...a potent blend of Miss Manners and Batman

Sunday, December 30, 2007

What Is It About Opera?

I just got back from what could be the last opera I ever attend. I didn't mind it as a whole, and the third act was pretty fun, but when you weigh the cost and multiply it by the entertainment factor, the resultant enjoyment-per-dollar is far too low. It's like if you paid $500 for a hamburger: That had better be one damn good burger, and you'd better not be a vegetarian.

New York City has the big sports: baseball (three stadiums!), basketball, football (ok, that's really NJ), and hockey. Oh, and tennis. Similarly, The City also has the major sources of entertainment: movies, theater, musical performances, and ballet. Oh, and opera. Opera is like the tennis of entertainment. It's not on all the time, and when it is, it can be fantastic or it can be really dull, especially if you're not a fan. And then there's the price. Those US Open tickets are pretty pricy, and opera seats cost even more.

If you're really into opera, you'd better be rich. Decent house seats at the New York City Opera House are $150 a piece. That would get you to about a dozen movies, three good musical performances, or two ballets.

To make matters worse, this was an opera that was supposed to be fun. If you attend a performance of Carmen, you expect a fat woman to die of tuberculosis at some point. But if you have cajoled your kids into seeing Hansel and Gretel, you need the experience to be pretty, or perversely funny, or at least on par with Sweeny Todd. But this production was oddly staged and had, as usual, a fairly incomprehensible libretto. My little one, who was 3, wasn't quite up to reading the subtitles. My 8-year-old wasn't much better off, either, tho he understood it enough to be quite disappointed.

A bad movie sets you no further back than $12 an a couple of wasted hours. In football terms, it's like losing one game; you move on. This opera experience was the equivalent of watching your team lose every game of the season.

Oh well, there's always next year!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Parking Pricks

Between crosswalks along the parks in Manhattan, there are spaces where no more than two cars can park...but only if the drivers cooperate. Occasionally someone parks in such a way as to take up both spaces. These people really annoy Voice of Society Man because the drivers of these cars don't bother to think of others when parking, and nothing irks VoSMan more than thoughtlessness.

Of course, VoSMan _should_ have special tools in his utility belt to help him deal with such crises. A fast-acting jack could perhaps raise the car enough to move it a foot or two, but my alter-ego carries nothing of that sort. Then there's the French trick, but even that wouldn't work with most modern American cars.

I first saw the French trick in, well, France -- hence the name. On my way back to my cheap hotel, I came upon a man who was looking for a parking spot for his lovely Citroen. His car wasn't especially large, but space is at a premium off the beaches of Cannes as much as it is off Central Park. But apparently my French doppleganger knew just what to do. He leaned against the tiny car in front of the spot and DRIBBLED it, lifting it off the ground so that the brakes didn't keep it from moving up. A few bounces did the trick, and he was able to park his car with ease. Bravo, Voix de la Societe Homme!

Back home, I have no similar recourse. The cars are too heavy (and New Yorkers, too ornery) for that maneuver. And pushing the other car with mine doesn't work (I've tried). So when I came across a car taking up both spots this afternoon, I knew I had to act fast. VoSMan hopped out of the car, sticker in hand, and affixed a little message to the world (and to the parking prick who had robbed the world of a spot).

As if the parking gods were smiling on this, no sooner had I gotten into my car to continue the search than another spot opened up a block away. Had VoSMan left alone that Prick Parker, I might still be looking for a place to park. Thanks, VoSMan!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Really Supporting our Troups

A report on National Public Radio yesterday (11/12/07) noted that veterans make up 12.5% of the population of US prisons but only 10% of the US general population. I would have thought that veterans would make up a smaller percentage of prisoners -- perhaps no more than 7% -- but the reporter mentioned post-traumatic stress syndrome and job loss as possible causes for stress in veterans that could lead to criminality.

All of this reminded me of my earlier post about those ubiquitous "I Support the Troops" ribbons that people sport on their cars. When people say that they support our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, what I hope they mean is that they:

* work hard to maintain friendships with their soldier friends when those veterans come home, even when the vets rebuff them.
Remember, folks: PTSS makes people depressed, cold, and/or mean.

* offer them back their jobs, or offer replacement jobs when necessary.
Many returning veterans find that their work has dried up. The government is totally to blame for this situation (employers can't hold jobs forever), but if you hired someone who was later called to arms, one way to support the troops is to hire that person back.

* do whatever they can to help their friends and family adjust to life back home after a stint in the military.

Anything short of this is just twaddle. And anyone with a ribbon touting how they support the troops when they really don't should get a new ribbon: "Better them than me."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Demise of Baseball

Last night one of my granddaughters asked me to explain an old photo. It featured me and her grandmother smiling next to a tall man in a uniform from the "California Angels," before that team became the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim," which was a few decades before they became known as "that old base-ball team that used to play near San Angeles, CA." My grand-daughter had never heard of baseball.

"Gertrude," I asked, "Do you have a few minutes for a story?" She obliged by tapping her arm to turn off her i-Skin, but I waited until she had pressed her temples firmly to turn off her internal speakers. Then I began.

I asked if she knew that there were four major sports.

"Sure," she replied. "Football, basketball, soccer, and Nascar."

"Well," I told her, "it used to be baseball, football, basketball, and hockey."

"Hockey? You've got to be kidding," she said. "Wait, was this before basketball went co-ed?"

I explained how hockey had died a natural death after people no longer understood the concept of ice or winter. On her recent trip to the Albert Gore Presidential Museum, she had seen old 2-D photos of snow, so this part made sense to her. But explaining the death of baseball was another matter.

"Ok, it went like this, Gerty. You see, back in the 1970s, when I was a kid, a baseball player sued baseball for the right to be a free agent. That meant he could negotiate his own salary with whatever team wanted to pay him the most."

"Like school teachers," said Gertrude.

"Right. And the players had a union that fought for their rights," I explained.

"Like babysitters."

"Right. And the team owners got caught trying to keep the players' salaries low, and they had to pay the players for all the money they had been cheated out of. It was $280 million, which was a lot back then." Gertrude's raised eyebrow told me she had a hard time believing that. I continued:

"So the team owners had to give players bigger and bigger salaries to try to get the best players on their teams. This forced them to raise more money, and pretty soon they had to raise ticket prices so that only the rich could afford to go to a game. A family of five, like mine, might have to pay two or three hundred dollars to see a game. Maybe even $500, including parking, food, and a few toys."

"That's my allowance."

"Really? Well, that was a lot back then -- as much as some people earned in a week." Gertrude was speechless.

"To make matters worse, baseball started putting all of its most exciting games on only after kids had gone to bed."

"Why? Was it for mature audiences?" Gertrude had received an old DVD player for Solstice, and her parents, whose own parents were quite permissive, had shown her their favorite old South Park episodes.

"No, it was supposed to be for the whole family. But tv commercials...."

"I've heard of those. Go on."

I continued: "These commercials paid more when the games were on later. So baseball made a lot of money for a decade or two, but then the grown-ups got interested in other things, and the kids who had been asleep during those exciting games got caught up in other sports, like soccer and Nascar."

"I like those sports because women can play on the same teams."

