Interviewsand Articles


Surprising Encounters: Editor's Intro to Newsletter #13

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 5, 2009



Surprising encounters sometimes come quietly, no trumpets, sometimes so quietly that it takes a while before they unfold into one's awareness. Sometimes it's only after years your eyes are opened and you realize how shallow your earlier knowledge was.
Michael Grbich was my next door neighbor for close to ten years. We had a sociable relationship, neighborly, in a new-fashioned way; we were friendly, but didn't rely on each other. Live and let live with a cheery hello. The only thing that was perhaps a little unusual was a sense I had about my neighbor. Even after a heated neighborhood dispute with the two of us on opposite sides, something stopped me from the automatic judgment I might have had. There was something about this man that kept me from that. 
It wasn't long afterwards that my own life took a turn and I moved away. Not so far away, though, that I didn't see Mike in town from time to time. Life moves on, and sometimes harshly. In less than two years, Michael lost first his wife, much beloved, and then his house. His wife died suddenly and his house burned to the ground in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991. I remember running into Michael in town a year after the fire and being amazed by the equanimity of his response to these two terrible blows. 
Over the years I continued running into Michael from time to time. Whatever his formula was that kept his outlook always on the bright side, it never seemed to fail him. Finally, after so many years of off and on contact with Mike, I proposed an interview. Maybe I could help in extending his spirit to others. It wasn't until after the interview that I learned two more things that really stopped me. Michael grew up as an orphan. His mother died due to complications from his birth and his father committed suicide a year later. How to think about this? Our trajectories in life are mysterious. Perhaps Michael's guiding metaphor is expressed in the name of the non-profit he founded: bridges to cross. Life is a process of crossing bridges and often without any guarantee you'll end up on the other side. You can visit his web site at to learn more. 
 A very different example of a surprising encounter led me to interview Marvin Sanders. Marvin was working for the Berkeley Art Center when I first met him. I was involved in putting together a film festival there and on opening night, Marvin was handling the tickets and managing the room. I arrived early and got to talking with Sanders whom I'd not met before. Learning that he played the flute, I asked if he played jazz. "You ask if I play jazz because I'm black, don't you," he replied. I was taken aback. But he was right. "Yes," I admitted, feeling some apprehension. Where was this going? Sanders was smiling. He seemed to appreciate my honest answer. And within minutes, we had traveled a great distance from being strangers to speaking together in a surprisingly deep way. Connections can happen so quickly if certain things line up. At the end of the evening a few of us went out to unwind. Marvin joined us. I ended up sitting next to him and our conversation continued. What I learned amazed me. Marvin had been homeless. At the age of twenty, for Christmas, his mother gave him a pawnshop flute with sticking keys. It turned out to be a stroke of fate. Hearing his story, I immediately felt it had to be told. Our interview took place about three years ago. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Marvin, accompanied by harpsichord and cello, play a fine program of Bach's music at the Berkeley Art Center. 
Nightshift is the story of another surprising encounter. They can happen anywhere. This one took place late at night in a Marriott Hotel in Kingman Arizona. It was the shift from what Martin Buber called an I-It relationship to an I-Thou relationship, one of the most profound shifts that can happen between people. Only in an I-Thou relationship does a real connection actually take place. The experience was completely unexpected.
And we have another story from Ron Hobbs, his account of a surprising encounter with a Gypsy fortuneteller. "Madam Laura stopped and sighed. Reaching into the leather box on the table, she took out a cigarette, a Viceroy, and lit it. With a blow of smoke and a wag of a finger in my face she spoke in a near shout. 'Don't you patronize an old woman! You think I'm making this stuff up? You can't find your ass with both hands, boy! I'm trying to help you!' I was almost in tears, but were they crying tears or laughing tears?"
And finally, we bring you another one of Michael Lerner's wonderful interviews. This one with journalist and former diplomat Krista Tippett who hosts Speaking of Faith, public radio's weekly program about "religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas." Tippett's first-person approach to religious and philosophical conversation locates these broadcasts at the intersection of grand religious ideas and real life.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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