I’ve never been to Turkey before, and I really must go back and see it someday. Recently I was in Izmir to witness and celebrate the wedding of my son Daniel and his lovely Turkish bride, Dilek Uygül. I have a blurred impression of a stunning land, a complex culture, fascinating history, good looking people, and great food. But I can’t say for certain, as I was the Father of the Groom, a role of symbolic importance but little actual influence, like the vice president or English royalty. That I speak no Turkish only made me more ineffectual; I was the beloved but incompetent new relative who needed to be carted around, pampered, and fed.
The Uygüls’s apartment is on the sixth floor of a building in a newer part of Izmir. I was greeted by Dilek’s baba and ana (father and mother), Riza and Miyase Uygül; Dilek’s aunt, or mete, who sat cross-legged on the porch most of the time—Izmir is hot in July; and Dilek’s three brothers and her sister, so pregnant we feared she might give birth during the wedding, which didn’t stop her from making meals, carting things around, and dancing. The apartment grew more crowded with the arrival of brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends. Most of them spoke no more English than I did Turkish, and so I fell back on holding my fist to my heart, giving a little bow, and saying sağ ol, the informal form of thank you that was my only Turkish phrase. I learned to kiss the men on both cheeks (“Always go right first,” Daniel advised). I hugged and kissed more men in these few days then I have in all my years in San Francisco.
The night before the wedding was henna night. Two hours later than scheduled a caravan of cars arrived at the hotel to pick up the non-Turkish contingent. I rode in a car with Dilek’s brother and his girlfriend. We shared no common tongue, but it didn’t matter; the radio was so loud that only when the young woman changed channels did I notice that the brother was continually honking his horn as we sped through the streets of Izmir.
We arrived at the Uygül’s apartment, where we ate delicious home-cooked food and sipped Coca Cola. Traditionally, henna night is for the bride and her close female family and friends, but Dan and Dilek chose to have a larger party in the parking lot. Lights were strung from one apartment building to another and a band played and sang a mix of traditional Kurdish, Turkish, and pop music, while people formed a line and danced the halay, standing side by side, pinkies hooked, hands in constant rhythmic motion as we step, step, step, stepped, always moving right. The line grew and became an open circle, the last and first dancer holding a piece of colorful fabric in their free hand. We Americans were pushed forward and taught the dance on the fly. When we showed signs of catching on the better dancers tried more complex steps, at which point most of us pealed off and found a chair. A cute young woman from the neighborhood joined the dance and enthusiastically invited Dan’s best man, Chris, to join her. It reminded me that among other things, weddings are public fertility rites, a celebration of pairing off and propagating the species.
The style of the music changed. Daniel and Dilek danced alone, and having been coached by Dilek, I showered them with small bills, which young children working for the musicians instantly snatched off the ground. I tossed more bills at Riza and Miyase, Dilek’s siblings, and Pat, the mother of my children, and her boyfriend. Then the halay dance began again, while Dilek slipped off, returning a short time later garbed in a dramatic, sparkly red dress and veil. The women and girls gathered around and placed henna in Dilek’s palm. A woman put henna on my pinky, which I proceeded to apply to Dilek’s uncle’s shirt as we danced. I apologized as best I could, but he said (through an interpreter) that it was all right, it meant we were family. The police game and spoke to Riza, then left.
At 10:30 the day’s final call to prayer sounded. The music stopped, but no one appeared to be praying. (Some members of Dilek’s family are religious, others are communist, and still others are secular and politically conservative.) The call to prayer ended and we partied on. The police returned. A heated discussion ensued.
After the party one of Dilek’s brothers and the henna-stained uncle took Daniel, his friends, and me out to a nightclub. After a somewhat complex negotiation we were seated at a prominent table near the singer. We ordered a bottle of rakı and toasted the groom, family, Turkey, the USA, and life in general, while a steady parade of attractive women in skimpy black dresses approached our table and shook each of our hands. These women, I was told, were not prostitutes, but “companions.” I held on to my wallet and relied on my new Turkish relatives to defend me from the charms of the Sirens.
