Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Pelicans of San Diego

We were in San Diego this week, staying in a 12-story condo right on the beach. Our tiny balcony looked out over the Pacific Ocean and we all spent a good amount of time standing in the open sliding-glass doorway, just looking. A steady wind came in off the ocean, carrying the sound of the surf up and into our room.

Often, long lines of pelicans flew by—some lines headed north, others south. They were in check-mark formations sometimes as long as 30 birds. In short order, they became my favorite part of the trip. A few of the birds were so close to the balcony that I could have touched them. None of the birds ever made a sound. Most hardly even flapped their wings, though sometimes a wave of wing-flapping would make its way down the line as each bird in its turn passed through a disturbance in the air and reacted just like the bird ahead of it did. Whenever this happened I was reminded of doing “the wave” at Thursday night’s Padres-Phillies game.

From ground level the pelicans were just as fascinating to watch. One afternoon Isabel and I were walking along the shoreline path. Due to the perfect arrangement of sun, building, and birds, we saw the shadows of a long line of pelicans zooming down the face of our building—temporary peregrines. The birds were doing their low-energy glide up above while their shadows were averting disaster, pulling out of their dives at the last possible second and skimming miraculously over the ground, the cars, even us.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Garden Angel

Each March it happens. I’ll be sitting at the dining room table, lost in my own frivolity, and I’ll look up to see her staring at the dirt in front of my house. She wears a headscarf loosely framing her lined face. Like a robin or some other migratory bird, she disappears all winter. When the ice on the sidewalks retreats, she advances. My first glimpse of her is always a bit of a shock and a relief; she could be anywhere from 65 to 85 and I never fully trust she’ll make it through the winter.

Yet, I look up and there she is, blessing my garden—filling the dirt with good wishes and secret memories and love.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I said these words thousands of times in my life. They were part of the mass when I was a child going to Catholic school and attending church services every Sunday for 20 years. And though I no longer go to church, the residue left behind by these words still clings.

For me, growing up Catholic meant having an over-developed conscience that would never shut up. This certainly didn’t mean I never did anything wrong. Instead, it meant I felt guilty no matter what I did. I was simply unable to cut myself any slack and therefore always felt inadequate and guilty.

During college, and immediately after while I was in the Peace Corps in Yemen, I drifted quickly away from the Church—from all faith, actually. Nowadays I am a confirmed atheist.

And yet still it clings—that infernal guilt.

I have been thinking a lot about compassion lately; what it is, where it comes from, how it makes itself known. The most obvious prod for pondering compassion was a conversation I had while driving to New York last weekend. I mentioned that I was having a hard time feeling much patience for a particular someone in my life. A friend in the car opined that patience is really another word for compassion and that before I could feel much compassion for anyone else I would need to feel more for myself.

Her words landed hard and have set me on a week-long contemplation of just what this would mean. I have been trying to get at the difference between pity, empathy, and compassion. Also, I have been trying to decide if I agree that you need compassion for yourself BEFORE you can really feel it for others. It makes sense in a “yeah-everyone-says-that-so-it-must-be-true” sort of way, but I want to know if it is really true. And, if so, why?

One of the things that drives me nuts about so many New Age, self-help, love-yourself programs is their focus on the individual. The upside of my Catholic upbringing is a strong sense of the need to be useful to the world. Many self-help gurus tend to stop with learning to love yourself. There is often far too much belly-button gazing and not enough focus on how that self you learn to love can and should be out in the world adding to the overall store of good.

So I don't want compassion for myself to be a codeword for allowing and excusing any behavior I choose. It has to be more, and different. I still don’t know the answers to any of my questions about compassion, but I am getting a strong sense that whatever I come to might reject the “I am not worthy” line that started this piece and replace it with something very much like this from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Dog Will Never Learn to Use the Toilet

Many Saturday mornings I take my dog, Ginger, for a walk around the block. I do this so she doesn’t shit in my house. Ideally, she would learn how to use the toilet and then just flush her nasty dog crap away. Though I realize this is pretty unlikely, given the nature of dogs. I can always hope that someday she, (and all dogs), will learn the beauty of indoor plumbing, thus negating the need for our Saturday morning walks. But until that day, I will put on my shoes, possibly a jacket, grab a bag, and walk Ginger around the block so she can do what nature pretty well demands of her.

When we take these walks, nine times out of ten we encounter people on the sidewalks outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Whitney Avenue. Many times I simply nod and say “good morning” as I pass them. Sometimes we’ll chat about Ginger. But there are times when I just can’t control myself and I engage in conversation about abortion. I never enjoy these conversations. In fact, they often leave me feeling wired and shaken and angry. But I am an optimist. Also, I like to think of myself as open-minded and willing to listen to people whose views differ from mine. And for these reasons I sometimes stop and ask one of the protesters the following question:

“Do you want to lower the number of abortions?”

I start with this question because I like to look for common ground. I want to find the place that will start the conversation from an area of agreement rather than from opposite sides of a seemingly-unbridgeable chasm. I figure that people standing on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood, holding pictures of burnt and dismembered babies, might agree with me right away that reducing the number of abortions performed in this country would be a good thing.

Surprisingly, some of the protesters refuse to answer the question. Or they respond with a non-answer. My sense is they fear a trap in my question. But there really is no trap. It is as straightforward a question as there can be. Do you want to lower the number of abortions? It can take quite a few repetitions of the question sometimes before the man or woman will agree with me that they would like to lower the number of abortions. To a person they add, almost immediately, “to zero” to their answer.

Having established the common ground, I then ask them how they feel about contraception. Because if the goal is to have fewer abortions, then stopping unwanted pregnancies would really help put a dent in the number of babies killed before they are born, right? In fact, wouldn’t a place like Planned Parenthood do even more toward reducing the number of abortions if they could just give out free, safe, and effective birth control to everyone who wanted it?

With this, the protesters and I are no longer on common ground. They just about always talk about God at this point and how He gave us free will and we are choosing to get pregnant and then choosing to end the lives of His creations and how contraception is a sin. They do not want abortion to be an option, but they also do not want contraception to be an option. To me this is entirely illogical. To them, it makes total sense.

When we get to this part of the conversation I can just about feel their tectonic plate and mine sprinting apart from each other as fast as their little tectonic legs will carry them. No more common ground. Instead we are looking across a chasm. A HUGE chasm. From their side, these people see a man willing to interfere with God’s plan for life. From my side, I see people willing to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

At this point I usually take my dog and walk away. Next time, though, I’ll have a new example to try out on the protesters. I’ll let them know why I am walking my dog around the block---so she doesn’t shit in my house. Because wish as I might, Ginger will never learn how to use a toilet. And if I simply refuse to walk her, I’ll end up with a mess to clean. The same thing happens if you just wish people would stop having sex for any purpose other than procreation. It simply will not happen, pray as you will. God, (or evolution), has given humans a remarkably strong urge to have sex. Wishing it away will not work. So can’t the protesters recognize this reality, put down their signs, and help spread the word about preventing pregnancy through abstinence and contraception? There might be far fewer messes to clean up if they did.