Friday, July 28, 2006

All aboard Amtrak

I'm on my way, I don't know where I'm goin',
I'm on my way, I'm takin' my time, but I don't know where.

"Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" by Paul Simon

Since my father passed away in 2001 and since Amtrak eliminated the train from Chicago that stopped in Altoona, I haven't taken Amtrak very often. Even when I did, the trips had become uneventful. No one spoke to me any more or did anything of note, except for the Amish man who wanted to know where he could charge his mobile phone—that is, until today (7.20.06).

Nothing of note happened today, really, unless you count my meeting a couple of characters, the type of people who make me realize how reclusive I am, and why.

I was on my way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a scheduled 4.5-hour trip. It's just long enough to read, write, and nap without starting to get antsy.

At Hammond/Whiting, Indiana, a woman in late middle age with a heavily seamed face came and stood next to the empty seat by me and announced loudly that there was nowhere to sit. I moved my straying purse and indicated the empty seat. I don't know why she couldn't have pointed out to me that it had encroached onto the seat and that she wanted me to move it. The direct approach is not dramatic enough, I suppose.

Plopping down, she announced, again loudly, in my direction, "I hate to ride backward." Thank you for sharing that insight into your character with every person in this car and the next.

She seemed itchy—itchy to chat. I appeared to be engrossed in writing, while the girls across the aisles were doing college work. Thwarted, frustrated, and itchy, she pulled out a cell phone and dialed an aunt, with whom she had the world's most mundane, pointless conversation at approximately the same decibel level found on the typical Rolling Stones one-more-time tour. At any rate, I know she loves her aunt, because she announced it several times to the phone, just before starting to cry. For me, there was no warning and nowhere to hide.

Finally she hung up and soon disappeared. I had a feeling she'd gone to the cafe car—there's nowhere else to go on a train—but at the same time I really, really wanted coffee. I'd been up since 4:30 a.m., and I really, really wanted coffee. So I risked it. I ended up sitting at the table across from hers; later, she left, then returned and sat with me. I managed to keep up my level of engrossment, so she, still itchy, tried to lure the conductor into the realm of tedious chatter. He answered her questions while deftly fending her off; he seemed more comfortable talking old-time rail talk.

Later, when she and I were both back in our seats, at one of the stops—I think it was Jackson—she said something like, "They stop where they stop, don't they?" Honestly, I did not know how to respond to this observation, so I smiled weakly and promptly fell asleep.

I hope her return trip is planned for any day but Sunday—the day of mine.

Meanwhile, the visit to the cafe car proved that coffee will be my undoing. There I met the attendant. Before I could make my request, he had shared with me his knowledge and/or opinion of organ harvesting in China, the economy, George W. Bush, and the intelligence of people who pay extra for business class for no real perks or benefits. I admit that this verbal onslaught left me speechless. After I got my order in, I heard commentary on the price of flat-screen TVs; his wife's boss, who bought one when they were $10,000; and the reputed stinginess of several ethnic groups his wife represents or might as well represent—I think that was the gist of it. And all of this in five minutes or less, with little (no) encouragement from me. It was a verbal flood, unstoppable.

When my garrulous seatmate placed both her orders, I wonder if she managed to get in a word or two.

Or had she met her superior?

Dream: Of eagles, dogs, and horses

7.9.06 (reposted after deletion)

I had an indoor office, maybe even in the city, but I could step outside into what seemed to be a woodland with a rustic bridge, where I spent all my time working. There were eagles with a nest nearby high on a pole or in a sparsely vegetated tree, but they paid no attention to me. I don't remember spending any time indoors.

One day I looked down, and there appeared to be a beach and an ocean. The eagles were competing with a dog and/or more dogs or cats for something on the beach. I did not want to chase off the other animals for fear of startling the eagles, who had always seemed oblivious to me.

A large, black, horse-drawn carriage came along. Someone—whether male or female, I don't know—spoke to me about my interfering with the dogs and/or cats. I I tried to explain about the eagles. The nest now had a long pole under it, parallel to the ground, and seemed off-balance. I touched the pole lightly to try to adjust it, but to my horror the whole thing teetered and threatened to topple to the ground. I could feel the remonstrance of the eagles I was trying to help.

I was inside the coach and noticed many levers. I pulled some of them. I think I heard bells, but it seemed the coach was so enormous that they did not reach the driver. One seemed to make the horse or horses gallop, and I saw, now as from above, the coach make a 90-degree turn at full speed, right where the beach or a cliff met the ocean. The horse or horses had disappeared (into the gulf?), and all that was left were the traces. I felt sick at heart, but somehow knew that it was not my doing if they were killed or gone.

The coach arrived at an estate.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The problem with holidays

The problem with holidays is that everyone has them off.

