The Spirit of Giving

A few weeks ago, my friend—let’s call her Nell—said she felt guilty about throwing away donation plea letters that arrived in December. Throughout the year, she was generous to charities, but during the Christmas season her money was spent on gifts for family and friends. Still, she wished she could answer all the pleas.

She remembered a quote attributed to Jon Carroll. He allegedly said that if you want to give away money, go to the bank, take out as much cash as you can afford, and distribute it to people on the street.

5This appealed to Nell. Nearly every day, she saw homeless people and others in need. But she never paid much attention as she whizzed by in her car or, when walking, crossed the street to avoid them. She thought about her “Fiver Envelope.” Whenever she receives a five-dollar bill as change in a transaction, she saves it. After gathering a bunch, she uses them to treat herself to a massage or some other luxury. She decided to take the $100 she’d accumulated and give it away.

The prospect of approaching complete strangers scared her. She formulated a couple of rules: she would only interact with solitary people, no one in a group; and she would not interfere with those who looked mentally unbalanced.

PostOfficeShe found her first person one early cold morning at the post office. A dented maroon car stuffed with clothing pulled into a parking space, the back bumper tied with a rope on top. A weary woman with thick black curly hair struggled to get from the vehicle and up the post office steps.

Nell pulled a five from her wallet and folded it in half. When the woman entered the building, Nell asked, “May I give you something?”

The woman looked wary.

Nell held out the money.

The woman looked confused and asked, “Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

The woman took the money. “That’s it? For no other reason?”

Nell said, “Yes,” and wished her a Merry Christmas.

“Thank you so much.”

Nell felt happy, very happy.

The second was a young wispy woman wrapped in layers of clothing to stave off the cold rain. She was walking with a black pit bull that wore a padded doggie jacket. Nell pulled to the curb and got out of her car. “May I give you something?”

Again a wary look.

Nell held out a five.

The woman grinned, yet looked close to tears. “I’m so glad I turned around and started walking this way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met you.” She gave Nell a hug.

DSC02402The next day, Nell was walking to her car in the Purity parking lot. She noticed a heavy-set woman putting her baby in a car seat in the front of a yellow dented pickup.

As Nell held out her offering, the woman backed slightly away and adjusted her glasses. “I shouldn’t take it.”

Nell reached her hand out further. “Please, I want to give it to you.”

“Thank you. I really do need gas money.” She invited Nell to the live nativity scene produced by one of the local churches on Christmas Eve. She said her baby would play the role of Jesus. She blessed Nell as she walked away.

DSC02477A few days later, Nell saw a middle-aged blonde woman fishing through a public trash can. When she gave her five dollars, the woman beamed. “Thank you. It’s my birthday.”

Nell’s heart soared. “Happy birthday, my dear!”

Every time Nell gave away money, she felt immense joy. She was as grateful for the offering as the recipients were to receive. Most interactions were less than a minute, but during that time she was able to look a person in the eyes, touch his or her hand and, in a few instances, receive a hug. In those moments, she felt something she had never allowed herself to internalize—these are human beings just like her. They have feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams. Yet their daily lives are immeasurably more difficult than hers.

She felt compassion.

DSC02540Her last five was given to someone she sees frequently—a tall, lean man who sports a camo jacket and walks a dog with a matching bridle coat. He’s a loner, who appears to avoid others. It was shortly after the New Year and raining. She spotted him on the sidewalk. He was walking so fast that she pulled over a block ahead. She got out of the car with trepidation. He’d always seemed stoic and she wasn’t sure how he’d react to her approach.

“Hi,” she said.

He returned the greeting with a slight twinkle in his eyes.

“May I give you something?” She held out the folded bill.

“Are you serious?” he asked.

“Yes, please, I want to give it to you.”

He grinned. “Thank you.”

She had never been close to him. She looked at his face—really looked at it—and saw a kind man in his forties with well-sculpted features and dark brown eyes who somewhere along the line learned to keep to himself. She reached down and petted his dog, grateful that he had a companion.

