The Leans


Have you ever tried to get passed someone in tight quarters, and that person leaned left when you leaned right, and then they leaned right when you leaned right? Those who have know all about The Leans.  

This story isn’t about The Leans so much as it grand exits, or grand moments in life. We all want to have moments in life. We love remembering, and we want to be remembered. Some of the times, we dress our moments up to try to make them more memorable. When my work associate announced to me that he was leaving the company, it was obvious he wanted to be memorable. He tried to accomplish that with a grand exit, and he might have accomplished it if it weren’t for a mean case of the leans.

“This is it,” Andrew Parizek said crouching down beside my desk. I was listening to music in my earbuds, so I didn’t see, hear, or sense his approach. By the time he said that, Andrew was so close he startled me. He was a close talker, but he narrowed his normally uncomfortable distance until I could smell the cool ranch Doritos he had for lunch. “My final farewell to you, my friend,” he added. “I’m leaving the company. I’m on my way out the door.”

“Oh shoot,” I said to a co-worker whom I considered a close associate. I don’t know how he would characterize our years-long association, but when we had a go-between, we spoke every day. When that third party changed jobs, I thought the my relationship with Andrew was over. Yet, Andrew kept coming over to my desk to talk about the stupid stuff people talk about. “It was great working with you buddy,” I told him.

This “Final Farewell” had been in various stages for about two weeks. Two weeks prior, we discussed his departure at his going away party. One week later, he and I discussed his imminent departure in greater detail, and we also discussed his future at length. We shared brief discussions about the people we knew and the good times we shared. We also talked about how we would miss the little things we both did to brighten the other’s otherwise boring days. We didn’t hug at the end of those discussions, but we engaged in heartfelt, hearty handshakes that expressed how we felt about one another.

I thought that those final farewells were the final farewells, but his presence at my desk informed me that those notions were premature. “It won’t be the same around here without you,” I said, as I had in the other farewells, but I felt compelled to add original material to this one. I don’t remember what I added, but it involved some sentimental junk that I didn’t mean. I was being nice, and I was trying to make Andrew feel important in my life. I liked the guy, but we weren’t what anyone would call close.

“Are you excited about this move?” I asked him, and when he told me why he was excited, and how excited he was, I said, “I’m jealous.” I wasn’t jealous, as Andrew was moving onto a career that I didn’t want to do, but it seemed like a fitting sentiment to add to this final version of our final farewell. “You’ll succeed,” I said, “because you’re a nice guy and a hard worker.” I meant that. “Are you a little scared about the prospect of leaving the comfy confines our company? I know it’s what you want to do, and all that, but you’re venturing out into an unknown world where the prospect of failure is greater.” He said yes to all of the above. Then he launched.

He spelled out for me, in explicit detail, this new venture of his life. He did so with magnificence and aplomb. He was also magnanimous. He spoke about how he thought that I was delightful, and the type who would succeed, and that if I stuck to it, all my dreams would come true. It was as sappy and weird as you imagine. I hid my revulsion for his word choices. He tried to be multisyllabic, and he used as many –ly words as he had in his vocabulary to instill a sense of timeless profundity to this final version of his “Final Farewell”. If it were a speech, it might have caused some emotional reactions. The audience might have been applauding at the end, some may have cried, and others may have even stood to applaud. The over the top farewell was one that often elicits such near-compulsory emotion. Andrew lit up in moments where ‘dreams can come true’ lines poured out of him. When the line “If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone” brought him to crescendo, I might have reached for a handkerchief if I had what they call emotions.

It was so over-the-top brilliant, coupled with subtle attempts at self-deprecating humor, that I wondered if Andrew plagiarized the material he prepared for this from one of the soldiers’ “going to war” letters that Ken Burns compiled for his The Civil War documentary. If it wasn’t, I felt safe in my assumption that Andrew practiced and rehearsed this speech that day, before a mirror. Whatever the case was, I felt compelled to inform him that I thought this version of the final farewell was an “Experience for anyone lucky enough to hear it,” “Your best, final farewell since final farewell number two,” and a “Tour de Force!” I didn’t say any of this, but I felt Andrew Parizek choreographed his speech in a manner that warranted such superlatives.

