Random Words of Kindness


Valentine’s Day is Sunday. Isn’t that a great holiday? A holiday dedicated to showing our loved ones how much they mean to us. We have St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr, to thank for it. His letter to a young girl, before he was executed, is one of the alleged origins of this day. Valentine’s Day, now, for the most part, is a lovers’ day.

That’s nice, if you have a partner. The point of this column, though, is not lovers’ love, but friend love, family love, or just general love. Love expressed in kind words.

Years ago, I used to attend a little prayer meeting with some other parents from the school my kids were attending at the time. I couldn’t make it to one of the meetings and had texted my friend telling her why I couldn’t make it. She texted back, “OK, sweetness.” Wow, I thought at the time, isn’t that nice! I texted her back and told her I love it when she talks like that.

Another instance around the same time, at the Canned Food Store in Redwood City, we were waiting in line, and a clerk opened up her window, and said to me, “I can take you over here, honey.” I just lit up. I love when folks talk to me like that. Don’t you?

I love these terms of endearment; but unfortunately, I do not use them as often as I should, or as often as I’d like.

My friend, the store clerk and many others I continually come in contact with are steeped in this kind of kindness, and not only are their words dripping with this divine quality, but so are their mannerisms and their countenances. I have another friend who is the epitome of optimism and joy. I cannot comment on anything on Facebook or say anything that she doesn’t give me a positive and joyful response. I adore this characteristic, and this friend.

Unfortunately, growing up, these expressions didn’t flow readily. My ability to use these delightful demonstrations of affection is somewhat underdeveloped. I grew up in a household where profanity was the vernacular and “survival of the fittest” was the motto. No meek shall inherit the earth, no turning the other cheek or any other teaching from CCD. Sweet nothings were as foreign a language as Uzbek and crying was anathema.

So one of my Valentine’s Day resolutions will be to be more affectionate with my kids, my family and my friends, even to be affectionate and kind to some of the scurrilous among us. Now, this is hard and uncomfortable because I’m not use to it, but I’ll try.

For my friends, the store clerk and the others I have met, their random words of kindness come spontaneously from within. For me, for a time, I must practice deliberate words of kindness and hope that this habit will become spontaneous too.

Remember, according to a Chinese proverb: “a bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.” Aw, sweetness!

P.S. Thank yo, Eloisa!

Originally printed in February 2011


Where Do They Go?


“Where does the winter go after the snow?” I asked my mom as winter faded one year.

“Well, maybe God rolls winter up like a giant quilt and stores it in his attic.” My mom answered with a smile. “What do you think of that?”

“I don’t think so, Mom.” I laughed.

“I don’t think so either,” she said, “I suppose winter just goes right into spring like Thanksgiving goes right into Christmas.”

The daffodils blossomed like a chorus, waving in the wind. We picked as many as we could before their leaves curled up and died.

“Mom, where do the daffodils go when they die?”

“The daffodils never die, they just wake up for a short time and brightly wave to us, and then go back to sleep until next winter.”

That spring, we planted a garden. We planted cucumbers and carrots, corn and pumpkins, tomatoes and peppers. As spring marched into summer, we spent a lot of time in the garden, we mulched, we weeded and we got rid of a lot of bugs.

By mid-summer, many of the fruit were ready to pick. We filled our baskets with delicious green cucumbers, light green clad ears of corn, red juicy tomatoes and snappy orange carrots. We had to wait until fall for those slow growing pumpkins.

After the harvest, the plants remained for a time, they look lost and lonely without their precious fruit, and they eventually withered and died. The cucumber vines slowly slipped from the fence, the pumpkin vines shrunk and died, the corn stalks drooped and dropped to the ground.

“Where do the plants go after they die?” I asked Mom at the beginning of fall. Mom, who had been away, answered without looking at me, “I suppose God buries them in the ground where they wait for the next spring.” There was a sadness in her voice like the sadness in our lifeless garden.

Fall descended like the leaves from the trees. The trees seemed to be weeping sensing the sadness that had filled my house. My dad and I raked the leaves while Mom was away. “Dad,” I asked, “where do the leaves go after the fall?”

“We rake them up and put them in the compost pile for the mulch for next year’s garden.” He said matter-of-factly.

Fall flew past like the wind. And with winter, the garden seemed really dead. The holidays were quiet and sad. I went out to the garden after my grandmother’s funeral. The garden was cold, lifeless, just like how death felt. My mom came out to the garden and asked how I was.