"Yeah, baseball never found a way to include women, even as umpires. Even football made rules that 2 women had to be on the field at all times. It also didn't help that the average baseball game was three hours long."

"Well, that's not so long."

"This was before the water was adderalized. It was hard for most people to pay attention that long."


"So pretty soon, no one cared about baseball, and the sport just kind of died."

"I guess that's kind of sad, but they had it coming, didn't they?"

"Yes, they certainly did," I said. That Gerty is a pretty smart kid.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Of Frogs and Parents

There is nowhere you can go to get away from a Frog. Frogs have been in every borough of The City, in every suburb, and even in the outerlying exurbs of New Paltz. I'm talking about the Rolex of strollers, the Bugaboo Frog.

By "Rolex," I mean overpriced-and-ostentatious. After all, no one needs an $800 stroller that doesn't fold up any more than they need a $10,000 watch that doesn't release endorphins directly into the bloodstream. But Richie and Ricki Rich have been tootling around town with Junior in an extravagant perambulator ever since some Scandinavian genius realized that there was a market for a miniature, manual Mercedez.

The selling point of the Bugaboo series appears to be their complete uselessness for anything other than pushing. They hold almost nothing in the basket below the baby and they are heavy. They are huge when open, but when folded up, they seem to require even more space, necessitating a 1970s-era stationwagon for storage. I believe that most models are offered with a Dominican or Haitian babysitter, tho some parents deign to push the godforsaken things themselves.

I was on a crowded subway train when one such couple attempted to board with their wee one in a Frog. By "in" I mean that they had made no attempt to fold the nearly unfoldable stroller; they had simply made the decision that all of us should make way for their huge stroller and equally huge heads. Everyone looked at them with raised eyebrows, but only one of us knew just what to say. Donning my cape, I lowered my voice a half octave, pointed to my left and in my best Grey Poupon accent said, "The first-class car is at the front of the train. You can get off at the next stop and make a run for it before the subway starts again."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Baseball Hates Its Fans

Here is the future of baseball: empty stadiums

As if baseball wasn't boring enough (and I've been to over 150 games and was a huge rah-rah Yankees fan for years), they've gotten into this idiotic habit of starting their post-season contests after 8pm. Looking ahead at this week, I see that the games of Tuesday and Wednesday are slated to begin at 8:21pm. The reasoning among the idiots who are running (ruining) things -- the dual doofuses of both Major League Baseball and whichever network has decided to lose money on the playoff games that year -- is that starting games early means that commuters in California or, in this year's case, Arizona and Colorado, would miss the beginning of the games. But let's remember two things: 1) The excitement of a baseball game (if there is any) happens at the end of the game, and 2) most post-season games are over three hours long. This means that games starting at 8:21 finish long after most adults, and almost all kids, have headed to bed. And where does baseball think it's going to find the fans of tomorrow if the fans of today are sleeping thru 9th inning walkoff homeruns or tension-frought pitchers' duels?

What baseball and the networks need to do is to begin the post-season games no later than 7pm EST. That means that kids in New York and Boston can watch an entire game, while young'uns on the West Coast can ... watch an entire game. As for their parents, the East Coasters can watch the whole game, but their West Coast counterparts might have to miss the beginnings of games but will always get to watch the end.

Voice of Society Man has spoken -- now who's listening? If only I had a good friend who worked at MLB.

Actually, I do. I've mentioned all of this to him, but he's not high up enough in their hierarchy to make that sort of difference. Well, at least I've tried!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Kobiachi Maru of Grammar

I have finally found work that marries my love of a good joke with my obsession for semi-colons.

I have a new job, one that ranks 2nd on the list of oddest work I've ever been paid for (right after the time where I demonstrated Barbie products in K-Marts thruout Sydney). In my latest incarnation, I'm a work-from-home behind-the-scenes editor for Comedy Central in their effort to create a searchable database of every episode of The Daily Show. A problem has arisen, however, that threatens to undermine my very sanity and put me in Davey Jones' locker: possessives after an S. Thank goodness for Star Trek.

Didn't "Davey Jones' locker" sound wrong in that last sentence? Anyone who's seen a Pirates of the Caribean movie knows that dead seamen find themselves in Davey Jones's locker (dead semen can be found in Davey Jones's tissue in the garbage by Davey Jones's bed). This whole Jones' thing is a leftover from the days when we watched our favourite programmes on the telly with our neighbours. In other words, it's a British thing. Not Cockney-British, but Oxford-British. That is to say, it's pompous.

Steven Pinker, the cunning linguist from Harvard, has written much about this so-called prescriptive language. His point is that language should flow naturally. If I say, "Who did you give the ball to?" it's not like anyone over the age of 2 is going to look at me like I'm from another planet. Prescriptive grammarians would find fault twice in that sentence, but "To whom did you give the ball?" is not the way any adult would speak to a child, and for that matter, it's not the way most of us speak to each other. Put another way: 'Right' isn't what we should say but what we actually do say.

There is a way to placate both sides of this argument. This is where Star Trek comes in: In "Star Trek 2," we learn that Captain Kirk reprogrammed a simulation rather than going down with his virtual ship. The simulation, called the Kobiachi Maru, is meant to test the mettle of prospective captains faced with the certain destruction of their vessel. By hacking into the system, he avoided certain doom. I have taken "Kobiachi Maru" to mean a situation where, faced with choosing between bad choice A or bad choice B, you wisely pick C.

There are many grammatical situations that require a Kobiachi Maru:

A. I told everyone to grab his or her things.
B. I told everyone to grab their things.

Sentence A is gramatically correct but sounds awkward. Sentence B is more vernacular but is technically wrong (according to most prescriptives) since 'everyone' is supposed to be singular. [If you don't believe that 'everyone' is singular, try asking, "Are everyone ready for fish?" the next time you serve dinner.] Our only choice is to make up a new sentence:

C. I told all of them to grab their things.

Ta da. Now let's see if we can apply the Kobiachi Maru of grammar to possessives:

A. She is one of jazz' greatest guitarists.
B. She is one of jazz's greatest guitarists.
C. She is one of the greatest jazz guitarists.

Here is another one:

A.This is Betsy Ross' famous flag
B. This is Betsy Ross's famous flag
C. This is the famous flag that the lying snots of the Ross family claimed Betsy had sewn when in fact she'd done nothing of the sort.

That gives me an idea for the famous final resting place for dead sailors:

A. Captain Jack is in Davey Jones' locker.
B. Captain Jack is in Davey Jones's locker.
C. Captain Jack is dead. Arrgghh!

Oh, for goodness's sake!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mrs VoS Man

Mrs Voice of Society Man has had her own secret identity, but for the most part it has been replaced by Mama Bird, who usually comes out only to protect her own chicks. Her earlier alter ego, however, would boldly (and loudly) demand a seat on a bus or subway when no one volunteered one. Perhaps you've heard of her: Voice of Preganancy Woman. This rather acerbic character made no bones about her huge belly and that fact that our society had sunk to the point where a hugely pregnant woman was shown no courtesy on mass transit. She would walk onto a crowded bus, wait an appropriate amount of time (usually five or ten seconds), and, when no seat was forthcoming, would yell, "Will no one give a hugely pregnant woman a seat? Are you young businessmen too weak from all your pencil-pushing to stand up for a few stops?" But since the birth of our third child, Mrs VoS Man (oops, I mean Voice of Pregnancy Woman) has had few brushes with Seat Hoarders and other such miscreants.

