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Faux Outrage

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It no longer seems like a miracle that kids who grow up in one part of the country have eerily similar coming-of-age experiences as those who grew up three timezones away.  I will forever be baffled by the notion that 80’s/90’s kids in both New York and California — without the luxury of the Internet nor the patience for pen-palling — enjoyed/endured the same schoolyard taunts, shared the same (hilariously false) rumors about the relationship between Pop Rocks and soda/pop/cola/Coke, and had the same two-dimensional love affair with a pair of stereotypically Italian plumbing brothers.

As children, we were also — from coast to coast — bound by certain identical rules.  The conventional wisdom is that each generation is raised by a particular set of parents who were themselves raised in a particular environment, read a particular book written by a particular psychologist spouting a particular theory of child development.  (And then we all turn out the same.)  But regardless of the era, a few rules have held remarkably steady:

  1. Do not talk to strangers
  2. Do not accept candy from strangers
  3. Avoid situations that are frightening

Those are The Rules.

The Rules must be followed at all times.

Or else.


Except, as it turns out, on Halloween — or as I like to call it — Opposite Day.

Here are The Rules on Opposite Day:

  1. Talk to ALL strangers
  2. Accept ALL candy from strangers
  3. Hooray for scary things!

On Halloween, we take these three completely universalizable, seemingly reasonable rules and — with a dismissive, Snickers-stained handwave — pish-posh our tightly held convictions from 24 hours earlier.  We have decided, as a society, that for one special day, up is down, left is right, and stranger candy is our nation’s most fantastic resource.

We live in a culture where telling a young girl that she looks like a princess and offering her a selection of fine candies is adorable in the pitch black night of October 31st…and grounds for a police investigation when the sun comes up in November.

All of this is not to say that our time spent celebrating this chocolatey pagan festival would be better spent safely contained within a panic room where no strangers can see or talk to or offer our children Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (if they are lucky) or peanuts, butter, and cups (if they are not).  In fact, most of us would rather live in a community where we can (and do!) trust our neighbors — even the neighbors we do not know! — than a collection of individuals cemented into their homes protected by the highest white picket fences allowable by law.

But at the very least, we should recognize when we are sending mixed messages to future generations, especially when the message we most often send — that we should be skeptical of the intentions of those around us — is more cynical and anti-social than the less-often sent.  Halloween is a day when we purposefully let our guard down, allow ourselves to be a little frightened, allow ourselves to talk to and to be talked to by strangers.  It is a day to look into the eyes of our neighbors and their children and see kindness, thanks, and a common understanding: that candy is delicious and smiling is contagious.

In many ways, Halloween is indeed Opposite Day.  But I think we should ask ourselves: does it have to be?

(For more Faux Outrage about Halloween — from 2002! — click here.)



On the surface, adults don’t make any sense.

If you consider the overall behavior of any particular individual, it will seem rather, well, odd.  It seems improbable — no matter which personality traits/flaws develop — that a person would grow up to be any specific way.  The statistical chance that, at birth, you would end up like you, or that your frienemy would end up like your friemeny, round to zero.

No chance.

Statistically speaking, people are strange.

Only after you obtain perspective about the fundamental influences in a person’s life (e.g., learning about parents/upbringing, discussing traumatic or otherwise crucial life happenings, etc.) can you finally begin to understand an individual.  You begin to triangulate, and begin to see the person not as an irrational thing-doer, but rather as a series of (usually) reasonable-given-their-perspective reactions based on an amalgamation of past experiences.

In other words, context is everything.

For the most part, I think we are generally willing to accept the experiences-shape-personality theory, though it seems fair to say that we are less enticed by the concept when this lens is turned inward.  The idea that my behavior and social instincts may be based on something other than my innate, natural charm is a bit more disturbing than that same notion used to explain your lame story.

The reason I bring up all of this (nonsense?) is because I have recently started considering which, if any, creative influences have molded my writing style.  My first instinct — narcissism, as it turns out — immediately had me considering the notion that I am a perfectly distinct, creative snowflake, floating down from the heavens in my perfectly distinct creative snowflake-y way.


As it turns out, though I never had dreams (delusions?) of becoming a writer (I was more interested in having the largest Lego-slash-MicroMachine collection in the world), my writing style makes perfect sense when you consider the media that I was gleefully consuming at such a influential time.  That said, I can barely understand what drove me to these particular sources.

Keep in mind, I was a weird kid.

(But you were, too, probably.)

Erma Bombeck

I could be mistaken, but it’s entirely possible that the first book I ever read cover-to-cover was, at 11 years old, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?  This book, published four years before I was born, inspired Art Buchwald to rave, “[Bombeck] has done it again–this time taking a hilarious swipe at husbands, honeymoons, tennis elbow, marriage, lettuce, the national anthem, and a host of other domestic dilemmas.”

What more could a prepubescent Zach ask for?

(I have no explanation for this.)

