Greetings from California and Oregon,
How I’m doing
I’m like a bouncing ball — A week in California, a couple weeks in Portland, then some weeks in California, all of it scheduled mainly around medical tests and procedures. Now I just arrived in Portland again. where autumn is in full display.
The picture, taken on Tuesday, shows downtown Portland from the west, with the Willamette River beyond. Across the River, follow a diagonally-oriented street up to the left. That’s Sandy Boulevard. We live just off it, about eighty blocks from downtown.
In Portland this week, the vampires drew my blood, and the needlers injected a mysterious liquid into my hip. And on Saturday, they’ll take a CAT scan. Then on November 22, I’ll meet my new oncologist, who will tell me what. I’m so nervous that it might be bad. We’ll see, I guess.
Meanwhile, my toes have stopped losing their numbness. I guess it really is something I’m just going to have to live with. And meanwhile, my mother is hanging in there. My sister and I let her take us to lunch on Tuesday this week. I snapped the photo at left.
In psychology, a “significant other” is an influential person through whom one can grow. A long time ago my friend Tamara told me that at one point I had been something like that to her. I rejoiced to hear it because she meant a lot to me. Any way that I could contribute to her life was a blessing to me, too.
Well, now I’m in a position where I need such significant others to help me grow, to help me unlock the emotional walls that I constructed over the years and now leave me trapped.
In California, such friends are blessedly close to hand. Here are five of them, whom I invited to dinner so they could meet the others that, unbeknownst, had also been supporting me for a half century on the other side of one of my emotional walls.
On the left, reflecting my musical side are Eileen & Mark ((French Horn & Baritone Horn). And yes, musicians actually do assume personal identities based upon the instruments that they play. I played saxophone. That’s why I’m so incredibly hip.
Eileen and I played in the same high school music program back in 1966, and shared all the musical sorrows and joys of participating in every form of musical organization that our high school could devise, from marching band to orchestra, from rally band to Broadway pit band. Certainly if ever I forgot how to be joyful, I could get a clue from her.
On the right, reflecting my pedagogical side, are Karen & Jim. Yes, I did live in the same dormitory in Davis as Karen back in 1969. But their main significance to me now relates to the fact that in Hayward I taught their two kids, who bore up under the stress of my classroom in 1988-1990 and 1992 -1994. Karen was one of those “super parents” who creatively went far beyond any common level of classroom support, such as making me an autograph book shaped like the Irish cap that I wore everywhere back in those days and filling it with messages from the students.
And in the center sits Ric, who reflects my church side. In fact I met Ric and Carolyn in 1980 at the First Baptist Church in Castro Valley. Over the years, they and their kids were like an extended family to me, a family with a shared faith, who improvised Bible studies, were addicted to literature and game playing, who always included me on holiday meals, took me trick-or-treating (yes, they did!), accompanied me bird-watching, celebrated all my birthdays, took me square-dancing, went camping together, helped hammer my classroom together, and so many etc.’s
I could have invited more people, but it wasn’t practical. Whenever I return to Castro Valley I’ll pick up where I left off.
All these people were critical to my life for the past half century, and they live just a few miles from each other. How could they not know each other? (he asked rhetorically). The three domains that they represent I had walled off from each other. But I kept the key, so now I can introduce them to each other and also to you. They and others help me to heal emotionally, to be comfortable with vulnerability and open expression, so eventually I can safely “throw away the key” altogether, leaving all the walls wide open. It’s something that I cannot put off any more, like I have for the last half a century. My mortality has told me this.
Training in Vulnerability
There’s nothing like a confrontation with one’s mortality to remind one that if one wants to accomplish something in this life, there’s probably less time available for it than one might think.
For me, I want to stitch together the fractured community that I already have. Then I need to take courage and be more transparent and vulnerable and emotionally forthright in my dealings with people. These things will become the strength that I need to finish (hopefully) the tasks that have been set before me.
Openness and vulnerability. My psychologist was helping me with that. Then she moved away. But then Eileen assumed that task (did I mention that she’s wise beyond her years, and has been since high school?). I’m becoming myself and emotionally healthy for the first time in many years.
This is what I mean by vulnerability:
In 1975 I was riding in a train through the Italian Alps. Back then, train cars were divided into compartments, like in a Harry Potter film. I stared out the windows at the mountains floating by, and I remembered that just one other person occupied that compartment — a young woman with thick brown hair, dark brown eyes, and full lips, modestly dressed.
I don’t remember who spoke first, but it turned out that she was a German speaker from Bozen (Bolzano), a mostly-German-speaking city in northern Italy. She was on her way home now. I was intrigued. I’d never heard of Germans as a minority community in Italy. We sat together.
The conversation drifted from Germans and wended its way through every part of our lives. She was just so happy and wholesome. It was infectious.
