him want to see me. I tried to be clever and witty, which he valued more highly than anything, but that inspired him to tease me about my erudition in insulting ways. He said he believed in thinking independently, but when I held an opinion that he didn’t share, he made mean assumptions about me and decided I was no longer worthy of his concern. When I finally allowed myself to show him five minutes of frustration and anger when I was 21, he turned his back on me and walked away while we were talking, then refused to see, talk to or write to me for four years. I found out later that he even refused to read the film reviews and humor pieces I wrote for Bay Area newspapers during that time. He would not take my calls nor see me when I went to his home to try to talk with him. He lied about me to his friends. And now, all these years later, I had to come upon these lies in written form, and see proof of his disdain for my efforts to contact him and to find ways for us to reconcile.

My father was abusive to the people to whom he owed the most in the world, and his volatility and arrogance caused him to behave in an ugly fashion to many lovely human beings. Though he was usually negligent rather than abusive toward me, finding his cold, self-serving and misanthropic thoughts in written form felt like a hard kick to the stomach. His letters of later years showed his depressive, self-absorbed, self-victimizing thoughts deepening and his beliefs about me becoming even more skewed and unreal. I know there was a large amount of mental illness involved in his warped views about our relationship (and indeed about ALL his relationships with family members and former partners, several of whom he physically battered).

I hope that the ugly letter that I found yesterday isn’t a true indication of his feelings for me in the long term. But since he left this horrible letter among his papers, all I have proof of now is that he was willing to harden his heart against me no matter how much love, kindness and openness I offered to him. All I can say with certainty is that he refused to show love, support or kindness to his only child, realized that about himself, and still didn’t think that my health or happiness mattered enough for him to send me a postcard or make a call for months, sometimes two years, sometimes four years at a time.

I understand now that his deadness of heart toward me wasn’t because I was unworthy of love, but as a child I felt that his love was entirely conditional. It had to be earned over and over. No matter how many songs I sang or drawings I made or letters I wrote to woo him, I would always be found wanting. I now have proof that my own parent thought me so unimportant that he felt moved to write a pompous letter to a doctor he hardly knew about his lack of concern over the four-year estrangement he imposed on me. In his letter, he showed no remorse, only surprise at his lack of feeling over having abandoned our relationship. I imagined during that time and during the decades since that he was at least suffering from our estrangement, as I was, that he was missing me as I missed him, that he thought of me and loved me, as I loved him. Sadly, it appears I meant very little to him for years at a time, perhaps for all time.

I have tried to piece together his mental lapses, his violent temper, his substance abuse and attacks on all the important women in his life. I see that he was mentally ill. All signs point to his having a classic case of borderline personality disorder. But when those with mental illness write of their ugly thoughts with such dispassionate lucidity that their pathological heartlessness is described with the emotionlessness and precision of a mathematical formula, it curdles the blood. That man was my daddy. I was his only child. How could I mean so little to him?

Sickened as I was to read how thoroughly abandoned I had been, the knowledge also frees me from trying to find something worthy and lovable in this man who caused me almost nothing but pain. For over 20 years I have taken comfort in learning of his kindnesses to strangers toward the end of his life, and of his willingness to spend what little he had to feed and clothe poor people who lived in the sad building in which he lived. He owed thousands of dollars to his brother, sister and ex-wives, none of them wealthy people, but he spent the few dollars he had to help those who had less than he did. I thought of his self-loathing and his desire to redeem himself by doing good to those who were worse off than he because he felt himself too debased to ask forgiveness from those whose lives he’d permanently scarred. But after reading about his willingness to sneer at me and at others in my family who sacrificed for him repeatedly, I think perhaps I gave him too much credit for the size of his irregularly beating heart. The pacemaker that kept him going for years was actually standing in for a heart that was more shriveled and more frigid than I ever knew.

I felt sympathy and love for him for so many years, and even if it was misplaced, it helped me to imagine and suffer when I thought of similar pain endured by others who were better people than my father. My compassion for my father’s miseries helped me to care more for others. But to feel more pain on his behalf now that I know how heartless he truly was would only be to harm myself. I will continue to keep my heart open to the sufferings of others and to show them compassion when they fail and make mistakes and inadvertently harm people. We all fall short, and we all deserve mercy. But it is no longer my job to elevate the father who repeatedly and sometimes violently dishonored our family, the father who brought shame and suffering and self-doubt to those in his orbit.

If you have among your possessions letters or diaries in which you or others share thoughts and feelings that would devastate those who come after you and find your words in years to come, please consider carefully whether you really want those words to be found and read by others, even if you are angry with them now. Words can reverberate through future decades and color others’ thoughts of you and beliefs about themselves for the rest of their lives. Those thoughtless words, shared in a moment of spite or weakness or frustration, can last forever and do great harm. Don’t let them poison the lives of others. I can never unsee the horrible words my father wrote about his relationship with me. And while I am strong enough after all these years to recognize that his abandonment and betrayal say ugly things about him and not about me, having to see his illness and carelessness in black and white afresh after all these years is sickening.

