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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Too Soon?.”

In retrospect, I would have been satisfied with the white belt and slightly earlier dismissal from class.  But my first day in 1964 as a patrol boy in fifth grade quickly took a more weighty turn.  I reported 15 minutes before class let out to the semi-busy intersection of Passaic Avenue and Brookfield.  Officer Ted nodded, asked my name, and we got down to business.

“This is a Smith and Wesson thirty eight caliber snub nose revolver,” he explained patiently.  “I’ve got it loaded with 357 magnum rounds, so make damn sure you intend to kill if you use it.”

I was in shock, as he slapped the dense, cold metal weapon into the palm of my small right hand.  Officer Ted had actually used a curse word, just as if he had been talking to another adult!  My head was swimming with pride as he explained that one of the chambers was empty, a sort of de-facto safety, and other important details of the job.

“So if you need to use it, simply cock and advance the cylinder, like this…”

The kids were starting to arrive, so he affixed the holster to my little white patrol boy belt.  My friends were duly impressed by the belt’s crisp canvas lines, shiny Nutley Police Auxiliary badge, and the scruffy generic holster pulling on my right hip.  They all waited without incident as I held out my arms until Officer Ted stopped the sporadic traffic once in a while.  When I finally transferred my sidearm back to him at the end of our thirty minute shift and gave a heartfelt salute before skipping home, I felt like a man.

As the weeks passed to months, we became a little lax in our duties.  Sometimes Officer Ted would work the intersection by himself, if I was busy playing tag or touch football with my friends before they finally decided to cross the street.  Sometimes I would work the intersection alone, waiting for all traffic to be gone, while Officer Ted went to his Ford Fairlane squad car for more special, secret medicine from the Jack Daniels pharmacy.

It was during one of the latter scenarios that things took a turn for the worse one day.  Tommy Mancini apparently took exception to my authority, thinking both that I was taking myself too seriously, and also not trying to stop traffic by simply waiting until they all could have crossed the street without my presence.

“You’re a fathead,” he explained.

“No–YOU’RE the fathead, AND a liar,” I countered.

We debated in this fashion for a while, until he decided to escalate things to a dangerous level.

“I think that your mother…” he began.

“Don’t say it, Tommy!” I warned, my right hand inching towards the holster.

“…smells like…”

I let my hand slip under the flap to the revolver’s knurled grip.  Just then, Officer Ted fell out of the patrol car’s open passenger side door.  His medicine crashed to the ground in a splash of glass shards.  Officer Down!

I told the little kids–all of them including Tommy–to ‘get their asses across the street by themselves’ as I ran to my partner’s aid.  He struggled, but finally collected all of his things and my weapon for the evening.

By the time the sixth grade semester started, a new officer had now replaced Officer Ted.  Along with the departmental reorganization, there had apparently been some budgetary cutbacks as well; because my service revolver was no longer being issued.  Even more surprisingly, Officer Nancy was not armed, either.

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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “______ is the new ______.”

I thought it highly unlikely that the fourth and fourteenth words of my favorite blog could possibly result in anything that made sense, but here they were:  “Marvelous is the new Level.”

Ain’t it the truth, though?  Just today, I chided my managers that the average score they had awarded their employees was a full 58 points above actual average.  We have rendered “average” to be devoid of meaning or boundary.  Each person above average should theoretically be balanced by someone–gasp–below average.  But we can longer say that without flinching, can we…

When exactly did “below average” become politically incorrect?  It is after all a term of mathematics, not insult. Should everybody really get a trophy?

Similarly, products must be new and improved…somehow.  Detergent always features such nonsense, even though I suspect it is pretty much the same formula from the 1950s.  The trim on next year’s car must be changed just enough to justify jacking up the price another grand.

Oh well, at least the next cup of coffee I have will be like nothing I have ever before tasted…right?

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Garfunkle

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Embrace the Ick,” in which we are asked to write a glowing piece about something which repulses us.

In his never-failing political incorrectness, in his volume level permanently fused at “high” by the artillery unit he commanded in Vietnam, my boss stared across the room during the company party and demanded of me “What is THAT?!”

He was looking at my favorite coworker’s wife, but it was not with admiration.  My first fear was that someone else may have heard him.  Well, it was my only fear, really.  In as low a voice as I believed he would hear, I explained how the larping, steampunking Goth pirate with purple hair was as wonderful a person as her husband.

