Falling Down Manholes


Is it really funny when a grown man falls down a manhole? If we find a tragic incident like that funny, what is funny, what’s tragedy, and what’s the difference? Most people who fall down manholes don’t fall straight down the manhole clean, like Yosemite Sam, and most of them aren’t mumbling comedic swear words to themselves as they fall. Most of them will likely damage something precious upon entry, and depending on the depth of their fall, they’re probably going to be screaming. They might not have enough time to fear death, but anyone who has fallen from a decent height knows that it’s such a scary experience that we don’t consider our fall funny.

If our friend walks away from the fall with some superficial bumps and bruises, that might be funny, but what if he chipped a tooth? What if he took a nasty knock on the head, or broke an ankle? What if his injuries were so severe they required Emergency Medical Technicians to free them? Does the severity of the injury make the incident more humorous? Before you say no, think about how you might tell the story of the incident. Any time we tell a story, we want a punctuation point at the end. What better punctuation point would there be than a prolonged hospital stay that involves tubes and machines keeping him alive? “They’re saying that the nasty knock on the head could leave him mentally impaired for the rest of his life?” If isn’t hilarious, it’s at least so noteworthy that we’ll be repeating this story to everyone we know.   

The initial sight of Jed lying in the sewer might be funny, unless he’s screaming. What if he’s hurt? How can he not be? We laugh. We don’t mean to laugh. We don’t find this funny, but we can’t stop. Some of us wait to find out if Jed’s okay before we laugh, and some of us wait to laugh until he’s not around when we can retell the story of his fall. Most of us will laugh at one point. It can be an impulsive reaction to something tragic.

Laughing, or otherwise enjoying, another person’s pain is so common, that the Germans, developed a term for it: schadenfreude. Is this impulse based on some sick and twisted instinct that we cannot control, or do we enjoy all others’ pain in one way or another? Is our laughter fueled by the relief that it’s not happening to us, or is it the result of comedies and comedians shaping and reshaping our definition of what’s humorous by twisting dark, tragic themes into something funny? Whatever the case is, incidents such as these reveal the relative nature of humor, the fuzzy line between tragedy and comedy, and how we find comedy in others’ tragedies. The purposeful melding of the two even has its own genre: tragicomedy.

My personal experience with the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, didn’t involve falling into a manhole, but licking a pole. I was in the fifth or sixth grade, old enough and smart enough to know better, but young enough and dumb enough to do so anyway on one of the coldest days in February. I didn’t know the philosophical details of the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy, but I knew people would laugh if they saw me stuck there. I knew there wouldn’t be an “At least you’re okay” sentiment among my classmates. I knew this wasn’t one of those types of mistakes. I didn’t know a whole lot about human nature, but I knew that certain people live for such moments of pain and humiliation. We all know those types, and we know they never forget. We could win the Pulitzer Prize, or become a world-renowned adventure seeker, and they will say, “Wasn’t that the kid who got his tongue stuck on a pole in fifth or sixth grade?”

I didn’t think about all those things while stuck in the moment of course. The only things I thought about were how am I going to rip myself free and how much is this going to hurt? When I thought about the pain I would endure, I knew it would be worth it to prevent anyone from finding out about this. The idea that one person might see me stuck on this pole compelled me to pull my tongue off as quickly as possible. I considered the pain a secondary concern to the idea that someone else might find out about this. After tearing several layers of my tongue off, the pain lived up to my greatest fears.

I’ve since read stories of others suffering a similar embarrassment, calling in civil servants to help them get free. The first question I have for these people I’ll never meet is, what were you thinking?

While still stuck on the pole, I knew the chance of someone seeing me in this embarrassing position increased exponentially with each second I remained stuck to the pole, and the prospect of calling someone over to help me, and that person calling another person over, until they all gave up and called in a rescue squad makes me so uncomfortable that I still cringe when I think about how many people would’ve been involved and how material they would have on me in the aftermath.

I have to imagine that the victim who had someone call in a rescue squad was younger than I was at the time, or that the severity of their incident was worse than mine. For if all of the circumstances were even somewhat similar, then I have to ask them why they didn’t just rip themselves free? My empathy goes out to those who feared how painful it would be, but they had to consider how much unwanted attention they would attract by doing everything but ripping off several layers of their tongue.

After suffering a similar situation, my question to anyone who later complained about that unwanted attention is, were you ever teased, ridiculed, or bullied prior to your episode? I will make some exceptions for age, as I say, but most kids have been introduced to these reactions, and they should do whatever they can to avoid having these elements of human nature rain down upon them.

Even when I was still stuck on that pole, I knew certain people would be waiting for the details on my tragedy with baited breath. I also knew that my bully’s audience wouldn’t be able to restrain themselves from laughing at his displays of cruel and clever creativity. I didn’t know what nicknames or limericks he would develop, but I knew he would develop something. He was our class clown, and he was always developing material on someone. I realized that all of the pain I experienced in the aftermath of the toe curling rip of my tongue was worth it, because at least he wouldn’t have this ammunition to use on me.

We’ve all heard talk show guests say that they were the class clown in school. We all smile knowingly, picturing them as children dancing with a lampshade on their head and coming up with the perfect response to the teacher that even the teacher considered hilarious. Those of us who knew a class clown saw some of that, but we also saw what happened when they ran out of good-natured and fun material. I knew the minute the class clown ran out of material he would begin looking around for victims, and I was always one of his favorite targets.

We all enjoy making people laugh, but some have a psychological need to make people laugh, and they don’t care who has to get hurt in the process. Based on my experiences with class clowns, I can only guess that those who would fashion a career out of it, such that they were so successful that they ended up in a late night talk show chair talking about it, probably learned early on that no matter how you slice it, if someone falls down a manhole, or gets their tongue stuck to a pole, there’s comedy gold there waiting to be excavated. They may be too young to know anything about the complexities inherent in the symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy at the time, but at some point they realized that anyone can get a laugh. To separate themselves from that pack, former class clowns-turned-successful standup comedians would have to spend decades learning the intricacies and complexities of their craft, as everyone from the Ancient Greeks to Mel Brooks did. They would also learn for all of the complexities involved in comedy, one simple truth they knew in fifth to sixth grade remains: if one wants to achieve side-splitting laughter from the broadest possible audience, someone has to get hurt.

