“. . . You gave me What you did not have. . .” (Alberto Ríos)

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

In 1952—the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President, defeating Adlai Stevenson—Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) defeated Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey for the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality. He was a televangelist before there were such things.

I remember the show because my father belittled the good Bishop, not (overtly) because he was Catholic but because he was sentimental and entertaining. I also remember ad nauseam the last phrase of his show’s theme song, which swelled in the background as he gave his blessing, “And if everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.”

That song was not the stuff of my father’s Baptist preaching. The actions of human beings, no matter how noble or well-intended, were not going to make the world a better place. That job was for the deity.

The good Bishop was recently on his way to Canonization as a saint, but the process came to a halt last year when the Archdiocese of New York refused to give his body to the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, for the examination—and taking the “relics”—required for sainthood. New Yorkers know the value of an Emmy-Award-Winning Personality.

Most of us believe we have award-winning personalities (caveat: assuming most of “us” have the time and wherewithal to be thinking about ourselves, as opposed to most of “them” who are struggling simply to survive). If we don’t assume we have award-winning personalities, we have plenty of clothes from Ross-Dress-For-Less or Nordstrom-Dress-For-More, and apps for our iPhones, and Rear-View-Monitoring Systems for our cars to make up for it.

I used to worry about my personality. I began worrying when I began to understand (in about 4th grade) I’m an odd duck. I’ve never quite fit in. That’s not sour grapes, it’s not trying make excuses for myself, and it’s not wishful thinking. In 4th grade I was the teacher’s pet, overweight, an organ student rather than a Little Leaguer, and often wore clothes my mother made. The preacher’s kid, too. And gay. And knew it.

If you didn’t worry about your personality in 4th grade, you were either one of the in-crowd and knew it, better adjusted than any 4th-grader I’ve ever known, or hopeless.

The odd duck

The odd duck

I’ve written several times about the $20 bill I keep folded and hidden in my wallet for the purpose of giving it to a (homeless, street, needy, crazy) person. I began the practice when I received a tearful, grateful hug from a small elderly Asian waitress for whom I left a $20 tip at a Denny’s restaurant in Seattle about 15 years ago. It’s no big deal. It’s not generous or gracious or altruistic on my part. I’m the one, this odd duck who almost always feels out of place, who got the hug—the assurance that I’m still part of the human race and not an Anas discors.

If I am making the world bright, the light’s falling on me, not on the recipients of my $20 bill. But it’s not because I’m doing something so wonderful that I deserve it.

So now I drift off into the same kind of sentimentalism my father found in the teaching of Bishop TV Personality.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again. If you want to stop feeling like an odd duck, or even a Cygnus buccinators, give someone who needs it a $20 bill. I know most everyone who might be reading this gives a beggar on the street corner a quarter now and then, mostly to assuage guilt for all the times we have “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

Advice: It’s a lot more assuaging to drop a $20 bill in the woman’s hat. You can not only feel noble, but you might—if you’re lucky and the world’s truly becoming a “bright place”—get an unmerited hug out of the deal. You know, physical human contact, probably contact you’ll remember all day because you’ll worry that you’ve picked up some of her odor. You’ll remember it because you don’t deserve it

I have a couple other suggestions. If you’re worried about, terrified of, disgusted by “illegal immigrants,” go teach an ESL class at, say, the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. Or send Judge Clay Jenkins an email offering to help take care of some of the illegal kids down on the border (his program turned out to be unnecessary, but you’ll be on his distribution list and learn about all sorts of stuff on the other side of Dallas you didn’t know about).

Or get yourself a meager-paying job as a tutor for athletes at some college who are being abused by “the system” of school athletics and help them find their true potential (or if you don’t want to be grandiose, just help them pass College English 101).

Or the next time your church sends you an email asking you for a donation to help Syrian kids in refugee camps in Lebanon, send them the $20.

Or tell your friend who puts racist comments about President Obama on your Facebook page to cut it out. Tell them. In public.

Want to see the jolliest moment of your day? Watch the instant and oh-so-real communication between a guy with a cane holding the door for a guy with a walker. You’re not going to get a ray of the brightness of the world any better than that.

This sentimental old fool has two words of advice for you youngsters. If you plan on being old, take care of your hips. And, if you plan on being old, cut out living as if you’re the only non-odd duck in the world and start carrying a $20 bill.

This is not new advice. I just keep discovering its aptness day after day. And I am more grateful than I can say for all the people who light candles to light my way.

“When Giving Is All We Have,” by Alberto Ríos (b. 1952)
One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

The Ugly duckling grown up.
Trumpeter-Swan_B9H7775

“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.