Monday, September 12, 2005

Cheese and Whine.

“Hi sweetheart,” I say to Maria, one of the hard-core regulars, as she walks into the shop on Saturday. “How are you?”

Maria is normally a rather cheerful woman, but seems out of sorts tonight. I’ve had a bit of bad news myself, and I’m not at all in the mood to deal with anybody else’s plaintive little cares, the bitching and moaning that passes for conversation with a lot of people.

“I’m really tired,” Maria whines. Yep. Just what I was expecting. Take my question and answer it with a complaint, without even bothering to ask how I am in return. The really awful thing is that I get this answer from about a third of my customers. Right, sure, I shouldn’t ask if I don’t want an honest answer, but really I just want someone else out there to engage in the pleasant set of lies that we dub courtesy in English so that we can all interact a bit more effectively. Nations will march off to war over lies about God and Hitler and Allah and Imperialism and Communism, and I can’t, with a sled and a pack of huskies, drag somebody into saying, “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” unless they literally and explicitly mean it and believe it.

“What’s troubling you tonight, dear?” I’m going to be nice anyway, damn it all, as a spiteful exercise in my higher social skills.

“Well, I worked all day long,” she begins her ode to sadness, while I grab the cigar rolling papers she’s going to need to get stoned when she gets home, “and then I got in an argument on the phone with that damn man of mine, and it’s late, and I’m tired, and I just want to go home and,” she whispers, “smoke me a fattie so that I can go to sleep.” I am unsure how I became the intimate confidante of every substance abuser in my zip code, but it obviously happened somewhere without me even filling out an application for the job.

I stop to do a mathematical formula: job + telephone argument + advanced hour = bad day. I realize that I sometimes give people way too much credit for sophisticated motivations and that I should just start applying math formulas to all of them and be done with it. As I listen to Maria complain with my patience a little more constrained than it usually is, I start to get offended and annoyed that she’s missing the point so badly.

So what’s the point I’m talking about? Maria, is like me, and like everyone else, a unique, highly improbable event. She thinks she’s an overweight woman who wears glasses and sports dreadlocks, and in those terms she is technically correct, but she is, like everybody else, a whole hell of a lot more than that. She is a recombination of genetic material unlike any that has ever come before and any that will come hence, an animal so totally individual that were I to take away her name and all of her possessions and everything she has ever learned, she would still recognize her reflection in a pool of water. She’s a thing so special that theologians come up with beautiful words like soul and Atman and inner light and Holy Spirit to address her individuality. She is a construction of organic matter so complex that it takes hundreds of differentiated organs working at a breathtaking level of productivity just to keep her from breaking down and dying any given moment. And in the face of that amazing fiat from nature she has the audacity to whine over a little bit of struggle in her life, the necessity that she work so that she may live.

“But if you in your pain,” Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.” I think Mr. Gibran had that one just about right: we work, and we suffer, that we may live. An animal that lies down too long in the wild is a sick animal that does not expect to survive. Only industrial humanity has the luxury of viewing work as a curse, as some type of punishment, rather than the things we do to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Maria would be darned bummed out, I strongly suspect, if the entire capitalist experiment were to fail tomorrow and she had to start hunting or gathering to live and thus be rudely informed of how easy she actually has it.

And so we grouse and grumble about our pain, as if it were designed by a wicked god to torment us, instead of being the very capacity that lets us know that we are animate, incarnate beings and not stones littering a beach. Who doesn’t feel pain? Quadriplegics? Heroin addicts? Other categories of people on the edge of death? Pain is the world’s most useful reminder to get your hand the bloody hell off of that burning stick or not to step on that snake again. People who shrink from pain—intellectual, emotional, or purely physical—are refusing to learn the lessons that pain and fatigue are trying to teach them. People who are habitually exhausted at the end of the workday, nine times out of ten, need to get more sleep and exercise. People that are constantly upset after talking to their significant others on the phone need to learn better communication skills or find new people to date.

I want to tell Maria this, as I listen to her sad misconceptions about the unparalleled gift that is life, that she’s a whiner, and that I’m sick of whiners, and that I just found out that an old friend of mine that I’d lost touch with was a whiner just like her except his case of the whines was so bad that he put a shotgun load through the back of his skull in a public park in Ohio and left some poor kids to stumble across his body. I want her to know that he’d forgotten that to be alive is nearly always to be loved, and that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, there are people who are deeply attached to our lives, who hold fond memories of our presence and the shared experiences we have celebrated and endured alongside them. That thought alone should shut her up and make her realize that the world is bigger than just her, and go home and call her parents to thank them for making her.