Tom Lehrer

If you asked me who my favorite musician was around the time when I was reading Erma Bombeck in the bathroom — circa 1995 — I would say, with a straight face,  “Tom Lehrer!”  Of course, I had no idea at the time that most of what I was listening to was recorded in the late 1950’s and 60’s.  And I really had no idea at the time about the history and social awareness required to understand even a fraction of what Lehrer was carrying (a tune) on about.

For those who are unaware of Lehrer’s work, he was a brilliant songwriter, mathematician, and political satirist.  (I say “was” even though he is still very much alive because, so far as I am aware, he is no longer engaged in any of the aforementioned activities.)

Lehrer’s tapes were always at arm’s length from the front passenger seat in my mom’s 1988 Volvo stationwagon, so there was some comfort provided as I was being whisked away to Sunday School.  Only in retrospect am I able to consume Lehrer’s work the way it was intended, although I clearly remember laughing at the appropriate parts as a young’n. But listening to his songs still give me a unfiltered feeling of joyous naivety, even if now I’m laughing for the right reasons.

Dave Barry

This one is the biggie, at least in terms of writing style.

My curiosity about Dave Barry peaked right about the same time that high-speed Internet meandered into my life.  Dave Barry’s page on the Miami Herald’s website was actally one of the first things I ever bookmarked (in Netscape, after searching for his name on AltaVista, probably).  Thanks to magic of the current Internet, we can take a ride in the WayBackMachine to see what his website looked around that time.  Reading Barry’s column became a routine, even though I was still pretty confident at the time that I “didn’t like to read.”

His writing was always fun and pointless.

Which kind of explains this place a bit.

In the summer of 1997, for reasons that were not immediately clear to me at the time, I found myself at a John Denver concert.  I was not completely aware of nor enthused by the musical stylings of Mr. Denver — he was certainly no James Taylor! — but cannot deny that by the end of the night, I was sporting a commemorative John Denver Live In Concert! t-shirt.  To this day, I’m still not completely sure whether I was wearing the shirt with irony or pride (prirony?), but in either case, there is photographic proof.  Unfortunately, the show turned out to be one of John Denver’s final performances — he died in a freakish experimental plane crash only a few months later.

During his life, Denver leveraged his fame to raise awareness for important issues like environmental conservation and world hunger, but most of us remember him for one particularly catchy tune, Take Me Home, Country Roads

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, Mountain Mama
Take me home, country roads

These are beautiful lyrics, of course, but they are written from the perspective of a person who is not me.

A person who is not me at all.

I went to West Virginia this past weekend, and just as I did some time ago after a trip to New York City (see: part 1, part 2), I would like to present some lessons that I learned while out on those country roads that lead to a place that, I think you’d all agree, I do not necessarily belong.

Lesson #1: Bear Conditioning

Technically, since I slept in a cabin deep in the woods with limited cell phone reception, I am able to convince folks that I was “camping” this weekend.  Technically.  What I tend to fail to mention, however, is that this “cabin” has three floors, three bathrooms, a hot tub, and a bigger, softer bed than I have in my apartment.  And while the six pillows on my bed were less than perfect and the cabin toaster’s ability to, well, toast left a lot to be desired, I wasn’t exactly roughing it.

Around 2 o’clock in the morning, I meandered outside to check in on this “fresh air” I’ve heard so much about.  The scenery was beautiful.  The stars were twinkling like the eyes of unrequited lovers in first poems everywhere.  Suddenly, an air conditioning unit — that I mistook for a large powerful animal capable of turning the food chain on its head — sputtered in the distance.

When you’re surrounded by stainless steel, travertine, and granite countertops, it’s easy to be distracted from the fact that there are bears.  Outside.  Like, right there.

I had forgotten, too.

Lesson #2: Townies vs. Technologies

When the waitress from Tari’s explained in a perfectly straight-forward manner how to get to the nearest grocery store from the cafe (“You take this main road about a mile south, you’ll see a McDonalds, make a right, and it’s right in that plaza.”), we all nodded along in agreement.  But when we got in our car, the first thing we did was turn on the GPS, which promptly pointed us in the opposite direction.  What did we do?  Obey our computer overlord, of course.

The result, you will not be surprised to learn, is that we ended up driving to a wide open industrial lot.   Not a grocery store — not even a single grocery — in sight.

Townies know what they’re talking about.

Lesson #3: Not-See Germination

There are a number of reasons to enter a second-hand store.  One is that you are traveling with an unapologetic kitty fiend friend and you — or rather, she — spots inside a row of teeny tiny kittens in consecutive cages purring at innocent passersby.

We went inside.

While the kitty-cats lured us in, it was the vintage (and “vintage”) West Virginia paraphernalia that kept us from leaving.  Although sadly, we were a day too late to participate in the Thursday Anything On This Rack For $1 Sale, we were exactly on time if we wanted to buy a Creepy, Smelly Leather Visor for $2.50.  And one of us, to the horrified chagrin of the others, did exactly that.

