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Posts Tagged ‘Musings’

Superheroes

Is it un-American of me that I have no use for — that I avoid watching — superhero movies?

To me, the concept of having supernatural powers, wearing a natty costume, and fighting for truth and justice or whatever, worked fine for Superman when he surfaced in 1938. But all these decades later, why are we still recycling the same idea, over and over, using different characters and costumes?

Excuse me, but that is the very definition of clichéd. It’s unoriginal, juvenile, and tacky.

Even as a kid, I considered the genre to be silly. As I got older, and more and more cookie-cutter superheroes appeared, it became both embarrassing and annoying.

Oddly enough, I’m a big fan of science fiction. I adore the “what if” factor that sci-fi represents. I have no problem with spaceships, or aliens, or Terminators, or Yoda levitating an X-Wing fighter.

That being so, you’d think I could tolerate the likes of Iron Man and Spiderman and Wonder Woman — and Ant-Man and Hulk and ad infinitum— and cut them some slack. But I just can’t. It’s all so banal.

I realize this puts me in a definite minority. The public loves superhero movies, comics, TV programs, and games. The market for superheroes has been booming for a long time and clearly is a huge money-maker. Were it not, the genre would have been discarded long ago.

One consequence of being an anti-superhero person is that I haven’t seen most of the superhero movies made in the last few decades. Which means I’m not familiar with all the heroes, villains, and arch-enemies. I don’t know their backstories or to which superhero “universe” they belong.

Over time, unavoidably, I’ve picked up random bits of information about the various characters through advertising, social media, and elsewhere. But I can’t identify the Marvel superheroes, or differentiate them from the DC Comics types. I don’t know the X-Men from the Fantastic Four.

I know that Iron Man is a rich guy named Tony Stark, and he wears a special suit and flies around. But I have no idea why, or even why he is called Iron Man.

Another example: in Norse mythology, Thor was the god of thunder who resided in Asgard, the equivalent of the ancient Greeks’ Mount Olympus. Thor was bad-tempered, and he carried a magic hammer only he could lift.

As for Thor the superhero, I know he carries a big hammer, and he hangs out with other superheroes for… reasons, but that’s all I know.

One Sunday recently, I noticed that a big-name superhero movie, something made about 10 years ago, was about to begin on TV. I decided I would watch it in the name of fairness. Sort of an experiment.

I don’t remember the title of the movie, but it featured Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and a bunch of others. An Avengers movie, maybe?

Anyway, I watched the entire film (taking advantage of the frightfully long commercial breaks to take out the trash, feed the dog, and so on). The movie was wild and furious — scene after scene of mayhem, destruction, and over-the-top CGI. But I tried to lighten up and give it a chance.

My conclusion: clearly, it had a huge budget to cover the special effects and pay all those big-name actors. But my negative opinion of superhero movies is unchanged; I found the film clichéd, unoriginal, juvenile, and tacky.

Having said that — having declared my scorn for superheroes because the very idea is tiresome and dopey — I now make a small confession.

When Guardians of the Galaxy was released, I heard that it was clever and highly entertaining — much better than most movies of that ilk. Having no idea who the Guardians were or what was going on, I took a chance and went to see it.

I loved it. I loved both Guardians movies. I’m anxious for Vol. 3 to get here.

In my defense, the Guardians are not garden-variety superheroes. All but one are aliens, and they are endowed not so much with superpowers as with special abilities.

That, and the writing and acting were good, and nobody involved took themselves too seriously.

I’m vaguely aware that the Guardians characters originated years ago in a comic book. But other than what I learned about them from the films, that’s all I know.

Or care to know, actually.

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Armchair Psychology

Various observations related to brain function and dysfunction…

Emotional Intelligence

In 1995, author and journalist Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence, an international best-seller that was printed in, like, 40 languages.

The term “emotional intelligence” means learning to understand your own emotions and those of others so you can act effectively and positively. Currently, Goleman works at Rutgers University and specializes in how the concept applies to organizations.

Empathy

In his 1995 book, Goleman said that empathy is not a single trait, but three — namely, cognitive empathy, social empathy, and empathic concern.

Cognitive empathy is understanding someone else’s perspective so you can communicate with the person more constructively.

