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Stubbing One's Toes in the Way to High Moral Ground

Laird's Blog -

Yesterday I got another chance to learn a lesson in humility (which persist in coming to me without my asking).

One of the ancillary benefits of buying high-end supplemental health insurance (to ensure coverage for the pricey chemotherapy that suppresses my cancer) is that I get a free membership in an exercise club owned by one of the local hospitals. I go there to rebuild my strength and flexibility after a debilitating winter plagued by respiratory problems. 

That meant 20 laps at a fast walk around the indoor track (a bit more than a mile), followed by 45 minutes in the sauna. (During the ages of 8-16 I spent most summers at a boys camp outside Ely MN, where we took saunas every other night in lieu of showers, and I grew to love the cleansing dry heat.)

As I was changing into sweats in the men's locker room, another man approached me from the side and waited expectantly. As it was a little tight for him to walk by me, I stood up half-dressed and moved back so that he could get by. To my astonishment, he settled into the exact place I had been and blithely started to open the locker above mine. Shaking my head, I walked around the bench to a spot nearby so that I could finish dressing. By way of acknowledgment, he mumbled that he was trying to be respectful of my space.

As I thought about it, he could hardly been have less respectful of my space. He saw me sitting on the bench changing my clothes—the very thing he wanted to do. What in the world gave him the idea that it would be OK to bump me so that he would have a more convenient location and wouldn't have to wait? Wouldn't it have been logical to suppose that I had a locker near his? At least he could have asked, instead of wordlessly standing over me, expecting me to give way. 

I was particularly struck by the contrast of how his imperious behavior was draped in the raiment of sensitivity. In short, it galled me.

I brooded over this interaction as I did laps, reflecting how much we all like to think of ourselves as aware and kind—even if others don't always experience us that way. The fact is, everyone has lapses, where absorption with self clouds our awareness of how our actions are landing with those around us, or we project onto others that they will see a situation the same way we do, without first checking out that bald assumption (and then proceed to act in a way that we intend as sensitive, yet may actually be irritating). Thus, microaggressions abound.

Aetna once did a survey of the people who were found to be at fault in auto accidents leading to an insurance claim, and were amazed to discover that 90 percent rated themselves as above-average drivers. I suspect that the same kind of self-delusion applies to unmindfulness. Almost all of of think we are more commonly the victim of it than the perpetrator.

I was still ruminating on this after completing my circuits of the track. Following a quick rinse in the shower I walked into the sauna and was pleased to find that there were only two others in there.  Sometimes there are six or more enjoying the Finnish bath (at the finish of their workout) and there are no seats on the top bench, where the therapeutic heat is strongest. No sooner had a sat down, however, than one of the men moved quickly to the door to close it all the way. Oops!
While the sauna door is mounted on a spring hinge and closes automatically, it doesn't tend to close all the way and a slight crack can spill a lot of heat. I was so engaged with my inner dialog—about the unmindful man in the locker room—that I was unmindful about entering the sauna. It only took me about 30 minutes to make the same kind of behavioral error that had so outraged me. It was my turn in the penalty box.

In addition to getting yet another chance to learn about mindfulness (in this instance seasoned lightly with the bittersweet taste of irony), I suddenly discovered sympathy for the man in the locker room that I didn't think was in me. Turning my attention to my own foibles, I was able to let go of obsessing about his. 

It occurs to me that life has been incredibly persistent about providing me with opportunities to learn about humility. It's too bad I'm such a slow learner.

Booked in Duluth

Laird's Blog -

Wednesday and Friday I went into work with Susan. She's been the office manager for St Paul's Episcopal Church in Duluth since 2010, and works 8-1 every weekday.

While it's unusual for me to provide anything more than chauffeur duty when it comes to backstopping Susan's church routine, this week I was pressed into service to help organize the book donations for St Paul's annual rummage sale, which came off yesterday without a hitch, and raised over $3000. 

(We were lucky with the weather. The monster spring snowstorm that slammed into Minneapolis Saturday stayed south of us. We experienced high winds out of the northeast—there were eight foot waves on Lake Superior, large enough to entice some local nutballs to assay surfing in insulated bodysuits—but snow accumulation was modest and we had a good turnout for the sale.)

Organizing the books was an interesting job (both logistically and thematically) that ate up about 10 hours. Starting with 30 or so bags and boxes on random titles, it was my task to sort the contents by type, display them, and create signage.

While doing the same thing with used clothes, dishes, or household knickknacks—regular rummage sale staples—is just as noble in God's eye, laboring among those flea market genres would bore me to tears. Books, however, are another matter. I have a great fondness (weakness?) for them and unpacking each container was akin to opening a box of Cracker Jack to see what treasure might be inside. It was also fascinating to see what people had been reading and were willing to part with.

While everyone assisting with the sale was volunteering their time, there was one major perk: as the book organizer, I got the pick of the litter. Here are ten gems (all paperbacks) that I gleaned from the sea of donations that flooded in over the transom:
 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Coffee Trader by David LissMirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi 
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White• • •When I got together with Susan in 2015 we were both eligible for Medicare, and we made a mutual pact to downsize our worldly possessions—rather than leave so much dross it to our adult kids to sort through when we depart this vale of tears. While some things have been easy to cut back on (how many t-shirts does one need anyway?), books are hard for me to let go of.

Fortunately I started facing the music on my book fetish four years ago, when I took the pledge: going forward I would release more books than I captured. More precisely, this was a commitment to achieve a net deficit each year, and does not prohibit me from acquiring the occasional new title (or 10) along the way. Among other things, this meant reading the books I had already acquired (in some cases decades ago) and steering clear of the temptation of bookstore window shopping. It takes discipline.

So far, I'm succeeding. On average, I consume a book a week (it's amazing how much time you liberate for reading if you: a) don't have cable television; b) don't do Facebook; and c) travel by train), and that affords me more than enough slack to cover for my annual indulgence at the St Paul's rummage sale.

While Susan has an iPad (and therefore e-reader capacity), I tried reading a book electronically and I simply don't derive the same joie de vie. There is something viscerally pleasurable about holding paper and turning pages that an e-reader lacks. Fortunately, books are still being printed and used bookstores—though not as prevalent as they once were—are still around. We have three in Duluth and I do business with two of them.

It's a happy day when your partner asks you to help out in ways that are a joy to deliver. Everyone feels good (and I have 10 more titles to add to my diminishing horde).

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