“Mom, where do grandmas go after they die?”

“Oh, baby,” she said with tears rolling down her face, “Grandmas are carried to heaven by their Heavenly Father. And though we won’t see her again here, we will go to where she is later.” She put her arm around my shoulder to lead me back into the house when I noticed something on the frosty ground of the garden. I stooped to clear the dirt and frost. The first shoots of the daffodils were beginning to break through the cold, hard dirt.


First Rites by Philip F. O’Connor

Published SF Gate 4:00 am, Sunday, February 2, 1997

In the late spring of 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to gain control of the budding civil rights movement. On a ridiculously smaller scale, I, then a cub reporter on the San Francisco News, was attempting to prove to myself and my editors that I could do more than write amusing feature stories. The young minister’s path and mine would cross – more accurately, I’d be thrown across his – the morning I was assigned to interview him at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Though King had received national and international attention after the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, his civil rights leadership rested on soft Alabama clay. Though later, the NAACP helped fund King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in mid-’56, NAACP officials were publicly belittling the new organization, which they believed threatened their activities in the South.

During the NAACP’s 1956 convention, held at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, then-NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall called King “a boy on a man’s errand.” Elsewhere, even the great African American leader W.E.B. DuBois said, “If passive resistance could conquer racial hatred . . . Gandhi and Negroes like King would have shown the world how to conquer war itself.”

Such not-so-friendly fire came on the heels of attacks by enemies in Montgomery. Segregationists had bombed King’s and other boycott leaders’ homes. When suspected bombers were arrested, a local court set them free. Death threats to King and his family soon became as common as bulk mail advertising. Police themselves began stalking and harassing the young leader, arresting him on charges that ranged from driving 30 mph in a 25-mile zone to conspiracy to prevent the operation of a business.

As if King needed more trouble, members of his Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that the SCLC would replace, began bickering with each other. Some tried to back out of the boycott, and others charged King with excessive travel and getting too much attention. Discouraged by the problems he faced during this period, King would soon tell singer Harry Belafonte, “I don’t know where this movement is going.”

By spring 1957, despite having been praised in a Time magazine cover story, and profiled in the New York Times as well as appearing on Meet the Press, King had had little success spreading his message of nonviolence through the South. In frustration, he decided to capitalize on his new media attention by writing his autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, and by scheduling numerous public appearances. He began to work at a manic pace, writing, traveling and speaking. By the end of the year, he’d cover 780,000 miles and give 208 speeches. One of his stops would be San Francisco.

I didn’t ask why I, the newspaper’s least experienced reporter, was being assigned to interview King; it didn’t even occur to me. I was 24 years old and King was only 27. Despite the worldwide attention he’d begun to receive, Martin Luther King still wasn’t big news here. In preparing this article, San Francisco Public Library researcher Kathy Laughin and I found only one news item about King and the bus boycott in 1957, prior to June – a single paragraph announcing that local ministers were sending the boycott leader a letter of support. The Examiner librarian found that the morning papers, the Chronicle and The Examiner (which was then still a morning paper), and the other afternoon paper, the Call-Bulletin, likewise gave the rising civil rights leader – and the Montgomery bus boycott – almost no coverage.

My path toward King began at a U-shaped table called the copy desk. In the U’s center stood a man who never, at least in my presence, cast a smile. I know he had a last name but doubt he had a first. Secretly, I called him “Hatchet.” Periodically, he folded up sheets of paper that had been churned out by the United Press or Associated Press wire service machines or been sent over from the city desk, wrote a word-number on the outside and, without even looking, slapped them hard onto one of the sharp foot-long nails that stuck up in front each of his cowering sub-editors. None of the sub-eds cowered more than I, or had more reason to.

Once, given the number “200” on a U.P. feature story by Merriam Smith about a golf game among President Eisenhower and his cronies, I cut out of the approximately 500-word piece every reference to government matters, like whether Ike thought the Air Force deserved to get a $22 million, as opposed to a $24 million, budget increase, and left in more personal material, like a reminiscence about Patton’s dog (The President puzzled over why “Willie” had always growled at him) and Ike’s mysterious distaste for breakfast sausages. ( “Lately,” said the president, “they seem to back up.” ) I was certain that readers would doze over the budget speculation. “Hatchet” had another notion. The sheets quickly re-descended onto my spike. A small note was scrawled across the top: “Delete everything (two underlines) you left in and put back everything (three underlines) you took out.”