Social empathy is sensing what the other person feels so you can establish rapport.

Empathic concern is going beyond understanding the other person’s situation and having a genuine desire to help them. Goleman says we do this by tapping into the “ancient mammalian system for parenting.”

Master all three, he says, and you can build healthy relationships, personally and professionally.

Empathy, it’s fair to say, is a complicated and important commodity. Because humans are such social animals, empathy helps the group function cooperatively and peacefully.

Empathy among all parties greases the skids; a deficiency of empathy, on the part of anyone in the group, introduces problems.

An Abnormal Deficiency

Years ago, I concluded that a root cause of the typical behavior of political conservatives — one of the fundamental reasons Republicans think the way they think, behave the way they behave, and are the way they are — is an abnormal deficiency of empathy.

(This deficiency is one of three common characteristics of present-day right-wingers. The others are an affinity for authoritarianism and being a white person.)

Empathy varies with the individual, of course, regardless of politics, but the conservative brain seems to be wired in such a way that it lacks a normal ability to feel a sense of charity, compassion, mercy, or sympathy for others.

This is why Republicans can justify separating children from their parents at the border as a scare tactic. And why they fear, distrust, and often demonize outsiders.

This is why the most evil boogieman they can imagine is socialism. And why they want to reduce the amount of your COVID relief check.

This is why they fall so easily for conspiracy theories. And why they turn so readily to racism and misogyny.

The Fiction Factor

The degree of empathy in you has an alleged connection to reading fiction.

In 2006, a study found that the more authors of fiction you know (which presumes that you read a lot), the higher you score on empathy tests.

One possible explanation is that empathetic people simply read more. But research indicates that the information you absorb from reading fiction acts to strengthen your empathy.

That’s because reading fiction exposes you to lives, thoughts, and motivations outside of your own. Even though it is fictional, the more you read, the more you are exposed to the experiences of others, which improves your ability to empathize.

Read more fiction, become a better person.

The Shopping Cart Theory

The Shopping Cart Theory is the concept that your willingness to return a shopping cart to the corral reveals whether you are the kind of person who will do the right thing without being forced to.

This theory asserts that returning the cart is universally seen as a proper act. You gain nothing by returning it. You return it because it’s the right thing to do, and you’re a nice guy.

If you don’t return the cart, you face no consequences. You are not punished, and very rarely berated, for failing to return a cart. Thus, abandoning the cart instead of returning it to the corral is evidence that you are inclined to do what is right only when it’s convenient or you face negative consequences.

I’ve read that the Shopping Cart Theory is too judgmental, and legitimate reasons may exist for not returning a cart. The weather is bad. You can’t leave children unattended. You have a disability. The corral is too far away. You think a store employee will collect the carts.

I say the theory is a legitimate test of whether or not you’re a jerk.

The Matter of Face Masks

Speaking of a test to identify jerks, the willingness to wear a face mask when and where you should, as medical experts plead with you to do, zooms to the top of the list.

Here we sit, deep into a deadly pandemic. The infection rate in the US is the world’s worst, and under Trump, the governmental response was feeble, scattershot, and ineffective to a criminal degree.

Until recently, the only protections we had were wearing a mask, physical distancing, avoiding crowded places, and washing your hands.

Yet, vast numbers of people refuse to wear a mask, decline to remain six feet apart, and defiantly gather in crowded places. Whether they wash their hands is anyone’s guess.

The fact that mask-wearing became a left vs. right political issue isn’t surprising. Of course conservatives staked out the anti-mask position. Their nature compelled it when they saw that most liberals believe in wearing a mask.

Refusing to wear a mask is foolish and illogical, but they don’t care. Nor do they care, apparently, about the health consequences to themselves and their families. The behavior of these people is stupid, ignorant tribalism.

Why do so many people boldly go maskless in public places, dine shoulder to shoulder in restaurants, attend large gatherings, and pack the bars?

Some, I suppose, think the risks of COVID are non-existent or exaggerated. Others are weary of all the precautions and restrictions after a year of living with the pandemic. In some cases, malice, stupidity, or arrogance explain the behavior.

Beyond those motivations, I couldn’t identify a single valid, sensible reason for so much risky behavior.

It appears that consequences are needed in order to change the behavior of people who risk public health when the posted rules require a face mask.

