Saturday, February 28, 2009

Doomed Novel Excerpts

Got caught short-handed at the end of a short month -- trying to maintain that "three a month" pace for this thing. I have a few ideas for pieces, but I'd rather let them incubate in that writerly way, because they don't feel right just yet.

In the meantime, I've gone back to that doomed novel from my late 20s that I've excerpted once before (a short piece about a guy obssessed with his lawn) and came up with a few other passages that hit me right. This whole thing was a mess. Just little tidbits and recollections, shaded over and "fictionalized" from my life, applied to a canned story about a guy burying his father ... years before I actually participated in the actual event. In short, I had no idea what I was writing about. And even at the age of 28 or 29, surely didn't have the emotional depth to pull it off, or grasp the "big picture" element of death in our lives.

But people I grew up with will surely recognize elements of our reality in the mix. Especially the reality of growing up in the 70s in rural America. That's how the "first novel" often works. The writer plays fast-and-loose with his own life, changes a few names, a few situations, and tries to get that down on paper. In my case, I was simply lacking that "big picture" sense. Plenty of little flashes, but it never added up to a convincing story. Don't think I'm novelist. I tried, but my writing mind just doesn't seem to work that way. It works this way. Enjoy!


I may not mention it too much, but our television set was on day and night. Our father came up during the Depression, at which time there was only radio, and the old people in his life used to lecture him on the evils of listening too much. These were the kind of people who rode to church on horses and wiped their asses in the outhouse with tree leaves. So our father learned to resent their pious lectures and dove straight into radio, and the music on it.

Naturally, when television came along, that was like jets replacing biplanes. By the time George and I came along, the TV set became some strange mix between talking furniture and an altar. Our father would get up around six and turn it on. We would get up around seven for school and sit with him to watch the end of Sunrise Semester and the morning news. Our mother would be up by eight to send us all off. After we left, she would watch morning game shows as she cleaned the house and afternoon soap operas between laundry loads. George and I would get home around four to catch all the sitcom reruns we had stamped on our psyches. After dinner, which we would eat in the dining room with the television still on the living room, our father would sit down for the evening news. Sometimes there’d be a brief respite before prime time, but usually the television stayed on until eight, when all the shows came on, which would take us up to eleven. The day would end with the nightly news, and television generally went off around eleven-thirty. After he retired, the set stayed on until at least midnight, although it was turned on around eight in the morning.

Long before any drug-induced paranoia, George thought Big Brother was watching us through the TV set. It made sense to him -- the damn thing was always on, and it wasn’t only our house. Every house we had ever been in as kids had a blaring TV set. Sometimes you had to shout to be heard. And the set itself seemed unnatural. George would watch the tubes glowing in the back as the TV set turned on, and the fading of the screen at night to a single white dot unnerved him. He had me convinced that someone was in there watching us. Once in the junkyard, we found an old shell from a burned-out floor model Zenith, and George crawled inside to where the screen used to be. He started pretending he was a cheesy weatherman, but then he stared at me like he was Dracula. He scared me so much I ran away.

Our father used to lecture us about how much we watched, but in the long run, he watched far more than we did. I think “watch” is a relative term when it comes to television. Sometimes it held our interest, but most times it was left on. Once, to see what would happen, George turned off Hee Haw while my father was reading over his tax forms. He seemed engrossed in his paper work. We sat there and stared at the wall for a few moments until our father asked George to turn the set back on.

“But you weren’t even watching, Dad,” George said.

“Sure, I was.”

“If you were watching,” George went on, “what did Buck Owens say after Minnie Pearl stuck him in the can with a pitch fork?”

I knew it was “I got the point, darlin’, I got the point,” but our father looked at the blank screen.

“I don’t know, George. All right. So my attention’s divided here. I am watching it here and there. Roy Clark did the “Pickin’ and A Grinnin’” bit a few minutes ago. Right?”

“Right,” George said.

“So turn it back on. If you want to change the channel, say so.”

Our father went back to his taxes. George turned on a rerun of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, with special guests Deep Purple, because he knew Lawrence Welk was right around the corner.

