The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘politeness’ Category

THEY WHO SERVE AND PROTECT

We’ve all heard that the police are here to serve and protect us.  I want to devote this post to the first of those two missions.

Have you ever needed to return something you purchased to a store?  You changed your mind, it’s too big or too small or it doesn’t go with your chartreuse shoes the way you thought it would.  And there you are, annoyed because you have to waste your time going back to the store, waiting in line with all the rest of the customers who are as annoyed as you because they’re doing the same thing.

Then you get to the desk and find a young lady who is thinking that it’s only another two and a half hours until she can get lunch and she’s had a morning filled with nasty customers who believe that she is responsible because their purchase doesn’t go with their chartreuse shoes.  But you’re confident in your ability to expedite this entire process.  You’re going to be pushy and cranky and demand a refund – no store credit will be acceptable to you.

It’s an immovable object and irresistible force kind of thing.

I would be willing to bet that many of the people who work in customer service entered that line of work because they are “people persons.”  Or at least they once were.  But as they listen to never ending complaints, especially when they are expressed without the civility of a “Please” or “Thank You,” well, it does takes its toll on the human spirit.  Illegitimi non carborundum be damned.  And who are the perpetrators of this destruction of the human spirit?  They are nice, everyday, “normal” people like you and me.

Now let’s consider the police and their mission to serve the public.  On the light end of things, we have those who are assigned to traffic duty.  I’ve known quite a few people who were caught committing a moving violation.  When they’ve explained this experience it is generally done by using rather salty language, thoroughly interspersed with expletives.  I have yet to hear someone describe their arrest by saying, “You know, I had the best morning.  The nicest policeman, an Officer Friendly, pulled me over for doing 65 mph in a 40 mph zone.  I am so grateful to him that he reminded me that by travelling at that speed I was endangering other motorists, pedestrians and myself.  I’m certainly going to take this to heart and stay within the speed limit in the future.”

The prudent motorist while awaiting the arrival of his ticket and the return of his registration and license is probably not cursing out the arresting office aloud.  But I am sure many of those in that circumstance aren’t thinking about buying tickets to the Policeman’s Ball either.  And I’m sure the body language is sufficient for the officer to pick up on their antipathy toward him or her.  And they get that every day, every time they stop another abusive motorist.

But as I said, that’s the light end of the job.  Take those who work in drug details or are assigned to a unit that specializes in trying to track down those who rape children or commit murder.  Dealing with that sort of depravity on a daily basis has to take a toll on a person’s spirit and humanity.  I know that’s a job that I couldn’t handle for very long.

Has any member of the police force ever made a mistake – one perhaps that resulted in an innocent person’s death?  Of course.  We all make mistakes – or there would be no need for a police force or a court system or jails.  But the current narrative that the police are some sort of occupying force whose goal is to beat the citizenry into submission – well, I just don’t see that.

To those who do work on our police forces, I am grateful that they have accepted the responsibility to serve the public generally and me in particular.  And I wish them well and offer a heartfelt, “Thank you.”  Perhaps if more of us took a moment to say those two words to the people we meet, we could help reduce the hostility that seems to have enslaved so many of us.  It’s worth a try, don’t you think?

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WHO SERVE AND PROTECT

We’ve all heard that the police are here to serve and protect us.  I want to devote this post to the first of those two missions.

Have you ever needed to return something you purchased to a store?  You changed your mind, it’s too big or too small or it doesn’t go with your chartreuse shoes the way you thought it would.  And there you are, annoyed because you have to waste your time going back to the store, waiting in line with all the rest of the customers who are as annoyed as you because they’re doing the same thing.

Then you get to the desk and find a young lady who is thinking that it’s only another two and a half hours until she can get lunch and she’s had a morning filled with nasty customers who believe that she is responsible because their purchase doesn’t go with their chartreuse shoes.  But you’re confident in your ability to expedite this entire process.  You’re going to be pushy and cranky and demand a refund – no store credit will be acceptable to you.

