Tag Archives: People

We’re not all that different from our bleating brethren 

petting a lambPeople are sheep.

That’s probably not the most groundbreaking of observations, but it’s a tough one to argue.

Despite our advanced critical-thinking skills (which unfortunately aren’t displayed in our political institutions), humans are like animals when it comes to following the herd.

Instead of engaging in self-reliance, we’ll seek out a shepherd.

Instead of employing our free will, we’ll join up with a flock.

We’ll gladly pursue the ideals of rugged individualism – but only as long as everyone else is, too.

As humans, we crave a sense of community. Community is healthy, but conformity is not. As individuals, our colors shine brightly, and if we were to let our individual lights shine, together we would make up a collage of color.

When it comes to our proclivity for conformity, at least some humans are self-aware. They know that our tendency is to follow, so they use their art to urge others to think for themselves.

George Orwell, for example, wrote an entire book likening human behavior to barnyard animals. Pink Floyd recorded a compilation of soundscapes to make the same point.

Even the Berenstain Bears got in on the action one time, with Farmer Ben advising Brother Bear that joining Too-Tall’s gang would make him just another sheep following the herd.

And if that isn’t enough evidence that humans (and apparently some bears) behave like sheep, then I’m not sure what is.

Although I do have personal experience.

A story I like to tell took place when I was about 10 or 11. My family and I were driving around Lake Tahoe, looking for a nice place to pull over and have a picnic.

Ahead, we spotted a snug little turnout shielded by trees and surrounded by thick manzanita. Not a soul was in sight.

We pulled over and carried our belongings to a cluster of nearby boulders. The rocks worked great for sitting and spreading our food.

Within 10 minutes, eight cars had joined ours in the turnout. People were wandering around with confused looks on their faces. It was like a George Romero film — except far more outrageous and terrifying.

One guy, a typical yuppie wearing brown shorts and matching loafers with no socks, approached our picnic area. (I’ve never understood the yuppie male’s aversion to socks, but apparently, their dress code prohibits them.)

The man’s face was red, and his nostrils were noticeably flared.

“There’s nothing here!” he blustered, spreading his arms wide and glaring at us.

I remember us just staring at him, blinking. I don’t think anyone could quite believe what they were witnessing, and none of us knew how to react.

This guy, like all the other open-mouthed, Romero zombies who were now invading our picnic, had seen our car pulled over and figured there has to be something worthwhile to stop and look at. It was the typical sheep mentality: Run to where the flock is without pausing to ask why.

It took a while, but most of the cars eventually sped away in disgust. Only a few other people stayed to have picnics of their own, prompting us to take our leave.

I’ll never forget that day or that particular guy. It made a big impression, and I gained some insight into human nature.

And it made me realize that, unfortunately, we still have a lot of evolving to do to become truly distinct from our bleating brethren.

I still don’t have a clearly defined dream

Gravel pathwayEver since childhood, I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer.

I carried the idea with me through college. And although I was always writing short stories and even novels, I never gave much thought to how to develop my dream.

I think I just assumed that I’d become a novelist, or a newspaper columnist, or maybe an advertising copywriter. Some opportunity would magically manifest right when I needed it, and I’d end up with a high-paying and personally rewarding career.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

My lack of focus was frustrating in college. It seemed like everyone else was preparing for a dream career, while I was just writing funny stories and hoping for the best.

I always worked hard and performed well academically, but I never had a clear vision of the future – of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.

I think I hoped that when I got older, all the cards would simply fall into place. One day, I’d wake up with a clear idea of what to do with my life.

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t happened, either.

I’m in my thirties, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. My vision of the future is as fuzzy now as it was when I was a kid.

My goals are unfocused. My ambitions are murky. Looking toward the future is like peering through the bottom of a Coke bottle.

I know a couple of things, though. I know that I like to write, and I know that I like to make people laugh.

And … well, that’s sort of it.

That’s not a clearly defined objective; that’s a muddy quagmire.

What do I do with that?

Going through life, we all watch people succeed. Some get promotions. Others get book deals. Some figure out exactly what they want to do, and then they go out and do it.

I’ve always admired those people. They have determination, drive – focus. They got it together. They know exactly what they want.

And I’ve always lamented that I’m not like them. I don’t have that pristine vision – that clarity of thought.

I have no idea what I want or how to achieve it.

