Monday, March 29, 2010
Monday, June 22, 2009
Oh, I can hear the chides now. "How can you be through when you never even started?" Or maybe, "Gee, I'll really miss your posts...ONCE A YEAR!" OK, OK, I deserve that.
Contrary to what I've lead some people to believe, though, I know I'm not expected to be Pulitzer-worthy when I blog. Just because I don't want to sound like Homer Simpson on a bender, that doesn't mean I think I'm channeling Ernest Hemingway when I write - or even Ernest P. Worrell, for that matter. I've been told that I should stop trying so hard, that every post doesn't need to aspire to some lofty, reality-affirming treatise about the mysteries of the human condition. "Write anything," they say. "Get over yourself!" (Gosh, I didn't realize I had such a haughty opinion of me. Apparently, I really need to be taken down a peg.)
I believe my problem is mainly one of perception. I simply can't think of my blog the same way I think of a journal or a diary. The latter are all about introspection, even catharsis; sharing them is merely optional, and if they make the writer happy, the opinions of others don't really matter. Blogs, on the other hand, are created specifically to be read by the masses. So, when I sit down to work on a blog post, I immediately revert back to my high school Creative Writing class, where everything I put out there was supposed to be picked apart. It's not that I think anyone expects greatness, but hopefully they don't expect crap, either.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
I was recently reminded of an email I received at work a few years ago. It was very controversial, a laundry list of "politically incorrect" jokes and one-liners. (No examples included herein, lest I send the wrong message.) A coworker had sent it from his company email account, and it nearly got him fired. It even caused problems for the recipients, necessitating a conversation with our managers about "appropriate use of company resources," as if we had any control over what people sent to us.
As someone who loves a good laugh, this question has always fascinated me: What really makes a joke OK for some people to tell, but not others?
For the record, I've made more than a few off-color jokes in my day. I've probably told jokes about every ethnic group, religion, lifestyle, nationality, and hair color you can think of. I've justified this, when compelled to do so, by expressing my honest belief that these jokes are about stereotypes, not people. I mean, how many blonds do you know who really fit the stereotype in blond jokes? In fact, those jokes aren't really about blond people at all; they're about people who don't readily grasp the obvious. But, we use blonds as the vehicle because it's easy, it's convenient, and because no one wants to start a joke by saying, "OK, three vapid, unobservant, clueless people walk into a bar..."
Having said that, I do understand that not every joke can be told by everyone, and sometimes the way a joke is told is more important than the punchline. Sure, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle can get away with "the 'n' word" in their stand-up routines, but I'm pretty sure Michael Richards will tell you that not everyone can. Furthermore, even Rock and Chappelle may have to restrain themselves in certain situations, and many people believe they shouldn't use that word, either. (This is me raising my hand.)
Still other jokes are just plain contemptible by virtue of their subject matter. As a Jew, I do not mind the jokes about why my ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years, or how copper wire was invented, or how we differ from canoes. (Eventually, you know the canoe will tip. Funny!) However, if you start to tell me the difference between a Jew and a pizza, I will inform you that you'd best not finish that one in my presence.
From a purely logical perspective, it stands to reason that any joke which might be offensive should simply not be told at all. But, how many brilliant comedians would never have had a chance if everyone followed this rule? Pryor, Carlin, Radner, Bruce, Izzard, Lopez, Mason, - so many legendary stand-up philosophers have made us think and laugh by creating brilliant material which poked fun at all sorts of stereotypes, and refused to apologize for it. (By the way, if you know where I got the term "stand-up philosopher," I hereby DEFY you to deny that you've laughed out loud at stereotypical, controversial, provocative humor!)
At the end of the day, we aren't really talking about comedy, per se. Underneath it all, this is really about language and the amazing, boundless power of words. I've personally watched someone fell a budding friendship in a split second, just by making an untimely, off-color joke. I've also seen people who are otherwise kind and forgiving write someone off completely because of a single, poorly-chosen attempt at humor. On the other hand, as we all know, a few heartfelt, simple words can help to ease the deepest suffering, if only for a little while. Words are amazing.