“Happy New Year.” As the words left her mouth, she regretted them. They sounded hollow and trite.

“Happy New Year to you,” he said, leaving her with the gift of his smile.

 

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Goodbye Little Mister

LilMrEleven and a half years ago, our son Harrison graduated from high school. That summer, he was left alone for a week while his sister, dad and I went out of town. We returned to a house wiped clean of any evidence of partying and a fluffy gray kitten to add to our menagerie of two dogs and three cats. (While we were gone, he’d encountered someone outside a restaurant with a box of kittens.)

We had more than enough cats. Harrison was, technically, the owner of one. As a child, he’d been given a short-haired, half feral kitten that he named Indiana Jones Riley. (Indiana turned out to be a girl.) He argued that Indiana was far from friendly and he’d always wanted a fluffy gray cat. We explained that he was going off to college in a couple months and we’d be stuck with it. In order to sway us, I think he finally said please or something nice. But I really don’t remember.

He named her Pancake. Laine called her Lily. I called her Harrison’s Parting Gift.

Lily was a feisty little thing that hated physical contact. In an effort to domesticate her, she was required to eat while sitting on someone’s lap and being petted. It didn’t take long before she begrudgingly relaxed. She lurked about with jaunty confidence, and tortured our two older females with surprise pounce attacks. Laine’s male cat Figaro would have none of that, whacking Lily with a paw whenever she got close. I nicknamed her Little Sister—the obnoxious baby of the pack.

When it came time for her to be spayed, the vet discovered that, under all that fluffy fur, Little Sister was actually a Little Mister.

Over the next few years, as the older cats died off, Little Mister reigned supreme. Our two large dogs gave him a wide berth whenever he strutted about the house. He was a talker and not shy about asking for what he wanted. “I need food!” “Let me in!” “Let me out!” “Pet me!” “Stop petting me!”

Two years ago, we were given a puppy and Little Mister’s dictatorship came to an end. All Lucy ever wanted was to establish a playful relationship with him. All he ever wanted was for her to go away. My efforts to integrate them failed. Relative peace was finally established by erecting a baby gate on the stairs. Little Mister spent his indoor time upstairs, safe from intolerable puppy energy.

***

On an early evening nearly four weeks ago, I put him out. He’d been sleeping all day and company was coming over. If he didn’t go out then, he’d insist upon it later and wake me in the middle of the night to get back in.

Before going to bed, I opened the front door, expecting him to rush in, scold me for leaving him out for three hours in the wet cold, and race upstairs with a chirp which translated, “I’ll never speak to you again!”

He wasn’t there. I called and called, but he didn’t show up. It wasn’t the first time he’d failed to come home. It was no longer raining. He’d probably show up howling in the middle of the night.

But he didn’t.

cat(7)It was the week of Christmas. We had a house full of people and activities. I was concerned about Little Mister, but consoled by the knowledge that he’d sometimes disappear for two to three days at a time. On our walks around the neighborhood, Lucy and I looked for him. Several times a day, I’d open the door and call his name.

As time went by, I wondered if he’d been ill. For the past few months, he slept a great deal. Unless it was three o’clock in the morning, he rarely demanded to go outside. I’d have to hunt him down in the afternoons to put him out where he’d usually spend less than an hour.

The day after Christmas, Laine suggested we check the Humane Society to see if someone found him. I agreed, but wasn’t surprised when he wasn’t there. Little Mister would never, ever let a stranger capture and transport him.

It’s an odd feeling to have a pet disappear. I’m sad, but not emotionally broken. Over the years, I’ve experienced the heart-wrenching grief of watching five dogs and three cats deteriorate to the point where they had to be taken to the vet to end their suffering. I suspect Little Mister wandered off to die, but carry the hope that he’ll return. A tad of wishful thinking allows me to fantasize that he found another home—one with a sweet little lady who doesn’t have a puppy and lets him lounge on her lap all day.

