When I was a boy, I would always go to my grandparents’ house in St. Joseph, Michigan for a week each summer.  My grandfather Clyde Herbert Carlson worked for the Whirlpool Corporation for 40 years, first on the assembly line manufacturing washing machines and later in the tool shed, basically a supply closet where people would go when they needed equipment at the factory.  Throughout his years at Whirlpool he repeatedly turned down promotions because he didn’t want to leave the factory floor, he didn’t want to leave behind the other guys.  The tool shed was the perfect place for him, a destination where everyone would end up during the day at some point to get the supplies they needed.  My grandfather was a people person, and this particular job brought him a fair amount of joy.  I of course never knew him as a Whirlpool employee, he retired before I was born.  But I always admired the way he could talk to anyone and everyone.  During the week I spent with him and my grandmother Eva each summer, we would inevitably end up at the grocery store at some point.  We would start out together, but my grandpa would always wander off about half way through the trip.  We would find him at the end of the checkout line sitting on a bench, talking to whomever was there, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity.  He had a way with people which seemed so easy and free, both disarming and charming.  He could talk to anyone.

(My grandparents Clyde and Eva Carlson, during World War II circa 1944)

The longer I stay in New York, the more I understand the daily social patterns people create.  Visitors often get the impression that New Yorkers are rude: no one makes eye contact, everyone seems to be in a hurry.  I’ve grown to realize however, that much of controlled interactions that typify New Yorkers are defense mechanisms.  If you stop and say hello to everyone you pass on the street in my hometown, it may add twenty seconds to your day.  If you do the same in New York, you will be bombarded by Greenpeace advocates with clipboards, panhandlers asking for money, and practitioners of Falun Gong.  In the Midwest, you have a car with a frame of steel to separate you from the world, in New York we have to create that separation ourselves.  Or do we?  I went to Kmart on 8th Street this week to pick up a few odds and ends, and when I got to the checkout line I thought of my grandfather, and they way he could make anyone feel like they were his equal.  When the clerk asked me, as everyone always does, “How are you?” instead of saying good or fine, I looked her in the eye and I said, “You know, I’m tired.”  She looked at me as if for the first time and said, “Yeah, me too.  I can’t wait until my shift is over.”  I asked her when her shift was over and she laughed and said she had just started.  I smiled and added that I knew the feeling.

(My grandparents at their home in St. Joseph, Michigan circa 1999)

I constantly hear about the futility of trying to change anything, that no one person’s impact amounts to much at all.  But the small moments of connection we make in our lives, those honest and truthful moments where we truly share ourselves with another person, they change and fracture the course of a day and eventually the course of a life.  I saw my grandfather do it time and time again, and as I get older I’m trying to figure out just exactly how he managed it.  I think with time and patience, I’m starting to get closer; I’m trying at least.  St. Joseph, Michigan is on the shore of Lake Michigan, and my grandfather took me to the beach in the summers as well.  I would swim in the water and he would sit on the beach and worry, wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants.  He would yell out to me when he thought I was in too deep and he constantly remind me of the rip tide. Dave Beck (“I Can Breathe Underwater”) and I worked together at Camp Arcadia in northern Michigan, which is also on the shores of Lake Michigan.  The sound of the waves evokes such tranquility and calm for me.  Like my grandfather’s example, it’s something I try to remember as I make my way through the crowded streets of New York.  It also found it’s way into the portrait of Dave Beck.  Tonight is the final Studio Tisch performance of We Outran the Sun here in New York, and it seems fitting to share the mp3 of that song.  Just follow the link below to listen.

I Can Breathe Underwater by Matthew Carlson

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