Failing On Line

A vintage picture of a well put together woman checking out here groceries. She has a great hat.

She was the worst ever at packing a grocery bag. She knew that eggs needed to go on the top, but would regularly misalign her tomatoes on unevenly shaped cans. Cans would shift, tomatoes would smash.

It goes back to that time–decades ago–at the cheaper grocery store. The one that didn’t take credit cards, that sold goods out of cardboard cases rather than from neatly stacked shelves, where you paid for bags and you packed your own.

Her stress began when she had to buy the bags. She didn’t know how many she needed. All she knew was she had a conveyor belt full of food. She guessed the number of bags she needed. She guessed wrong. How did her friends do this?

The baby was in the well of the shopping cart as she was trying to empty the full belt. He was a baby in that he wasn’t quite yet a kid, but he was mobile. She kept an eye on him while she shoved food in the paper bags as fast as she could. There were people behind her in her line. They would need her to be done. Soon. Very soon.

Ethel and Lucy desperately dealing with an accelerating chocolate candy assembly line.She felt like Lucy & Ethel wrapping chocolates as the conveyor belt moved faster and faster, and as they became increasing more desperate–hiding candy in their hats, secreting it away in their uniforms and eventually popping the evidence into their mouths. But this wasn’t a joke. Her consequences were real. And then there was the wail.

The baby had somehow wedged his big fat cheeks between the wires where the shopping cart seat meets the cart. The more he tried to extricate himself, the more he was stymied. And this held true for his mother, too. He was afraid. So was she.

She couldn’t collapse the seat into the cart without collapsing her son’s face. She had to figure out a way to wiggle his cheekbones attached to his big head from the grip of the cart. But the baby screamed as she was doing her work. She believed it was not just because it was uncomfortable, but also because it hurt.

So she’s holding up the entire busy line at the cheaper grocery store trying to liberate a being that she loved more than life itself. And she was not removing her groceries from the assembly line. The line that was moving, just behind her.

She wished to her soul that she had pliers to cut the cart to piles of metal shavings and take her sweet baby home. But she also had $160 of groceries on the line. And they weren’t bagged.

She attended to her baby as the passersby were looking at her like she was the most ignorant and the most neglectful and the worst mother in the city, and in the state, and in the country, and in the world, and, possibly, in the entire universe. Nobody stopped to see if they could help. Many threw their noses into the air as they looked down on her obvious incompetence.

She wasn’t sure how she extracted her love from the jaws of the shopping cart. But she held him close as his sobs subsided. Still there was no help.



Except for the checker. The one who was having her line held up by the madness. She stopped scanning packages and grabbed some brown paper bags. She expertly took the food on the belt and smartly packed the bags. Because that was what needed to be done. And her line was stalled. But she felt for the woman. She did the packing because she was helping. And god knew the woman with the baby needed help.

So that’s why the woman would never successfully pack a grocery bag. She just couldn’t do it. She seized up and stalled. Even when she had less than a bag full. Even when there was no hurry. Even if the store was empty. She was absolutely no good. No good at all.

Don’t expect her to pack. Her baby is a man now. But she won’t ever put her groceries in her bag. Not happening. She’s not certified on this equipment. And it hurts.

Framing or Taming Fears

A frightening site. A post coitus demon sitting in a blown out building overlooking the East Side. For those of you who don't know, this is from Ghostbusters.

Why did she do it? Why did she step outside her frilly cravat and black robes for poli-talk. Inappropriate for a sitting Supreme Court Justice. Inappropriate.

First, I know that plenty disagree with me on that last word. But for those of you of the leftward lean, imagine if Justice Scalia had said the same about candidate Obama. There were calls for Justice Alito’s head when he publicly reacted to the President’s State of the Union by reflexively shaking his head no and mouthing, “Not true.” That’s nothing like calling a major party candidate a faker and saying he’ll bring America to ruin. Let’s be intellectually honest here and call the game fairly.

Back to the why. Why did she step so far out? She hasn’t crossed the line this directly into politics before.

Some say it’s because in her eighth decade, she will just say whatever she likes. Others wonder if she is feeling her moniker as The Notorious R.G.B. and was lost in her own importance. Was she careless? It’s hard to think that her remarks were casual, especially because she repeated them before she walked them back and apologized.

I think she was deliberate in her statements. She was in a sit down with the New York Times. It’s as if she sought an opportunity to be on the record. I think it’s because she is afraid. She as much as said so.

I imagine a scenario where she’s feeling that this cycle is very different. That established rules of behavior and decorum of the presidential election process are being flaunted. That even as personal and ugly as elections have become, that there is a new level of debasement. And it is frightening.