It’s an immovable object and irresistible force kind of thing.

I would be willing to bet that many of the people who work in customer service entered that line of work because they are “people persons.”  Or at least they once were.  But as they listen to never ending complaints, especially when they are expressed without the civility of a “Please” or “Thank You,” well, it does takes its toll on the human spirit.  Illegitimi non carborundum be damned.  And who are the perpetrators of this destruction of the human spirit?  They are nice, everyday, “normal” people like you and me.

Now let’s consider the police and their mission to serve the public.  On the light end of things, we have those who are assigned to traffic duty.  I’ve known quite a few people who were caught committing a moving violation.  When they’ve explained this experience it is generally done by using rather salty language, thoroughly interspersed with expletives.  I have yet to hear someone describe their arrest by saying, “You know, I had the best morning.  The nicest policeman, an Officer Friendly, pulled me over for doing 65 mph in a 40 mph zone.  I am so grateful to him that he reminded me that by travelling at that speed I was endangering other motorists, pedestrians and myself.  I’m certainly going to take this to heart and stay within the speed limit in the future.”

The prudent motorist while awaiting the arrival of his ticket and the return of his registration and license is probably not cursing out the arresting office aloud.  But I am sure many of those in that circumstance aren’t thinking about buying tickets to the Policeman’s Ball either.  And I’m sure the body language is sufficient for the officer to pick up on their antipathy toward him or her.  And they get that every day, every time they stop another abusive motorist.

But as I said, that’s the light end of the job.  Take those who work in drug details or are assigned to a unit that specializes in trying to track down those who rape children or commit murder.  Dealing with that sort of depravity on a daily basis has to take a toll on a person’s spirit and humanity.  I know that’s a job that I couldn’t handle for very long.

Has any member of the police force ever made a mistake – one perhaps that resulted in an innocent person’s death?  Of course.  We all make mistakes – or there would be no need for a police force or a court system or jails.  But the current narrative that the police are some sort of occupying force whose goal is to beat the citizenry into submission – well, I just don’t see that.

To those who do work on our police forces, I am grateful that they have accepted the responsibility to serve the public generally and me in particular.  And I wish them well and offer a heartfelt, “Thank you.”  Perhaps if more of us took a moment to say those two words to the people we meet, we could help reduce the hostility that seems to have enslaved so many of us.  It’s worth a try, don’t you think?

THE POLISH DOG

As you may know, Chicago has the largest population of people of Polish heritage, outside of Warsaw.  This makes the city a good place to live if you happen, as I do, to like kishka, kielbasa and pirogues.  The smells that emanate from the  various Polish grocery stores are noticeable a city block away.  What a treat for one’s olfactory senses.

And the neighborhoods in which people of Polish descent live are amazingly clean and crime free.  Perhaps that is because the residents make the effort to keep them that way.  On any given Saturday, taking a drive down the side streets that radiate from Milwaukee Avenue, the heart of the Polish community’s business district, you can see diminutive old Polish ladies on their hands and knees, scrubbing the sidewalks in front of their little bungalow homes.

Of course, having such a large ethnic community it is not surprising that people arrived at stereotypes for this group of people and began constructing jokes about them.  One of those stereotypes concerned itself with the intelligence level of members of the Polish community – which the joke creators determined was rather low.  And they made up their stories accordingly.

( It was not my experience in my dealings with the many people of Polish extraction whom I knew that there was any truth to this presumption).

But here’s a typical Polish, or in the parlance of Chicago, “Pollack” joke:

“Why did the Polish dog have a flat head?”

“Because he kept chasing parked cars.”

Of course, the dog in this two-liner is a canine and is not to be confused with a “Polish” that comes on a bun.  And if you are wondering, ordering a wiener or hot dog, the correct pronunciation and spelling is “dawg”.

If you should be exceptionally gauche and were to order a Polish dawg, which is both an oxymoron and a verbal abomination, you will undoubtedly be confined to the nethermost place in Hell after your demise and fed a diet of nothing other than Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup through all eternity.  This would be a just and fitting punishment.

