Saturday, September 30, 2006

the good neighbor

Hadn’t seen him in a while, but I wasn’t concerned. I was busy and I’m sure he was too. I'd typically see him on Saturday mornings, scurrying like a squirrel, back and forth to his car where he’d grab another large brown paper sack of groceries before striding two steps at a time up to his apartment.

I knew him as Gary. No last name. No present. No history. The only thing I knew about him was that he’d had a play produced in New York, off-Broadway.

Likewise, he knew me just as Vicki. He’d watered my plants when I flew to England to help my father through his last days. And when I returned, he expressed his sympathy, not in person, but by voicemail. I sometimes overheard him laugh on the phone, but I never saw visitors and I never heard him open his front door to anybody’s knock—not even mine.

We’d been neighbors for six years, which takes into account the time he'd left and lived in New York—presumably when he’d had his play produced. But he’d returned 12 months later and I was flattered when the building manager told me that he’d asked if I still lived there, and if so, was his old apartment next to mine vacant. I was flattered not because I thought he had a thing for me, but because it meant I was a ‘good neighbor’.

We talked little during those six years, partly because he was painfully shy; partly because I need space and guard my privacy. But I liked and respected this quiet man who minded his own business, and we engaged in polite, albeit superficial, conversation whenever we passed.

A creature of habit, he’d leave every morning at 7 am, warming his green Neo’s engine for exactly five minutes before engaging first gear and taking off down the driveway. He’d come home every night at 4.30 pm, reverse into his parking port, and skip up the stairs where he’d slip invisibly behind his olive green door. At 7 pm, he’d tie some kind of exercise equipment to that same door and work out for precisely 15 minutes every day. Not 17 or 12 minutes, always 15.

With barefaced humiliation, I confess that the only cross word we had in six years came from me. As I said, he was a creature of habit. He’d take the trash down to the dumpster every morning at 6 am, thumping the door behind him, rattling my windows, shaking this sleep-deprived night owl from a measly four or five hours of slumber.

One morning, void of make up, hair stood on end, bare shouldered and bare footed, I waited at the top of the stairs for him, trying to contain myself. I explained how I’d been working on a TV commercial script until 3 am…not his fault. But could he please close the door more quietly in future. He must have wondered what planet I’d dropped from, standing there half naked, and not even aware of it.

He was very apologetic. I was equally apologetic when I saw him five days later and he said in all sincerity that he hoped he hadn’t woken me since we last talked.

“I’m so sorry” I groveled, “I must have seemed like a raving mad woman…” “To the contrary,” he assured me “you were quite charming…”, which says far more about him, than it does me.

So, as I said, I hadn’t seen him in a while. Not since he’d left one morning in a freshly pressed shirt and neatly tailored business suit. I was watering my winter pansies as he rushed downstairs, disappearing like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit. “Have an interview…” was all he said. “Good luck. I’m sure you’ll ace it,” was all I said.

I started tracking the days. His car hadn’t moved since at least the Monday before Thanksgiving. No sounds or vibrations from next door. Hadn’t heard his joyful trill (not exactly singing, more like a warble of glee which often drifted through our shared living room wall and never failed to make me smile).

November ended. Another couple of weeks came and went. We were heading towards Christmas. I called the police. “It’s probably nothing ... torn between invading his privacy and being a concerned neighbor and … he’s very, very private … is there anything you can do?” No worries, they said. They’d call around in 20 minutes and do a courtesy check.

I heard them come. Even peered surreptitiously through the Venetian blinds. I stuck my ear flat against our shared living room wall—our sofas, back to back. Then someone knocked at the door—and as I turned to open it, I knew. My quiet, respectful, polite, shy, considerate neighbor had blown his brains out. So considerate, that he’d ended his life on his bed, to contain the mess.

After the initial shock, after the initial upset, I was flushed with waves of anger. I was angry with the hazardous materials clean-up crew. Angry that he’d lain there, right next to me, for almost a month. Angry with him for not reaching out. Angry with myself for being too independent, too protective of my privacy, too self-absorbed to know he was in pain. Angry with the apartment owners who, I'd learned, were evicting him for non-payment of the previous month’s rent. Angry with a system that couldn’t provide a fulltime teaching job for an intelligent man who had worked every single day of his adult life to educate our youth. Angry that the only flowers on his doorstep were the ones I placed there. Angry at the loss of life of a healthy human being. Most of all, I was angry that he felt this dark, irreversible path was the only way out.

As days passed into weeks, I realized that this was his choice. It’s not one I understand. And maybe it’s not mine to understand. But I no longer blamed myself for not being able to prevent his death. For not knowing he was hurting.

I no longer felt angry with him for not speaking up or for making the choice that he did. In his darkest hour—my good neighbor did like all of us do—he reached deep inside himself and did what he knew how to do.

