The most influential person in the world, surefire questions for your next encounter at a cocktail party, and the rudest of the rude…all bubbling up in my cerebral cortex this week.
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I saw this guy I know with a woman who isn’t his wife and it was clearly a test of my decency. I flunked.
Minding my own business at lunch, I see a car pull up outside the window and an old friend got out. I had to look twice, because he lives so far away and the restaurant wasn’t exactly the kind of place he raves about on social media. Hah, what are the odds of a chance encounter like this?
Then he goes to the passenger door and opens it and this younger woman gets out of the car. Not his wife, not his daughter, maybe a business associate or a potential customer or a cousin or an in-law or…something else.
Because, let’s face it, I’m human and I watch TV and movies and I know what’s what in this world of ours. I jumped immediately to hanky, or panky, or both, because it couldn’t be that he was in a far-off location with a younger woman and it was completely innocent. I kept checking them out, from a distance, as they shared a meal. No hand holding, but there were no tablets and notepads on the table, either. Could be innocent, could be guilty, and I concluded that it 127% had to be the latter.
Which says more about me than him, really, since I have lunch with women who are not my wife and there’s nothing going on when I’m doing it. Of course, I secretly want people to suspect something, because it might mean I’ve got game, but the truth is always much less interesting. Apparently, I’m not exciting enough to be a suspect of any sort.
Actually, that’s not 100% accurate. Last year, my wife took a spill and hit her head. No major damage, luckily, but she ended up with a black eye for a couple of weeks. And every time we went to a restaurant, I could spot people checking out our table and thinking exactly what I would have thought—frequently have thought—when I’ve seen a purple bruise on the woman at a table for two. I’d have taken offense at their presumptions about me, except for that whole pot-and-kettle thing.
So I watched the couple at their table for a while, if they were a couple at all, and decided not to stop by and say hello. Maybe I was being discreet and maybe I was being rude. I’ll probably never know, which is fine. It’s none of my business really and I’m fine with not knowing the things I don’t have reason to know, even if I’m pretty sure I really know all of it.
Still, by the time I left the restaurant, I was feeling just a little bit less comfortable with myself. When did I make the leap from trusting to cynical? When did I conclude that I’m the only guy who can be trusted in this world? Whenever I crossed that line, I’m not completely sure I like the new me.
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Okay, that’s it. I need a purse. Not a man pouch or a murse or a fanny pack…an actual, bonafide, any-woman-would-use-it purse.
Because it’s time I face reality. There aren’t enough pockets for all the crap I have to carry around these days.
I can’t leave the apartment without my phone, of course, and my wallet is bulging with must-have entry cards, transit cards, store loyalty cards, credit cards and a few scraps of legal tender in case the system crashes at Dunkin’ Donuts. (Sorry, they just call it Dunkin’ now, because it would be branding heresy to actually mention the product.)
With all the member/loyalty/credit/debit/gift cards loaded in, my wallet is now four inches thick, even after I’ve tossed out the condoms I hid so hopefully in high school.
Then there’s the sunglasses, the comb and the handkerchief, because the mark of a true man is that he carries a hankie, plus the reading glasses I need now to see the text on my phone. And I’m a writer, so I always need to have a pen and some note cards handy, along with a little binder for the note cards and an extra pen, just in case. I live in a Blue State, so I need to carry a mask when I’m out of my apartment, and then there are the keys for the car, the apartment, the storage locker, the list goes on.
When I stuff it all into my pants and shirt pockets, I look like a prickly pear in bloom, or a really bad shoplifter. And it goes without saying that I’m bulging in all the wrong places.
For a while, office dress codes were my salvation. I had to wear a suit, and suits have a ton of extra pockets, so I found a way to spread the lumps so that I looked no more than 40 pounds overweight. On the plus side, I looked less rotund than people expected when I took off my jacket and I was getting great cardio carrying my supplies around all day.
But the days of suits are gone and I’m running out of tricks to get everything into place. Absolutely, I need a purse. Not just any purse, though. I need a manly purse, a leather bag with a bicycle chain for a strap, steel buckles and a clasp that looks like a deadbolt. I need a purse that’s too threatening to get through airport security, the kind that says, “I’m here, I’m cisgender, get used to it.”