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The Master Reset on Washing Machines


 

Our washing machine stopped spinning. It would reach the spin cycle and just stop, until the spin cycle ended. I went to the phone for answers. I thought the YouTube videos on the subject would instruct me on the “simple task” of tearing the machine down to the bolts and building it again. I also thought they might tell me to “simply” remove a belt that is almost impossible for someone like me to remove. I pictured an afternoon of frustration and uselessness, as I attempted to fix something above my pay grade.

The first internet page I pulled up, informed me that my first step was to perform what it called a “Master Reset”. It sounded complicated. I read the definition of the Master Reset. It said, “To perform a Master Reset, carefully unplug the washing machine from the power outlet and leave it unplugged for one minute. After one minute is up, plug the washer cord back into the wall. Next, open and close the door of the washing machine 6 times within 12 seconds to send a “reset” signal to all the components.” I read through those steps a couple of times. It seemed too simple, and I knew that a remedy this simple would not work for someone like me. My cynicism led me to believe that corporations build these things to keep people like me from fixing them, and to keep the whole industry that surrounds washing machines, and repairmen afloat. I also thought this sounded like one of those “home remedies” that people spread via word of mouth, but no one uses, because they don’t work for “me”, and such solutions only leave those of us that are not able to fix anything with this inept feeling of being one of the few for whom miracle cures don’t work.

In my mind, I was already at the hardware store writing the check for a new washing machine, but I considered the idea of trying this step-by-step process on a ‘what the heck’ basis. I thought this option might have a better chance of working than stabbing myself in the eye would, so I tried it, and it … it worked. It worked so well that we did it twice just to convince ourselves that it actually worked.

I went back to the website that said, “This is a common fix that many appliance repair mechanics use – it works on about 50% of all washing machines.” This led me to wonder how many times an appliance repairman removed the back panel on a washing machine while we were in the room? How many of them fiddled with the machine, until we left that room? How many of them then executed the steps of this master reset and called us back into the room to show us their prowess, and a bill of $130 for parts and labor?

“You just needed a new flux capacitor, and well, I happened to have one on me,” they say to our amazement.

How many of us were so relieved that our old washing machine now works, and that we do not have to pay $300 for a new one, that we didn’t question it. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars have passed from desperate customers to appliance repair mechanic over the years and decades in which this master reset option has been available to us? How many new washing machines have desperate customers purchased to replace a washing machine that most people, salesmen or not, will tell you are cheaper to replace than fix? How many of those same washing machines just needed a master reset? This led me to two conclusions, I could either become an appliance repairman that specializes in fixing washing machines, and fix 50% of them, or I could spread the word and hopefully prevent others from being duped by repairmen and salespeople who tell their customers it is in their best interests, over the long haul, to just buy a new one.

[Update: Needless to say, our washing machine was on its last legs. The method described above did not fix this washing machine, or save it long-term, but it did extend the life of the machine by about a year and a half-to-two years. So, read this article for what it is and nothing more.] 

Innocents Abroad, or Innocence Aboard?


In our travels to the east, we were afforded an amiable, native as a guide. Her demeanor was such that we were never afraid to ask questions, or prod her for more information. She proved to be an eager, energetic font of knowledge that was so happy to share information about her home state that no one could mistake her for being anything less than a proud New Yorker.

If you don’t care for the food that a waiter serves you in New York, our guide informed us, the way to rectify this is through what the indigenous people call complaining. After numerous exercises in this course, she would provide us with a knowing smile that I scoured for some sort of condescension. I couldn’t find a hint of it. She knew that our experience with her state was limited, and that we were unaccustomed to the rich traditions of its indigenous people. Her goal was to try to help us learn how to get along with her people.

NYC-1She informed us of some of the “crazy people” we might encounter in our walk through her beloved city. The best example she could come up with was a man that exited his car screaming at an inflatable female under his arm. He continued this screaming, she said, until he entered his apartment. I wondered if there were any chivalrous males on the scene, and if they felt an innate impulse to step in and prevent this from escalating.

Our tour guide then attempted to expand this characterization she was building, as a world traveler, by correcting a native Mandarin speaker on their pronunciation of a Mandarin word. The native speaker exhibited some grace by avoiding the correction and continued answering my question. I asked our guide about the exchange later, and she informed me of the various dialects of Mandarin, leaving the impression that neither party was correct or incorrect about its pronunciation.

The one thing our guide did not prepare us for, were the number of people walking around New York City. We had both already been to New York City, so she may have figured that the sheer breadth of the population had already daunted us. The second time through, however, this widened snapshot of the world reminded me how many divergent thoughts exist on our little planet, and how many divergent takes there are on humor, sadness, misery, and horror. We have all experienced these emotions, on various levels throughout our lives, and we all consider our different experiences to be individualistic.

Bestselling books took on a different light, as I encountered so many different faces. Some books become bestsellers through the sheer brilliance of the writing, and some of the times we find these books. Some of the times, brilliance finds its own way of bubbling to the surface without critical assistance or an extensive and expensive marketing plan. Some of the times, word-of-mouth has its own way of worming through our culture. Even though the internet has made it possible for us to make the world a little smaller, and easier for word-of-mouth to spread, these books are still the exception to the rule on most bestselling lists. Those written for the sole purpose of becoming a bestseller still dominate. We all know these books when we’re reading them, and for some reason we all enjoy them. I used to consider it a concession to write a bestseller for the sole purpose of writing a bestseller, and I still do to some degree, but my prejudicial disdain for those that do diminished a little when, walking among the divergence, I realized what an accomplishment it is to appeal to this many people.

In my travels throughout the museums and art houses, I discovered a number of guides that were so well-informed and enthusiastic about their subject that they were just dying to talk about it. They described the artistic pieces as if it were one of their own. They viewed each question I provided them as an opportunity to launch into the history of the artist. They did it with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but be impressed, even though some of my questions could be perceived as a challenge to the artists’ aesthetics. I could tell that some of my questions wobbled them a bit, not that they were extra-intelligent, but different from the usual questions they were asked. One guy drank from a sports water bottle, like he was dying of thirst. My thought, while watching him, was that he wanted to have something to do with his hands. I made him nervous, but nervous in a good way, almost like he didn’t want to disappoint me and fail to live up to the challenge I was offering him. I did not intend for this to be a psychological experiment, but it turned out that way when I encountered one of the few that wasn’t as sure of herself as most of the guides were throughout my visits.

