Empty House

It was deep summer.  The family had already left for our new home in the mountains.  I had stayed behind to see to repairs, close up business, and find a tenant.  Everything I owned was packed and gone. I wouldn’t see some of it for months. The 18-wheeler moving truck had been parked at the curb for three days. The movers had worked with good cheer – hard and methodically. They wrapped and boxed, labeled and color coded, heaved sofas and beds for hours at a time. Where the workers went at night, I never asked. And then, at the end of the third day, they drove the truck away – with everything in it.

Alone, I walked through my empty house, an echo box, with no food (they took the refrigerator), no place to sit (they took the furniture) no personal character (the art, photos,  piano, house plants, contents of the junk drawer, it had all been removed), no entertainment, books or people.  It was silent and noisy at the same time.

I anticipated it would take two weeks to do the repairs, paint the interior, buff the floors, and wash all the windows. It would be easier to get the work done with the house empty, the space unobstructed.  And there would be nothing else to do.

The place was not entirely empty, though. Here and there were piles of organized materials: things to donate, things to give to particular people, precious things to be kept with me and moved in the car, cleaning supplies and tools, my sleeping gear and clothes, trash. For the first few days I really kept my nose to the grind stone and made good progress spiffing up the house.

I had pulled from the filing cabinets before they were loaded into the moving truck important papers that would help me do the business of moving.  I had put the papers into a used shirt box and labeled it DO NOT PACK.  By the end of the first week, having moved and reorganized my supplies almost daily, I couldn’t find the shirt box.  I was afraid it had been included in the haul.  It could be sitting in the new storage unit, 300 miles away, and I needed the information in those papers.

It was Saturday morning. I was just back from a good-bye visit with a friend. I was getting straight to work, organizing my run to the Goodwill donation drop-off site. Everything was piled in a box the size of a bathtub positioned between the fireplace and the picture window.  It held things like the old vacuum, a plastic Christmas tree, and a dish rack.  On top of these were clothes and fabrics, tucked together in white pillowcases which were too rough for my liking.  I lifted the top two pillowcases to run them to the car, and there, on top of a third pillowcase, I saw it – the lost shirt box. On the white cardboard, neatly printed in red marker, were the wonderful words: DO NOT PACK.  In relief, I snatched it up and moved it to the kitchen counter where it would always be visible. Then I looked carefully through all the other donation items, double checking their status before packing them into the car for the trip to Goodwill.

The thing about living in an emptied house is that I had to take up residence in it all over again, but in a different way.  I slept, now, not on a bed but on the floor on a two-inch foam pad and in a different room than I used to use as my bedroom.  My regular room needed some electrical work, so I set up camp in what had been the study.  It turned out that the study was not blessed with the morning sun, so I had to set an alarm clock to wake me. The timer on the stove worked for this. I set it each night for six hours, plus however long I thought I would read before falling asleep.

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake up.  Nothing unusual about that.  I have a long standing routine for sleeplessness.  If I have tossed and turned for very long, I get up and make myself a cup of tea with lots of milk. I sit at the kitchen table with my feet propped next to the teacup, drape a blanket over my legs, and read the latest magazine.  Sometimes I have a second cup of milk tea and a bowl of granola.  I enjoy the midnight solitude.  After about an hour and a half, I find I’m interested in going back to bed.

But in an empty house, waking in the middle of the night was terrible. On Sunday night, or really it was early Monday morning, I woke in the quiet darkness and could not get back to sleep. Eventually I got up and headed to the kitchen. There, I was struck, as if in a nightmare, by disappointment. There was no place to sit!  No table for my feet! There were no extra blankets to drape over my legs.  The latest magazine was in pieces on the floor where I painted earlier. The magazine wasn’t supposed to be used that way, but the morning paper of the previous day, the usual floor covering for painting, had been late.  I hadn’t wanted to wait to get started on the job, so, I sacrificed my magazine, which in the middle of the night, I very much regretted.