At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But now I’m not so sure.

Maybe you don’t need a clearly defined goal to be happy, or to succeed. Maybe the desire to succeed is enough.

That and the determination to actually try.

If you want something in life, you have to start somewhere. You have to choose a road, even if you don’t know where it leads.

That’s the beauty of life. There are so many options. It’s not just a linear path. It’s a labyrinth of corridors that branch off in all sorts of directions.

And oftentimes, where you end up is better than what you ever could have imagined.

So yes, my objectives are still vague. I like to write, and I like to make people laugh.

And for now, maybe that’s enough. You have to start somewhere. You have to take the first step.

If I pursue that goal — as obscure and vague as it is — I don’t have to have a clearly formed vision of the outcome. I just have to have a desire to succeed.

So I’m going to keep writing. It’s a step. It’s a start.

And brick by brick, it’s going to help pave my path to a successful future.

That much, at least, is clear.

Apparently, no one stole the cookies from the cookie jar

a cat stares menacinglyGrowing up, there was always that one petulant kid who’d throw inexplicable tantrums during class. He could be mellow one moment and transform into a Tasmanian devil the next.

(And just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about President Trump.)

You never knew what would set this kid off. Everyone would walk on eggshells in his presence, as if crossing a minefield. If you did something so benign as beat him to the pencil sharpener, he’d grab a couple of erasers and clap them against your face.

If you were lucky, you’d escape with only a couple of bruises and a head full of chalk dust.

In kindergarten, that kid’s name was Marcos. Although he barely could tie his shoes, he’d already developed a temper on par with Gordon Ramsay. If you so much as looked at him the wrong way, he’d sputter a stream of profanity that would make a construction supervisor blush.

I still remember one day when the teacher gathered the class in a circle on the floor. Sitting in a chair at the head of the group, she started us singing a rowdy rendition of “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” (Because how better to prepare us for the upcoming rigors of first grade?)

“Angela stole the cookies from the cookie jar!” we sang.

ANGELA: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

ANGELA: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

Angela pointed to me. “Allen.”

CLASS: “Allen stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

ALLEN: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

ALLEN: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

I pointed to Karen. “Karen.”

CLASS: “Karen stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

KAREN: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

KAREN: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

Out of that innate compassion that girls always seem to have (as opposed to us boys, who preferred to throw rocks at the girls), Karen pointed to Marcos. “Marcos.”

CLASS: “Marcos stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

Marcos clenched his fists and threw back his head. “I don’t want to play!” he screamed.

The entire class froze with open mouths. This unexpected interruption to the routine was like bolt of lightning zigzagging through a tree, slicing it in half and leaving a smoldering stump. All of us were too afraid even to breathe.

“Um.” The teacher bit her lip. She looked around the room slowly, like a dazed boxer recovering from jab to the temple.

Blinking rapidly several times, she shook some sense into herself and pointed at a boy named Frankie. Waving her hand like a conductor starting  a symphony, she started singing “Frankie stole—”

The rest of us followed in, albeit hesitantly: “Frankie stole the cookies from the cookie jar.”

We all kept a wary eye on Marcos, who was sitting with his arms crossed and glaring manically at the floor.

Frankie swallowed, trembling. “Who … me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

Frankie shot a glance at Marcos. Marcos was staring him down like a hawk eyeing a field mouse.

“Um,” Frankie said, swallowing. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling very well.”

“Maybe that’s enough singing for now,” the teacher said. “Everyone return to their seats, and we’ll read a story.”

“Way to go Marcos!” I said, pointing. “You ruined our Cookies in the Cookie Jar song!”

“Yeah, Marcos,” a couple of other kids chimed in.

“What?” Before I could react, Marcos lunged at me, knocking me to the floor. He grabbed two erasers from the blackboard and started clapping them against the sides of my head.

“Marcos! Marcos!” The teacher grabbed him around the middle and pried him off of me. “I’m taking you to the office this instant!”

“Fine!” Marcos stormed out of the room ahead of the teacher. With his sullen frown and furious stomping, he looked like a miniature version of Bender from The Breakfast Club.

On his way out, he knocked over a girl’s pencil case and shoved her notebooks onto the floor. The girl started crying.

“Shut up!” Marcos snapped, as he barged out of the room, letting the door slam closed on the teacher.

As for me, I sat up slowly, choking on my own words … as well as a thick cloud of chalk dust.