Now the reason that I thought of this old canard about the Polish dog was that this morning on my way with Gracie to the dog park, I was behind a man driving a late model car.  I happened to notice that his passenger brake light had burned out.

As it happened, we both were going to make a left turn at the same street and there were two lanes assigned for that purpose.  We were stopped at a rather long light and both of our windows were rolled down as at 6:15 a.m. it was only about 78 degrees outside.  (We had a rather extensive thunderstorm last night which cooled things off considerably).

As we were waiting for the left turn arrow, I said to him, “Excuse me sir – I don’t know if you’re aware of it but your passenger side brake light is out.”

Gracie pushed her head out of the rear window to see if there were any dogs in the other car whose acquaintance she might make.

The man (whom I took to be in his mid to late 40’s) responded, “Yeah, so what’s it to ya?”

I had expected a response more along the lines of, “I didn’t know that.  Thanks for telling me,” so this took me by surprise.

Before I had an opportunity to formulate and offer a response, the light changed and we both made our turns.

It’s an interesting society in which we live.  Fortunately or unfortunately I was raised to assist others when the opportunity presents itself – and I thought I was doing this guy a minor service by pointing out his car’s problem.  But apparently he felt that this was some sort of intrusion into his affairs.

The habit is so ingrained in me after so many years, that I guess, like the flat-headed Polish dog, I’m going to keep chasing parked cars.  Or maybe it was people like me whom Einstein observed when he formulated his definition of Insanity:  “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.”

So I guess there are a couple of things you should take away from this story:

1)  Never order a Polish dawg unless you’re really fond of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup;

2)  Be a nice person and you’ll get your reward;

3)  You better check your own brake lights because the next time I see that one of them has burned out I might not bother to mention it to you.  (Nah, I will).

ART, TREES AND STUFF

This morning I was thinking about the many considerate and wonderful people I have known in my life.  I have had perhaps more than my fair share of those relationships (though in all honesty I’m not sure that one can ever have too many).

And I thought to myself, “Self, you’re a lucky person.”  I truly believe that.

It all started with my family.  Sure they were nurturing and provided me with the security that every child deserves, but through their example they taught me in a mostly unspoken way the “rules of engagement” which when I grew up seemed to be both generally expected of each of us and practiced by most.

The genesis of this post all began when I gave Gracie her morning treats.  I am always overwhelmed at the quiet dignity of this gentle giant.  How she doesn’t need words to say, “Thank you,” because the gratitude she feels is so apparent in her eyes.

Gracie

It’s as though she and all the other dogs who came before her somehow intuitively know how to act in a civilized and loving manner – a skill which we humans have to acquire through parenting and the example of others – and far too many of us have skipped this class entirely or at least need to take a remedial course.

But there was a second reason for this post.  I was thinking back a few weeks to one of the children down the block who graduated from high school and how her house had been TP’d.  Until I moved out west, I was unfamiliar with this apparently common practice which involves unrolling a great quantity of toilet paper and catching it in tree branches at the matriculating senior’s place of residence.

Now this bothers me in several ways.  The first is that, for whatever reason, I have always had a great deal of admiration, respect and love for trees.  Obviously they are the source of this toilet paper and I earnestly feel hurt that we consider their lives and importance to be so trivial that we can can wantonly discard their sacrifice in this manner.  The second is that this wastefulness seems so unfortunately characteristic of our ever-consumptive and under-productive view of our world and our respective roles in society.  The practice, other than for the two reasons given above seems harmless enough and, I have learned, is almost expected.

That doesn’t mean that I grieve less for the trees.  I wanted to share an image of a painting done by Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna) entitled “Conversations with a Tree.”  But while I could find the work cited in his catalogue raisonné, I couldn’t find the image itself.  All, however, was not lost as I had purchased a print, which hangs in my home,  of his painting “Noah’s Ark” which bears the admonition, “You Are A Guest Of Nature.  Behave.”

friedensreich-hundertwasser-arche-noah

Whether the artist had the practice of TPing in mind when he executed this work is doubtful.  I’m not sure that the kids in New Zealand, where he moved and accepted citizenship, engage in the practice.  But his words speak to more than one impish prank.  They address an attitude toward life in general.