In Chicago, that means that every park, every beach, and every potentially quiet nook is overrun by people. You might as well be downtown during rush hour being mowed down by pedestrians on their way from or to the train stations. Come to think of it, business downtown might be the only place to get any peace on a summer's holiday.

I could take the opportunity to thank all the people who inundated my neighborhood last night. A side street on which I rarely see more than two cars at a time suddenly looked like midtown Manhattan. People found creative ways to park their cars in the overflowing park district lot, as 7–10 cars that were never going to fit circled in perpetual hope. Clumps of 10, 15, or more people were everywhere—in the parking lot, on the sidewalk, and on and around the benches. One large group apparently decided to take over one lane at the corner of the side street. They stood around a car, laughing and gabbing, pretending not to notice the line of cars they were blocking from making the turn. None of them made any attempt to get out of the way until the whole group, en masse, slowly wandered off.

If course, what kind of holiday would the 3rd of July be if, after driving miles to be in someone else's neighborhood and winning a parking spot (legal or not), you didn't spend the late (and wee) hour setting off firecrackers? Sure, people possibly live in those half dozen buildings with hundreds of apartments, people who may be trying to relax or maybe even to sleep, but of course if they'd been smart they'd have fled their neighborhood, like we did ours.

Let the party begin. After all, isn't the right to annoy others one of the ideals for which the Founding Fathers (whom we commemorate with burned hot dogs and chicken, potato salad , and beer) fought?

But I am enjoying the 4th of July. The weather is perfect, and this morning while I was at Promontory Point a great blue heron flew 20–30 feet over my head.

Now that's the kind of visitor I'd like to see more of in the neighborhood.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Sound of summer

After going to bed late, for me, I woke up shortly after dawn to the loud sound of a close thunder crack—a sound that reminded me I had left two or three windows wide open to dispel the heat and stuffiness. The sky had already opened, so I rushed to close them. For a few moments, the rumblings of the thunder, the splatter of the rain, and the whoosh of the breeze masked most of the traffic noise, and for that moment I could have been home again, helping my mother to close the windows when a sudden thunderstorm transformed sky and land alike.

I love storms.

The golden rule

(I have written briefly on the golden rule before.)

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." Matthew 7:12 (KJV)

I'm reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and I keep returning to how much of what is called "emotional intelligence" is based on the golden rule and all the spiritual variations on it. I would not have men treat me with contempt, scream at me, or belittle me, but this is modus operandi for so many people with whom I have worked and dealt. The golden rule seems to be essential for a world as crowded, stressed, and overtaxed as ours has become, and yet it sometimes seems to be as endangered as the Micronesian kingfisher—dependent on men to decide to save it.

Saturday, in the course of one expedition to market, I saw three examples of what might be called emotional obliviousness. None of the individuals was doing anything harmful or openly negative; they simply had no idea of how their actions affected others—or perhaps that their actions affected others.

The first was a store employee. I asked him to retrieve a box that was too far back on a high shelf for me to reach. He asked if I wanted just one, and I said, "Yes." He gave me one, I thanked him, and he left. What struck me after a few moments was that he didn't think to pull the two or three remaining boxes to the front for the next person. It's something I would have done instinctively, but it never occurred to him. As I said, this hurt no one, but it is a form of me-centered thoughtlessness that isn't aware on a subconscious level of others and their needs.

Then there was the woman who came to the store with someone else and who was not shopping. It was a busy afternoon; the store was crowded; yet she would park herself in the middle of an aisle in such a way that no one could get around her without having to ask. She would gaze at shelves in a desultory way. At one point, she blocked two doors to a freezer case while three people waited for her to choose something; they didn't know she was window shopping only. After a minute or more, she wandered off slowly; then the people behind her realized they had been waiting politely for no reason. She was simply unaware of what was obvious to me—the people around her and what they wanted.

I came back to my building with a full shopping cart and went in the back door. This double set of doors leads into a short hallway next to the fitness room. Spread inside the inner door and across the hallway, completely blocking it, were two women with two babies, putting their street clothes on over their bathing suits and fussing over the babies. They and their clothes, babies, blankets, and other paraphernalia were sprawled all over the hallway.

It does not seem to have occurred to them that they could have changed clothes and fussed over the babies in the pool/garden area, which is probably a half acre in size and which has chairs, tables, etc. More to the point, I and another resident came in through the door and couldn't go anywhere because they were in the way. The other building resident stepped over them all carefully. That left me with my cart. One woman was on her cell phone (multitasking); the other finally noticed me and signaled to her friend, and they made a narrow path down which I had to struggle with the cart (with the one woman never pausing in her cell phone conversation). As with the others, I don't think their behavior was meant to be malicious, but I cannot imagine the irritation they would have felt if someone had blocked their entrance way to dress.

Given the way people sometimes act, it's perhaps best that all of us don't follow the golden rule. Many people clearly don't want to be treated well at all.