Saturday, December 10, 2016

And So It Goes

Hanging out at the body repair shop isn't usually a rollicking affair. But up at the corner of Ashby and Claremont at Cook's Collision, it's been pretty nice. The reception area there has some humanity to it. Maybe it's because body work is usually an insured transaction, so hard bargaining and tension are absent; it's more like we are all on the same side, especially because there is significant competition in the body repair business which makes customer service a priority, unlike the local drawing station of Quest Diagnostics the other day where the officious clerk used her hand to motion me to sit down over and to the side while she continued her phone conversation, and maybe because Cook's, even though they have multiple offices, is a family business. Maybe it's like when I ran Bayside and understood the importance of personal connections, and the importance of being on the same side, the importance of customer service. Or maybe it's just the people who work there at Cook's, and maybe because it's in Berkeley. Maybe everything.

So when an unaccounted for major indentation of the my left rear fender occasioned a visit to Cook's in the late afternoon of Tuesday, November 15, I heard the chatty staff person over in the corner say, “It's my birthday, and I'm going out!” “Really?” I said. “It's my birthday, too!” Which it was.

Matt, the Berkeley branch manager, is a 6'3”, 140 pound extroverted friendly guy with a dark little beard. He was out front handling me and my case at that moment, so he turned to me and said, “How old are you?”

I have to admit to a little bit of vanity on this – I stay in some semblance of shape with lifelong exercise and have favorable genetics. So I said, “How old do you think I am?” Matt and the birthday lady looked at me, made some calculations I guess, and pondered. Matt said, “Well, my Dad's 63, and you're younger than he is.”

“You're way off, “ I said. He looked at me, she looked at me, and I said, “I'm 75.”

“Wow!” they said. The lady said, “I thought maybe 50's or early 60's!” I felt great, we made our arrangements and I went home to prepare to go to Hawaii the next day. Even though it was the ¾ mark of a birthday, no festivities were planned, and off we went.

I renewed my acquaintance with the Cook's office as I kept the agreed upon repair appointment last Monday, with no fuss and bother but renewed helpfulness, and at 5:30 Thursday I was back in the rain to reclaim it, hoping to make it on time for my 6:30 book club meeting – 22 years and counting! – at the French Club in San Francisco (actually, Cercle de l'Union, on Mason Street, but known to one and all as “the French Club.”) A spirited, slim dark haired lady in her 40's was there, too, picking up her car; we told our receptionist that our cars were a 2011 Infiniti (mine) and a 2007 Prius (hers). The receptionist called over the loudspeaker, with brio, “Bring out the gray Infinity M56S and the red Prius!”
And then here came Matt, renewing our acquaintance with his now immortal first words, “Happy birthday!” Mrs. Prius looked on interestedly with a little smile. I thought Matt was pretty funny, so nice, spirited. And the lady behind the desk was also spirited, happy, engaging. Matt unpromptedly told us his history – here at Cook's for 11 years, rising to be manager and making pretty good money, ever since graduating college (unspoken: “I'm a college graduate!”) where he majored in “Women's Studies.” “Wow,” I said, “Women's Studies! That's great!”

Mrs. Prius joined in, agreeing how great it was. I said how I had come to appreciate the oppression of women much more seriously in the past few years, especially since granddaughter Lola appeared, and especially after seeing the emotions of women to Hillary, and how I looked back and realized the barriers to my mother's generation and my own generation, and how younger women don't appreciate enough what others had done for them. Mrs. Prius agreed, and said she was the main bread winner in her family, had two kids, worked full time, sometimes was torn between work and kids, etc. “Wow,” we said. “That's not easy. I don't know how women do it,” I added. Also, “But sometimes you get to work, look around and say, I'm free!” Smiles and agreement.

Mrs. Prius said how happy she was that people were understanding it now, although she said, here we are in Berkeley, and around here conversations are probably different from the rest of the country. “Probably so,” we agreed. She said we were lucky to live here, silently acknowledging the bubble phenomenon.

Then Matt caught sight of the bottle of white wine I had on the counter. “What's with that?” he asked. I said I was going to book club after I got the car.

Everyone lit up. “Hey,” said the receptionist, “Can I come to 'book club'?” with air parentheses and a big laugh. “Yeah,” said Matt, “sounds like 'book club' is a good deal!” More air parentheses. Mrs. Prius was a full participant. “'Book club'!”

What a wonderful collection of strangers. And then when I told Matt I've have to come back to get my wife's car fixed – unaccounted for damage of the right front headlight area – he said, “Just call and come in and I'll see if we can do it cheap, parts at cost, and you don't have to call insurance.” I told him he could work for me anytime. I was sorry I wouldn't see Mrs. Prius again. She was really a doll, so engaging and fun.

Then it was off to “book club.” It took me about 1 ½ hours to drive in the rain to the French Club and I was late, but the meal hadn't yet been served and there was a seat ready for me at the head of the table next to Jeff. Everyone agreed that we avoid driving into the city as much as we can, now that traffic is such a killer. The dinner was fabulous, butter nut squash soup, trout, bison steaks, three cheeses, Busch de Noël, and my wine and others' wines, too. I ate too much. I was pleased that my wine was good. We discussed our dual assignment, Candide and L'Étranger, both of which I had read in French as well as English – my French isn't good enough to go without the translation by my side. Reading them slowly let me think more about them. We try to get something French for our annual trip to the French Club and Norman had just pulled these out of the air, adding the latter because the former is pretty short.