My questioning of her may have appeared aggressive, but it was not intended that way. The perception may have been borne of my desire to appear confident in the face of my nervousness. This woman answered me in a defensive manner. She attempted to give me a memorized response, and her body language suggested to me that she never wanted me to speak to her again. I didn’t. I allowed her to speak uninterrupted from that point forward, but I couldn’t help but think we were both missing an attempt to reach a greater understanding of this subject. I know what I know, in other words, but my desire to know more can cause me to appear somewhat obnoxious in the face of those that don’t have the same needs.

Our travel to the east concluded in airports, of course, and I encountered an individual that began flatulating. This wasn’t one of those simple three chord structures used in modern mainstream music, this contained some complicated rhythms that the Ancient Greeks would’ve called diatonic, a complication that appears exclusive to the jazz world, with a dominant seventh chord and a sharp ninth in succession. What bothered me about this is that I’ve been hearing my whole life that the indigenous people of the east, New Yorkers in particular, do everything better. They’re smarter, more creative, and more successful. It’s bothered me because I lived with this belief that we’re all people. We’re all from somewhere. We all have different faces, divergent thoughts, and our own individual experiences with horror, comedy, and drama, but we often end up reading the same books, watching the same TV shows and movies, and listening to most of the same music. In other words, for all that a person from the East experiences in relation to what a person from the Midwest might experience, and for all the opportunities they have to experience more by way of artistic exploration, it often comes out the same when we sit down to express ourselves. What I was hearing was different, no doubt, but was it a one off from an individual that must have ingested some inartful material, or was it one of the best arguments I’d ever heard that New Yorkers are, in fact, more creative, and do everything better?  No one would’ve confused this display with a Rachmaninoff structure, but it was beyond anything I’d heard in the Midwest.

 

The Silly and the Sad


 The Sad!

On a scale of one to ten, how bad do you think your situation was?

“A fifteen!” will likely be the answer.  If that’s not the exact number they choose, we can be sure that whatever number they choose will be outside the ‘one to ten’ parameters we set up in our question.

IndianJDentRes_2012_23_5_686_107411_u1We understand the overwhelming need some have to stray from the parameters, to help us understand that the situation they just experienced was of such an unprecedented magnitude that placing it in normal human parameters will not do it justice.  By doing it so often, however, we not only render the parameters meaningless but the unnecessarily extreme answers as well.  We’ve arrived at a point where if someone does remain within the parameters and answers with a ten, we may walk away with the “nothing to see here” mindset that occurs when witnesses of a tragedy realize that the last bloody body was just removed.

Further details may eventually reveal the person’s tragedy to be of an unprecedented magnitude, but a parameter abiding answer just feels so anticlimactic in lieu of the advancements we’ve made in this assessment conversation that we can’t help but think that it does a disservice to their tragedy to remain within parameters.  If these tragedy survivors stubbornly insist on remaining within the parameters, after repeated warnings, we may begin to wonder if they are of foreign descent, and thus unfamiliar with the advancements we’ve made, or if their unusual desire to stay within the parameters suggests that they might on the spectrum.

For those that can’t pound a point home, without straying from the parameters, an acceptable alternative can be found in an excessive use of syllables.  The rules of syllabication are often used to punctuate comedic points, but they can also be used to pound ultra-serious points home in a manner few other answers can.  How bad do you think that situation was?  “A seven-point-seven!”  What?  “I’m telling you, ‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.’”

One reason those that stray from parameters do so, may have something to do with a subconscious realization that single syllable numbers like eight, nine, and ten don’t have the emotional impact that a multi-syllabic numbers will.  This coupled with the fact that a multi-syllabic seven is less than those numbers, prompts some people to go outside the parameter of the question searching for their illustrative needs.  Yet, most of us have reached a point where these answers have become so common that their intended syllabic resonance has faded.  It’s become a cliché at this point, and if you’re looking for sympathetic impact clichés are to be avoided at all cost.

The decimal point not only allows its user to almost triple their syllabic output, but it may also provide your assessment an illusion of expert exactitude.  Your audience will surely be confused by this answer initially, but that confusion could progress to awe, and it may eventuate into the holy grail of all sympathy seekers: A desire to have you repeat the details of your tragedy.

“Holy Criminy!  What happened again?!”

Those of us that have heard the parameter stretching answers used so often that they’re meaningless now, are sure that their pervasive use is based on the fact we haven’t provided them a suitable alternative.  And while we make no claim to this being the answer to all of your illustrative needs, it might be one to consider the next time you feel the need to extract an exaggerated amount of sympathy from your peers.

The Silly!

PX1Leo-scan_3106899b“I only wish more people could see the side of him that I do,” a friend of a famous person, stereotyped for being ultra-serious, says.  “He’s actually, really very funny.”  This friend will then go on to provide general information that characterizes a playful side of this famous person that most people don’t know.  They may say something like, “Behind closed doors, he just has us in stitches.  He loves children, and there’s nothing he loves more than watching a little kitten play with a ball of yarn.”  This friend usually lays out the evidence of their friend’s silly side at a time when it is most beneficial for that politician, star, and/or actor to have a softer, more playful side added to their profile.  The best case scenario for all involved is to simply float this trial balloon, and allow it to continue to float in the imaginations of the public.  The alternative, of course, is to send that client out to provide the world some evidence, but this is usually fraught with danger, as what is considered funny by the loyalists and acolytes, that form the famous person’s entourage, may not play as well with those that don’t stand to benefit from believing that the person is funny.