We all have our "hot buttons," subjects about which we cannot or will not laugh; but who among us has not said something they later regretted, something that sounded witty and sharp in their head, but died gasping on the floor once it escaped into the world?
For people like me who love to dissect and analyze words, it is just too easy to pick apart a joke or a quip that was probably benign to begin with, and find fault with it. It can also be difficult to avoid assigning a negative value judgment to the person who said it which they may not fully deserve. I try not to do this, but know I fail all too often.
Here's what I hope to teach my children as they grow up: When you put words out there, written or spoken, be careful what they say about you. Once you set them free, "how you meant them" becomes irrelevant. You forever own them in whatever context they are taken. It's scary, it's unfair, but it's true. More importantly, though, you must never allow this harsh reality to prevent you from creating words - beautiful, eloquent, controversial, meaningful words. They will never fail you, so long as you treat them with the respect and reverence that they deserve.
Of course, the other side of that coin is not to judge others too harshly or too quickly for their own words.
Friday, April 24, 2009
I am not proposing that bigots, racists, and other small-minded people should walk through this world unchallenged. I am simply saying that, when interacting with people - even stupid people - it is important to deal with them on their own terms.
Last Saturday at the wine shop, a group of ladies came in and sat down at the bar. I know them to be regulars, though I do not know their names. I said to one of them, "So, can I get you something to drink?" She looked me right in the eye and said, "OK, that was perhaps the stupidest thing you could have just asked me, since I'm in a wine shop, bellied-up to the bar, and looking at the wine list, obviously trying to make up my mind. I'm just going to pretend you never even said that, and continue on with my life as if you were actually intelligent."
(OK, her actual words were, "Well, yeah...," but they hit the air between us with such heavy sarcasm and dismissive attitude that she clearly MEANT what I wrote in the previous paragraph. If anyone else had heard it, they would tell you it was obvious. Honest.)
In this exchange, I was clearly the stupid person she had to deal with. What I meant to ask, of course, was, "What can I get you to drink?" But, I phrased the question a bit too passively, and she chose to act upon the opportunity to make a point of my milquetoast, noncommittal phraseology. I mean, I'm behind the bar, and it's my job to take her order, so there was really no doubt about what I was trying to ask her. If she had just given me her order or asked for a minute to decide, the whole moment would have passed without any worthwhile notoriety. Also, I would not have spit in her wine. (Just kidding - but that was fun to imagine.)
Why did this woman feel the need to make an issue of my question? By taking such an attitude, she accomplished nothing positive, whatsoever.
To further my point, I took the "high road" here (which I do not always do) and continued to smile at her and treat her as a welcomed guest throughout her visit. She clearly wanted to be dealt with directly, so I obliged. Every other question I asked her was short, courteous, and to the point. If I had returned her attitude, or grown a pissy one of my own, we both would have been miserable as the night wore on. Instead, I'm proud to say, I just smiled and "made nice." By the time she paid her tab (in fact she pad ALL of their tabs!), she had spent quite a bundle, and left a sizable tip.
Sure, the wine probably lubricated her demeanor to some extent, but still, I'd like to think that the way I handled the situation struck a chord with this woman. If this were a film, set in my imaginary universe, we would now watch a scene from the next morning. As the Guest Of The Year enjoys Cafe Americano and warm scones on her veranda, she would gaze out across her vast, manicured lawn and contemplate the previous day, replaying our exchange in her mind. "What a delightful man," she would certainly think. "Even though I acted boorish and brutish, he was kind and charming the whole night through. I've learned my lesson - I'm never going to be rude to the help EVER AGAIN!"
I imagine she would then turn right around and yell, "Consuela! El coffee-o est cold-o! More caliente, dammit!!!"
See? Even in my fantasy world I can't change people. I guess you just gotta' live and let live.