While the practice of TPing a neighbor’s house is relatively harmless and not yet construable as a Federal offense, this lack of respect (whether for Nature or for our kindred humans) has taken a nasty turn.  Apparently, some of our kids think it’s fun to create their own incendiary devices, housed in plastic bottles, and leave these on their neighbors’ lawns.

This was brought to my attention by a friend who sent me an email on the subject, and while he is someone whom I trust implicitly, nevertheless I thought I had an obligation to check out the facts (as any good reporter should).  Unfortunately, it took me less than 30 minutes to verify the information.

I am not going to list the three ingredients which combine to make this sort of “homemade Molotov cocktail” but they are items which may be found in virtually any American home or are easily purchased at our grocery stores.  When the container is picked up, the movement shakes up the contents, causing them to chemically combine and the result is that they heat up and can either cause severe burns or worse.

So my suggestion is, should you see a near empty plastic container which holds anything more than liquid in it, you should not try to dispose of it but call your local Fire or Police Department and have them handle it.

Having given you that unsettling information, I think it’s time to get back to the sense of tranquility that trees have always afforded me.  And what better way is there than with one of my favorite of the Impressionists, Paul Cezanne and his painting of “A Large Pine Tree and Red Earth.”

paul-cezanne-large-pine-tree-and-red-earth-1890-1895

I wish all of you a wonderful day.

ON BEING POLITICALLY CORRECT

I was invited to a dinner party this coming weekend and as I happened to be nearby and like to group my shopping trips to maximize fuel efficiency, I decided to stop by Total Wine & More, a large local retailer here of alcoholic beverages,  to pick up a bottle of wine as a hostess gift.

After foraging through their extensive collection, (which goes on for about two football fields) I picked something that sounded (and I hope) will taste good to the palate of those who are more connoisseurs of the fermented grape than I am.

I was delighted that there were two check out lines open and went to the one without any customers ahead of me.  The cashier, who had her back to me, was busy restacking boxes for orders larger than mine and after three “ahems” she noticed that there was a customer waiting to pay for a purchase.

She came over to her register and politely greeted me with the standard question that Total Wine cashiers are taught, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

In my somewhat whimsical way I responded, “Well, I was looking for world peace – but apparently you’re out of stock.”

She responded, “When we get rid of all organized religion in whatever form, then we’ll have it.”

I am seldom at a loss for words but this response really set me back.  It was all I could do to reply, “Yes, I’m sure that’s the answer.”  And so I took my receipt and my bottle of wine and left the store.

The more I thought about this remark on my way home the more irritated I became.  I doubt that the management of the store would have approved of this young woman’s comment.  And I debated what I should do about it.

But today, I made a decision.  I went back to the store (using gas I had not intended) because I thought it was important that they should know my feelings  – as unimportant a person as I am.

I spoke with the store manager and related the incident.  He, of course, said that it was not the store policy for their employees to make that kind of statement and asked if I remembered the name of the individual who had done so.  I didn’t see a name tag on her so I couldn’t respond to him other than with a very complete description of her physical appearance, the time I made my purchase  and the number of the cash register to which she had been assigned.  I presume that was sufficient to identify her.

Now castigating religion has become a very politically correct activity.  If you choose not to subscribe to one, I consider that your business – as much as I consider whether or not I do as being mine.  I do not need “in your face” comments like that coming from the help at any of the stores at which I shop.  And if those become the norm rather than the exception, I simply will not shop at those stores any longer.

Whether or not there is any action (which I hope would take the form of a counseling session), a reprimand or termination of this employee will be dependent on whether this retail chain considers this sufficiently important to address.  I hope that they do.

