The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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I studied Iyengar style yoga for a summer before one of my last soccer seasons with two local teachers who have been at it for decades. At the end of a session as we were folding forward, my instructor pointedly looked at me and yelled, “Lose the gut!” Naturally, it was my last class with him.

Yesterday, some ten years later, I understood that he was right (though, of course, wrong in his method). Sometimes there are impediments to practice that must be removed before one can practice, and the teacher must help the student remove them. It is irresponsible not to. Sometimes Minnesota nice just doesn’t work.

July 26, 2012   Comments Off on Impediments

Un Peccato

Father, I’ve done a bad deed for which I expect to receive eternal punishment.

While waiting in line at Chipotle (which, incidentally, has only a fraction of Hispanic workers than before employment records were checked), I made fun of two teenaged boys in line ahead of me. It was mostly innocent stuff. One of them was wearing a hoodie with a logo from the high school in my part of the city, so I assumed he could take it. I asked if he were really an Edinamite in disguise ([a denizen of a hated suburb] similar to the other mites in the Old Testament, although I didn’t say this last part). He had no idea what I was talking about. (Frankly, I don’t think anyone else does, either.) I waited for him to ask me what I meant, but, instead, he turned a shade of dull pink. I couldn’t figure out what had embarrassed him. Was it not knowing what I had said? Or had he imagined something really terrible? I’m sure if I had been his father he would have known what to say to me. Shut up, old man. Or worse. The poor kid pulled his head into his hood like a turtle, hunched his shoulders, and turned away as if I were gay and hitting on him. I tried to explain to his buddy what I meant, but by now it was too late. Perhaps they’d never seen Monty Python or met a twit before.

It was a slow line. Lots of burbanites and their kids (plus me and these two high school boys) waiting to order our burritos. Finally, it became too much for the young man, and he fled by ducking under the tape, taking his companion with him. Now it was I who was embarrassed. I had transgressed against the rules of proper social discourse. You must never talk to strangers in Minnesota. And, above all else, you can’t say anything weird.

Please don’t be too rough on me, Father. Really, I was only trying to make conversation. Assign me a few Hail Marys and I promise never to do it again.

January 29, 2011   Comments Off on Un Peccato

Another Example

After I helped him with a project, a 20-something acquaintance of mine literally began sneering at me whenever I spoke to him. You know that look that nerds give when they think you’re not at their level. I was surprised, at first. He had been nice until he got what he wanted. I thought, maybe he’s having a bad day. The next few times, I told myself that it would pass. Finally, when it was clear that it would never stop, I called him on it.

Of course, calling a Minnesotan on his behavior is a faux pas. The proper rejoinder to classic passive-aggressive behavior is to invent something even more spiteful and nasty. If you say something directly, the game turns serious.

Predictably, I was told I had misinterpreted his expression. That is, it never happened. I imagined it. Another twist of the knife, all the while continuing to sneer. Of course, my young acquaintance is too enamored of putting people down to stop. His house of cards would collapse if he caught a glimpse of his true self in a mirror. Being superior at passive-aggressive games means that the rest of us are beneath him. Right?

January 1, 2011   Comments Off on Another Example

Getting Your Way Without Seeming To

A Minnesotan can never be seen doing anything underhanded or nasty—it offends the Minnesota nice code—but he or she can be assertive in a passive-aggressive way. There was a wonderful example of this on my block this afternoon.

We’ve had record snowfalls and parking has been restricted to only one side of residential streets. My neighbor has had a large Ford truck with Arizona plates belonging to a stranger parked in front of her house for a week. It’s been very annoying since she and her husband have two vehicles. It also means the street is never properly plowed. Of course, she cannot call the city and have it towed, since that would be too direct and too obvious. So, instead, she left her car on the other side of the street just behind the truck in such a way that other cars could get through, but the city plow could not.

She had created a classic Minnesota cul-de-sac.

When the plow got as far as the parked truck this afternoon and could not get through, my neighbor ran from her house in her shawl and buttonholed the driver, asking what could be done about the trunk. Of course, she wanted assurances that it would be towed but couldn’t say this directly. So, instead, she asked about city policies, etc. They chatted for about five minutes. Finally, the driver assured her that the offending truck would be removed.

At this my neighbor shook out her hair and smiled. She had set her trap and won. Only then, as a seeming afterthought, did she offer to move her car. I was impressed. I’ve seen her in action before, of course, but in my estimation this raised passive-aggressive behavior to a new high.

December 22, 2010   Comments Off on Getting Your Way Without Seeming To

Getting Along

When we were first lovers, my girlfriend, now by wife, examined the collar of my button-down shirt and laughed. The label read “Pure.” Today, after decades of marriage, she thinks I’m cynical when I say that most social interaction is basically a game for getting what you want. She doesn’t agree. For her, it’s as natural as breathing. I don’t know. Perhaps she’s right. Maybe I have a touch of Asperger’s.

At the bakery today, a friend of hers slipped ahead of me as I waited to be served. I didn’t say anything, but she must have realized who I was (and was worried I might tell my wife), for she turned and said, “Oh, were you before me?”

I told her it didn’t matter, and, besides, I half expected it.

She found this insulting (which, of course, it was) and said, “That’s exactly what I’d expect someone like you to say.”

I simply waited for her to pay and leave.

Later, when I thought about our dysfunctional encounter, I realized I had become the bad guy again. I should have pretended that her butting ahead was an accident. Of course, a better man would have been cordial, assumed the best, and put a positive spin on it.

My problem is that I still can’t get used to the notion that people are dishonorable. Worse, watching them cover it up by being Minnesota-nice is galling. Of course, I must change. I’m no better than anyone else.

The thing is—where do you draw the line? Certainly, not at queue-jumping. But how about torture? For example, how can my idol, Lance Armstrong, be good buddies with George Bush? Does getting along and maintaining appearances always trump any ethical considerations? Was this Madoff’s secret?

September 8, 2009   1 Comment

Neighborhood Watch

While walking the dog tonight in the dark, I noticed a woman on the other sidewalk crossing the street, and, simultaneously, a car pulling around the corner fast and heading toward her.

I called, “Car!”

As the car approached, she yelled, “Slow down!”

When he was abreast of her, the guy in the car lowered his window and said, “I did. Didn’t you notice? It doesn’t help to yell.”

From his voice and his peeved tone, I guessed him to be a twenty-something. “What a jerk-off,” I said.

For a moment the woman thought I meant her, but when I made it clear I was referring to the guy in the car, she asked, “Do you know who it is?”

“No,” I said. “Who?”

“Barrow’s son.”

“Oh. Okay.”

As I left the scene and walked back to the flat, I realized she wanted me to know who it was for future reference—one neighbor letting another know how things were. This would never have happened in Minneapolis—not quite in this fashion. It’s not Minnesota-nice to yell in public. Someone might think you were angry.

February 17, 2009   Comments Off on Neighborhood Watch