Mean Soccer Dads

My wife came across an ugly type of parent recently while attending our son's soccer practice. Keep in mind that the soccer players in question are 7 or 8.

One of the little tykes came over to the man beside my wife and complained that his hands were cold. The man -- presumably the boy's father -- asked him, "When did you become a girl?" Apparently he was making reference to the little-known fact that beneath the top layer of skin, most boys' hands have a special layer of protective machismo that somehow his sons' hands were lacking. Then Mean Soccer Dad taunted his son a second time: "Lemme see if I can find you some pink gloves."

My wife was too stunned to speak, but I know what Voice of Society Man would have done. Remember, VoS Man's mission isn't only to stand up to bullies, Time Wasters, Litter Bugs, and other societal outcasts. He must also educate them so as to reform them. His weapons in this instance would have been a Confusing Opening Sentence followed by a Poignant Lesson. Here is how I imagine it unfolding:

VoS Man: Does your son drink beer?
Mean Soccer Dad: Hunh?
VoS Man: Your kid. Is he a drinker?
MSD: Of course not. What are you talking about?
VoS Man: Does he smoke pot?
MSD: What the hell are you talking about?
VoS Man: In a few years, your son will be a teenager. Would you want him to tell you if friends of his were drinking their parents' liquor or trying to get him to smoke pot with them?
Meanie: Yeah, sure, I guess.
VoS Man: Do you think it's easy for kids to bring up alcohol with their parents, or do you think they get nervous.
Meanie: I'm sure they get pretty scared.
VoS Man: How do you expect him to want to talk with you about alcohol if he can't even tell you that his hands are cold at a soccer game?
Meanie (starting to cry): All I ever wanted was for him to hide his soft, vulnerable side beneath a tough mantle of manliness so as to keep away the demons that haunt me.
VoS Man (wrapping his cape around MSD): There, there, now. Your father loved you even if he never said it. It takes a tough man to hold in all of those feelings, but it takes a tougher man to let them show. Growl, you bear of love, growl.

At this point, we can all imagine the formerly Mean Soccer Dad becoming Bill Bixby's character from The Courtship of Eddie's Father. When he turns to thank me, Voice of Society Man is no longer there, having gone to right other wrongs.

Racing Grannies

Or, Collective Waiting, Revisited

An unusual need arose recently for Voice of Society Man in the world of unicycle racing, but fret not, the situation described has tendrils that reach into many aspects of our daily life.

This past summer at the annual unicycle convention (yes, there is such a thing), a woman in her 50s took 25 minutes to complete the mile race, 15 minutes longer than her next slowest competitor. 300 of us had to wait for her to finish. As a result, our day at the track finished 15 minutes later than it could have. Should the race director have put an end to our misery by stopping the race? Voice of Society Man knew there could be only one answer, a resounding "Duh."

In a note I wrote to a committee that considers these issues (yes, there is such a thing), I explained that it comes down to math. Granny's 15 extra minutes of racing took place while the rest of us could have been doing more enjoyable things, like swimming in the hotel pool, chatting with other parents, or twiddling our own personal thumbs. Now factor in that there were 300 people waiting for her to finish. 300 people x 15 minutes = 4500 human minutes. That is to say, Granny's race cost a collective 75 hours of human time. Clearly her pride-of-accomplishment was worth something, but most people would agree that this was selfish or unthinking behavior on Granny's part.

Admittedly, the math doesn't seem to hold up under close scrutiny. Had there only been 4 people waiting for her to finish, she'd still be in the wrong for making them wait, even tho that's only 60 minutes of wasted human time. But had she only taken one extra minute (causing 300 minutes of wasted life), no one would have noticed. In fact there would be no real (or kind) way to get back that one minute, and any attempt to do so would have caused an outrage. At what point does the racer become a Time Waster? Perhaps this quandary requires further thought. Is there a cut-off, mathematical or otherwise, for Time Wasting?

Even Voice of Society Man cannot tell you where this line is drawn, but its pretty clear that somebody should have pushed Granny off that unicycle.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Waiting Room TVs

Doctors, here is my prescription: Remove that television set from your waiting room!

The last thing I want to see in a doctor's office waiting area is a TV. The set is invariably tuned to either one of two horrors: something insipid, where I am forced to hear that month's flavor of daytime personality pretend to be surprised by what her interviewee has just revealed ("You're kidding!"), or something horrible on the news ("A father murders his own infant daughter while her horrified mother watches... stay tuned!"). Happily there is a solution, and it comes on the end of a key chain.

Of course, in theory, Voice of Society Man should really be going up to the waiting room receptionist to announce that no one is actually watching the TV and that furthermore, even if someone is, that person should really have thought ahead and brought a knitting project, a good read, or a book of sudoku puzzles. Better yet, that time could be used reflectively to ponder one's existence or the societal benefits of a utilitarian philosophy.

Voice of Society Man is keenly aware that speaking up against waiting room practices could have deleterious consequences. Complain about Oprah today and you might find yourself waiting even longer next week. This is one time when VoS Man must use Prudence.

This product first came to my attention in 2002 or so, perhaps in a copy of Discover magazine (or maybe it was Curmudgeon Digest). It cycles thru hundreds of frequencies until it turns off most TVs. The inventor, like many of us, was tired of knitting or reading or solving sudoku puzzles while trying to ignore the bruitish television in the waiting room.

Sometimes Voice of Society Man must rely on his Utility Belt...or in this case, his Utility Key Chain.

Now if only I could get hold of a device to disable car alarms!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Correctus Interruptus

The Story of the Deviated Septum

Voice of Society Man will not be seen at his irregularly scheduled times because the author has been the victim of his own self-improvement. There comes a time in most men's lives when they must decide whether and when to correct their deviated septa. I decided 'yes' and 'today.'

Once you've realized that your nose was not always strictly banana-shaped, the entire procedure has many steps, and I'm just rounding third now. After the initial doctor visit, I had to go back to that same otorhinolaryngologist two months later to make sure that the curvaceous stature of my nose wasn't temporary. He confirmed this two weeks ago, so we scheduled the surgery. A few days later, I had to go for a pre-op, where I visited five different stations (including EKG, bloodwork, and, most daunting of all, insurance) within just 30 minutes; from what I understand, the medical personnel I met were as efficient as a Russian vasectomy team but much more pleasant. The final steps are the post-op, tomorrow, where the doctor will remove my bandages, and another check-up in a few days. Today, however, was the tough part: surgery.

I have written all about the actual hospital visit at my unicycle blog because, strangely, it was unicycling that brought about my deviant decision. What I forgot to mention was that today is September 11. Yes, the 6th anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers.

