Tales of the Office: Idiots I Worked With

Over the course of 40+ years, I worked with a lot of insufferable morons!

Every time I find myself sliding into the “Retirement Guilt Phenomenon” (I have no required schedule! I have so much free time to read! I have only the responsibilities I determine for myself!)—well, every time that happens, I remind myself not just of the many, many years I worked full-time, but, even more importantly, the incredible number of truly idiot coworkers I dealt with over a career that spanned 44 years.

The “idiots born of morons” coworkers part is especially poignant for me, since for most of that career I functioned as what is now so lightly termed “office support staff” (think: Ms. Dogsbody). Administrative Assistants, lowliest of the low, answer to everyone and take care of everything. It’s a hellacious job and the people performing it deserve, not a bunch of flowers on Admin Professionals Day, but canonization, for they are truly saints.

Some moments of my career still stand out brightly illuminated in a haze of Darwin Awards-style imbecility. I recall the section supervisor who stormed up to my desk, incandescent with rage because, rather than wait until I had a moment to take care of it, she’d changed the toner cartridge in the printer—twice!—and neither cartridge was working. Her handouts had to be printed RIGHT NOW for a meeting that was to begin IMMEDIATELY. (I bit my tongue on the questions of why she’d waited until the last minute to print the paperwork, or why any of this was my fault.) Instead, I hurried to the printer, and in seconds diagnosed the problem: She hadn’t removed the cellophane tag from either of the new cartridges before installing them. One good rrrip, and that printer was functioning once more.

The same supervisor jammed the fax machine while I was on vacation one year. Rather than refer to the “For Emergencies In My Absence” e-mail I’d sent just prior to leaving, and call the appropriate repair tech, she (and everyone else in the office) just left the fax machine hopelessly jammed. When I finally returned two weeks later and had the machine repaired, it whirred away for hours until it had printed hundreds of backlogged faxes.

Standard office machinery seemed to baffle a good many of my coworkers. I still remember with no fondness whatever the employee who hated me like hell’s fire because, during my absence, she changed the toner in the copier, but (much like Ms. Broken Printer), failed to remove the cap from the new toner bottle. The machine not only malfunctioned, but the toner bottle burst and sent clouds of fine black soot sifting like a Pompeian ash cloud throughout the copier. Our copier repair tech, with whom I maintained a consistently friendly and courteous relationship (as if my life depended upon it, as it frequently did), commiserated and spent hours meticulously cleaning the machine. But Ms. Change-the-Toner never forgave me for the general e-mail I that I sent out (carefully naming no names, mind you!) to all staff following this incident, gently reminding them of the proper procedure for changing copier toner. The culprit forever afterwards treated me like something nasty on the bottom of her shoe.

I shrugged it off; she had plenty of company. I was also genuinely hated for reporting a pair of coworkers who skimped their work (sitting in one another’s cubicles, talking and crocheting!) and who refused to read their e-mails until the in-boxes had reached their limit and bounced incoming e-mails, sending them skittering right back to the senders. Another employee despised me eternally when I discovered and reported that she’d found a back door into a boss’s e-mail and was casually perusing every word that was sent to and from him! (I am still bewildered by the fact that she was not fired, but instead hung around for several more years, making my life hell.)

And that was the critical factor: Despite the fact that these people, some of them, at least, despised me—or at least made my job twice as difficult by their ineptitude–I had to continue working with them daily, treating them courteously, even respectfully; doing my best to deal with their requests, solving their problems, fixing the machinery they gummed up…and somehow managed it.

And, as I pointed out in Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity), I outlasted every one of these boneheads to retire having achieved something which none of them managed to gain: Appreciation. Approval. Friendship. Popularity. Respect.

And that, looking back on the years that I worked, makes it all worthwhile.

You might also like “Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity)”, which you can find in the Archived posts from April 25, 2018

The Rocky Path to Unity

I simply did not understand her position—that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

A woman I know, who is Jewish, said she watched the Biden inauguration only to the point where Garth Brooks asked all present to join with him in singing Amazing Grace.  She was offended, she said, by being asked to sing a Christian song.