I had kept a teakettle with me in my “transition kit,” along with an electric wok for a little cooking, so I was able to make myself some tea. When it was ready, I turned to the refrigerator for the milk.  But. . .what? There was no refrigerator!

Where, then, I wondered, was the milk I had purchased?  I looked around. It was not on the counter top near the sink where it used to always get left out. A heap of paint supplies was spread out there, and the shirt box. I felt a general confusion come over me.  The stupor of having tossed and turned prior to getting up was affecting me. I slowly turned around, befuddled, and then I saw it – the cabinet that used to have napkins and vitamins.  That’s it! The milk was in the cabinet where I had put it with the bread and butter, where it was not supposed to be.  Nonsense, but true.  I got the milk down and smelled it.  This was its second day in the cabinet.  It was still good, thank goodness. That didn’t make sense either. Still, I fixed the tea and cuddled up in the corner of the kitchen with my sleeping bag.

There were other things out of place, as well.  Like the cats.  The little one was curled up with me on the kitchen floor, but her sister, a robust, fluffy girl, had gone missing. We had gotten the two as kittens from the animal shelter several years ago. They’d been brought in from a local ranch. The two cats had always been together.  Now, only the little whiny one was showing up each morning.  Her meow had sounded like a complaint ever since she was a kitten. Now, it seemed to express fear and loneliness. She visited me frequently during the days while I worked, no one but me to amuse her.  Her big sister was not to be found in any of her usual spots – under the coffee table, on the piano, or next to the refrigerator.  They had all been moved out of the house. The last time I saw her, she was on the deck.  She had been skittish, like she had been the summer before when the raccoon kept coming close-in to the backdoor, looking for food.

Drinking my tea and petting the little sister, I told myself the missing kitty was someplace safe, just in the wrong place. I wondered if she was locked in the basement, or the garden shed, the way the milk had gotten lost in the cabinet.  She was probably at a neighbor’s house, fat and happy.  What really worried me was that she may have gotten trapped inside the moving truck.

Living in the empty house was a challenge. I still needed to have stuff. Some things were not available, like the iron which I thought I wouldn’t need. Things that were available —tools, cat food, bills to be paid — had no clearly designated place, so stuff was all over the place.  It felt like a mess even when it was organized. The repairs and the cleaning were time-consuming because things had to be moved and moved again. I could only hope I would remember all the changes.  Moving things also drew my attention to other tasks that needed to be done. It seemed everything was urgent.  It got overwhelming.  I tried to be practical and orderly, but in the middle of a job, supplies would often get put down just somewhere, really anywhere, just out of the way, and in some way so as to be able to retrieve them later.  But it ended up being too much to remember.  Things became evermore simple, not always by choice.

For instance, a single pair of underwear got washed nightly. The extras that I had packed in my “transition clothing kit” were buried and lost in the closet under the “transition bedding kit” and the “transition office kit.”  I found them on my final day, while packing my car to leave. The ibuprofen never showed itself after the first day.  And the paint opener which I used for cracking open fresh, cold beers – it should have been with the knife, fork and wine screw in the newly assigned tool drawer.  But it often was not.  That misplacement was easy to figure out, though.  The opener would be with the painting supplies, the other place it belonged.  And on it went.

Sitting in the empty house, surrounded by dark windows, I whistled a bit. The acoustics were vibrant.  Singing was good, too, with the rich echo.  Little kitty, trying to snooze on my lap under the sleeping bag, took all the sound as disruptive noise, though, so I returned to silence.

