Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘curmudgeon

no-way-out1It was early December, 2004. I’d had a stressful week of contract negotiations in Peoria with Caterpillar, but now I was headed home. The flight from Chicago to Denver was three-quarters full when I boarded, but I managed to find a window seat with an open middle between me and the man on the aisle.  I settled in for what I hoped would be a peaceful beginning to the weekend.

At the last instant before they closed the doors, she hurried onto the plane, lugging a wheeled carry-on suitcase, a computer bag, and an oversized purse. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. Wait a minute.  That’s a different curmudgeon story! She surveyed the cabin and took aim at – me! What? Do I have a target on my forehead?

She made her way down the aisle to my row, pausing only to remove several bags and coats from a nearby overhead bin and put her things in. Then, leaving the stewardess to deal with half a dozen irate passengers whose bags were now on the floor, she settled into the middle-seat next to me. I ducked down behind my newspaper.

“Hi, I’m Anne,” she said.

“Uh, I’m Don,” I responded reluctantly.

“It’ll be nice having somebody to talk to for the next couple of hours.”

I pretended to be engrossed in the listing of hog future prices on page 16.

“Look at that headline, she said, reading the side of my paper facing her. “Supreme Disallows Nativity Scene on City Hall Grounds. Those morons!”

I mumbled something about the Constitution and separation of church and state.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “This is a Christian country. It was founded by Christians and nobody should object to us putting up a nativity scene on the grounds of the Town Hall.”

I abandoned any hope of relaxing, and settled in for a fight. “Actually, I object to it. Put your religious displays in your church, and I’ll do the same with my religious displays in mine.”

She glared at me with animosity, I supposed trying to determine how I had managed to hide my horns under my hair. Then, in an attempt to be civil, she tried what she was sure would be common ground for any sane person. “Well, at least the country is on safe grounds for another four years now that we’ve re-elected Bush.”

“I voted for Kerry,” was my response.

“I’m sorry for you,” she replied.

And on it went. It was like the Sartre play, “No Way Out.” Each thing she said made me want to strangle her. And like an idiot, instead of keeping my mouth shut, I argued with her.

Finally, the pilot came on the PA to announced that we were beginning our descent into Denver. By this time, Ann and I had lapsed into a tense silence. I saw her winding up for one final attempt at conversation.

“There’s one thing that we can certainly agree on. It’ll be great when they make it legal to use your cell phone during the flight, won’t it?”

At that point, I completely lost it. “Are you absolutely out of your mind? It’s bad enough we have to listen to people screaming into their cell phones everywhere else in the world. Look around you. We’re prisoners here. There’s absolutely no escape!  But it’d be worth it if it meant I didn’t have to talk to you!”

We sat in silence for the rest of the trip. And no, I didn’t ask for Ann’s phone number so we could keep in touch.

My family was upper middle class, and although we lived in the bleeding-heart liberal left Washington, D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., my parents never had much interest in anything other than saving for retirement.  So although I was vaguely aware that my schoolmates were more sensitive, caring, and politically involved than I was, I was too wrapped up in being horny 24 hours a day  to be bothered much about it.

Somehow, I ended up at the even more bleeding-heart liberal leftist Haverford College, just outside of Philadelphia.  A few days after I arrived, I was at a mixer with Bryn Mawr College, and I ended up sitting with two Bryn Mawr freshman who spent the better part of two hours talking about how they were going to be, well, sensitive, caring and politically involved.  All I was interested in was getting into their pants, and they were talking about whether they were going to volunteer with “Amnesty International” or “Medicines Sans Frontieres.”  By the time I graduated I was more than vaguely aware that I was not as concerned as most my peers, but other than participating in one anti-Vietnam protest march — hey, everyone else was going — I’d managed to avoid being bothered much about it.

I left the U.S. in 1974 and spent almost all of the next 30 years living and working overseas — Iran, Israel, Germany, Holland, and the U.K., with extended periods of time commuting Monday through Friday to assignments in Italy, France, Belgium, and Spain, among other countries.  (When people ask me about it I tell them that I was just trying to stay ahead of a parking ticket I got at the Philadelphia airport in 1972.)  There was a lot of moving in those years, in all of those countries other than the U.K. I was speaking languages other than English, and I was traveling 48 weeks a year.  So not becoming too involved with anything other than my family and my career was pretty easy.

From reading the “International Herald Tribune” and “Newsweek” in the early 1990s, I knew that something called political correctness was sweeping the U.S. and would eventually make it over to Europe (as most American  cultural fads seem to about 10 years after they hit the U.S.).  Then, in 1995, I was working for a computer company which had just ended its “special relationship” with a particularly Evil Car Company and I was leading a team that was supposed to develop a methodology for competing for their I.T. business.  A hot-shot process lady was sent over from the U.S. to work with us.  Before we could start each meeting, she insisted that we all “check in” first.  Checking in apparently meant: 1) that we all had to tell each other something personal and revealing about ourselves; 2) that we each had to talk about our expectations for the meeting; and 3) that we had to talk ad nauseum, usually with tears streaming down our faces, about how we felt about our co-workers and the process.  (“Thank you for sharing.”  “Thank you for caring.”)  Checking in usually took about half of our work time.  I was astonished and absolutely appalled.

On the second day I suggested that maybe it would be a good thing to actually start work.  The process lady looked at me very seriously and said, “Do you mean you don’t want our company to become a Learning Organization?”  Obviously “Learning Organization” was a reserved word with which I was not familiar.  My reply was swift and brutal.  “Call me a crusty old fart, but we’ve got 3 months to do a shit-load of work.  If the boss comes to me in a month and asks, ‘How’s it going?’ and I tell him, ‘Well, we haven’t actually don-angrystarted work yet, but we’re all feeling really good about the process,’ he’s going to kill me!  We’ll keep doing this over my screaming, bloody corpse!”  For 30 seconds, her mouth flopped open and closed, but no sound came out.

It was lucky for me that we were not in the U.S.  She later told me that if we had been, she would have submitted a suit against me on the spot for sexual harassment.  What the things I had said had to do with sexual harassment I never could figure out, but obviously touchy-feeliness and political correctness are like secret societies.  You have to work your way up to the appropriate levels of knowledge over a period of decades.

In any case, my self-proclaimed designation of “crusty old fart” seemed to fit and, greatly encouraged by me, it has stuck with me ever since.  So much for my budding career as a touchy-feely political correctnik!

When I was getting ready to retire, I made a list of 20 things I was looking for and a list of places and compared them.  Boulder, Colorado came out way on top, and I moved there in 2004.  Boy, was I in for a shock!  Commonly referred to locally as “The People’s Republic of Boulder,” the city has more massage therapists per capita than any place else on earth.  You don’t own a pet in Boulder, you are the pet’s “guardian.”  The city has spent years debating how the prairie dogs, which are epidemic around here, should be controlled or whether they should just be allowed to take over the city.  Seminars on things like, “Living a Sustainable Life,” and “Opening the Circle” are well attended daily occurrences.  The first couple of years drove me absolutely crazy!

Don’t get me wrong, I am concerned about the arts and the environment and spend a significant amount of time working with a number of non-profit organizations.  It’s just that I don’t wear it on my sleeve and spend most of my time trying to keep from crying because it’s such a big, tough, unfair world.

At this point, I’m kind of numb and, other than an occasional curmudgeonly outburst which deeply offends the locals, I control myself pretty well.

Well, enough for my opening salvo.  If I don’t get deported, I’ll be back with more.