392. Baltimore Up

Gravel roads led to a rutted dirt cart path. The taxi bounced. I could see the headlights of a tow truck coming at us out of the low sulfurous landscape. ‘Maybe this guy does know something after all.’

“Sunzofbitches goin to make another $200. Someone ought to stop this.” He pulled slightly out of the truck’s path but with palpable reluctance mowing over the hip high river grass. We bounced. The gun bounced. Nevermind. My sense of reality had long ago dribbled out of bounds while jogging earlier in a sketchy neighborhood. Here we were in a modern day “gunslinger versus cattle rustler” story where the cows and horses had been swapped out for cars and vans. A showdown at the AAA corral lay just ahead. Someone’s gonna die tonight in Baltimore, I just know it.

In the headlights’ beams I saw an outpost, a double wide trailer surrounded by a fence that seemed to be 14 feet tall. Unscaleable. On the other side of this monstrosity I saw my van, an innocent victim in a concentration camp. An old Asian man squatted in front of the gates, a mysterious gatekeeper who could have been in Vietnam or Cambodia guarding POW’s. Deniro again came to mind, The Deer Hunter. We were going back to Saigon to rescue our Pennsylvania village buddy from a final game of Russian roulette.

“That’s my van,” I uttered, hardly believing that this whole taxi experience was real.

“Want me to ram it?” my diligent but deranged driver asked. I was sure he’d do it.

“No, I want to do this legally, ya know. The cops are not on my side already.”

“Suit yourself, man.”

I got out and walked up a half flight of stairs to the skanky trailer. Cheap paneled walls on three sides of a small room forced you into the fourth wall, two inch thick bullet proof glass with a silver speak hole. Many signs  were pasted there. The only one that mattered read, “CASH ONLY”. A large woman in a sparkly black cocktail dress came to the other side. Her hair was too black, jewelry too big, and she had only a few of her own teeth.

I tried to contain my rage. “You stole my van and I want it back.”

“Thir, there’sth no need for hosthtility. I justht need two hundred dollarsth cash and you can have it. Thimple.”

“This is piracy. You are thieves preying on baseball fans…”

“It’s $200 tonight. If we sthore it for a day, it’sth thhhhreee fifty.”

My head was exploding with rage. I thought I’d maxed out but apparently my earlier rage had carved out new caverns for extra rage capacity. “Aaaghggrafrickinshashkamuffinboogerschnatzelcrimeneay!!::”

“You won’t take a VISA?”

“Nope. Cash only.”

“It’s after midnite and I’m paying a cabbie to hunt for my car that you stole…”

She gave me absolutely dead eyes heavily caked in mascara and blue eye shadow. Even in my rage I knew this woman was a permanent resident in this hell. I was merely visiting.

“I’ll be back. Don’t sell it while I’m gone cuz I’m sure that’s totally legal too.”

“No need for tharcasm, thir.”

I got back in the cab. Marty was incensed and feeding off my bad energy. “I can shoot that lock off the gate. Nobody’s gotta know. I got nothing to lose.”

“No. Let’s go back into the city and find an ATM.”

“Okay, man. But I could…”

“Do it!”

We bounced back out of the swamplands and back toward the orange mercury vapor lights of Baltimore.

“Shit like this is why I’m going to Denver. It’s getting harder and harder not to kill someone. I think there’s an ATM on the other side of these warehouses if I remember correctly. I’m turning the meter off by the way. The rest of the ride is on me.”

“Thanks, Marty.” Suddenly that woman’s speech impediment was stuck in my head and I wondered if I should have said, “Sanks”. My joints were coming unglued. I wondered if I could even remember my security code, 3791, the four corners of the pin pad. Okay, I can do this.

Mercifully we found an ATM that only charged $2.50 per transaction. I withdrew 100 times that to cover the pirate extortion, Marty’s incredible ride, and expenses along the way home. Actually, after I got back in the cab, I realized that I’d have no cash left, but it was going to finally end.

We drove back to the swamp land auto concentration camp. I tried to not speak to the cocktail ostrich woman behind the bullet proof glass. I can understand why they need it now. It had crossed my mind to borrow Marty’s .45 and drop some lead, but I reeled my rage back in.