Work, then, would be the entertainment!  The project needed to move forward, anyway.  There were windows to polish and cabinets to detail. That was why the house was empty, anyway, to get the work done.   My two-inch foam bed was not that comfortable, and there was nothing else to do.  I thought, maybe big-sister cat would see me in the lighted windows and come home, but I knew different.  Poor cat.  Her porch cushions were no longer where they were supposed to be, all shipped away now, just like my antique bedroom set.  A few nights before, hoping she would come home, I had bundled up my bathrobe as a bed for her on the porch. I put it right where her cushion used to be. It remained unused.  Too silky, maybe, and it was not her normal bed.  It wasn’t next to the deck chairs and potted plants.  There were no dinner scraps left for her. Her sister was inside, with me. Everything was different. She was a good mouser, though. She would make it, somehow, on her own.

On that early morning, a lot of thoughts went through my mind, a lot of memories. I didn’t really do much work. My heart wasn’t in it.

I headed back to the study, which was not a study anymore.  In an hour, the stove timer would start beeping.  I wanted to be asleep before then. I wanted to be awakened from a long, comfortable sleep under my familiar, well-worn featherbed, the sun streaming in, my first sight the same as every morning for the last many years, with the meowing of two cats looking wide-eyed in through the window, demanding to be fed, just like normal used to be.



Spider Webs 

It seems senseless, my efforts to sweep away the spider webs.  My brooming them down from the ceiling only makes the spiders work harder.  The critters always rebuild their nets.  Spiders need homes, so they build them.  It is only a matter of time before I will be at the task once again.

And yet, the task is natural, this cleaning up of the silk that grows across window corners and between beams.  There is a natural balance in our mutual efforts.  The spiders build webs.  I take the webs down. We share the house.

Imagine if I were to delay sweeping the cobwebs away.  The invisibly fine threads would accumulate over the weeks.  In them the dust of insect carcasses that have been sucked empty and then air-dried and disintegrated would accumulate.  The sticky nets would sag under their own powdery weight, and sway, slackly, in the motion of the air.  Gravity would tug at them.  If the power of the earth did not tear the dirty filaments from their moorings, some flying object eventually would.  They would come down one way or another, whether by natural force or random action or my cruel broom.  By routine removal of the cobwebs I spread into many small acts the drama which would otherwise build up into a great collapse.

The whole affair is not unlike the tussles we all engage in as we go about any particular day.  Struggles emerge almost constantly – personal little puzzles  that can be solved or left to develop into full-fledge problems. For instance, how did it happen that my sister thought I was mad at her?  Was I?  Is she mad at me, now?  Suddenly, I’m feeling a little indignant!

So, we push back.  We push back against misunderstanding, against fear and inertia, against excess and decay, and especially, we pull together to escape isolation.  Keeping troubles to a minimum demands a lot of honest, kind communication,  especially with oneself, but also with all those we care about.

That’s why it’s best I deal with the many little problems promptly, rather than let them build up until they collapse upon my life.  If I let the perpetual strands of chaos play out, they become a real tangle.

It’s tempting to tell myself that removing the webs is unnecessary. The threads are barely noticeable.  But these are traps, these steely-strong webs.  I feel for the spiders.  I do my best not to hurt them, but I take their webs down as soon as I see them.  I want to be free of mind and heart, and free of cobwebs.

Here comes my broom!


One Summer Night in Reedley, CA 2002

Tonight, in my garden, the air is warm and moist. Nature is alive. The sprinklers have roused a swarm of tiny white flies from their egg laying orgies amongst the cherry tomatoes. These silent insects fly ecstatically from plant to plant, though the important activity is on the undersides of the plants’ leaves. It’s been going on for days.

Several times, while tending the plants and picking tomatoes, I have felt the tiny flies get lost in my ears or consumed by my breath. Their soft white bodies are smaller than aphids, and sprightly like gnats. White flies are considered an agricultural blight and so, this colony, my colony, will be losing its tomato plants tomorrow. Game’s up. Life cycle interrupted.

The Fresno Bee ran an article just this day about infestations of this fly being especially bad in our region. The agricultural experts request homeowners remove plants where the white fly is found swarming.

They are swarming in my crops.

