Category Archives: Human relations

The only white guy on the bus

With nearly zero experience of the east, a few years back I went to D.C. Deb had a training event in Silver Spring, MD, which gave me free housing. Now, I have zero basic interest in the nation’s capital for its own sake. Like many residents of Washington, I am habituated (if not accustomed) to people asking “oh, you mean the state?” It’s difficult. If I say what I’m thinking, it sounds very churlish. Sometimes it comes out anyway: “Of course, the state. Is there another place called Washington that is relevant?” I’m not good at holding back, unfortunately.

Of course, when the Smithsonian card is played, I fold. Is there anyone with a passion for history who would not brave our nation’s capital if it meant a chance to spend almost unlimited time browsing the Smithsonian museums? Besides meeting up with a longtime online acquaintance who lives in the area, the Smithsonian was the reason for tagging along. I didn’t care about anything else. My world resolved into the need to get to the Smithsonian in the morning, then back to the lodgings at night.

Living in Seattle for sixteen years, bus travel is old hat for me. Not so light rail, which Seattle didn’t build until I was safely out of town. My day therefore meant taking a bus from Silver Spring to Fort Totten, where I would board DC Metro for the National Mall. I could then choose my museum, and wander freely and joyfully, lingering until closing if I desired. It was, of course, complete museum overload–and in a good way. I’m not sure the Smithsonian museum complex has an equal in the world. Whatever percentage of my tax dollars keep the Smithsonian going, I will cheerfully pay.

Thus, I didn’t expect that commuting to the National Mall would be an educational experience. Oh, sure, I knew I’d be a minority. I’m not ignorant of demographics. Didn’t bother me, and I even kind of felt I might learn something.

It was about a forty-minute milk run to/from Fort Totten. In nearly every situation, I was the only white/Anglo on the bus. Everyone else was black or Hispanic (perhaps both). Many times in Seattle, there had been only one black person on the entire bus. Now I was getting some exposure to that feeling, however brief, and it was an interesting sensation. No one was friendly or talkative, but that’s big city bus travel, and is the same in Seattle. People are in their bubbles. No one was hostile, though; no glares saying “you’re in the wrong place.” I’d describe it as similar to a Seattle bus, except perhaps a little more polite overall. Seattle bus travelers can be quite indifferent to basic manners.

But as the bus filled up, the last vacant seat was always the one next to me. Sometimes it stayed vacant even when the bus had standing room only.

I don’t think it was conscious. But I saw that in reverse plenty of times in Seattle, and now I had a sense of how it felt. I wasn’t offended, nor terribly surprised. I guess I could have been offended, but it wouldn’t have done me any good. No action available to me was going to change habits overnight, or in a week. Nothing for it but to mind my own business, ride the bus to my stop, and that was that. It’s not as if anyone were singling me out on purpose; I just stood out, with my pale skin, crew cut and heavy beard. They weren’t talking to me, but they weren’t talking to each other either.

The only real epiphany from it, I suppose, would be this: I think I understand why minorities are sometimes bemused and philosophical about implied racism, rather than angry. The anger will kill you without changing the reality. One gains more from just observing, accepting that it’s not going to change today, and getting on with whatever life details face one that day. It’s not like anyone acted in a way to force me to take notice of the situation; they just decided not to sit next to me. I have no basic call or right to influence where someone chooses to sit on a bus. Or stand. The only way one can lose in that situation is to call more attention to oneself, which would probably confirm to everyone else on the bus–and one is heavily outnumbered–that it was smart of them not to sit next to one. That’s going backward.

It does make me wonder how different the world would be if we all made a better effort to bridge the gap. On all sides.

Rote repetitions that simply aren’t true

One grows very tired of incorrect rote repetitions that have taken on the air of fact in the public mind. Some I remember from childhood, but haven’t heard much since; some I started hearing in adulthood, and some I’ve heard all my damn life from people that I know are smarter than that. So let’s haul them out, starting with one that’s pertinent to the day…

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Watch me. Whether I vote or not, the exorbitant tax bill I donate to our corporations with the IRS as their collection agency should count for more than whether I marked a piece of paper for the felons and boneheaded initiatives of my choice.