Now, I, personally, do not think of Amazing Grace as being an overtly Christian song.  It was sung regularly at services held by the interdenominational church that I attended for many years, although they did, in fact, change just a few of the words.  Our teaching being that, as children of the Divine, we must never speak badly of ourselves, the word “wretch” became “soul”; grace, we sang, taught our hearts to soar, not fear. Our congregation included members from faiths as diverse as Buddhist and Pagan, yet we all sang Amazing Grace together, raising our voices as one.  It was, to us, to me, a phoenix song; a song of rising from the ashes to experience blessings and mercy; of learning that we could trust, believing we were loved.

But, putting that heartwarming memory entirely aside, I genuinely could not comprehend her position: that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

Had I been asked to join in a Hindu or Buddhist chant, a Native American or Pagan invocation, a traditional Jewish song, or the lilting beauty of an old Black spiritual, one perhaps written over a century before to lift spirits caught in the squalid darkness of slavery—had I been asked to join in any of these, I would have done so gladly; been overjoyed to do so, in fact, for that would have represented to me the true unity of people of all faiths, all colors—all the glorious variety of humanity that makes up the diverse population of America.  I would have happily sung The Marseillaise or Garibaldi’s Hymn or We Shall Overcome. In a pre-pandemic world, I would have reached to join hands with the people beside me and chanted or prayed or sung with gladness.

Already dismayed by her remarks, I later read that many in American Indigenous communities were offended by hearing JLo sing This Land is Your Land. Again, I shook my head. Despite my mother’s oft-repeated claims, DNA testing has proved that I bear not a single drop of Native American blood in my veins, and I have no comprehension of what it must feel to have had one’s home and culture and language and spirituality wantonly stolen; to have been crushed beneath the heels of one’s oppressors.  Yet I’ve read scholarly articles explaining that Native American tribes waged war with one another for, yes, for land, for cultural and religious differences, for slaves and resources, long before the first Europeans ever dreamed of setting foot on these shores.  Humans are, sadly, warlike beings. Stealing land from one another has gone on for all the millennia of our existence. So a song written as an indignant retort to God Bless America hardly qualifies as an intended irritant to the Indigenous community, despite that it was taken that way.

That is, I think, the point I am struggling so hard to make: I am so weary of everyone taking offense to everything!  I am so tired of the lack of tolerance; of the hardened shells people continually build around themselves, claiming that inclusiveness means only that their perspective, their beliefs, be recognized. That theirs is the important viewpoint.  That everyone must not just listen, but bend, to their preference.

Why cannot “Merry Christmas!” be answered with, “Happy Festivus!” instead of a glare and a growl? Why cannot someone simply answer, “Well, I don’t celebrate, being Jewish, but I know you mean that kindly, so thank you.”  Why can we not consider the friendly intent, and respond in fashion? Why cannot we sip the nectar from the flower, and avoid the bee sting  within?

Unity, pleaded both our new President and the performers at his inauguration ceremony. Raise up your voices and sing together.  Put aside our differences and invoke tolerance, consideration, and courtesy. 

“Can we all just get along?” Rodney King asked in 1992.  And now, 29 years later, I fear the sad answer is, “No, Rodney.  No, it seems we can’t.”  Or won’t. Or don’t really want to do so.

But I will go on, attempting to instill my own behavior with tolerance, and understanding, and acceptance, because, as I was taught in childhood, one must set the example by one’s own life. Because it is the right thing to do.  Because the only way forth to unity is to set aside our propensity to hold tightly to our differences and wounded feelings, and accept, and even glory in, our common humanity.

Wearily, though, I know that someone will take offense, if not at this entire essay, to some point made within it.   They will respond with indignation or bitter anger, even threats, to my words.  Nevertheless, I retract nothing.  After all, (to paraphrase yet another song) I can’t please everyone, so I may as well please myself.

If you liked, rather than hated this essay (!), you might also enjoy “Roses of the Soul”, which you can find in the Archives from December 16, 2017.