We can probably guess that Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong had a softer, more playful side that left their entourage in stitches on occasion, and this may have led them to believe they had killer material that they couldn’t wait to display on the worldwide stage, until some bold adviser stepped forth to caution them against using such material on the worldwide stage.  “I just have this feeling that most people will not find it acceptable to joke about the manner in which millions are slaughtered.”  And we can be quite sure that the dictator disagreed with that adviser so vehemently that that adviser lost his life.  The dictator eventually saw the light, however, and discovered the universal truth: Everyone has limitations.  Some are accepted on the worldwide stage for their abilities to make people laugh, some gain fame and riches for their seriousness, and others have a gift for making people cry.  The lesson that those of us that try to be all things to all people can take from murderous dictators is be who you are, learn your limitations, and try to succeed within that bubble.

The Psychology of Travel


“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is a line that service industry employees know well. The squeaky wheels are our rant and ravers, adults that throw child-like temper tantrums. They scream and throw things, and they call the service employee before them every profane name they can think up to get what they want. Squeaky wheels know that the standards of the service industry are set up in such a way that no self-respecting manager is going to allow a squeaky wheel to stand at their desk and create a spectacle. They know the standards of the employee’s job duties are set up to appease the screaming minority that call corporate offices and write letters. Squeaky wheels also know that frustrated, low-level employees –those that want to rebel against these standards and treat the screaming minority in the same manner they treat the more deferential majority – are mere stepping stones to a manager that will step in and just give the squeaky wheels all the grease they need applied to make them go away.

“Imagine what it must be like to live like that every day of your life,” the front desk manager informed me after my frustrations reached a boiling point with one particular shrieking wheel, and the favorable treatment he received from the manager after the man acted like a petulant child that wanted a lollipop. ‘You’re not going to get anything if you continue to act that way young man,’ was my stance, but my manager stepped in and gave away the farm.

The idea that no discernible punishment awaited the hysterical man that stood before me was the source of my frustration. I grew up believing that there was a social, karmic contract that we all enter into where we attempt to treat others the way we want to be treated, and that the definition of character is formed on how we treat those that can do nothing for us. Watching the way this man acted, and the way management reacted, led me to believe that those standards are nothing but mottos that we’ve developed to keep the rubes in line, while the shrieking minority walks away with all the spoils. The gist of my more reasonable manager’s reply was that this shrieking wheel’s punishment for acting the way he did, was having to live the way he presumably lives.

“A person cannot be that obnoxiously miserable,” he stated, “without being obnoxiously miserable.”

No one involved in this obnoxiously miserable man’s spectacle knew what happened to him after we resolved his issue. We concluded, however, that the remaining moments of his trip would be as miserable as the rest of his life would be, because he was miserable, and that the greatest impediment to him having an enjoyable trip was the decision he made to take him with him.

Happy people tend to get lost in the shuffle in the course of a day at a hotel. They do not have chocolate truffle apologies sent to their room by the manager, they do not have extra-amenities lying in wait for them in their room, and they will not gain the sense of satisfaction that the miserable must gain by conquering an eighteen-year-old service industry employee’s desire to do everything they can to avoid rewarding the obnoxiously miserable. Happiness has its own rewards in all of the intangible ways everyone knows, but some it appears, would rather have a chocolate truffle.

It’s been my experience, working at a hotel in a decidedly non-tourist spot, that happy people can have great, enjoyable vacations no matter where they decide to travel, whom they vacation with, or what their vacation destination has to offer. Their happiness is so infectious that it bleeds over into their daily life, in much the same manner misery does for the miserable. To the happy, the very idea of travel is but a luxury afforded to those that know how to budget accordingly. The miserable, however, can find something to be miserable about in the most luxurious, five-star destination spots the world has to offer, because they make the unfortunate decision to take them, and all of their baggage, with them on vacation.

No vacation can make a person happier, or any more miserable, than they already are. The weather will not act according to plan, everything will be more expensive than calculated, some members of the service industry will be miserable jerks in a manner that makes a vacation more miserable, and a vacationer will run into some unreasonable jerks –in the general population of the locale to which you travel– because these people always seem to find the miserable. It’s been my experience, on both sides of the travel industry, that Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong) will come into play whenever one decides to go on a vacation. I’ve also learned that Murphy’s Law doesn’t apply to places and things as much as it applies to people, miserable people that seek out misery.

If you are one of these miserable people, and you’ve arrived at the realization that the greatest obstacle to having a great time on vacation is that you have to take you with you, you may want to consider another course of action that will save you, and those you encounter on vacation, a great deal of headache and heartache by finding some way to avoid taking you with you. If that means staying home and watching TV, stay home and watch TV. You can complain about the dwindling number of shrimp in your takeout, or the amount of commercials on TV, from the comfort of your own home, and you won’t have to ruin a vacation for all the happy people around you that enjoy all that life has to offer.

Head in the Sand Gains

Traveling will not change a person, their intelligence level, or any personality traits that are endemic to character. If a person believes that the only way one can know anything about the Vadoma tribe of western Zimbabwe (called “The Ostrich People” in a derogatory fashion) is to travel there and shake hands with a tribal leader, they make a mistake by degrees. They might be able to use a line like this one for the rest of their life: “Oh, you simply must visit the Vadoma people personally. Gluck Gluck, the tribal chief, is an amiable host.” It may enrich a life somewhat to touch the Ectrodactyly-ridden toes of the fraction of this tribe that suffers from the ostrich-like condition, and that may provide a person a conversation piece that lasts the rest of their life that centers around the smell of their refuse, the particular foods that they eat, and the opportunity they had to share that quaint meal with the tribe, or they might even gain a perspective on their life that gives them a renewed appreciation of the extravagances life has afforded them. They will not become smarter, happier, or more miserable by travel alone.

There are people –and they know who they are– that believe that they are somehow worldlier, smarter, and more experienced than others are, based on the quantity and quality of their travels.

“How would you know?” a world traveler once asked me in a debate, completely unrelated to travel. “You haven’t traveled extensively.”

Few people are as bold, or as stark as that, but there does appear to be an element of this mindset in most world travelers. We should all take a moment out of our lives to inform them that some can derive intelligence by reading, and by the manner in which one studies a subject. If a person is one that already knows most of what there is to know about everything, and I think we can say that based on our experience with most world travelers think that they approach most subjects with this mindset, their prospects for greater intelligence are probably going to be limited. If their general nature is such that they approach various subjects without ego, and an insatiable curiosity, their intelligence level may reach a “boundless” characterization by those that listen to them, and they can accomplish this without travel.

