My first job out of college was as a production assistant at Harper & Row Publishers in San Francisco. My boss, Laura, was a petite Italian spark plug from New York. She was widely respected but not as widely liked. I, on the other hand, thought the world of her.
One spring day I sat at my desk outside her office and began to sneeze. I have serious hay fever – not like the many people who claim to suffer from “allergies” because they occasionally have the sniffles. My fits could go on for an eternity. I once counted 53 sneezes in a row.
“Bless you!” she yelled unseen from her office.
I sneezed for the second time.
“Bless you!” she shouted again, this time with perhaps just the tiniest note of impatience.
“Laura, I have to warn you, this is a fruitless exercise because I could go on for a while,” I said in between paroxysms.
“Well, THEN SHUT UP!” she hollered.
I cracked up so hard, I think I stopped sneezing.
I’m going to generalize here, but I love New Yorkers. I think most of them are hilarious.
Some people would have taken offense at my boss’ sense of humor. In fact, one of her colleagues came over to me that day and apologized for her. (This same curmudgeon had also once terrified me by warning me that all of life’s joy gets sucked out of you once you turn 30. I was 23 at the time.) She, among others, thought that Laura was abrasive and demanding.
I didn’t feel that way at all. Laura, to me, was not only riotously funny but also a terrific mentor. I’ll never forget her and her affirmative influence on my life.
(By the way, I just learned that she is extremely active in retirement and has donated more than 600 hours of her time to local nonprofits, including the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula. God bless her.)
For the most part, I’ve learned to love and accept individuals’ idiosyncrasies, especially if their hearts are in the right place. Quirky? So endearing. Imperfect? Only human. Blunt and fussy like Laura? A dash of flavor.
Unfortunately, many disagree with me. The default position now seems to be instant contempt for others. People pick out the tiniest flaws in each other that they can run with.
Disdain makes people feel smug and – for some reason – fills them with endorphins, so it’s become a drug, like heroin.
It’s in our very culture now. We’re hungry for a quarrel.
Not all that long ago, human beings had no time to concern themselves with the perceived shortcomings of their neighbors. People had to work hard all day just to stay alive, for cryin’ out loud, and they needed each other.
But today most of those challenges have disappeared. Loafers now have plenty of time to sit on their couches slaying imaginary dragons, as if life were one giant video game. They’ve been desensitized by the interpersonal distance baked into (the ironically-named) “social” media. Then, as their worldview contracts, so does their ability to understand and embrace the whole of humanity.
These people are unfulfilled and insecure and yet sneeringly convinced of their own superiority. Somehow they’ve managed to conclude that they’re perfect – in the face, by the way, of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
“Decency,” I remember someone saying on The Crown, “is an easy quality to mock.”
Couch critics often pick on those most threatening to them – ironically, those most likely to truly do some good. Rather than get up off their butts and do something, they berate decent and courageous people who are at least trying. They look for ways to rain on others’ parades. It helps justify their own inertia.
As Teddy Roosevelt famously said in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
This tendency, I believe, has also extended to reviewers of the arts. A couple of years ago, Bill Maher remarked that movie critics these days often fault a film not for its artistry, but simply for not being the movie they would have made. Or because the film doesn’t reflect their biases. Not only is that careless and ignoble reasoning but it makes the reviewers feel self-righteous, when the fact of the matter is that they never could have produced a work of similar quality or import themselves.
Isn’t that the whole problem – that so many people have a need to feel self-righteous?
But Monday Morning Rail is going slightly off the rail and heading into a rant.
So let’s instead consider the antidote to all the hypercritical piety going around.
Let’s come back, for a moment, to our everyday interpersonal relationships, and think about the people we hold close.
In the natural world, the instinctive “desire” of an atom is to chemically bond with another atom to form a compound. Because atoms have an incomplete outer shell, they are often unstable by themselves. So they go looking for stability.
Sodium and chloride, for example, combine naturally to form salt, which is a most wonderful thing. In our bodies, salt transmits nerve signals, helps muscles function, carries nutrients, and balances our fluids and blood pressure. Of course, it also makes food taste really good.
I think that, as human beings, we have the same chemical need for stability. In fact, we’re almost involuntarily responsive to certain people.
We’re not all attracted to the same people, thank goodness. That’s what makes the world go ’round.
In my own life, I know that I wobble constantly towards others, trying to find that balance and steadiness.
I look for the heart beating underneath people’s appearance or their behavior. I don’t draw quick conclusions.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m a sweet Pollyanna who loves everyone. First of all, I certainly make judgments about what I consider to be bad behavior. I have my moral absolutes. I will jettison you in an instant if you lie, are rude to a service provider, think that cheating on your taxes is a bragging right, mistreat an animal, or disrespect the elderly. (“Respect,” Dr. Ruth Westheimer once said, “is nondebatable.”)