29 Things, Revisited

In November 2019, I offered this catalogue of traits I wished to see in an American President.  From the day Joe Biden was announced as the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election, I planned to re-run the column for Inauguration Day, but after the dark events of January 6, I had second thoughts, wondering if perhaps I should say more, or provide an update.  But, on consideration, I decided to let the essay stand as it was originally written–for anyone could see, in  these points, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

I am sad and dismayed to be vindicated.  And I pray, desperately, that we are ushering in an era of renewed dignity, truth, and compassion in our nearly-broken country.

  1. I want a President who willingly releases his or her taxes to the American people. 1
  2. I want a President who is totally unconcerned about the number of people who attend the inauguration, knowing that has nothing whatever to do with the actual work of the Presidency. 2
  3. I want a President who will respect and obey the emolument’s clause of the Constitution; who will divest him/herself of business interests which might result or even appear to result in a potential conflict of interest between the duties of a President and personal gain. 3, a & b
  4. I want a President who knows that “The Buck Stops Here”; who will say, “I take responsibility”. 4
  5. I want a President about whom past business associates cannot claim to have been defrauded of legally-earned payment. 5
  6. I want a President who will fire staff, when necessary, face-to-face, in person, in an appropriate and businesslike manner—not by Tweet. 6, a & b
  7. I want a President who totally eschews name-calling, vicious labels, hate speech, mockery, and all manner of bullying commentary. 7
  8. I want a President who does not pander to nor ingratiate him/herself with dictators or the leaders of oppressive regimes. 8, a & b
  9. I want a President who, to avoid even the slightest appearance of favoritism and to demonstrate truly ethical behavior, does not appoint family members to positions within the administration. 9
  10. I want a President who fully believes that the free American Press is one of the greatest strengths of this republic, and who shows them respect, even when they disagree with and lambaste him or her; who would never, under any circumstances, refer to the press by the fascist label of “Enemy of the People”. 10, a & b
  11. I want a President who recognizes that we are a nation of immigrants, and therefore welcomes those who are fleeing oppression; who takes ultimate responsibility for any separation of refugee parents and children; who would never subject children to prison-like conditions. 11, a & b
  12. I want a President who respects the rights and humanity of LGBTQ individuals. 12
  13. I want a President who issues all national policy in the appropriate businesslike manner, in conjunction with his/her staff, and not by Tweet. 13
  14. I want a President who respects the environment and works to preserve it for the safety and health of both current and future generations; who puts environmental concerns above business and financial interests. 14, a & b
  15. I want a President who demonstrates the utmost respect for the opposite sex; who, if faced with disclosure of past inappropriate speech or behavior toward the opposite sex, does not attempt to minimize the unpardonable behavior as merely “locker room talk”. 15
  16. I want a President who is faithful to his or her spouse. 16
  17. I want a President who behaves with dignity: who would not, under any circumstances, push another world leader aside; who would never, ever turn his or her back upon or walk in front of the Queen of England (not just because she is the Queen, but because she is a 93-year-old woman and deserving of courtesy). 17, a & b
  18. I want a President who will stand in the rain in order to hold the umbrella over his or her spouse.18
  19. I want a President who will not welcome world leaders and representatives to hotels that he or she personally owns, thereby being seen as open to or attempting to create undue influence. 19
  20. I want a President who, if faced with video evidence of a statement made previously, honestly acknowledges his or her words. 20
  21. I want a President who is consistent; who, if reaching new conclusions, states that he or she has done so and presents the logical and factual reasoning behind the reversal. 21 a & b
  22. I want a President who would never, under any circumstances, ask a subordinate to lie in order to protect him/herself. 22, a, b & c
  23. I want a President who travels to visit the military in conflict areas without first being shamed into doing so by military press coverage of his or her failure to appear. 23
  24. I want a President who, if he or she did not personally serve in the military, does not provide a sham and bogus excuse for that lack. 24
  25. I want a President who will stand in the pouring rain to honor the brave men and women who died the World Wars to preserve freedom. 25
