of birdhouses and homework, kindness and happiness
Our booth was nowhere near set up, when up strolled a guy – a self-proclaimed Santa Claus we would later learn. We paused in deciding which picture to get onto the walls next when the guy stopped just outside our booth. “I've taken my magic wand and waved away all the super glue,” was his opening line, said with rueful smile. We laughed a little and then he explained, “Yeah, you notice how no one was buying anything yesterday? Well, for today, I've unglued their wallets.” We nodded our agreement with the lack of purchases the day before and thanked him for ungluing the wallets. I think we both thought the guy would mosey along from there – just a friendly stop from a fellow seller in the warm lighted morning. Except, this guy, he was ready to talk.
“You know, I live on 40 acres and it's so weird to come down here.” He gestures to the buildings around us – we're on a street in downtown Sunnyvale and new construction is going up around us. With the least bit of a question for me our silver haired, morning visitor explains, “Everyone up there is just nice. Like Leave it to Beaver. But down here, people aren't as nice. You know what I'm doing? I'm putting on workshops for retired guys – to teach happiness. I'm retired, I'm happy and I'm going to teach them how to be happy. Guys they retire and they're not 'Joe the postman' or 'Bill the teacher' – I was a teacher – they're nobody. Guys don't do well being 'nobody'. You know, guys retire, get fat and die.” A story teller, a man with something to say, this guy has hooked us. We're smiling along and laughing a little as he seems to jump from one topic to the next.
“I've been happy for the last 16 years. You know how? I've stopped dating. Not so much as a smooch in 16 years and I'm happy. Probably the happiest I've been. You know, there's two types of women – angry women. Like my last two wives. I got tired of getting my ass chewed all the time. See I'm attracted to angry women.” Somehow, he never got around to telling us the other type of women. “So I'm writing a book called – 'Homework with every birdhouse'. I make birdhouses. And you know who buys them? Angry women! You can tell who's in charge 'cause those are the women that buy my birdhouses.”
Then Brian gave us the background on the birdhouses. How, a few years ago, he made one for his mom and then something funny started happening. She began calling him, when before it was always his dad who called. And he could tell something – she was happy. “Oooooh!,” he said with the biggest grin, “and that felt good. Making a woman happy. So that's what my book's about.” Except he hadn't really explained what that meant yet.
“So, I like to give out a little homework assignment to the woman who buy my birdhouses. I didn't do this yesterday 'cause the people here suck,” said with a rueful shake of the head. “But today is a new day, right? So, I give out a little homework assignment. I tell them, 'I've got a little happiness homework assignment if you're interested. It's totally free and will make you happy.' Takes a lot of nerve saying that to an angry woman, me being Santa Claus and all”, he indicates his white beard and somewhat rotund belly. “They don't have to say yes, but if they say yes here's what I tell them. 'The next time you're feeling angry, like you're gonna loose it, take a deep breath and look at your birdhouse. Then with your eyes closed ask yourself Do I want to be happy or do I want to be right?'. 'Cause you know what, only you have the power to change how you feel. He's not making you upset, you're the one making yourself upset.”
Brian, after dropping this pearl of wisdom, then get's a little side tracked and tells us how he just smoked a little joint this morning. How, he only smokes a couple times a year – before art shows like this one and then at the Strawberry Music Festival up near Yosemite. And then he's off telling us about the strawberry themed birdhouses he brings to the festival and how at the tequila jam, where everyone is nice and after he's had about four shots of tequila, he's got his table set with birdhouses just giving them away. He was down to the last two birdhouses when a little girl, who's parents he's known since before the little girl was born, comes up to him and asks “Brian, can I have a birdhouse?” “I just about melted,” he tells us remembering. “They call me the Bubble Man there 'cause I always pass out bubbles. But here's this little 6 year old girl and she knows my name. So I say, sure.” The little girl sees the last birdhouse on the table and asks if her sister can have it. Brian tells us how usually that last birdhouse is his last hurrah. But they go and talk to the little sister and she asks for the last birdhouse using Brian's name too. So, what could he do? He gives that little girl the last birdhouse.
Side tracked again, he leans in to look at the pictures we have hanging on the booth walls so far. “These look great – especially when stoned. Yeah, this is the best part. You get high then walk around talking to everyone. Got to talk to you guys first 'cause I can't be talking to the customers like this. It's just too much.” We all laugh at that. Then it was back to the birdhouses and happiness homework assignments. Each chapter in the book Brian is writing is a different story someone has related to him after they or someone they know bought a birdhouse and have been doing the homework. “Do I want to be happy or do I want to be right?”
The opening chapter, he told us, was going to be the story of a ten year old boy who calls him up one day. “Is this the guy with the birdhouses?” the kid asks over the phone. “My mom's been doing her homework and it's working. She's not the Mean Mom any more.” “How awesome is that?” Brian asks us. “That's what I tell the women, 'You love your family right? You want them to be happy right? You do this homework and they'll be happy. But mostly, you'll be happy too.' So that's my first chapter of the book. And each chapter is another story just like that. I give them my number and tell them to call after they've been doing their homework.”
Lukas and I have been stealing glances at each other this entire time. At first, I think we were both being polite and wondering when our talkative neighbor would mosey along. But then our little exchanged glances were more of the “How awesome is this guy? Is he for real?” variety. Brian winds his way back to the original topic, the seminars he puts on for retired guys teaching them how to be happy.
“Let's say there are 10 guys that sign up for the seminar. And I pair them up, each person has a buddy so 5 pairs. And they need a buddy to call and make sure they're each doing their assignment. I teach kindness. And you know they ask me, 'What do you mean you teach kindness? I know how to be kind.' And my reply is, 'Then why don't you?'” That got us all laughing too. It was spot on. “So I teach kindness and I give these guys a kindness homework assignment. They have to do five unusual acts of kindness to people they know. And five unusual acts of kindness to people they don't know. So, ten acts of kindness and then record what happens.”
“Say, you used to call your wife poopsy all the time and you don't call her poopsy no more.” Lukas and I both thought that was the good thing – not calling her poopsy any more – we conferred on the subject later. “So you start calling her poopsy again. You call her poopsy all day and see what she does.” Oh, so that's your pet name for her and she likes being called poopsy. Brian lost us for a second, but we caught on. “Or say a big fat lady,” he glances over his shoulders to make sure none are standing right behind him and he continues in a confidential tone, “'cause they're the really angry ones. That's my least favorite personality type. Say she spills her groceries. So you ask if you can help her pick them up. Maybe she'll tell you to get lost. But maybe, just maybe she'll say yes. Then you help her pick them up and record what happens. It's all about kindness. And when they start doing this assignment things start to change for them. And they might become happy. They're no longer Joe Nobody.”
Brian wraps up his morning chat with us. “So that's what I'm doing. Teaching kindness and guys how to be happy. Making birdhouses and writing a book on the happiness homework assignments.” We're all smiling.
“You know, that's why I do these shows. We're,” he says indicating himself and Lukas and me and the rest of the sellers at the show, “not normal. But in a good way.” Then he strides off into the morning and we're left giggling in his wake wondering over the little bits of wisdom this high, birdhouse building Santa Claus has left us with. We finished getting the booth set up for the day and then while waiting for our first customers we took notes on our conversation with Brian. Using a cut open envelope we jotted down little snippets we could remember. That early morning encounter was just too awesome to forget. Each little bit we thought of put a smile on our faces. “That totally made the morning,” I said to Lukas. And it really did.