I thought about burying the TV set with our father, but it wouldn’t have fit into the coffin. He liked it big, floor model, sitting on the far side of the living room wall. He warned us not to sit too close, that we’d get radiation poisoning and our eyes would go bad, but it didn’t seem like a few feet would make that much of a difference. When our father wasn’t around, George liked to get right up on it, so all he could see was the colored dots. He said he could feel the warmth from the tubes and the electricity on his cheeks. And it brought him face to face with the man inside the set. George said he knew he was in there, and that people acknowledged it all the time by talking to the set, as if it were a family member. It scared me, but it filled George with apprehension.

I remember in the summers, we’d walk home in the night after playing hide and seek with the gang, and in every home, through the open windows we could see blue lights glowing on the living room walls. We could hear the canned laughter and amplified commercials. Sometimes, if it was a popular show, like All in the Family, we could hear the same sound coming from different houses, leaking a strange, distant echo into the quiet streets. George wouldn’t let me talk, and we’d walk around for a long time, listening and looking. With the summer heat and the wind blowing through the trees, it was enough to scare me more than the basement and attic rolled into one. Once, George found some empty Coke cans behind a bush, and he crushed them onto the bottoms of his sneakers, as did I, and they gave our steps a slow, metallic sound. We went around all night pretending we were robots roaming the streets of our town after the A bomb had dropped. George liked that feeling.


Last Saturday, I passed by one of those huge front loaders digging dirt out of the ground. I barely caught it from the corner of my eye, the enormous shovel plunging into the hillside, its long arm straining then pulling back a load of black soil. I could barely see it because at least twenty men had pulled their cars and pick-up trucks over to watch. At first, I thought it was an accident, then I realized that a tribal right was going on, the viewing of working men, by other working men, as they operated heavy machinery.

It made me wistful, because I knew my father, especially after he retired, would have been one of those men pulled over. It took me even further back, and I pictured George and I as kids standing next to our father as he watched. I looked bored but tolerant. George looked like he was willing the shovel to burst into flames, all to the tune of some hideous Black Sabbath dirge.


George and I could attest to that, because for years we were his unwilling Saturday morning servants. And like a pool table where all the balls roll to one end, our house and cars gave testament to the fact that he didn't know what the hell he was doing. Showers that leaked, doors that swung open with a ghostly whine, toilets that had to be flushed three times, cars installed with manual chokes that popped out and shot flames from the tail pipe -- it was like we lived in a funhouse. Every turn of a handle was an adventure. The more he worked on things, the more he seemed to screw them up. Sometimes I think he did it on purpose so he could portray himself as a Mr. Fix-It when they broke down for real. Most of the men who worked for him were mechanical geniuses, if nothing else, the kind of men who'd turn on a car, listen to it, and tell you exactly what was wrong. Being around machinery, our father had to pick up a little mechanical ability, but he wasn't a natural.

And it chagrined George and me to have him nail us some time on Saturday morning, usually right after one of us sat down with a bowl of cereal or maybe a book. Both of us read a lot, and our father used to say, "How about leaving that book for awhile and helping me with the car."

It wasn't really a question, more of a healthy suggestion. This was a year-round thing, and it could be a huge pain in the ass to trudge out in the snow to hold a screwdriver in the carburetor while our father fiddled endlessly with the intake valve. I hated it, but at least I kept an open mind and picked up a few things as we went along.

George profoundly resented it, mainly because he didn't feel comfortable rebelling in this situation. Our father would often drop a comment on how lazy kids were these days, and every time, George would argue back that every generation said that about kids. So when our father came looking for help on Saturday, he reluctantly went along instead of losing face.

George was a great fan of paperback celebrity biographies, especially for rock stars. Invariably, he'd be laid out on the sofa, nice and cozy, reading a book about The Beatles or The Stones, maybe a blanket or a comforter wrapped around him, when our father would trudge in, shake the snow from his boots and make George an offer he couldn't refuse. Neither of us would ever answer. Our father assumed our silence meant "no problem, Dad" and walked right out, sure that one or both of us would be out in a few minutes. And we would, calling him names like "asshole" and "motherfucker" in our heads, but never to his face. George would say the same thing to me every time.

"Asshole, doesn't he know I'm getting to the best part of the book?"

"What part is that?" I'd ask, acknowledging one of his pet names for me.