Back at my hotel I tried to sleep, but my internal clock was on California time, so I watched TV police procedurals through the night. My lack of Turkish didn’t prevent me from following the story—the body, the witnesses, the attractive detectives, the villain, the transparent musical cues, the crime solved, the hardnosed moral.
The wedding was scheduled for 8:00 PM, which meant it would take place at 10 PM. At the appointed time we non-Izmirites were greeted outside our hotel by a drummer and a man playing a zurna. The drummer blocked my path until I tipped him, and then we caravaned in our streamered, honking cars to the beauty parlor, where we picked up the bride and bridesmaids, all primed to bedazzle. Our noisy caravan continued on to Dilek’s parent’s apartment, which served as the symbolic fortress of her maidenhood. Somewhere along the way Daniel slipped me some of my own money converted to Turkish lira, and said I must use it to pay my way into the Uygül’s home. When I arrived at the apartment Dilek’s brothers blocked my path. I offered them 20 lira (“Is this all you think she is worth?”), then 40, then 60, then 80, and so on, until we reached an acceptable amount. Dilek and Dan made fun of this sexist ritual, but we all played along.
We ate until it was time to leave for the wedding. Arguments ensued over who was driving whom where, what route to take, who was leading. Riza was especially passionate. I sat in the front passenger seat, marveling at how he simultaneously rode the clutch and the gas pedal, cursed other’s foolishness, chain smoked, and drove on the wrong side of the street, fully committed to the rightness of his position. I also have a daughter—I could imagine what he was feeling.
The wedding was a blessed event. We danced; we feasted; I slipped the five golden bracelets onto Dilek’s wrists; Riza placed the ring on Daniel’s finger while I put one on Dilek’s; we danced some more; we hugged, and kissed, and hugged, and bickered with the restaurant owner. Exhausted, we left, a newly formed family.
As I was driven through moonlit Izmir I remembered Daniel just a few years ago, a tiny man holding my hand and toddling around the block, wanting to explore every corner and pick up every object. Only a few years before that I was the age Daniel is now, diving with my friends into the reservoirs that provide New York City’s drinking water and sinking down, down, while the moon shone on our merrymaking. Not long before that my father was holding my hand as I sleepily toddled down the hall to bed. A waterfall is cascading over me, drenching me, carrying me away. Tebrikler. Dünyadaki tüm mutluluklar üzerinizde olsun, Daniel and Dilek. I love you.
The sun rises over San Francisco. The fog rolls in. Night comes. Another day slips by.
I’m not sick, but I feel like I am. There was an explosion and I lost half my brain. I can’t focus. My appetite is gone and bright lights hurt my eyes. I am paralyzed by sadness, pain, and fear.
I’ve experienced grief before—my parents, some friends who died young, a divorce. But never anything this overwhelming.
On May 24, I lost my wife Kathi Kamen Goldmark—best friend, partner, love of my life—and now I can’t see how to take the next step. It’s been just under three weeks, but it feels as though months or years have passed.
I keep hoping this is a nightmare and I will wake up. I’ll put my arms around Kathi and we’ll talk it through. Soon enough we’ll be laughing. We laughed all the time.
Kathi was a superhero. Other people have their powers—the ability to fly, telepathy, X-ray vision, etc. Kathi’s powers were softer. She fought pain, sorrow, anger, and narrow-mindedness with kindness, humor, joy, and understanding.
Now she’s gone. Decisions that I thought would be hard are easy, while the simplest of chores are unbearable. The necessary trip to the mortuary was surreal, but not emotionally wrenching. Two weeks later, on the other hand, I have yet to go to the grocery store on my own. I need milk, but buying it seems like a huge issue. Not being able to call Kathi from the grocery store to ask what we need is too real. Shopping for one is too real.
I haven’t starved because I have been living on food friends have brought me, or dining out with them. Our friends and family are like a great cloud of witnesses watching over me, talking me through the rough times, carrying me until I can walk again, thinking for me until I can think clearly on my own. It’s as if Kathi is present through them, and the love she gave to so many is here, washing over us all, salving the loss.