The problem is purely esthetic. The tomato’s even, bright-red color is compromised by the infestation. It happens during the growth stage from egg to larvae, on the underside of the leaves. The plant’s respiration is disrupted by the little colonizers. The reduction in the leaf function causes the fruit of the plant to be malnourished, resulting in pale veins showing up through the skin of the fruit. My cherry tomatoes display this symptom. I’ve been eating them anyway. Their texture, granted, is a little off.

Thanks to the Fresno Bee, I know why my tomatoes are veiny. I also know what to do about it. Tomorrow I will tear out the tomato plants. I will put the uprooted plants into the yard waste bin, along with the swarm of white flies that follow on. This action will relieve my garden of the pests the tomatoes suffered. Of course, my tomatoes will be gone, too.

My Neighbor and Me

On September 7, 2004

Suburban living is close living. It’s so close that I can easily hear the neighbor scooping up dog food and pouring it into a ceramic dog dish.  I heard the scooping and tumbling of kibble yesterday, also, and the day before, too.  He feeds his dog every day, of course. There is usually a second scooping and when the food nuggets hit the half-filled dish, the sound is more muted.

These sounds come from beyond my backyard, just across the wooden fence, from a yard I’ve never seen. But I know it.  I know the yard’s shape and various features, even its inhabitants.  I know because I have been hearing life happen over there for a year, and I have developed a sound map in my mind of the yard and its activities.

There is a fountain at the rear corner.  A lawn, which is cut with a hand mower, stretches forward to the patio.  You have to step down a level to the patio where a wooden table sits close to the house. It may be a picnic table, as I never hear chairs moving. He leaves the sliding glass door open a lot while he putters around outside.  He listens from there to the sports channel playing in what must be the family room.  He always roots for the home team.

Other times when my neighbor is in the yard for a while, music streams from speakers that hang from the eaves.  He likes 70’s rock and sometimes classy well-known jazz.  The music is loud enough to distract me from the sounds of cars and airplanes, but not so loud as to demand my attention.   I’m always glad to hear it. It’s just that hearing his activity means he is there, and that means he can hear me, too.

We never acknowledge our awareness of each other.  That would draw out the fact that we hear each other doing things, such as talking to inanimate objects, setting up dinner on the patio, or singing. I want to be able to sing, but I feel inhibited.  He may feel a little inhibited, too, I tell myself.  So, I move to another part of the yard.  I let myself forget that my privacy is less than perfect. I whistle some and soon regain the comfortable personal freedom of being in one’s own space.

I believe that my neighbor and I honor each other more by not acknowledging that we know the other is there than we would by voicing salutations.  I hope that’s how he takes it. In this deaf-neighbor way, I have gotten to know his interests and tastes pretty well, and even some of his opinions.  He probably knows me equally well, as I am often outside, and I’m not quiet except for when I know he is there.  He’s probably there a lot more than I notice.  I’m glad for it though, that he comes outside, grills his meat, plays with his dog, enjoys his music and his privacy. I’m glad that he likely knows me in the same silent observer way that I know him. It makes me feel both vulnerable and solidly real. It’s very personal to be, and let be, in tandem with a stranger.  It helps that he seems to be a nice guy.



Happy Cats

The last few days, I’ve been on the phone a lot.  Mainly, I’ve called out to family members, just catching up on news really. It feels good. Very social. I’m bonding to them. It feels like they’re bonding with me, too.

Cats are known to rub up against each other: paw, paw, lick, lick, head knock, nose touch, lick, paw, lick, paw. There is a rhythm to it.   In my family, we rub our voices together: I speak, you speak, I interrupt, you parallel talk, I exclaim, you enthuse, I jest, you moan, we’re quiet for a spell, then you speak, I laugh, we talk and talk, pawing, and purring like happy cats.


A Dark Error

Two little girls in brightly logo’d t-shirts, their hair groomed in snug, beaded braids, grabbed eagerly for the supplies in front of them.  Fat pencils, crayons and paper were in easy reach at the center of the kidney-shaped table at the back of the 2nd grade classroom. The girls eyed each other’s supplies, then her own.  Happy enough with the fairness of their acquisitions, they turned their attention to the task: writing.

