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Archive for January, 2010

The Narcissistic Kitty

I live in a cat house.

No—not that kind of cathouse. The kind that is full of felines, as both my roommates have cats.

Now I’m no cat expert, and it had been years since I’d had regular acquaintance with any. So I’m learning a bit more about cats in general as I get clued in to the particularities of each of these kitties. No newsflash for the pet owners among you—but it really is true how these critters have “personalities” of their own, and can amuse one for hours on end based on the character traits that make them uniquely them.

This was first bought home to me with an episode I was unfortunately not present to witness, where Kaya, the male cat, attacks my other roommate as he reaches down to pet one of his own cats (female) by jumping on his back from behind and sinking his claws in deep. Clearly jealousy kicking in. Though neither of the female cats will give him the time of day, nevertheless, according to Kaya’s owner they are “his bitches” now…

Well, the other day, I was walking down the hall when I happened to look through the door into my roomie’s bedroom. There in the corner was Kaya, standing atop his perch looking into his own mirror.

Now I’d never really stopped to think about it before that a cat would really need his own mirror. But seeing him there admiring himself for minutes on end, and then realizing the fact that along with his mirror Kaya’s food dish and water bowl happened to be elevated off the floor, drove home to me why. It would just not do for Kaya to eat off common ground! No sir! Kaya must have an exalted perch.

It was further explained to me that Kaya will let his owner know when his water bowl needs to be changed—as he will flatly refuse anything near approaching day-old water—the point further made by his threatening demeanor for you to go do something about it. Like most firmly established but dysfunctionally-suspect relationships in the human realm, theirs is a pattern that has been established over time, with certain ritual moments even looked forward to with a sort of glee. In telling me more about their history, my roommate starts to engage in a type of blood sport, where Kaya will often start whining, hissing, and flaring his fangs at any signs of affection such as attempts to pet him. His owner just laughs it off as he darts his hand in to pet him anyway then quickly retreats it, then eventually goes in for the kill as he swoops him up off his feet, rendering his claws immobile as he hugs him.

No doubt this springs from kitty issues.

When my roommate’s sister, Kaya’s original owner, essentially abandoned him after later getting a dog, her brother stepped in to adopt Kaya. So abandonment, lack of trust, jealousy, snobbery—and now, it appears—a healthy dose of narcissism…

They say you never really get to know someone until you know their story.

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Unless you’ve been off living in a cloister somewhere—or comatose—I’m sure that like me you’ve been hit with a barrage of images and sound bites the last few days of the tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti.

Once in awhile an event happens that captures the pity, shock, sorrow, even anger, of a much larger group of people than those immediately impacted. Two events in 2004 did this—Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami. (9/11 is no slouch, obviously. But I’m thinking at present about natural disasters and the seemingly inordinate disparity of tragedy experienced among the poor) It’s looking like Haiti is the newest universal touchstone of tragedy as we enter a new decade.

Well I was watching CNN today when a story was told of a young Haitian teen who was pulled out of the ruins alive. It was a rare story of celebration that has been popping up here and there amid such overwhelming sorrow. I was more struck by her response to the interviewer. It was clear to the assembled press that she was joyful. When asked about this, she basically said that God was with her, and glorified Him for her rescue.

Later there was a story about Florida woman, Mimi Dittmer, who was trapped in a Port-au-Prince supermarket, going down on her knees to shield herself when the quake struck, and locked into this excruciatingly painful position for the next five days. Similarly, when asked about her thoughts on being pulled out of the rubble against great odds, from her hospital bed she said “Jesus Christ saved me,” and spoke of reciting the Psalms to keep her spirits up in the midst of her ordeal.

I’m not overly sentimental, but these stories got me to thinking about how I (and we as a nation) might respond to such chaos like this. After all, Haiti was already known as being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before this happened. But I was thinking, for instance, Would our God survive in a place like Haiti? An American belief in God, couched in comfort, blessing, protection.