Like most New York City dwellers, Shirra and I were devastated by the attack -- even tho we didn't lose any family members, friends, or even acquaintances that day. In fact, I was teaching at my old school in Brooklyn Heights that day, and despite the fact that four parents worked in the twin towers, all of them made it out safely. The last arrived at school four hours later, covered in shiny dust, to take his kids home a bit earlier than usual. I happened to be on emergency escort duty at the time, and since all of the other parents had already been accounted for, seeing him was a huge but strange relief: I wanted to hug him and cry, but we didn't know each other that well, so we shared an awkward silence, much as the City itself did over the ensuing days. So I take 9/11 seriously -- in small part, it's why we moved to New Paltz -- but after 2005, I realized that it was time to move on.

As I lay in my hospital bed awaiting the operation, I reflected on how stress-free I was feeling. I'm not one of those people who's really that much in touch with certain personal states, like anxiety and stress. So when my nurse asked if I was nervous, I told her I'd have to wait for the results of the blood pressure machine. I was 116 over 76, so 'no.' When not hooked up to a machine, I usually have to rely on my pulse. The nurse commented that I seemed relaxed.

That's when I heard the droning of a voice on the TV in a room across the hall. It was the recitation of the names of the victims. The person in room 2 was actually listening to thousands of names read over hundreds of minutes. The nurse might have to take my blood pressure again, because I had a feeling that what I was experiencing was stress. I also had a feeling that if something didn't change fast, I'd be in danger of having my deviated septum worked on for free.

Here is the dialog I was imagining right then:

Me: Excuse me, would you mind if I closed your door?
Room 2: They're reading the list of 9/11 victims.
VoS Man (maneuvering cape around IV drip): I think it's time for Americans to move past the tragic events of that day.
Room 2: Well, I don't think that 6 years is too long a period of mourning.
VoS Man: Maybe, but you know, they never read out the thousands of Pearl Harbor vicitms after that attack.
Room 2: Yeah, but people grieve differently now.
VoS Man: I think you mean 'wallow.' But I guess it depends on who a person has lost.
Room 2: It wasn't anyone close, just one of my wife's friend's acquaintances. I just want to hear them say his name.
VoS Man: It wouldn't happen to be Zeke Zyzzyva, would it?

At this point, VoS Man's anesthesia and deviated septum would have been handled for free, simutaneously.

Before this could unfold, however, a deus ex nursina arrived to announce that it was time for my procedure. Voice of Society Man went blissfully to sleep minutes later.

Keep in mind, I wept for days after that attack, forcing myself to read the thousands of obituaries published in the Times in the months that followed. But by 2003, I'd purged myself of that sorrow as much as I could, and I don't need to see September 11 become further grist for souvenir salesmen, tourists, slimy politicians, and worst of all, the pseudo-newscasters of network television. After a while, grief has to become just a personal affair, and I think that five years was enough.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Scourge of the Earth: Litter Bugs

When I was a child, I was indoctrinated into the cult of Litter Bug Loathers. Some kids learn about the perfection of football or the imperfection of their religion, but my parents found professional sports boring and mildly contemptible, and their views on religion were roughly the same. Littering, on the other hand, drew their full wrath. And now it draws the wrath of Voice of Society Man.

Normally when I see someone litter, VoS Man has to suppress the urge to shout at them or get violent. Instead, he hands them the paper they've tossed aside and says, "Excuse me, you dropped this." Fellow VoS-Men, a word of advice: The move must be performed exactly as mentioned. Simply telling people that they've dropped something does not work, as they tend to ignore you or worse. You must get in their face, disrupting their normal pattern of behavior. Remember, this is about re-educating the public at large.

When handed her own litter, a Bug tends to behave in a predictable fashion. The phases are similar to the stages mourning:

1) Denial. "That's not my paper." I point out that the she is holding a venti chocolate frappuccino, exactly as specified on the receipt that she dropped.
2) Anger: "What's it to you?" or "I didn't drop that on purpose, y' know." VoS Man merely stares, awaiting the next Stage:
3) Bargaining: "It must have slipped from my purse when I was putting away my wallet." VoS Man carefully raises the right eyebrow. Too low and the move goes unnoticed by the Bug; to high, and the move appears scornful. Just right, and the Bug is able to progress to the next Stages.
4) Depression: "Just think of the mess I've made of this beautiful city of ours. I'm a terrible person. My parents were too lax. Thank god I have a good therapist." This Stage usually happens internally, but the look on the Bug's face says it all.
5) Acceptance: "I'll never litter again. Who needs the tsuris?" Again, this is usually part of the internal monologue, but it's an important step in the process.

Of course, if a Bug drops something that Voice of Society Man doesn't care to pick up, it's a different story. In this case, he must rely on his powers of prestidigitation. If you ever see someone walking down Central Park Avenue with a "Litter Bug" sign taped the back of his jacket, you will know that VoS Man is nearby.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Do Oo Wike Baby Talk?

Scene: Local playground, lovely weather. Children playing in the sandbox.
Players: Several children, some parents, a grandmother, and Voice of Society Man, disguised as me

Grandmother (voice an octave higher than usual): Charlotte want snacky? Snacky? Juice juice?
Charlotte stares up blankly.
Voice of Society Man (to Grandmother): Engwish first wanguage?
Grandmother stares up blankly.
Voice of Society Man: You want Charlotte grow up speak nice nice? You under impression children not process language unless speak to them like Tarzan?

Really, folks. The literature's been available for years, decades maybe. Children learn grammar and vocabulary despite your attempts to speak to them like an idiot. Plus it drives me crazy, and I'm not the only one -- just the one who's not afraid to speak up about it.

Sowwy for intwuding on your day. Cawwy on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bless Me Father for I Have Sneezed

The only thing that ranks with (or rankles as much as) mindless compliments mindless blessing.

Let's say I have to sneeze suddenly on the bus. I try to keep it quiet so as not to disturb everyone. Invariably, however, someone will bless me for my sneeze. Now I'm expected to acknowledge their kindness (What a good Samaritan!) by saying Thanks. It's a whole chain of meaningless and unintended pseudo-niceness all because I couldn't hold back some mucus.

Sneezing is a great way to get something tricky out of your nose. If you want to pass off a lot of germs at one time, sneezing is for you. It's even great as a way of getting the attention of someone all the way across the other side of a crowded courtroom. Yell during a trial and you're liable to be in contempt of court, but sneeze at 100 decibels and the judge will probably ignore it even while the bailiff hands you a tissue. Yet we persist with our archaic "Bless you"s even tho we all know that there is nothing sacred or healthy about sneezing.

Farting, on the other hand, is a great way to make yourself feel better without causing harm to those in the vicinity (vicinity being loosely defined as 'within smelt-it/dealt-it range'). But do people ever say "Bless you" after a fart? Hardly! Freewheeling sneezers are practically canonized, while innocent farters are relegated to the back of the bus.

Let's begin a trend: The next time someone let's loose with a stinker, just smile as you wave your hand and say, "Well, better out than in!"

You go first.

Thank You for Existing; Well Done!

If there is one thing I can't stand, it's a kneejerk compliment.

I play Scrabble in clubs and in tournaments, but I can rarely get a fix these days because I don't live in a particularly Scrabble-mad area. Just 80 miles south lies Manhattan, home to over a dozen of America's best players. In this necka, on the other hand, I'd be lucky to find that many people who know that QI and ZA are now acceptable words (life force and pizza, which, considering that there are a dozen pizzerias in town, are apparently the same thing).