I have a hunch that she thinks this is the worst, and most dangerous, election in modern American history. That our democracy, that America, is seriously at risk. I imagine that she felt compelled to do something. She felt remaining silent was an abdication of her oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That, if she could, she must use her influence.

I bet she didn’t map out about the true political ramifications of her comments. She played directly into the narrative that scares her. She immediately became the lighting rod for judicial overreach, for confusing the roles in our Constitution, for the out of touch establishment and as the worst of liberals trying to protect their liberalness. By taking the unprecedented steps of directly commenting on an active election, she likely expected to have an impact. But she wasn’t going to have much impact on her own choir, and she riled up the other team.

Justice Ginsburg is a brave person both on the bench and personally. But she blew this because she played outside of her strength. It’s recklessness borne of a growing alarm.

Writing a note to self: Do not act out of fear. Act from the strength of convictions. Yours, not someone else’s.

Shiner Doc

This is the shore of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. People are at the beach sunbathing. Those are NOT whitecaps but ice flows. Brrrr!

There was that time that I gave the Best Man a black eye. But I get ahead of myself.

When people think about Michigan, top of mind is cars and cold. Most folks don’t realize that in addition to the mitten–i.e., the Lower Peninsula–there is another slab of Michigan. It’s on the other side of the big Mackinac Bridge, which spans the four or five miles where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron kiss. It’s the Upper Peninsula (UP). The hearty people who live in the UP are called Upers.

It’s crossways the 320 miles between Wisconsin on the west and a narrow river separating the U.S. from Canada on the east. To the North is the greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. You can tell it’s the greatest lake because it tells you so. Superior.

My friend’s brother went to school in the UP. I never quite knew how he got there from Milwaukee, but he went to Tech. He studied business at a mining college. Tech is way up north in the Keweenaw Peninsula. [I know, yet another peninsula. What is it with these people?] This Peninsula juts deep into Lake Superior.

Another thing you should know about Lake Superior is that it is cold. Average Keweenaw water temp–when it peaks in the summer–is still less than 60°F. It’s big. It’s cold. And it has a reserved, maybe even a foreboding, personality. If you stare at it too long, it will brush you off. It doesn’t care.

It was at Tech, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, strutting out into that cold, indifferent, arrogant, Superior lake, where the brother met a girl. She was an engineering student at Tech. She must have come from that Scandinavian stock that settled in the UP. The immigrants that set up the saunas in every deer camp that encouraged a naked plunge into the snow. Her long blonde hair cascaded over her shoulder like Upper Tahquamenon Falls. She had a quick smile and a smart wit that was punctuated by the wink of her cerulean eye. And legs for days.

She was from Hancock, which was the town across the bridge from Houghton. When she and the brother decided to make it official, the wedding was in her home town.

So the brother was getting married, and we were off to the destination wedding. Destination far. But we knew some people along the way. And we had bug spray. Fact: the mosquitos can be as big as birds up there on some of the inland lakes. I don’t think, though, they stood a chance off the frigid, Lake High-and-Mighty.

As was our modus operandi, we were late. I think that’s why I don’t remember the rehearsal dinner. It was likely embarrassing.

We were in Marquette for a few days before the wedding and likely slept in or decided on more coffee. There may have also been a side trip to someone’s childhood memories at a lodge purportedly haunted by a murdered doctor of John Dillinger. The purveyor of that story, however, was the step-father who was known to enjoy an acid trip or two and would tell you about his out of body experiences, even without you showing any interest. We didn’t see any ghosts. But I was scared to death when my friend told me about the wild dogs that were on the premises. This was an odd story, too, because the feral beasts were the spawn of a beloved bitch from his childhood named Penny. When I heard a howl or maybe it was a rustle of a bush, I ran back to the car. It might have been Penny’s mad babies. 

It wasn’t my family. And it wasn’t my affair. And I was along for the ride. So we missed dinner. But we did not miss the bonfire.

I knew my friend’s mom. She was awesome. I knew why he loved her so much. She was very kind to me whenever I was on a visit. And she would always bum a menthol off of me. She and her floating spouse smoked regulars. I don’t know if she preferred the mint of my Virginia Slims or just wanted a change, but she was always a little excited to take one out of my pack and light it between her lips. She was pretty, but like a mom. She was probably 44 at that time.

I think we were hungry, but, like I said, blew through any food festivities. There were literally no food options at 9 p.m. in Hancock, Michigan. The all-night diner closed by eight. I bet it opened at 4 a.m., though. For the working folk.