We all have feelings and we all have beliefs.  I consider those matters of personal choice and respect those of others which might differ from mine.  In return I expect the same sort of respect.  I think that’s fair and equitable.

If it should happen that this woman persists in inflicting her opinions on the unwitting public and should lose her job, I’m  sure she will chalk that up to evil religionists.

Others might think that it is Divine Retribution.

ON PRIVACY

I realize that for someone who is writing a blog, a claim to maintain a need for privacy seems inherently contradictory.   But it is true – I am a very private person.

I have no problem standing in front of an audience of four hundred strangers and delivering a presentation.  I have far more difficulty at a social gathering where I know few of the invited guests and must interact with them.   I think the reason is really quite simple – I’m pretty awful at “small talk” – since I don’t really recognize the reason for its existence.

The few number of people whom I would categorize as “friends” don’t communicate with me on Facebook or the other social networks.  We talk on the phone, in person and write (even if that has now degraded to the level of email).  We don’t text – we talk – we communicate in real words that we have to spell out.

I am not ashamed to have only a handful of people whom I call friends.  I consider even that small number to be an achievement.  These are people on whom I could truly count in an emergency – and who know they could count on me.  It’s not a matter of quantity but a matter of quality.  Thank you to those few out there – I love you.

My friends truly know everything about me that is important – and I about them.  They are people with whom I have shared my greatest defeats and who have observed my highest successes.  I feel free to tell them anything, to ask them for their advice on anything and to offer mine whenever they request it.  We have built a high level of trust – and that comes from the people involved and with time.

My view of the world is that there are three kinds of people:  The first are those few who are friends; the second is that there are many who are acquaintances; the last group are people who are passers-by.  I try to treat each person I meet in the same way in terms of courtesy and compassion.  That is the only way that a person may potentially move from the second or third group to the first.  I am certainly not averse to adding to my small list of friends.

Recently at the dog park, I met a group who were well established before Gracie and I appeared on the scene.  They are very nice people and I enjoy their dogs – if not more than I enjoy them – but that’s a personal prejudice to which I admit.  I’m always more likely to adore a dog than its companion-person.

One of the people in that group found me interesting enough (or perhaps there was nothing else to discuss) to start asking me questions that I thought were a bit too personal.   I have enough experience to deflect these sorts of questions in such a way that they invite yet more questions which can be evasively deflected as well.

My theory is that eventually the inquirer will get tired of asking probing questions to which they get no answers.  It seems to me a more polite way of turning off this line of conversation than saying, “You know, that really is none of your business.”

What bothers me about this is that on the basis of a mere month’s acquaintanceship, the particular individual who was doing the Torquemada impersonation started asking me about someone whom we knew (at least peripherally) in common.  To me that is gossip – and while I might be willing to reveal (or not) certain things about myself – I refuse to discuss someone else’s life with a third party.  Gossip is probably the one thing I abjure most in the whole world.  (See the post – The Three Murders).

I was asked the question about the owner of my three Golden Retriever houseguests – “Is he gay?”  I don’t know where this question came from or why she would have asked it but it took me back a step – and I was glad that I had the presence of mind to answer it as I did.

I said, “I don’t know about the owner but, Bubba who is the Golden Retriever sire, has reportedly been seen hanging out in Caibars and reportedly did it in the alley with a German shepherd a few weeks ago since neither of them had a credit card to get a motel room.   Please don’t tell his spouse or daughter as I’m sure that would be devastating to them.”

Torquemada laughed at my response – which was what I hoped for in offering it.  And then we turned the subject to something equally as trivial.

Why do so many of us turn our attention to focusing on the business that is rightly the property of other people?  Are our own lives so un-interesting that it is only through a prurient interest in the lives of others that we find satisfaction?   And why do we choose to entrap other people into this lowest form of conversation which is gossip?

I don’t know the answer but I hope my astute readers will be able to offer some suggestions.

Until then, I am comfortable with my policy of keeping my life private – and will certainly respect your doing the same with yours.