Online, however, there is a whole nother world of Scrabble. At the International Scrabble Community, or ISC, you can find a game any hour of the day, ranging in length from 4 minutes per person to the regulation 25-minute games that would put me in a virtual coma. I always go for quick games (as evidenced by my 10,000+ games in the past three years). But no matter the speed, I'm assured of one thing: brainless compliments.

At the top level of the game, players tend to average about 375 points per game (or over 30 points per turn), and 'bingos' (using all 7 of your letters at once) are fairly common, occuring about 3 times per game over all. But nowadays, there are study tools available that can make average players seem good and good players seem great. It's no longer special when someone puts down a word like ANESTRI because everyone else at this level knows how common those letters are even if they don't know what the hell they are spelling (periods of sexual inactivity, in this case). Nevertheless, people at ISC have gotten into the annoying habit of typing 'wd' or 'vn' after every bingo. This has got to stop. And Voice of Society Man is there.

It's not just that the little abbreviations are distracting. Worse by far is the fact that most people only acknowledge 'nice play's when I've bingoed. Hey, it's not like I didn't notice that I'd used all of my letters. If you're going to give me a vapid compliment, why not "Great shoes" or "ur special"?

In a game this evening, I played TOADIES (an extremely common word which happens to be the anagram of IODATES) and got the obligatory 'vn.' Two turns later, I scored 40 points for the less common VENTAIL thru the E and the I that were already on the board. This type of play is extremely rare, but sure enough, my opponent was silent in her abbreviated compliments.

Voice of Society Man had to say something, and fast (it was a speed game):

VoS Man: TOADIES = 'vn' but no compliment for VENTAIL?
Opponent: Sorry. I usu only comp the bingos.
VoS Man: TOADIES = common, whereas VENTAIL was an unusual play thru 2 unconnected letters for a solid score
Opponent: Wow u type fast
VoS Man: It's from correcting the misperceptions of so many people who r so quick to compliment the average but seem blind to any great play that isn't a bingo
Opponent: ur right.

On the face of it, this sounds like a victory, but I know it's short-lived. I had played this opponent many times before this summer, and for awhile she'd avoided the mindless compliments, but tonight I could see that Voice of Society Man hadn't changed her ways. What's a superhero 2 do?

Monday, September 3, 2007

I-ronic or Mo-ronic

Voice of Society Man is often forced to become Voice of Dictionary Man. The English language isn't some precious gift of the gods, but it's still nice to be able to communicate effectively.

When I was a youth, my father inculcated in me the value of speaking with correct grammar and precise vocabulary. He was forever bothered when 'hopefully' was used to mean 'I hope' ("Hopefully I'll see you later") or when people used 'unique' for 'unusual' ("That is the most unique dress I have ever seen"). Later we softened our shared stance, but there are some attacks on the English language that compel me to summon my alter ego. Perhaps the most annoying triumvirate are the words that have to do with unexpected results.

Alanis Morrisset wrote a song that beautifully illustrates the modern inability to differentiate irony from its relatives. Her catchy tune, "Ironic," succeeded in irony only because it had almost nothing to do with it.

Here is a handy referrence for the triumvirate words that have to do with unexpected results:

* Coincidental: X and Y happen independently tho they seem somewhat related
* Ironic: X happens because of attempts to avoid X
* Moronic: X happens because Y is an idiot

Morrisset's song consists of haiku-like images and some brief scenes.

"An old man turned ninety-eight / He won the lottery and died the next day"

Well, that's interesting, but the geezer was 98. Perhaps his ticker couldn't put up with the excitement of winning. It's a bit ironic, but the lines would have succeeded more had the winner been 38. The remainder of the song is even less in touch with irony.

"It's a black fly in your Chardonnay" -- That's just gross.

"It's a death row pardon two minutes too late / And isn't it ironic... don't you think" -- Nope. That's tragic, but not really ironic. Either the exonerating evidence came to light too late or the governor is a moron. Why doesn't he have the warden's cell phone number in his speed dial?

"It's like rain on your wedding day" That's just bad luck. It's not like the bride and groom inadvertently caused the precipitation.

Sports announcers are among the worst offenders when it comes to 'irony.' When Roger Clemens strikes out someone who went to the same college he attended 25 years earlier, that's just a coincidence. Clemens didn't strike out 4,000 batters over his career based on their college choice.

Of course, I'm not in the inner circle of sports announcers or pop songstresses, so I can't correct them. The best I can do as VoS Man is to annoy those around me by yelling corrections at the TV. But when I hear (or overhear) friends, family members, or strangers misusing 'irony,' then VoS Man must speak up.

Grandpa at the seder: "And then, when the Jews had made it to the other side, the waters of the Red Sea closed again, swallowing up the Egyptian soldiers who were chasing them. This was a bit of biblical irony."
Voice of Society Mensch: "Actually, that's a bit of angry and vengeful god. The irony is the Israel hasn't produced a track or swimming star ever since."

Hopefully I won't lose too many friends this way.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Waiting for You to Do the Math

Let's say I'm standing behind you at Zabar's and that I have, say, a pack of Cafe Noir cookies available at no other store in the tri-state area. Further, let's say that you have twelve bulky items and that you plan to pay with a credit card. Should you let me jump ahead of you? It's not a question of 'should.' You must.

Do the math. If each item takes 10 seconds to scan and pack up and your credit card takes an additional minute, then the transaction has made both of wait 3 minutes before I've even scanned my biscuits. My transaction will take all of 15 seconds, but the combined waiting of the two of us is 6 minutes 15 seconds (3:00 + 3:15).

But what if you let me go ahead of you? I hand my cookies to the salesgirl (there are no salesboys at Zabar's) and skedaddle 15 seconds later, and then three minutes after that, you're done, too. The two transactions have still taken the same amount of time, but our combined wait was just three minutes thirty seconds (0:15 + 3:15). You have saved a fellow American a full three minutes, during which time I plan to do something really creative that can better humanity. You must let me go ahead of you. It is not only in my best interest but in the best interest of our great nation.

I've thought this out carefully. Now step aside.

Friday, August 31, 2007


Scoop is an acronym I came up with during my school-teaching years. It stands for one of the most pernicious types of whiners you'll ever come across. If you see a kid whingeing about not getting the carousel horse she wanted or the exact lollipop she had in mind, there is a good chance you've encountered a scoop: Single Child Of Older Parents.

This category of child is prone to whimpering. It's not her fault. Children need limits, but when people finally marry at 40, they might have great careers, lots of money, and wonderful intentions, but their parenting skills are still no better than those of most 30-year-olds, which isn't saying much. And then things go down from there.

Older parents tend only to have one child. This means that there is no little playmate to rob Sydney of all the attention she grows to expect. Then there is the nanny effect. When older people have that first-and-only child, they're less likely to give up their jobs. Many of them take off a few months and go right back to work, leaving Sydney to be raised primarily by nannies (and day care workers). As a result, the parents have only limited time to spend with Sydney and want to make sure it's all happy, so they release the reins and hope for the best.