But of course, I don’t. I can hardly go around condemning other people’s rudeness in dumping their small cares upon strangers and then go do something like that, especially when the reason I’m upset has almost nothing to do with her story and everything to do with the blaring noise in my head. So I just look at Maria, and, gently rebuke, “So it’s all about you then. Is it?”

She falls silent, with a look of childish amazement, and starts wildly beckoning me to follow her. I come around the counter out of curiosity, wondering what she’s up to, and follow her pointed finger to the plastic front plate on her car. It reads, I jest not: “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.”

“Thank you Maria,” is all I can say when I get done laughing, which is something I badly needed to do. Maria drives away and I’m left with a valedictory thought regarding our conversation: Maria can poke fun at her whining and her selfishness, so at least she knows the score on that count, I muse. And that’s the start to understanding an awful lot more.


At Monday, September 12, 2005 9:14:00 PM, Blogger lefty_grrrl said...

At least she's aware of it. Sorry about your friend.

At Monday, September 12, 2005 9:37:00 PM, Blogger Hawaiianmark said...

My whine just went in the trash.

InsightFULL, as usual.


At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 5:35:00 AM, Blogger zilla said...

Oh, goodie! You haven't forsaken the blog!

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 7:05:00 AM, Blogger Cary said...

Good point.

Condolences for your friend and his family.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 8:20:00 AM, Anonymous Colleen said...'re in my thoughts the loss of your friend.It's tough to lose someone you love/care about...

Sometimes I think people stay in their pain because they're afraid of what else is out there. They are afraid to change. I think other people like to play the matyr role to get attention. WHo knows, maybe some people don't even know that they're whining.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 9:11:00 AM, Blogger She who shall not be named said...

We have a magnet at my work that says..
"Put on your big girl panties and deal with it!"

I like it, but I myself about not about whining sometimes.

I try really hard not too all the time though. No one wants to be around people who bitch all the time. =)

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 9:12:00 AM, Blogger She who shall not be named said...

not ABOVE whining....err, not about. sorry.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 9:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I've been on a whining jag, but I think I'm done now. Oh and how are you doing today? :)

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Kit Is Knitting said...

I look at whining like's a way to be validated. Suffering is hard and the way to ease it a bit is to talk it out with someone. It's a way of connection, human to human. And my response is to listen and acknowledge that it has hurt and to admire their strength to have survived their trials (and if at all, show them how strong they were).

To whine is to be human. Thank you for the post, it was a good 'un. Oh, and I finally did see the comments. Bother those spammers, I did as you suggested and turned the word verification on. Thanks.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Kristine said...

She must be a Leo.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 12:59:00 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

And maybe you are their barman/counsellor/priest. Maybe because no-one else ever asks in a way that would let them trust enough to offload?
The act of observation changes that which is being observed (etc - sorry).

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 1:00:00 PM, Blogger Leann said...

As usual, a very insightful post. I'm sorry about your friend. Suicide has to be the most selfish act a human being can commit.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Devon said...

I think faking your own suicide would be the most selfish act you could commit. When you're dead you can't reap the rewards.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 1:16:00 PM, Anonymous lowwall said...

"two shotgun shells through the back of his skull"

Not that I doubt this statement for an instant. But (as my dad says "Ignore everything before the 'but'") this would require real determination. The only way to I can think to do this would be with a double trigger, double barrel shotgun and some precise mechanical knowledge to disable the interlock or block that normally prevents a double.

BTW, the shell is the case - the plastic bit with the brass head. But I guess "two loads of shot" isn't quite as dramatic. Although you could Clancy it up "two 1 1/4 ounce loads of buffered tungsten 9 caliber pellets" or the more tragic "2 shots from a box of Wal Mart clearance shells."

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 1:32:00 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

Nurse Kit wrote about verbalizing. I think another value is sometimes I hear myself and either get bored with the topic, or just think "I" wouldn't want to listen to that. At the very least, I should find something more interesting to whine about.


At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 1:33:00 PM, Blogger rugdesigner said...

I'm sorry for your pain in the loss of your friend.

Great post.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 3:16:00 PM, Blogger The Gas Guy said...

Everyone, thank you for your sympathy and your thoughtful feedback surrounding the post.

Lowwall, thank you for the technical correction. The post has been amended.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 4:21:00 PM, Anonymous sonsica said...