Monday, January 12, 2009
I have also been out-blogged, so far this year, by two brilliant mothers, an uber-talented bassist, and a ceramic owl. But, I digress...
In general, I think most people who know me would say that I am likable, if not downright nice. I feel confident in saying this because I have made a serious, conscious effort to be this way. There was a time in my life when this was not so easy for me but, I am happy to say, I am now predisposed toward the positive.
Lately, however, I've become acutely aware of just what an unforgiving bastard I can still be, once in a while. So far, this year has presented me with ample opportunities to look into this facet of my personality and, I have to say, I'm not proud.
Let's start with that fateful Saturday night. I was working behind the bar at the wine shop where my lovely wife waits tables. I get to go in whenever they need an extra body, and it's always a fun time. It's a bit of work, but the people are great and we laugh & sip good wine all night long. (Now that I think about it, that's hardly "work" at all.)
On this particular night, we had a huge party in the tasting room (our version of a party room, for seating larger parties comfortably). These were not the folks one typically finds at an upscale wine bistro. No, these folks seemed more likely to be found, on any given night, at a boot-scootin' country bar, or even a friendly neighborhood beer-'n-shot watering hole. One guy, for example, was seriously miffed because my wife (their server) couldn't bring him a plastic or Styrofoam cup that he could use as a spittoon. (We have neither plastic nor Styrofoam in the restaurant.) Karen managed to find him an empty 7-Up bottle, which he filled about half way during the course of the evening, and was kind enough to leave behind for her to dispose of. (No, I'm not kidding.)
This party also presented my wife with several additional challenges. First of all, there were so many people that we didn't have enough chairs to accommodate them, even after pulling empties from all over the restaurant. The room was packed elbow to elbow, with everyone milling around. Even Karen, an excellent, experienced server, had a difficult time keeping up with who ordered what, and how to serve the food.
Worst of all, many of the people in this party were just downright rude. By the end of the night, my beautiful wife was almost in tears.
Several times throughout the night, when Karen would walk out of that room obviously shaken, I almost went back to the room and asked people to leave. What's that you ask? Am I allowed to do this? Nope - it would have cost me my cushy, enjoyable side-job, and possibly gotten me banned from the wine shop altogether. I didn't care. I wanted every person in that room to leave, and preferably meet a fiery death on the way home as a result of their own drunken driving. I'm not exaggerating - I was literally hoping for physical harm to befall these people. Especially the rude ones.
As fate would have it, after this particularly difficult Saturday evening, Karen and I also came home to - drum roll please - her parents. Yes, my in-laws were in town. Her mother had been here since Thursday and her dad came in that night while we were at work. Now, when Karen's mother is in town, Karen is literally baby-sitting her the entire time, and it's very stressful. Her mother is deaf which, in and of itself, is not the problem. Deaf culture however, is a subject for another post (or two or three) and, while Karen smiles through it all, these visits are never relaxing. Coming home to any guests, to be sure, is less than ideal after a tough night like Karen had, when she really just needed to walk in, plop down, and unwind.
When I first started dating Karen, and for many years into our marriage, I got along with everyone in her family. Now - not so much. I won't air our dirty laundry in public, and there is no possible way for me to abbreviate the history that has led to the tension between us, but...things have happened. Despite my efforts to "be nice," I just can't seem to forgive these things and put it all behind me. Even knowing how much it bothers Karen (for whom I'd do anything), I cannot muster the will to make that happen.
So, I'm left wondering: How many other people have made such a determined effort to become a better person? I would hope that most people don't have to. I know that, for my friends, the best things about them do not seem manufactured or forced. They're great people, and they make me want to be a better person. Still, as hard as I've "worked on myself," I can't seem to get past this...spiteful, vindictive inability to forgive. Why?
I've finally figured it out: I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. I cannot, however, forgive those who wrong the people I love.
Hey...maybe I'm not so ashamed by that, after all.