But it was not the task that energized these girls.  No, they were driven by an instinct, partly competitive, partly protective.

The girls arranged their papers on the table so that each could see the other’s. Pencils, crayons and erasers were place conveniently between their papers for friendly sharing.  Only one red crayon, claimed by the girl on the right, and a sky-blue crayon, claimed by the girl on the left, were kept squarely within the “property lines” of the writing papers. As they began their work, each offered the use of her special crayon.

The paragraph they were to copy was written on a white board resting on a chair across the table from them.  Earlier in the hour, the table group, which included two boy classmates as well, constructed the paragraph about their Halloween fieldtrip to a local pumpkin patch. Each student had contributed memories about the trip while the teacher wrote on the white board what the children said.  Each spoke in turn until the story was complete.  They all read the paragraph over together, and then the children were left to copy the sentences onto their own papers.

The two boys sitting to the left of the girls were leaning in over the table trying to get close to the white board as if the memory of the muddy field, with its smoky tractor and warty pumpkins, and the scary haunted house were actually in the words on the white board. The excitement of the gooey mud and the earthy scents in the pumpkin field lived on in the hands and feet of the boys as they wiggled in their chairs. One of the boys’ pencil accidently tore through his lined paper in his attempt to copy out the words. He was not daunted, patting the paper back together with his thumb.

The boys had lots to say to each other about the fieldtrip and the pumpkins, indulging in one-upping each other’s graphic descriptions. Making gestures and throaty sound effects, they recounted how the tree had fallen on the haunted house and how the tractor tires spun in the mud.   One of the boy was leaning in, with eyes focused close on the tip of his pencil’s movement on the paper.  The other boy took a break to stretch around and see what action might be going on elsewhere in the classroom. Disappointed that no adventure was calling to him, he turned back to the paper in front of him, reaching over and poking his steady co-worker with his pencil before applying it to the task of writing.

Meanwhile, the girls’ work proceeded carefully and full of pride. They announced the completion of sentences and compared the tiny-ness of their printing.  Their discussion was all about the shapes of letters and the rules for placing periods and capitals properly.  Recommendations came generously from each of them as to how to better perform the task and each politely incorporated those recommendations, with modifications, of course.  They were making good progress.

Then, a line of trust was crossed.

The girls had just begun illustrating their writing with stick-figure children and happy-faced pumpkins.  The girl on the left was coloring her pumpkins orange.  The other girl decided to color in her stick-figures.  She chose a knobby blunt crayon to color the figure representing her table-mate. Applying the crayon to the face of the figure, it turned out to be pitch black in color and smudgy.  She stopped short, but it was too late, and worse, it had already been seen.

“I am not black!” cried the shocked girl, indignantly.

“I know that!” the illustrator affirmed nervously as she tried unsuccessfully to erase the crayon. Her efforts to erase the marks pushed the oily pigment out past the pencil lines that formed the circle of the head.

“I’m not black!” she protested again.

Both of these girls were definitely “of color.”  Nevertheless, the crayon error was taken as a deep offense by the girl represented by the dark messy mark.  She could not take her eyes off of the heavy smudge.  The drawing misrepresented her severely and she could focus on nothing else until the insult was removed. Their four hands worked feverishly to fix the picture. They tried to cover up the blackness with various creamy toned crayons, but none would lighten the color. They scrubbed the mal-colored face, originally a happy smiling face, with white crayon and still found no success. The dark wax absorbed anything that was laid down over it.  They even tried the sky-blue crayon. It did not work either.  The blurry dark mistake was not going to go away.

As the girls worked in shared terror, the mark on the stick figure’s face smudged out bigger and bigger until the head was huge on the skinny stick-torso. They were in real trouble. They dared not look at each other.  Lower lips were beginning to protrude and tears were welling up.