I think of another story: an American nurse of Haitian ancestry who went down to volunteer and how she has to turn away often to cry as she’s trying to help dying children. I think that such joining of others in their suffering would help us in the West to erase the categories of division we usually live under, with our common humanity becoming more important. But therein lies a bind; for what separates us is more than the overall greater economic and social privilege we have here, but how these very things can insulate us to being vulnerable—the very thing that will be needed if we risk opening our hearts to the realities of disappointment and despair. It is difficult, yes. And yet, I can think of few things that facilitate such connection like this as shared grief. And grief will be needed in order to rightly see the light of hope.

Do Americans as a whole get points for this? Not to downplay some of the amazing outpouring of generosity that’s taking place as people open their homes and purses to help. But after the celebrity telethons have settled down, can we legitimately share in the claims of solidarity if we are not participants ourselves in the grief? And are we afraid to truly engage the response of this young girl? Vs. saying, “Heh, heh, that’s nice. Now, run along, dear.” If so, perhaps it’s because nothing unnerves us like looking at our own fear, disappointment, and anger if similarly challenged. Or more—than daring to name God in the face of these things, particularly in view of his apparent silence.

… Speaking of finding hope amid the ruins, I was very encouraged recently to learn about a group call Jobs Partnership of Florida (www.jobspartnershipfl.org). My friend, René Vazquez, a staff member at Summit Church, was telling me about it and invited me to come to an informational meeting the other night. Basically, Summit is working with JP to bring hope to the residents of Orlando’s Old Cheney neighborhood, many who are unemployed and locked in grinding cycles of poverty and dysfunction. Cheney was once a thriving community back in the day when the naval base was here, but has become something of a ghost town economically, with lots of empty businesses lining Colonial Drive, even worse now in light of the current economy. And while nearby Baldwin Park has sought to inject some new vitality to the area, many of the folks in adjacent Old Cheney have not directly benefited from it.

I was moreover struck by the sense of commitment to have a vision for impacting lives with more than short-term solutions, but lasting changes. Stories of reluctant businessmen who opened themselves to getting involved, and in the process, found themselves changing as they sought to help change the fortunes of others in need. And of other neighborhoods where participants went looking for a job, but in some cases, found a career and a sense of calling, dramatically boosting their sense of worth. NPR actually did a story on it awhile back (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5317076).

As local business leader, Eddy Moratin, gave the history of Jobs Partnership, he and René spoke about the systemic issues surrounding dying neighborhoods. Moreover, I was encouraged by both men’s daring to dream on behalf of an area that has been written off by many as dead or dying, and committed to seeing a generations-long process of restoration—as it does so by personally touching one life at a time, by meeting very real here-and-now needs. Sort of like the old saying, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.”

And I was challenged by an attitude to go beyond the typical models of community improvement that have flourished during boom-time economies and here in particular—that of infusing venture capital into new housing and business developments that quickly skyrocket in value while furthering the divide between the haves and have-nots. I’m all for “the invisible hand of economics” when it works like it should. It’s just nice to know that a kind and visible human face can be attached to it at times.

… I was more or less a blank slate while going to this informational meeting, though hopeful of what I would find. And I did find an appreciation for what it is on its own terms and am genuinely heartened. But looking at it sort of like with my questions around finding hope in Haiti, I realize we need programs like JP more than for the obvious good they do for others and for the system as a whole. We need them for ourselves, to make us believe there is still good and light in the world. I think these guys probably said it in better and less crass terms than I do here. But we need it to believe and to hope and to not lose heart—apart from the immediate and most important good it effects. Is that not a worthy value? Even if far from altruistic?

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Who are These Guys???

Ever been on a website where a company encourages you to contact them, where friendly operators are standing by? There’s always a photo shown of a very nice looking individual, often a young woman who also happens to be dressed like she’s modeling for Ann Taylor. Presumably this person works for said company and this is an inside view of what things look like there.

I got to wondering about this recently, asking the question, “Who are these guys?!” I was on some company’s site showing a bunch of executives there looking like the happiest things in the world—like they had just bagged the deal of the century. More confident than The Donald after a round of telling someone, “You’re fired!”

Now, I’m not against attractive people in the workplace. Or trying to present a positive portrayal of one’s company, whether it’s to project confidence or a sense of cutting edge technology or expertise.

Plus, everyone knows that’s the business of advertising. Maybe in some instances, these images capture what it might look like to work in one of these places. And on occasion, I can think of situations where some persons or other I knew at a company could have modeled for one of these pics. And just maybe I’ve been influenced by too many episodes of The Office.