The young people, that would be us and my friend’s brothers and the friends of the betrothed, were on the move. We tried to catch up with them by downing a few cans of whatever cheap beer we drank then. It was likely a Wisconsin brew, since we were close to that border. Somehow I am thinking that we also ate cheese balls for our dinner, on the way.

We left the SuperBeetle behind and climbed in the back of somebody’s truck. There were trucks and vans and cars in the caravan headed to the pitiless and Imperious Lake. For a bonfire.

I knew the groom-to-be. He was super amiable. He and his fiancée were gracious and begged off from the ongoing celebration. They had a big day coming. They took their leave.

This was the first time that I had met the other brother. He was the family favorite.

I had heard his name many times. He was the eldest. The smartest. The chosen. The most charming. He was a medical student at a prestigious Jesuit university in the east. I never thanked him for my introduction to Washington, D.C., which I met on a trip for his graduation. The ceremony was at the Kennedy Center. I was much affected by our nation’s capital and vowed to return. Spoiler alert: I did two years later, for the duration.

There may have been a few dozen of us, with coolers full of beer and melted ice. My friend and I were grubby from the drive and the {mis}adventure of the day, but nobody noticed. The cars rolled up to the Super Lake. Lake Superior. We piled out, grabbed beers, and stood between the fire and the water. The bonfire of driftwood was going as strong as it would. It wasn’t big, but it was a fire.

The brother was in our transport. He was erudite. He was also condescending to my friend. Maybe it was their relationship, the older and the younger sibling.

I thought the brother was obnoxious. He wasn’t my favorite. No, not at all. He wasn’t like he was advertised by his family. He was tall, but slight. I thought that he was throwing me menacing looks. And me, buoyed especially by a few downed cold cans, threw barbs back his way. I may have been rude. I likely was rude. But I was thinking that he was not boss over me, I was not part of the family dynamic that excused his vainglory. To me, he was an ass. Not an asset.

He was peeved by my disdain, and I liked that. I dismissed him by turning away and taking another beer from a cooler. They were less cool now.

A few people were stepping into the ice water that was lapping along the sand. Some rolled up their pants. One stripped to skivvies and jumped in. I found that amazing. I was not that drunk. I don’t think I could be that drunk. And if I were that drunk, hitting that cold water would reverse any drunk that made me that stupid. But, I was from downstate. These Upers were made of this Superior Lake, of the pines around us, of the dark gray smoke from the damp driftwood. Maybe the copper was in their veins. Not mine, though.

I was ambushed from behind. Lifted above his head onto his shoulders. My swagger quickly displaced my shock. The brother started walking to the water, telling me matter of factly that he was going to toss me in. I was feeling the control leaving me as he stepped into the water. He didn’t even have his pants rolled up. I cursed him loudly, in my deepest strongest voice. He laughed. I told him that he was going to turn around–because now I was unable to leave his shoulders without having a dunk tank experience. He laughed again. That was when I took my fist, and I pummeled it into his head as hard as I could.

He stopped. He was very angry now. Too angry to humiliate me any further because he was being humiliated, too. He took the strides back to the shore, and I jumped off. I found my friend and we had another beer. The brother left in the next car. We left a little bit later.

I was ill-prepared for a wedding, and I was grateful that it wasn’t fancy. The wedding party dressed in gowns and tuxedos, but the guests were more relaxed. The bride’s sisters helped me with my braid, and my friend’s mother fretted over the use of the wrinkle cream she brought. None of us twenty year olds had any clue how to apply it.

The groom and his best man presented themselves to the mother. She screamed. Not loud, but not a little. The best man had a black eye. The pictures!?! I said nothing, but the story came out. And the mother was not a little angry with me. It was unfathomable that her favorite would have earned that shiner.

I, on the other hand, stepped away and lit up one of those Virginia Slims and felt very, very, very proud of myself. Almost, Superior.


Sizing Up

Castle gate and wall. Imposing, no?

When I was a wee Doc we lived in The Old House. The house wasn’t especially old, but we called it The Old House to differentiate it from The New House. We moved to the new house just before My Older Sibling started kindergarten.

The New House was fully and completely new. It stood on what had been a part of a good-sized dairy farm that was subdivided into new blocks of varying sizes with twisty roads, half circles and a few cul-de-sacs. There were two very tall and very impressive trees. They were like Ents. The rest of the greenery was new sod and very young, very slow growing trees. When I left for college they barely provided shade.

The Old House, on the other hand, was surrounded by big old trees in the front and in the back. Indeed, the entire street was protected by limbs stretching and trying to touch their brethren across the street. Dappled gold and bursts of saffron would sneak through the small breaks in the big green canopy like specks of amber in hazel eyes. Closing my own, I can still see it, and feel it.