Then, the girl who had made the unfortunate choice of crayons got an idea.  She blurted it out, full of hope.

“Let’s turn it into the haunted house!”

All movement stopped. They just stared at each other. Nobody at the table said a word.  Then, in hearty reply, “Yeah! With the tree fallen on it.”

“Then I’ll draw you over here on this side of the picture.”

“Yeah!  I can be next to the pumpkins.”

“And let’s put a cat in, too!”

The girls looked smack into each other’s eyes, totally re-energized. They were in sync again.  They could repair the picture and their friendship.  Neither said another word about the dark error.

“Do you want to use my sky-blue to make some clouds?”

“Sure. And you could make some flowers with my red.  If you want.”

“After I finish with the grass.”


They stayed at the table until the end of the hour, drawing leaves onto sprawling pumpkin vines and chirping birds with nests in the fallen tree. They even put in a gray mouse for the cat.

The boys headed off, one to the bathroom, the other to read at his desk, but he happily detoured shortly after leaving the kidney-shaped table and engaged another boy by poking his arm with his pencil.




Hard Sunshine

My brother called today. Just to chat. It’s a big deal when he calls. We talk from time to time, so, it’s not really that unusual that he called. But it means a lot to me. We often talk for awhile, maybe for his whole lunch break.  I get to entertain him while he eats his sack lunch in his car or takes a walk and puffs his pipe. 

He’s pretty discrete with his tobacco use – he takes it outside the house when he visits. I always wonder, though, how it is he doesn’t smell of tobacco?  That’s why I say he is pretty discrete. Certainly, he isn’t looking for any more harassment. He gets enough grief for other stuff.  But this slow roasting of his lungs – I should say something. Get him to stop.  But how am I ever going to do that?  Maybe make a deal: he doesn’t pipe up and I won’t . . . What will I give up?

My brother would say, (he actually has said this), what, besides smoking, does he have that’s his own and that’s an indulgence?  He gave up intoxicants pretty early. And the guy has been getting  to work on time since he was 16.  He’s due a little. For a long time, he took walks in a downtown park. He knew the trails, the ducks, the regulars who hung out there all day.   He took me with him once. It was very personal. He told me about a really beautiful duck that he used to feed bread to, and that on some days a rabbit would make a dash from one shrub to another, stuff like that. The park seemed like a safety zone for everything there.

At any rate, I always enjoy talking to my brother.  That’s why it’s a big deal when he calls.  I don’t enjoy talking to everyone who calls.  During calls from some people,  I mainly listen.  I’m good about patiently listening.  The caller knows I’m being good about it, that I’ll be nice. For some reason, they really need to talk, so they talk.  I listen because what else am I going to do when someone needs to talk?  A lot of people would find a way to get off the phone, and in truth I do try that sometimes, but it rarely works. I say I have to go, and they say they have just one more thing to tell me. 

I don’t judge, at least, not that they can hear from my voice. That’s one reason they talk to me. But it’s sad, because I don’t hold them accountable. It’s an easy conversation for them.  For me, it’s not so easy.  I throw out a, “You told me you were planning to quit your job. How’s that going?”  Well apparently it’s not going very well. They are still calling me to get their frustration out of their system. I feel for them, still 9 to 5’ing a job with people they don’t like and getting paid so little.  They really are stuck still hating their job. Life shouldn’t be like that. But here they are, into their rant, blowing off their steam. I think they have, essentially, forgotten that I’m here on the phone with them. Their suffering has the full spotlight of their attention.

I have asked at the end of some conversations if it helps, talking and talking, or if it just encourages their negative emotions.  “Oh,” they assure me, “You are preventing a meltdown.” I doubt it.  I imagine that their tirade awakens Smaug, the wicked worm dragon, who’s  intemperance sends them pleading to their knees, from where they finally pick up their beds and walk, casting off their self-crippling ways.