Remarkably, he never seemed to notice nor mind that her husband had the same persona.  But we were such admirers of her husband’s work that it was either invisible, or thoroughly accepted.  I would have accepted it regardless, as my own Zen inner bastard is a steampunking Goth pirate as well.

But this does cause me to admit that I also tend to judge by physical traits first.  I have an affinity for the underdog, but only those underdogs in my favorite categories.  In the same manner that I would initially favor a tabby cat over a tortoiseshell, I recoil in revulsion at some human beings and desperately squirm to avoid knowing them.  There are both predictable and unpredictable categories I abhor.  The predictable would include anyone I suspect might smell bad.  Among the unpredictable you would find babies and athletes, which until very recently I would have considered to be only one category.

The saddest feature of my bizarre world of prejudice is that I somehow attribute only the one dimension to each condemned party.  I am often surprised to see the avatar or a photo of someone I have been admiring on the internet…to sheepishly admit that their many admirable qualities trump my unreasonable gatekeeper.

“Yes, I smell bad,” one of them might begin.  “In fact, I stink.  Before we consider the reasons and the solutions, let’s consider my other traits…why you are now interacting with me at all.  I know something helpful that you do not know.  I can and will help you.  But there is an unasked question:  will you do the same?  Will you somehow summon the diplomacy and compassion to help me become enfranchised?  Because that is what you take for granted.  Don’t gloat or compare–share the secrets.  As gently as you can, hurt my feelings and give some friendly, realistic advice.  After all, when you needed some answers I had, I was there for you.”

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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Bone of Contention.”

Today’s prompt has us defend the side that is opposite to our own opinion in an ongoing controversy.  I would like to tackle racism.  My personal belief is that there are no separate races…we all of us represent gradual, regional differences of the same human race, and that to label people as being of this race or that has been the most self destructive adventure we could possibly have invented or invited upon ourselves.  Once again, the words that follow would be in defense of the OTHER side–in defense of the racist…

Give it up already.  You call me a racist?  Why then do you band together to counter me, as if you have only one mind among you?  Do you really have only one opinion–that you all agree that so and so was innocent, or that you all believe that the President is doing a really good job?  Those things aren’t–if you pardon the pun–black and white issues…they are gray areas to which even thoroughly informed juries and political analysts…or future historians…have no simple answers.

You, who take offense at my freedom of speech, are the racist.  “Ignorant cracker skinhead,” you call me from your anonymous avatar.  “Corrupt infidel,” you label as you target my most vulnerable relatives.  “Thieving paleface” you cry as you relive crimes committed by ghosts.  Get over it already–that’s what’s wrong with you people.

There, I said the dreaded phrase.  And you will remain “you people” rather than the equal individual as whom I should be treating you until the day you interact with me as an equal individual yourself.  If I am a frightened little mouse with a swastika armband, show me how a growing mob is not the enemy.  If the only Arabic name I have read is followed by “current whereabouts unknown,” then you come out of your community and show me how you are even more horrified by those headlines.

Show me the ultimate gift, you stingy bastards:  the uniquely human power to forgive.  Forgive the slave owner you see in my aloofness.  Forgive the crusader you hear in my default setting of rote.  Forgive the monolingual truant of history you read in my border guard mentality, who captured the Spanish empire but then refused to even acknowledge our new citizens…inventing yet a fourth, new race for “them” instead.

I am you.  A race of skinheads?  Really, could there be such a thing for very long?  Honestly, we turn on ourselves whenever that gets even close to happening.  Don’t label me anything except misguided.  Suggest that there are no races; there are cultures, in which we can each be proud and of which we should all be proud.  Teach there are hard-fought struggles that are rightfully remembered.  Celebrate that there are different skin tones and variety among appearances that add to the splendid palate that needs to be as broad as the world it paints. In other words, forgive my ass, move on to more important matters…and invite me along on that journey.

Because I have already demonstrated, already cried out in fear, that I have nothing better to do on my own.

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Recidivism

My wife and I only have a few “must-watch” shows.  We had a mini marathon last night to catch up on episodes of Scared Straight that we have recently missed.  I’m glad we saw several in a row, because in addition to be rewarded with even more surprises that I guessed incorrectly in my never ending habit of misjudging people, we had an opportunity to compare the outcomes different localities’ approaches achieved.  Admittedly, this was an insufficiently large population to make anything I am about to say other than a hypothesis…

Desperately industrious guards, along with the angels with dirty faces who can at this point save only an unappreciative stranger, went into their locally designed battle plans.  One episode in which I predicted that two of the delinquents would fail miserably, as soon as they had a hot shower and a good night of sleep, proved me wrong.  All of the delinquents were now on the right path.  In the episode that followed, I predicted two delinquents would be turned around by the experience.  I was disappointed to see that these two returned to bad habits immediately.