We were fellow office workers who chatted almost every day for years. We got along on those levels, so receiving an invitation to his going away party wasn’t a big surprise. When I arrived and Andrew offered me relatively little attention compared to his closer friends, it didn’t wound me. I thought he offered me as much attention as our association warranted.

This Casablanca-style parting was just way beyond protocol as far as I was concerned though. Once I got past the idea that it didn’t matter that Andrew already said goodbye to me a couple times, I politely listened to his spiel as if for the first time. We exchanged email addresses so we could keep updated on each other’s lives. I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I thought it was a nice sentiment. He then concluded with another note about how he was nervous about his future, but he was just as excited by it.

By the time he began to step away, he was all but yelling good wishes to me. 

My mouth wasn’t open, but the display did set me back a pace. Then it happened …

Andrew Parizek entered into a wicked case of the leans with my desk neighbor, as she entered into the aisle he was exiting. He leaned left to get past her, she leaned left, and when he leaned to the right, she leaned right. Before they finally made it past one another, they performed four separate and distinct leans.

If Andrew was extracting himself from a casual conversation, and exiting the aisle in a routine manner, he might have been able to avoid the spectacle that ended up occurring between these two. If he felt no need to execute a departure to be earmarked in the annals of time for those “who were there” to witness his ride into the sunset, I suspect he would’ve been the gentleman he always was and stepped aside to allow my female desk neighbor to pass. At worst, the two of them may have engaged in two leans, if it wasn’t Andrew’s hope that this “The Final Farewell” include women waving handkerchiefs and someone, somewhere saying, “You know what, there goes one hell of a good feller.” I assume that Andrew pictured the rest of us as side characters in his exit, left behind to chronicle the attributes of the main character of this “The Final Farewell” scene.

I don’t keep a ledger on such things, but I do believe that the Andrew Parizek v. desk neighbor case of the leans was the most intense I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen a number of severe cases in my day, and I’ve ever been a party to a few, but I don’t think I witnessed four separate and distinct leans prior to that day.

The one thing we know about the public humiliation that results from a case of leans is that no one gets out alive. Most people try to find some way to quell the embarrassment, but I’ve witnessed some get angry. “Get out of my way!” they shout, in an unsuccessful attempt to direct the humiliation sure to follow to the other party. I saw one person grab the other person by the shoulders and gently usher them right, so they could pass left. I’ve seen some giggle at their own foolishness, and I’ve seen some try to change the subject as quick as they can. None of it works. No one gets out alive.

The one exception to the rule I heard about involved a nondescript, middle-aged, restaurant hostess named Susan. She fell prey to three separate and distinct leans with another co-worker. She was able maintain a modicum of dignity following the episode, and she did it with three simple words: “Shall we dance?”

The witnesses to this event said she said it in the second of what would be a reported, and corroborated, three leans. Susan said it in the midst of what should have been her humiliation. The witnesses of this episode would later swear that she said those three words with a glint in her eye. The glint was faint, they would report, and it was a little insecure, but the observers suggested that they thought Susan knew exactly what she was doing.

What she was doing is subject to interpretation, of course, as this woman named Susan maintained a degree of humility that prevented her from addressing the full import of her purported casual salvo against future ridicule. Those who witnessed Susan issue this phrase swore that Susan knew that by saying this she would be setting the rest of us free from the ridicule that follows such an episode.

We can only assume that Susan suffered similar ridicule for much of her life, and that it bothered her so much that she sought to put an end to it. If that wasn’t the case, it might have had something to do with Susan’s hope that the line “Shall we dance” might provide a remedy to future sufferers. Her hope, we can only guess, was that the witnesses of this episode would spread the word to put an end to this scale of human suffering. Whatever the case was, this unassuming restaurant hostess provided those who were lucky enough to be there that day, and those who later heard about it, a shield against public scorn that we would use the rest of our lives. We might not have carried it off with the grace Susan did that day, but we would always think of her, and silently thank her, for freeing us from this ever-present spectacle in our lives.

Had Andrew Parizek learned of this antidote prior to his case of the leans, it might have spared him the humiliation. I doubted it at the time, and I still do, for I considered Susan’s humorous quip an antidote to two, and in her case three, separate and distinct leans, but I wasn’t sure that even her ingenious response could shield someone from the public fallout of four.