There were two very frightening things on the street with The Old House. First, the bees.

We were terrified of the bees. Someone told us that if they saw you move, they’d come after you and sting you. They were huge bees, the size of golf balls. No. Tennis balls. They would buzz back and forth among the flowers of the old lady down the street. We called her grandma. Her flowers were lovely, except for the bees that hung in front of the flowers. They looked like they were on wires that someone would occasionally move–either a small jerky up and down motion or a smoother left to right. We would spy them and very carefully, silently and slowly, holding our breaths, walk past grandma’s house.

Aa soon as we passed her property line we’d explode like a pinball out of the chute to our friend’s porch to play. I remember a bunch of cement steps to her porch. It was dark and cool, likely from one of those ancient elms. I don’t remember what we played, though. I think we launched ourselves off the steps.

The other terror was another neighbor’s dog. It would bark in a vicious manner. It was very loud. It’d throw itself against the fence to try and break through while full of snarl and howl to intimidate us as we walked by. And that monstrous dog was on the other side of the street. He really didn’t have to go to all that trouble. We weren’t allowed to cross the street.

One day I was walking back home by myself and the dog was banging against the fence. I was spying for bees and looking back over my shoulder across the street to see him break through. There was no worry and creeping past the bees. I took off as fast as I could to my house. The dog was gaining on me as I ran up the driveway through our open gate. I used all my strength to push the chain link gate closed, and it latched just as Cujo bashed into it. I lay on the ground for a second, catching my breath and watching the insane tirade of the evil dog. Worried he’d force himself through my barrier, I ran around the side of the house to the door and pushed my way to safety.

I was four when we moved. I don’t remember going back to The Old House for a long time.

The next time I saw the house, I was with my Dad. He was visiting our old neighbor, who was his best friend. It was maybe ten years later. I walked up our old driveway to the astonishing fence that saved me from that demon dog. Really, the fence wasn’t as astonishing as I was astonished. The gate that I remember breathlessly dragging to save myself from that ferocious canine wasn’t much more than two-feet tall. It would barely keep out a Jack Russell Terrier. So the dog that was chasing me was not a mastiff. Makes sense. Everything was bigger when I was smaller. I had a good chuckle.

I remembered this fence today. It came to me as I was thinking about fear. What are we afraid of? Do we let the objects of our fears grow huge before us? Or do we take a closer look and see them for what they are? Do we keep the images we had when we were most afraid, or do we gain perspective over time? Can we apply new knowledge to dissect and examine our experience and use that understanding to grow? Or do we stay stuck in that moment of terror, never to lift our heads again?

Type A or Type B

That 70s Show. Kitty is easy. Red is not.

What kind of parent are you? Here is a little quiz.

  1. Which one is more important for a child to have:
    a. independence or
    b. respect for elders?
  2. Which one is more important for a child to have:
    a. obedience or
    b. self-reliance?
  3. Which one is more important, for a child to be
    a. considerate or
    b. well-behaved?
  4. Which one you think is more important for a child to have:
    a. curiosity or
    b. good manners?

How many A’s did you have? How many B’s?

These simple questions were developed by this guy Feldman from Stonybrook and have been used by social scientists since the 1990’s to help quantify folks’ tendency to very high, high, medium and low levels of authoritarianism. The questions are effective because they aren’t loaded as good and bad options. Both options are fine. They simply identify a preference.

A couple of other guys, Hetherington and Weiler, wrote a book in 2009 that pretty much predicted this year’s inconceivable presidential campaign. No seriously. You don’t have to read the book, it’s in the article. But they talk about how people with high authoritarianism have been sorting themselves to the GOP.

These simple questions identify people’s leanings toward authority. Bottom line, the more A’s, the more you

…prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.– More from VOX.

It’s more than the preference for authoriy that’s driving people now. It’s authoritarianism combined with a concern for their (and their families’) safety.

People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.

So you have the perfect storm. Uncertainty and social changes trigger the desire for the safety of clear and familiar rules and norms + a fear of physical threats especially from outsiders like 911 terrorists or ISIS.

When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, [some people] support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

But the people being driven to the law and order and social conservatism in the GOP are not necessarily aligned with the party.

The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.

This is what I said before. Not like I’m saying “I told you so,” or anything.

It’s just that we can’t understand what’s happening without trying to understand what’s happening. And this can mean uncomfortably confronting assumptions and learning about new models that fly in the face of these assumptions.

Don’t be afraid. They can smell your fear.

I totally recommend reading the full article on Vox. It’s long, but it’s worth it. And likely better than my tl;dr above. The Rise of American Authoritarianism, by Amanda Taub; published March 1, 2016.