Kathi was connected to so many different people and worlds, and there have been and will be numerous events to remember her, formal and informal, in the publishing world, in San Francisco’s musical world, in the non-profit community, online, in places high and low. She did not discriminate. One of those worlds was grassroots, live music. Last night, June 12, our wedding anniversary, I was at Los Train Wreck’s All Star Jam, the musical event that Kathi created with pedal steel player David Phillips. Because of her spirit and out of love for her, some of San Francisco’s finest musicians have shown up month after month for twenty years to back up singers and players both gifted and, well, less so. Befitting the woman, it was and is always a fun and somewhat wild event.
El Rio, the honky-tonk where the jam takes place, was packed. Virtually every performance was a tribute to Kathi—a song she loved or had sung, and others written especially for the occasion. And when it was time to end, bassist Paul Olguin led us in the great song by The Band, “The Weight,” and an entire building of people joined in and sang with him. It was a magical evening—one more gift from Kathi.
I said before that I am paralyzed by sadness, pain, and fear. But that’s not the end of the story. My beloved Kathi lives on through all of us whose stories became entwined and enriched, because of her.
It’s wrong that Kathi left us too early, but she was not cheated by life—not one bit. She lived each day so fully, with so much joy, that she managed to pack several lives into her one, too short life. Good bye, beautiful spirit. I am so grateful to have been your soul mate. You are amazing and I am forever changed because of you. I promise to keep laughing, writing, playing, and to share the fun. Thank you. I love you.
Due to a serious health battle, Kathi takes medicine to get her rest. Kathi is an extremely capable, talented, and aware person, but sometimes, as she is falling asleep, the medicine makes her say odd things. Or maybe Kathi has always said odd things, and I’m just catching on.
One night a few months ago, lying in bed, I asked Kathi if she preferred to read or watch television. She said she wanted to watch TV. “Babies read books,” she explained. “Grownups watch TV.”
Later, as she was dozing off, she asked me, “Do you ever park around back in your dreams?” I said yes, as this seemed the more productive path for the discussion. “Then you have to wait to get in your own dream,” she said, laughing. “I mean, who’s in charge?” This was the end of the discussion, I thought, but then I woke to hear Kathi, still asleep, saying, “That’s how it works. You park in the back and wait on line. You meet some nice people.”
Kathi: The people want to know if we need anything else.
Sam: What people?
Kathi: The people in my dream.
Sam: I don’t know how to respond to people in your dream.
Kathi: They turn into real people later.
Often I have no idea what we are talking about. This was the case when Kathi suddenly started telling me—well, I don’t what she was telling me. “I had this scarf, and it was the white Japanese lantern frame that bends in and out, but it’s really a person. You put it around your neck, and it’s the ‘you can’t go to sleep now’ or the ‘you can’t wake up now’ lady. But here’s the thing about the shoes—they come in a bucket, and they’re sparkling. You end up wanting to give them all away, but you’re not sure, and eventually they end up in the garbage.”
Sometimes in this state Kathi has good ideas (if you’re stoned), like when she suggested we could do a reality show called “Senior Moment” starring her 85-year-old mother Betty. And reflecting back on her stay in the hospital in Miami last November, Kathi complained that we had failed to take advantage of the availability of the bottomless Jell-O. “You could have a VIP room with all the Jell-O you can eat.”
Another time I woke up to hear Kathi saying, “Let’s invent a new game that’ll take the world by storm: ‘Naps vs. Apps.’ You could have smart-phone apps and napkins and the napkins would creep up on the apps and (here Kathi made her hand sneak up on my head and grab it) cover them.” I agreed this sounded like a winner. Kathi rolled over and went back to sleep.
Then there was the idea for taxis in New York, “little black ones that have Slinkies all over them—they could be called slaxis.” When I asked why we needed these, she had an answer: “They’re fun, they’re polka dot, and they bounce off each other.”
