We've all seen them. They're just not quite right. I can tell at a glance that they don't follow the mainstream of society. Of course I'm polite about it: I smile, nod, maybe say a kind word, but keep my distance.
He was the guy I saw in the burger joint. He was dressed within societal norms for middle class casual, but he was seventeen words too friendly, and far too specific about how he wanted his burger prepared. And he was needlessly concerned that I should ask the cashier for the half-dollar coin he just gave her.
Then there was the family out for a drive. My view through their rear window triggered my intrinsic prejudice; by facial appearance, they were a stereotypical family of hillbillies; by dress, bound for Something-Mart. And by the look it, all of the occupants were dead set on participating in the driving.
The real shame is that it's been my loss, and an unspoken insult to them.
Though, to be fair to myself, it's often a two-way prejudice. There was another time I was standing in a long line at a fast food restaurant, and a guy I'd never seen before in my life, ahead of me in line, donned an unapologetic sneer at me. He glared at me for at least a full minute before the switchbacks put us within a couple feet of each other.
His emotional disability was apparent in his facial expression toward me. And my intuition suggested that he had perhaps intellectual challenges as well. I am not a confrontational person, but something told me I should stand my social ground. When we came close together, I held his stare expressionlessly for a few seconds, then half-smiled, and said, "Hi."
Unfazed, his lips parted, and he uttered in a most dramatic way, "I loath you."
Determined not to react emotionally, I asked, "Why is that?"
Continuing his glare, with the same melodrama he returned, "Because of how you look."
"Hmmm," I said, unaffected, "That's a shame."
Then there was a time a friend of mine invited me to a gathering of people I'd never met before. As I walked into the room, my prejudice kicked in. These were clearly not mainstreamers. Choice of hairstyle and clothing were the biggest indicators for me.
But I fought it off. I resisted the prejudice that leapt into my emotions. And now the friends of my friend are my friends. Among my best friends, in fact.
"Prejudice" is seen by mainstream society as categorically bad. And yet it's probably fair to say that mainstream society is where prejudice is most prevalent.
I submit that prejudice is neither good nor bad; it's just a conditioned emotional response, and a necessary component of quick response to real emergencies. How we act on that prejudice, however, can be good or bad. I can accept the fact that I had a prejudicial emotional response to the overly friendly guy at the burger joint; but should I avoid him because he's weird? I didn't. I smiled and interacted with him as I would with anyone else I don't know. It cost me nothing to do so, and it brought me no harm.
My tendency is to hold my prejudice close to the vest, and wait for further input. But, sadly, I'm sure that my prejudice colors my perception. The best I can hope for is to be aware of it and try to compensate.
But the job market has undergone some insidious changes. We now have an Internet-centric existence, where information flows freely. The blessing it brings for an employer is that they can now have their choice of a vast number of candidates for a single job. The curse it brings for an employer is that they now have a vast number of candidates for every single job. So the process has mutated from a subjective human process of judgment into an objective automated process of numbers and keywords.
Candidates must not only be good in their field, they must also learn how to play the job market. One of the new rules of that game seems to be: Don't become emotionally committed to any job prospect.
A conscientious candidate must imagine slipping into that job in order to effectively compose a cover letter and tailor a resume. But no amount of effort, no amount of conscientiousness, will make the employer any more considerate in advising the candidate about the job status. So the candidate is best served to launch an application and forget about it. It used to be that following up on your application was an important way to show your enthusiasm for a job. But employers now make it difficult or impossible to do that because of the way they conduct their searches.
That is emotionally taxing for me. It becomes harder and harder to look at a job listing that seems to be a good fit, and then summon the emotional energy to create another well-crafted cover letter and another highly-tailored resume. It's emotionally taxing because I know the greatest probability is that it will end up in the Recycle Bin on the Desktop of some HR department computer. It's emotionally taxing because despite my best efforts I tend to hold onto hope for ridiculously long periods of time. And it's emotionally taxing because I know that enthusiasm, ambition, loyalty, ingenuity, and flexibility are at the bottom of every employer's list of hiring criteria instead of the top.
If you seek only objective, quantifiable skills, that is all you will get. If you evaluate character first instead of last, the rest will fall into place. Skills can be learned quickly. Character takes a lifetime to develop.