"That part in the middle right before the picture section, where they're starting to get famous and turn into jaded creeps."

"I guess if you get famous, you can skip right to the middle and make that page one of your story," I'd answer. I had to give him reason for then farting on my head, otherwise he'd do it for no reason at all. The funny part was I knew exactly what he was talking about -- every book I ever read growing up George had read first. Those damn books were all the same, with the celebrities at the same point in their careers near the picture section. Mick and Keith’s first big drug bust. John crying out for attention in songs like “I’m a Loser” and “Help.” Dylan all strung out and drifting, mere months before the near-fatal motorcycle crash. Despite the constant similarities, we read them cover to cover every time.

So George would throw on his clothes to go out and hold a monkey wrench or keep his foot on the gas pedal for half an hour. It wasn’t so much the work itself as the idea that we had no say in the matter. Through this involuntary labor, George grew to despise anything mechanical. He associated it with a thug redneck mentality, that you had to be a man to fix things, and you were a sissy if you couldn’t. The experience itself could have been a lot worse. Our father simply did what he had to do and excused us, whereas some fathers would berate their sons when things didn’t go right, as they rarely do in these matters.


The best of those places was the junkyard. There was something to be said for field after desolate field of briar patches, junked cars and hornet’s nests, sliced through with craggy dirt roads leading nowhere. We would have loved to go at night, but they closed at sundown and kept guard dogs. Our father would rummage around old cars to find inexpensive parts. The trouble was getting checked out. These parts had no price tags, so it was up to the owner, a toothless old creep named Hugo, to determine the price. Actually, it was up to Hugo and his obese son, who didn’t seem to have a name. He was this strange guy somewhere in his 30’s who dressed like a vampire killer in one of those cheesy Hammer horror films from England -- a round black hat with a full brim, pegged black pants, white shirt unbuttoned to show his voluminous chest hair, pointy-toed shoes, long, thin side burns, and a cheap cigar. Sometimes he even wore a cape -- George said a bullwhip and a huge gold crucifix would have completed the picture. These two would haggle over the right price in some vague Eastern European language, and inevitably it was too much. I think my father hated these guys, but even their inflated price was cheaper than buying the part new.

At least the junkyard had a run-down element of fun about it. The worst were the hardware and auto parts stores. They had that smell of clean metal and rubber. The hardware store was more metallic smelling, due to the large number of nuts, bolts, screws and the like. The automotive store had more of a plastic/rubber smell, maybe because of the tires and different belts and hoses.

Either way, they both attracted the same clientele -- mechanics. I knew some engineers in college who had a mechanical background and used it as a foundation to build more knowledge on the structure of machines. The guys in these stores had only the foundation -- the house had burned down, if they knew how to build one in the first place. Their whole world seemed to revolve around cars. People who didn’t know about cars were idiots -- if they were men and didn’t know, then surely they were gay and clearly took home economics instead of shop in anticipation of their alternative lifestyle.

I hated those fucking places, and I know George felt like a caged animal in hardware stores. The minutes crawled by on those Saturday morning trips, and in my memory, it was always raining. I’d bet everything I own this is the underlying reason George got into computers, because he knew morons of the kind we encountered in hardware stores would be left behind in the computer revolution. It was his way of saying, “I’m a man, and I’m making more than any three of you put together.” We couldn’t understand how grown men got off by making kids feel small. It especially stung because we knew that when these men were our age, they were the dolts who dropped out in the sixth grade then went on to get their 14-year-old girlfriends pregnant. There’s nothing worse for a kid than having an adult dumber than he is insulting him and getting away with it.

The king of the mechanics was this guy named Elroy who worked at Black Diamond Hardware. We knew this because of his name tag, which he wore outside of work, too. It said, "Elroy, King of the Mechanics." There was a caricature of a Monopoly board king brandishing a wrench underneath the words. He didn't own the place, probably made about $2.00 and hour or so as the manager. No one would know this to walk in the store and encounter this bald old man with a booming voice. He was one of those guys who chain smoked and weighed 98 pounds. Elroy never laughed. If he thought something was funny, his left eye would twitch. I don't think I can really describe the man any better than saying John Wayne Gacey would have felt unnerved in his presence. Naturally, he knew where every wing nut and linoleum sample was, knew the price of every product, and whether the customer wanted it or not. He was right, too, although no man wanted to be made to look incompetent (i.e., effeminate) in a hardware store. So the atmosphere of one upmanship was a given with Elroy on the job. The customers were joking, but they were serious.