“The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.” In some contexts it can be true, but not universally. I am very often asked by complete strangers “How long have you been growing that beard?” It’s stupid because they aren’t using their brains. One would presume that at some point I had trimmed it, rather than just letting it go; one might judge this by the smooth bottom edge and well-pruned mustache. So, no; in fact, there are a lot of stupid questions that should really never be asked.

“Profanity shows a lack of vocabulary.” Not necessarily. It might show anger, laziness, vulgarity, disrespect or many things, but just because you use the word ‘fuck’ does not mean you have a limited vocabulary. I know people whose brains are stamped Merriam-Webster whose favorite word is ‘shit.’

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” A complete fallacy designed to deter decent people from retaliating against jerks in the only language a jerk understands. If it’s true, we should never have fought back against Japan or helped crush Germany. This one is closely allied to…

“Violence never solves anything.” Oh, yes, it can. It does not cure the underlying problem of the need for violence, but violence will solve a lot of things. The Holocaust did not end because the Allies asked Hitler nicely and patiently to stop the genocide. It ended because the Allies used violence against his country.

“You can’t prove a negative.” Sure I can–at least some negatives. I can prove, for example, that I am not an ostrich. Ostriches have feathers and much longer necks, check a picture of one. This statement has its place, but is used incontinently where it does not apply.

“Everything has shades of grey.” If you really think this, you have no authentic moral compass. If you can’t see absolute evil and absolute good, then you are forever finding good in evil and evil in good, in which case none of your moral judgments mean a thing.

“You have to respect the law.” No, actually, you do not. You can have zero respect for it while still obeying it, either because it makes sense, or because you don’t want the penalties. Compliance under threat is not respect. Some police think they are getting respect, when in reality they are getting fear.

“Everything happens for a reason.” If you mean for a demonstrable scientific reason, probably yes. If you mean because it needed to happen as part of some grand plan, you just said that your Grand Planner needed bubonic plague, the Armenian genocide, 9/11 and Steve Carell movies. Really want to go there?

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Not always. You start writing with a pen. I’ll start slashing with a saber. If that were true, the awesomeness of your pen would defeat me. However, it is true that the pen is powerful. It’s just not all-powerful.

“A vote for a third party is a vote thrown away.” Common form of pressure used by someone about to become a hysterical bitch if you say you aren’t going to vote for the least odious option (which happens to be the one they want to win). A vote thrown away is a ballot not submitted, thus discarded.

“You can’t hit someone for words.” That should usher in a renaissance for the world’s loudmouthed abusers: a guaranteed pass against any actual consequences that might teach them a lesson, such as not to be a verbal abuser. Some words not only deserve a knuckle sandwich–they demand one.

“If you don’t exercise a right, you’ll lose it.” Nah.  Exercising a right has zero impact on whether it gets taken away, unless of course people exercise it very stupidly. If they do that, exercising it is indeed likely to get it revoked.

“It takes one to know one.” I suppose in the case of biochemists, that’s nearly correct. In most cases, it’s not only incorrect, it’s developmentally five years old. I am not a police officer. I can usually tell one when I see him or her. They usually wear khaki, black or blue, carry guns and badges and Batman belts, drive cars that say ‘POLICE’, and so on. It doesn’t take one to know one.

Self mis-diagnosis

So, about two weeks back, I came down with a sore throat. Pretty painful one, but it’s not rare for post-nasal stuff to irritate a throat. I assumed that I was coming down with a cold transmitted to us by a child, and groaned as I prepared to fight it off.

As Yoda might say, off it did not fight. Which is bad, because I don’t like going to doctors. At all. There’s a long list of things I despise about the experience, highest on that list being that I don’t really have much natural faith that they’ll do anything to improve my situation–but that they will collect what I think is an exorbitant fee, subject me to an indifferent receptionist, and almost certainly try to push some drugs on me. Around here, that’s mostly what people want–“just give me the pills and I’ll go away.” My own preference is for understanding my condition and what it means, which is not the doctors’ preference. I’m convinced that half the time it’s because they don’t actually know what’s wrong, and the other half, they don’t think it’s a good use of their time to explain it to me.

