Saturday, January 31, 2009

Confession of an American Heretic

The young man was clean, well-groomed and polite.

“Going to watch the game Sunday?”

“Isn’t everybody?” I replied glibly without a split-second’s hesitation. I don’t know why. I’ve never done anything like that before. I know from more than fifty years of living that lies corrode one’s soul. Besides, when you lie about sports or politics you inevitably get caught in your own web.

“Who’s going to win?” he smiled.

“Steelers,” I assured him. Where was this coming from? What malignant spirit had taken possession of me? Why was I fibbing about something of absolutely no consequence? And yet, I wasn’t finished.

“Is it going to be blowout?” the young man pressed while guiding the courtesy shuttle toward my home, which suddenly seemed a continent away. We couldn’t get there soon enough to shut me up.

“I don’t know,” I said with wrinkled brow, the very picture of a man examining his superior expertise, “I don’t think so but Pittsburgh’s defense is just too good for the Cardinals.”

Ten minutes earlier I had no idea who was playing in the Superbowl tomorrow. When I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Toyota dealer’s service department I’ll read anything I can find. Ten minutes earlier it happened to be the sports page, which I never read anywhere else.

And now I was lying to a clean young man, well-groomed and polite.

I could brush this off as a victim of cultural insistence. I am an American man. We worship at the alter of the NFL. While I have boldly, even cheerfully admitted to preferring chick flicks to action movies and my inherent ineptitude when the subject turns to Motor Trend magazine this — this is beyond the pale.

I don’t care about football. Not even the Superbowl.

Those were the most painful two sentences I have ever written. The shame is coursing through my stomach. I can’t stop thinking of my father and my sons. They expect more from me. I am grateful my camping buddies aren’t here to witness this. Confession may be good for the soul but it can torture the heart.

I don’t care one whit about football.

Please, let me be alone.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The way we were.

Sometimes I wonder if I have changed much over the past, say, fifty years. Beyond the obvious, I mean. Sure, I’ve learned a lot and had as many personally defining experiences as I’ve had heartbeats. I just wonder if I am essentially the same person I was as a child, a teenager; a 20-30-40 something.

Do we really change over time or do our personalities simply undergo the same sort of superficial aging that our bodies do?

I’m always looking at total strangers and trying to imagine them as children. Transients for example, the people we used to call “bums.” When you see a dirty man in tattered clothing drinking from a paper bag or pushing a shopping cart do you ever wonder what series of misfortunes took him where he seems to be? I say seems to be because none of us can fairly judge the lives of others but still, it seems clear that this downtrodden man is not the current visage of a once happy, fresh-faced child. Surely somebody once loved him. Maybe somebody still does.

What happened?

The other day I was in line at the supermarket and the woman in front of me was taking forever getting through the process. The checker had finished totaling the woman’s modest basket of products but now the customer was digging slowly through the contents of her purse looking for coupons. She found plenty but apparently not the ones she needed. As we all waited patiently the checker sent the bag-boy off to find the manager who then began to search through his office for the correct coupons. Meanwhile, the lady in front of me seemed oblivious to the growing line of increasingly irritated people behind her.

I was fine. I was in no hurry and found it kind of funny. I had a small wager going within myself that once the coupon crisis was solved, then and only then, the woman would begin looking for her checkbook and spend another five minutes writing the check, entering it into her records and deducting it from her balance. She might even pull out a handheld computer.

The oblivious are truly oblivious.

Meanwhile, the man behind me was commenting on the procedure.

“Can we get this thing going?”

“Jesus Christ, is everybody on strike here?”

“What the hell’s taking so long?”

He crabbed a new sentence approximately every thirty seconds. None of us responded but the checker looked at me and slyly rolled her eyes. I smiled. The oblivious woman saw and heard nothing.

At some point in all of this I began to wonder why this man in his sixties or seventies was so grouchy. Sure, he had only two items and had been waiting, as I had, for an inordinately long time to get through the checkout but it was a pleasant day. I couldn’t imagine that he needed to get somewhere with a bag of potatoes within the next five or ten minutes. Probably he was just going home to park himself in front of the TV and crab at his wife while she fixed his dinner.

How’d he get like that? And if I, a perfect stranger, thought he was being an ass what must his own family and friends, assuming he has any, think of him? What lovely part of his happy, gentle nature am I not seeing? Did he even have another side to him?

Not that it’s any of my business, of course. But, keeping my thoughts to myself I worked the process through to a logical conclusion.

What nice things would people find to say about this man at his funeral? They’d probably say things like, “He was strong in his convictions,” and, “He never backed down.”

I could be completely wrong, of course. I may well have just seen an unflattering moment in the life of the most wonderful husband, father and grandfather who ever walked the earth. But it did remind me that the way we treat others has eternal consequences. We make ripples.

I want to be remembered smiling, tolerant, patient, wise and goofy. I should start working on that memory right now.

Oh, and I was right about the checkbook.

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