If you want to live a good life, then be like an animal 

two dogs asleep on lawnAnimals seem to have life figured out. Whereas we humans tend to overcomplicate matters, animals excel at keeping things simple.

For example, animals have two primary objectives in life: hunting for food and eating food.

That’s it. That’s their life. They eat food to sustain their existence.

I like it. Though perhaps not the most ambitious of goals, the simplicity makes it admirable. Not everyone can be an astronaut or invent a gadget that benefits the world.

Animals know this, which is why they keep their goals attainable. They don’t have to make New Year’s resolutions because their daily objectives are within reach.

You never see a zebra trying to quit smoking, or a hippo in jogging shorts huffing down the neighborhood street. Animals don’t manufacture drama like humans. They hunt for food. And then they eat the food. And as long as the cycle continues, they consider their ambitions fulfilled.

But then again, animals also reproduce. So I guess you could list that as their third prescribed objective. Without reproduction, animals wouldn’t have anyone to carry on the noble tradition of hunting for food and eating food. The circle of life wouldn’t be complete without enthusiastic offspring to carry on these most laudable of customs.

Humans could learn a thing or two from the animals. We no longer hunt, but we navigate the supermarket aisles after work, filling our carts with 7UP and Crown Royal. Instead of wielding a spear, now we hand over a debit card. Laden with sacks of groceries, most animals would think I was the greatest hunter in the world.

And we don’t just reproduce; we have relationships. And then there’s heartache and breakups and husbands who don’t put the seat down. It’s excruciating. Humans might not eat their young, but we’re the only species that’ll argue over the upright position of a toilet seat. (But at least I don’t mark my territory by lifting my leg on the front door, so let’s be thankful for small favors.)

Animals, however, keep it simple. They don’t overcomplicate.

Case in point: When they’re not hunting or eating, animals are lounging. Once their daily obligations are completed, they sit back and enjoy life.

Look at domesticated animals. Because they don’t have to hunt, they can skip right to the eating and lounging parts. You rarely see a dog or cat scrambling during the morning commute. While we humans are toiling away at work, our pets are sprawled on the living-room rug with their tongues hanging out, asleep. (Whenever I end up on the living-room rug, it usually has something to do with all that 7UP and Crown Royal.)

So I think humans should study the animals and learn from them. They have a lot to teach us.

And until I see a hippo in jogging shorts — or a zebra wearing a nicotine patch — I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to living well, animals have humans beat paws-down.

Giving directions using long-ago landmarks

giving directions vacant lot.

Me giving directions to a newcomer in town.

I used to work as the receptionist for a small real-estate office. A guy walked in one morning.

“I’m new in town, and I just rented a house from you guys,” he said. “Do you by chance know where the FedEx pickup box is?”

“Sure,” I said. “Just go to the shopping center where the post office was twenty years ago. The box is in front of what used to be the veterinary clinic.”

The man frowned. “What are you saying? The box is next door to the post office?”

“No,” I said. “I’m saying it’s next door to where the post office used to be. The pickup box is in front of the old veterinary clinic.”

“So the vet isn’t there, either.”

“No. They moved away ages ago.”

“So there’s nothing there now?”

“I’m not sure what’s there now. All I know is it used to be the veterinary clinic.”

The man narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure I know where you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do,” I said. “There was a pizza place in the same shopping center. It’s not there now, though. It burned down in the late 1990s.”

“I’m not sure if I was clear earlier,” the man said. “Did I mention I’m new in town?”

I looked at him, blinking. “Oh.”

“So how would I get to this shopping center?” the man asked. “Do you know what stores are there now?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea what’s there now. I know the FedEx pickup box is there, but I don’t know about any stores.”

“Can you give me a landmark? Anything?” the man asked.

“Well,” I said, “it’s across the street from where the gas station used to be.”

The man sighed. “So the gas station’s not there now?”

“No. They tore it down fifteen years ago. I have no idea what’s there now.”

The man glared. “I can’t believe you get paid to work here. Do you really consider yourself useful?”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I used to. I’m not sure I do now.”

A party of one isn’t much of a party

man eating alone at restaurantIt’s inadvisable to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day if you don’t have a date.

Common sense, you say? A nugget of knowledge so blatantly obvious that it need not be spoken?

Perhaps. But unfortunately, I speak from experience.