My suggestion: for the first offense, one night in jail and a fine of $250. The punishment would double for each subsequent offense.

I’ll bet that would flatten the curve.

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When I was a kid, a few people of our acquaintance, maybe old friends of my parents or distant cousins, wrote annual Christmas letters to update us on events of the previous year. Nothing unusual about that. It’s a fairly common practice.

I remember those missives as being rambling, melodramatic, and bristling with exclamation marks! I also recall the greeting “Dear All” being used, so copies could go to both relatives and friends.

To my recollection, we didn’t hear from the letter-writers again until the next Christmas letter. And, in truth, I haven’t read a Christmas letter in years, since no close relatives wrote the things.

The letter-poem below is satirical, but some people think the author tempers his shots with a touch of fondness; he is more gentle than he could have been because, in general, we perceive the senders’ intentions as being innocent and mostly positive. Fair enough.

As for the origin of “The Christmas Letter,” I found no details, but it was published as early as 1977.

As for the author, it may or may not be John Nelson Morris, a professor of English Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, who died in 1997.

Anyway, to all y’all, Merry Christmas !!!!

———

The Christmas Letter

By John N. Morris

Wherever you are when you receive this letter
I write to say we are still ourselves
in the same place
and hope you are the same.

The dead have died as you know
and will never get better,
and the children are boys and girls
of their several ages and names.

So in closing I send you our love
and hope to hear from you soon.
There is never a time
like the present. It lasts forever
wherever you are. As ever I remain.

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Thoughts du Jour

Random observations / recollections / stories…

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Dopey, Sneezy et al

As you may know, the 1937 Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was Hollywood’s first full-length animated film. Based on an 1812 German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the movie was a great success and won awards aplenty.

The movie focused more on the dwarves than did the original story, because Walt Disney wanted to take advantage of their potential for humor and emotional appeal. Although the dwarves in the original story were not individually identified, an obscure Broadway play in 1912 gave them names. Disney ignored that and chose new ones.

The Disney names were Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy, Dopey, and Doc. Except for Doc, their leader, the dwarves were named for a distinguishing characteristic.

The seven names were selected by a process of elimination from a list of about 50 candidates. Among the rejected names: Baldy, Gabby, Sniffy, Lazy, Tubby, Shorty, Wheezy, Burpy, Jaunty, and Awful.

Mr. Disney wisely decided not to name one of the Seven Dwarves Awful.

———

Neighborhood Jerk

Through most of the 1980s, my family lived in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville. Our house was on a cul-de-sac, and our back yard was adjacent to four other back yards. This created a large, pleasant green space behind the houses consisting of lawns, shrubs, and trees.

Another nice touch was that the five back yards were mostly private; no house had a direct view of any other. You saw kids playing and people doing yard work, but no more.

I liked all the neighbors just fine, except for one. He was a jerk. Too many times, we would hear him in his back yard, sometimes drunk, yelling profanities at someone in the household. Most people avoided him, but he made no effort to fit in anyway.

One Saturday afternoon, while peering out our bedroom window, Deanna said, “Would you look at what that fool is doing.”

I looked. It was the jerk in question, in the process of setting fire to a large pile of dry brush in his back yard. To our dismay, the pile of brush was not in the open, but under a canopy of trees. We hurried out onto the back deck in alarm.

The brush caught fire quickly, and almost immediately, the flames climbed into a pine tree. We could hear the sizzling and crackling. Deanna ran to the phone and called the fire department. Mrs. Jerk probably did the same.

Minutes later, the firemen arrived. They waved aside the jerk, who was impotently using a garden hose on the inferno, and put it out.

He lost two pine trees and a small hardwood. His house easily could have gone up.

What a jerk.

The deck from which we watched the conflagration.

———

National Jerk

In 1796, the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart was commissioned by the family of George Washington to create a painting of the former president, who then was 65. The painting turned out to be exceptional, but Stuart’s behavior in the matter revealed a clear lack of character.

Throwing the Washingtons a curveball, Stuart left the painting unfinished, which allowed him to retain legal possession. For years thereafter, he made and sold copies of the painting for $100 a pop.

Still, even unfinished, the painting was widely recognized as a masterpiece and probably Stuart’s best work.