But ask yourself, How much does this look like the workplace you know? It’s kind of funny the consistently clean look of some websites that are obviously using stock photos of beautiful, grinning people in situations bearing little resemblance to the call centers and negotiation tables of much of Corporate America.

Ah, the magic of advertising!

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Starbucks Etiquette

I’ve spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and Starbucks in particular (Yeah, I’m okay with that, for those of you snobbier than this coffee snob. What are you going to do about it?). From my time as both a patron and barista, I’ve come up with some of the unwritten rules of patronizing Starbucks:

  • Spill sugar on counters so that baristas have something to do when making periodic sweeps through store.
  • Pour extra coffee into the trash portal at the condiment station to make room for creamer. Patrons regularly doing this without a second thought may be surprised to know how many trash bag malfunctions out by the dumpsters have ended up saturating baristas’ clothing. For the love of G-d, stop the violence! (Okay, this may not be considered etiquette, but since it originates from behind the counter, it’s considered common practice.)
  • If good customers, will take empty creamer vessels back to the counter for a replacement from barista, and even assist further by putting it out on the condiment station themselves.
  • If bad to the core customers, will leave it empty for the next righteous (or otherwise peeved) customer to take care of.
  • Avoid cell phone conversations while ordering at the counter.
  • If taking a call on their cell, will keep it very short or otherwise incite scorn in other customers over their obnoxious and intrusive behavior (and likely loud—as though to say, “Hey everybody—Woowee! Look at me! I’m on a cell phone! You should think I’m as important as the person on the other end of this thinks.”).
  • If talking with each other at a similar volume in the store, are perfectly within their rights and won’t be given much mind by anyone else. Somehow, everyone knows that conversations with real persons present are less bothersome than those through a phone.
  • “The customer is always right”… to a point. Outstanding customer service is one of the pillars that helped to build Starbucks into the global phenomenon it is today. Still, that’s no reason to further beleaguer a barista with non-essential requests if they’re slammed with a line back to the door. You’ll not only gain points from a group of employees who often know their customers by name, but you’ll keep the respect of your fellow patrons.

No formal survey was used for this list. You could probably add a few observations of your own. If confession is good for the soul, then I’m guilty of violating some of these myself. I’ve learned over time, though, how to be a better patron.

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The Broken Truth

I’m no poet. But sometimes I will do something like this in response to a creative writing prompt for my Morning Pages…

“The Broken Truth”

Where do the broken places go,

When all hope seems removed?

Pushed beyond rightful limit,

To a life in exile,

Yet always hoping for return.

But stubbornly stealing through dark shadows

Of time and circumstance until someone says,

“Come out of there.”

__

Where do the broken places go,

When the world they knew no longer exists?

And a return represents a start over,

More frightening than hopeful.

When all’s not right with the world.

Where “new” means from the ground up,

Not just some cosmetic touch.

__

Fitting that the ground would be broken

For this new thing to take place.

I guess that’s how it naturally happens,

I just never knew it would hurt so much.

__

So I’m looking around and beginning to wonder

At the life taking shape—

How it looks different than the one I once imagined,

And how the “how” of change does, too.

But that’s not all bad.

It’s just a view from a far different place,

With a far different feel than the map I was given.

Like some “Greetings from the Grand Canyon” postcard

That—while inspiring—does little to tell the true story.

__

So where do the broken places go

(Because they do have to go somewhere)?

They can either stay stuck, imprisoning their holders

To years of chaos and woe,

Or… they can be found, looked at, and invited in,

Actions that are grounding—and make a soul.

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Get That Bird!

I heard a really good one just recently… A couple days ago, I was having breakfast with my father at Prosser’s Restaurant. A round of colorful stories was being shared by the men at our table, when something said prompted my dad to say, “Greg, tell the one about the emu.”

Greg Moore proceeded to relate how a good friend of his had gotten into the emu breeding business. At some point, having more than he really needed, his friend convinced Greg to take a few of them, given that he had enough space for them on his horse farm. Greg was assured it would be easy and he would enjoy having them. (Greg did not say if he was still friends with this guy, but with what follows, I’m kind of doubting it.)

