Editorial: Time to Savor the Small Stuff

By Becky O’Malley
Friday July 20, 2007

“The world, Mma Ramotswe believed, was composed of big things and small things. The big things were written large, and one could not but be aware of them—wars, oppression, the familiar theft by the rich and the strong of the those simple things that the poor needed, those scraps which would make their life more bearable; this happened, and could make even the reading of the newspaper an exercise in sorrow. There were all those unkindnesses, palpable, daily, so easily avoidable; but one could not just think of those, thought Mma Ramotswe, or one would spend one’s time in tears—and the unkindnesses would continue. So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one’s own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. Clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself, what was their own solution?” 

—From The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith 


Last week I had the occasion to visit Kaiser’s Oakland clinic laboratory to have blood drawn for the usual routine tests, the day after I’d incurred a minor but painful twisted leg muscle because of an unwise choice of shoes. I limped, conspicuously, from the main entrance to the elevator, and from the elevator to the fourth floor laboratory. When you’re limping yourself, you can’t help noticing how many other people around you are limping too, and it seemed that everyone in the building was limping that day, some worse than others, some needing canes and walkers to keep themselves steady.  

Despite the many other limpers around me, it seemed that I was deluged with sympathetic glances and offers of help during my short journey. Doors were held for me; wheelchairs were mentioned. One man who spoke English with difficulty took the trouble to tell me a long story about his leg injury, and how he’d injured his other leg by favoring the sore one, which he wanted to make sure I’d avoid. Advice taken: I’ve been careful, and so far this week both legs have been working pretty well, knock on wood. 

When I’d finished at the lab I had a chance to sit in the shade on the bus bench on Howe Street for a while and observe the passing throng. There’s a miniature farmer’s market there now some days, so I saw produce shoppers as well as patients and employees. Not for the first time, I realized how lucky we are in the East Bay, because the whole world comes to us, no need to deal with crowded planes and travel restrictions. I saw every possible type, every conceivable standard of physical beauty, every style of colorful or outrageous dress among the people getting on and off the shuttle buses. Many were undoubtedly at Kaiser because they had problems to deal with, but most were smiling and courteous despite that. And someone’s cultivating a really sensational bed of begonias at the clinic door.  

Reading the newspapers is part of the job description here, and yes, Mma Ramotswe is right, it’s all too often an exercise in sorrow. If anyone out there hasn’t encountered Alexander Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books yet, they’re a gentle antidote to a world too much with us in the daily news. The protagonist is a “traditionally built” woman in Botswana who specializes in unraveling the simple puzzles of daily life, and they beautifully evoke the joyful world of small things which are too easily overlooked.  

“News” is most often the big things. “Big” in our range can mean national, international or local, but hard news these days is seldom good. That’s why it was a pleasure to be at the Maudelle Shirek building on Tuesday when Iceland devotees got the good news that five councilmembers had actually listened to what they had to say.  

Sports for kids is not Big news, nor should it be. What made Iceland a Big Thing in our small pond was bad news, plans to take sports away from kids, and from adults as well. I seldom go to council meetings these days, too depressing and I’ll read about them eventually anyhow. But I was at the farmers’ market on Tuesday afternoon, and when three people, including one total stranger, came up to me lamenting the potential destruction of Iceland I knew something interesting was happening, and I wanted to see it for myself, live and in color. 

Among people I know, I was already aware that Iceland partisans were the most politically diverse assortment seen in Berkeley in many years. I joke that if I invited them all to one party fistfights might break out, not about Iceland but about everything else they believe in. That’s not actually true, because what links all the Iceland supporters together is their shared belief that the commons matters, even though they might often differ in their analysis of what needs to be done to protect it. If the topic of rent control, for example, came up, you would certainly see some spirited debates among the fans. 

But among the official Iceland boosters at the council meeting, the ones in the blue tee shirts, there was nothing but goodwill and courtesy. They were quite diverse in the non-political sense—all races, ages and genders—but what made them alike was their cooperative attitude and demeanor. A shining human bouquet, in fact, more beautiful than the begonia bed at Kaiser. 

I myself was probably the rowdiest person in the audience, since I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the Mayor’s suggestion that Iceland could be commemorated by a nice plaque. I happen to know that commemoration by a plaque alone is specifically banned in the California Environmental Quality Act as a mitigation for the loss of a historic resource, so the proposal was either ignorant or cynical in the extreme. Councilmembers Wozniak and Maio are to be commended, on the other hand, for educating themselves on what the job at hand was: to evaluate the building’s value as a resource, not to make dire predictions about its future if neglected or to decide whether they might prefer to see some condos on the site. They also managed to squeeze out of a very reluctant City Attorney Albuquerque the accurate information that Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, still in effect despite Bates’ efforts to get rid of it, contains perfectly adequate provisions to counter “demolition by neglect.” Betty Olds relied on her excellent political instincts to tell her the right way to vote, and Spring and Worthington were on the mark as they usually are.  

The other councilmembers brought to mind the British press’s unkind characterization of Tony Blair as “George Bush’s poodle.” They aren’t exactly Tom Bates’ poodles, of course, but they do seem to follow him around. Anderson acted more like Bates’ rottweiler, launching an uncalled-for attack on Iceland supporters, with the genial Moore perhaps a cocker spaniel and Capitelli, who didn’t say much but voted with Bates, something fast and nervous like a whippet.  

Is a bunch of folks getting together to save a skating rink a Big Thing or a Small Thing? The best hope we could have is for a world in which “small acts of helping others … small ways of making one’s own life better” like creating or saving skating rinks become Big Things, and the ugly big things in the daily papers shrink in importance or fade away altogether. Sad to say, that’s a hope we’re not likely to see realized in our lifetime, so we’d better cherish the small things we have.