After Stuart died in 1828, the painting was moved to the Boston Athenaeum, a distinguished private library. Today, known as the Athenaeum Portrait, it is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

If the painting seems vaguely familiar, that’s probably because it was the model for Washington’s likeness on the one dollar bill.

Gilbert Stuart, world-class jerk.

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Random observations / recollections / stories…

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Spidy

Banks Crossing is a commercial area that grew up around one of the I-85 exits in the nearby town of Commerce. Walmart and Home Depot are there, as are half the town’s restaurants.

The last time I was there, it was lunch time, and up ahead was a Chick-fil-a. Drive-throughs being especially popular right now, a long double line of cars was queued up. I almost went elsewhere, but a chicken sandwich sounded good, so I got in line.

The wait wasn’t bad. Half a dozen employees were scurrying around outside, taking orders and money. Even the manager was there, directing traffic.

When my turn came, I ordered a chicken sandwich, and the girl asked, “What’s the name for the order?”

Smitty,” I said and proceeded to the window.

Later, I noticed the receipt stapled to the bag.

Spidy

My son Britt says “Spidy” can be my new call sign.

———

Spooked

Before I retired and began a life of comfort and indolence, I worked in the Advertising Department of Lithonia Lighting, a large manufacturer. I was just an ordinary copy chief, trying to get by.

The department consisted of a few admin types, the copywriters, and a stable of graphic designers who reported to the Art Director, Larry Flowers.

One of the designers, Dan Rabun, had the personal quirk of being unusually jumpy. He was easily spooked if someone came up behind him and caught him by surprise. Which happened regularly.

Probably, Dan simply zoned out when he worked and was oblivious to his surroundings. But the designers sat at a drawing board, or in front of computer screen, with their backs toward you. Not a good situation for poor Dan.

The person who spooked Dan most often was his boss Larry. Larry roamed the office constantly, checking on projects, assigning work, telling fart jokes. Regularly, he walked up behind Dan and, without intending to, scared the heck out of him.

Dan wasn’t always caught by surprise, but he jumped in alarm often enough. Cries of AUGGH!” and “AAAHH!!” were common.

Eventually, Larry came up with a solution. It was simple and effective.

When Larry went to see Dan, but before he got too close, he would announce in a calm and measured tone, “Approaching… Approaching…”

Dan

———

Trouble With YCbCr

Late last year, my Blu-ray player began screwing up. At unexpected moments, the screen would go black, and simultaneously, the sound would mute itself. A second later, picture and sound would resume as normal.

It didn’t happen on every disk, but it happened a lot. Losing the picture was annoying enough, but following the dialogue when random words are missing, that can be a challenge.

When the problem first surfaced, I checked all the cables and connections and otherwise tried to noodle out the cause. No luck.

Once, when the issue made watching a movie impossible, I went online and ordered another DVD of the movie. It was fairly old, so I got the replacement disc for just a few bucks. The problem was still there.

So, finally, I coughed up $50 for a new Blu-ray player. And, wonder of wonders, the problem went away.

For a few months.

One recent Saturday evening, I popped a DVD into the player it turned out to be a mediocre gangster movie and the problem was back. At unpredictable intervals, the sound winked out and the screen went black for a second or so. Crap.

I watched the movie for a few more minutes, but finally, I hit the pause button. Fuming with righteous indignation, I went to my computer and typed, “On a Blu-ray disc player, what causes the picture to go black and the sound to stop and then resume?”

According to the Google, that subject is a hot topic online. It’s a common problem and a source of widespread exasperation.

But I found a fix that seemed worth trying:

The issue might be your video output mode. In the bluray player settings, try switching from YCbCr 4.4.4 to YCbCr 4.2.2. That resolved my problem!”

YCbCr, I learned, is the method the player uses to interpret color. Blu-ray works best with YCbCr 4.2.0, but 4.2.2 is acceptable. Blu-ray does not like 4.4.4 and shows its displeasure.

So, I searched around in the settings of the Blu-ray player (settings I didn’t even know were there) and, sure enough, my player was set for 4.4.4. I changed it to 4.2.2.

And that, indeed, solved the problem. The disc played flawlessly, without winking out or muting itself a single time.