I really appreciate the way you articulated the impressive complexity of humans, as well as the world and our place in it.

Believe me, as a scientist, I understand and have the greatest awe for all life, for all accomplishments, for all the universe.

And I believe that I, more often than most, take the time to appreciate all of this, and to be amazed that I even exist at all. Crazy as it sounds, I remind myself constantly of how lucky I am - to be able to walk, to be intelligent, to have a roof over my head.

But still, I have those days when - despite knowing that I'm so small and insignificant, that there are crises in the world that are so much larger than mine - I still have to indulge myself in my own petty complaints, just as everyone else does. To me, at that time, those things seem important.

And it's impossible to live day to day life while always considering the bigger picture. It's okay to take pleasure in the small things, to be disappointed, or hurt, or whiny about the small things, too.

I'm totally not criticizing your point, by the way. Just rambling after reading your post. I think you're awesome :).

And, although today is the first day I read your blog, I am very sorry to hear about your friend.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 6:28:00 PM, Blogger annie said...

you remind me
that life is sweet
and fleeting...

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 6:34:00 PM, Blogger fineartist said...

Whining is a human behavior, not an admirable one, but one we all seem to partake of on occasion.

I remember a while back, I was with a friend, smiling like it hurt, imploring him to wheedle out of me all that was troubling me. He did, not pleasantly, but still, he allowed me to dump on him. After he listened to me carry on for a time, I looked into his eyes and I could tell that I was wearing his patience thin. I said, "I loathe people who whine and moan about their lives, they piss me off.” and he said, “Well, you have made yourself what you hate, now make yourself what you love.” I love friends like that. True friends who tells you what you need to hear and not always what you want to hear.

Devastating to hear of the death of a friend, even more shattering to hear that he/she chose to end his/her own life. Carry yourself around for awhile with extra care, okay?

At Tuesday, September 13, 2005 9:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post.

On Maria...I think some people need so much to have someone care - even if it is only on a "How are you today?" level.

While you didn't get to reap the reward of your courtesy to Maria by having it returned in kind, perhaps the thought that she passed it on to someone else will be enough. Maybe she was kind to "her man" or neighbor or the sray dog. Who knows? Our words and actions go much futher than we'll ever realize.

On your friend...Sorry. Hopefully a sad soul has found happiness somewhere else. Perhaps the sorry kid that found him will discover compassion in a way he never would have.

Perhaps, perhaps.

At Thursday, September 15, 2005 5:28:00 AM, Blogger JB said...

You must be only too aware of the huge difference between useful, creative, fulfilling "work" and the other "work" that we are forced to do or we lose our home and starve. It was "industrial humanity" that created this separation between work and living and the compulsion to the first to survive the second. And there's not a day goes by that I don't curse the jerk that invented work. And no amount of transcendental mumbo jumbo about complex organic matter will make my day job enjoyable. That's not whining, that's reality.

To be honest I like your writing and read your blog regularly, but this kind of vapid sub-Zen fortune cookie truism could be applied to any situation at any time and will provide no useful insight or comfort to anyone - only reasons not to get passionate or angry or to change the thing that gets you down.

At Tuesday, September 20, 2005 6:05:00 AM, Blogger Kat Coble said...

I didn't read this full post last week when Brittney linked it, because the excerpt made me furious. You had a nice thing to say over at NiT, so I came to read the whole thing.

I've renewed my dissappointment.

1. You asked the lady how she was, and called her a term of endearment. To most people on the face of the planet, that is an invitation to safe confidence. To invite someone to share with you a piece of their vulnerability and then use it as an excuse to go off on a laboured rant about the state of mankind in the world is just tacky.

2. I'm still not sure what you are trying to say about pain. Everyone has it to varying degrees. What makes us stewards of our brethren is the realization that EVERYONE'S pain is significant, if only to them. Sure, her pain isn't as "big" as the grief of your friend, but to her it is very real.

3. I guess I'm not enamoured of your style of Gas Guy, that being a person who pulls your customers into your web, spider-like, to dissect them for a larger moral lesson. Poor Maria had a hard day at work, a fight with her boyfriend and just wanted to get her last few things bought so she could get home. Imagine her surprise were she to discover that the person she thought was being nice to her was actually using her as his Bad Example Of Humanity #613.

Personally, whenever someone asks me how I am I answer honestly and always follow with an enquiry as to their state. It's polite.


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