If you treat your candidates like livestock, you will have a company of sheep and cattle. If you treat your candidates respectfully and with consideration for their time, you will have employees who respect their employer and strive for the wellbeing of the organization.
Mom's Reaction: (running into the den, seeing an overturned chair and Daughter on the floor crying) "Oh, sweetie, are you OK? What happened? ... Poor thing! ... Now, didn't I tell you not to stand up in the chair like that?"
Dad's Reaction: (from the kitchen, calling into the den) "If there's any blood, don't let it get on the carpet. ... Maybe she'll remember this the next time she wants something from the top shelf."
Mom's Reaction: (furious) "I can't believe what a pigsty this room has become! You get no TV privileges until you clear a path from the door to the bed!" (Then seeing Daughter's dismay at not knowing where to start) "I'll make you a list of things to put away."
Dad's Reaction: (amazed) "Impressive! Well, you're nuts if you think I'm wading in there to do story time tonight. And there's no way I'm buying you another Barbie doll until you're ready to leave for college."
Mom's Reaction: "Absolutely not! You'll get hypothermia, and the school will call me to tell me what a horrible parent I am."
Dad's Reaction: "I don't care what the school thinks. Let her freeze her butt off so she'll know better next time."
And surely it's encrypted in our genetic code for Mom to protect her child from every little danger and Dad to incite his child toward every little risk. I can picture Oggalina, the adolescent cave dweller, being scolded by her mom to wear the long mammoth pelt, and then sneaking out (wearing the short mammoth pelt) with her dad so he can teach her how to climb a rock wall and steal pterodactyl eggs (anachronisms notwithstanding).
Is it true that those who can't cope with reality retreat to fantasy? Maybe. But I think instead, those who can't fantasize can't excel in reality.
Some people equate fantasy with delusion, but it's not the same concept. Delusion is false belief, and often self-deception; fantasy is imagination, and often hope. Fantasy can sometimes become reality.
When something in my life is unacceptable to me, I might fantasize about an alternative. But that's not because I can't cope with that reality, it's just because I prefer to change that reality. When more things in my life are unacceptable, I spend more time in fantasyland, but I don't totally shut myself off from reality. You may choose to call that a retreat from reality; I choose to call it a planning session.
In my fantasy world, ideas rise and fall, ebb and flow. There is a temptation for me to spend too much time in fantasyland, because there I am quite proficient at creating people, places, things, and circumstances, as I need to. Yet while it's easy for me to create those out of the ether of my thoughts, their existence is like mist blown by the ever-shifting winds of my emotions and the ever-sobering events of reality. Though I form them in the likeness of reality, I am always mindful that they are unsubstantial and unstable.
Despite its tentative existence, I sometimes get attached to a dream. Maybe it's foolish of me to allow myself to do that, but I have found that the realization of a dream seems to require an investment of emotion. Only then can a dream give me the Hope I need to feather my wings for flight. Most often the life cycle of one of my favored dreams ends in fiery cataclysm. The bigger the dream and the higher I fly, the bigger the crater, the hotter the fireball, and the heavier the hail of jagged debris. And having formed an emotional attachment to that dream, at its demise I experience grief proportional to its importance. So my fantasy life and my emotions follow the cycle: Dream, Obsess, Crash, Repeat.
But sometimes ... sometimes ... the cycle goes: Dream, Obsess, Realize. And that's what keeps me going. No matter how spectacular the crash, how deep the crater, how hot the fireball, how heavy the debris ... the thoughts and emotions I have invested are ethereal, not material ... I will eventually emerge miraculously from the crash site, and live to fly again.
I've always wanted to pilot an airplane. Over the years I've gained book knowledge of the principles of flight, and the basic controls for flying an airplane. I've played with flight simulators, and learned some advanced maneuvers. And I've ridden in the copilot seat of my uncle's twin-engine craft. I love the feeling of flying in a small airplane. As you glide past the clouds, above the landscape, you feel like a bird ... like you belong up there.
A helicopter ain't like that. A helicopter is constantly at war with gravity. The engine is all-important. There is no such thing as a dead stick landing, gliding gracefully back to the earth. If the engine fails, the very best you can hope for is to allow the main rotor to keep spinning and reduce the speed of your inevitable crash.