Even though Norman picked them out of the air, it seemed, I congratulated him on his inspiration – warranted, especially since many of his suggestions are anything but, which I reminded him of, of course – 22 years with ex-neighbor Norwegian Norman leads to some teasing, of course, mais naturellement. Both books were heavy on anti-clericalism, somewhat distressing to Jeff, who is a committed Catholic. More substantially, though, at least to this American reader, both of them, in their way, look for the truth of things. Candide is so funny, the ridiculous assertions of Pangloss that this is the best of all possible worlds and the deadpan recitation of acts betraying the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. Each cleric worse than the last. Spirituality is one thing, religion and churches another. Larry, the professor of drama at SF State and an increasingly committed Jew, didn't like or respect Candide, but I liked Candide, and I sympathized with Meursault. Jeff, a committed Catholic, was distressed as well and didn't like L'Étranger, understandably. It's possible that no one resonated to my comparison but Tom, my fellow physician who I recruited for the group years ago and who treasures and reveres the book club and whose wife died last year and who is still grieving and to whom we all raised a glass and dedicated it to Ida Jean. My comparison was that scientists look to distinguish pattern from noise, but that in the world of searching for meaning, what you mostly find is noise, unless it is the World War II enemy sending code to its ships and overseas commanders. But when Pangloss looks to understand everything as the best it can ever be, imposing a pattern where clearly it doesn't exist, and when Meursault's priest similarly tries to evoke the religious best from Meursault, the authors are depicting noise misunderstood as message.

Meursault isn't so different from Candide, just more passive, less passionate, and more removed from his feelings. He's resistant to the made up stories of convention; what happens if we just tell the truth? I wonder if that isn't just a rationalization, however, ex post facto explanation of why we do what we do. Isn't he depressed? With that opening sentence, his mother isn't just incidental. Wasn't that a disappointment, that they didn't have much to say to each other, and his recitation of the funeral is full of details of who did what and said what, and the sun, and that's pretty much it, then back to work? She comes up now and again, kind of like Holden Caulfield's dead brother Allie comes up recurrently here and there, never making too fine a point on it, and Holden finally gets hospitalized while Meursault gets guillotined. Not to put too fine a point to it. Beware of non-conformity, and beware of depression behind it.

We could have continued this exploration if the guys had accepted my nomination for the next book as Danny Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a study of errors of cognition among other things, but they opted for Hillbilly Elegy instead, which won't be a bad book although it's pretty trendy.

I've never cottoned to “What is the meaning of life?” which I have always found pretty meaningless. Instead, I think, who cares? When I said that, Jeff, who had orchestrated a little applause for me when I came late because everyone knew I had just had dental surgery two days before but was still determined to come, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We care, Budd.” And he does, and they do. It's an amazing group, put together by Norman who just ups and does things because it's the right thing to do. He also collects warm jackets for charity at Christmas.

I had said the same thing to my friend Bob, when he took me to lunch on Monday, the day before the surgery, the day I took my car in. I asked him if he remembered how we had started taking each other out in celebration of our birthdays and he said no. I told him it was his idea, that he had said, this is what women do for each other, why shouldn't we? He didn't remember. But I did. I've got a very good memory, it seems. Good hippocampus.

My Dad observed late in life that love, or real caring for, flows downward. He meant that you never feel about anyone the way you feel about your kids. Not that kids don't love their parents, they do, but it's just different, that's all. He put it in a way that he would generally do it, with a hook, not exactly a complaint, but there was some of the “who will take care of me?” in it. Especially for someone like him who was raised by a mother who always wondered who would take care of her. He got himself off to a good retirement home, prematurely perhaps, and said in defense of this decision, “You all don't want to be stuck with me, do you?” A preemptive act of love, or defense?

So when I think who cares about me, I think about my parents, and how they care about me. To some extent it's a straightjacket, you can't give up on yourself, but that's not a bad thing, unless you wind up living their lives instead of your own.

I told Bob this: “I say, when I come down to it, I know my parents love me. But then people will say, 'Your parents are dead.' I'll tell them, 'Not to me, they're not!'” Bob laughed. Call it introjected love of self if you want, but I don't need to bow to the dictates of time and decay and death, do I, really? They can still live in me, and I'm hoping the best feelings of me will live in my kids, and my granddaughter, and other descendants if I get to be with them, not the bad parts hopefully, but the good ones, predominantly, anyway.

Besides our memory of being cared for and loved as children, there is the love and company of spouse, so important and precious. Taking care of others is an underrated benefit; they need to allow you to do it, for your own benefit. And of family, the company of friends, and come to think of it, the company of strangers. Let people decry the segmentation of society into groups who feel the same and live with each other and encounter each other only to find common feelings and beliefs, even at the body shop, but I'm not sure that's so bad a thing. I wish I could have taken the three of them – receptionist, Matt, and Mrs. Prius – to “book club” with me. They would have enjoyed it.  I definitely think they wanted to sample my white wine.

Budd Shenkin

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