...a potent blend of Miss Manners and Batman

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