So I've long thought I'd like to try my hand at flying an airplane. But my first opportunity for piloting was not in an airplane; it was in a helicopter. The instructor's first talk with me included a warning about the worst-case scenario, in which the main rotor bites too much air and folds up overhead, guaranteeing an unimpeded fatal drop to the ground. But despite him instilling the fear of death into me, I gotta say I loved the experience.
It was a sobering feeling to have my life and my instructor's under the clumsy command of my unskilled hands and feet. But after a few minutes the experience began to feel less like I was trying to communicate with a dragonfly beast from Alpha Centauri by using semaphore flags and an accordion, and more like I was driving a team of bumblebees by using four-hundred yards of kite string and trigonometry. In other words, I was far from comfortable, but I was at least starting to see something familiar in the controls.
My instructor described airplane flight as basically stable, and helicopter flight as basically unstable. I would agree. I found that if continual adjustments are not made, the helicopter's bearings deviate dramatically from the starting position. In other words you cannot point it where you want to go and just sit back for a while; you have to keep tweaking to remain on your heading.
At the end of the experience, looking back now, I feel confident enough in my ability that if all the helicopter pilots on earth were to die, and the fate of the human race were to hinge on my ability to fly the only vial of antivirus serum across the mountains to the village of the last survivors ... I feel absolutely certain that humankind would have a decent chance for survival.
Don't worry. I won't quit my day job.
People talk. Especially at 4 a.m. when they should be asleep.
I live in a small southern town, so you would already expect the residents to be talkative; but even factoring in population and latitude, I notice a marked increase in talkativity during the wee hours.
Case in point: at 4 a.m. today I venture out to the 24-hour discount store Which Avidly Locates Marketing Around Rural Towns. Why do I pick this hour to shop? Because I have noticed I am out of chocolate milk, and there is a little redheaded chocolate-milk-ivore in the house who will need sustenance in two hours. Or at least that's the excuse I'm using today. Actually I just do a poor job of managing my time, and that store keeps hours just for insomniacs like me.
There is a calm in the air at 4 a.m. Sparse vehicle traffic makes for a quiet approach to the entrance of the megastore. In daylight hours I sometimes move within the herd past the greeter without any acknowledgement of my presence, but at this hour that never occurs.
As I traverse the aisles, culling my shopping list, I encounter stacks of boxes, stock clerks, and floor buffers, all of which pose a challenge to navigating the store. But I am accustomed to the obstacles now. There are few other customers, but those whom I encounter, as compared to primetime shoppers, are far more likely to exchange a greeting or at least a nod or smile. There is a certain camaraderie among wee-hour shoppers; it's a form of validation that we use to reassure each other that although we may be a bit warped to go shopping at 4 a.m., we are at least not alone in our deviant behavior.
There is only one checkout register open, but no line, so I roll on in. The checkout clerk is far more relaxed and talkative than during primetime. She endorses my selection of bottled marinade, and suggests that the teriyaki style in that brand is also good.
On my way out, the greeter gives me the hairy eyeball, and asks to see my receipt. I haven't seen him before. Maybe he's new on this shift, and I fit his profile for suspicious behavior; after all, who would buy a half cart of groceries at 4 a.m.? Or maybe he's just bored.
Out in the parking lot, as I load my groceries into the car, another shopper just arriving calls out to me, "Hey there! It's a great time to shop isn't it?" I chuckle and nod my response.
Back at home as I am carrying groceries in, even the dogs down the street are extra-talkative. They tell me that there's a group of deer shopping for greenery in the neighborhood.
Patience truly is a virtue. If you have none, you acquire extra stress in your life when encountering one of the many situations that absolutely requires waiting. A hard-boiled egg takes about ten minutes to cook, no matter who you are ... just deal with it.
On the other hand, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. If you have too much patience, the world will beat a path to your door ... then it will continue through your door, up your chest, across your face, down your back, stop briefly to force its collective boot into your rectum, then leave and take with it every last ounce of your dignity and self-respect.
How do I know this? Because I am very patient. Extremely patient. So patient that I can wait in line at McDonald's for 45 minutes for the clerk to process only three orders in front of me, and then not even lodge a complaint. (I'm not kidding ... I am ashamed to say it, but I actually did that.) Patient to a fault.
How much is too much? How much is too little? Obviously I am no expert, so I can't tell you exactly where to draw those lines. But maybe it will be instructive to examine a few situations and responses that are clearly across the lines.