Two of Kathi’s most intriguing comments came while we were traveling in China and Indonesia on important national security business. One night she woke up and told me she had received a Message: “Go see Tovar in the Mission.” The Mission is a district of San Francisco, but when I asked who Tovar was, she had no idea.
Then, on the plane flight back to the United States, Kathi said, “What would you prefer—a camel that was an embroidered wall hanging, or one that was made out of tiles on the wall?”
“Well,” I improvised, “tile is pretty much permanent—but then, a gorgeous hanging would be something.”
Kath dozed again, and I thought that was the end of it. But then she said, “What if I told you it was already installed?”
“Well . . .”
“You know these things can be done from anywhere.”
“It’s a pretty magnificent camel.”
But when we got home there was no sign of the camel. Tovar—please get in touch. We need you.
Currently I am Misool Eco-Resort on an island in far Eastern Indonesia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t say this to brag. I say it because Misool Eco-Resort represents the best of humankind striving to find the proper balance between the natural world and—
Oh, who am I kidding. Of course I’m bragging. Why the hell else would I be blogging about where I am? I don’t blog about it when I am at the Safeway on Taravel and 17th in San Francisco.
Do I feel guilty about my boasting? You bet I do. Feeling guilty is nothing new for me. I feel guilty about something or other most of the time. I even dream about being guilty.
If only I could do something with all this guilt, like become a better person, or bring peace to the world, or generate piles of cash. But I never found any useful direction to channel my unending reservoir of guilt, which only made me feel guiltier.
Then I had a breakthrough moment while flying across the Pacific Ocean with my wife Kathi and our friend Rabih Alameddine. In a plane, that is. We missed our connecting flight due to a delay and were told we’d have to spend the night in Tokyo. As we made our way through customs, we became separated from Rabih. Kathi wanted to wait. “I told him we’d wait for him,” she said over and over again. I, however, insisted we keep moving.
“He’s probably ahead of us,” I said, based on absolutely nothing. I found a shuttle to our hotel and we settled into our room. We were just finishing our dinner when Rabih rolled in, tired, grumpy, and footsore.
“Hey—what happened?” He said. “I waited an hour and a half for you guys at the airport.”
I felt bad. Guilty, as a matter of fact. And there was nothing I could do about it. I apologized, as I so often find myself doing.
“Oh darling,” Rabih said, after I began to wear him down with repeated expressions of regret. “It’s no big deal. I like it when people feel guilty—it means they owe me.”
That was when we came up with a great idea for a new self-help technique. You know how gurus and creativity coaches encourage us to “go to our happy place” when we need a boost of self-esteem? You know the meditation technique that has you “go to your safe place” to heal emotional trauma?
Who are those people kidding? If we could go to our happy or safe place that easily we’d be there all the time. That’s why drugs and alcohol are so popular. But our guilty place—that’s a destination we can all get to in a hurry, with the exception of psychopaths such as Newt Gingrich.
And so a new technique for addressing tough emotions was born. Feeling inadequate? Depressed? Worried? Made a fool of yourself at work? Forgot someone’s birthday? Broke an expensive camera you borrowed from a friend? Spent too much money at the casino? Did a lousy job raising your children? No problem! Stop over-thinking it—just close your eyes and go to your guilty place. It is your fault! You are a bad person!
No need to waste all that energy striving to be a balanced individual—you’re not one, and you never will be. In fact, you’re an asshole. So run with it—or better yet, sit quietly with this knowledge, close your eyes, breathe evenly, and go to your guilty place. You’ll be glad you did.
We think our new “Go to You Guilty Place” technique could revolutionize our understanding of human consciousness. Barring that, we think it should get us on a major morning show. We’d love to help people such as Al Roker, Matt Lauer, Gayle King, Dr. Phil, and Barbara Walters feel like crap about themselves. The gold standard would be getting Deepak Chopra to admit he is a complete jerk.