Carrying a purse won’t be the toughest part of this adjustment to reality, though. Worse, I’m going to have to apologize to all the women I’ve mocked for carrying ridiculously large, overstuffed purses with enough supplies for a three-hour tour.
All in good fun, ladies, just kidding around, really laughing with you and not at you, you know. Now that I’m joining the sisterhood of traveling apothecaries, all is forgiven, right?
Hmm…maybe I should just buy some cargo shorts and a safari vest. Who knows? I might start a fashion trend.
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Way back, I had the enviable job of taking an irrigation company public in the middle of a drought. While farmers across the country were losing their shirts, our team was flooded with interest from professional investors who recognized the long-term appeal of water on demand.
And then, the worst possible thing happened. It rained in New York.
Suddenly, some of the most brilliant minds on Wall Street lost interest in the company because, clearly, the drought was over. We were abandoned by a disturbingly large number of investors who seemed to believe there could not be a drought if it rained on their block.
All news is local, as they say. If it didn’t happen to me, if it didn’t happen to someone I know, it simply didn’t happen. Or, if it did happen, it was no big deal. And if it was a big deal, they probably brought it on themselves through all the bad choices that we would never make.
Whether it’s a pandemic or a flood or a Ponzi scheme, out of sight is out of mind. Or, more specifically, out of sight means nonexistent. It’s almost as if we’re all infants who haven’t mastered object permanence.
Even worse, we seem to be losing our ability to see the humanity in the suffering, the real people whose disasters we avoided through grace or dumb luck, but seldom through merit. Somewhere, in all our isolation and tribalism, we seem to think we’re different, maybe better, more deserving. We aren’t.
Here’s a post mocking someone who died after refusing a vaccination, and here’s one mocking a person who died in spite of their vaccination. Here come the Darwin Awards, mocking people who died doing something stupid, as if stupidity should be a capital offense.
Sometimes, I think all this schadenfreude is a defense mechanism. If we can blame other people for their misfortunes, we can say they deserved their fates. And, if they are poor/homeless/addicted/dead as a result of their own failings, then we are safe. We are, after all, good people, not like them.
Beyond that illusion of invincibility, it’s probably safe to connect the mockery to our isolation over the past couple of years, and to our insularity. The less I associate with people who are not like me, don’t think like me, don’t live where I live, the easier it is to think of them as bloodless memes.
That’s always been the case, of course, but our increasingly decreasing connections are making us even more self-centered than in the past. On the positive side, there’s a quick and simple fix to all of this and that is to make a new connection. Not a social media connection, but a real, human being who can introduce us to a world beyond our straitjacketed confines.
Yeah, it can feel a little bit strange at first, listening to someone else’s story about a life that isn’t ours, but it grows on you after a while. I like to think of it as a free streaming account with 3-D avatars, transporting me to parallel dimensions I’ve never visited before.
Who needs the metaverse when we have entire worlds we can explore on our own?
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I ran into a beggar on LaSalle Street the other day and I was about to suggest to him that he get a job, but then it occurred to me he has a full-time job already.
Because, really, how different is his workday from the guy who stands in front of the donut shop with a sign announcing free coffee when you buy a dozen donuts? Well, lots of ways, as it turns out, and none of them is particularly good.
Both the guy hawking donuts and the beggar are outside all day, through rain and snow and heat and gloom of night, subject to the vagaries of weather and the catcalls from passing motorists. Both of them have limited advancement opportunity and neither is getting a pension. But the guy in front of the donut shop gets minimum wage, or maybe $300 per hour in the current labor market, and nobody yells at him if he goes into the store to use the bathroom. Also, sometimes, free donuts.
The beggar, though, is in sales, not marketing, and he’s working strictly on commission. His product is an intangible, but there’s a real delivery of value when someone makes a purchase. For me and everyone else who coughs up a buck or two, the beggar gives us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves. We get to think of ourselves as good people, moral, charitable, upright, the kind who get into heaven. Hey, God!! Are you watching this or what?