Four separate and distinct leans were so unprecedented, to my mind, that I doubt there is a sufficient antidote. Couple that with the fact with the Gone with the Wind-style, dramatic exit that Andrew hoped to execute preceding it, and I doubt that any clever quip would’ve permitted him to save face. His only recourse was to walk away and just hope that witnesses would forget it soon after it happened.

Andrew Parizek was an “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” fella. Everyone I knew liked him. He was a likable guy, but no one I knew liked him so much that they would hang out with him, or consider him a best friend. He was one of those guys who was always there but never the focus of the room. Andrew Parizek wasn’t the type of guy we will remember, and perhaps that’s all he wanted when he delivered so many final farewells to so many people that he accidentally said goodbye to the same people more than twice. I don’t know how much preparation he put into his final farewells, but I’m sure he did it so that he could let each of us know how important we were to him to have the sentiment returned. This is not to suggest that Andrew’s actions were intended to be self-serving, but everyone wants those around them to remember that we were here. It is possible that had Andrew escaped unencumbered by my desk neighbor, his final farewell might have had the lasting effect on me he hoped for, but the lasting memory I now have of him consists of him shucking and jiving with my desk neighbor, trying to get past her for a dramatic ride off into the sunset.

“It’s Hell Getting Old”


“It’s hell getting old,” was my dad’s answer to questions about how he was doing. “How you doing Hank?” they would ask. “It’s hell getting old.” He wasn’t trying to be funny, and he wasn’t changing the subject. He believed his age was the answer to most questions, the explanation of why he was the way he was, and his fate in life. If age is a state of mind, my dad he was old his whole life, or at least as long as I knew him. He was old in his eighties, but I remember him saying, “It’s hell getting old,” when I was a kid, when he was in his forties. We believed him too, because we were kids, and anyone who is older than us is old. When I gained a different perspective by reaching my forties, I told him that if he ever considered writing an autobiography, he should call it It’s Hell Getting Old. It was his ‘learn it, live it, love it’ meaning of life. If we attributed his health issues to something other than age, we knew we were in for a battle.    

Friends and family were sympathetic to my dad’s “It’s hell getting old!” rants … in his eighties. They would nod, sympathize, and back up and give him the room necessary to develop his rant. I write the word develop, because he talked about his advanced age so much it almost seemed like he was working out material for an act. He repeated certain phrases and lines so often that I could say them with him, as he delivered them to friends and relatives. I heard him provide different emphasis and strategic subtlety to his pleas, over the years, and I heard him employ different ways and means of convincing them of his plight. I don’t think there was anything artificial about my dad’s pitch, as I know he believed every word of it, but he did get better at it after practicing this presentation for forty years.

When I told he might be able to defy the aging process, by some measure, by working out, he dismissed me before I finished the sentence. “I already own a weight set,” he would say.

“I know Dad, but you have to use it.”

“Ok, Mr. Smarty Pants.” He often switched between Mr. Smarty Pants and wise guy to anyone stating the obvious, but no matter what he called us, he always concluded his argument with some about his age. “Old people aren’t supposed to work out with weights.”

“How about a walk then?” we said, and he silently gave us some points here, but what does a person do on a walk? My dad walked in life, when he had a specific destination in mind. The idea of walking just to walk seemed dumb to him. What if someone he knew saw him doing it? “Where you heading Hank?” 

“Nowhere. Just walking for the exercise.” My dad would never subject himself to such a vulnerable Q&A. 

Some cherish their youth, and the telltale signs that it’s slipping away freak them out. Some of us look forward to getting old, because we know that greater levels of clarity, sanity, and stability await us on the other side. I suspect my dad couldn’t wait to get old for all of those reasons, but he also knew that getting old grants one the freedom to talk about their “gross” and “funny” bodily functions without being called out for violating societal norms. The asterisk in that ointment is that such discussions are exclusive to the domain of the old. If the old attempt to have such discussions with the young, they will be met with crinkled noses and uncomfortable laughter. If we tried to rein our father in by telling him that we, and of our friends, find such discussions hilariously gross, he’d say, “Oh, grow up!” 

