L’après-midi d’un étudiant de la vie

berkeley mealUnexpected adventures sometimes lie close at hand. My first intention was to follow a good friend’s advice and check out the North Berkeley Senior Center. I had resisted crossing that threshold into senior-dom but circled the blocks north of UC Berkeley campus and found a parking spot, duly registered, and even ventured into the dining room filled with a couple hundred seniors waiting patiently for a nutritious, if not gourmet, lunch for the bargain price of $3. I headed for a table occupied by three more spritely-looking women only to discover that they were all speaking Turkish, having immigrated to the US in recent years. The one English speaker was kind enough to engage me in conversation and generously offered me the homemade Middle Eastern salad she had brought to share with her friends. These women knew how spice up life.

IMG_1099 At 12:30 sharp, I headed upstairs to the Center’s library, stocked by a generation that knows good literature and history, to what was advertised as the “Mixed Poets” class. No one arrived. So instead, I selected a slim volume in French, deciding that I could improve my French with a bit of translating. But I needed to find a French-English dictionary (forgetting that my iPhone had a translating app). Where to go? I drove back over to campus and headed for the Bancroft Library reading room with its thousands of reference volumes at hand. Passing under Sather Gate, I was transported back to 1963 and my sophomore year of college. I passed Wheeler Hall where I had taken a French literature class. Actually, I had only stepped into the classroom one time but had dutifully read Madame Bovary and the other selections on my own. To my dismay I discovered that 50% of the final would be based on class lectures. So I had gone to the Bancroft library, grabbed the Encyclopedia Britannica volume on French literature, boned up and passed the class with a B+. I walked passed other buildings where classes had been missed, phony excuses for non-attendance made up, and last minute cramming had taken place. Once ensconced in the beautiful vaulted reading room, I spent a few minutes using my newly found dictionary to translate the opening pages of what appeared to be a mystery novel, but then remembered my iPhone and took the easier route.


Robert insisted I take only a photo of the hands of the maker.

But the most fascinating part of my L’Aprèsmidi d’un étudiant de la vie came before I even reached campus. Trolling Telegraph Avenue for a pair of earrings, my eye caught the table of an elderly (of course, I, myself, am not elderly!) gentleman, named Robert, who instantly engaged me with his bright mind, congeniality, and Irish gift of gab. A fascinating half-hour conversation ensued. He gushed that I looked like an opera singer, hopefully based on my flow-y outfit and not those extra pounds I had gained in Hawaii. I said I was a poet and he regaled me with his adventure about hitchhiking with the help of a couple of long-haul truckers from New York to California to hear Susan Sontag, the  radical American writer and filmmaker, teacher and political activist, read her poetry. Somehow Willie Brown got woven into the conversation. He talked about family, how only one granddaughter seems interested in his welfare, and where he lived and insisted I visit the next 2nd Friday Art Walk in Vallejo where he displays his wares.

IMG_1100Before our conversation ended, he insisted I take one of his authentic Gaelic bracelets as a gift. I thought of going to the ATM to get cash to pay him but then decided that only gracious acceptance was called for. The real gift was allowing myself an afternoon of being open to the small miracles that come our way when we keep our eyes, hearts, and minds open to what life offers. And, yes, I’ll return that French novel to the Senior Center library after I finish the translation. If I learn enough French, I’ll be able to understand what my three and five-year-old granddaughters are whispering about in the back seat of my car on the way to their French school.


Poems for recovery

powerpoetry_logo_0I had an amazing experience this week. After a year of social media exploration, accumulating over a thousand Twitter @docflamingo followers the hard way (thanking them, not buying them!), I found myself receiving a sudden flood of Retweets, those very hard to come by Twitter accolades. Were they for my novels? Were they for my travels in France? Or even my classic car adventures?

No…they were for my poetry, specifically my poems about recovery. I discovered that there are some very needy souls out there in this way too impersonal social media world, hungry for words that comfort, challenge, and bring about change.

