170 Ethics

I witnessed a scene at the post office this morning that I believe changed my life. I’m not sure how deeply or for how long, but I hope I won’t forget it anytime soon.

It goes like this: the short, elderly woman in front of me had two boxes, each at least a cubic foot in size. She was having trouble holding them. They looked like they could have fallen out of her hands at any moment. But what do I do about it? Zip, zilch, nada, nichts, niente.

Another elderly woman a few places ahead of us comes up and offers the woman her place in line, much closer to the front. Selfish me thinks there’s something going on. Fortunately I got that thought out of my head as soon as possible. I realized the second woman was just doing a good deed, for no other reason than she thought it was the right thing to do.

The woman with the boxes was still juggling them when the man in front of her offered to hold them for her. This whole scene was significant to me because I haven’t seen a whole lot of acts of generosity like that since I came. I still like Chicago, but I get turned off at all the times people honk at me or try to pass me on the sidewalk. I feel like a bumpkin, movin’ kinda slow at the junction. Just me and a lot of beautiful people walking on air with their great jobs and their cool friends, going to clubs so exclusive they don’t have windows, and they don’t put their name on the outside.

I can’t tell you how snotty some of the people around here are, but then again, that used to be me. I was never very good at being cool, though; I always felt guilty when I gave someone the cold shoulder.

155.25 Personality development (according to the University of Illinois library)

It may be time for me to shed my skin. I don’t know. I’ve looked back over these posts, and, as much as I think I’ve moved forward, I still see a self-absorbed individual unwilling to fully engage with the world around him. This can’t go on, I think. I feel I’m doing this strange balancing act between the desire to say what I think and the possibility that keeping my mouth shut might not be such a bad idea once in a while.

I have always worried that others don’t appreciate me. Maybe it works both ways, or maybe things are the opposite of how I think they are. Maybe I should be less snarky. Maybe a little humility’s in order.

636.7 Dogs

Shortly after moving to Chicago last month, I took a job with one of the many dogwalking services here in the city. I hate it. I admire the people who can make a living at it, but I’m not one of them. My boss has told me so several times, probably without meaning to. He has said several times he wants me to be more outgoing. I have spent most of my life feeling miserable about not being the kind of person who lights up a room. Only in the past few years have I found books and Web sites that have made me feel that how I am — quiet, shy, introspective, whatever you want to call it — is perfectly normal and acceptable. And now this yutz wants to make me feel bad about it all over again. Tomorrow, when I give my two-weeks’ notice, I’m going to tell him exactly that, in addition to the fact that this job makes absolutely no economic sense.

And I am also doing research on smiling — something I’ve been criticized for not doing often enough. If anyone has told you you need to smile more, I’d like to hear about it. I’ll be posting some excerpts from some of the previous research I’ve seen on this topic. I had to cut it off at 800 hits.

302.3 Social Interaction Within Groups

I said I would tell you all another bully story, and as you’ve been very patient while I futzed around and did other stuff, I’ll try to make this one extra good.

One day I was out riding my bike like a nice little dork when I came to the intersection at one end of my block. I heard something smack against the asphalt as I pedaled along, so I stopped to see what it was. I looked down and saw that a rotten apple, brown and semi-liquid, had exploded on impact a few feet away. Before I even had time to formulate in my mind the question, “Now, where in the heck did that come from?”, another apple struck the macadam not far from where the first one had landed. And another. And another. Not a shower of apples, mind you—no more than a half a dozen or so. Out of nowhere. Like mortar fire, launched by an unseen, unheard and unknown aggressor. Just enough to creep me out, to make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. The message was clear: “Go back home to momma, you little sissy. These are our streets, not yours.”

To this day, I have no idea who lobbed those spoiled fruits at me, though I could make a short list of the usual suspects, like any good detective. I suppose I ought to thank them for helping prepare me for all the strange little moments that would follow. That incident didn’t prepare for everything, but it made some of life’s little weird episodes a little easier to take.

Like the time I pulled up to an office in downtown D.C. to deliver a package, and standing before me on the street was a man standing stock still, practically catatonic, with a spring sticking out of one ear, his hands outstretched, his eyes staring at nothing. Or the time I was waiting outside a music studio in another part of D.C., talking with a friend, when a car came screeching around the corner and plowed into the car in front of mine. Things like that. After the apple incident, they didn’t have quite the same effect on me. So some might say I owe those apple-snipers a debt of gratitude.

Indeed, some might say that. But I am not going to thank them. Not today. Not ever.

Today’s post will be a short one. This bully story comes from the good folks at, a site that has helped me get my head together from time to time. I won’t give too much away, other than that I think the “nut quote” comes almost at the end of the story: “Turning 18 is not a magical age when you leave all of these experiences behind. People do seem to carry these experiences with them.”

My next bully story will involve…apples….