Somewhere between those extremes lies the happy middle ground. Now it's time for me to explore that new territory.
... relation'ships, that is.
I'm going to get whiny now, so if you don't like the jaded, bitter me, you should probably not read any further.
Honesty might be the best policy, but it certainly is not the most rewarded policy. After a lifetime of research, my finding is that relationships (be they partnerships, proprietorships, friendships, or courtships ... even citizenships) prefer truth to be administered in carefully measured amounts. Much like mushrooms, they seem to grow best when kept in the dark and given plenty of watered-down fertilizer.
Admittedly, my findings are derived not of the data from successful experiences, but from failures, which seem to be more instructive and surely are more memorable. And certainly my findings are biased, with recent experiences receiving more weight. I am not at liberty to divulge all of my experiential data, but I can disclose some persuasive anecdotes in support of my thesis.
As I related in an earlier article (16-Jul-2006 — Intuition: It's Not What You Think), my experience in sixth grade with speaking the truth to defend myself earned me a full school year of martyrdom at the front of the classroom.
Much more recently I have served many terms of jury duty. On one of those occasions, when I missed my first day because of illness, I approached the judge the next day to humbly explain the situation. He raked me over the coals for my irresponsible behavior, and threatened to throw me in jail. The thirty-or-so jurists who were also absent the first day, but who never appeared before the judge, escaped with no repercussions.
In similar fashion, while operating my business, I learned the hard way that the taxing agencies of our government also reward punctual data in preference to honest data (see article 26-Jun-2006 — I'm Afraid Not).
Experience shows that, likewise, my personal relationships do not fare well in the face of full-frontal honesty. All is golden for small talk and jokes, and even aspersions about third parties. But when disclosing my personal struggles to a friend, with the hope of receiving helpful suggestions or commiseration, those attempts have resulted in subsequent withdrawal of the concerned ear.
I am left with few likely conclusions to draw. One possibility is that friends who will lend a sympathetic ear are a rarity. Another possibility is that I am just not the kind of person whom people like once they get to know me. Despite repeated incidents supporting the second alternative, my self-confidence survives with enough vitality to encourage me to discount that conclusion.
Considering that in the statements above I may have implicitly insulted some of my friends, I realize that there is a significant probability that I truly am the kind of friend who is best held at a generous arm's length. And it might well be the case that my loose lips just sank a few more 'ships (perhaps even readerships). I agonized over the decision to post this article. If it was a mistake, it wasn't my first. And if I am fortunate, it will not be my last, because I intend to go on being honest and candid with those who don't get away from me fast enough. So ... in light of that revelation ... I offer my sincere apologies to those I have inadvertently insulted or alienated (or will offend in the future).
However ... I do not apologize for being me.
Me being in an impromptu conversation is like ... well, it's like John Bolton being an ambassador to the United Nations ... only without the Yosemite Sam mustache.
Awkward silence — lots of it — and half-finished sentences, and unintended offenses, all are my trademark results in most any conversation that I haven't rehearsed. So I rehearse a lot of different conversations in my head.
Sad, isn't it?
Most of my preparatory effort toward small talk is spent collecting or composing witty repartee to file away for future use. People think I'm a quick wit, but in reality I just have a good filing system in my head ... and a bit too much free time. Consequently, a joke or clever response can be stuck in there for months, waiting for the right situation for me to use it. What's more, I maintain in memory an entire database devoted to puns. Truth be known, I have even nudged conversations toward one of my talking points just so I could set up a joke.
So, there you have it ... my secret's out.
It's not just the small talk that gets me stammering; deep subjects challenge me too. So as life situations present themselves to me, I spend a lot of time imagining various conversations I might have with those involved. For me it's a lot like working a maze, with much backtracking from avenues that lead to likely misunderstandings, or offended sensibilities, or restraining orders.
Some of my rehearsed conversations are highly unlikely ever to occur, and yet are pleasant to imagine, so I run through them just for enjoyment. Does that mean I'm living in a fantasy world? Maybe so. Making a quick count, I see that I have numerous conversations on file that are marked as having "Many Good Outcomes" despite them being within the filing section designated as "Conversations I Shall Never Have." On the other hand, since there are a few of them that do not involve Angelina Jolie, maybe I'm not totally delusional.
