Good People

As I was standing in line at the coffee shop, a man approached the counter. He was quite elderly, using a walker. A skinny man in shorts and a tee shirt, wearing a baseball cap, tennis shoes with socks covering his thighs. The thick lenses in his large, black frames gave him that typical grandpa look.

He began to order when the clerk interrupted and told him he had to go to the back of the line; she pointed past us and repeated this twice. He seemed to not get it, was possibly hard of hearing but began shakily navigating his walker down the aisle.

I was second in line behind a young woman; in unison, both she and I said let him go first as we waved to get the clerk’s attention. That he heard. So, he turned his walker back toward the counter and began to order.  I heard him say quite deliberately that he wanted coffee and some eggs.

When asked for money, it was clear he didn’t have enough and the clerk was having a hard time making him understand. The young woman next to me stepped forward and slipped a few bills onto the counter. I don’t think he even saw that.

The clerk gave him a cup of coffee and he set it on the seat of his walker; but when she tried to give him the numbered marker to take to his table, this caused much confusion. I could only hear a few words of her explanation and the back and forth that ensued. Between her loud voice and his misunderstanding, it was quite a show.

Suddenly, another young woman appeared, getting up from her nearby table and without a word, took the marker in her hand and guided the man toward an empty table with the poorly balanced coffee cup shaking away on the seat of the walker. All this, while speaking in a quiet voice and reassuring him all was well.

As I walked with my chai tea to the back of the shop, I saw him sitting alone, peacefully waiting for his eggs to arrive.  I wondered how he’d even gotten to the coffee shop. Its located in a busy business and residential neighborhood. Then I wondered how he’d get home. Hopefully some kind strangers would help him navigate the busy street crossings. Here’s also hoping he wasn’t driving.

I’ve thought of this seemingly minor incident many times as I’m watching the latest TV examples of unkindness, poor manners and down right meanness. Like that nasty man berating a woman for wearing a Puerto Rico tee shirt and telling her, a US citizen by the way, to get out of the country.  One of a multitude of examples.

Each time I become discouraged by the latest news of the day, I recall these two young women, not the typical millennials we usually malign, stepping forward to help. This reminds me there are so many good people among us. I’ve chosen to believe there are many more good people than the other kind.

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Less Is Better

At my annual writer’s retreat in Madison, this year I took a class that was unusual for me: short fiction and memoir. At first, I thought those two don’t really go together. But the common denominator was short. The instructor handed out a large packet that contained many published pieces of short fiction, memoir and prose.

Each day we analyzed the six or eight pieces that had been assigned the night before. We could also give the instructor a short piece we’d written of under 500 words and he would critique and return it the next day.

At the end of the five days, I had four critiqued pieces and had become a better reader which leads to being a better writer. I learned that it is possible to tell a great story in fewer words than I’d ever thought possible. The instructor stressed that we not underestimate our readers. They will get it; we don’t have to explain every little thing.

Success of such an experience is when you come away different. And I did. I’ve applied lessons learned and give an example below with two versions of the same story.  You decide which one you like the best.

We Made Another One (484words)

When I moved into my apartment four years ago, residents were adjusting; the building had become intergenerational instead of fifty-five plus which was difficult for some who cited safety issues. To others is was no big deal. Angie and Vern took it in stride.

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their late eighties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner. Angie reserved a table for themselves and their selected friends; a printed card with the names of the deserving few appeared on the table well before noon the day of the dinner.

I wasn’t one of the chosen but that was okay since I had my own dinner companions. But I enjoyed watching from afar as they held court. They knew everyone and gave a warm hello to all as they entered the room but were clear that the empty chairs were taken and there was no bending the rules. Don’t get me wrong. They weren’t snobby or anything like that; they just liked things a certain way.

Actually, I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active, going out to lunch each day and shopping too. I’d most often see them as they were returning from their daily outing. And that’s how I became accustomed to their familiar greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding their plastic bags of groceries and left over. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, changes were inevitable. Attendance at the weekly meal declined until the building administration canceled the dinner. Then, I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Our hallway encounters dwindled. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily as her own health declined. She was confined to a wheel chair for a while after a stroke until rehab got her back on her feet. She remained frail but managed pretty well with a walker.

It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie and often wondered  she was doing. Then one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should do it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one“ I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie was silent only for a few seconds. Then I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

 

We Made Another One (260 words)

Angie and Vern were a colorful couple in their late eighties who I first got to know at the weekly dinner in my building.

