Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Smiles From The Tienda

Before I left home on a speaking trip last week, I walked down the street to a small "tienda" -- one of many family owned stores prolific in Mexico that sell staples and snacks. I go there a time or two each week and buy a Coke and stop and chat with the owner, Jose. He and his wife and six children run the place, a place about the size of a small bedroom. Jose is usually at the counter, but when his kids are not in school, it is not uncommon to see Abraham, seven years old, making change, smiling and giggling at my Spanish. I walked to Jose's tienda before leaving last week, knowing there would be no time for breakfast in Leon, what with the strip search and mandatory colonoscopy required to board an airplane these days. There is something comforting about walking into a store and seeing someone behind the counter you know, buy a soft drink, and chat for a few minutes about kids, dogs, and the weather before heading home. Think of it as all that Wal-Mart is not. I walked into Jose's tienda about nine that night and he was still there, smiling as always. The back door was open and I could see into his house -- a tin shed with beds neatly lining the perimeter and the kitchen -- a small stove hooked to a natural gas tank in the middle of the same room. His wife was cooking tortillas over an open flame, and the children were waiting anxiously for their bedtime snack, probably better described as their dinner. I asked him in Spanish, "Jose, why are you always so happy?" Jose didn't hesitate. "Because I have so much to be thankful for," he replied. "I have a loving family, many friends, and this store that provides for our needs. I am a very lucky man!" he exclaimed. I smiled and left, went to bed, and was waiting for the shuttle when the driver arrived at 4 a.m. I made the 7:15 to Dallas and had an hour layover before my flight to Little Rock. I wandered down the airport corridor, passing gates on one side and shops on the other, and I could not help being stricken by the busyness -- people running, cell phones ringing, men talking loudly, women in animated conversations, others in the bars trying to drown it all out, and still others glued to CNN or their newspapers, never acknowledging the presence of another, never looking up, never talking, at least not until their cell phones demanded attention. But the most striking observation was that no one was smiling. As I stood there in the middle of the noisy corridor, I recalled the evening before. The dramatic contrast reminded me how important it is to gain and keep perspective about what makes us happy, and keep our eye on the ball. Instead, we have become good little consumers and believe, as we are told on TV every night, that cash and the Stuff it buys is our key to nirvana. In response, we run like spotted apes, blood pressure no longer within site of the nearest speed limit, chasing airplanes and dreams that will never come true. As hard as it to accept, scientists tell us that once our basic needs are met, there is no correlation between how happy we are and how much additional money and Stuff we have. "The fact that an opinion has been widely held," wrote über-thinker Bertrand Russell early in the 20th Century, "is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd." That is where most of us find ourselves, believing because everyone else believes, in spite of the fact that all scientific and most anecdotal evidence points to positive relationships, especially those with family and friends, as that phenomenon that brings us the most joy. Perhaps that is why Nigeria and Mexico, two poor nations, were rated #1 and #2 in overall happiness according to a recent study of 50 countries, while the U.S., rich and powerful and busy by any standard, continues to slide -- now down to #16. What is the lesson? Is it to get out of the squirrel-cage and open a tienda in the central Mexican highlands? Regrettably, that is not an option for most of us, and even if it were, we are far too invested the Myth of More -- the Myth that More will make us happy and that one day More will be come Enough. Sure, we may fantasize about walking away and living in a lean-to on a beach somewhere or in a mountain shack, but few of us will actually pull the trigger. Instead, in the morning when the alarm clock tells us to run, we will strap on the Nikes at $100 a pair and haul ass. Why? Because we are still fighting for what we believe, what we were taught to believe -- that if we work very, very hard, and sublimate everything in our lives to our work and the money it brings us that one day we'll have all the money and Stuff and power we want and we won't have to do it anymore. A sad irony to be sure, since by the time most of us finish our work or it finishes us, our families are grown and gone, our friendships are shallow for lack of attention, or our lives have become nothing more than the dash between two dates on a stone. It occurs to me that one need not live in a tin shed with six children and cook tortillas over an open gas flame to be happy, although it seems to help. For those of us burdened early with the Myth of More, we can be happy, too. But first, we must slow down. Indeed, for a minute or two, or a week, month, or year, we must stop, be quiet, and examine our preconceptions. We need to decide what we are doing today and why we are doing it, ask what makes us happy, respond to that question honestly, and then begin living like we believed the answer. Epilog: When I returned from this trip, I noticed one of our foster dogs was gone. "Where is Tigger?” I asked. "Tigger was adopted," Kelly beamed. "And so is Belle, as soon as we can get her to the border!" "You're really something, Miss K," I grinned. Kelly smiled and gave me a squeeze, and it felt better than my last paycheck. "Want to get a Coke?" she asked. We walked slowly in the evening breeze down to Jose's tienda where we found him still smiling for all the right reasons. (NOTE: Kelly's web site for "Save A Mexican Mutt" can be found at If you want a dog, or know someone who does, please take a look. If you don't see a dog you want, let her know. She'll find what you're looking for, and smile every second she's looking!)


Post a Comment

<< Home