Unattached and dateless — and working at a new job in a new town — I decided one evening to check out the local dining scene. I’d been living on my own cooking for nearly three weeks, so I was undernourished and ravenous for edible fare.

The inspiration struck on a Tuesday in February. After work I went home, spruced up, and wandered across the highway to a Mexican restaurant in a neighboring shopping center.

A waitress greeted me with a large smile. “Are you meeting someone, sir?”

“No,” I said. “Just me.”

“Oh.” Her face fell, and her upper lip started quivering. “Yes, well … I’m so sorry. Please, follow me.”

She grabbed a single menu and scurried through the restaurant, keeping her gaze on the floor. I followed, feeling perplexed. I’d eaten here alone twice before. Why was the waitress acting so squeamish?

As we wormed through the restaurant, I noticed candlelights on all the tables. And there were no families or children; only couples sitting across from each other, some holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes.

I passed one booth, and I noticed a man fastening a silver bracelet around his date’s wrist. She was smiling as the diamonds sparkled orange from the dim dining-room light.

Now, I’m not the most observant person. I don’t connect the dots in a given situation as easily as, say, Columbo or Matlock.

But walking past the patrons, I started to piece together a series of what should have been obvious clues:

Happy couples. Candlelit dinners. Glittering jewelry. A Tuesday evening in early February.

Oh no, I thought, as the realization struck. It’s Valentine’s Day. 

I’d completely forgotten. As a freewheeling bachelor subsisting on Swanson TV dinners and Grey Goose vodka, Valentine’s Day wasn’t exactly a holiday I had circled on my calendar.

My cheeks flushed as the waitress continued to guide me to my table. She led me to a booth in the middle of the restaurant, in full sight of all the other patrons — which is exactly where you want to be when you’re eating out alone on Valentine’s Day.

I swore she sniffed as she set down the menu. “I’ll be back for you drink order, sir.”

“Please,” I said. “And I suspect you’ll be making a few return trips. Keep them coming.”

I glanced around the restaurant, then gazed down at the table. A candle flickered before me. I resisted the temptation to blow it out.

For the first fifteen minutes, my aloneness wasn’t so obvious. I imagine the other diners suspected my date was running late. In my head, I could hear the unsolicited advice of a nonexistent bystander:

“Oh, you know how women can be, son. They have to doll themselves up before a big date. Romantic evenings like these are very special to them. I wouldn’t worry — I’m sure she’ll be here in no time.” 

But once twenty minutes came and went — and my aloneness became more apparent — the surreptitious stares started coming. Discrete glimpses pierced me like pinpricks. Sideways gazes stabbed me like lightsabers.

One woman even stared at me with a hand held to her mouth, as if I were a two-legged dog dragging its haunches across the floor.

I read and re-read the menu. It was as if I was lounging on the beach with a page-turning novel. It’s amazing how fascinating entree descriptions can become when you’re awkward and uncomfortable, and you have no one else to talk to.

But then when the waitress took my order and whisked the menu away, I was left with nothing but the saltshaker to capture my attention. Individual grains beaded from the lid.

So I took out my iPhone and set it on the table. I scrolled through the headlines on Google, but didn’t really read them. I’d look up every now and then just in time to catch another patron looking away.

And when my dinner came and I started picking at my food — still sitting there, alone — I could almost hear a collective shudder escape from the crowd. It was like the live audience on a sitcom when the main character experiences a moment of anguish.

On this most joyful and romantic of holidays, everyone’s heart was breaking — and it was all my fault.

I swallowed some refried beans, but couldn’t taste them. It was like gnawing on a mouthful of mush.

I was tempted to rise, clink my fork against a glass, and make a quick speech:

“Can I get your attention, please? Folks, I know how this must look. But I assure you, I’m not a hapless loser who’s been stood up — or worse, didn’t have a date to begin with. I genuinely forgot about the holiday. I swear. See, I just moved to town and started a new job, so my entire focus has been on settling in and adjusting. It’s not like I couldn’t get a date if I tried. I mean, once I’m settled and get everything unpacked, I intend to renew my eHarmony subscription and hit the local dating scene hard. Aside from the untrimmed goatee and hair that needs cutting, I have a lot of desirable traits. I’m passionate. I like long walks on the beach. My ideal Friday evening would be cuddling on the couch with my lover, watching a romantic comedy. So please, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just as much dedicated to the pursuit of soulful intimacy as the rest of you. My quixotic yearnings run just as deep. My heart, too, burns for the passionate embrace of a loving kindred spirit, with whom I’d promise to share the rest of my life.”