I admired Vern and Angie. They were very active and I’d most often see them as they were returning from their daily outing: lunch and shopping. That’s how I became accustomed to their familiar greeting.

“Well, we made another one,” Vern would say in a jovial, sing-song fashion as they ambled down the hallway holding their plastic bags of groceries and left overs. And then we’d laugh about the grim alternatives. Hardly a day would pass that we didn’t exchange this affable refrain.

But as time passed, attendance at the weekly meal declined until the building administration canceled the dinner. Our hallway encounters dwindled. Then, I heard Vern had a car accident and gave up driving. Finally, Vern was hospitalized and died.

Angie grieved mightily and her own health declined. . It was sad to watch this vibrant woman fade. I lost track of Angie until one day I saw her at the mailboxes. She smiled and asked how I was. I wasn’t sure I should say it. What if this brings up sad memories or makes her feel bad. But I took the chance.

“Well, we made another one“  I said in my best Vern-like style.  Angie’s silence was only for a few seconds. Then for a short moment I saw that old Angie spark as she repeated the refrain with a laugh and shake of the head.  Most things change but some things never do.

 

 

Words Fly Away

Writers work hard and are pretty serious when in fact, every thought known to man has already been put down on paper. Still, we labor away. Writers feel they have something unique to say that must be expressed and the world is incomplete until that’s done. But what happens to our words is another issue.

Recently, I learned an important lesson about writing and about life. A member of my writing group, Jean, died and it caused me to ponder. Jean had faithfully come to the group with the latest chapter of the memoir she was writing for her children. She explained she wanted them all to understand the whole story of her marriage to her first husband of twenty-six years who was an alcoholic.

She further explained the importance of the story because some of her children were from her second marriage and might not fully accept or understand what she went through. And what she put her children through.  We group members anxiously awaited the next chapter of this riveting story.

As the weeks went on, Jean was clearly experiencing the stress of bringing up these long forgotten thoughts and feelings probably buried deep until now. Her writing was clear and direct, her story told chronologically.

At first the group applied our usual critique methods but Jean was sure why she said this or omitted that or used a certain word. When we said maybe something she’d talked about in the group but hadn’t written might be a good addition to the story, she explained that her children already knew that part.

And after a while we realized that Jean had her story to tell and critique was not what she wanted or needed. We then became attentive and grateful listeners. Jean felt such peace when she gave the finished memoir to her children. After that, she took a break from the writing group and shortly thereafter she died. Jean made a great impression on us and we will miss her smile and quiet demeanor.

What Jean taught me was to respect the work of others. Not to be so sure that my suggestions might help the work be better. Maybe the writing is just the way it’s meant to be already. I’m as guilty as others in being a bit aggressive in critiquing.

Where do our words end up is an important question. Jean’s words have flown from her computer to wherever her children are preserving the memoir she sent them. We can’t look her words up on the internet and re-read them. We have to be satisfied with our memories. Her words have flown away.

And that’s why it’s so important for writers to do what makes them happy. So many get caught up in what they should do or become overly concerned with what others will think of what they’ve written. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. All our words will fly away.

 

Lunch With the Unabomber

 

The best of friendships is built around common interests,

laughter and inside jokes

The best of friendships is built around common interests,
laughter and inside jokes.
We accept our lapses of important information,
details of where we were yesterday or last week,
who starred in that wonderful movie and
what our plans are for tomorrow.

The two Pat’s and I began with yoga which naturally leads to lunch.
When Wisconsin weather warms we seek outdoor spots.
A little over zealous in late spring on a sunny but windy day,
hardy souls, we give it a try.

A well-kept secret is a hotel
with an outdoor restaurant set up like a beach;
tables with umbrellas, sand dunes and a plastic whale.
It turned out to be a bit much.

The first Pat put on her sunglasses to shield against the sun
then donned a black hoodie against the wind.
The waiter looked at me weird when I asked
if he thought Pat looked like the Unabomber.
But she really did!

I often test the second Pat:
will she be able to pick out my car in the lot.
The first Pat is frantic to go back for her sunglasses
which I see through the rear-view mirror, are on her head.

Just last week as we finished yoga
I asked both Pat’s if they wanted to have
another lunch with the Unabomber.
And, yes they did!

 

 

 

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