Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Billy?s words

What about doing good things in general for others without expecting any reward or recognition?


JoEllen Collins

Sitting just a few feet in front of former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins was an amazing experience for someone who loves the written word as much as I do. I expected his speech to be memorable; after all, he was addressing the graduates of The Community School Class of 2007, and I knew that his wisdom would be engraved on their young minds and on my old one as well. I did suspect he would have a sense of humor, as that is reflected occasionally in his poetry. I was not expecting such a wry and unorthodox speech, one that stays with me more than any pontificating might.

Among Collins' David Letterman-style list of suggestions was one that especially hit home: "Tip well." He then proceeded to say (I paraphrase) that there are two ways you can approach tipping. One is thinking you probably will never see this person again, so being a piker won't matter. The other is that you can view this encounter as perhaps the only chance to do something meaningful for someone you may never see again. He went on to offer many other such wise bits, but that one stood out.

My mother used to remind me that true goodness came from doing something right when nobody would notice (Or because I am such a people pleaser, when nobody would pat me on the back.) How many times in my life have I been tempted to behave in such a way that I hoped no one would notice? My Jiminy Cricket reminder was always there¾that little voice of conscience reminding me of the honorable path¾but sometimes I tried to ignore it and "get away with" the behavior. Of course I'm human, so that is normal, but nonetheless I would like to think that I follow Billy Collins' advice in ways other than tipping. What about doing good things in general for others without expecting any reward or recognition?

Incidentally, my tendency has been to be so "frugal" (is a more accurate word "stingy?") that the question of tipping properly has often been touchy for me. Nonetheless, I try to lean toward the generous side. Since both of my daughters have worked in the restaurant business, I have seen the effects of miserly tipping and learned to honor those people who work so hard to delight us with good service.

I was thinking about all of this the other day when I was preparing press releases for the upcoming Ketchum Arts Festival, and among the people I interviewed were Varda and Jerry Goldman (Varda the Clown and her husband, Dr. Heart). After hearing of their life paths and of their decision to devote their later years to entertaining the young, I realized that among us live people like this couple who just do good things for the intrinsic rightness and self-rewards of their actions. They would do them even if no one was applauding or giving them financial rewards. Six years ago they studied clowning at a summer clown camp and have been delighting children ever since. They travel the world to entertain sick kids, all without remuneration.

Many names come to mind when I contemplate the more selfless people in our town, people I would call just "good." I think of Bob Doyle, former teacher at The Community School, who is always the first to help in any situation. Even in retirement he gives of himself unfailingly to the community.

Another educator (my world is education, after all) is Barge Levy, who has built the Alternative School into the nurturing place that has formed strong, contributing young adults and also attracts the likes of Karl Fleming, its commencement speaker. No public school salary ever sufficiently compensates educators like Bob and Barge for all they do.

So, kudos to them and to all the people who should receive huge "tips" from the rest of us.

Yesterday I read a paean to waitresses (and waiters) by Collins in a collection of poems entitled "Sailing Around the Room." Aptly titled "The Waitress," the poem imagines all the waitpeople he has ever known dancing, perhaps in "some vast, silvery ballroom" together. He says, "And that is all I think about after I pay the bill, leave a large, sentimental tip ... " His impulse to reward a hard job is obviously ingrained.

So, when I rein in a magnanimous impulse, I will try to think of Billy Collins' advice¾and the selflessness of others¾and practice generosity every day.

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