Please, if you have writings or other objects that would bring your loved ones great pain after you are gone, consider getting rid of them now, while you can. Finding such things among a dead loved one’s possessions can cause lifelong heartache and taint memories forever. Careless words can echo for lifetimes.

The Amorous Adventures of Bigfoot

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Above: A classic story of Bigfoot’s sexcapades from the late, lamented Weekly World News

There’s apparently a burgeoning market for a type of writing that could likely make me a tidy living if I didn’t mind writing sketchy, skeevy stories for money: it’s mythical creature erotica. I could even customize it for different localities and sell it in downloadable format on Amazon. Numerous enterprising young writers are making living wages by doing just that for an array of erotic niche markets: Minotaur erotica, troll porn, stories of hot and heavy encounters with dinosaurs and the ever-popular stories of scantily clad 40-foot-tall women running amok. (The market for stories about giant women is apparently surprisingly large according to David Sedaris.) If I wrote naughty Seattle-based mythical creature stories, I think the first one would have to begin like this:

“Brooke’s heaving bosom strained at the zipper of her olive green REI hoodie. Her pegged jeans were ripped and frayed, and she’d already lost a grande flat white AND a Teva sandal in the tussle with the eight-foot-tall beast. Drizzle was falling on the sculpture park, and the musky fur of the hairy behemoth who had dragged her away from the rhododendrons and toward the water began to curl in the damp air. She twisted and turned in the monster’s grip, and as he held her aloft, the big-footed brute was momentarily blinded by the glare from her septum ring which dazzled his monstrously large yet limpid eyes.

‘Ooook! Ook hmmmurgle’ he growled and grumbled, his breath reeking of salmon. He pulled her down hard into his chest, then fumbled for her iPhone. Grabbing it roughly from her hands before she could text her yoga teacher to ask for help, Sasquatch hurled Brooke’s last connection to civilization into Elliott Bay before he flung her over his matted shoulder with his huge, hirsute arms. Her asymmetrical lavender hair flew into his face, her tattooed fists bashed and battered his hot, hairy back, but he only grunted his assent: he liked his hipsters nice and feisty.”

But don’t you worry—in the end it turns out that our heroine and her hairy antagonist are just heavily into role-play. Brooke uses her safe word, her big-footed boyfriend respects her boundaries, and they put on vintage flannel shirts and then go out for Moscow mules and truffle fries at their favorite Belltown pub afterwards. It IS Seattle, after all.

Fluffy Mackerel Pudding

Fluffy

[A treat from the archives: this has been revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

In the 1970s, Weight Watchers and other companies created packs of recipe cards that they gave away with hideous giant plastic recipe boxes in order to try to hook gullible Americans (and perhaps Canadians, though I hope they had the good sense not to follow their U.S. cousins) into subscribing to a series of monthly recipe packs which arrived with billing statements and hefty postage fees. The special introductory offers provided a free recipe box and the first set of recipe cards in the hopes that the person ordering them (a.k.a. the sucker) would then get (and pay for) a new set of recipe cards every month. After a year or so, the sucker would have a whole collection of supposedly mouth-watering original recipes that would allow a hungry family to eat hearty, wholesome meals that would satisfy all their nutritional needs and cravings for just pennies a serving.

Once the vast majority of Americans realized they could get a free plastic recipe card box and 24 or so cards featuring scary color photographs of unappetizing food and then cancel their “memberships” in the recipe clubs, they were all stuck with giant awkwardly sized recipe boxes into which nobody could fit any of the recipes they might actually want to keep. I know this because I ordered my own giant plastic free recipe box when I was a child, and I kept it for years figuring I would someday figure out how to store actual recipes in it, to no avail.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a brilliant website with fabulously unappetizing (and splendidly captioned) examples of Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. (The photos and captions are also available in book format as The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure.) Whenever I return to the site in hopes of lifting my spirits, I always start my pilgrimage to Tacky Town with my personal favorite recipe: “Fluffy Mackerel Pudding,” the highlight of the “Convenience Fish” section. The name speaks volumes.

Next, I make my way through the pack to revisit other mouth-watering delights such as “Hot Wrap Ups,” which include a hot lettuce, pickle, chive, caper and celery combo, as well as “Rosy Perfection Salad,” an exciting little number featuring shredded red cabbage in molded purple gelatin. Who could say no to a brandy snifter full of “Jellied Tomato Refresher,” or a man-pleasin’ pan full of “Mackerelly“?

The “Fish Tacos,” which are completely tortilla-free, look especially  enticing with their shredded green cabbage, tomato chunks and some sort of chopped fish on a bed of . . . toast. And in the “Budget Best Bets” category, don’t forget “Frankfurter Spectacular,” a sexy little dish of hot dog halves wrapped around a pineapple core and garnished with carrot, potato and pineapple chunks. Between meals, why not fix yourself a plate of “Polynesian Snack,” featuring the excitement you can only find in a dish composed of canned bean sprouts, buttermilk, pimiento and fruit pieces. That’s snackin’ satisfaction!

For a peek at “Snappy Mackerel Casserole” or the famous tortilla-free “Marcy’s ‘Enchilada,'” you must check out the Candyboots Web site. The wicked captions on each card are the artificially colored maraschino cherry on the top of the whole delicious experience.