ON SILENCE

A devout young Irish Catholic girl contemplated her future and God’s purpose for her. After considerable prayer and self-examination, Mary Kathleen O’Shea believed that she had a vocation to the monastic life.

She read about the various orders of the Church and their works and believed that her life was meant to be a contemplative one – and so she interviewed with the Order of St. Clare. They are commonly known as the Poor Clares.

In her interview with the Mother Superior, that elderly and wise woman admonished Mary Kathleen that there were many other orders which she might consider. There were some orders whose members taught, others who were hospitalers and still others who were missionaries. The way of life of the Poor Clare was especially difficult – it was one of silence.

Mother went on to explain, “Ours is a way of life of pure prayer, devotion and contemplation. In fact, if you join us, you will only be allowed to speak two words expressing your personal feelings once each year – on the anniversary of your profession.”

Nonetheless, Mary Kathleen insisted that this was her calling and after several more interviews was accepted into the order’s novitiate. She was finally professed with the name which had been selected for her, Sister Ignatius Thomas.

At the first anniversary of taking her final vows, two of her sisters knocked at her cell to bring her before the community in order that she might speak her two personal words.

As she knelt before them, Mother Superior said, “Speak to us, Sister Ignatius Thomas.” She replied, “Hard bed.”

Mother gently shook her head and said, “You’ll remember that when you first came to us I told you how difficult our way was. Sister, we must put aside the comforts of this world so that we can enjoy the eternal rewards our Lord has in store for us in Heaven.”

Another year went by and the same scenario was repeated, Sister Ignatius Thomas kneeling before Mother and the community. Again she was asked to speak her two words. She replied, “Bad food.”

Mother Superior replied, “Sister Ignatius Thomas, we must set aside the delights of this life in order that we are found worthy to feast at the endless banquet table that our Lord has prepared for us in Heaven.”

On her third anniversary, as she knelt before Mother Superior, Sister Ignatius Thomas looked up, a sense of defiance in her eyes and she emphatically said, “I quit.”

Mother looked at her with sadness and shook her head. She said, “Oh, sister. You will remember when you came to us I told you that our way was difficult and meant for only a very few. I admonished you on that again last year and the year before. Sadly, I can’t say that I’m surprised at your statement. Since you’ve been with us, all I’ve heard from you has been bitch – bitch – bitch.”

I thought of this story last night as I was at dinner with two acquaintances.

Frankly, I dreaded the evening and had put it off once already – steeling myself for what I knew lay ahead. But the couple had done me a small service and this was my way of attempting to repay them for it – something which they expected me to do. I believe their philosophy is, “Do good unto others – but only if you expect to get more back from them in return.”

I ate my meal listening to the wife (with the full support of her spouse) trash people whom they knew, complete with a run down of all the indiscretions, mistakes and transgressions these people had committed. I couldn’t help wonder, is this the way “normal” people spend their conversational lives?

Since I didn’t know the people whom they were maligning the whole thing was totally irrelevant to me, which was just as well. Thank you, Lord that the dinner lasted only an hour as I gulped my food and encouraged them to, “Eat up.”

As I was driving home, I turned off the CD player. I had been playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, but I felt a need for complete silence – even from this delightful music.

I remembered spending a week on a religious retreat during the spring break of my senior year in high school. It was a week with nothing but countryside, birds chirping, the Divine Office and the Liturgy and enjoying the simple majesty of the crocuses. A week of silence and contemplation. A rejuvenating week.

When it came to an end I boarded the Greyhound Bus back to New York City, leaving the lovely setting on the Hudson River which had welcomed me. I felt like a new person.

As we pulled into the bus terminal, I thanked the driver and stepped down to the curb. And then it hit me.

Noise. The noise of New York at an almost lethal level. I had lived with it and amidst it for my whole life – and I had never heard it before. Not until I had been freed of it on my retreat. I felt as though I were drowning, sinking below the waters of its cacophony. But not much more so than during last night’s one-way conversation.

I think I need to spend this day in total silence and contemplation – and maybe tomorrow as well.

 

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