Instead, I flagged the waitress. “Excuse me. Can I get a box?”

“A box, sir?” she asked.

“Yes — and the check. As quickly as possible, please.”

I scooped up my dinner and scurried out of the restaurant like a mouse running along a wall. Returning home, my one-bedroom hovel never looked so cozy and inviting.

I turned on the latest episode of Top Chef and finished the remains of my Valentine’s Day dinner. In the privacy of my apartment, it tasted delicious — especially when washed down with a generous glassful of Grey Goose.

A round of applause for the guy who counted Vanna White’s claps 

hand with pen writing tally marks.

Apparently, someone actually counted the average number of times Vanna White claps during an episode of “Wheel of Fortune.” And you thought you had a tedious job.

In a recent issue of Women’s World magazine (and please don’t ask why I’m reading Women’s World magazine), they cite a fun fact from the Guinness Book of World Records about Vanna White, the famous letter-turner from TV’s Wheel of Fortune. 

According to the magazine (well, actually, according to the Guinness Book of World Records), Vanna White is “Televisions Most Frequent Clapper, averaging 600-plus claps per show.”

OK. I have a question.

And I imagine you can guess what it is.

Who in the world is quantifying the number of claps Vanna White averages in a given show?

Immediately, I picture some guy in a bathrobe with way too much time on on his hands, sitting with a clipboard in his lap and tallying each individual clap.

And it’s not like he arrived at his total by watching only one episode. “Average” implies that he watched a number of episodes, counted the individual claps in each one, then divided the number of claps by the number of episodes he watched to arrive at the 600 figure.

Not to sound judgmental, but that’s downright weird.

Forget about the number of times Vanna White claps — I want to know more about this guy. Who is he? How did he get a job with The Guinness Book of World Records? Does he hold a patent for his amazingly effective tallying methods?

My journalistic instincts tell me that he’s the real story here.

The lengths some people will go to steal a parking space

empty parking space

Not that my warning does me any good. The only one who doesn’t park in my designated space is me, because everyone else beats me to it.

I happened to be following a car as it pulled into my apartment complex. It turned left at the entrance and started driving through the parking lot toward my unit.

I didn’t recognize the car, so I figured it had to be a guest, and not a tenant.

“I bet he tries to park in my assigned space,” I said to myself, as I followed the car through the lot. “I just know it. Everyone tries to park in my assigned space. The cable guy, the electric guy, the escort who spends Friday nights with Downstairs Neighbor Dave. Look! He’s barreling past all of these available guest parking spaces so he can be closer to the buildings – the jerk!”

As if following a script, the car slowed down and turned into my assigned space.

I pulled behind it and peeped the horn. A young man climbed out of the car and looked at me, frowning.

“Hey!” I said, rolling down the window. “You’re in my space!”

The man continued to frown. “I’m sorry?”

“You got to move, pal. You’re in my assigned space!”

The man shrugged. “No. I’m not moving my car.”

He opened the back door and started rifling through some junk sitting in the backseat.

“Excuse me?” I climbed out of my car and approached him. “Buddy, you’re in my space. This is my space!”

The man kept his back turned as he searched for something in the backseat. “It’s not your space; it’s mine.”

“How can you say that?” I asked.

“Because I got here first. First come, first served. It’s a rule. Don’t you know the rule?”

“That rule doesn’t apply because it’s my space! I’m a tenant, and this is the space they assigned to me.”

“But how do you know it’s your space? It looks like all the other spaces.” The man pulled a sweatshirt out of the car and turned around to face me.

“It doesn’t look anything like the other spaces!” I said. “The resident spaces have white lines, and the guest spaces have yellow. Plus, the resident spaces are numbered, and I’m No. 28. That’s how I know it’s my space: because it’s clearly marked No. 28.”

“So is that also the number of your apartment?” the man asked, pulling on his sweatshirt. “No. 28?”

“No. My apartment is No. 256.”

“Then why is your space No. 28? Shouldn’t your apartment number match your parking-space number?”

“I just live here,” I said. “I don’t assign the numbers.”  Keep reading…