Pretty soon I couldn’t sleep lying down. Then I couldn’t sleep sitting up. The Tylenol throat stuff, which at first had made it stop hurting, stopped working. Then came pressure on the eardrums. I got to the point where I was ready to surrender and take anything that a reasonably qualified doctor said would make it stop killing me. To give you an idea how bad it was, I even accepted pain medication. I like pain medication even less than I like most other medication.

My self-diagnosis (intense post-nasal drip irritating my throat to the point where I was swallowing too often and perpetuating my problem) was well off base. I started to realize that I’d probably mis-diagnosed myself when I realized I didn’t have any congestion in my nose–just a terrible sore throat accompanied by a horrible dry cough. Turns out it was a fairly heavy duty throat, sinus and ear infection, so the doctor put me on antibiotics about the size of nuclear submarines.

Now we’re to the last gasp phase of it, where the infection rallies its legions and prepares for Bacteria’s Last Stand, but this is one situation where it was fine to just let the doctor tell me it was a mass infection and eat whatever drugs he said to eat. So sick of coughing.

Memories of my days as a computer shaman

Back before I became a hired pen literary professional, I used to be a computer shaman. My business was moderately successful, and it was good social therapy. I got to thinking about this after watching a video on Cracked, which I suggest you take a gander at as well:

Five Reasons the Guy Fixing Your Computer Hates You

Mostly I didn’t hate my clients. I liked most of them. I liked helping elderly ladies on Social Security get connected so that they could see pictures of their grandbabies, research their osteoporosis and keep in touch with their friend Adna in Wisconsin. I liked being able to reach into the middle of their mess and get rid of the thing they’d installed (very unwisely) that was causing their Windows installation to throw up. Most of them were polite and courteous to me. It was evident that most of them were philosophically pretty different from me, in terms of socio-political-spiritual outlook, and none of them seemed to care.

I went to houses of guys I was pretty sure were retired underworld figures. I went to sheds in east Pasco where huge dogs threw themselves to the ends of heavy chains in forlorn hope of attacking me. I went to mansions. I went to two-bedroom apartments containing three families. I went to farms and I went to garages. I went to the homes of old mercenaries (the real kind), old doctors, and old just about everyone. In the end, the business was a casualty of the $500 PC. It just no longer made sense for anyone to pay me $50/hr to fix a problem that if it took much time, it was easier to upgrade their abacus to something modern.

Here’s the stuff I didn’t like…

Directions.

Everyone adores giving directions, but I couldn’t tell people that I was using map software and would just print myself a map. The minute I asked for the street address, everyone launched into lengthy, arcane directions, full of information I did not need and landmarks that did not matter. I learned to just shut up and let the storm blow past. One way I knew I was about done in the business was when I became candid about it. After five minutes of meaningless directions, someone would ask (because I hadn’t responded), “Are you writing all this down?” I’d answer, “no, because none of it will help me find you. I have your address, the color of the house, whether the numbers are on it, and a printed map. But everyone loves giving directions and there’s nothing I can do to stop them, so I’m not interrupting you. But no, sir, I’m not actually absorbing any of it, to be honest.”

Dogs.

Now, I’m not a fan of dogs. All I want is for them not to come near me. That means they will not put salivas on me, leap on me, startle me by bumping my leg under the desk, or anything else that increases my tension. Chief use of my briefcase? As a shield when dogs would charge at me. And almost without fail, the syrupy, whiny explanation:  “Oh, he just wants to loooooooove you!” Maybe he does, ma’am, but I already have a lover. How I wish you’d just control your animal. Of course, most clients with dogs could not process the concept of someone who could not do his best work with a dog in his face. And it’s the dog’s house, so it’s not like I have any standing to object. I just had to endure.