I narrowly avoided being a scoop: My mother didn't have me till she was 37 and my father would have content to stop there. I was raised in large part by babysitters and rarely saw my father except late at night and on weekends. Since my nannies didn't always wield the power that a parent might have, I got used to getting my way. I was a bossy 3-year-old -- how many toddlers get asked not to come back to their preschool? This changed somewhat when my brother was born, but altho I was no longer officially a scoop, I still behaved like one from time to time until I corrected myself somewhere around my 12th birthday.

Like firemen who have experienced nasty flames or policemen who have been in a shootout, I still have some war stories and a few scars from my scoop days. I use them to inform my parenting now, and they permeate my teaching style.

And they have had one other positive effect: They contributed to the creation of Voice of Society Man.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bumper Sticker Philosophizers

Sometimes Voice of Society Man has to be the voice of Democracy, too. Let's take a look at those ubiquitous message-ribbons on the rear-ends of cars. Specifically, let's take a look at "Support Our Troops." It's not that I'm against the troops -- I'm not. I'm against the word "support."

Bill Gates and I are hoping that someone finds a cure for cancer, but he gives millions to universities, hospitals, and scientists, while I don't give those researchers penny one. On the other hand, Mr Gates has not contributed anything to the Unicycle Society of America, but I helped run their annual raffle and even donated some tee-shirts. I'm sure that Mr Gates isn't against unicyclists, but of the two of us, I'm the one who supports unicycling, while he's the one who supports cancer research.

Support also has to do with endorsement. I didn't help to fund Mike Bloomberg's mayoral campaign, and I didn't even go door-to-door canvasing for votes. But I was hoping he'd win, so in that loose sense, I could say that I supported Bloomberg in his run for mayor. More correctly, I would say that I was (and am) 'for' or 'in favor of' Bloomberg.

As to our men and women in Iraq, I admit that I haven't sent them any funds other than what the government has taken out of my meager taxes. I am against the war and have been from the start; I certainly don't think that American soldiers should be there. Therefore, I'm not 'in favor of' soldiers being in Iraq. Since I don't fund the war and don't endorse the war or our presence there, how could I possibly say that I 'support' the troups?

When I talk to someone with one of those yellow ribbons on the back of his car, I like to ask what 'support' means. I also like to remind the car owner that one of the pillars our country was the belief in free speech. Democracy doesn't doesn't have to do with blithely pasting a sticker on the back of a car -- that's what our govenment wants people to confuse for 'patriotism.' But that's not patriotism, because patriotism means supporting what our country was meant to be. True patriotism, unlike religion, does not involve blind faith.

Here is the bumper sticker that Voice of Society Man would like to see:

"I support your right not to support our troops." Now that would be democracy speaking from the back of a car.

Mass Transit Sneezers

There are some people who absolutely defy education. Still, you rarely know ahead of time who they are. In the Colonial days, first-time thieves were branded with a T and those found guilty of manslaughter got an M -- it certainly made it easier to keep yourself away from the wrong sorts of folks. If you ever see someone with an S on his forehead, you've probably come across a mass transit sneezer. Steer clear and carry some Purell.

Some sneezers catch themselves after realizing what they've done. They look around surreptitiously to check whether they've been caught in the act. At this point, I usually smile and give a head wave. They'll make an attempt to wipe off the pole or hand-hold with a sleeve or napkin. On rare occasions, they'll skip town before the posse arrives, hopping off the bus before incurring more wrath. These are probably the same people who publicly talk on their cell phones without actually having another person on the line.

Other sneezers are unaware of their transgression. They will sneeze into their palms and then grab the pole with their now-snotty hands, oblivious to advances in germ theory of the past 150 years. It is these people who need a talking-to, and it is here that Voice of Society Man feels the need to step in.

VoS Man: Are you aware that you just sneezed into the hand that's now holding that bar?
Sneezer: What?
VoS Man: Have you heard of germs?
Sneezer: Are you talking to me?
VoS Man: Don't play dumb. One in six legally documented Americans is without health care and you act like you don't know why.
Sneezer: Why are you giving me such a hard time? I only sneezed. I notice you didn't say "God bless you."
VoS Man: Do you know what they do to mass transit sneezers in Singapore?

It is at this point that Voice of Society Man himself must sometimes make a hasty exit from mass transit, but at least his Point has been gotten Across. That sneezer will think again before taking liberties with our country's fragile medical system.

Conditioning Parents

Sometimes children, even those in their 40s and 50s, need help with manners in movies or behavior in Bloomie's. And then there are occasions when the parents themselves need help. Here are a few sentences you can utter confidently to offending parents. You will have the full backing of Voice of Society Man.

1. "Sometimes the word no means I love you."
This particular tool is rather blunt and can be used both to disarm the lax parent and to confer a deeper message about the need to set limits for children. It's often the first statement that engages the parent's attention before a more specific message can be delivered. Another version of this statement is: "Discipline doesn't mean you don't love your child." On rare occasions, a more forceful weapon must be employed: "Just because Charlotte is the child you dreamed about having for 43 years but never thought you'd have after finding yourself 40 and single, doesn't mean she'll break if you tell her that she can't keep kicking the back of my seat."

2. "Whining is not appropriate in a child of her age."
This is another opening foray that may be used in a variety of sitautions such as candy stores, amusement parks, and dentist offices. Again, there are stronger versions of this tool: "The famous psychologist BF Skinner showed that intermittent reinforcement of behavior, positive or negative, brought about an increase in that behavior. Your kid won't quit his whining till you quit giving in to it."

3. "That child is too big for a stroller."
This tool is particularly effective in delivering its payload. In just a few words, it addresses obesity, the need for proper exercise, and parent laziness. A variant: "Is that a stroller or a luggage cart with a kid on it?"

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Paternal Leanings

Like all good parents, Voice of Society Man must occasionally look after those who need his help when their parents are not around. One young man at the fire academy in upstate NY brought out the softer side of my alter ego.

I recently completed a grueling course called Fire Fighter 1, consisting of about 120 hours of training and classes crammed into just over 10 days. Most of the 35 other students were considerably younger than me; in fact, several were still under voting age, and a good number could not legally purchase a drink. I have three children and years of teaching experience under my belt, so in some ways it was natural that I would take on a paternal role with them.

As we prepared to enter our first 'live fire,' I overheard an EMT announce the blood pressure of a young cadet; it was 148-over-110. I'm not much of a medical man, but I knew that this was terribly high. The cadet had the build of a mailbox mated with a sumo wrestler. I sensed that Voice of Soviety Man was nearby.

At lunch the next day, I approached Little Sumo and said that I'd noticed his high blood pressure. We chatted amiably about his health, and I suggested that he perhaps forgo the 240 calories (220 derived from fat) of the ranch dressing packet on his tray. He was reluctant to try a lemon-juice substitute. Suddenly Voice of Society Man spoke up: "OK, maybe you can use just half the packet." Little Sumo agreed. I noticed that during the last two days of our course, Little Sumo only took one dessert and minimized his use of dressings.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Movie Theater Manners

Some people just don't get the message. They take 'sh' as a suggestion rather than an order. They act like their continuing chatter is only annoying until I get used to it, like a fart on a lengthy elevator ride. Coincidentally, when it comes to loud whispering in a theater, it's old farts who are the worst offenders.