Rabih and I don’t expect to be given a Nobel Prize for this work. We were thinking more like two or three Nobels—maybe one for medicine, one for literature, and that one they give out for peace. After all, we are just two humble men who are currently hanging out in paradise. (Did I mention we were at Misool Eco-Resort in Indonesia with a lot of really cool, influential people?) We are not creating a new religion here, though we think a good name would be Shameatology.
Are you in? Good! Your first assignment is to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. When you’re done, think about everything stupid, selfish, careless, or mean you’ve ever done and go to your guilty place. If you don’t get through the novel, don’t worry—just go straight to your guilty place. Basically, whatever you do, go to your guilty place, you stupid jerk.
Many job descriptions seem divorced from reality. They seek an employee who is both a great leader and a great follower. They want someone who is detail oriented and sees the big picture, with superb people skills and up-to-the-minute technological expertise; a highly-organized, serious person with a great sense of humor and loads of creative talent. They want a self-starter who needs no supervision and a team player who always follows directions. They want a well-balanced family sort with lots of friends and wholesome outside interests who will work day and night, year round, to complete assignments on time.
Many listings portray the work environment as “fun,” but they also describe it as “high paced,” which I take to mean you had better be a manic workaholic (or at least be able to fake it) who can laugh on cue. And of course you must be highly motivated, which makes sense, because I don’t see why anyone would want to hire an unmotivated person—or, for that matter, what an unmotivated person is doing looking for work.
Responding to these job listings and trying to make myself attractive to people I haven’t met, I find myself longing—aching, really—for real dialogue. And rather than bragging about how great I am and everything I can do for the organization, I’d like to talk to flesh and blood people about how we can work together to make the world a better place.
Working together with others to improve this world is, to me, a good job. It’s really that simple. I have lots of skills and interests, and I am sure I’ll continue to develop new ones. I’ve been developing new skills and interests all my life, and I imagine the day I stop will be the day I stop—literally.
My passion is making the world a better place. I have children, nephews, nieces, family and friends around the globe: I want to know I tried to do something for them, and for their friends and family. I love this world, and when I leave it (or rather, become mulch again), I’d like to know I spent my time here well.
Of course, a person can improve the world outside of work, and I think I do. But I am a working stiff—I need a job. I need to make a reasonable amount of money and have health insurance.
There are for profit, non-profit, and governmental entities that improve the world, and there are for profit, non-profit, and governmental entities that are degrading the world. I want to work for the first kind. Making the world a better place is good work. That’s my passion.
My current job hunt reminds me of another time when I was looking for work and I started to read the world’s most famous job seeking guidebook, What Color is Your Parachute? This useful book corrects many of the common errors of jobseekers and asks the reader to determine what kind of work they want and where, shows the importance of networking online and in person, asks that they create a self-inventory, write essays answering the question “Who am I?” ten times, expand on those essays, make lists and charts and write letters and climb a mountain and play badminton with a gopher (not really). There is no end of exercises in What Color is Your Parachute? to help you discover and pursue your true path in life. Eventually I found the tough-love, super-helpful regimen of What Color is Your Parachute? to be so exhausting that I decided it would be easier to just go get a job. Which I did.
By now you may be thinking to yourself, “How does a person live a great life in one easy step, as you promised in your title, Mister Smartypants?”
Answer: Get a job, doing good work with good people.
“And how do I get that job?” you might ask in your follow-up question. Unfortunately, I am busy looking for a job and will not be taking any more questions.
Wish me luck.
I’m not that old, even if my nineteen-year-old daughter Laura thinks I am. I say this because whenever I start talking about the time before Laura was born (1993), she rolls her eyes and make jokes about me walking five miles to school in bare feet through snowstorms, which, for the record, I never said I did. (We did ride to school on buses in bare feet through snowstorms, because shoes had not yet been invented.)
I bring up the past because unlike so many commentators I don’t know what’s going to happen next, so I don’t have much to say about the future. However, I do have some rather vivid memories of the past that seem to apply to the present.
One of the things I remember very well from the good old days is pervasive racism, sexism, ageism, and a general fear and loathing of homosexuals. There was a crackle of civil war in the air; many of our cities were burning; leaders were being shot right and left: from 1963 to 1968, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; between 1978 and 1980 Harvey Milk, George Moscone, and John Lennon were gunned down.