This person that questioned my level of intelligence, based on comparatively limited travels, appeared to believe that by traveling in tour groups –on the yellow brick roads that the travel industry built to allow them to view the indigenous people of third world countries from behind proverbial velvet ropes that protected them from “icky” involvement with the indigenous, and basically allowed them to view indigenous people in the manner zoo patrons might view a rhinoceros– that she was somehow smarter, or worldlier than me. She was there, in western Zimbabwe, and no one can ever take that away from her, but she didn’t eat with the people, sleep with them, or spend any significant amount of time with them. She viewed them in the manner zoo patrons view baboons, refraining –we can only assume – from tossing them peanuts.

“I did it for the experience,” is something she might have said. “I did it to be a well-rounded character that has a greater perspective about the world.” 

No one can deny these possibilities, but listening to her one can’t help but think that she took this particular, third world vacation with an unspoken enthusiasm for the mileage it might gain her in the face of those that haven’t. What good is taking such a vacation, if a person doesn’t talk about it, feel worldlier in its aftermath, and lord it over those that haven’t taken such an excursion?

If this is not enough for a world traveler, and that world traveler wants to view a world beyond the proverbial velvet ropes that line the chamber of commerce’s yellow brick road, and they want to step into the world of adventurous travel, they may want to check to make sure they have an American, OHBM (outrageously hot, blonde mom) in their tour group. If there isn’t one, my advice would be to find the closest thing available and ask her and her husband to join your adventurous excursion. The reason for this is that no country –that makes any revenue from tourism– wants to see their country mentioned in the U.S. media, and there’s nothing the U.S. media loves more than a “Something happened to an  outrageously hot, blonde mom American” story. When something happens to an American overseas, it makes the news. Depending on the severity of what happened, the story may only make the local news and a few internet outlets, but the ability to tell a heart wrenching “Something happened to an American OHBM” story, coupled with the image of that OHBM, might just land the story Malaysian Airlines flight 370 style coverage. One has to guess that the minute a member of a country’s chamber of commerce gets one look at this OHBM, they might assign her their country’s special forces to make sure she isn’t so much as spoken to by the indigenous.

Know Thyself, Know Thy Family

Family vacations offer a far less dangerous adventure, of course, but some of those vacations involve reunions with long lost uncles and aunts. We’ve known them our whole lives, but our love for them jaded our perspective. This trip makes it clear that some of our people, in accordance with the ratio of all people, are miserable. We might acknowledge the idea that every family has one person that is a little angst-ridden, but we never thought one of ours could be that person, until we witness a side of them we never saw before.

Those of us exposed to this side of humanity, take comfort in the idea that we can always return home to our immediate family. We know our family, and we have a firmer grasp on how our parents raised those people. We might reserve some space for individual variance, but we cling to the idea that those that have ventured too far from the path will eventually have a redemptive “come to Jesus” moment that brings them back. We might find those moments laced with regret, but even if it’s not, we continue to hope that that moment will arrive before it’s too late. They usually don’t for reasons that are foreign to us. They usually don’t, because some people don’t believe that they’re been headed in the wrong direction. It’s there course, and if they could see that path, they would’ve corrected course long before the need for a redemptive moment arrived. What usually happens, in my experience with such matters, is that the finger crossers realize they don’t know their people half as well as they thought. These people are miserable, angry people that have some psychological underpinnings that prevent them from acknowledging what everyone else sees, and they have to live with themselves, but so do we.

We’ve all witnessed redemptive moments arrive for the subjects of our concern, and we’ve waited on half a bun while their “sure to arrive” realization tottered on the cusp. We’ve witnessed all of the past events that should’ve led them to a realization, and some of us have even had others corroborate our version of those events, in the company of our subjects. To our utter amazement, these people manage to move away from their vulnerability on the matter, they may offer some sort of excuse regarding their involvement, or they might inform those concerned that they were not involved in the matter. They might even accuse those of us that suggest that they have any vulnerability on the matter of either rewriting history, or being limited in our view on the matter. Long story short, those waiting for an “aha!” moment where the subject comes to the realization that they’ve been doing it wrong in ways large or small, are rarely granted satisfaction.

Bill Murray said that if a person is considering a wedding proposal, it might be a good idea to take that person on a long, extended trip with them before doing so. “Travel the world with them,” Murray suggests. The import of this suggestion has something to do with the stresses and strains of boarding a plane, transferring flights, engaging with hotel employees, visiting tourist destinations together, and all of the interactions in between that involves elements outside the other person’s routine. Watch how they engage with service industry employees, examine the trip in the aftermath, and gauge how they conducted themselves throughout. Did they make the most out of every day? Did they view some sites as inconsequential versus the preferred destinations, or did they value those lesser spots for what they were? In the aftermath of the vacation, how did the prospective mate describe the trip to others? Did they lord it over people that they had been to one particular location that the others had not? Coupled with all the virtues and pleasantries of travel, are the stresses and strains, and how a person deals with them can define them in ways that may not be apparent in those situations where they are able to keep their best foot forward. The point of the Murray suggestion, given in a prospective groom’s toast, was that people thinking about getting married should place their prospective mate in situations where they don’t know anyone else is looking. It might give a person some insight into whether their prospective mate is a happy person or a miserable person before they invite that person to join them in their journey through life, and how that journey might end up being a happier one if they decide not to take them with them.