Shortly after we moved to New Paltz, I sensed that Voice of Society Man might be able, at long last, to hang up his cape. People in the country are far more thoughtful to each other. Proof: When we lived in The City, I honked in anger almost daily. In the year since we moved here, my car horn has been put on the endangered species list.

It's not only that people are generally more considerate in this necka. There is also a different set of expectations. I know that if I'm cut off while driving, it's more likely driver inexperience than driver aggressiveness. But even more importantly is our shared realization that the person you might want to give the finger to on Monday could be sitting beside you at a PTA meeting on Tuesday. You keep your finger on the steering wheel: That might be the motto of small-town life.

Poughkeepsie is another matter. Like Kingston and Newburgh, it's an actual 'city.' Anonymity rules the day. It was in a movie theater in Po'town that Voice of Society Man made his first Ulster County appearance.

The wife and I had hired a babysitter in order to go on our first date since moving from Brooklyn. We chose a fun movie, drove a half-hour to the theater, milled about the mall for another 30 minutes, and finally headed to the show. Our anticipation was high, but our mood shifted another 30 minutes later when Mrs Fogey asked Mr Fogey to explain something she'd misunderstood.

Public schools devote 15 seconds each morning to a robotic chanting of the Pledge of Allegiance. This time could be far better spent on vocal training. Most kids seem to know how to speak really loudly, so I'd spend those precious seconds on whispering. We could even combine the two: Children could say the Pledge sotto voce each day. It would make the recitation even eerier than it already is.

The Fogeys behind us made no attempt to whisper, and their son and his wife apparently had given up trying to educate them about their woeful behavior. I figured I'd give them the benefit of the doubt, too; maybe this would be a one-time offense. Minutes later, however, she struck again. This time she had to share her guess as to who had committed the film's murder. I shushed. She continued. I turned my head and re-shushed her, loudly. This time I shushed in anger. Her husband wagged a finger at me in a teasing manner and shushed me back. He had Gone Too Far. Voice of Society Man had to act or else there would have been an off-screen murder as well.

Standing up in order to block their view, VoS Man spoke calmly: "We have three children. We haven't been out on a date in over a year. We've paid for this movie, just like you, and we are also paying nearly $50 for a babysitter. On top of that, someone in my immediate family might be dying. Now please shut up so we can enjoy the movie." Facing Mr Fogey, I continued: "And put away that finger; you don't know where it's been." Voice of Society Man is nothing if not dramatic. And don't forget honest: Everyone in my family is dying at some point; it's part of the contract we all sign when we're born. As for the finger comment: It's always best to throw your victim off the scent with a confusing statement or question.

Happily these words were enough to shut up the Fogeys; even their son and his wife sat mutely agape. We enjoyed the remainder of the movie. Voice of Society Man has not reappeared in Ulster County since that day.

Parking, Part Two: Car-Sitters

Thoughtless Parkers threaten to disrupt the parking of an entire block, resulting in the loss of a parking space. Car-Sitters, on the other hand, merely frustrate the person who is waiting for them to get out of a space that they no longer need. On the face of it, Car-Sitters should be placed higher in Dante's levels of hell because they only annoy one person (or family) at a time, but Voice of Society Man has noticed, over the years, that these people are harder to reform. They are truly the scourge of parking.

Mere mortals, especially of the City Mouse variety, tend to get so caught up in their own little world that they don't consider their effect on others. Here is a typical interaction after I have pulled alongside a car with someone in the driver's seat:

I knock on driver's side window and make the universal rolling-down-window sign. Car-Sitter obliges.

Me: Hi. Are you getting out soon?
Car-Sitter: Yeah. I'm just waiting for my extremely fit wife to hop out of that gym. She'll be here in less than 20 minutes.
VoS Man, taking over for Me: Could you possibly pull out and double park so that I can take your spot?
Car-Sitter: But she'll be here soon.

There is no logic that can pierce the mind of a Car-Sitter. I have never succeeded in convincing someone that he could improve the world by having only one person wait rather than two. Car-Sitters are only two steps above Cat-Stranglers.

There is, thankfully, a way to deal with a Car-Sitter, and I recently employed it outside my in-laws' apartment building. In this case, there was a dark blue sedan waiting outside the luxury building across the street that is inhabited solely by the sorts of people who call for a taxi twenty minutes before they plan to get into it, just to make sure that they won't be late for the plane that takes them on their next business trip.

I spotted the driver and told my wife that, hurrah, our long search for a spot had been rewarded with a space just across the street from our destination; what luck! But lo, I noticed that this was a car-service taxi, and these drivers are the most obstinate car-sitters of them all. They are only one step above Cat-Stranglers.

This dialog ensued:

Me: Hi. Are you leaving soon?
Car-Sitter: I'm just waiting for someone. Should be no more than ten minutes.
VoS Man: Uh, could you possibly double park so that I could have the spot?
Car-Sitter: No, he might have a lot of luggage.

Well, that sounded a bit reasonable, but then I remembered the law: Taxis are not allowed to take parking spaces. Once again, Voice of Society Man's acute sense of all things legal would win the day. But no, this Car-Sitter was obstinate, even for a taxi driver. His response to my information was to roll up his window. I had to act fast. I moved my car up so that he could not leave his spot and then informed the Car-Sitter, thru his closed window, that I would be popping over to the nearby Starbucks. I mentioned that I wouldn't be more than ten minutes and asked if he needed anything. The driver cried that he wouldn't be able to get out; I reiterated that I'd be less than ten minutes.

At this point, the taximan's fare appeared from his doorman building with the gym on the second floor. His many bags of luggage consisted of one small carry-on. Real men don't check luggage. Voice of Society Man quickly informed him about the pressing need for Starbucks and how his driver had not relinquished a space, causing disharmony in the universe. Naturally, the passenger was infuriated (not with his driver, however), and in truth, VoS Man had no right to keep him from his plane when the fault lay with his driver. So I tactfully explained that I would forestall my latte in exchange for an apology from the taximan. When this didn't come, I headed back up the block, but the loud protestations of the passenger brought me back. He apologized for the driver, and that was good enough for me. Voice of Society Man had dealt with a powerful foe and had triumphed, in a manner of speaking. That driver will think twice before taking a space outside my in-law's place.

Thoughtless Parker

One of the greatest nemeses of Voice of Society Man is the Thoughtless Parker.

Thoughtless Parker takes many forms, both male and female, but the license plate will usually read "New Jersey" or "Connecticutt." That's because, for the most part, City dwellers know how to park and also respect how hard it is to find a space; they're thrilled if the space they're trying to squeeze into is 8 inches longer than their car. Out-of-towners are more accustomed to awarding themselves at least 4 feet of extra room.

I was passing by as a man parked his car on 84th St. and Columbus Avenue several years ago. The space he was parking in had obviously just been relinquished by someone driving a Sherman Tank, and his Escort had almost enough room to park there and then do a full somersault. Nonetheless, Thoughtless Parker placed his car in the exact middle of the spot. This not only deprived some other poor soul of a space but also threatened to wreak havoc with an entire block of parked cars. What, I thought, if the person behind him pulled out later and then someone else parked in the middle of the ensuing space? Thoughtless Parker could throw that block out of whack even after he'd headed back to his chlorine-scented home. Voice of Society Man had to do something.