***

“What comes out of the rectum can be used an indicator of health, but it’s not the indicator,” was a reply I had to an update he provided me on the current state of his bowel movements. “It shouldn’t be used in place of a handheld pulse oximeter, an ECG monitor, or a glucose monitoring device.” Unless his daughter-in-law, a nurse, administered these in-home tests, the devices his doctor sent home with him were never used. My dad thought that what came out of the rectum was a better indicator of health than all of those medical devices combined. Either that or he just enjoyed talking about it.

Knowing that his diet consisted of baked beans, Oscar Mayer Bologna, butter brickle ice cream, and Swanson’s Mexican TV dinners, it was no surprise to us that he began to face some serious health issues, but knowing it’s inevitable doesn’t make experiencing the reality any easier. 

“How you doing today Dad?”

“It was like pounding concrete today.” That was his favorite analogy. He’d replace the word “concrete” with “bricks” at times, just to keep it fresh. I don’t know where he picked it up, or what it meant, but I didn’t waste any calories trying to uncover the true meaning of his analogy. I understood what I needed, and more than I wanted, to understand.

My dad was a former military man who devoted most of his life to the factory. I write that to note that he didn’t waste his time or effort in life on creative pursuits. Creative descriptions of his daily doody, to my knowledge, were his only forays into artistic expression, and he displayed such a rich, provocative vocabulary in this arena that the imagery was almost impossible to block. I write almost impossible, because my mind has chosen to forget the trauma of many of his vivid descriptions, but the “pounding of concrete” stubbornly clings to a place in my memory. I thought of jackhammers destroying concrete.

When people hear others talk about jackhammers destroying concrete, or bricks, or any of my dad’s far too casual conversations about what happened that day in his alimentary canal, they might say, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” We say things like this just to say them, because we’ve heard other use it to describe uncomfortable confusion. Few decided to cry, of course, though I suspect that one of the third parties he and I sat with in diners may have considered it just to get him to stop. I stepped in to solve their dilemma by saying, “Dad, that’s Gross.” I’m quite sure he wanted to tell me to grow up, but whatever he saw on our third party’s face told him they agreed. Our third party companions didn’t know him like I did, of course, so they’d laugh uncomfortably. I suspect that they laughed, because they enjoyed our father-son interplay, and they might have believed that my dad was tweaking me in some way for their entertainment. 

He wasn’t. He tried his hand at entertaining people, but he was so horrible at it that he knew it, and those of us who struggle in this area learned a lot about what not to do from him. That isn’t to say that he wasn’t entertaining, because he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, unintentionally and in his natural state. Friends and family found him just as entertaining as we did, and we flirted with taking our show on the road, but we knew it would be impossible to keep him in his natural state. Anytime he thought he was funny or entertaining, he put forth effort, and he subsequently lost that audience. Smiles turned to confusion and confusion turned to polite laughter when they saw how hard he was trying.

The difference between an occasionally humorous person and an entertaining person is complicated and multi-faceted. One way to achieve short-term laughs is to repeat a joke. Achieving the vaunted title “entertaining”, requires the subject to know what everyone else knows so well that it challenges our understanding, our foundation, and everything we believe in. It requires us to examine ourselves, others, and others’ views of us so well that we briefly imagine an alternative universe if just for the moment it takes us to find laughter. We could even say that attempting to be entertaining asks us to be a little phony for as long as it takes to get a laugh. We might have certain beliefs, certain hard-core, concretized beliefs, but its considered entertaining to let our hair down and analyze from a partially fictitious, self-deprecating angle to challenge those beliefs.  

My dad was many things, but he was not phony. I’m not sure if he had the code in his DNA necessary to be a little phony when he wanted or needed to be. If he did have the code the rest of the human population does, he didn’t use it often enough to harness its capabilities. I called him many awful, mean, and regrettable things in my tumultuous teens, but phony was not one of them. If one of my friends suggested that I might want to try the name out on him, I would’ve rejected them. He was a man of simple truths that he developed in life, and he could not waver on them, even to poke holes in himself for comedic effect. 