Want to make your very own dinner of fluffy mackerel pudding tonight? Here’s the recipe:

FLUFFY MACKEREL PUDDING

2 stalks celery
1 medium green pepper
8 ounces drained, canned mackerel, flaked
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion flakes
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon mace
Dash of ground cardamom
2 medium eggs, slightly beaten
2 medium eggs, hard-cooked, and sliced

Put celery and green pepper through a food grinder (or chop finely in blender). Combine with mackerel, onion flakes,mustard, salt, pepper, mace, and cardamom; mix well. Blend in raw eggs. Divide evenly into 4 (8 ounce) heatproof cups. Bake at 350°F (moderate oven) for 35 to 40 minutes. Garnish each with 1/2 sliced egg. Makes 4 luncheon servings.

For more off-putting recipe ideas from the 1970s, check out the Dinner is Served 1972 blog.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.

The Odd and Intriguing St. Vincent

Digital witnesses, what’s the point of even sleeping?
If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me
What’s the point of doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?

—from “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent

Annie Clark, who goes by the stage name St. Vincent, is an art rock musician who, like her sometime collaborator David Byrne, former front man of Talking Heads, is strange but appealing, disconcerting yet compelling. Clark is known for lacing her lyrics with multiple meanings. She says, “I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit. I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I’m sublimating that into the music.”

Clark grew up in Texas and still maintains a home there as well as in New York City. As a teen she was a roadie, then the tour manager and finally the opening act for her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, and his wife, jazz singer Patti Cathcart, whom those in the Bay Area know as the popular duo Tuck and Patti. Clark’s stage name comes from the Nick Cave song, “There She Goes, My Beautiful World,” which refers to the hospital in which poet Dylan Thomas died, and it’s also a nod to her great-grandmother, whose middle name was St. Vincent. She occasionally appears on the television show “Portlandia,” and her music has often been compared to that of British art-music stars Kate Bush and David Bowie.

In an interview in The Quietus, St. Vincent explained the thoughts behind “Digital Witness,” saying “Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior. We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress. In some cases, we have this total connectivity via the internet but if we are not careful it can actually disconnect us more than we know. I’m curious as to what that is going to lead to.”

Let Us Be Tender, Too

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“Sunrise” (detail) by Laura Grey

You never know what’s truly going on in the hearts of the people around you, or how much trouble or sadness they may be carrying. They may smile or joke, they may look happy or appear productive, but we all carry our burdens around with us, and some of these are much heavier than they appear. We may be private or shy or feel unsafe letting the world see how fragile, hopeless or sad we feel. Life can play horrible tricks on us, and our lives can be turned upside-down in a heartbeat, yet often we walk on, trying not to let others see the extent of our wounds. So let us be gentle with each other and ourselves. Let us give each other the benefit of the doubt. Assume that others’ lives are tougher than we know, and try not to judge others too harshly when they respond to us with more upset and sadness than seems reasonable. Life is unreasonable; hearts get broken; people are tender. Let us be tender, too.

Maybelle’s Copper Fixation

Maybelle's copper fixation

Maybelle hovered over her dishwasher, pleased that she’d coordinated her dress and apron so successfully with her assortment of Fiestaware. Of course the dishes were already clean when she’d arranged them in the appliance, but she so loved the constantly-changing array of cheerful colors that she enjoyed moving them from cupboard to washer to table multiple times throughout each day. And now that the colors were staggered just so and each plate was nestled against its neighbor for a morning nap, she had time to indulge in her special pastime: caressing her copperware! How it gleamed in her hands, reflecting her inner glow and bringing a satisfied blush to her cheeks. This was the life she’d always imagined. In her kitchen filled with metal cabinets, red Formica counters and fruit-themed wallpaper, all she needed to do was don her favorite hostess apron and lifelong happiness was guaranteed. Wasn’t it?

Print ad image circa 1955.

Reading Between the Lines—An Imaginary Romance Novel Excerpt

Bert & Myrtle

Bert and Myrtle caught each other’s eyes as they absentmindedly ran their fingers over the wares at the beach resort gift shop. Bert fell into a reverie as he imagined a private walk on the beach with the statuesque redhead in the jaunty giant-potato-chip hat. A connoisseur of oversized headgear, Bert longed to present the alluring stranger with the stunning conical striped straw hat currently enjoying her favors—nothing piqued his interest more than a carrot-top in a clown cap. Of course, Myrtle thrilled to the sight of a man in a spotted goldenrod shirt, and the hint of matching tortoiseshell hornrim spectacles in his breast pocket made her light-headed. She found herself terribly distracted by the way he clutched the blue wooden toy to the front of his elastic-waisted plaid shorts, and she wondered dreamily how a toy effigy of Paul Bunyan’s sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, had ended up on a Mexican beach? So intrigued was she that Myrtle had to steady her trembling hand against her elongated torso, hoping the straw handbag resting against her slim hip set off her figure to good effect. But just then Gunther entered the shop behind her—would he spoil all the fun?

Image by Philip Dormont, late 1950s.