One day Greg came home surprised to find the dominant male emu running around outside the pasture. He had earlier reasoned his five foot fence should be high enough for the emus since it was tall enough for his horses. The moments that followed gave him pause to question the wisdom of owning emus.

Greg’s wife told him to “Get that bird!” Greg grabbed the emu.

The emu did not like being grabbed.

“He started ripping my pants with his talons. Blood was running down my legs.”

My eyes got wide as saucers.

“Then he shredded my drawers!” Our shock shifted to amusement.

In retaliation to the emu’s parry, Greg reached for his long neck. “I was so mad I was going to break that S.O.B’s neck! At one point, I bent it over double!”

Now Greg is a big man, with big hands. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to have some acquaintance with tools, a guy who’s seen his share of manual labor.

“But I couldn’t do it,” he continued. “He was a tough old S.O.B.”

In exasperation, Greg made for the quickest retreat he could. “I finally grabbed him and threw him back over the fence.” With adrenaline flowing and a hostile emu loose, tossing a 90 lb bird over a fence wasn’t a problem.

Some time after he recovered from this incident, Greg came home to find the emu loose again. Bracing himself to face his old nemesis, Greg marched the warpath toward his truck where he could see the giant bird on the other side.

He rounded the corner to find his wife there–the emu eating out of one hand, while petting him with the other… The emu then stood his ground to protect Greg’s wife…

This would not be the last run-in with this bird. Some time later, he disappeared altogether. Shortly after, footage was shown on the local news of Lake City police officers chasing an emu around town, trying to capture it.

When I heard this, I could just picture an episode of the Keystone Kops. Recalling my visit to an Australian sheep farm several years ago, I now understood why the emus there were tightly fenced in, with chicken wire going up to the ceiling of their pen. Dang, man…

Thank you for sharing this great story, Greg!

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Happy New Year, y’all. I’m scribing this from my cold northern outpost of South Carolina—relative to FL anyway. But cold nonetheless, where it’s been dipping down into the 20s and 10s here. Brrrrhhh! Give me some balmy Floridian 40s!

The singles event at the Museum of Art was very nice. My expectations were modest. I knew of only one friend ahead of time for sure, my college roomie, Michael. Funny how the little things feel like a lot when you’ve been out of the loop for so long—having long given up those expectations of seeing everyone you ever knew from your old life. I really didn’t know who would be there. It would be a mix of people across a span of years beyond my time here, where I might quickly get lost in an unknown crowd. Only when showing up at the door did this occur to me, and my old insecurities around strange social gatherings begin to flicker.

A guy named “Event Coordinator” greeted me on my way inside. I presented my ticket, then zoomed by tables full of people enjoying dinner, by-and-large avoiding eye contact, choosing to direct my attention toward the buffet serving line. I needn’t have worried for anonymity’s sake, however. I soon heard a familiar voice from one of the tables: “Brian Bragdon.” It was Rachel… Whew.

And so I began to connect with friends old and new, sitting with Rachel, and mingling with some of her friends there. To my left was a distinguished-looking African gentleman. I recognized his photo from a Christmas card off Michael’s refrigerator. Recalling what I thought was apparently his nickname, I blurted out, “Hey—You’re Fatty, aren’t you?”—so wanting to be in-the-socially-poised-know than the Gomer Pyle-ish rube I was quickly making myself out to be. Fatty (actually pronounced “Fah-tee,” and whom I learned was from Gambia) never corrected me. He just good-naturedly smiled as he welcomed the friend of friends—me only later catching my faux pas. I needn’t have worried. He was a gentleman, as I say.

Everyone was dressed to kill. Excellent food, too—special nods to the prime rib and carrot cake. I slipped into a short spell of catch-up with Rachel, and was introduced to quite a few cute lady friends. Then got a Debbie alert from Michael. Going over to say hello to her and her mystery girlfriend, I got quite a shock when this friend called me by name and (re)introduced herself. Leslie Evans from TCA days. I had not seen her seen her since graduating, and would not have recognized her had she not said anything (after all, she was in junior high then). Saying small, small world somehow seems inadequate. But dang.