Now, a black man is in the White House’s Oval Office. Gay Americans serve openly in the military. Women work in the highest echelons of government, business, universities, colleges, and religion. And I think to myself, the United States has much to be proud of.
Then, listening to the news, I hear a group chanting at a Newt Gingrich rally in Florida: “Kenya! Kenya! Kenya!”
I wish I could say they were from the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism, but I am sorry to report that these idiots were stating where they want to send the president of the United States.
The idea of sending black people back to Africa has a long history in this country, but in the mouths of white people after Reconstruction, I think I am on pretty safe ground when I say this is simply the white racist’s solution to the Negro Problem.
I’m an optimist. I want to believe human beings will come together and solve the serious problems that face us now and threaten our children’s future. I want to believe that the American dream is alive—not the dream of a big house and a couple of cars, but the dream that we will continue to work together to make this nation more just for everyone. I’d like to think that we really are all in this together—citizens of one nation—and that when push comes to shove, we have each other’s backs.
But I have my doubts, and not just because of a group of fools chanting at a Newt Gingrich rally. That’s their right, even if they are wasting an important right (free speech) on an unimportant matter (demonstrating that they are really stupid). I hear a lot of unintelligent things said here in San Francisco about conservatives, or Christians, or people who live in some strange part of the country like Oklahoma or Walnut Creek. Prejudice is prejudice, whether you are on the left, right, or in the middle.
Still, that group at the Gingrich rally represents an alarming, old, but living penchant for racism in this country. Like a weed that won’t go away, bigotry rises again and again. And if whites can be racist, so can anyone else. It is not a good trait to encourage in a nation largely made up of immigrants from everywhere. There is a hard core of racially-motivated white people in this nation who voted against Obama because he is black and wants him to fail at all costs. That group is found on the far right and is doing grave harm to the party of Lincoln. They spout hatred on the airwaves, undermining the very quality that makes this nation great: the active belief that we can make the world better for everyone.
That noble goal requires fairness and balance, not venom and intolerance. The anger and hate that has become commonplace, whether it is aimed at a black president or at a conservative evangelical Christian, is thinly disguised fear. Fear is the enemy that we must face if this nation is to continue to grow into its promise of greatness. We must, as we use to say so often in my childhood long ago, be the home of the brave. We must be brave enough to make room for everyone. And everyone, last time I checked, means everyone—gay people, Christians, Muslims, women, Latinos, rich people, poor people, people who have done time in prison. Even old people.
For a while after her hip surgery, my wife Kathi Kamen Goldmark, aka “Scratchy,” was on a steady diet of narcotics. One of the interesting side effects of these painkillers are the ideas that enter Kathi’s dreams in the middle of the night.
Not long ago I was shaken out of a sound sleep.
“Call Hollywood Now! I have a great idea for a new TV show,” Kathi said. “NCIS Cows!”
NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. For those of you who aren’t familiar with NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles, these shows feature military cops investigating murder after murder after murder involving Marine and Navy personnel. To judge by these shows, the Navy and Marine Corps are infested with killers. If you are considering signing up, I would opt for the Air Force.
Kathi, her dilated eyes half open, thought NCIS Cows was a really great idea. “You could replace all the actors with cows!” she said. “Moo,” she added, by way of sample dialogue. “And chickens live next door in the ‘Chicken Shack.’ Tension ensues.”
“Great idea, sweetheart,” I said.
“Farting is methane acting,” she added, giggling. Then she went back to sleep. I was wide awake. Who wouldn’t be, after hearing something like this from his spouse?
Then there was the night Kathi woke me up to tell me her two grandmothers and two great aunts had visited her in a dream, all dressed in black, like they were there to take her away to the world beyond. This seemed a little scary to Kathi, and also confusing, since Grandma Clara was a fashion plate who would wear gem-tone colors with a matching purse, nail polish, and was never without her blue eyshadow. But the ancestors weren’t there to take Kathi away. Instead, they told Kathi they had a message for me.