Elroy liked our father because Elroy's son had served in the infantry in Korea, too. He never mentioned what had happened to his son, but George often said he was probably living somewhere in women's clothes and whispering lines like, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" in the mirror. George and I represented maybe the first generation in America never to have to fight in any war or be drafted, so naturally we were on the outside with guys like Elroy. We couldn't ride the old man's coat tails when it came to service to God and country, no sir. Ungrateful little bastards, smoking pot and worshipping faggot rock singers while our fathers died in foreign lands. That was more than an attitude. Those were actual words Elroy would use with us when our father went off to find the right size paint brush. It was like something out of a Billy Jack movie. I've often wondered about the psychotic Norman Rockwell mutations I knew as a child. I don't seem to know any people like that now, and I'm getting old enough.

If we had looked under our beds at night in anticipation of seeing a troll or demon, we would have seen Elroy, winking joylessly and calling us faggots and communists while spitting tobacco juice into a dixie cup. The man was irrational fear made real. George said he couldn't care less if Elroy wore a gold crown with twenty servants bearing him in a carriage and blasting trumpets -- so long as he didn't have any contact with him. It wasn't so much that the man was frightening as that his presence immediately made us want to leave. Everything we were, he wasn't, and we knew he had the shit end of the stick. He inspired anxious pity -- a strange combination of emotions neither of us knew how to handle.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Swayze Wayze

Patrick Swayze may not have long to live. Generally, you read a story about anyone with pancreatic cancer, that’s a sure sign the person won’t be around very long. Say what you want, but what I’ve learned about cancer: if you are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with a form that’s lethal/in latter stages, it’s better to go fast than slow. The choice being a few months of agony as opposed to years of prolonged agony. Of course, life is precious, but when it’s made clear to you that the quality of your life will be such that it will be extreme physical pain and immobility, leaving in a hurry has its merits.

So I may as well do my tribute to Patrick Swayze while he’s still around. Most of the roles he’s played in movies go right by me. When Dirty Dancing rolls around on cable TV, I rarely watch more than a few minutes. You’d have to pay me to watch Ghost. Those are not the kind of movies I want to remember Swayze for, regardless of the fact that they made him a star.

I want to remember him particularly for Roadhouse, Point Break, Next of Kin and one key scene in Red Dawn. They may not be Academy Award material, but frankly, when a shit movie like Crash and half a good movie (the first half) like American Beauty win the awards for best picture, the Academy doesn’t matter in terms of what will last. The stars who win will get a nice little career boost, most likely into generic blockbusters that no one gives a shit about, but such is life in Hollywood. It’s probably better to fly under the radar out there, make less money and still have the ability to do your thing.

Ironically, the three movies noted above were meant to be blockbuster action movies for Swazye as the lead actor. Strictly speaking, the movies are trash. But within their trashiness, there’s something worthwhile, and much of that has to do with Patrick Swayze. The apex of Swayze’s run, of course, is Roadhouse: a gem of a bad movie that I can watch repeatedly, even on cable stripped of its wonderful profanity and key nude scenes, where it routinely appears. It taps into some perfect white-trash ethic much like blaxploitation flicks of the early 70s did with black audiences. Dalton, the bouncer with a degree in philosophy from NYU who Swayze plays, is the redneck Shaft.

The story is basic: midwestern bar owner needs a head bouncer to clean up his rapidly failing club, goes to New York to offer the legendary Dalton (he only has one name) the position. The bar owner thought he’d be bigger, but they strike a deal anyway. Dalton comes to town to find that not just the bar, but the entire town is in the grips of an evil local entrepreneur who runs everything through his wealth. He has a group of henchmen to help “influence” people to see his way. And it’s Dalton’s unasked for task to bring the evil businessman down. Along the way, he meets a sexy doctor who once dated the evil businessman, they fall in love, and this relationship encourages him to stay and fight. Also, his bouncing guru, a grizzled vet working in a strip club down south joins forces with him after Dalton informs him that he’s in over his head with a local power lord.