Great-nephews.

Oh, how often I saw it. I’d come in to a PC with a relatively fresh Windows installation. Mrs. Miller: “Well, my hard drive wasn’t downloading to my e-mail, and I couldn’t get my disk working, and my Windows web browser wouldn’t connect to my Microsoft Works, and my printer wouldn’t print the blue ink anymore. Now, I am a total computer dufus. My great-nephew is a computer god, he works at Hanford, he programs Excel, he knows everything about computers. He told me I needed to just wipe everything off, reformat and start again, so he did some stuff. Now I can’t find my e-mail at all and the Internet is broken. All my book chapters are gone and there is no Works at all. How much do you charge to put it back the way it was?” I was thinking: ma’am, if your great-nephew were here I’d take out the VGA card and cram it into his posterior. Why do these little hotshots do this, and then not help Auntie preserve or reinstall her data? It was hopeless and I could do little to change it.

Political types.

I provided services to two quite prominent local politicians, plus some other folks many people had heard of. Some were great. One political activist was about the biggest jerk I ever did service for. First time at his door: “So, are you a [party name]?” I looked at him with calm, suppressed indignation. “Sir, right now I’m a businessperson, and my priority is to resolve your printer problem.” On another visit, he started the “I’m not sure if you know who I am…”, clearly jonesing for free services–assumption being that I owed him for his political activism. I always believed that business was business and politics was politics, and that I should not introduce mine and they should not introduce theirs. Some simply couldn’t refrain, sitting next to me, dropping hints designed to suss out my political perspective.

The perception that a generalist could easily fix all things.

Hardware, software, connectivity. To them it was all ‘the computer.’ “Can you just fix it or not?” Some people would not grasp that, in order to see on a single visit if their problem was a flaky stick of RAM, I’d have to either carry every kind of RAM with me at all times, or run and get it and swap it in, then wait a few days to see if the problem repeated. How many hours of time was all that? Was I not to charge for that fetchin’ and gettin’? Was I to cart around a van full of stuff (constantly changing with the times) just waiting for this or that to be someone’s problem? If it were that simple, and that easy, sir, I would “just fix it.”

M-CAFee.

Not McAfee, as in MAC a fee, but mc CAFF ee. So many times. “I think I have a virus, my friend says I sent her one, but I don’t see how. This came with McCAFFee.” Did she ever note that it was a three-month trial version? No. Did she ever pay them to keep the virus definitions current at least, even if it was the worst virus protection software out there? She had no idea she needed to. “But I should be safe. I do a full scan every Sunday night!” You scan your computer with an obsolete virus detector. And you don’t understand why something newer than that just sent itself to everyone in your Outhouse Express e-mail directory. It was horrible. All could have been solved with a free one online.

People unwilling to learn.

I was a generous computer shaman, with my time and energy. Most people were doing some very stupid things that caused most of their problems. And when I’d tell them what the problem was, they’d smile that stupid little smile that says, Oh, you’re so cute, with your ideas of good computer use. Do you really think, young man, that I am going to abandon my habit of shutting off my computer by shutting off my surge protector? Well, the answer was frankly no, I didn’t think they would. But I had to try to at least tell them the problems it caused. They never learned. “But I like my WeatherBug!” It was spyware. They didn’t care.

Some of it, I admit, kept me in business. I told myself over and over: Shut up, idiot, and be glad they don’t do it right. That means they have to pay you. Fair enough. But not all the situations were solvable, and if things don’t go right, people tend to think the computer shaman didn’t do a good job. In other words, if they can still break their Internet connection, that must be my fault because I didn’t make it strong enough.

In the end, the frustration became too much, and I was making more money writing and editing. So I just focused on that.

When you find yourself a human vending machine

This is something that giving persons tend to see throughout their lives:  the toxic evolution into something not a friend, but a human vending machine.  When are you such a thing? When a person or person begins to take you for granted, make you their ‘easy way,’ expect some commodity of you on demand:  emotional support, information, some sort of effort on your part, whether you feel like it or not.  Those with specialized knowledge, especially in technology, particularly become the vending machine of choice because it’s ever so much easier to just impose on another than to use one’s mind and resolve it oneself.   Persons who do this are rarely emotionally stable, and tend to have significant issues.  I don’t know the official definition of co-dependency, but I suspect it plays in.