“Show this receipt to Kwang Lei. He’ll unlock the gate for you.”

Utter contempt beamed back and forth between us to no avail.

I started my van and slowly drove out of the compound as Kwang Lei locked it behind me. Marty wished me well and led me back to Pratt Street, then he honked his horn and was gone. I was exhausted as I  pulled into the hotel at 2:10 a.m. My wife was awake. We scooped up our three sleeping girls and settled them in for the two hour silent ride home.

I composed an incendiary editorial in my head on the way home. Eventually I did type and mail it. I retold the sad tale of modern thievery and concluded almost Biblically, “I tried to find even fifty good men in Baltimore, but I could not. So I’m gathering Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, and Boog Powell. We won’t look back as God sodomly nukes Baltigomorra to nothingness.” I don’t think they published it.

The sun was coming up as we pulled into our driveway. I looked behind the yew bushes for No Parking signs and went to bed. The waking nightmare was over.

 

 

 

 

349. Legalism

I don’t have time for all this, I guess, but I make time for what I enjoy… coffee shop chatter, chess, blogging. I realize it’s low hanging fruit, but I enjoy these apples.  I don’t need an island in the Caribbean, unless you happen to have one you want to get rid of. I mean, I’ll take it off your hands if you’re sick of the steel drums and rum. I’ll take my turn. However, I’d just move my mindlessness to a new scene and start training those East Indians in Western Mindlessness Seminars. I’d open a coffee nation noodling institute and seek funding from the U.N. My theme song would be sung daily by my 2 year old granddaughter, “Let There be Peace on Earth”… and let it begin with me. Her sweet whispery little baby bird voice kills me. I suspect all grandfathers feel this way about their grandkids. Hope so anyway.Amazing.: Grandkids are the ultimate proof of God’s grace. We don’t deserve them and can’t earn them.

I guess what I’m saying is that I am content. Full. Satisfied. Sure, I want to keep on living, but if God unplugs my USB cord today, I have no regrets that won’t be addressed in heaven. I’m sure there is a customer service desk in the lobby area.

“Welcome to heaven. I’m Peter. How may I help you?”

“I want to see a manager.”

“Mr. Burrito, it’s heaven. There are no managers. There are only angels and the Lord in the center of a cosmic Rose Petal Auditorium filled with incense burning, praise and worshipping throngs of billions of saved souls. Would you like to make an appointment with Him?”

“Yes, but I thought the spiritual world was all post time and space continuums, you know, no lines. This sounds like a Grateful Dead concert. How long must I wait?”

“Well, here in heaven a thousand years are like a moment, and a moment can be a thousand years.”

“So, next Tuesday at 11 a.m.? How’s that?”

“When the spirit moves across the still waters of your soul’s ocean, you will have your heart’s desires in little ripples upon the distant shore of peace.”

“Pete, do you offer interpreters?  I am just not getting this spiritual talk. Maybe my fleshy head is still stuck on my spirit body. Does that ever happen?”

“Yes, more often than one might think. Remarkably often, pastors have this issue where they keep worrying about their congregational needs back on earth. It takes a really long time for them to turn off their obligatum.”

“Uh, okay that makes sense except for the obligatum thing. What is that?”

“Oh, sorry, it’s Latin for holy guilt.”

“No kidding. I guess I had mine taken out with my adenoids.”

“Likely, yes, um, if you had one to begin with. Not all humans have an obligatum. Antisocials seem not to. Were you by any chance a Catholic child?”

“Yes, right up till I wasn’t.”

“Precisely. You could have burned up your obligatum through overuse. Very common with our Catholic brothers. Like an overactive thyroid. If you don’t treat it, you lose it. Poof!”

“So you are telling me that many pastors can’t get out of their own guilt even when they are walking or skipping about in Paradise?”

“Or zooming. A lot of pastors had to drive Dodge Darts and Priuses on earth, so they like zooming with the top down in heaven. It’s a big adjustment for them, bless their hearts.”

“Wait. That’s code in the south for ‘this guy is the village idiot’. You know, ‘Look at Mervin, he’s feeding the dead pigeon his bologna sandwich, bless his heart.”