“Tell Sam there’s a secret latch inside the cake, so when you jump out you won’t mess up your costume.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Kathi, who seemed a little disappointed by the pedestrian nature of the message herself. Then she rolled over on her side and went back to sleep.
And there was the family of circus bears in Doctor’s Hospital in Coral Gables. Kathi said the bears carried green parasols, wore little green ruffled skirts, and rode tricycles, and that they were there to protect the patients. Actually she didn’t tell me this right away—it took her about a week, because every time she started to explain about the bears she would begin to giggle uncontrollably. All I had to do was say “bears,” to send her into fits of giggles.
Admittedly, Kathi was on some pretty hardcore drugs at the time. But it isn’t always about drugs. The other day we were perfectly sober, driving back from Kathi’s new job at the Palo Alto JCC, chatting about a friend’s ex-husband.
“He was a handsome poet,” Kathi said. “He knew William Burroughs. But his career never took off. He was in my Poets Who Juggle event,” she added, thoughtfully.
“Poets Who Juggle?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she explained. “While one six-foot-tall woman poet read Emily Dickenson a bunch of other poets came on stage dressed in clown suits and juggled. Well, they tried to juggle. None of them knew how.”
“Huh,” I commented.
“I would do ’Poets Who Juggle’ again,” said Kathi, her eyes getting a little misty.
There were no narcotics involved with the juggling poets. It was just pure, unadulterated Kathi.
For me, the last few years have been an extraordinary mix of ups and downs. On the positive side, after eight years courtship Kathi and I married, and I had a book of my own published and then Kathi and I had one published together. On the other side of the balance sheet, we were each treated for cancer; and my job in publishing at HarperOne was eliminated. (Given that I was working for Rupert Murdoch, I suppose I should be happy that I wasn’t eliminated.)
I enjoy thinking about big, abstract ideas, like the meaning of life, God, history, and art. This may explain why I have made so little money in my life. I have tried to develop a reasonably coherent philosophy. But when I was pacing the halls of the hospital in November, awaiting the doctor’s report after my wife’s emergency surgery, I noticed a distinct change in the nature of my thoughts and feelings. I was no smarter or deeper, and my character was as flawed as ever, but there was a lot less of what might be called intellectual puttering and emotional frittering in my head and heart.
Crisis focuses the mind. My beliefs and passions were stripped of frill and fat, and my values and priorities were dramatically changed. The vanity of constantly measuring who is best looking, most clever, famous, athletic, powerful, popular, richest, toughest, and so on, was revealed as ultimately ephemeral. The competition for resources that consumes so much of our days seemed suddenly to be missing the point of life entirely.
Here’s what matters: the blessing of friends; family; good food; people checking in on each other; knowing that the people you love are safe; laughter; music; forgiveness; hope. And life itself—having another day.
Here’s what matters: being kind; acts of generosity; easing someone’s suffering; taking notice of the forgotten; helping the weak; making the world a little more beautiful, a little more fun, and a little safer.
I often daydreamed that one day I would be powerful or rich enough to do something so magnificently generous that all my petty sins and all my little hurts would be forever salved. Everyone would love me, and as for my enemies, well, I’d show them.
I will never be powerful or rich, and even if I was, I could never repay the miraculous gifts I have been given—life itself, second chances, the ability to read, and speak, and sing, and laugh. And love.
I have been showered with love, but I haven’t always believed this or noticed. But in the last few years, as Kathi and I have gone through illness and job loss, I have come to see how generous, kind, and caring the world can be. So many people have given so much, starting with my family, my brothers and sisters and children and cousins. But there are so many others—friends who dropped off food at our door or shipped us wonderful or whimsical gifts. Calls that came just when we needed one—people who came out of nowhere to offer their help, and hope, and comfort.