At times, I hear his chirp at the front door only to open it and find the porch empty. Whenever I go upstairs, I anticipate him nestled in the middle of the bed. I miss his insistence upon being petted as I read at night, wrestling his way onto my chest, between my face and book, purring and drooling.

I’ve finally washed his bowls, taken his remaining food to the Humane Society, and removed the baby gate from the stairs.

Four weeks ago, I watched his gray fluff scurry out the front door. If I’d known it was going to be the last time I’d see him, I would have at least said goodbye.LilM

A Charlie Brown Christmas

a-charlie-brown-christmas-16A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired 49 years ago when I was eleven. It was a special evening for my younger sister and me. We had been invited to watch at the Biklen’s house (they had a color television).

68aee84bcc9bd0c7469a97d97b2d22f6The Biklen’s were our next-door neighbors on South Mount Vernon in Spokane, Washington.  Geography caused the street to slope upwards, which perched their Swiss chalet on a hill above our house. Our properties were separated by a stone fence. Trees and shrubbery planted behind the wall shielded their house from view. A long red brick driveway curved into their property and stopped at a small garage nestled beneath the house.

L, K, M, & Tommy Earsley 1959

One spontaneous visit where we dragged along a couple of neighborhood kids.

When we were barely more than toddlers, my sister and I wandered into their property on a warm summer day and made Mrs. Biklen our friend. We stood outside her paned kitchen window, open to the fresh air, and hollered our hellos.

She said her name was Ellamae. I asked how old she was and she said, “Forty-five.” Outside of our grandmother, she was the oldest woman I’d ever met. Her voice carried the soft lilt of contentment, but her eyes held a tinge of sadness at the edges. She had graying chestnut hair and wore a flowered shirt-waist dress.

Mrs. Bilken & dogShe escorted us home that day, but on those rare occasions when our mother lost sight of us while we were playing in the yard, we’d wander to the Biklen kitchen window and call, “Ellamaid, Ellamaid.” (This was before we were fully indoctrinated to address adults by Mr. or Mrs.—never by first names.)

It was the late 1950’s and the two Biklen daughters were in high school. Mr. Biklen worked as the accountant/treasurer at the Spokesman-Review. Mrs. Biklen was a housewife.

My family consisted of a father who was a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, and three children. Within a few years, we’d balloon to five kids, crammed into a small three bedroom, one bath house. By comparison, the Biklens were aristocrats.

Years later—when I was eight—I was in our front yard playing with neighborhood friends when Mrs. Biklen drove her Nash Metropolitan past. I paused to wave and when she waved back, I again noticed her sad eyes. The next day, I told my sister that Mrs. Biklen was lonely and we should visit her. (I was too shy to go alone.)

L & K 1965She didn’t let us in, but invited us to return the following day after school. Thus began a series of weekly visits where we sat in her kitchen, practiced good manners, and told only those stories that shed us in a good light.

Mrs. Biklen served iced Cokes in leaded crystal glasses and store-bought cookies on china plates. She treated us with respect, listened to our stories and offered gentle advice. No one had ever paid such attention to me. Our hearts intertwined to create a bond that lasted more than forty years.

The night of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” my sister and I dressed in our good clothes—skirts and blouses, tights and Mary Janes. We donned winter coats. It had snowed the day before, but a slight rise in temperature had turned it to slush. We navigated puddles, careful not to get our shoes wet on our way to the Biklen’s.

The specialness of the program’s premiere allowed us to go to the front door (we usually entered through the back). We climbed the steps to the wide veranda and rang the bell. Mrs. Biklen opened the door wearing a dark green shirtwaist dress and black heels. Mr. Biklen stood from his smoking chair to greet us—another treat for the evening. We rarely spent time with him, always leaving our visits with Mrs. Biklen before he arrived home from work.