Such situations aren’t hard to identify.  The person involved rarely asks about your own life or needs; doesn’t really care, as machines don’t have needs.  He or she shows frequent signs of instability.  This person often praises you, perhaps to the skies, and why not? That’s supposed to be your payoff. That’s the unspoken deal, that you will be told regularly how wonderful you are.  A person constantly raging about his or her other vending machines, for example, doesn’t imagine you to be thinking:  and one day, it will be me.  And yet, if you are perceptive, that is what you are thinking. You as vending machine are being tapped for support because other vending machines have started eating this person’s quarters, perhaps.

To test this status is simple.  One day, simply eat the quarters.  Not angrily, not cruelly, simply don’t perform the expected behavior.  Most often that comes when you are at a limit, or at your lowest ebb in life, and simply can’t fulfill the demanded role–it’s not that you choose to eat the quarters, but that you lack the resources to process them.  In any case, the vending machine doesn’t operate as it always did.

If on that day, the individual simply kicks the vending machine and stomps off, yeah, that’s what it was.  Don’t feel too bad for the loss of a toxic situation.  On the phone, it usually takes the form of hanging up on you. In person, someone stomps off; on chat, someone fires a barb and logs off so as not to receive a rejoinder. I have a dear friend who moved away from a place she lived for decades, and most of her ‘friends’ reacted with shock and anger: the vending machine was not even going to eat their quarters, but was going to be removed from the vicinity. A few wanted to keep in touch, wished her well, and were happy for the improvement in her life, even if that meant less access to her.  Those few wanted her in their lives not for what she could do for them, but because they cared for her and believed, correctly, that she felt likewise. Everyone else gave the machine a vicious kick and stomped off, presumably to find another machine.

So on that day, when you eat the quarters, you’ll learn something about that person. If he or she now makes time to care for you, understand that you aren’t available in the normal way right now, and gives of him or herself, that was never a vending machine relationship–even if at times it looked like one.  In vending machine relationships, the machine isn’t allowed feelings.  If yours matter, then it’s not that sort of toxic dynamic.

If he or she kicks the machine and stomps off, my advice is to say nothing, turn, and walk away.  Don’t look back.  If that person shows contrition later, suspect it.  Rarely, it is a true epiphany; most often, it is sudden regret and realization that they may have permanently broken the machine, and a desire to get it back in working order.  You can accept the show of contrition, but it does not obligate you to resume vending machine status.  That’s the key. There need be no hard feelings, no animosity, but that does not imply that you must once again open yourself up to another kick. If you do, in my view, you are not showing much self-respect. If you do, you are partly the author of your own future misuse or abuse. How can it be otherwise? Let mistreatment sneak up on you once, well, anyone can get caught napping. Let it walk right up to you, say a few of the right words, and resume as before? Don’t allow that.  Respect yourself.

That person will need to find new vending machines (he or she has learned how to search for them over the years), and will do so.  Those situations will be toxic also.  However, you do not own that problem.  A very wise woman once taught me:  “Always ask yourself who owns the problem.  Whoever owns the problem needs to deal with the problem.  You can’t own anyone else’s problems.”

She was right.

Letting kids borrow your apartment

(Warning:  contains a profanity.)

About sixteen years ago, my dear friend Domi’s son Lars was coming to Seattle for a couple of weeks.  I was going to Kansas for those weeks, so I agreed to let him stay in my one-bedroom dump on Aurora North (Shoreline).  Lars was about 18, if I recall right.  Really nice kid, responsible, intelligent, great family.  No worries in the world.

Before I left, I said to Lars:  “There’s only one rule, besides don’t misplace the keys.  Do not have anyone over.  Anyone.  At all.  I trust you but I can’t know some random other people.  So, just do not do that.  Okay?”  He agreed.