Some of my rehearsed conversations yield large branches where all likely avenues lead to undesirable outcomes. Those branches I simply mark "Do Not Enter."
Not surprisingly, when I conduct one of my rehearsed conversations in real life with the real actual person, it usually strays from the script. But as my former employer used to say, "It's always good to have a plan for your day, even if you can only follow it for the first ten minutes."
So if you're ever in a deep and meaningful conversation with me, and I suddenly clam-up or change the subject, don't worry. It probably just means we've had that conversation before — with or without you being present for it. Trust me, you don't want to go down that avenue.
And if we ever have a deep and meaningful conversation that flows smoothly, you should be flattered — or look into getting that restraining order.
It was a bit like a scene from a horror flick: I noticed one or two ants in the kitchen, then squished them with my finger, and thought nothing more of it ... until I came back a few hours later and found the countertop covered by a swarm.
I'm not phobic about ants, but that was a bit much for me. That incursion was like my own personal Pearl Harbor. So I declared war.
Out came the spray can! Dishes be damned, I could clean them later. Like Rambo, I began with the obvious invaders first, spraying the entire encampment. The stench of death in my nostrils did not faze me. And when I finished with the ones in the open, I flipped over dishes, and opened cabinets, exposing the insidious infestation, and wiped them out with a swath of poisonous vitriol from my weapon.
But I didn't stop there! No! Out of ammo, I reloaded. Then I tracked them. I followed their trail outside, down the wall, all the way back to their nest. And there I ruthlessly slaughtered them all, even their young and unborn.
That's when I noticed the other nests. Around nearly every tree in the yard there were ant nests, massive ant nests, with superhighways of ants running up and down the trees. I had been assuming that the invaders were fire ants. To my untrained eye they appeared the same as fire ants. But they weren't acting like fire ants. And they weren't biting like fire ants.
So I did my research. What I found is that these are Argentine ants, another imported species that is spreading rapidly. This type of ant breeds in overwhelming numbers. With 10% of the population being egg-laying queens, when they have a sufficient food source they can generate tremendous numbers nearly overnight. But they are not aggressive to larger animals; rather they are attracted to dead things and sweet substances. In my yard their primary source of food appears to be up in the trees, in the form of certain saps and insect byproducts.
With new eyes, I re-explored my yard. There were absolutely no fire ant mounds anywhere. Had the Argentine ants run them out?
After several unsuccessful attempts at exterminating the Argentine ants from my yard, we have reached a tentative peace agreement. As long as the Argentine ants will keep the fire ants off my property I will not be calling in a professional exterminator.
In violation of the treatise, they still make occasional incursions into the outside garbage can, or into a car where goodies have been spilled. This results in sanctions involving a culling of their population. But I can't remember the last time I had a fire ant bite, so I guess I can live with their infrequent border violations.
I never realized that a circular saw could be an aphrodisiac.
Ladies, picture if you will a guy working in shorts and T-shirt, outside in 100-degree weather, building a carport, his clothes so drenched in sweat that it appears he was caught in a rainstorm.
Not turned on yet? Well then, imagine him operating a circular saw, with that whining, grating pitch rising and falling.
Still not doing it for you? Hrrmph! Well, it sure attracted the female cicadas to me! For those who do not know, a cicada is an insect that lives most of its life underground, but immerges and sheds its skin to become something that resembles a housefly on megasteroids. [click here for encyclopedia article] This final stage of their life, occurring in the dog days of summer, is the time they sit in the treetops and the males "sing" to the females a whining, grating song that bears an amount of resemblance to the sound a circular saw makes. They do this to attract a mate. I reckon that's why two female cicadas made the moves on me.
So, after having to beat them away with a stick, I see clearly that I have it: Animal Magnetism.
You've heard it a buhzillion times: "It's better to give than to receive." But few times in my life have I had it demonstrated as clearly as today ...
I was driving for six hours today. Drivers were being about as considerate as they typically are — in other words, not at all. Somewhere in the vicinity of Greenville, I got into the spirit of things, and cut off another driver. As a result, I had the ultimate driver's gift bestowed on me. I received the finger. That's when I realized that receiving is not all that grand a thing.
Later in the day, out on I-26, a driver cut me off. As I contemplated how to respond, I thought of my experience earlier in the day, and realized that verily it is better to give than to receive.