Fearnely, Fran, ed. I Wrote on All Four Walls: Teens Speak Out on Violence. Toronto: Annick Press, 2004.

I’m helping this kid I know deal with some guys who are pushing him around at school. I hope it’ll do some good. This book contains the stories of nine Canadians who had problems with bullies as teenagers or who had been bullies themselves. I’ve only gotten through the first two, Sue and Don. Sue had problems with other girls giving her a hard time, and then she joined a gang.

Don was a bully pretty much right from the start, though he did encounter violence from other kids from time to time. He still seems to have a ways to go to change his behavior. Both Don and Sue had parents who criticized them; Sue’s parents treated her especially harshly. Don’s father would criticize the way he played hockey.

For the sake of argument, I am using the theory of parenting styles Mary Pipher lays out in Reviving Ophelia (p. 83—“Families: The Root System”) as the baseline to judge Sue and Don’s childhoods. If I read her correctly, there are three ways to screw kids up royally and one way to make sure they turn out okay. Reading their stories with Pipher’s formula in mind, it seems inevitable that Sue and Don would have had the problems they’ve experienced, and passed on to others.

When Sue was growing up in China, her parents criticized her constantly. They were also very strict with her. Her father wanted her to be a proper lady, and he controlled her movements very closely. He also began beating her when she tried to tell him some of the unpleasant comments she had heard her stepmothers say about him behind his back. This combination of high control and low acceptance leads to an “authoritarian” parenting style, Pipher says. She goes on to say that it produces children who lack confidence and social skills. Sue had few friends in school. Some of those friends turned on her. One of them killed herself. After that, Sue began cutting herself every day. When her father sent her to live with her brother in Canada, he began beating her, too, but fear of violating cultural codes about “family business” kept her from telling anyone about it.

Don’s parents fit the classic “absentee” mold Pipher describes. Absentee parents mix low acceptance with low control of their children, a combination that Pipher says produces delinquents and addicts. Don says he drank hard and partied hard in his adolescence, so that covers the addiction part. As for the delinquency aspect, Don relates one chilling tale of a day at work at a factory when he and a friend tied a weaker and more passive coworker named Vince to a pillar on the factory floor, blindfolding their victim with duct tape. The two then argued about how long they should wait to untie Vince. They walked out and left him there alone for several hours. When Don and his friend returned and untied Vince, the third young man ran out of the factory and never came back.

158.2 Interpersonal relations (according to the Winter Park [Fla.] Public Library)

Out of all the stories of growing up rolling around in my head, the story of Timmy Morrell stands out because it illustrates so well the power of well-chosen words, regardless of their source. Timmy was one of those kids I knew in elementary school who just seemed to disappear after sixth grade, as if his parents knew that taking him any further through the conventional public school system would be a death sentence for him.

Timmy was the most uncoordinated person I have ever met in my life. His limbs just seemed to have a life of their own. He was gangly, pale, high-voiced, had no friends as far as I could tell, didn’t really talk to anyone, had no special talents, couldn’t play games, couldn’t write legibly—just hopeless. And he scared easily. In fifth grade, he was so scared of the teacher he hid under his desk. That would have been inappropriate at practically any age except infancy. And the same guy who bullied me bullied Timmy—Brody Lumpkin.

Between the two of them, Brody and Timmy, it was a total mismatch. That didn’t matter. If Brody hadn’t focused his malevolent energy on this classic weakling for at least a day or two, people would have wondered why he didn’t take advantage of such easy pickings.

Harassing Timmy had important benefits for Brody: it would show people that he would stoop to any level to intimidate, to terrify, to make someone else feel as if living were not worth the effort. If Brody had stuck merely to picking on people his own size, we all might have begun to think he could exercise good judgment, discretion, moderation; that, yes, he was still a bully, but a bully with principles, someone whose actions we could safely predict and plan around. By picking on Timmy, he could show us all that he had no such good judgment, that we had all better be on our guard around him, and that, in the end, even that kind of vigilance wouldn’t do us much good.

Timmy’s Day of Reckoning: I knew it would happen one day. It had to. I dreaded it as something I didn’t want to witness, even as I welcomed it as some terrible thing that was happening to someone other than me. Brody had more muscles than any other kid in school. He was more aggressive than other kids, too. The only kid who came close was Jim Stort, and before him, Eddy Andreotti.

And so it began: Brody would push Timmy, tease him, threaten him, slap him, push him, whatever he could do to make Timmy upset. And Timmy took it, and took it, and Brody just laughed and smiled, and no one, including me, did a thing about it.

Then one day, instead of going psycho or breaking down and crying, Timmy just said, “You’re nothing but a bully!” And Brody’s expression changed. He still had that evil smile on his face, the grin of a sadist, but a look of concern had crept in; the corners of his mouth lowered a little, and he didn’t bare his teeth as much as before. You could tell that, with just a few simple, well-chosen words, Timmy had gotten to him. That may have been when Brody started in on me.

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