...a potent blend of Miss Manners and Batman

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Mrs Voice of Society Man has had her own secret identity, but for the most part it has been replaced by Mama Bird, who usually comes out only to protect her own chicks.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.

About Me

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