My sister and I sat on the antique Empire sofa upholstered in gray silk and nestled into a shallow alcove. A Christmas tree covered in colored lights and tinsel stood in a corner. The massive fireplace held a crackling fire. We crossed our feet at the ankles and straightened our spines. An assortment of cookies on a Christmas plate and paper napkins printed with poinsettias sat on the coffee table.

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes.  (Here celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen turned us into quite the Manhattan Coke lushes. (Celebrating my birthday.)

Mr. Biklen, in his highly spirited way, offered to make us Manhattans—his favorite drink. He left the room and returned with two elegantly-stemmed glasses filled with Coke and a sunken maraschino cherry. He proposed a toast to the Christmas season. I felt like a sophisticate.

The television—inside a dark wood console—was on, all warmed up so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the program. The opening chords of the soundtrack gave me the shivers. For the very first time, one of my favorite comic strips had come to life. I marveled how the voices perfectly fit the characters—Charlie Brown’s forlorn tone, Lucy’s crabby edginess, and Linus’s thick-tongued toddler sweetness.

My sister and I left that night high on Manhattan Cokes and sugar cookies—infused with the Yuletide spirit of Charlie Brown and the gang. Every year since then, come Christmastime, I’m carried back to the Biklen’s sofa where I’m surrounded by warmth and elegance, and reminded how the loving attention of adults stays with a child forever.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Good Riddens to January

I know I’m a little late in posting this—it is, after all, the middle of February. But I’ve been preoccupied with failing to stay awake after sundown and wake up by sunrise—which in January can mean up to 14 hours of sleep a night.This leaves precious few daylight hours to accomplish all that needs to be done.

For me, January is the flip side of the whirlwind of activity that begins right after Thanksgiving. I enter into a panic over how I’m going to manage all that needs to be done for Christmas. I race to the garage and haul in box after box of decorations and completely redo the house. I make lists of presents to be bought, cookies to be baked, and food to be purchased. I spend evening after evening in front of the television, carefully wrapping gift after gift, making each as close to a work of art as I am capable.

Christmas10In essence, I become a manic crazed woman. Strangely, this makes me happy.

As Christmas Eve approaches my cookie baking accelerates. I swear I’m not going to eat them, yet eat them anyway, which makes me even more hyper.

Our children arrive, the house twinkles with lights to stave off the oppressive darkness. We share a wonderful week of festivities, staying up late and sleeping in.

Then it’s over. The kids leave so they can celebrate New Year’s Eve with people who know how to have real fun.

I throw white lights around the bay window where the tree used to be and pretend that it’s the same, but it’s not. Christmas is over. There are no more presents to wrap. The kids are gone. I can no longer button my pants—a clear indication to stop eating cookies. The decorations must be put away, the everyday stuff put back into place. It’s all so oppressive and I don’t want to do any of it. I only want to cry.

January

January

As I pack each box and gag down kale, my heart aches. I go into a depression that lasts two solid days. If you see me on the streets of Fort Bragg during this time, do yourself a favor and avoid me. (Ask Nicole—she once made the mistake of greeting me and had to endure rants about death and despair.)

During the first week in January, The Fort Bragg Advocate News Facebook page asked the question: “How will you contribute in 2014?”

There was only one response—something about contributions staying local, blah blah blah.

Yay. I’m impressed that this person had the fortitude to write anything at all.

This got me thinking that perhaps other people share my feelings about this deplorable month. I suggest that next year’s “Face Talk” question be: “How on earth will you ever survive January?”

The question about contributing in the New Year can be postponed until the Spring Solstice—after we’ve had a chance to absorb the increasing daylight returning to our lives. Maybe by then we’ll be able to conjure up one or even two lofty goals.

Now that sunset is being delayed by a few minutes each day and sunrise is coming earlier, I celebrate having once again survived January by sleeping a whole lot less. Towards the end of next month, I may gain enough energy to respond to a “Face Talk” question.