Sometimes, too, I strongly dislike people whom everybody else seems to moon over. In fact, I find some of my friends’ friends intolerable. But of course that doesn’t mean they’re objectively intolerable. In fact, it’s possible they’re just too much like me. The two of us may be magnetic poles who push back against each other in what science labels “repulsion.”
I also have aversions to certain celebrities for no rational reason. Elizabeth Moss, for example – a terrific actress and seemingly terrific person – absolutely freaks me out. It’s hard for me to watch her onscreen, and I have no idea why. (I have a similar and even stronger distaste for Fred Armisen. Coincidentally, the two of them were once married!)
Generally, though, give me an eccentricity or a quirk, and you’re eligible for my utmost affection. I don’t care that you count your steps, that the volume on the TV has to be set to an even number, that you crack your toes, that you collect banana stickers, or that you laugh inappropriately in elevators.
I admire you for the atoms at your core.
I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with me. I am sure that my inflexibility, neuroticism, moodiness, and tendency to ascribe too much import to the smallest of perceived slights can be turnoffs.
Yet my loved ones persist. And I with them. I so easily and clearly see the good in them, their creativity, the challenges they’ve gracefully conquered, their perspectives on life, their humor that keeps me uplifted when I’m feeling . . . well, stubborn, neurotic, and moody.
(By the way, I think all my friends and family members are good-looking. It’s the subjectivity in me, I guess.)
It’s best that we huddle up with people who listen to us, who’ll pick up the phone if we call, who are happy when we’re happy and sad when we’re sad and aren’t jealous when we succeed. People who won’t disparage us behind our backs. People who will lovingly tell us the truth. People we can trust.
I once read a Chronicle column written by a transplanted New Yorker who found himself brooding and depressed here on the West Coast. His new California pals were concerned, trying to analyze his feelings, suggesting he see a therapist. They drove him bonkers. Finally he called an old New York friend in the middle of the night. She answered.
“I’m depressed,” he told her.
“So what else is new?” she said.
He instantly felt better.
Those are the kinds of friends we want.
Back in the 1980s I once got down to a very skinny 113 pounds when I was despondent over a breakup and had stopped eating. My friend Ellen came to the rescue. “You look like hell,” she said. “Eat a sandwich.”
So I did.
I’m aware that this blog has been a bit haphazard, but that’s because sometimes I don’t quite know how to avoid all of the forces trying to drain the joy out of our lives through endless criticism and condescension. My personal salve is that for the most part I choose to ignore the fangs and claws of society at large and concentrate on the people I love.
I have no room in my life for the perpetually sanctimonious. We shouldn’t see each other as either angels or demons.
No one is perfect or even close to it. We all have our own vagaries, character flaws, and irritating habits.
But we also have traits that are fetching. We can only hope to stumble upon people in our lives who find our flaws acceptable and our quirks delightful. We need to surround ourselves with those who tolerate our imperfections while we in turn tolerate theirs. Who will get in the arena for us. Who’ll help provide us with stability, steadiness, and balance. Who’ll tell us to shut up and eat a sandwich.
We travel through life facing enough headwinds already. We need company.
Human beings may be limited and defective, but we’re in this together.
We’re all bozos on this bus.
Note: “Bozos on this bus” is taken from the Firesign Theater’s 1971 album I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
November 3, 1974 [age 18]:
“I had a day off, for once, and just had to get out. I ended up going to a $1 matinee called Slither that was suspenseful and really good. Then I wandered around downtown in book and record stores but ended up with nothing. I considered old Byrds stuff and This Side of Paradise and Tropic of Capricorn, but my money seems to like my purse better than it likes the open air. Tonight [my brother] Marc and I went out to eat at Roma Pizza, where even though I’ve been sick with the flu for a week I ate a huge meatball sub sandwich and half an extra-large pizza.”
November 4, 1974 [age 18]:
“Whew, I paid off my car loan today! And now that sweet little gray Toyota is mine, all mine! Oh, I’m elated! Now I feel somehow as if there is nothing to stop me, no one who can tell me what to do, ’cause I have a little car with decals and an FM converter and seat belts with shoulder straps!”
November 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“With great anticipation I accompanied Robin and Guy and Glen to the City to see a George Harrison concert at the Cow Palace tonight. But it was a disappointment. I’d spent SO MUCH money: $7.50 on the ticket, $3 on Kentucky Fried Chicken, and $2 on booze. At least the security people, who looked like they were searching everyone, wouldn’t search the girls, so the man just said “Move on, ladies,” and I did so, greatly relieved I got through with a canned daquiri in each coat pocket. But George Harrison was only fair and Ravi Shankar was TOTALLY BORING playing his tinkling sitar music. Billy Preston, though, who opened and played a grand total of three songs, far outdid the others. He was FANTASTIC! Glen and Guy offered me their dope and I refused. I was terribly tempted – 99% of the people there were smoking. I think the only thing that prevented me from smoking was embarrassment – I knew I’d cough and make a big scene and waste good grass.”