Well, my brother’s calls are not like that. He would never put up with that stuff, either. He’s blatantly honest with a cynically wit that often burns.  He has called me, and opened with a cheerful, “What’s up.  How are you?” I have come to the phone all caught up in whatever I’ve been doing, so all I can produce is: “Oh, I’m ok,”  to which he dismissively replies, “Yeah, you’re retired, living off a pension, and your day is only ok. I’m not feeling too bad for you.”  I explain that my arthritis is getting worse, fast, and he gives me more honesty. “Tell me about it. I take glucosamine and anti-inflammatories.  I work all day, come home at night and my kid tells me she’s tired and sore from housework. I end up cooking dinner for everyone.  I put food on my plate first or there wouldn’t be any left for me. My days are usually ok, too.”  I tell him,  “Yeah, you’re just so nice.”

He knows he is not nice. He’s sarcastic with rich, biting  language and vivid metaphors. It’s always an entertaining conversation with him. And he pauses for me, even during a long winded gripe. He gives me time to get his wit, gather my own, and lob a comment back at him.  We often just talk about the very tangible stuff that is literally in front of us.  He listens while I tell the drama of how the food got left on a plate for three days, or the tale of how a repulsively orange teapot came to be in my kitchen. While I talk, I figure my brother is taking puffs on his pipe. If he’s in the car, I can hear a metallic ring each time he taps the pipe on the steering wheel or the stick, or maybe it’s the cupholder.  I don’t know why he has to tap his pipe.  That’s  a topic for a future conversation. 

I enjoy our conversations because we talk about everyday stuff. He indulges my love of describing details of mundane things, like the slow, spongy death of an overwatered houseplant, or how cold it is to get out of the shower and find no clean clothes and the dirty hamper has finally been taken downstairs to the washing machine. 

There is no need to pretend with my brother.  Pretending – you always know when someone is pretending – just breaks another little crack in the heart. Simple, genuine talk that makes room for sentiment is much more liberating, and more demanding.  My brother is actually listening and feels free to say, “That just doesn’t make sense.”  He’ll quote a lyric from Marty Stuart or George Jones, which I don’t quite understand, but the moral is clear: not having a good day is pretty ordinary stuff.  So we talk about all kinds of not very good ordinary stuff. The more caustic the tone gets, the more enjoyably the talk flows. 

We do share stories of happy life events, his and mine, but somehow reviewing good times isn’t as satisfying as giving justice to the details of a misfortune. A happy heart needs no tenderness.  But a broken heart is hurt and needs to heal, which happens faster if it is celebrated a little for what it has gone through. And for a cynic, who honors no shame, the harder the story, the more humanity in it. 

Take the most recent fight with my spouse, or the anger that washed over me when the doctor said the three months of pain in my right foot was “just” arthritis, or my son’s phone call late at night from Afghanistan (he just wanted to say hi ). These are the things that most touch my heart. Some hard sunshine on these things is just right.

And if the talk slows down, my brother will absorb the silence with, “So what else is new with you?”  Then he just waits.  If I don’t offer something, he tells me a true story. Recently, he told me about getting all of his wisdom teeth pulled out at age 50 without being knocked out.  All he had was the Novocain shots. They gave him so many shots he could hardly move his neck or feel his scalp – but he could still hear everything. The metallic pliers knocking on his teeth, the groaning of the dentist as he yanked and twisted, the gristle and bone tearing apart. He tells it that it took about 40 minutes to get those old teeth out.  But he saved himself $800.

He’s a master. An artfully bad guy who sometimes says mean things about life and love. No lies to sweeten up the ugly.  He appreciates the dark for what it is. His pipe is part of that. Oh, I might ask him why he taps the pipe while we talk, or why he doesn’t smell of tobacco, but trying to get him to quit smoking?  That’s just dumb thinking. That would be looking for him to be nice. He’s not nice. I’m nice. He’s honest, which is far more interesting than nice.

And that’s why I pick up when my brother calls.