Big Plans, a short story
This short story is now for sale on Amazon, so buy it. It will be the best 99 cents you ever spend. This story was inspired by my year working as a bank teller right after graduating college. I hated that job. I hated dealing with the awful customers who wanted their egos stroked. I hated the provincial attitudes of many of the people I worked with. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was still a bit immature and I could have been better at my job. Luckily I left before going crazy. I thought up a plan to rob the bank, not because I intended to ever rob a bank, but because it would have made for an interesting novel. I still have a lot of notes from my bank robbing novel that I intendeded to write, and maybe I’ll come back to it. It would be a perverse, crime-ridden On The Road (what great American novel since 1957 doesn’t aspire to be the next On The Road?).
But here is ‘Big Plans.’ It’s a funny short story that you will enjoy. If you’ve ever worked a job you hate (and who hasn’t?), you will be able to relate. It also has excellent artwork by Sergio Zuniga.
Happily out of the pop culture loop
Judging by what I see on my much-too-frequent perusal of social media, many of my friends and acquaintances have taken great lengths to see the latest Star Wars movie. I’ve read some excellent reviews and fully intend to see it, but this may be the first time I have not seen a Star Wars movie in the theater. It’s not because I don’t like Star Wars, it’s because I no longer put the same value or effort into pop culture.
I am the oldest person in the small office where I work. I’m even a few years older than the manager, my boss. I work with people who were born while I was in high school or college. It makes me feel old. Very few of them own a SLAYER CD, if they own CDs at all. I recognize some of the names of the people or musical groups they say they listen to, but I’m definitely plugged into another era. This summer my wife and I were talking to her teenage niece about what music she listens to. She mentioned several popular bands that played large venues and I had never heard of any of them.
I am not attuned to what is popular with today’s teenagers and young adults. And I’m perfectly fine with that. I am glad that I’m out of touch on these things and out of the loop, and not because today’s pop culture is all crap and the pop culture of my time was so much better. I watched Morton Downey Jr. and listened to Howard Stern habitually when I was a teen and young adult, I honestly have no business looking down my nose at people who follow the Kardashians (but I still do).
One can make the argument that that pop culture of today is overly sanitized and bears the telltale signs of patchwork social engineering. Because our society’s mass media is trying to appeal to a multitude of cultures in a divided and tribal world, any cultural authenticity has been discreetly purged from it. But pop culture is always a remnant and a reflection of its times, and human beings have a tendency to romanticize the past.
Being unfamiliar with today’s popular culture doesn’t bother me because I ought to be spending my time more wisely than familiarizing myself with it. There was a time that I was very much immersed in pop culture, but life goes on after high school and college.
It’s a natural part of aging, to be out of touch with the latest in pop culture. If I was well-versed in what is trendy among the younger generations, I’d be a pathetic middle-aged clown desperately trying to cling to some shred of youth. I want no part in that. Acting your age is part of embracing life and living it to the fullest.
The music I listened to and the movies I watched when I was steeped in the pop culture of my time are now decades old and being rehashed for profit. I don’t want to spoil the memories I have of those times by trying to relive the days of my youth with self-congratulating sentimentality. I don’t need to see a movie about N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton album; I had the album on cassette when it came out.
Let’s not be close-minded and refuse to pay attention to worthwhile contemporary art and culture, but let’s be comfortable with who we are and with our stage in life.
The horror of finding yourself using corporate speak
Though I have been subjected to it for many years, it’s only been in the past year that the language known as “corporate speak” has been creeping into my vocabulary. I must make it stop.
I switched jobs a little over a year ago and moved from the thankless ranks of financial journalism to the thankless but better paying ranks of financial public relations. For years as a journalist I waded through corporate euphemisms and double talk. A journalist’s job is to cut through corporate speak like an explorer cuts through dense jungle. I didn’t loath public relations people, I just knew I could not sound like one when I spoke or wrote if I wanted to be taken seriously.
I vowed to myself that I would not let this nonsensical and vacuous vocabulary creep into my speech, but in some ways it has. There’s no prohibition from sounding like a corporate automaton because now I work in public relations and corporations pay our salaries. Corporations paid my salary when I was a journalist also, but those businesses were depending on me NOT sounding like a corporate mouthpiece in order for my work to me marketable.