“I assure you, Mr. Burrito, there is no double standard or code here in heaven. God loves us all the same.”

“Even lawyers?”

“Even, uh, have you seen the botanical gardens yet? They are a sight to behold!”

“No, I want a lawyer. I demand to see my lawyer, Joel. Where is he?”

“He is… uh… indisposed at this moment.”

“He’s in the bathroom? I thought that was all done with once you got the spiritual rigging in place.”

“I don’t wish to be indelicate, Mr. Burrito.”

“Okay, Pete, but you need to butterfly this spiritual shrimp for me. I’m getting suspicious. I mean, all my life I’ve looked forward to heaven and bliss and eternal grooving, and I’ve only been here five minutes or five thousand years and I’m getting nothing but double talk from you. I could get this treatment on earth for free.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. B. If you’d like to fill out a complaint form, I’m obligated to provide you with one within ten business days. Would you like to continue?”

“No.  When folks are not honest with me they start to look like Hillary Clinton, Pete. I want my lawyer and I want him now. I know my rights. I get a free phone call too. And no pants suits.”

“Sir, you have not been charged with any crime. Please, control yourself. You are in heaven for goodness sakes! You don’t need that kind of sassy attitude here.”

Snatching Pete up by his collar, “I want to know what you did with Joel.”

The Angels Gabriel, Michael, and Ludicrous swoop down.

“Burrito, we have you surrounded. Here’s what you’re gonna do. Put Peter down. Eat a Snickers. Then we’ll talk. You seem to be having a hangry attack. Most souls don’t experience hunger or anger in heaven, but you are anomalous.”

“Fellas, I simply asked Pete here where the lawyers are. And he has been reluctant to tell me. Offered me a complaint form instead of prompt service. You people need to get your act together.”

Gabriel, “Burrito, Joel didn’t make it.”

“What?!! I gave his eulogy just last year. I took a whack in the head with an aluminum badminton racket for him, and now you’re saying he’s not here?”

Michael, “Burrito, there are no lawyers in heaven.”

“But, but, I don’t understand. Joel was a nice guy. He dressed well in tweed and the occasional snappy tie. He was well groomed. Liked cats. Was a bowling champion in sixth grade. Played the tuba. What do you people want?!!”

Ludicrous, “The Lord requires obedience not sacrifice. No man is saved by the Law.”

“Well, okay. That’s all I needed to hear. I need a minute to grieve, though.”

Peter, “Mr. B, Joel is not down there, if that is what has you worried.”

“Well if not Here and not there, then where oh where can my attorney be?”

Gabriel, “He’s in Legal Limbo. It’s not quite as nice as heaven. They live in condos and share a pool. It’s a cash bar and no free lunches there.”

All, “God is merciful.”

Amen.

 

 

 

 

346. Learned Helplessness

We all know someone who revels in victimhood, who burrows into their miseries like a tick on an old mangy dog, and won’t let go, sucking their toxic sustenance from the sick host. If you try to create some daylight between the host and the parasitic sucker, the career victim says, “Yes but my childhood, my schooling, my family, my lousy birthdate, my skin, my height, my hemorrhoids, etc.” It’s hard to spend time with these folks because after a while you realize that they are sucking whatever optimism you came with right out of you. They deflate the bouncy beach ball of joy into a flat inner tube of despair. The longer you are around them, the more your mind wanders toward making nooses out of inner tubes. Being compassionate, however, you decide to make two. You would not want to inflict this pesty pessimist on any other human being after you hang only yourself. Any optimism on your part is met by the Elite Red Guard of Defeatism and utterly destroyed. After all is said and done, Dark likes it dark.

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. (Wikipedia, support them, blog dogs! I do.) No successful outcomes can be imagined in the dark land of stinking thinking.