Maybe some of us are meant only to flicker, never to flame.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

oxymoron: freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is fast becoming an oxymoron, as observed once again, when Pope Benedict XVI recanted his recent speech exploring the basic philosophical differences between Islamic and Christian faiths.

The inflammatory words, firing Muslims to call for a “…serious apology,” were apparently first spoken by Emperor Manual II Paleologos of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Christian empire which existed in what is now Istanbul, Turkey.

It may have been wholly (no pun intended) unwise of the leader of the Catholic Church to quote such a narrow perspective on the relationship between violence and faith, so publicly, during these turbulent times. But what’s more disturbing, is that freedom of speech took yet another nosedive in a flurry of papal irresponsibility and knee-jerk reaction.

What happened to live and let live? Let's agree to disagree? You go your way; I'll go mine?

If we don’t like what we’re hearing, reading, or viewing—shut off, put off, or turn off. We are each at choice.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

a blog with no name

I’ve written three articles this week on top of a 55-hour project week, a day full of gardening, an hour of parasailing through the South Sound (… the manifestation of pure glee!!), and a couple of hours of kayaking off Whidbey Island. And somewhere in the middle there, I managed to nurture a good friend from California, broken hearted after his boyfriend dumped him; catch up on two long overdue letters home; dine out with my guests from New York; and even grab a few hours sleep along the way. But, “GDI” (gosh darn it—hokey but “politically correct”) I could not for the life of me, come up with a topic for this week’s blog!

I could blog on how tired I am of hearing the term “PC”—but I’m so bored of hearing diluted, superficial, “politically correct” blandness that I can’t be “FB” (flippin’ bothered). And I’m even more bored by the people who hook their fingers in the air doing that wiggly rabbit-ear thing, as if they are wrapping quotes around the term “PC”. What’s wrong with having an opinion these days?

I could blog on how freeing it felt to parasail across the Puget Sound, shoulder-to-shoulder with seagulls, overlooking the Olympic Mountains and nose to-tip with the still snow-crested Mount Rainier—but I’m afraid I’m getting “SA” (somewhat addicted) to the adventure rush since I almost ditched the gardening day to soar amongst the clouds again.

I could blog on how perfect today was as I meditated while plucking roses in a gentle ocean breeze—but then I’d have to tell you how I moved a planter and disturbed a family of frogs who quickly scattered the lawn, driving me screaming into the street. And then you’d know what a “GBFW” (great big fat wuss) I am.

So in light of last week's blog, when I vowed to reassess priorities and do what’s important to me, I’ll just say how "GD" good life is, and how grateful I am for “TSTIL” (the simple things in life)—even if it’s not always “PC” to say so.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

with gusto!

We take for granted that this minute will lead to the next; that the next minute will lead to the next hour. And the next hour will lead to the end of today, and the beginning of tomorrow.

We take for granted that we’ll have time to travel to Alaska next year. To cruise down the Panama Canal once this contract is delivered. Or that we can postpone a visit to a loved one for a few more months; maybe we’ll go in the fall.

Shrinking behind transparent excuses, we naively fool no-one but ourselves when we say that it’s not fear, but strategy, that keeps us sleepwalking through mundane careers or loveless marriages because of financial or other so-perceived convenient arrangements. That we can follow our passion, or be with the one who truly sets our heart and mind on fire, two, seven, 15, or 30 years from now. After college. After the kids have left home. After the house is paid for. After we’ve retired.

We take for granted that next week is coming. That our legs will still work. Our eyes will still see. Our hearts will still beat. But the terms and conditions of life are intangible, written on a non-refundable promissory note that can be revoked in the time it takes a butterfly to flicker its wing.

She knows firsthand. She was planning to quit work; planning where she would travel, what she would do. And how she would spend her days when they, at last, belonged to her. Now, one of my favorite cousins is nursing a heart attack. It was sudden. Unexpected. Mild. She was lucky—life's conditions were modified, terms were not revoked.

It was a wake up call for everyone who loves her and it made me uneasy to think how easily a wasted day can lead into unconsciously wasted weeks, even years. I thought of one of my favorite poems by John Keats, When I Have Fears, and immediately vowed to regroup priorities and focus on what’s important to me. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Stephen Covey “To Live. To Love. To Learn. To Leave a Legacy.”

I’d expand on that: To plan for the future, to honor the past, to live in the now. To breathe deeply and experience with all senses. To retain child-like curiosity and explore life with zest. To do what brings joy. To love with heartfelt passion. To laugh out loud—and often. To provide a safe, soft place for family and friends. To step out with courage and stand up to life with open arms. To love with passion … but wait, I already said that.

And to avoid further redundancies, and thus more wasted minutes (which might inadvertently lead into weeks) I must go live some more today. I encourage you, my friends, to do the same. With gusto!

When I Have Fears
By John Keats 1818

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.