Not much of a story, but as noted, Swayze, and the rest of the cast, make it work. Frankly, if you don’t like rednecks, this is your movie, because most of it is spent with the urbane Dalton character kicking serious redneck ass. The movie is wall-to-wall ass-kicking, filled with great one liners. Red, the hardware store owner, answering Dalton’s question as to whether he’s not happy with the shakedowns his store is subject to: “Does a hobby horse have a wooden dick?” The old farmer who offers Dalton a room in a barn hay loft: “It ain't the money ya understand, but if I don't charge ya somethin' the Presbyterians around here are likely to pray for my ruination. How does a hundred dollars a month strike ya?”

The most memorable line, though, is in a key to-the-death fight scene where Dalton takes on the businessman’s main bull after he blows up the old farmer’s house. The bull gets Dalton in a headlock and mutters: “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.”

Man! Do you know what a powerful line that is? If I was in a physical confrontation like that in real life and my opponent muttered that, I’d stop, throw up my hands, and say, “You win!” Then walk away, fast. Because if the line is true, and the guy has indeed fucked guys like me in prison, man, I don’t want any part of that action. And if it’s just a put-on, putting it out there that the guy’s pondered violent homosexual rape, well, that’s enough for me to think better of doing anything with that person.

I remember hearing that line and thinking, “Perfection … that’s the sort of line that works in real life and the movies.” It’s the kind of thing a badass would say to put a horrible negative image in his opponent’s mind: a mind-fuck of the highest degree. The movie is filled with those sort of knowing tough-guy moments. Dalton doesn’t consider himself tough – he considers himself tapped into some philosophical view of the world in which bouncing, and hurting people, is a last resort, one that he unfortunately is very good at. Thus, Dalton’s quandary. He’s good at something he knows is very bad, and he wants to be good. It’s Swayze’s laidback/rural demeanor that wins us over, that makes us see this quandary his character faces. He may not be very smart, but he’s basically a very nice guy, who calls older men “sir” and won’t fight anyone unless he’s hit first.

And the reality is we as the audience think that is Patrick Swayze, that he isn’t acting at all. That same hang-loose, everyman demeanor worked to much greater effect in 1991’s Point Break, in my opinion, the best movie he made. Swayze stars as Bodhi, a charismatic surfer who turns a bunch of his surfing buddies into successful bank robbers, who don the masks of ex-presidents on their jobs and need to be brought down by undercover agent, Johnny Utah, played horribly, as usual, by Keanu Reeves, who is like a cardboard cutout next to Swayze. You want to see the difference between good actors, between those who put forth some degree of humanity in their roles and those who are just along for the ride, compare these two in this movie. Actually, you can compare Reeves to other good actors in the movie like Gary Busey and John C. McGinley. The secret of all good action movies: good actors pocketing change in supporting roles between more serious projects.

Bodhi’s cult of bank robbers forms around his dual belief in surfing as a sort of physical religion and his lack of faith in the 9-to-5 existence. He believes these people are already dead, and that he and his group of surfing robbers, if nothing else, are alive, living to surf, funding their care-free lifestyle with the occasional bank heist. It works only because Swayze is so convincing, again, that easy physicality he brings to the role – he’s the nicest guy in the movie. Even the way he walks, bow-legged and swinging his arms, suggests some guy happy with a factory job as opposed to a fearless leader.

To be honest, even with the knowledge that he and his gang were armed bank robbers willing to kill innocent bystanders, I still rooted for them, simply because I liked Bodhi and his spirit, the work ethic he imparted on a “fun” lifestyle. When he found out Johnny Utah was an FBI agent, he didn’t panic, or try to kill him. He brought him in closer and tried to win him over to his point of view. He takes him sky-diving, which proves a liberating experience for Utah, but ends when he lets him know the jig is up afterwards, and he’s holding his ex (and Utah’s current) girlfriend for ransom so he can win time to make a run for Mexico.