  26. I want a President who, despite disagreements, will honor and speak with respect of a fallen comrade; who would never disrespectfully raise the American flag during that individual’s funeral; who will not permit staff to speak rudely of deceased, gracious First Ladies of this country; who will not allow foreign dictators to disparage former American leaders in his or her presence. 26 a, b & c
  27. I want a President who will not obstruct justice. 27
  28. I want a President who will not abandon allies due to a financial conflict of interest.28
  29. I want, in fact, a genuine President: an honorable leader, who will demonstrate dignity, truth, courtesy, kindness, patience, composure, ethics, morality, and, above all, integrity.
  1. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/15/politics/donald-trump-tax-returns-white-house-sarah-sanders/
  2. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/21/14347298/trump-inauguration-crowd-size
  3. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF11086.pdf
    https://www.citizensforethics.org/trumps-ethics-promises-have-not-been-kept
  4. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-donald-trump-russia-blame-20180319-story.html
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d
  6. https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/13/17113950/trump-state-department-rex-tillerson-fired-tweet-twitter
    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trump-fired-kirstjen-nielsen-by-tweet
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html
  8. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526520042/6-strongmen-trumps-praised-and-the-conflicts-it-presents
    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-is-viktor-orban-hungary-prime-minister-trump-meeting-white-house-today-2019-05-13/
  9. https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-trump-officials-making-government-a-family-business
  10. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/10/29/18037894/donald-trump-twitter-media-enemy-pittsburgh
    https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/437610-trump-calls-press-the-enemy-of-the-people
  11. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/03/06/after-locking-migrant-children-cages-dhs-chief-tells-congress-theyre-not-cages
    https://www.npr.org/2019/03/09/701935587/judge-immigration-must-identify-thousands-more-migrant-kids-separated-from-paren
  12. https://democrats.org/press/15-things-the-trump-administration-has-done-to-roll-back-protections-for-lgbtq-people/
  13. http://time.com/5099544/donald-trump-tweets-first-year/
  14. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/02/offshore-drilling-donald-trump-administration-safety-rules/3657752002/
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-rsquo-s-epa-made-it-easier-for-coal-plants-to-pollute-waterways/
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/donald-trump-tape.html
  16. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-melania-stormy-daniels-affairs-marriages-timeline-2018-3
  17. https://www.nbcnews.com/video/icymi-president-trump-walks-in-front-of-queen-elizabeth-ii-1277051971981
    https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/25/politics/trump-pushes-prime-minister-nato-summit/          
  18. https://people.com/politics/donald-trump-wife-melania-rain-umbrella/
  19. http://time.com/donald-trumps-suite-of-power/
  20. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2019/04/11/wikileaks-julian-assange-arrest-donald-trump-sot-vpx.cnn
  21. https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/26/trump-vaccinations-measles/
    https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/full-list-donald-trump-s-rapidly-changing-policy-positions-n547801
  22. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/05/barr-not-a-crime-for-trump-to-demand-staffers-lie-to-investigators?verso=true
    https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/mueller-report-release-latest-news/card/1555608005
    https://www.justsecurity.org/62785/trump-told-cohen-lie-congress-collusion-general-not-moscow-tower-deal/
  23. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/10/17/top-senate-democrat-urges-trump-to-visit-troops-fighting-overseas/
  24. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/02/27/trumps-lawyer-no-basis-for-presidents-medical-deferment-from-vietnam/
  25. https://abcnews.go.com/US/trumps-rain-check-honoring-americans-killed-wwi-prompts/story?id=59119504
  26. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/08/27/john-mccain-flags-white-house-full-staff/1108717002/ https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/06/donald-trump-adviser-roger-stone-mocks-barbara-bush-death-after-book/3386028002/ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/28/us/politics/trump-biden-north-korea.html
  27. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/judge-andrew-napolitano-did-president-trump-obstruct-justice
  28. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