I watched the rest of the mediocre gangster movie with peace and contentment in my heart.

YCbCr

 

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Random observations / recollections / stories…

———

Close Inspection

Recently, my son Dustin borrowed my utility trailer to haul some things to the county dump. A few hours later, he returned it to its customary spot outside my garage.

The next morning, when my dog Jake and I got home from our daily walk, Jake got of the car, paused, sniffed the air, made a detour over to the trailer, and began checking it out.

He systematically sniffed the side rails, the tires, and the tongue. I let him take his time. After several minutes of close inspection, he was satisfied and trotted to the back door.

We went inside, Jake got his customary treat, and I texted Dustin to tell him about Jake’s intense interest in the trailer.

It went on an adventure and had a story to tell,” Dustin replied.

Well said.

Jake horizontal

Keeping the Story Alive

In the early 1950s, we Smiths lived in Falls Church, Virginia. One summer, when I was about 10 and my brother Lee was four-ish, our Uncle John from Brooklyn came for a visit.

We were all in the living room chatting, and John asked Lee a question, something innocuous. Lee answered, then laughed heartily and added, “You silly froop!”

Baffled, the rest of the family laughed politely, and the conversation moved on.

Years later, I brought up the incident with Lee and asked him to define froop.

Lee had no recollection of the event. The word froop didn’t ring a bell.

So I asked Mom about it. She remembered the exchange, but had no idea what Lee meant by a froop.

Nowadays, the word froop has several meanings. It can be, for example, a combined form of fruit loop, a froop being, like, an airhead. It’s also a brand of apple-flavored yogurt.

But even if the word dates back to the 1950s, Lee probably was too young to have known the term. Most likely, the word just popped into his head.

Because Lee doesn’t remember the incident, I am the only person on earth who does. This post is my effort to keep the story alive.

P.S. I call Jake a silly froop all the time.

Froop

We Regret the Error

I love this story.

In October 2007, the Los Angeles Times published the obituary of Nolan A. Herndon, 88, a South Carolinian who had been an Army Air Forces navigator during World War II. Herndon participated in the bombing of Japan by “Dolittle’s Raiders” four months after the Pearl Harbor attack.

After the war, Herndon raised cattle and later went into the wholesale grocery business. The lengthy obituary gave details about his war experiences and was mostly accurate.

Mostly.

The day after the obituary was published, this correction appeared in the Times:

The obituary of Nolan A. Herndon in Monday’s California section gave his nickname as “Sue.” In fact, he was known only as Nolan A. Herndon.

In addition, his sons were listed as Nolan A. “Sue” Herndon, Jr. and James M. “Debbie” Herndon. Neither son goes by those nicknames; Sue and Debbie are the names of their wives.

I wonder if a copywriter got fired.

Herndon N

Nolan Herndon, not Sue Herndon.

 

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My dad was a career officer in the Air Force, and from 1957 to 1960, our family lived in Stuttgart, Germany. I attended a high school there for American military dependents.

Because of the place and time, life for us male students at Stuttgart High School was heavily beer-centric — the German beer being, as you might expect, of superb quality.

Further, unlike teens back in the U.S., we had unusual freedom when we ventured off-base. The Germans despised and mostly avoided us, so as long as we were smart and stayed out of trouble, we had easy access to the taverns and the beer.

I have fond memories of those days of my friends, the adventures, the occasional misadventures — but it happened a long time ago, and, sadly, much has faded from my aging brain.

Some things, however, are indelibly etched in my memory banks. I was reminded of that the other day when, alone in my car, I began spontaneously singing the chorus of the Hofbräuhaus Song, which every kid knew back in my high school days.

The Hofbräuhaus Song is a German oom-pah tune that celebrates the famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall in Munich. It was written in 1935 by Wilhelm Gabriel (nicknamed Wiga), a Berliner whose other hits were patriotic marching songs for the Third Reich. Most people prefer to ignore that part.

Specifically, I belted out this refrain from the song:

In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus.
Eins, zwei, g’suffa!
Da läuft so manches Fäßchen aus.
Eins, zwei, g’suffa!

Translation:

In Munich stands the Hofbräuhaus.
One, two, drink up!
There, many kegs are emptied.
One, two, drink up!