A buddy of mine from way back in the day was a functional depressive. He expected to be crapped on in life and just rolled with and in it, never pushing back. His wife dominated him totally. His kids played him like a fiddle. His dog peed on his refrigerator grille just because he knew no consequences were coming. I remember once talking with him about seeking treatment for his depression. He explained,

“Oh, I’ve thought about it, sure. But, see, as bad as my life is, I figure it would take several years of therapy and medication to get better, and by then I’ll be in my early sixties. I don’t expect to live past 70, so I’ll just about be dead by the time I figure out my miserable life. So why bother? I keep a calendar in the basement. Every night I write ‘Life sucks’ in that square, cuz every day life sucks. Month after month after month, life sucks. Then you die. The only question is this: how many more ‘Life Sucks’ boxes between here and ‘Then You Die’?”

I had to agree with him. The matrix he had constructed to insulate himself in misery was a concretized reinforced bunker of resistance. He had grown comfortable in his cell of despair, carpeted it and had cable installed. Why move now? Just have burned pizza delivered to Apartment B, 333 Hell Avenue, Tartarus, until you owned the deed.

I know of an experiment where fatigued swimming rats were rescued just as they were about to drown. When placed in the same cruel water tank again, these rats swam longer than control rats, suggesting “learned optimism”, the reverse of learned helplessness. Apparently, some lab rats want to live more than others.And if a rat catches a break, it will try harder next time.

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarized as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”. (Wikipedia, again.) That’s a long, marshmallow crème sort of prescription. Steve with a V  from Coffee Nation would summarize it succinctly into this:  “Growaset!” I would set up business somewhere between Steve and Martin Seligman.

Falling in love with your excuses is just as weird as dressing up rats and squirrels that will one day chew through your electric wires or your face.  “Aren’t they cute? tick, tick, tick. Look at them in their little Santa suits. Oh, they’re climbing up the Christmas tree. No! Don’t chew the lights!!! Zap. Doggonit!! I paid good money for those Santa suits.” See? I am a chronic loser. I can’t even control pet squirrels.

There is an oddly positive takeaway from chronic depressives, however, that is  similar to being released from a cramped sauna where you have been smashed up with eight sweating sumo wrestlers for an hour. When you hit that clean, cool, dry air outside the cabin, man it feels better! You feel free and light and dry and safe and less awkwardly naked. Yeah, you can’t really reason with over weighted emotions. Like the sumo wrestlers in the sauna, they will just crush you. So here’s a note to self: never sauna with eight sumo wrestlers at one time, or with one depressive.

Oh, the self anointed Realists will tell you that your optimism is silly, naïve, and irresponsible. Better to be prepared for the worst than surprised by it. But the sun never shines on their side of the street. It’s always dark in that mindset because that is the original premise. At best they swim with half inflated life preservers… you know, cuz reality is hard and you have to swim or sink on your own efforts. So why did God give us positive emotions if  we aren’t supposed to expect good things in life or celebrate when something like victory occurs? Again, my depressed buddy’s philosophy– “I think God will punish me if I have a good day. He’ll give me a bad one to keep the score even. So I just hope for mediocre.”

And not surprisingly he hits the target every time.

 

 

274. Equilibrium

I have no idea why I chose this title. I sometimes just start with a word I like and try to write into it. Maybe that’s what I’ll do here. I like to define my terms before I explore and explode them.

Equilibrium equal scales

1. a stable condition in which forces cancel one another
 
2. a state or feeling of mental balance; composure
 
3. any unchanging condition or state of a body, system, etc, resulting from the balance or cancelling out of the influences or processes to which it is subjected

I’m often confronted with the old equal versus fair debate in counseling sessions, whether it’s between an adolescent and a parent or between spouses. The question arises, “What is fair?” Sometimes fair is equal, but usually it’s not, because not all problems are quantifiable.

Let’s say a teen aged kid wants a cell phone. He has two younger siblings, ages 9 and 4. Do they need a phone?  No, nor have they asked mom and dad for one. So the smart teen boy does not pull the equal card out within the family. Instead, he starts with his peer group.

“I neeeeed a phone so I can keep up with my friends and check on homework. Plus if I’m ever locked out of the house or kidnapped, I can call you or 911.”

(Notice the red herrings dropping out of the adolescent atmosphere like medieval miracles in the form of large Swedish fish. “Father Minotti, the red fish are falling out of the skies. Praise God. It’s a miracle. And this boy, he must be a prophet or an angel. And, Saints be praised, they are sweet and tangy!!”)