Price Check: Can of Soup


“Whaddya mean $1.37?!” a wiry haired, bespectacled customer asked a sixteen-year-old, unindicted co-conspirator in the price-fixing conspiracy that the old man has dreamed up for a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, “It was $1.22, just last week.”  I know you’re angry sir, I think noting the veins protruding on the man’s nose, and the ruddy complexion, that seem indigenous to those that that have a favorite bar stool.  And I know you’re dying to tell anyone that will listen (or is forced to listen) but this poor, red headed cashier, named Eddie, has a lot less say than you think in Target’s “outrageous” price scheme.  And as much as you’d like to think your eyes are wide open on this issue, Target does not add anything to Eddie’s wage if he is able to add your fifteen cents to their profit margin.  The trouble Eddie has counting back your change should provide enough evidence that Eddie is not involved in the determinations made on shipping and handling costs; the amount of state and federal taxes imposed on this product; or the mushroom-marketing cooperative’s decision on the costs the manufacturing.  It’s also reasonable to suspect that the diatribe that you’ve obviously rehearsed in the mirror about the effect the improving economies in Latin America could have on the price of mushrooms, if their production of mushrooms proves to increase at the rate some project, will be lost on everyone involved once your transaction with Eddie is concluded.

esq-cream-of-mushroom-soup-0312-Zio6xr-lgYou may believe that this face of Target, this sixteen-year-old, named Eddie, knows full well what’s going on, but one look at his blanker-than-usual expression should tell you all that you need to know.  Unfortunately, you are an informed consumer, and you feel the need to give him your what for.

The sixteen-year-old can do nothing about it, however, and you will likely be considered what they call a moron for arguing with the sixteen-year-old in the first place.  The sixteen-year-old will, likely, not care that you have this complaint, and he will likely forget all about your informed complaint the minute you step out of line.  He’s not going to tell his boss, and his boss is not going to tell his boss, and there will be no boardroom discussion focusing on your complaint regarding the rising cost of a can of cream of mushroom soup.

Strange Officefellows


“You can’t choose your family,” they say. We can choose our friends. We can even choose those that we decide to be around on a regular basis, even if they are not our friends. We can’t choose our family members, however, and we can’t choose co-workers. Those of us who have been a part of a large, multi-national corporation, on a long-term basis, have found that the lines between family and co-workers often become blurred.

“There are times when we may find ourselves closer to our co-workers than our family, and the simple reason for this is that we’re around them more often,” a boss of mine once said. In the course of our tenure, we will sit next to a wide variety of office workers who will reveal their eccentricities to us over time. We will find that the office contains just as many black sheep as our family does, if not more. When a person works in the service industry, on the overnight shift, they will encounter a Star Wars Cantina of black sheep on a nightly basis, and the attempts to overlook eccentricities will become a part-time job. My advice is to attempt to tightrope the line between being as inclusive as possible while maintaining a sense of exclusivity. Hedge too far into your ideas of your own exclusivity, and the hours spent at the company will be excruciating, as you will have no one to talk to, and you may not have many friends. Become too sympathetic to their plight, to the point that you begin to believe that they’re all a victim a circumstance, may lead you to becoming one of them. The difficulty of maintaining objectivity is made all the more difficult by the players involved, and their apparent desire to top the most extreme eccentricity the normal person believes they’ve ever heard. If the person manages to escape this exercise untainted, they will walk away from the experience mumbling you can’t choose your co-workers.

The Office Party

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Rhonda told my girlfriend at the time, that she saw me at a bar that was well-known in our city for being a low-rent meat market. When my girlfriend confronted me with this, I informed her that I had never been to that particular bar. The next day, my girlfriend informed me that Rhonda stated that it wasn’t just that saw me there, she stated that the two of us engaged in an extended conversation. I reiterated the fact that I’d never been to that particular bar. When Rhonda later found out that there was another person working at our company that had the same name as me, she conceded that it may have been a case of mistaken identity. I accepted this at face value, at first, until I chewed on it for a second.

“Didn’t she say she had something of an extended conversation with me that night?” I asked. “How can one have an extended conversation with another and believe it’s someone else, based on their name?” 

It’s important to note, here, that my relationship with Rhonda went beyond a name basis. The two of us spent three months working across the aisle from one another in the company. And … and those three months were her first three months with the company, and she had tons of questions, and I was the senior agent on that team whose primary duty it was to answer those questions. In these two respective roles, the two of us had over 100 exchanges in those three months.

“It’s not a case of mistaken identity,” I said. “She’s out to get me. She wants to break us up, or something.”

“She doesn’t think that way,” my girlfriend at the time stated. “It’s just Rhonda. She’s kind of a ditz. I’m embarrassed that I ever believed her over you. Forgive me?”

Of course I forgave her. How could I hold her responsible for another person’s fables? I didn’t forgive Rhonda however. I knew Rhonda was a bit of a ditz, but I wasn’t buying the “It’s just Rhonda,” line regarding the accusation she leveled against me, and I thought less of my girlfriend for believing her. I thought Rhonda was out to get me, and I carried that particular grudge against her for months, until I ran into Dan.

“It is just Rhonda,” Dan said to confirm my girlfriend’s characterization. “I can tell you all you need to know about Rhonda in one brief, little story. Rhonda found out that $600.00 was missing from her checking account, and that she could not explain that missing money. She knew that she didn’t do it, and her daughter said that she didn’t withdraw the money either. Rhonda was so convinced that something nefarious was going on that she took her complaint up the corporate chain to the bank’s vice-president (VP). Once in that seat of power, Rhonda proceeded to berate this woman for her bank’s apparent lack of security. ‘You just let anyone walk into your bank and withdraw money from other people’s accounts?’ Rhonda told the VP. Rhonda then stated that she informed the VP that the bank would be pulling all of the bank’s security tapes, and that it had become her mission in life to get her $600.00 back if it killed her, because she knew knew that she didn’t do it. She stated that she would’ve remembered withdrawing $600.00, because $600.00 was all she had in that account, and her $500.00 rent was coming due, and she wouldn’t just withdraw her rent money for reasons she couldn’t remember. She informed the bank VP that she had nothing to show for that $600.00 withdrawal, and if she had been the one to withdraw the money she “sure as hell” would have had something to show for it.

“Well, the bank VP, being a good VP, responded to Rhonda’s complaints, and she called Rhonda in a couple days later to watch the tape and show her that it was, indeed, Rhonda withdrawing those funds.

“Now,” Dan continued. “I’m sure that that bank VP accused Rhonda of all the same ulterior motives that you just did two minutes ago, but the one thing neither of you account for is her stupidity, an inexplicable, almost unprecedented, embarrassing amount of utter stupidity that is just Rhonda.”