Of course, like most reasonable people who are in the process of buying sweat-stained visors from decades ago, my friend politely asked the cashier what could be done about any possible disgustingness still contained within the leather fibers (to the extent that leather is composed of “fibers”).

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about.  Whatever germs were in there probably expired by now.”

So there you have it: germs expire.

Lesson learned.

We’re all a little bit crazy, but some of us are just a little bit more “little bit crazy” than others.  Each of us has our ever-expanding list of idiosyncrasies that, when aggregated and viewed objectively, generate a vague sense of uneasiness and ultimately suggest that we may be better off spending our daylight hours in solitary confinement.

It will not shock you to learn that my personal list is quite long (and quite frightening).  Near the top of this list o’ crazy is something that only recently struck me as odd because I only recently realized that these actions — inactions, really — were even worthy of note.

I don’t know whether “going public” with my disorder will result in an alteration to my behavior, but as with any serious affliction, the only way I will be able to find a remedy is to first admit that I have a problem.

Hello, my name is Zach.

This is my first meeting.

I’m a little embarrassed, but here goes nothing.

I never turn my heater or air conditioning all the way to the max setting.  The only way I would crank the heat or A/C up to “10” is if the unit went to “11”.

Now, before you accuse me of being cheap (guilty!), consider this: I don’t pay for heat, my air conditioning is decidedly inexpensive, and this character flaw existed long before I ventured into that place where people stop being polite and start getting real.  I’ve been averse to the maximum setting for the longest — or should I say, a-little-bit-less-than longest — time.

Unlike most of Faux Outrage, where I am defending inane behaviors from ridicule, I recognize that this behavior is objectively stupid.   It serves no purpose other than to make my life slightly worse in situations where improvement is but a half wrist-twist away.

On the Stupid Scale, it rates a 9 out of 10.

But for your entertainment/horror, here is my crazy-person logic:

Since the “maximum” setting is for the moment of greatest need, only that particular moment is worthy of maximum setting usage.  The result is that each time I operate an air conditioning unit (BONUS PARENTHETICAL RANT: heaters are also “air conditioners” in that they, too, condition the air — with heat), since I can imagine a world colder/hotter than the one I am currently existing in, I feel that now (no matter when “now” is) is not the time for the maximum setting.

Maybe next time, as I watch the sun literally burn a hole through my ceiling, I’ll make the leap and finally learn what “Max A/C” feels like.

Cold, I bet.

Maybe then.

On July 4th, we are encouraged to consider the stunning, improbable history of the United States.  We take time to recognize that our great country was not formed by accident, or by lottery, or at the arbitrary whim of conquerors.

As it turns out, this is a pretty special place, this “America.”

Strangely, though we often find ourselves speaking vaguely about “our freedoms,” we rarely if ever discuss with specificity what those freedoms actually are, why they are special, and how they should be utilized in order to create a more perfect union.

It is possible, of course, to use your “freedom” in a way that negatively impacts those also-free persons around you.  I’ve maintained for a long time that a person is truly free if they are able to run directly into traffic.  Yet, as we drive in our cars (or in our buses or in our hovercrafts eventually), we hope those pedestrians walking alongside the road don’t feel the sudden urge to bolt across the speeding steel curtain.

In that way, we should also recognize today, on Independence Day, that our ability to enjoy ourselves comes not only from our founding documents and also the laws and technologies implemented since then, but also from each other.  By virtue of being free, we have the ability to negatively impact those around us.  Luckily, being free also gives us the opportunity to improve the lives of strangers and passersby.

We are all in this together.

Happy Fourth, everyone!

Use your freedoms wisely.  Do not play in traffic.

(You might not be as lucky as this squirrel.)

Full disclosure: Two of my biggest fans are teachers.

Recently, it occurred to me that political satire as an art form may very well be dead.  It had a good run, of course, but it may have finally died of exhaustion and dehydration. After all, if you run for long enough, even a “good run” turns into something significantly less pleasurable, right?

So, why might political satire be dead?  Frankly, it seems that actual reality is now composed of facts that would have otherwise made great jokes.

Example?  Sure.

Think back to three years ago.  Just toss yourself back to the start of 2008.  If you have a time machine, use that (and also let me borrow it so I can unbuy this blender).

Now that you’re in 2008 Mode, pretend that I told you that in the midst of a severe and utterly incapacitating economic crisis, when banker bonuses are suddenly bigger than ever and the national unemployment rate struggles to stay under 10% and as bombs begin to drop on yet another predominantly Muslim country, a sizable and politically powerful faction in this country will take aim at…public school teacher salaries.

Think about it.

Think about it and then watch this…

Warning!  Lawyer insults!  Possible tears!

Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make”

It seems to me that if children are our future, so too are our teachers.

Louis CK, if you are unaware, is one of the most inspired modern comedians and the writer and creator (and star!) of the best show on television that no one knows about (which is, by the way, available for free on Hulu).  He is also the author of a blissfully unapologetic rant about how hyperventilatingly spoiled we have all become.

Yay for outrage!

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