One of the advantages of a writing a blog is you always learn things from your readers. Most recently, I've learned something about my personal history and about animal husbandry.
Last week I posted about my experience during a junior varsity running of the bulls I found myself doing back in the day. To be fair, I didn't embellish the story. I admitted that I never got near the animals, which were skinny and past their prime, and that I had been more mouse than man.
It turns out that even with the disclaimer, I was still blowing smoke . A very reliable source, knowledgeable about bovines, me, and the event I described, said that what I was running from were not bulls. "They may have been skinny and old," he said. "But they weren't bulls. They were steers."
A steer is a bull that has been castrated before sexual maturity. So essentially, I was running in terror from a bunch of harmless neuters that would sing soprano if cattle were in choirs. They make good steaks and hamburger.
The English call them bullocks. As in, "That story was a bunch of bloody bullocks!"
So it turns out I had participated in the running of the bullocks.
Interestingly, the Germans have a word for people who flee from bulls that have been castrated before sexual maturity. That word is "wussy."
Years ago, when I was tending bar, I served two guys who between them had been divorced seven times. I hadn't asked about it. They told me on their own. It just came up over the course of our conversation.
It was a weekday afternoon in the summer, and we were alone in the bar. They both wore suits and ties, and apparently had finished their work day, because they were knocking back beers one after the other, chasing them down with shots of Tuaca.
For some reason, we hit it off. That was my favorite time to be a bartender. When there were just a few people, or maybe even just one person, sitting at the bar. I was barely out of college and didn't have much to offer, except what was in the bottles. Maybe that was enough. Whatever it was, I always found that I commanded a certain amount of respect just because of where I was standing. Like I knew something or had some wisdom. People felt free to tell me things they wouldn't have told their closest friends, and it seemed they almost always felt better.
Seven marriages. Did they go into each of those thinking that it would last forever?
Every single time, they both said. In fact, one was engaged and another was considering it. What did I think of that? I told them I'd never been married, but I thought practice makes perfect. It had to work out sooner or later.
They insisted I join them in a shot of Tuaca. I would have rather had the money, but what can you say? There was no boss in the place then. I set up three shot glasses in a line, didn't stop pouring from one to the other. It was golden brown. The glasses made a dull noise when we touched them. Supposedly Tuaca dates back to Renaissance-era Italy and it tasted like it, sweet and warm and far away. I closed my eyes for a couple seconds after drinking it and teared up and they laughed. Then I went and cut some limes. We talked about their ex and future wives for a long time, then they left me a bigger tip than I deserved and walked out together. I never saw them again.
There was a regular who had been in Vietnam and I especially liked talking to him because I was interested in the war and he would talk about it as long as I would listen. He had one Kamikaze chilled to the bone, only one. If it wasn't cold enough he'd have me reblend it, leave it on the ice for awhile.
Twice a week, he counseled a group of other vets who were having problems. Some of them were lost causes, he said. Some of them were at the end of their rope, were at the point of ending it all. Wow. What did you do then? He said he always told them to remember how and why they had survived Vietnam. There must have been something. Could they find that again? He said it always worked.
There was another vet regular, but he never talked about his time in Vietnam with me. We talked about gardening, his passion. Another of the bartenders told me he had been a tunnel rat during the war, and he didn't like to talk about it. I remembered that, and as much as I would have loved to ask him about his experience, I instead sought his advice on my pathetic little tomato patch. He told me to water the hell out of it until the heat of August. Then when it was close to peaking, stop the water. The plants will have no choice but to pull the flavor right out of the ground. He was right. In September, I brought him a couple of my tomatoes as a thank you. There were big tips after that.
About a year ago, I started getting my haircut from a young woman who is finishing her college degree on the side. She's about 23 but an old soul. We chat the whole time, and sometimes I'll ask her for advice on raising a young girl — after all, she herself was one not too long ago.
One day, I was especially bothered about something my daughter had gone through at school, a rough encounter with some other girls who picked on her. Nobody should ever have to go through that, but it's worse when it's your kid. You feel everything they feel and then some, and you also feel like there's something you should do about it.
She listened. There's probably nothing you can do, she said, girls can just be mean. But if you care about her and she knows it, that's all she needs. I felt relieved when I walked out and left her a big tip.
For all these years she's walked her dog by our house, rounded the corner, and kept on. She's about my age, always regal and dressed impeccably, even before 7 in the morning when I was still in my baseball cap and uncaffeinated.
Her Dalmatian walked on her left side. It was like watching two fish swim together. That's how well they seemed to know each other's movements.