A Reaction

I strolled into work one day to find Bill and Jim riding around on a sit down scooter in the back office of the front desk of a hotel. This scooter was motorized and very similar to that which can now be found at a neighborhood Wal-Mart. Jim rode around on this motorized scooter, like a little kid with a new toy: laughing, beeping the little horn, and hooting, and hollering, and waving his pretend hat around like a cowboy in a rodeo.

“That’s hilarious,” I said watching Jim go crazy.

“Yeah,” Bill said. “Too bad there’s a limit to the fun … It’s an old lady’s cart, and it’s limited in how fast it can go.”

“Whaddya mean?” I asked Bill, as Jim began his dismount. “These things are universal. There isn’t an old lady’s model.” 

It was my turn on the scooter, and as I mounted it, I turned the accelerator switch from turtle to rabbit. Just before I went on my first ride, I saw Bill and Jim’s imagination light up. I took one run through the back office to gain a little comfort with the scooter, and its new speed, and in my second run, I began yelling, “How do you stop this thing?  I’m out of control.” I then crashed into one of the telephone operators that had been sitting in her chair.

The telephone operator’s initial alarm could not be faked, but as she read my face, her alarm softened. “Jack ass!” she said with the remnants of a smile lifting the corner of her mouth.

Bill and Jim were out of control with laughter. I thought of making a couple more runs. It was, indeed, a blast. The performer in me couldn’t see how I could top that first run, however, so I dismounted.

Bill replicated my run by screaming the exact same words, and he ended up crashing into the exact same operator’s chair in the exact same manner.

“Look,” someone that just entered the back office area said when Bill was in the midst of his run. “Bill figured out how to make the scooter go faster.” The person that said this just happened to be the most attractive female in the hotel, and I had spent weeks trying to impress her. When Bill crashed into the very same operator’s chair as I had, she laughed hard and said, “Bill, you are hilarious!”

“I did that,” I told Bill in a manner that I hoped would affect this girl’s impression of me. Bill stopped right in front of me, looked up and grinned. “I figured out that switch,” I said. “I made it go faster. I — you even ran into ran into the same operator’s chair in the exact same manner I did.” Bill just sat there and grinned at me. I knew that declaring propriety of a joke was a fool’s errand, and as a result I didn’t do it often. This impressed girl was so good looking, and she laughed so hard that I couldn’t help but ask Bill for my proprietary interest back. He just sat there and smiled at me.

I got credit from the schlubs at the front desk, but when the best looking girl at the hotel stepped in the back office, she only saw Bill doing it. “You know I did that first,” I said like a five-year-old trying to reclaim a good boy deed. I hoped that this girl would hear this and know that I was the funny one here, and that Bill had just copied a run that led her to laughter. I wanted that laughter.

Bill’s smile increased, until he was beaming at me. At one point, his beam increased to the point that he was starting to turn red. My competitive urges began to grow, until I began disliking this man named Bill. I didn’t enjoy his company him before, but this display was just beyond the pale. He was the beneficiary of excellent timing though, and he knew it. When he continued to smile at me, and beam, and go red with glory, I considered the fact that I had underestimated how loathsome a creature I had on my hands, soaking up more than his share of glory. I was getting fired up, trying my hardest to look away. I was fighting the urge to call him a dirty name, at this point, and I was imagining that this altercation might progress into the physical, when a third party stepped in to interrupt us:

“Okay Bill, settle down.” The third party then said in a very soothing voice, “You know you need to refrain from getting too excited.”

“What?” I asked the third party person. “What’s going on?”

“He’s having a seizure.”

The Mess

Standing behind the front desk of a hotel, a woman named Jenny asked a porter to clean up some of the mess she saw in the foyer of the hotel. 

“Jenny I think it’s poop,” Jack said leaning down to look at a small particle on the floor that was at the bottom of the ballroom announcement board.

“It’s not poop Jack,” Jenny replied. “Just clean it up.”

Jack went overboard. He insisted on it. He went into the back and grabbed a tissue. Jenny was somewhat frustrated by this, but she did not say a word as Jack collected the particle in front of the announcement board with a tissue.

Minutes later, the front desk housekeeper began bending down to make quick dabs and wipes with a washcloth on the floor in front of the front desk area, and she proceeded to do this down the hall. “What are you doing?” I asked her.

“Someone spilled coffee on their way down the hall,” she said cleaning a trail of brown dots. “Happens all the time.”

Minutes later, a gift shop employee approached me saying, “I need you to accompany me out to a car.” What? “Just come on!” she said. “I’ll tell you outside.” At the car, she informed me that a guest knocked on the stall of the bathroom, asking the gift shop employee if she worked for the hotel. When the gift shop employee told her that she did, the guest informed her that she had had an accident. The guest asked the gift shop employee to go to her car and retrieve a coat for her. Fearing a lawsuit, or that this was some kind of ruse, the gift shop employee asked me to witness her going into the guest’s car for the guest’s coat.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the customer also asked the gift shop employee to also retrieve a to-go shopping bag for her. Once the guest had her London Fog, knee-length coat on, sans the underwear and pants the guest now had in the to-go bag, the gift shop employee informed me, the guest decided to stop, en route to the exit. The guest proceeded to shop in the gift shop for a full fifteen minutes, “Like nothing happened,” the gift shop employee informed me. She was wearing a London Fog length coat that stretched to her knees, but she had nothing else on below the waist, due to the mess she was purported to have made in her undergarments and on her pants.

“She must be used to it,” the gift shop employee surmised.

The Obnoxious Email

One of my fellow email employees quit the job that required her to answer emails from customers, because she couldn’t handle the swearing she encountered via the confrontational emails that she received.

“It’s an email,” I told her on numerous occasions. “Prior to this job,” I informed her, “I’ve experienced face to face confrontations with angry, swearing customers, and I’ve even had some of them throw things at me.” I informed her of some of the abusive phone calls I’ve taken over the years in which I’ve had my life threatened. “And these are just emails.” I told her that some customers will do everything they can to get under your skin and rattle you. “It’s the nature of the customer service industry,” I said. “Compared to a person trying to dress you down, face-to-face, and an irate customer that won’t let you get a word in with their less personal phone calls, an abusive emailer is nothing. It’s impersonal, and they know it. The anonymity allows them to think they can write anything, and it has no reflection on them. Just ignore it, and don’t take it personal.” I said the latter in a dismissive manner that suggested that once you get over this hump, you’ll be looking back on all of this with laughter.