Now I AM a corporate mouthpiece, whether I like it or not. None of the companies I serve through my public relations job are ominous monoliths that are trying to cloud the truth or cover up any wrongdoing; they are for the most part small entrepreneurial companies doing some interesting things, but they are companies that expect us to be their representatives to the media. We have to be the bridge between the corporate world and the jaded, skeptical world of journalists and we have to sound the part both ways.
Whenever you speak with someone, you want to sound like you belong, like you understand where they are coming from. If everyone’s slinging the same corporate bullshit, they’re establishing a rapport in some small way. In agency public relations, you are not only selling your clients to media, you’re constantly selling yourself to current and potential future clients. Thus you have to sound like you could fit in at a corporate board meeting, and that’s easier to do when you shovel two-cent words around like so much manure.
So as a writer who takes pride in my ability to find the right works for any situation and a human being who decided long ago to embrace reality-based life, it horrifies me to find myself using corporate speak in any non-ironic capacity.
It’s only happened once or twice, but no matter. Like Ebola or cancer, corporate speak must be wiped out entirely if you wish to survive in the reality-based world.
The one phrase I’ve been guilty of using is “next steps” as in “we’ll discuss next steps” instead of saying, “we’ll talk about what to do next” or “what steps to take next.” Another word that’s lapsed into corporate speak is “leverage,” such as “let’s leverage our resources to gain media traction.” In my own overuse of the word “traction” regarding how to get media attention, I risk making that corporate speak. Now both lever and traction are real words that wouldn’t be corporate speak at all if you were talking about pulleys, debt or driving over snow, but when applied to business situations and overused, they become corporate speak. There are damning lists of useless and pathetic phrases that comprise corporate speak. The list is always evolving.
There are a lot of things I am willing to do to provide for my family. I’m willing to read work emails on the weekend, endure mind-numbing meetings and phone calls that should have been emails, write trite crap about boring topics and be courteous to asshole clients. But I won’t become a corporate speak user. I have my limits.
So I resolve here and now to avoid corporate speak and expunge it from my vocabulary. I will be a better person for it.
Guns and the fruitless search for moral authority
For the first time since 1920 the New York Times put an editorial on its front page calling on the U.S. to ‘End the Gun Epidemic in America.’ The editorial came in the wake of an Islamic terror attack by a husband and wife team in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people and wounded 21 others.
The bodies were still warm when the name of the lead suspect in the massacre was made public, and the New York Times played dumb for a few days. The paper first noted that the suspects left “no clear motive” but a day later said that terrorism was an “aspect” of the investigation. After every other newspaper in the world said it was terrorist attack, the Times noted that the F.B.I. was treating it like one. Watching the Gray Lady perform the mental gymnastics of wondering aloud about the motive of these shooters over several days was sad to see. Don’t hurt yourself thinking too hard, New York Times, most of us had it figured out early.
But while the newspaper of record was too chickenshit to call a terrorist attack a terrorist attack, it wasted no time in its front page editorial painting the exercise of Americans’ constitutional rights as a “moral outrage and national disgrace.” The editorial called for “eliminating large categories of weapons and ammunition” and saying that citizens would have to surrender some of their arms “for the good of their fellow citizens.”
What’s galling about the Times’ editorial, among other things, is that the motive of religious terrorists was very relevant when a Christian fundamentalist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, but somehow discussing motive is shameful of the wake of the latest Islamic terrorist attack within our borders. The anti-abortion crazy who killed three people at the women’s clinic was spurred in part by anti-abortion propaganda that hinged on fraudulent videos. It’s not anti-Christian bigotry to call out the role of religious extremism in the Colorado terror attack, but somehow Islamic extremism isn’t quite news fit to print, at least for a few days and then qualified by citing the F.B.I.
There are a lot of issues that need to be discussed in the wake of this terror attack. We need to have a more restrictive and security-driven immigration system. Muslim Americans are more susceptible to violent religious fanaticism than people of other religions and rooting out these elements is going to be a very tough and brutal effort.
But the culture war dictates that the gun control issue is pushed to the fore. So let’s address it then.
What gun control advocates don’t understand is that gun ownership is an integral part of America. We wouldn’t have America without individuals owning guns and it’s no coincidence that the first British troops fired upon in Lexington and Concord were there to confiscate guns. The Second Amendment gives the right to bear arms to “The People” and cites the need for a militia because our country’s founders didn’t want what we already have: a standing military with bases in more than 100 countries. The authors of the Second Amendment viewed such professional militaries as a threat to democracy. Getting rid of “certain kinds of guns” is going to be fruitless because technology will not stop developing and there are already many guns on the market that straddle the line between hunting weapons and assault rifle explicitly for this purpose. We can’t eliminate the right to bear arms without amending the Constitution, and anyone who wants only the police and military to have guns is either extremely naïve or harbors some kind of odd uniform fetish.