§  In this perhaps the most divisive of years in America since our Civil War, I turn again to this essay, originally posted in 2017, and its theme of tolerance, kindness and courtesy–for what better behavior can we ever display?  §

Several years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good-natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice acceptance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I found myself asking, how could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even atheism) in order to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives dated November 20, 2019.

The Trials and Tribulations of Houseguests

§  A young friend won’t be making her annual trip to stay with me and visit her “Indiana Family” during this difficult year.  But I hope she will get a smile from this essay!  §

Listening to a radio show as I drove one afternoon, I caught part of a discussion on the topic of appropriate behavior by houseguests when making visits.  The subject intrigued me because  it had often been covered by those original Agony Aunt columnists, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, to whose advice I’d been devoted in adolescence.

The interviewee, asked to explain what houseguests should not do during a visit, launched into a total bitchfest about guests who, having risen in the morning before their hosts, proceeded to brew themselves a cup of coffee and (horror of horrors!) use the mug which was sitting out beside the coffeemaker for that morning cup…their host’s favorite coffee mug!

 Now, I rarely have houseguests, and I don’t even own a coffeemaker; anyone unfortunate enough to be lodging with me is going to discover that instant coffee is the best available.  Tea, now, tea is a different matter.  Depending on their preferences, they might get a good quality teabag of regular or flavored tea, or even loose tea brewed properly using a tea ball in a china teapot.  But, those facts aside, the truth is that, as a good hostess, if I was providing for a houseguest who I knew might be waiting for a “cuppa” before I rose in the morning, I would have set out not only a cup, but a spoon and a spoon rest and real sugar and sweeteners and a napkin, all awaiting their use.  I’d have made certain they knew where all the other accoutrements were to be found too: the toaster, the bread, butter, jam, and milk.  And, even though I do, yes, have a favorite mug, I damn sure wouldn’t have gone on public radio making an ass of myself because a guest in my home had availed her or himself of simple accommodations.  To do so would be disrespectful.

Respect, as I learned from those long ago Agony Aunt columns, is what smooths the relationship between host and guest.  Both acknowledge the disruption to their usual lives, and treat one another with courtesy, making an effort to be especially respectful to smooth over any bumps in the road during a visit.

A much younger but extremely wise friend once related to me that her mother, having come to visit, was both very surprised and complimentary when she found the apartment beautifully cleaned prior to her visit.  My young friend, while admitting that her home was rarely in that condition, remarked that it was simply respectful to prepare for a guest’s visit by cleaning her home.

I agreed wholeheartedly.  Having a houseguest means that one looks at one’s home differently.  The worn but still useable bath towels that are perfectly suitable for my own bathtime would be disrespectful if put out for a guest to use. The chipped mug is placed to the back of the cabinet, and the nicer ones, including that favored mug—why wouldn’t I want a friend to have the best?– set forward prominently.  Bedsheets are fresh, TVs are turned down low when a guest has retired for the night, and favorite foods are offered.

But, returning to the memory of those Agony Aunts columns, I recall long, serious deliberations on whether a guest should, on the final day of their visit, make the bed (because that’s simply a nice gesture to one’s hostess) or remove the sheets and pile them on the mattress (since they now have to be washed).  Silly debates such as this enthralled me when I was a mere teenager, years always from having a home of my own, much less a houseguest.  Even more interesting (and often hilarious), were the disputes—many of which flamed into fury—over nosy houseguests, those people who snooped and pried into places they had no business being, and how they should be handled.

Putting a jack-in-the-box into a drawer to pop out and send the prying houseguest shrieking, was often favored. I particularly loved the suggestion by one host who claimed to have hidden notes in each drawer which said, “Too bad you decided to snoop here.  I put poison on the handle, and I have the only antidote.”

But then came the rejoinder from a woman who was obviously suspected by her friend of being one of those very sneaks, a charge which she strenuously denied.  While staying there, she related, she’d needed a thread of dental floss, something which she hadn’t packed.  She opened the medicine cabinet to search for some, and was sent screaming back from the sink as a cascade of glass marbles came tumbling out of the cupboard, pouring like a loud river onto the sink and bouncing across the bathroom floor.  When her host came charging up, ready accusation at her lips, the terrified guest was crouched in a corner, surrounded by marbles, stuttering, “I just wanted dental floss!  Just dental floss!”

I seriously doubted that the friendship between the paranoid host and the shocked houseguest continued following this fracas.  After all, it appeared that, just like that belligerent radio show speaker, someone had forgotten the first rule of having or being a houseguest: Respect.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Agony Aunts”,
to be found in the archives from February 16, 2018. 