It’s a good lead actor who can easily move between good and bad guy roles, and the audience responds equally to both. Swayze may not have been doing Shakespeare, but whatever role he was given, he played it well. Next of Kin is the weakest of this action-flick trio. Swayze stars as a Chicago detective, from Appalachia, whose brother is killed when a mafia crew sticks up the truck he’s driving. The rest of the flick is his drawn-out revenge, uncovering the case, and losing control of it when his other brother, an Appalachian redneck played by Liam Neeson, comes to Chicago to exact his own revenge.

The problem with this movie is that Neeson steals it from Swayze. He’s brilliant, and I don’t even like Liam Neeson. The straggly-haired look, the mannerisms, the accent – he somehow nailed that deep Appalachia vibe. And he gets to steal the fire from Swayze, who plays the more rational/level-headed brother who tries to nail the mafia dons through legal methods. It’s a bad idea to make the lead actor in an action movie the voice of reason – it’s the antithesis of using the movie as a vehicle for the lead actor. We watch these kind of movies to see the lead badass kick bad guys’ asses – sorry if that sounds too pedantic. In Next of Kin, a supporting actor gets to do this. This should have been a star vehicle for Liam Neeson, save he never seemed cut out to excel at action flicks (although I see he's starring in one now and have to wonder how well it will do.)

Aside from these three movies, there is one other scene with Swayze that I always refer back to as an example of how good an actor he is. And that’s from 1984’s Red Dawn, John Milius’ heavy-handed action flick regarding the possibility of Russians invading America, and how bands of vigilantes, in this case the Wolverines (a bunch of high-school kids who slipped out of town during the attacks and lived in the woods while launching guerilla attacks on the Russians), rise up to fight back.

It’s not a bad movie. I recall at the time it got hounded for being a heavy-dose of right-wing scare tactics, but as time has gone on, it can be viewed as just an interesting, slightly above average action flick. There is one scene, though that always gets to me, and that’s when a few of the teenagers go back into town from the woods to see how things have changed under Russian occupation. Of course, everything is wrong. Tanks and troops everywhere, businesses closed down, towns people afraid to speak to each other on the street. Swayze plays one of the teenagers, along with C. Thomas Howell as his younger brother and Charlie Sheen as one of their high-school friends. Swayze finds out that his father is being held at a “re-education camp” set-up at the local drive-in for “trouble makers,” which is of course short-hand for a death camp.

Here’s a link with that scene – it starts up around the four-minute mark.
I guess this got to me because I knew, as a movie-goer, that Swayze’s father had died a year or two earlier. (Believe it or not, he must be 31 years old in this scene.) Everyone is good in this scene – I’d say Harry Dean Stanton as the doomed father plays it best. But give credit to Swayze – he taps into something memorable, obviously from his own recent pain, and I’m sitting here almost 25 years later recalling that scene as if it was yesterday. That’s exactly how a bunch of high-school kids would have handled the understanding that their father was assuming he was a dead man, and this was goodbye. Crying, professing love, not sure what to do – and the father telling them to stop crying, time to be men, because he won’t be around to teach them how to do that anymore.

Swayze has other good moments – his cameo as a greasy infomercial guru in Donnie Darko was excellent. His Saturday Night Live episode from 1990 was excellent, also, although it gave Chris Farley the opportunity to over-shadow him in the legendary Chippendales sketch. Like the good actor he is, he plays the scene straight and let’s Farley shine. (It’s odd that I can’t find a direct clip of this on youtube or hulu – plenty of horrible tributes and bad songs played over the skit, but not the actual skit itself.)

Whenever Patrick Swayze passes along, it’s going to be a grand farewell, tributes of all sorts, his DVD’s selling like hotcakes. When a guy that good-looking, and that relatively young, gets a lethal form of cancer, the media machine goes into overdrive over his passing, making it more than it is. Topping it off, by all accounts, Swayze is a genuinely nice guy, not a prick, not full of himself, just a handsome guy who got into acting, had a very good run for a few decades, and seemed just as content when his star faded through the 90s and the big roles weren’t coming in.