Suddenly, the train entered a tunnel and all was plunged into darkness. We melted into a comfortable embrace and deeply tasted each other’s mouth. She said I had a sweeter taste than anyone she’d ever known. She, on the other hand, tasted kind of salty, but I still love to find that flavor again in my memory.
I said maybe I should stick around home more, so when something magical like this happened again I could build upon it. Eventually she changed trains for Bozen. And ever since then, I’ve regretted letting her go like that. I should have followed her to Bozen. But I lacked the confident vulnerability to confront a situation full of unknowns. But She could be much more than a lovely memory. Or not. I’ll never know.
Just telling this story also makes me feel quite vulnerable emotionally, which is why you haven’t heard it before. Yet by locking it away, along with a few more kind of like it, I’ve tucked away a romantic side to me which a lot of people might not suspect that I even possess. It’s scary to be so revealing, but then my significant others will know more fully who I really am. And maybe I’ll learn more about them, as well.
This train episode, as well as some other such episodes in Europe, brings to mind one of my favorite movies, “Before Sunrise.”, the most resolutely romantic movie I know. I featured it in my “Movie Nights” at Tianjin University. It depicts a world that I really know. Or knew, anyway. It’s a movie for those who care to love.
Its sequels are pretty good, too, though I once showed the first sequel to a group of Chinese students in China, and a small group of party members who had stopped by “just to check” and it turned out to feature language that was not really appropriate to that audience. I hadn’t known that. Luckily their English skills were such that they probably couldn’t understand those parts, anyway. Probably.
Another somewhat hidden part of my personality is actually “hidden in plain sight.” It’ my propensity to concoct serial humor. Out of any three phrases I speak, usually one of them is a joke. Eileen has suggested that I might construct such serial snarkfests as a defense against the vulnerabilities of life. That might be, but from my point of view, I spin jokes because it reminds me that life is a miracle, and the happiness that jokes bring to me celebrates that life.
I remember once in high school, in the band room (of course — where else?), several of us musicians were talking about nothing in particular. My best buddy at the time was Gary. Well no wonder, because we both played clarinet and saxophones. (remember that a musician’s instrument can determine his identity) His face lit up with the excitement of discovery. Looking at me he suddenly shouted, “You’re a clown. You’re really a clown! Hey, everybody, he’s a clown!” I knew what he meant. It was not an insult at all. He’d just caught onto my serial humor. I was just so glad that my good friend had realized what I was up to.
So I recently went out to dinner with my sister Abbe, my brother-in-law Don, and their friend Mary. We all had burgers, to which Abbe added her favorite kale salad. But the salad wasn’t as tasty as in previous weeks. The leaves seemed thin and weak. She called the waitress to find out “what’s the deal?”
Well, turns out it was no longer kale, but “baby kale,” a less tasty variant. They had changed the menu. Abbe was not at all happy. So I said, ” When it grows up, will you reinstate it on the menu?”
Abbe thinks it’s my deadpan delivery that keeps people from realizing it’s a joke. Maybe. I do know that Mary was the only one who laughed that night, and for that, she deserves to be taken out to lunch. I’ll get right on it.
The missing sociology review
Well, usually at the end of my update, I write about an aspect of American society. But I need a break from that. And besides, this month’s update is self-centered on my own personal “issues,” rather than on general and commonly experienced situations so it wouldn’t fit.
And I need to finish healing emotionally if I’m to have a chance of finishing the tasks that have been set before me. And when I say heal, I mean that I’ve been in literal pain in various parts of my body for a very long time, since before I returned from China. As my emotions and vulnerabilities heal, the pain abates, I get my balance back, and as I accept and express my own feelings, my mind works faster. It’s thrilling but a little bit scary when I let it loose to gallop wherever it may. Can I trust it?
And I’m so thankful, both to God and to my friends on this list, for providing the support that has subdued the pain and has given me a chance to work again, and has also expanded my chest (metaphorically) to carry the joy in the world that surrounds me. I just wrote my friend Rob that, actually, I’ve never been happier. How could that be? Last winter I didn’t expect to even be alive at this point, let alone in a position to feel such joy.
Tonight, for the first time in many many years, My mind felt clear enough to enjoy playing a kids’ game (called slapzi) with my sister and brother-in-law, my nephew and his daughter. They all appear in the photo at right. I was almost overcome by emotion. It’s been so many many years since I’ve felt clear-headed enough to play a game of any kind. I wish Ric’s wife Carolyn were here, because after years of declined invitations I’m finally ready to play a game that she’d arranged for everybody.
So thank you, everybody. I will do all I can to finish the tasks before me. And I’m still listening to music again. Life is a miracle.
I almost forgot the elephants of HERD in South Africa. This time the peaceful atmosphere comes from the early morning sun as Khanyisa, no longer sleeping inside, comes from the herd to fetch her breakfast.