Dad, “Son, you have straight A’s and can’t really do any better academically. You have rarely called your friends about homework in the 8 years you have been in school. You also passed over the fact that we have a land line, a computer, and our personal cell phones at your disposal. Likewise you have never been locked out of our house because you know where we hide the spare key and your grandparents live two streets over. Nor have you or any of your friends ever been kidnapped or been in need of 911 services. So the reasons you have given for neeeeding a phone are imaginary, “what if?” scenarios. I would prefer to negotiate in the real world. Okay?”

Son, “Gosh, you don’t have to get all mad about it, Dad!! You guys NEVER let me do anything!!” (Attempted guilting to soften up the parents for the next pitch. The big unhittable “Fair” curve ball is coming along with a generous serving of exaggeration.) “I am the only kid in 8th grade who doesn’t have his own cell phone. Do you know how immature and demeaning that is to me? I’m out of the loop. I miss all sorts of important growth opportunities to mature and be socially useful.” ( Altruistic prosocial reasons sprinkled on the red miracle fish.)

Mom, “Like what?”

Son, “Like Facebook and Youtube. There’s really relevant stuff on those media.”

Dad, “Son, every time you have used my cell you’ve googled sports statistics and song lyrics or tried to watch movies. Plus, I know for a fact that the Harrison twins don’t have cell phones. I’m pretty sure Shirley Shoemaker hasn’t let Alyson have her own phone yet. There’s three out of what? 21 kids in your class?”

Son, “Ughhh!! The twins are dorks, Dad. You know they are. They wouldn’t even use phones if they had them cuz they’re too busy building Lego landscapes in their attic. They probably built a cell phone out of Legos. And Alyson still plays with Barbies.”

Dad, “You used to love to play with those dorks two years ago. And you still have Legos boxed up in your closet. Or have you forgotten?”

Son, “Huhhhh!! Those… are…collectibles. Just like my Magic card collection. They are investments. I’m just sitting on them till the price is right…which is why I neeeeed a phone, so I can track the prices of my collectibles.” (Entrepreneurial angle)

Mom,”Honey, how many million Lego sets and Magic cards do you think are out there? I played with Barbies and held on to  a few like Christmas Barbie and Bicentennial Barbie, and you know what? So did every other girl and gay boy in the world. So they are actually worth less today than when I bought them and I never even took them out of the box. There is something in economics called equilibrium when enough buyers match enough sellers….It’s a Keynesian model….”

Son, “Mooooommmm!!! It’s not the same thing. I know my stuff is valuable. You speculated on a common commodity and lost. I’ve done my research. Just one of my Magic cards is worth $500 because nothing in any deck can kill it. Don’t you know anything?!! Maybe you should adopt Alyson Shoemaker, then you would have your precious equilibrium.” ( Parry for shame that a parent would express preference for another child.)
Dad, “Son, show some respect. Let’s reel it back in. Weren’t we talking about a phone?”

Son, “Yeah, but it’s pointless. (Go for broke nihilistic drama to the max.) Just forget it! I’ll play with mom’s Barbies and my old Legos in the attic like the Harrison twins. When my friends call about prom, just tell them, “Eric can’t go. He is in the attic.” You know, psycho boy beyond all recognition or hope.”

Mom, “Eric Wilson Myers!! Stop it right now! We love you and want what’s best for you. We’re just nervous about allowing the big ugly world to come to your innocent ears and eyes 24/7. You’re just 13, Baby. That’s all.”

Dad, “Eric, it’s true. We don’t want you to be the boy in the attic who lives in his own world of fantasy and delusion either.”

Son, “Which is why I neeeed a phone, Dad. I don’t want to live in an attic with imaginary friends. I’d be dangerous to myself and others.”

Dad, “Okay, we’ll add you to our plan. But you’re gonna have to share your password with us. No bull, no arguing. Okay?”

Son, “Yes, Dad. I think you’ve made a really responsible decision here that you can be proud of in the future. You guys are tough negotiators.”

Mom, “I hope that’s true, Honey.”