I’ll miss him for that simple spirit he imparted in the above-noted roles, the fun he had in a piece of shit like Roadhouse, turning a rote B-Movie into a genuine cult classic. I can’t be bothered with his chick-flick movies. To me, the true spirit of Swayze, the Swayze Wayze, is that of the unassuming everyman, knows he’s a good-looking guy, doesn’t care, doesn’t rest on his laurels, knows that life is hard, and it requires making up some new rules sometimes, is content to make that stumpy weird walk of his off into the sunset, probably just like his dad did long before his time, and let people say what they want about him. He’s a star who carried himself like a supporting actor, and that says something good about his character. I want to remember him for kicking ass.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Two Kinds of Workers

The past few weeks, my workplace has been going through a meltdown unrelated to the current economic crisis. I won’t get too specific, lest some wondrous HR matron spelunk the web and stumble across this. But the basic situation is a manager in our smallish department (about 15 people) resigned a few weeks back: found another job less than five minutes from his home in central New Jersey, which neatly dove-tailed with his rapidly eroding work relations with our overall boss. As a result, two of his employees decided it was time they left, too, as they were closely aligned with the exiting manager and must have perceived that things would not go well for them with him gone.

In my mind, they were mistaken. The nature of the work they’re doing, especially now, the company would have made efforts to keep them, even if only to maintain a semblance of stability with a key manager exiting on two weeks notice. As it was, they both resigned and made it clear they had every intention of burning bridges. Normally, not that big a deal, but in this kind of economy? Best course to take would have been wait until their new boss was hired, see how that panned out (for all they know, it could have improved their lots in life), and if they still had a negative vibe, start busting out resumes and find another job before exiting. You don’t want to get caught off base in this kind of economy, as thousands of workers are being picked off daily.

The past three weeks, phew. The key error made, I’m assuming by HR, was not to tell the two departing workers, “Sorry to hear you’re leaving, we’ll pay you for the next two weeks, feel free to use that time to find other employment.” Because they were not happy campers on the way out, were pretty up front about their negative feelings, spent a lot of time whispering (always bad when people whisper in an office), and you could cut the tension with a knife days they were there. (They seemed to burn through more than a few sick days a piece, which was a relief.) Add to that HR staff skulking around like hungry bears knocking over campsite trashcans, holding private interviews with department staff in a nearby office (they didn’t get to me, praise Jesus) to “get to the bottom of this” … and you had a very rocky, tense few weeks of work.

I pretty much kept my mouth shut. Because when I’m around angry people hinting they might indulge in lawsuits and such, I recognize any stray comment be repeated back to me in a courtroom. Work in an of itself presents enough issues with tension and problems that heaping this extraneous bullshit on top of it doesn’t help matters any. I saw more than a few positive and negative attributes of coworkers come to light. Bottom line, there’s a huge difference between your typical work-day carping about the job (which we all do, routinely) and expressing a sort of bleakness that suggests maybe you should just get the fuck out of whatever negative place you perceive yourself to be in. But what I’ve learned about people: if you’re that kind of person, everywhere you go, you find the same problems. You’re not escaping a bad situation – chances are you did a lot more to create and nurture it than you’re aware. You can’t escape yourself.

That factory job I had during college was the first time I had to work in a structured environment with other people. (Previously, it was all lawn mowing, snow shoveling, landscaping, etc. with my brothers – good work, too, that I still enjoy doing.) In that place, I learned that there are two types of workers: people who like to work, and people who don’t like to work. It’s that simple. Everything about how people function in a workplace flows from those two sources.

Too many people don’t like to work. I’ve come to realize that unfortunate reality. They somehow got it in their heads that life owes them something, and their vision of heaven would be winning the lottery and doing nothing all day in a big house … not quite realizing they’d drive themselves crazy in that kind of scenario. How many times have you read about lottery winners simply losing any sense of structure, or having any real understanding of how to preserve the enormous amount of money they’ve been given, and eventually going broke?

I should point out that there are plenty of people in my life who don’t like the work – I don’t hold it against them, just recognize this aspect of their personalities. But it just seems to be one of those things developed in childhood and followed through young adulthood to a full flowering in adulthood. I hated working as a kid, mostly because that meant my father pulling me out of some leisure-time situation, like reading or listening to music, to help him fix one of the numerous dumpy used AMC cars he purposely bought so he could work on them. It wasn’t until I grew into lawn mowing, and receiving money for this, that work made sense to me. Even through college, I didn’t much like the concept of working. College felt like enlightened play time (it was), maybe a hard slog at times, but probably the most relaxed time of life.