Sometimes the world appears to be filled with violence, cruelty, hate, lying, vanity, and greed. That world is real, but it is not the truth. There is a verse in the New Testament that says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When times are hard I sense the presence of a cloud of witnesses—the people who have walked this earth before me trying to be good, and the people who have offered a helping hand. I feel their presence now especially, and by no means only in the mystical sense. The witness comes in the form of a text message, or phone call, or email, or meal, or gift, or a hug. I swear I can even feel people who are pausing in their day and thinking about us.
This is my family—from my beloved kin to someone I met only last month—offering the support they can, taking some of the weight off of us and holding us up until we have the strength to hold ourselves up again—until we have the strength to pass along our love to another sister or brother.
I am a superhero. When I was little I wore my coolest pajamas and a towel cape pinned around my neck and run around the house taking on the evil villains who threatened my family and the human race at large. I did a pretty good job. No one was killed or maimed under my watch. As I grew older, I stopped wearing the pajamas and towel (in front of people), but as noted male psychologist Jerry Seinfeld has observed, many so-called adult men don’t see superheroes as fictional characters: they see a plausible career path.
But as we grow older, we grow wiser—no, wait, that’s another piece. As we grow older, we grow slower—physically, mentally, and in terms of superpowers. I noticed this the other day when my wife Kathi and I were hurrying to a doctor’s appointment. (You never see superheroes at doctor’s appointments. “Okay, Spiderman, turn your head and cough; and again; and . . . hey, what’s this sticky stuff all over me?!”)
Kathi is dealing with what we euphemistically refer to as a “health challenge.” She is recovering from a hip replacement, so her superhero power (attending thousands of social functions a week while maintaining a full workload) has been hampered of late. The upside is now, because of her titanium hip, she will have a new superpower—doing the dance known as “the bump” and sending villains crashing into walls.
Kathi was making her way down the stairs one step at a time to get to our Honda Batmobile, which we keep in our special Batcave garage. Meanwhile, I was bringing the various items we needed—her purse, my keys, my brain, etc. Kathi got in the car on the passenger side and I hopped in the driver’s side. Kathi then politely pointed out that her door was still open, so I got out and closed that, then hopped back in the driver’s side. I dug around in my pockets and eventually found my keys, then realized I had forgotten my cell phone. I ran back upstairs and called my cell on the landline, which helped me locate it wedged into the couch, which I had been sitting on, staying abreast of breaking television information.
When I was once again in the driver’s seat, I opened the garage and backed out. I did this very slowly, because we live in a 1940s era San Francisco home with a garage and driveway width designed for what I assume were very narrow cars. It takes real care to back out without knocking a mirror off, like I did last year. I checked that there were no passing pedestrians, because California law frowns on running them over, like I did last year (just kidding!). Then I navigated the even narrower passageway between the two cars that are always parked on either side of our driveway. And since we live on a rather steep hill and cars are always flying down the street, I put on my hazard lights, backed the car’s rear end into the street, got honked at, pulled forward into the driveway, and repeated this several times until I had the car fully in the street, per our superhero strategy.
Then, about halfway down the block we had this conversation, as we always do:
“Did I shut the garage door?”
“I think you did.”
“Are you sure?”
“I think you did.”
“I think I did, too. But I’m not sure.”
“I’m not sure either.”
“I’d better go back and check.”
I drove around the block, as I always do, took note of the fact that the garage door was indeed shut, as it always is, and then set off to the doctor’s—and, wherever needed, to take on the villains of the world.
Sure, Kathi and I aren’t the superheroes we once were. We don’t look quite as imposing in our pajama/towel outfits. We aren’t as quick as we were, and our memories aren’t as sharp; but like the tortoise, we will beat the hare every time, assuming the hare is stupid enough to take a nap in the middle of the race like he did last year.
But when that Bat Signal appears in the night sky, rest assured that we will respond with all due speed, as soon as we get the car out of our garage, which will be after I find my keys. However, if you have a crime problem during the day, we suggest you try Superman, since the Bat Signal doesn’t show up so well in the daytime sky, and our eyesight isn’t what it once was. And anyhow, we’ll be busy at the doctor’s office.