How People Need to be Treated
Once every two weeks or so my brain goes on overload and refuses to read anything too deep or academic. I was in that mood last week when I was walking through Barnes and Noble to get to my “office,” the Starbucks at the back of the store. Right before the railing separating the coffee shop from the bookstore is a table of high-interest books, and one of them caught my eye: Farewell, My Subaru by Doug Fine. It is the story of a young New Yorker who transplants himself to New Mexico in order to reduce his carbon footprint and live as much off the grid as he can. Flipping through the book I was caught by the conversational tone and candor of the author: he was obviously out of his element! I enjoyed the book and read it in an evening or two. There were no great cultural shifts or paradigms coming from Farewell, My Subaru. There were a few environmental ideas, but nothing I hadn’t heard before. But the entire book exuded the warmth and adrenalin of the author’s personality. It was like getting to peek into someone else’s mind. One passage from the book, however, really reached out and grabbed me. It’s long, but worth it.
Herbie wasn’t just certain that our water heating device would work (he’d been heating his own water with a breadbox collector for decades), he was making sure we’d have a good time building it. He opened the passenger-side window and took a loud, deep breath of desert air.
“This is how to spend a morning,” he said as though we were picking strawberries in a meadow, while I vainly tried to park the ROAT [the author’s vegetable-oil-based pick-up truck] in the outlying reaches of Mr. Ed’s lot.
“Buying PVC piping?” I asked.
“Hanging with friends, converting a life to solar power.”
In fact, while we shopped for Chinese-made but locally sold plumbing parts, somewhere in Mr. Ed’s aisle where the sign read “You break it, you bought it — we are not responsible for your negligence,” I watched Herbie seep nothing but total appreciation for everything that crossed his path. Whether it was a demeaning manager at Mr. Ed’s, the uneven way I had trimmed my beard that morning, or the tea-pouring method of the waitress at the Chinese place where he diagrammed our breadbox project while I lobbied the owner for waste oil access out back, he treated each person like it was his first encounter with the species.
“Where’d you get that necklace?” he asked the counter woman at Mr. Ed’s. “I’ve never seen that shade of green before.” His words carried all the more effect because he delivered them in a sort of “pssst buddy” street corner sotto voce.
It forced me into the same mind-set. And I wondered what it took to cultivate such a loving outlook day in and day out when there were rattlesnakes and hardware store manager on the prowl. I didn’t wonder long. whatever plague of optimism and good humor infected my hippie friend, it was contagious. By the time we picked up essentially a skyscraper’s worth of plumbing parts, goat-proof glass, black spray paint, aluminum foil, and (despite my protests) purple primer, I caught myself smiling at everything, like I was a paroled prisoner on a sunny day. The secret was to find the light in everyone and focus on it.”
What an amazing example of valuing other people Herbie and Doug Fine have given us. They are two people who will never need to feel lonely. Herbie, by the way, revealed later in the chapter that he was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. He’d already, at that point, lived three months longer than his doctor had predicted and was happily living out his life doing just what he wanted every day. Wow.
(For those of you who just need to know – like me – in an email exchange with the author I found out that Herbie is still happily spending his days as he pleases and is doing well.)