Of course, he’s also selling hubris, which is always in demand. We all think we live in God’s grace, but we also want to believe we aren’t like him because he made bad choices and we didn’t. And, man, are we kidding ourselves on that one. At various points in my life, I was probably three drinks or two hours at a slot machine distant from a life on the street. I have no idea what my tipping point was, but I have no doubt I've been on the guard rails more than once over the past decades. When I see a beggar, though, I can comfort myself with the notion that he is weaker, he made worse choices, he is less than I am.
All this emotional healing is very cheap, a virtual steal in today’s market. For the same money I’d spend by saying Venti instead of Tall, I can feel so much better about myself, about my virtue, about my guaranteed mansion in the afterlife.
And what does the beggar get in return for his service? Not nearly enough. He puts in his eight or ten hours a day, delivering salvation of sorts, while the fussbudgets at Streets and Sanitation are busily tearing up his space under the expressway and putting up a fence to keep him from sleeping there tonight. He never knows if he’ll make any money on any given day, but he does know he’ll have a hard time finding a place to go, when he needs to go, and there are no free donuts at the end of his shift.
He’d have it a lot easier if he could get a “real job,” but that’s a huge lift for a guy with no clean clothes, no place to take a shower and, even worse, a deteriorating ability to communicate. When you’re standing on the street all day and you have no real conversations, your voice can drop to a whisper and your vocabulary atrophies. In spite of those challenges, I see this guy every time I walk past his office, because he’s working very hard at his full-time job.
On LaSalle Street the other day, I handed a beggar three bucks and he gave me both moral absolution and a blog post. I should have given him a five.
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My friend was explaining his new system for beating the house at blackjack and the dealer did his best to keep a straight face.
The explanation took a long time and I think he mentioned paradigms and stochastic chains more than once, but the gist of it was crystal clear. Since the odds of winning/losing at blackjack are close to 50/50 for good players, he would essentially double his bet after a losing hand and halve his bet after a winning hand.
Now, everyone knows the odds of heads or tails in a coin flip are 50/50, but everyone also knows that coin flips don’t alternate heads/tails/heads/tails in a set pattern. For my friend, though, this was exactly the pattern he was counting on as his path to huge winnings.
I forget the exact words, but the dealer said, essentially, “That’s a Number Three,” as if it was one of the “systems” so basic that it counted among the top trio that would-be winners brought to the table. My friend insisted it was more sophisticated, but I’d side with the dealer on this one.
Maybe it’s some movie we watched as kids or maybe it’s the same hubris that screwed things up for Icarus, but we all seem to think we can handle situations better than the people who deal with them on a daily basis. Paradoxically, we seem to be most confident of our abilities in the areas we know the least.
We know more about baseball than the manager who’s running the team and we know more about medical science than the people with 27 initials after their names. We know more than the generals who lead our troops, more than the cops who patrol our streets, more than the dealer at the blackjack table…
One reason we think we could do their jobs better is that we only focus on their screw-ups, and only in hindsight. Whether they’re updating the voice mail system (to serve YOU better) or fighting pandemics or solving crimes, our top professionals treat us to daily flood of bonehead moves. We don’t pay much attention when they get things right, since that is their actual job. It’s pretty much invisible, as it should be, when the calls go through, the drugs don’t kill people and the cops get the right guy.
When the trains derail, though, we know exactly how we would have handled it better, even if we have no idea how to handle it at all. We skip over the 500 steps and the 4,000 details they handled right and fixate on the big, gaping, neon-lit boner that will define their legacies.
That’s fair, in a way, since it goes with the territory for people who want to be paid and respected for their expertise. Particularly for those of us who follow their guidance, most of the time, relentless mockery is the tradeoff we demand for following them down the wrong path.
Still, we give ourselves much too much credit when we think we can do all the complex jobs better than the people who do them every day. Whether it’s a blackjack dealer or a cop or a short-order cook, being in the business provides a degree of insight that our occasional visits cannot match.
Every so often, I’ll read some article about young people having an inflated sense of their talents, which almost invariably leads to a discussion of the participation trophies they received as children. The writers usually make a compelling case about all those Gen-whatevers, but I can’t help but wonder about the same flaw in older, but not wiser, folks like me.
What’s our excuse?
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.