Apples of Gold

§   As the Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching, I decided to re-run this essay, (originally posted on January 6, 2018), about the importance of thanking those who give to us.   §

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”   Proverbs 25:11  KJV

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided plenty of food and funds for decorations; bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—merely a cheap card, without even a personal message–just quickly signed and stuck to a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home-baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome on her lips, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. Acting out of appreciation for several helpful things he’d done, she’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911, but stopped and got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived.  He then provided the officer with a description of the accident, absolving my daughter of blame.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

 

The Power of an Insincere Thank You

Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice.

A while ago I was shopping at Super Big Evil Mart, and found myself enamored of a pretty knit top which I didn’t need, couldn’t afford, and knew I shouldn’t buy. So of course, seeing that there was only one in my size, I flung it into my cart and marched up to the checkout with it.

The line was long since (as usual) there were only perhaps three checkout lanes open of the twenty or so available. So I was dismayed when the clerk started to ring up my purchases and found the top had no price tag. Obviously irritated, she switched her lane light to strobe, hoping to attract a supervisor who could verify the price. Meanwhile, I turned to the lady in line behind me, and said abjectly, “I’m really sorry to hold you up.” The woman responded with an expressive lift of the eyebrows and quirk of her head which seemed the equivalent of a shrug–whereupon the teenage clerk, not quite sotto voce, remarked snippily, “Well, if you’d checked to see if the item had a price tag, you wouldn’t be holding everyone up!”

Expressive Eyebrow lady raised her brows even further, if that were possible. I’m certain my own eyebrows were riding at high tide, also. But I reined in my temper and just looked coolly at the young clerk, replying in saccharine tones, “Oh, thank you so much! There is nothing I appreciate more than being given life lessons by someone at least 40 years younger than I am!”

When my purchases had finally been rung up by the now-silent clerk, I smiled sweetly at her and said in a voice dripping sugar, “I’ll be sure to let your supervisor know all about your helpful advice! Thank you again!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d routed a clerk at the Super Big Evil Mart using the extraordinary power of an insincere thank you. A few years earlier, I’d strolled into the garden section in the very early spring. The main shelves were already full, but I didn’t see what I wanted there, and so wandered toward an opening between some pieces of clear vinyl sheeting hung from the ceiling. In a hazy sort of way, I thought they were hung there to keep chilly air of the still-raw weather from seeping into the main part of the store; there were certainly no signs or cones indicating that the section wasn’t yet open. But a middle-aged clerk, who certainly should have known better, charged down upon me, snarling loudly and angrily, “Hey, YOU! GET AWAY! That whole area’s still closed!” I pulled up short as commanded, and, placing a hand over my heart, replied, “Oh, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t realize that! And thank you for letting me know SO courteously! Thank you for saying, ‘Please be careful’. Thank you for saying ‘Ma’am’. Thank you for speaking to a customer with SUCH courtesy! ”

If looks were a box of matches, I’d have burst into flames on the spot. But there is simply very little response even the most obnoxious person can make to being thanked, however insincerely.

There are some who try, of course. Spluttering or muttering, they attempt to defend their execrable behavior. My standard response to such equivocation is to stare them down with X-ray eyes and snap out a snarky comment of my own: “Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice!” Occasionally, too, the chided individual will simply mouth off an insult (i.e., “Bitch!”). This, of course, requires a return to childish rhetoric: while still evading an exchange volley of insults, I just grin and sing out, “Hey, takes one to know one!”

I’ve utilized the astounding force of an insincere thank-you when given unasked-for advice or when, as described above, I’ve been victimized by those in a service capacity; I’ve even used it, very carefully and in a modulated tone, when faced with a situation in which a stranger seemed murderously angry. I was known to exercise the gesture back when I was still employed, although in those situations, also, I dialed down the saccharine tones and gestures quite a bit. Insincere thanks have seen me through many a moment in which speaking my mind or responding with my true feelings could have produced awful results.

In a world of rising dissension, in which common courtesy has become so uncommon as to be notable, there is enormous strength in the words “thank you”, whether meant sincerely or otherwise. But for shutting down outright rudeness, there’s nothing quite like the power of an insincere thank you.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.