Merry Christmas

Ninja2If Wilson was here, he’d let us, like the ninja that he was, decorate him for Christmas.

1499685_10152231895536844_781720251_nLucy, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with it, eating the tinsel faster than we can sprinkle it over her head. It’s a bitter-sweet tradeoff. We miss our old friend, but take great delight in the puppy energy that now dominates our household.

Letter to the Editor: People running for office such as the Fort Bragg Fire Protection District Director and Mendocino Coast Recreation & Park District director should submit biographical summaries that pertain to the office when they file to run for a position. How is the voter supposed to make an intelligent choice when they have no information. (I am considering voting for my dog because at least I know about him.)

Christmas3Gary and I remain as boring as ever, yet somehow manage to have fun. Our children and grandchildren have exciting lives—and we love hearing about their adventures.

Police Report: Officers received a call from the 200 block of Main Street reporting that a shoplifter had stolen a pair of long johns.

1476119_10152231894361844_934666538_nLaine recently moved from San Jose to Oakland, having transferred with her company to their San Francisco office. Harrison is still with Okta and living with his darling girlfriend Kasi.

Police Blotter: Officers were dispatched for a report of domestic violence assault. Upon arrival, they determined the victim had been struck in the head with a glass vase while trying to leave the apartment of his ex-girlfriend. Further investigation revealed that the ex-girlfriend had left her 10-month old child alone and unsupervised in her apartment while she walked to the victim’s apartment and tried to persuade him to come back to her. When the victim walked back to the apartment to check on the welfare of their child, the ex-girlfriend struck him in the head with the vase to try and prevent him from leaving.

Christmas1Jennifer wrote and published a novel entitled Four Rubbings. She’s happily busy promoting the book, writing a sequel, writing a blog, illustrating other books, painting…oh and raising two darling girls and a puppy. (I need a nap after writing that sentence.) Granddaughter Ellie will have her driver’s license within a month; and “baby” Bryn is in fifth grade.

Court Report: Mikel E. Rexrode admitted violation of probation for spitting on someone while riding his bicycle. He was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and write a letter of apology to his victim.

1528644_10152231896966844_605360540_nGarth’s elementary school teaching job is keeping him extremely busy. Granddaughter Ceri is in her second year at MIT; Marcus a junior in high school.

We offer warm wishes for a happy holiday season. In the New Year, we hope you will remember:

  • Vote for your dog in upcoming elections.
  • Always pay for your long johns before leaving the store.
  • If you want to prevent someone from leaving your home, you should avoid the technique of striking them in the head with a glass vase (apparently it can result in criminal charges).
  • If your original condition of probation was that you were to refrain from spitting on people, make certain you don’t violate it by spitting on someone while riding your bicycle. You may fare better by hitting them in the head with a glass vase (or at least incur a new condition of probation). Christmas5(The letter to the editor, police report, etc. were lifted throughout the year from The Fort Bragg Advocate News.)

O Christmas Tree(s)

A man storms into a local bar, brandishing a gun and shouting threats. He leaves without harming anyone and is soon captured by the police. The Fort Bragg Advocate News Facebook post on this incident receives 8 comments.

That same day, the Advocate News posts a picture of the annual town Christmas tree installation. This post gets 87 comments.

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City workers install the first tree.
Tony Reed photo.

Apparently, a group of school children raised money to purchase this year’s town tree. Shortly after it was installed, a private citizen made arrangements to buy and erect a replacement.

I’ve taken the liberty to summarize the Facebook comments into the following categories:

1. Lovers of the first tree.

I liked the Giant Ornaments. It makes the tree feel better.

2. Haters of the first tree.

I have lived in this town my whole life I was really disappointed when I drove through town and seen a tree they could fit in my living room the big one is much better

3. Lovers of the second tree.

There was nothing wrong with the first tree just as there is nothing wrong with the citizens of this community wanting one bigger….. While the way that was brought about could most certainly have been handled more sensitively I don’t think there was anything wrong with wanting to upgrade. The new tree is indeed beautiful and more closely resembles the trees of past.