I pronounced every word correctly, precisely, and with the appropriate gusto. Wiga Gabriel could not have done better.

Here is the German version of the song.

And here is the English translation:

The Hofbräuhaus Song

There, where the green Isar River flows,
Where you greet people with “Good day,”
Lies my beautiful city of Munich,
The likes of which you have never seen.

Water is cheap, pure, and good,
But it thins the blood.
Far better is some golden wine.
But best of all is this:

In Munich stands the Hofbräuhaus.
One, two, drink up!
There, many kegs are emptied.
One, two, drink up!

There’s always some fellow there
One, two, drink up
Who wants to show how much he can drink.
He starts early in the morning,
And only late in the evening does he come out,
Because it’s so great at the Hofbräuhaus!

You don’t drink out of a glass there.
There’s only the “big beer mug!”
And when the first mug is empty,
The waitress Reserl will bring you more.

Sometimes, his wife at home is worried
Because the man is gone so long.
But the good neighbors,
They know better!

In Munich stands the Hofbräuhaus.
One, two, drink up!
There, many kegs are emptied.
One, two, drink up!

There’s always some fellow there
One, two, drink up
Who wants to show how much he can drink.
He starts early in the morning,
And only late in the evening does he come out,
Because it’s so great at the Hofbräuhaus!

Although many other cities have sights to see,
One thing is nowhere else but here:
Munich beer!
He who wrote this little song
Has for many long nights studied Munich’s beer
And sampled it comprehensively.

In Munich stands the Hofbräuhaus.
One, two, drink up!
Where the kegs are always flowing.
One, two, drink up!

There is always some brave fellow
One, two, drink up
Who wants to show how much he can drink.
He starts early in the morning,
And only late in the evening does he come out,
Because it’s so great at the Hofbräuhaus!

———

For details about the Hofbräuhaus, a truly marvelous institution, here is Rick Steves with an overview.

In summary, I may forget what I had for lunch yesterday, but the main chorus of the Hofbräuhaus Song is still fresh in my mind, 60 years later.

Eins, zwei, g’suffa!

Hofbräuhaus crowd

Many kegs are still being emptied today at the Hofbräuhaus.

 

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Random observations / recollections / stories…

———

Southern Speech

My North Georgia grandfather, Frank Byrd, was a bona fide native who lived in the same small town his entire life. And his speech confirmed it. Frank spoke in the same manner, using the same colloquialisms, as virtually all of his contemporaries.

Some years ago, I wrote a post on this blog entitledTalking Georgian,a subject I find fascinating and entertaining.

I was reminded of Frank and his manner of speech recently by the arrival of spring. Everything is waking up – the bugs, the weeds, the grass, the trees, the pollen – and as I watched my dog Jake trying to catch a carpenter bee, I recalled that, to Frank and his friends, a wasp was a waust.

Waust. Rhymes with lost.

The speech characteristics of my Savannah grandfather, the first Walter Smith, were radically different from Frank’s, but equally interesting. Natives of the Savannah/Charleston area (who call themselves Geechees) speak Geechee,” which borrows words and phrases from African slaves, native tribes, and Europeans.

For one thing, Geechees pronounce the letter “R” only at the beginning of words. (People in the region can form the “R” sound perfectly well, but for some reason, choose not to do it.) Take, for example, this phrase:

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

In Geechee, the phrase would be:

Renduh unto Caesuh the things that aw Caesuh’s, and unto God the things that aw God’s.

Wasp

A waust.

———

The Mortuary Business

In the South, most black people and white people attend separate churches and have separate funeral parlors. The old laws that required the separation are gone, but the systems remain in place.

In white society, morticians (undertakers, funeral directors) often are a source of jokes, owing to the services they provide, their stereotypical demeanor, and the prices they charge. Not so in the black community. Most black funeral directors are highly respected and honored.

Are the two images appropriately earned? Probably.

According to Ebony Magazine, the country had about 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors in the 1950s. Today, the number is down to 1,200, which is sad.

Years ago, my then-wife Deanna went into the florist business, with half interest in a small flower shop in Buford. As with most florists, funeral work was a significant part of the business. They dealt regularly with the local funeral parlors, both black and white.