Very good.  I went off to Kansas and did all my usual Kansas things.  Two weeks later I came home.  Lars was there.  Howdied him, asked how his time had gone.  Small talk, but it was quite evident something was on his mind.  I waited.  Lars was always a good kid, so I knew he’d fess sooner or later.

“Jonathan, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“Yeah? What’s up?”

“Well, I had some people over.”  He looked somewhat miserable.

You did what?” Now, it’s not my way to raise my voice much, but when I’m somewhat angry I can be animated.  I had to pretend to be a little angrier than I was, but not overdo it, because it had taken some serious decency to fess and I had a lot of respect for Lars.  What came out was a series of chilly, annoyed sentences, jabbed like icepicks:

“Did I somehow fail to be clear as to what was expected? Was there a life in danger? Was there some compelling benefit to this? Did I mishear you when you agreed? Did I ask a great deal of you? Was that unreasonable to ask? Did I in some way do you wrong, or make you feel that it would be just fine to make casual disregard of this one clear request?”  Each time, I let him answer, then kept on.  I watched him carefully because I was pretty sure he was near tears.  Yeah, I was punishing him a bit, and I felt a little mean, but at these times one has to make the point sink in.  Plus, I was authentically annoyed.

When I figured he’d had enough, and he did not try to argue or offer a bunch of childish excuses, it was time for the finish.  “Lars, I have one question from you, and I expect a candid answer.  Think carefully before you respond.”

“Okay.”  Poor kid looked like it was his worst day on earth, but he was still in there taking his medicine.  Had to hand it to him.

I put a little extra snarl into it.  “DID YOU FUCK IN MY BED?”

“No!” His shocked look and quick answer confirmed that he was being honest, as he had done all along.  Good lad.  Time to break the ice.

Incredulous quizzical look and tone:  “Well…why NOT, boy?!!”  Then I laughed.

So did he.

My grandfather’s comedy

My grandfather (maternal; I never knew my father’s father) has been passed away some years now.  He was no more a perfect man than I am, but he was a wise man, and at times a very funny one.  He always found humor in the absurd.

The funniest thing I can remember from my grandfather was one time when he was doing one of his favorite schticks:  the dumb hick.  While he spoke with the gentle drawl of rural Kansas, he was a strong demonstration of the fact that accents do not imply ignorance.  He was intelligent and thoughtful, both as a farmer and rancher, and later as a business executive.  So when he really laid the Cletus on thick, it was quite amusing to hear.  In this case, he was reading his junk mail, aloud, as if he believed every word of it.  It went something like this:

“Dorothy, the nahs folks at Publisher’s Clearin’ House have written to me.  They say, ‘Dear Mr. Johnson, the team at PCH is pleased to officially announce yore name as the second-place winner of the $7 million grand prize.’  They say that the total amount is $1 million.  Well, Ah’ll be!  They also say they will make all necessary arrangements for me to receive mah prize, and Ah know they’re serious because they enclose a cashier’s check to cover any fees they haven’t paid.  Mighty nice of them.  Ah must contact mah representative directly before Ah deposit the check, and for more information.  Sounds reasonable.  They give me a security code, so we best keep that someplace real safe.  And you know it’s on the up-and-up because they even assigned me mah own IRS agent, Mr. Henry Cohen.  Good, because Ah don’t want any trouble with the law.”

He could go on like that for a while, straight-faced, immune to my cackles, horselaughs and guffaws.  I only cracked my grandfather up once in return when he was doing that, but that time, I got the old man good.

Grandpa was reading aloud from a Harry & David sales pitch around Christmastime–he and Grandma were regular customers.  “Harry and David would like us to help them celebrate their fiftieth anniversary!” he began.

I broke in with my own Cletus put-on.  “Ah’ll be darned, Grandpa.  Ah never even knew they was married.”

My deeply, culturally and politically conservative grandfather bust out in a gale of mirth.

It’s one of my favorite ways to remember him.