I was soon transferred to the city desk. My first assignment was to investigate the report of a body at the bottom of a lightwell on Hayes Street. I went to an apartment building, opened a second-story window and looked down to see ghastly eyes staring up at me out of a gray face with blood trickling from its mouth. Ack! A suicide, police told me. For months afterward, I closed my eyes whenever someone was about to bite into a strawberry- or raspberry-filled doughnut.

Much troubled, I began to dislike news. News, it seemed to me, licensed any lunatic who wanted to burn down a building, shoot a politician or undress on Market Street to determine what I did, thought and wrote about on a given day. A real reporter’s test, it seemed to me, was going up to the devastated loved one of a person who’s just been shot and saying, “Got any recent pictures?” And a real reporter’s life also went too fast. I wanted to sit at the back of the city room, free from deadlines, honing words inspired by pleasant encounters.

My feature writing debut on the News came at the Golden Gate Theater with the opening of the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. I interviewed a real-life shrinking man, thoughtfully provided by the movie promoters. As we spoke, the shrinking man rose from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1, then shrank back to 5-8. Other stories that appeared under my byline included an interview with a talking dog, an article about a jackhammer operator who hadn’t felt the big 1956 earthquake and a piece about a Berkeley sidewalk art show whose first prize went to Betsy, a chimp at the Baltimore zoo.

I was constantly being given advice by editors and fellow reporters: “Features aren’t real news.” “Gauguin drew dogs that were just dogs before he got into all those dibs and dabs.” “You’ve got to learn to bring back the bacon.” I watched the paper’s real reporters – Joe Sheridan, Mary Crawford, Bill Stief and the two George’s, Murphy and Duschek – go out and bring back slabs of it.

I tried.

One morning, I thought I’d done a great job. I’d beaten the rival Call-Bulletin reporter to the only available phone, minutes before deadline for both afternoon papers, with my report of an overnight robbery at the El Rey Theater. After I breathlessly spilled all of my information, the News’ rewrite man, Sheridan, said, “How much?” I’d given him the method of entry, the size of the safe, the cigarette butts on the carpet and could have told him the color of the manager’s hair or the smell the dynamite had left, but . . . how much? “How much what?” I asked. “Money,” he snapped. “Oh, boy! I’ll be right back.” I went to the manager and was given an amount. When I returned to the phone, the Call reporter was using it.

I kept on trying.

A piece of very big news landed on my lap. I didn’t know it was very big news. How could the police report of a pair of men who’d forced another into a car, robbed him of a dollar and then released him be very big news? I typed it up as a one-paragraph story. A few minutes after handing in my copy I was told to make it longer; it was to be the main front-page headline story. Only as I was rewriting it did I realize why. The headline said it all:



I scored a less accidental scoop when I was sent to the Hall of Justice and told to get the story of a bank robbery. I found that the bank-teller who’d single-handedly captured a hold-up man was being questioned in a room closed off to all but detectives. The story was in there. A detective had left his hat on a nearby table. I picked it up, put it on, opened the interrogation room door and, imitating Bogart as Sam Spade, said, “Get that bank teller out here right away.” He was sent out. I introduced myself and put him on the phone to Crawford. Before my deception was discovered, the teller had given his story to Mary. A dirty business. But we had a scoop.

Is the scoop why I was assigned to interview the visiting minister?

Or did my editors see King’s visit as just another feature story?

I arrived a few minutes late at the sparsely furnished hotel room and sat at the end of a long table, opposite the interviewee. His head was tilted down and to one side. When he looked up to see who’d come in, he seemed shy, perhaps nervous. The look gave me one of those up-the-spine jolts of electricity. I nodded at him. He wore a well-starched white shirt, a dark brown suit and a tie of the narrow sort worn in the mid to late-’50s. It was the very same color as the suit. The older-looking of two local black ministers seated on each side of him introduced him.

King spoke in a low, articulate, well-controlled monotone. He said that the Alabama boycott had been inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and that he and the SCLC were now working to begin other boycotts throughout the South. His statement was very short. The older minister invited questions. King’s look had put me off, and I was afraid go first. But neither of the other two reporters, each in his late 50s or early 60s, said a word. In the face of the increasingly painful silence, I finally offered two or three questions. I don’t recall specifically what they were, but I do remember that King’s answers laid out a plan to spread his nonviolent movement throughout the South and then beyond. It was only much later that I looked back and saw that he’d given an outline of what came to be called the civil rights movement.