Sometimes I'd see her out when I was walking my own dog, back when he was alive and that was the way I'd start my day. The dogs brushed up against each other and we'd say good morning. We never shook hands or introduced ourselves. She had a faint German accent. The Dalmatian's coat was brilliant in the sun, well brushed and tended to. After I moved on, the spots would stay in my mind's vision.
They walked in the summer and their sunrise shadows spread over the blades of grass in the yard, jagged like the teeth in a saw.
This winter there was a warm day, and I saw her walk by with the Dalmatian. She was wearing a head scarf. I didn't think much of it, until I saw her a few days later wearing a different head scarf. She gave me the same polite smile she always does.
It was raining hard one day this spring and there they were, walking under one of those clear umbrellas like kids have sometimes. I could see her scarf through it. The Dalmatian was touching her side as they walked.
I haven't seen her or the Dalmatian in weeks.
I have always thought that those fighting cancer were the bravest people. Then I remembered one breast cancer victim saying she didn't like it when people said that. There's nothing courageous about trying to rid your body of this, she said. That suggests there's some kind of choice.
I appreciated her point, but with all respect, I think you can still admire people even when they don't want to be admired. You take your heroes when they appear.
You've accomplished something, whatever school you're graduating from. Almost 25 percent of Americans don't finish high school. Almost 70 percent don't complete a bachelor's degree. More than 93 percent of people in the world won't finish college. Hundreds of millions across the globe, mostly girls, never attend school for a single day.
So you should feel proud. But don't feel superior. Not everybody had the means or the support that you've had to get here. And anyway, lots of people have done very well without graduating. Peter Jennings and Hans Christian Andersen didn't finish high school. Mark Wahlberg, Louis Armstrong, and Julie Andrews didn't finish high school. Edward Albee, Adele, Paul Allen, Dan Akroyd, and Jane Austen never finished college. That's just a few of the A's.
You're going to have a good time celebrating this event, as you should. Maybe you'll party in a hotel. Tomorrow, there will be a maid who will clean up the room you partied in. Chances are she's cleaning that room because she's trying to get somebody she loves to the chair you're in. She's accomplishing a lot too.
Try to find at least one person that you can confide in. Somebody you trust absolutely and can call at 3 in the morning with a crisis. It doesn't matter if you see them every day or once a year. You'd be surprised how much you might rely on them down the road. To me, a person like that is right up there with food, water, and shelter. Once you have those, you can do anything.
Also, try to be that kind of person for someone else. Think as hard as you can for good suggestions, and listen to every word. If they tell you something in confidence, take it to the grave. No matter what. Helping somebody like that is one of the most satisfying feelings you can have in life.
Don't take too much advice. When you do take advice, take it from good advice givers. One of life's challenges is identifying who they are. For example, I may not be one of them. So maybe you should reject my advice and then go and take too much advice. You'll have to figure it out on your own.
You've probably heard that you'll never use most of the math you've learned, but I think that's wrong. That usually comes from people who didn't like math or weren't any good at it. Math is more useful than you think in life. You never know.
Actually, I think that goes for anything you learn. Y ou can't remember everything you've studied, but try to treat every bit of knowledge that comes your way how a really talented seamstress might use fabric that others would discard. Every scrap could get used at some point to make something cool.
Keep learning. Know it all.
If you haven't had your heart broken yet — really broken to the point you can barely get out of bed — then the diploma you're receiving is just a rain check until the actual commencement ceremony you'll have some day. It might be a person you love that rejects you, or not getting a scholarship or a job you want. You will pour your heart into something and fail. That's the real graduation. Your grandparents probably won't be there for that day, and you won't get cards and checks and a mimosa. But it's every bit as important an event as this day is. It's a transendence. That's the day you start becoming one of the greats.
It's never too late to thank your teachers. Or to thank anyone for something you appreciate only later. Or to express condolences. In fact, it might mean even more years later.
The right response when you get a compliment is to simply say thank you. Don't deny it or reject it. If the person didn't mean the compliment, then who cares how your respond? But more often than not, they meant what they said. Take the money and run.
Avoid the people who discourage you from what you want to do. They are poison for you and me. Usually, they are people who were discouraged from doing what they wanted to do and listened. That turned them into discouragers.
Don't be a discourager. No matter how silly somebody's ideas or plans may seem to you, nobody can see the future. They may surprise you. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job and told he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas." Maybe the person's idea really does turn out to be lousy. Let the person fail on their own. Buy them a drink — that might be their commencement day. Then encourage them to do the next thing. They'll remember you when they open their version of Euro Disney.
When you meet somebody new, ask them questions. You can always learn something from someone, and if you don't then it's a missed opportunity.
Learn a good card trick. Everyone loves them.