“I can’t ignore it,” she said. “And to be quite honest, I don’t know how you all can?”

“Just laugh at their feeble attempts to prove that they’re mad,” I said the latter in a mocking tone that mocked their attempts to appear emotional via email. In my attempts to lead her into dismissing these silly people that get emotional in emails, I was informed that I was acting in a manner that she considered dismissive of her complaint. “It’s a mindset that you have to have in the customer service industry. Always remember that they don’t know who you are. They’re angry people that want to have something to be mad about. You’re just the unlucky person that happens to be on the other end of their rage. You’re an anonymous worker for the company. Their grievances aren’t with you, or even company. Their complaints are with the life fate has dealt them. In the end, be happy that you don’t have to live with them, or in them, and that it’s just an email. Most of us have experienced a lot worse.”

“I couldn’t do it,” she said greeting me months later, after numerous counseling sessions. She was quitting the company. “I couldn’t ignore it,” she added. I couldn’t help but think less of her, as she told me how much my efforts to console her meant to her, and she said all that with tears in her eyes. To say that I was shocked does not do it justice.

From that point forward I took what I considered inconsequential complaints from fellow employees more serious, and I realized that we’re all different, and we all have different thresholds, and some of us define Darwin’s theories on natural selection and survival of the fittest better than others.

The Identifiable Characteristics inherent in the Penis

Working in the intangible world, employees are often required to require that some customers send the company a form of identification to prove their identity if customers hope to continue to do business with the company. In one of the replies to such a requirement, a customer sent an image of his penis. Next to the picture were the words, “This is me!” and an arrow pointing to the image. I’m not sure if this customer was sending a rebellious statement in regards to our company’s policies and procedures, or if he believed that this would fulfill our company’s requirement for identification.

Putting Down the Dog

Sitting next to a person for forty hours a week, can lead one to think that they know their co-workers. Some are tempted to believe that they know that person better than that person’s family and friends do, but most of us know that this is a silly conceit, as it is impossible to know a person in such limited constraints. In the day-to-day interactions we have with them, however, we hear intimate details we believe they will not share with family and friends, and this can lead us to the temptation that we think we know them better.

The friend that led me to know the limits of my powers of observation, informed me that she had to put the family dog put down over the course of the prior weekend. In the midst of my sympathetic response, she said:

“It’s a dog. You men get so attached to dogs. You’re all so ridiculous.” 

I agreed, and I made a joke about the inherent loyalty men have for a dog versus what they may have for a spouse. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, this otherwise meaningless joke changed the dynamics of our conversation. I only gained the full breadth of this change in hindsight, after her full confession was out. She laughed a little at that joke. She presumably considered that joke a statement of solidarity she and I shared on the issue. She opened up after that joke. 

“My husband’s so upset,” she said. “He thinks I did it, because the dog was messing all over the place.” 

“Well,” I said. “That’s grief. Maybe that’s how he’s dealing with it, by blaming you.” 

“No, he’s right,” she said, “but it wasn’t just one mess here and there. The dog was going all over the place. Every time I came home and opened my door, I smelled urine. Our whole house smelled like dog urine, and I couldn’t handle it anymore.” The look on my face affected hers. “I told him and told him to take care of it. I told him to train the dog better,” she expounded. “I told him that maybe he should race home, during his lunch hour, to let the dog out one more time, but he didn’t do it.”

A lengthy answer of this type requires repetition. Even if the listener heard everything the speaker said, they need the speaker to pull quote the answer. 

“Wait a second,” I said. “You said he was right. What was he right about?”

“I did put the dog down,” she said. She then put a hand up to caution me against proceeding before she could answer in full. “But it was not an impulsive decision. This dog had been having trouble with its urinary tract for months. I told my husband to take care of it. He said he would, but he either wouldn’t or he didn’t, so I did.”

“Who are you?” I asked. When I asked this question, it was framed in the comedic rhythm that many sitcoms use to condemn another in a soft fashion and allows the target of the accusation an easy exit. She flinched in a manner that informed me that she might have never heard the joke delivered that way before. “What did you say to your husband’s accusations?” I asked her. 

“I told him that the vet said the dog suffered from some debilitating disease,” she said. “I can’t even remember what I said that disease was. I made something up.” She then laughed. 

Again, I heard everything she said, but in order to process this information my processing center required repetition. “What did the vet say the disease was?”

“There was no disease,” she said. “The dog wasn’t suffering from any disease, and it did not have infections in the urinary tract. It was just old, and it couldn’t control its bladder anymore.”

Some writer’s discretion was involved here, as I did not include the blank stares I offered this woman, as she detailed her weekend activities, and I characterize her action as she did. I considered her act so heartless that I couldn’t comprehend it, but I didn’t want to bore the reader with the innumerable blank stares I offered. The next question I’m sure a reader might ask is why didn’t I call her out or condemn her action further. All I can say is that I thought I was the product of the ‘awful to the extreme’ joke. I am quite sure that everyone has fallen for this joke. I know I have, and it has happened so many times that my guard was up here. I’ve condemned people for actions so completely that when they say, ‘I didn’t really put my dog down. I was joking. I cannot believe you would think that I would do something that awful … You can be so naïve some of the times’ I felt like a fool for overreacting in such a manner. 

Another element that drove the stupor that prevented me from questioning her further was that I am constantly confronting the exaggerations of human empathy. I am amazed at the irrational compassion some people direct to alleged victims they’ve never met in life to the point that they believe some outrageous claims based on some form of emotional allegiance. My friend who put down her dog was so lacking in empathy that it was another hill for me to climb to understand how lacking in empathy some people are, and I didn’t do that well in the time and place.

I was so curious about the variations in human empathy she displayed that I would ask her about it numerous times. I didn’t recognize how persistent I was to have her confirm the details of it, and assure me that she was not joking, that it affected our relationship. I didn’t even know that she was avoiding me, until she confronted me and informed me that I needed to “Get past the whole dog issue.”