So I have established a special page on my website called POEMS FOR RECOVERY devoted to sharing my own experience, strength, and hope. I will add more as each day passes.

I have had an early morning practice for the past six years of keeping a daily diary of my own recovery journey. I read a page out of one of my Twelve Step daily readers, re-type it, and then journal as I am inspired by the experience, strength, and hope of others. I find that angry feelings, resentments, disappointments, and grief simply fade away as each entry progresses. Occasionally, I have turned those written thoughts into poetry. Now I see that doing this simple daily exercise in written meditation is not only a help to me but succor to others.

shareI would love to see these shared. We never know who might need to gobble up a crumb of truth and hope today. How special it would be for you, friends and strangers alike, to share your own recovery journey in return. Your voice may be a lifeline for a sinking soul.

Does real conversation matter any more?

scientific americanWaiting in my chiropractor’s office, I picked up the September 2014 Special Edition of Scientific American on Evolution and read a fascinating interview with Sherry Turkle, a Sociologist at MIT. She asked an 18 year old male, “What’s wrong with conversation [vs. emailing]?” He answered, “It takes place in real time. You can’t control what you’re going to say.” Sherry commented that that is why a lot of people like to do their dealings on email–it’s not just the time shifting, it’s that you basically can get it right.

This struck a cord with me and made me think about pros and cons of using email as the ever increasing go-to for all forms of communication.

email typingMany, especially women, feel if they say it JUST RIGHT, that their listeners will better hear their message and behave or respond in a desirable way. Women have always rehearsed their speeches, read self-help books on communication, and sent long hand-written letters when they wanted to get their message across to a spouse, a child, or a boss. Now they email.

sendThe first problem that arises is that email turns even the most socially cautious person into an impulsive blabbermouth. A couple of quick revisions, if that, and our pointer finger hits the SEND button. And no more being able to fish poison-pen letters out of mail boxes with coat hangers. Emailing tends to disinhibit us. We say things in emails, usually off the top of our heads, that we would never say in person or even in a letter. We shout in ALL CAPS, belying our real timid mouse personalities. Our fingers tap out insulting and derogatory words we would never dare spout in public.

imhoThe second problem is that we begin to believe we have a real relationship with the person on the receiving end of our hyperspace missives. But they cannot hear the inflection in our voice or see the smile that says we are teasing, even when our emails are filled with a slew of IMHOs, LOLs, and OMGs. Nor can we see the smirk on their face as our words fall on deaf ears nor the faster than lightning move as they send our precious words to the trash bin hell.

The time delay (even the millisecond delay in instant messaging) prohibits a connection between emotions and words that can be so painful, or even delightful, in real conversation.

monkey keyboardSo with all its limitations and pitfalls, why are we as a nation and a world gravitating to email and similar forms of communication? Why are we allowing a brave new world of technology to degradate the one thing that most defines us a human beings, direct communication. We can teach a monkey to press keys on a keyboard and a remote voice on an iPhone can spout words at us. Sherry Turkle suggests that more and more people would actually settle for a relationship with “Her” of movie fame. Less messy.

I am the first to admit that email has often been the bane of my existence. Yes, I use it for convenience, but I also use it when I’m too fearful to speak the truth, when I think that a dozen revisions will make my words more acceptable or terribly enticing. I use it to force a connection that I know would never fly in person. I use it to circumvent my natural shyness, especially with the opposite sex.

email offendBut instead of making myself clearer, I make myself anathema, offending when not intending to do so, intruding where not welcome, badgering and manipulating, and then sending more emails to try to repair the damage.

What about blogging? Many of the same drawbacks but at least I’m giving you a chance to read or not read my pontifications. Yes, you can delete my emails without reading them. But who ever does that!

stutteringHere’s to real live conversations with all their hesitations, miscues, mumbling and stumbling, stuttering and stammering. Here’s to having a red face, a sweaty brow, and spinach between our teeth. And, most of all, here’s to precarious but precious moments of being human.