November 19, 1974 [age 19]:
“I’m 19. O, the nebulous age, when we all fade into oblivion. I stayed up until midnight because I was loath to see 18 depart.”
November 23, 1974 [age 19]:
“I lost my innocence today. I just wanted to get the whole thing over with, wanted to do it once for the sake of experience and the knowledge that I’d gotten away with something, then not worry about it again until I had to. So I called Robin and told her I’d bring over some records and an electric typewriter and help her with her paper. I must’ve looked like I was going away to camp when I loaded my car up; I was carrying about seven records and my journal and a few other manuscripts for Robin to read and a typewriter and a stack of paper – after I arrived I put on America [the first album by the group America, including the song “A Horse With No Name”] and set up the typewriter to write to Jeanne while Robin finished her paper, and then I looked up from my position on the floor and said, ‘Well, are we going to smoke [a joint] or not?’ I was really nervous at first; on my first hit, all the smoke poured out of my mouth immediately, it burned me so. But then I learned to hold it in my lungs, and we smoked it down to the end. Robin got stoned but nothing really happened to me. I felt a mite looser and time was distorted (one side of the record seemed to go on for hours) and I couldn’t type worth beans, but I didn’t consciously feel high. I’m not sure how I feel about it now. My conscious self doesn’t feel guilty about it; the whole event seems like a dream, and it’s hard for me to grasp the reality that I did it. I still can’t see the wrongness of it, and I want to do it again, with Jeanne, in Mexico.”
December 1, 1974 [age 19]:
“I had about 7 glasses of wine last night, but spaced them apart well so that I was never drunk. Bruce had a huge party at his house; I went just to “drop in” for an hour or so and ended up staying till 3:00 in the morning. I played doubles pingpong with Ted for a while, then went back inside to sit in a corner and watch the pool players. I got terribly depressed – though I told myself to mingle with the strangers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then Ted sat down beside me in the corner and brought me a Coke, and we had the longest nicest talk we’ve ever had. We talked about traveling around the country this summer (although I don’t know how Mom and Dad would take to that idea). Enchanted, I got up at his bidding to play pool, and there I remained for the rest of the night. I was lousy but we had a good time. [My brother] Marc went home at 2:00 but Ted and I teamed up against a few stragglers. When I got home, Dad was standing in the hall and he unleashed a brief but raging torrent of words at me. Then this morning he came in and apologized to me – for the first time in 19 years! Oh, and I also remembered something embarrassing about last night. I’d been playing pingpong for ages, leaping around and all, with somebody handsome named Tony as my partner, when I found to my disgust and embarrassment that my zipper had been completely open the whole time!”
December 8, 1974 [age 19]:
“I want to briefly describe last night’s dinner, which proves that I do not have a future as a cook. [My brother] Marc and I are home alone; we’d decided to have chili dogs and burritos for dinner. Two mistakes: First, I was using a small pot in which to cook the hot dogs, so I couldn’t use a strainer to steam the buns. Against Marc’s better judgment I put the buns in the oven with the burritos, and when we took them out they were brown and dry and so brittle that Marc SNAPPED them in half. Then, I had left the hot dogs boiling so long that when I lifted off the cover I couldn’t even recognize them anymore, they had grown so big and fat and were split open and just rolling around the pot like malformed whales.”
December 10, 1974 [age 19]:
“Such terrible news, my dear sweet Larry [a pharmacist where I worked at Rexall] is leaving to get his doctorate in pharmacology. I really adore him. People I love are forever being lost to me. Come January he takes off, which makes me sad because he was such a great guy to work for, so nice and intelligent and we always spent every minute kidding around, insulting each other. One time he said I should become a dictator.”
[My 2023 hindsight comment: Hmmm, I’m not sure he was “kidding.” 😆 ]
December 11, 1974 [age 19]:
“We were doing this science experiment in class today [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide], using a big tall metal ball on a stand which generates static electricity, and Mr. Nash wanted a volunteer with long hair to allow his machine to make their hair stand on end. Well, no one volunteered, so I was chosen, and he must’ve had the machine too powerful, because as I leaned my head near there was this loud “CRACK!” and a huge spark and I got a big shock on my forehead, screamed “OUCH!” in pain and the entire class went into hysterics.”
December 12, 1974 [age 19]:
“In my third period class [at James Lick High School, where I worked as a teacher’s aide] I have made great friends with the teacher, Kathy Giammona, and we sit around and philosophize and speak profundities.”
December 25, 1974 [age 19]:
“Today was a lovely peaceful quiet Christmas day with visits to our old Italian relatives and then a turkey dinner at home. Yesterday was more emotional. I went to Confession and with all the courage I could muster I confessed my experience with dope. In my head I vowed to stop sinning, but then today I’m thinking that I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep that promise.”