I submitted three pages of copy, as much as I had ever turned in. I had time to prepare it carefully. There was no hurry. The story wasn’t being treated as breaking news. The next day my piece, reduced to a paragraph, appeared on an inner page of the paper’s first or “Home” edition. (Recently I searched through the late spring and early summer “Final” editions available at the San Francisco Public Library. It isn’t among them, so I have to believe that sometime between the first and the fourth, or last, edition, it was nudged out by other news.

Troubled by the placement of the story, I asked why it had been severely reduced, working up my nerve enough to say “I think that stuff is important.” I was told unequivocally but politely that it was not.

Of course! Had it been considered important, the Call-Bulletin would have sent a reporter and The Examiner and Chronicle wouldn’t have sent tired old men. And the News wouldn’t have sent me.

I’d only once before complained about the treatment of something I’d written. It was a “mood piece” about a jazz musician named Judy Tristano, whose group played soft Monday night music for weekend-weary Beats at The Cellars on Green Street. I was praised for the writing but the piece never appeared. I was told it didn’t belong in a family newspaper. I didn’t like the answer but, thinking about how my mother might respond to the favorable sketch of beatniks and their music, I understood.

This time, I didn’t.

I left the newspaper within days, possibly before my absence was requested, to enroll as a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State College. Soon, I was teaching at Riordan High School. I started those new adventures with the knowledge that, at least once, I’d brought it back.

Philip F. O’Connor, the author of several works of fiction, was a distinguished research professor emeritus at Bowling Green University. He chaired the 1994 Pulitzer Prize fiction committee.

God Loves You…So What?

prodigal son

“For God so loved the world….” so goes the most famous of Bible verses. Its reference can be found on posters in end zones at football games. Its short message”God loves you” can be found on bumper stickers and coffee mugs, and its greeting is repeated in church services all over the country. God loves you…yeah, so what? It seems to have become a trite slogan, a shallow sentiment, a cheap Christmas present.

How many times have you heard this phrase? I’ve heard it so much that it seems to have lost its meaning. It’s fallen not so much on deaf ears, as unhearing ears; like when water falls on polyester, those words bead up and roll right off my ears.  My ears are a poor conduit to my heart and mind in relaying the profound magnitude of the simple fact that God loves me. This Person, Who many of us believe in, loves us. Wow! The One who not only defines Love, but is, quintessentially, Love. All that we cherish in life originates with this Being who happens to, according to the Bible record, love us.

How can a simple phrase carry such power? A couple years ago, I was at work and it was toward the end of the day. It was March. As I was sitting at my desk, a text came from my son-in-law. It was a photo and it was uploading. I wondered what he could be sending me. Now mind you, I was just sitting there finishing up some work, looking forward to going home. Within seconds after I received the picture – a sonogram scan with a lovely caption “Congrats Grandma!” – I was crying, afraid, excited and stunned all at once. The couple that was not going to have children was going to have a child.

I use that example to illustrate how a simple communication can dramatically change one’s life. So does “God loves you” and as it should be. God loves you….from the gospel writers, Paul, the early fathers and down through history, this is the church’s banner. A banner she has dropped over the centuries, but a fact nonetheless. A fact that has survived.

If you want to believe, if you chose to believe or even are compelled to believe like C.S. Lewis did when “in the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” then you get to unwrap the greatest of all Christmas presents – the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is the greatest gift. Ever. The price – well, that’s the Easter Story.

And there are other gifts in that box, you get the light of the world, the fountain of living waters, the gate to the pasture, the bread of life, mercy, grace, faith, hope and charity to name a few of the unsearchable riches in Christ. Not a bad haul.

Are you tired? “Come unto to me all who are weak and heavy laden.” Are you doubtful? “Come, let us reason together.” Are you thirsty? “Let him come to Me and drink.” Are you lonely? “I will be with you always.” Are you shackled in sin? “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Amen. And to the church today, tomorrow and everyday, I say, “Come let us adore Him.”We only know love because He first loved us.

God loves you, so what? Well, that’s what. The greatest of all simple sentences is gloriously true and life-changing. Merry, merry Christmas!