On weekends and holidays, I usually helped out by making deliveries, so I also got a glimpse of how the mortuary business operated behind the scenes.

By and large, the black funeral director (Buford had only one) behaved like, and was treated like, a clergyman.

His two white counterparts, on the other hand, were ordinary guys who had inherited family businesses. Both behaved in a somber, funereal manner, probably because they felt people expected it of them. Around town, they were neither beloved nor especially respected.

One other interesting fact I learned about the funeral homes in Buford in those days: the black-owned mortuary had no refrigeration capability. None. The white-owned parlors made refrigerated storage available as needed.

I often wondered whether that vital service was provided gratis. Probably not.

Mortuary fridge

A modern nine-cadaver unit.

———

Petty Tyrant

When warm weather arrives, it’s time to take my RV to Mr. Clean Truck Wash in Athens to have the accumulated layers of mildew, pollen, and crud removed. The guys at Mr. Clean will scrub ‘er down and apply a coat of liquid wax for the lowly sum of $30. The workers at Mr. Clean do a thorough job and are a very congenial bunch.

Last year, the boss at Mr. Clean was a stoic black guy who handled the money, but otherwise just sat in a lawn chair and watched.

This year, in addition to the stoic black guy, the management includes a foremen – a plump, gray-haired, middle-aged, scowling white guy who bosses around the young black workers. He is, I regret to say, a jackass and a petty tyrant.

He and one of the crew started by spraying the van within a chemical that loosens dirt. Immediately, the foreman started yelling.

Not straight on, you @#$% moron! Hold the sprayer at an angle!”

The worker’s expression remained blank as he changed the angle of spray. The foreman spat several more curses before he dropped the subject.

Every few minutes, he chewed out one of the workers for a transgression – handing up the wrong brush, leaving a hose underfoot, missing a spot, not controlling the overspray. By the time the job was finished, he had yelled at and cursed out all three workers at least twice each.

Here was a guy, probably battling inner demons, who was taking advantage of his authority, knowing that the workers could do nothing about it. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t.

At one point, one of the young workers came over to the supply bench where I was standing, and I asked, “Is he always like this?” There could be no doubt what I meant.

Oh, yeah. Every day.”

I left $20 in the tip box.

Mr. Clean

 

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Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.

Managing

 

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Sometimes, an improbable thing happens, and you are left flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Such a thing happened to me, very memorably, about 10 years ago.

Back in the 1950s, when my dad was in the Air Force, we lived in Europe for a few years. I attended a high school for U.S. military dependents in Stuttgart, Germany.

Living in a beer-centric country like that, and being a red-blooded teenager, I was an expert on the numerous breweries, biergartens, and gasthauses in the Stuttgart area. I probably knew as much about the local breweries — the products, histories, reputations, and relative merits — as the natives did.

Breweries were, and still are, ubiquitous in Germany. The German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, is home to some 175 breweries. Stuttgart itself has many dozens, the largest and most popular being the Dinkelacker brand. (In German, the word Dinkelacker means wheatfield.)

The improbable part of the story came about one weekend not long before I retired, as I was browsing through a local antique/junk store. On a dusty lower shelf, I discovered three brand-new, unopened 50-packs of bar coasters that advertise — I kid you not — the Dinkelacker brewery of Stuttgart, Germany.

I stared in disbelief at the logo so familiar in my youth. I was stunned, practically a-swoon. The fact that I, Rocky Smith, would find a huge stash of those particular coasters 50 years later on another continent — well, it was highly improbable.

It was absolutely thrilling, as well, and I gleefully purchased the three 50-packs for the princely sum of three dollars.

I’ve been using the coasters freely around the house for the last decade. They hold up really well. Clearly, my remaining stash is a lifetime supply, and then some.

Dinkelacker

At some point, my thoughts about this unlikely occurrence turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, I was reminded of the “Infinite Improbability Drive,” which, according to the book, allows a starship to go anywhere in the universe instantly. A very convenient plot device.

Engaging the Infinite Improbability Drive, you see, suspends “normality” and means that, in theory, anything is possible. As explained here, however, there’s a catch:

But I digress. The discovery, by me, of those bar coasters in that junk store is a hugely unlikely thing.

Even random chance seems… highly improbable.

Normality

 

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