In my adult life, doing some freelance and temp work, I’ve gone through plenty of down periods, in which I recognized it was very easy to slip into a “not work” mode, to get up late and spread out my time, to develop routines that take up the time I would be at work, and I realized I was doing the same thing I would at work – developing a daily structure – to pass the time, save I wasn’t getting paid to do this. Thus, it made more sense to do some kind of work, even if I found it dull and recognized it took up too much time. I could separate the act of working (and making money) from the work itself. And when you do that, the doors open in some sense, because you recognize you can get through anything in life with an attitude like that. You’ve made peace with the downside of adulthood: recognizing that most of it isn’t doing what you want to do. (Even if you love what you do, you’re going to spend a lot of time doing things you don’t want to do.)

Which is why this last workplace disaster has really left a sour taste in my mouth. To walk away from work at this point in American economic history, without work to replace it, has to be one of the more shockingly foolish things I’ve ever seen in an office. But I’m also realizing these people were genuinely unhappy there. The difference is I gather they pin their unhappiness on the place itself, particularly our overall boss, when I know the greater reality is they’re the source. Most emotions are a choice. You choose to feel happy or sad, to love or hate. It may not seem that way when you’re younger, but you pass through X number of emotional states as you age, you recognize that many of these thunderbolts of emotion, you’re hurling them, not some unseen force. I’d say things like death or the birth of a child supersede emotional choice, but not much else. Most times if you’re unhappy, that’s your personal choice, not a bunch of external factors that have magically conspired to force your into a state of misery. And it’s basic force of habit that people keep moving along the path that comforts them most. If you’re more comfortable feeling unhappy, you go on that way.

You get a bad attitude, nurture it, and it will grow. I’m not saying this like I’m above or outside the influence. Hell, I have a horrible attitude towards the creepy white college grads pouring into my neighborhood and paying outrageously inflated rents, as if the quality of life has increased to match their arrival and the 100% boosts in rental values. (It hasn’t, unless you equate yearning for overpriced coffee shops and “cool” indie/empty book stores selling books at retail with quality of life.) But I also realize hating these spoiled little brats is only going to eat me up inside if I nurture it. So I keep that in mind and declare some sort of truce in my mind, because I have no power to control the situation, and going around treating these people like crap is going to change me (in a bad, corrosive way) more than it would influence them to leave. Besides which, for every overbearing, self-absorbed, twentysomething prick with an iPhone jammed in his/her ear on a crowded subway staircase, there are five people quietly going about their lives the same way I am, with the caveat that 80% of their paycheck is going to their rent to live in a working-class neighborhood.

Life is going to throw enough shit at all of us, in the forms of failing health, disease, death, the passing of loved ones, horrible accidents, frayed friendships, friends in crisis, betrayals, falling outs, crossing paths with truly rotten human beings, unforeseen money issues … the list is endless. It makes no sense to purposely make your life harder. Or to routinely choose negative emotions. To place yourself in situations where the most likely outcomes will be anger and misunderstanding. I can joke about this shit, because I’m hardly Mr. Positive, but I’ve been passing those phases in life where those people I once thought were novel and fun in their bleak attitude, I’ve slowly realized, they just get worse with age. They don’t mellow like fine cheese or wine. The quirky darkness turns into ongoing depression and medication, and sometimes even into time in institutions. Cynicism plays well in your 20s, but through your 30s and into your 40s, it gets tiresome, loathsome even, and it starts to feel like dead weight.

These are the kind of thoughts that have gone through my head the past few weeks, in a pressure-cooker situation where the maturity level felt like something similar to a high-school cafeteria. I go to work to work, not to get engaged in soap operas and psycho-dramas. If I find myself growing unhappy at work, I bide my time and figure out a way to leave. Sometimes it’s an overnight/two-weeks-notice type deal; other times, it takes months to play out. Man, I would try like hell to avoid a scenario like that right now, because this economy is no joke, not something you want to assume is going to work for you, because it just might not. About the only thing I wanted to impart to my coworkers through all this: that guy is here to work! It should be that easy, and it is, if you let it.