He spent his whole life believing he was inferior, and he might have done some things in life to prove to that he was not, but my definition of phony involves someone who acts in an artificial manner to convince others that he is superior. To those who stubbornly insist that the term phony refers to someone who tries to be something they’re not, then perhaps he acted in artificial ways in some instances, but my dad did everything he could to fit in so he didn’t stand out. 

When he got older and sicker, I suggested I interview him to provide his legacy a transcript. I suggested that his young nephews might never know who he was otherwise. He rejected me saying, “When I die, I want to be forgotten.” It’s illustrative, a little funny, and very frustrating to those of us who wanted others to remember him, but it’s not phony. Try to dissect that sentence for a trace of phoniness. To me, that sounds like a genuinely strange character who felt he was not fit for our world. 

He was a fundamentally flawed human being, stubborn, and one of the weirdest human beings I’ve ever met, but he did not put on airs to impress anyone. Anyone who suggests otherwise need only look to the shoes and socks he wore in life. They were not what a man, built to impress, wears.

*** 

“I don’t understand how you and your brother view the world so clearly,” he once said. “It’s always been so cloudy to me.” He was skeptical to the point of denigrating, regarding his abilities in life. Driving, for example, was such an “awful responsibility” to him. In many instances, Dad talked about the difficulties of life, the “horrible responsibilities” the “accountabilities” and the “misery of life” that he said we’d fully understand once we became responsible adults who were responsible for others. Some of it involved lessons he used to lift our eyebrows and prepare us for the “awful responsibilities” that awaited us, but the anxiety he experienced while driving was very real to him. 

We couldn’t play turn on his car stereo, for example, because that could’ve distracted him from his concentration on the road before him. We could talk and stuff, on most trips, but we didn’t have to “get so carried away” with it. If we laughed too hard, he put the kybosh on that, because it diverted his attention from the road too much. He didn’t care for uproarious laughter, in general, because he thought it made the laugher look foolish. 

Whenever we tried to divert him from 90-degree angled driving, my dad rejected that outright, as he feared he wouldn’t make it to our proposed destination. “You could take A street to 130th and take a right, but if you take Stonybrook, it cuts straight through.” Dad did not care for bisecting the angle. He was a tried and true 90-degree man. 

“We could get lost,” he said with tones that asked us to appreciate his predilection. We didn’t. “We could get so lost that we don’t know where we are,” he added in a tone that suggested there is a point of getting lost that could lead a traveler to never being able to return to the existence they once knew. We didn’t understand the severity of our dad’s anxiety, until someone relayed a story to us of Dad being so lost one time that he almost started World War III.  

He was in charge of the map for a tank battalion. We all suspect that one of the great attributes of a military’s boot camp is to determine a soldier’s strengths and weaknesses. Why else would the military put a person through six weeks of intense physical and mental challenges. They want to see what we’re made of, and they want to how they can use our natural talents and gifts. How the military could put a man who lived his whole life in one city and didn’t know his way around in charge of leading a tank battalion with a map challenges my perception of the men in charge of the military at the time. Whatever the case, they obviously didn’t know my dad’s preference for neat and tidy 90-degree turns, because they put him in a position to fail, and fail he did. He led the tank battalion into enemy space, Russian enemy space, and he could’ve, in the words of his sergeant, started WWIII. 

I didn’t know any of that as a kid, of course, but I knew that the only time I saw my parents’ fights devolve to screaming matches occurred soon after the map was unfolded. Thanks to GPS apps, I no longer experience deep seated anxiety I used to when someone pulled a map out. 

The first time I saw Shrek I enjoyed it with a strange sense of familiarity that I couldn’t put my finger on. Shrek was a lovable loser with huge ears, a large belly, and he could be unintentionally and habitually gross in ways he didn’t understand, because he spent too much time in solitude. Shrek also had a strange yet simple philosophy of life that could prove humorously wise at times. I couldn’t shake the sense of familiarity during the movie, and I couldn’t pinpoint it for many years, until someone said, “Shrek’s your dad.” I didn’t laugh, and I found it a little insulting at the time, but when I watched the movie again, in that frame, I realized that the writers of Shrek might owe my dad a  royalty for at least some tangential influence.