What some of my fellow gun enthusiasts don’t understand is that we already have the worst of both worlds. Our guns aren’t stopping the government from undemocratic policies and we have horrible levels of violent crime. If the government wants your name they are going to have it, and it won’t take them long to find our guns if we bury them. The law enforcement officers or soldiers we’d be fighting are often gun enthusiasts themselves so I don’t see some great gun confiscation coming, despite the wishes of the editorial scribes of the New York Times.
So here is a solution that might actually work if it’s ever implemented. What would work is to have one federal system for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill and extremists. This would be one standard for the entire country. One set of rules for everyone to follow. It would mean passing a basic safety course and background check, and making sure that there were proper training for different weapons (e.g. – operating an assault rifle takes more training, especially with models like the AR-15 so popular in the U.S.). There are safety and security protocols everyone must follow and these would be subject to spot inspections in order to keep your certification. A basic mental health evaluation would be included. How this entices gun owners and manufacturers is that this would END the bans on assault rifles and “high capacity” magazines popular in many liberal states. It would END the absurd and unconstitutional red tape that many cities and states put around the exercise of our constitutional rights (the cost of the gun permit in New York City is more expensive than many guns).
Trying to take entire classes of guns and ammunition out of Americans’ hand is not only going to be unconstitutional but unsuccessful. But creating a system that both embraces our rights and regulates against the very real danger of violent crime will be a welcome solution.
New York’s non-horrible holiday cheer
New York City is largely spared the horrors of Black Friday shopping brawls. A security guard was trampled to death a few years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, right outside of Queens, but within the five boroughs we have a better history of crowd control. And few of our poor people have cars. There’s not a lot of motivation to try to haul a 60-inch plasma screen TV home on the subway.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not enough misery to go around. Last year I was trying to get to a restaurant in midtown the night of the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. Not only were the usual crowds heading to the tree lighting, but protesters objecting to a grand jury not indicting police offers in the Eric Garner case were headed that way also in an attempt to disrupt the ceremony or at least get on television. It was the only time in my life I walked towards Times Square to avoid worse crowds.
New York City has some great iconic holiday sights and experiences, all of which most New Yorkers avoid like the plague. The tree at Rockefeller Center, the windows of Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue, the laser light show at Grand Central Terminal are all great things that are mobbed with tourists to the point of not being truly enjoyable unless you are a tourist just happy to be there.
Here are some alternative and authentically New York holiday experiences you can consider to keep more money and sanity through the season.
For alternative shopping options, you should go visit The Kinda Punky Flea Market – Holiday Style is set to take place in Brooklyn at the Lucky 13 Saloon on December 20. I can’t think of a better place to shop for people with good taste. The Lucky 13 Saloon is a cool vestige of pre-insanity Brooklyn and attracts the interesting artists and musicians you thought had been run out of the borough entirely. There is also the Morbid Anatomy Flea Market at The Bell House in Brooklyn (there’s a high potential hipster factor at this one, but it might be worth it).
Plenty of people will buy expensive tickets to see Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall. I went there more than a decade ago and deeply regret not screaming “SLAYER!!!” at the quiet moment between the third and fourth movements. Radio City Music Hall’s holiday show is a by-the-numbers holiday show with the Rockettes and Santa Clause, but there are better shows that will give you an excuse to visit Radio City Music Hall. The Holiday Show in Astoria Queens will fill you to the brim with holiday punk rock goodness from some awesome bands. Astoria is not hard to get to and you’ll get a taste of real New York City punk. If you prefer more traditional holiday classical music, consider instead the holiday concert by the Queens Oratorio Society on December 20 in Queens.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx started on Nov. 21 but it runs into the New Year. I have gone on New Year’s Eve and the crowds were not that bad. You’ll be impressed with the models of New York City landmarks made from plants. The trains are interesting too.
And if you would just rather look at some pretty trees and other holiday decorations, then you can avoid the overcrowded Hades of Rockefeller Center and enjoy the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History or the UNICEF Snowflakes near Central Park.