4. Haters of the gentleman who used his own time and money (and recruited volunteers) to supply and decorate a new, larger tree.

The local non-profit was a charter school, and now the students get to drive through town knowing that their tree wasn’t good enough for Mr. Mihos – I guess size matters more to him than hurting their feelings. I mentioned this to Mr. Mihos when I stopped at the new tree this afternoon, and both he and his wife were quite rude to me. I guess some folks don’t get the true meaning of the holidays.

You know the City gets a tree out off being nice… The City does not have to get a tree and do this for the people of Fort Bragg. In fact, if you, the people, Want a better tree, then how about you the people pay an extra 5 cents a year in tax to pay for it… An Mijos and his bros think they are soooo cool for “Showing” the City how it is done… The City workers do this on thier own time to server you the public… Don’t ask for more services then you are willing to pay for!

Meh a ******** by any other name is still a ******* And I do know what I am talking about…. Let’s not compare brainpans. [Note: I am definitely adding the term “brainpan” to my repertoire.]

5. Supporters of the gentleman who used his own time and money (and recruited volunteers) to supply and decorate a new, larger tree.

I would like to say that Mr. Michael Mihos is my cousin. Never would he intend to hurt anyone’s feelings. Certainly not those of a child. Fortunately, children are very resilient, and in seeing the much nicer and very much larger tree that my cousin played a part in obtaining – they (like all other children) will only be focused on how beautiful it is.

6. Supporters of the notion that no matter how ugly a thing is, if it’s made by or purchased with funds raised by children, it should stand on the lawn of the Guest House Museum in Fort Bragg, California.

I think being supportive of a local school and it’s students is something to be proud of!

7. Haters of those who hurt the feelings of the children who raised money to buy the first tree.

The tree was donated, purchased from a non profit in the spirit of giving and friendship. It hurts my heart that this has been turned into an attention ploy. Not everything is about looks, and not everything should be an opportunity for attention seeking.

8. Haters of those who hate those who hurt the feelings of the children who raised money to buy the first tree.

Im sure the 1st thing those kids are thinking about is the tree that is put up in town….I doubt it!!!! Kids dont dwell on things like that all they’re thinking about is what they want for xmas, so its obvious to me that Niki & Linda are bothered by this not the kids!

9.  Haters of Niki & Linda.

Dearest Niki and Lynda…. it seems you are fighting an uphill battle…. and it will remain uphill because as most implants or non born and bred locals you have missed the point in it’s entirety…. There was no premeditated thought in the replacement of the tree…. only the Christmas spirit at it’s best….So buck up and have a Merry Christmas.

10. Supporters of teaching children a basic rule of capitalism.

The poor children, the poor children, the children need to understand that they should have raised more Capitol to donate a larger tree….

11. Haters of proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Oh yea small town drama that’s why I live in the city in sted of fighting over a tree why don’t someone spencer a toy drive or something

12. Supporters of moving away after graduating from high school.

HaHaHa Same old FB.. Retarded ass people with nothing better to do then fight over a damn Tree.. This is why I could not wait to get out of Fort Bragg when I graduated in 95. How is it that some of you have nothing better to do with your day then bitch and moan about the size of a tree. My 4 year old son has more sense than this. All I can do is shake my head in disbelief that these are adults posting and not a bunch of High School Kids. No I take that back, Middle School Kids, I bet the High School Kids have more sense than this. This must be one of the most outlandish arguments I have ever seen. I think the tree looks great everyone, if you can’t have a big tree in a logging town where can you have a big tree? Seems as though Fort Bragg is just the same as it was when I was in High School, everyone in everybody else’s business.

13. And finally, my favorite, spoken with the eloquence of a true woodsman:

Personally, in my forester days I couldn’t give a fuck about the size of the tree.

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Second & final(?) tree of the 2012 Christmas season.