Other than my inadequate understanding of human behavior, I wondered what else might be in play here.  There was a difference between the strategies of the two localities.  The jail which managed to turn all four or five kids around had a lengthy one-on-one, inmate-to-kid counseling session following the “breaking them” component.  The jail from which my two hopefuls returned unimpressed had omitted this formulaic counseling session.

When the delinquents are surveyed following each visit regarding what aspect made the biggest impression upon them, they nearly always cite hearing the life story of someone who was on a nearly identical path.  Hearing a calm voice following the combat phase was the message they most remembered.

These kids are, as Victorian-era writers used to describe, “no better than they should be.”  Their parent(s) are, at best, confused and/or inexperienced.  At worst, parents fight a losing battle against their own demons, setting examples their charges have unarguable permission to follow.  Authority has lost most of its meaning.  The din of loud voices is not translated to any memorable quote; it is just yet another unwelcome loud voice in a life already full of the same.

This “basic training” jolt of reality is essential of course, just as it is in actual Basic Training.  But it would seem to be the calm rescue by their once and future self that really changes history.

We so often have the luxury of judging, without investment.  What is truly humbling is watching the blind leading the blind, picking up society’s slack from a station in which the only reward must be vicarious.

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Hero Worship

This is in response to the Daily Prompt, which is “Who is your hero?”

I used to think that the notion of “having a hero” was lame.  My childhood friends who had heroes had one dimensional characters that were equally inaccessible as the mix of fictional and real folks they were.  Whether they had chosen John Glenn or Superman, there weren’t going to be any real life lessons, other than say…flying.

But I finally do have a hero now.  As great as I might be tempted to think my accomplishments were, my hero’s are more impressive, so I clearly have more work to do.  As much progress as I seem to have made giving others the benefit of the doubt, and practicing diplomacy, my hero wrote the book on such matters.

Others consider my hero their hero as well, further validating my choice.  It seems to be the case that all who encounter my hero have a better life for that fact.  A hero is a role model.  A hero is charismatic to the degree that others want to be around, act in a similar fashion to, and learn more about that central character.  A hero suffers the danger and challenge of life in stride, and gives others the strength to do so.  Face it, your hero makes YOU a better person than you would be, left up to your own devices.

I have a holiday greeting for my hero:  Thank you so much for marrying me thirteen years ago, my love.

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I think lying is just swell.  I recall one lie in particular that Dad told me over and over again:  that he had a great deal of confidence in my ability to do anything I set out to do.  It worked, when the odds are that it should not have.  I lie every time I write the annual ratings of my subordinates.  I state that they are already making improvements in such and such area, which is what I wish them to concentrate on more during the upcoming rating period.  I lie when someone invites me to something, claiming that I have more pressing matters.  The fact is, I simply prefer to be alone most of the time, particularly to eat a sandwich without having to keep up my end of a conversation.  I lie when someone tells me they like my tie, that I like their…eyepatch/other accessory/hopefully recent haircut/”I Voted” button/springtime gait.  The truth would be that I count it a greater success simply recognizing them as someone I know, perhaps even recalling the name.

I was strolling down the street one day several decades ago, remembering at least to match the pace of my companion rather than my own hurried inclination, and that the man walks on the dangerous, curb-side of the sidewalk.  I made out the familiar shape of my best friend, approaching from the other direction.

“Jeff,” I said, “good to see you!  And I would like you to meet…um…why, her name is…um……..   Oh my God, I’m so sorry, but I cannot remember your name…”

She took my friend’s hand and announced “Hi Jeff, I’m Mary.  And I have been his sister in law for eight years now.”

I have since learned that people are the most important thing on this planet.  And to edge them closer to comfort and confidence at every junction, a little white lie can work wonders.  I have the upmost confidence in my daughter’s ability to parallel park, for instance.  And I would love to try that cinnamon/candy corn muffin that you made, but I have just embarked on a gluten-free diet on alternate mornings.  But thanks anyway…Sparky.

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