I approached the car gingerly and decided to employ Tact. This would be, after all, the first time that Thoughtless Parker had ever been forced to think about his actions, and that can be a scary time. Sarcasm was not yet called for. Knocking on the driver's side, I made the universal sign for "Please lower your window," a sign, my father has pointed out, that makes no sense in this day when people no longer have to roll down the glass. As soon as the window was down, I asked Thoughtless if he could move the car up a foot or two so that another car could fit in. He replied, "Sure. Are you waiting for a spot?" When I explained that I was merely trying to save a space for some future car, he nodded reflectively, biting one side of his lower lip, and gave it a thought. Even had our interaction ended there, VoS Man's mission would have been accomplished. In this instance, however, my piercing and irrefutable logic had gotten thru, and the man actually turned his car back on and moved a few feet forward. It was a great victory for Voice of Society Man, and one that I have treasured ever since.

Incidentally, the VoS badge for dealing with Thoughtless Parkers looks like the back half of one car and the front of another, with about 4 space in between. It may be puchased in the shop.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Voice of Society Man, Down Under

In 1989, there were three sightings of Voice of Society Man in Australia, and two involved cigarets.

I happened to be studying in Oz for the year, having followed a girlfriend there. She was doing a stint of Junior Year Abroad, and I was, too, except that I'd already graduated. Because I was ostensibly a student, I was allowed to work up to twenty hours a week. I would hie to the Student Union each week in search of the oddest jobs possible; no matter how little you're being paid, weird work is worth more than normal work because it has re-tell value. In the short time I was in Oz, I worked as a waiter, a busboy, and a housepainter, but all of those jobs paled in comparison to my 3 weekends demonstrating Barbie accessories in K-Marts thruout Sydney.

My training consisted of arriving 15 minutes early in order to learn how to crank the Barbie Knit Magic machine in order to produce perfect pink socks. I was given a badge and a selection of Barbie items and sent on my way. On my first day, I smelled cigaret smoke and followed the source. A very large Ozzie wearing overalls and boots was smoking in the aisle next to mine. I approached him, emboldened somewhat by my official badge, and the following dialog ensued:

Me: "Excuse me. There's no smoking in the store. Could you please put out your cigaret?"
Overalls: "What are you going to do about it?"
Me: "Nothing. Just wanted to let you know about the rule."

Voice of Society Man doesn't always meet his goals, but he does try to educate the public.

We took a long train ride from Perth to Sydney. The journey takes three days as the train travels on clackety wooden tracks thruout remote parts of the desolate countryside. On our first night, a drunken man of about 70 entered the car and began making unwanted conversation with various passengers. I asked him to put out his cigaret, and he got angry with me. He flicked his cigaret at me, and it bounced off my chest. I decided to get the conductor, but Boozy was blocking my path. He lunged at me and started hitting me. He had a pretty good punch, but before I could even consider hitting back, the others on the train went into action and held him down, and a minute later the conductor arrived and led him away. The train made an unscheduled stop a short while later, and the old man was taken into police custody there. I'm not sure how long he spent in jail, but I do know that he was in that small town for at least a week: that's how long it was until the next train.

I worked 13 weekends at a Greek restaurant owned by a woman named Voula. I didn't have much to do with her, but she seemed friendly and fair. Waiters in Oz don't get tips, so the salary has to make up for this. Voula explained that I'd get $50AU a night, which seemed fair at the time. One day I came across an article that mentioned how weekend waiters were paid time-and-a-half after midnight on Friday and double-time on Sundays. I looked over my work schedule and discovered that I was owed $650, which was more than enough to pay for a two-week trip I made to Indonesia. Voula tried to pay me off with $50. Thanks to the Australian version of the Better Business Bureau, I collected the full amount. I sent Voula a postcard from Bali to thank her for the deferred payment. Then I made sure to tell the rest of the people at the restaurant about how they'd been underpaid for a long time. Some of them were owed thousands of dollars.

I'd be happy if Voice of Society Man could always bat 2-for-3.

Introducing... Voice of Society Man

I have never admitted this to anyone but my wife, my children, and some of my closest friends, but it's time I went public with it: I have an alter ego. His name is Voice of Society Man. This alter ego can't fly or stop speeding bullets, but he does have the ability to butt into other people's business in a single bound. Voice of Society Man is everyone's nagging grandmother, pesky uncle, and nosy neighbor who is always right. People say that it takes a village to raise a child, but people no longer live near their relatives and that 'village' has nearly disappeared. Voice of Society Man is a traveling village.

Superman originated on Krypton, sent to Earth before the fiery explosion of his home planet. Voice of Society Man's origins are murkier and not as exciting. He was born in a K-Mart in Australia in 1989 (see my next post) but lay dormant for several years until resurfacing during a crowded subway ride in Manhattan when I got tired of staring at the inseams of young men whose testicles apparently needed their own seat. His first words were "Excuse me" as he indicated one of the spots beside the young man. This clever ploy worked, and soon I had a seat next to a dude who had to squeeze his entire crotch into only two seats. It was a small victory, but it propelled me to bolder moves. I realized that simply by speaking up where no one else dared, I could perhaps effect a small change in my surroundings. Voice of Society Man was born.

In truth, VoS Man has to do more than ask for a seat or be the first to clap after the lousy piano playing of a cousin. He has to speak up for what is right (or at least against what is wrong). In fact, his main goal is to Teach Someone a Lesson so that the offender won't repeat the offense. But my alter ego's actions require powers beyond speech. Let's say that someone is smoking in a playground. VoS Man must first use his keen sense of smell to detect the offending smoke. Next, he has to be aware of local laws; if unsure, he will consult the sign at the entrance to the playground. Finally, VoS Man has to be aware of potential disasters that could arise from informing members of the general public of their shortcomings, so in the case of the playground smoker, he uses his keen sense of tact to deftly announce the regulations regarding smoking in playgrounds.

When confronting members of the public, there are two approaches that Voice of Society Man can use:

VoS Man can use disarming tactics, such as saying, "It's so annoying that Big Brother has made all these rules about smoking, isn't it? Gosh, it must be hard knowing where you can smoke. Anyhoo, my children all have lung cancer, so could you, um, kindly put out that cigaret after taking one more puff for good luck? Thank you so much for your sacrifice."

When VoS Man senses a need for sarcasm, he first disarms his foe with a confusing opening statement: "Ya know, when I first joined the Scouts, my Scoutmaster told me that I'd have to stop farting in other people's faces. I bet it's like that with smoking. But every once in awhile I slip up. I won't mind if you smoke if you'll let me fart in your face."

It is perhaps clear that Voice of Society Man must also rely from time to time on one other skill: his highly developed sense of running away fast

Without further ado, I present

The Numerous and Varied Adventures of....

Voice of Society Man!

About Me

My pesky alter ego who will set you right if you break one of the unwritten rules of getting along