My Miracle


The topic in my online writing group this week is “Miracles”. At first, I thought, “Yikes, I don’t know much about miracles.” But today I remembered one.

I have a lot of kids, and getting them through school has been trying to say the least. There are a couple, THANK GOD, that got up in the morning, got ready and went to school. NO DRAMA. They even did their homework without any assistance from yours truly. Then there were a couple kids that…well, let’s just say they were allergic to that particular routine.

One daughter, in fact, high school hopped. No that’s not a dance. She was particularly gifted in attending as many high schools as she could in four years. A rather noteworthy feat. We were very happy when she graduated from the sixth school she’d been enrolled in. Then her little sister, not to be outdone, began the hop as well. I’m sure Sherry Segalas in our District Office was sick of seeing me. But this one just didn’t like the hop, didn’t like school at all; no hop, no nothing.

One of my miracles this year was getting her in school that would stick. At the beginning of summer, I was resigned to the notion she would just take the CHSPE and get out of school early. But because one of her friends attended a school in the District where I worked, she asked to go there. Well, that wasn’t too easy of a task since it was an alternative school that took in students only from our District’s two high schools. I told her I’d look into it, and promptly forgot about it until July.

She asked about it in July and accused me of not caring about her education (HAH!). I looked into it and the fella I needed to contact was on vacation until the first week of August. And I forgot about it again. The week school was to start – it started on a Wednesday – subject child asked if she was going to the school. Whaaat? Uhm…let me look into it. Now here is the miracle part: I emailed the fella, he got back to me immediately, said I needed an inter-district transfer (which definitely takes time) and I needed to meet with the principal….before Wednesday. It was Monday.

I sent the inter-district transfer to my BFF, SS, to which she replied in no time with a signed release…Yay!! The next day we met with the principal, got her transcripts from local high school and et voile…she was in and she was there for the first day of school. Miracle, plain and simple, just in case the Pope was wondering.

She has done so well in this school, has been on the top credit earner list, scored high on a college entrance exam and has been embraced by the school staff. She will definitely graduate early, not just passing the proficiency test, but with a high school diploma. I could not have asked for a better fit.

Parents with these kinds of kids will appreciate this little miracle. So when things get tough, remember what Philips Brooks wrote:

“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle. ”


The Weary World Rejoices!



December 2011

“The weary world rejoices!” say the lyrics of “O Holy Night” “Weary world” – he got that right! I’m tired, aren’t you? Just listening to the news every evening wears me out. Economic distress, social unrest, solutions that are obscure at best dominate the newscasts contributing to a weary mood, to a weary world. And, alas, it’s Christmas time. A time of cheer, excitement and joy. But the weariness remains, aches if you will, like a tooth just starting to pain.

I confess my children help me maintain the joy of Christmas. They are still young, they are still creating those holiday memories that will pleasantly haunt them in adulthood. For them, I can slough off my weariness and sing…and bake and shop and wrap.

But Christmas isn’t about me or the kids; it is about someone’s birthday. Someone, whose humble birth in a barn two millennia ago, changed the world.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “The birth of Christ is the central event in the history of the earth – the very thing the whole story has been about.” Remembering that and what he did and what he said grounds me.

Remembering the things He said: “I have come that they might have life.” and “Come unto to Me, all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” and one of my favorites, “I am the way, the truth and the life….” He was, and He continues to be. Amen!

The gifts and the glitter, the lights and the laughter and the music and the magic are sweet by-products of this “central event”. Although these delightful paraphernalia of the holiday give a sense of joy, beauty and excitement; it is fleeting like the energy from a Snickers bar.

It is this historical event that gives the weary world true and permanent joy, true and permanent hope and true and permanent peace. His birth is “the good tidings of great joy”. And that joy spills over into every area we allow it. Not a fleeting feeling of happiness, but a deep abiding joy. A joy that can endure hardship, a joy that can sustain tragedy and a joy that can hope during the dark night. A joy I define as an internal place I liken to a plateau I have reached after a long and arduous hike. It may be stormy or it may be sunny; but regardless, I have reached a higher land and fresher air.

The true meaning of this blessed holiday brings greater joy to happy Christmases and comfort through the inevitable sad and lonely ones. This Christmas I hope your joy will deepen and provide greater comfort and peace to you and your family and friends. Happy Christmas from the Shoe.