Then there was Brian Helms—one of the friendliest faces on campus back then and once probably half my size he was so thin. Still friendly as ever—and bigger than me now, all filled out. He’s become something of a entrepreneur in Charlotte, managing several properties. I’d never have guessed this of Brian then. He’d come across Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad in an English bookstore in Romania during his adventures abroad and started educating himself. He talked, too, of his former exp’s in Amway. Never got far with it but how he loved the positive attitude, personal growth, and camaraderie. I spoke of my own business venture this past year, and despite a similar story, we both agreed there was payoff beyond the outward experience of success or failure with any program.

Out on the floor, a lot of dancing was getting underway. The DJ had a great selection of hits old and new—the more familiar the tune, the more I found my rhythm. I’d get inspired for a few seconds and my friends would be screaming, “Brian!” Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for my lower back to start joining in, too—“Brian!” Firing off dead lifts at 275 a couple days earlier was coming back to haunt me. But try explaining that to a mostly younger crowd. Better not let them see you wince! Not an easy thing when you’re supposed to be having fun.

I did get that visit into the Ansel Adams gallery. Amazing. Many of his best known works on display. Getting the story behind the shots, as well as his thoughts on looking for the elusive perfect moment. There was a shot with this plain of boulders in the foreground with the giant Sierras rising behind. Actually taken from Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in WWII. Adams was sensitive to themes of dislocation and loss rising out of the clashing issues of politics and race—feeling that while the harsh environment surrounding the camps echoed the residents’ suffering, it simultaneously offered an almost other-worldly comfort with beautiful views in the distance to help sustain their spirits. He tried capturing this juxtaposition of emotion on film with what he felt the experience of its residents might be. Find out more at http://www.hctc.commnet.edu/artmuseum/anseladams/details/mtwilliamson.html.

I overheard this one gal in the gallery playing docent to a group of people. After her friends wandered off, we struck up conversation. Denise is living my dream life—she’s traveled all over the world as a photojournalist, and currently teaches some photography courses at USC. Where other people might see just pictures, Denise sees stories that need to be told. As if in echo to Adams, she told me about one assignment she did following a group of Somali refugees as they transitioned from their lives in an equatorial refugee camp to a suburban Chicago winter. Only a 48 hour trip, but worlds apart. The far longer journey was from one exile to another in search of hope, where terms like “culture shock” didn’t even begin to capture their experience. You can check out her work at http://denisemcgill.com/ .

Back on the dance floor, Michael Bush was the star of the show. Maybe because he’s my good friend who’s never stopped cracking me up in over 20 years. And genuinely one of the coolest guys I know. But he did own it—all heads nodding their respect and clapping hands as he struck some pretty groovin’ moves while sporting some wacky strobe light shades.

The DJ brought in midnight at the end of “1999.” He fudged a couple minutes to let the song play out, I think, but no one seemed to really notice. When he did the countdown, it suddenly occurred to me that hugs and kisses would soon be following amid the cheers. Standing next to me was a really attractive blonde, a friend of Rachel and Mandy I’d not met. In the spirit of the new year, I smooched her like we were well acquainted, introducing myself later to “Dena”… Hey—one of the few occasions I could get away with this. I wasn’t going to waste it.

There was an after hours party over at a guy, Steve’s, apartment. There was breakfast, then more dancing, as me and the other Brian groaned and succumbed to defeat, sitting on the couches, good-naturedly accepting our lots as “old guys.”… The best part to me was when Steve had everyone take a moment to share what they were thankful for in the previous year, as well as what they were hoping for in the year to come. I was struck overall by the level of friendship in this group, a tight-knit bond showing much love for one another. There were many stories of loss—divorce and job loss were common themes—but underscored by renewed hope, made possible in large measure by the support they had found from each other. I felt both a gladness and an ache. A gladness that is unique to standing in the center of a community like this. And an ache that I have long missed experiencing anything like this…

It has been a rather slow time overall on my vacation. The subtle seduction of inertia here compromises my ability to do daily disciplines well—like this writing, e.g. And prayer. All the more reason for short visits, though it’s been good visiting with my folks and grandmother… The other focus of my time—working on James’ chapter—which is still in progress. Hell and high water apparently were not enough to rush it through.

Back on the road tomorrow. Will post next from O-Town.

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