Forgetfulness of things past
A little while ago I wrote a book about a newspaper advice columnist who got fed up with his job and decided to start handing out bad advice to see what happened. His name was Etienne Shurdlow and he expressed my frustration with what I call the "victim industry" that has arisen in America - people who blame others for their problems instead of looking in the mirror. Typically, I couldn't get a publisher interested. They said the book was too offensive. Offensive to whom? Whiners? But it had another problem. It turned out that some of my fake advice was actually pretty good.
So I'll leave it up to you. I'll be posting excerpts from time to time. Tell me if you think it's worthy of publishing. NOTE: This is a humor book. Don't take the advice seriously. If you do, you're on your own.
Dear Readers: My name is Etienne Shurdlow. I’ve been a journalist for twenty years covering all manner of human folly, stupidity, ignorance, and cruelty – in other words, the news. Now my publisher, the daring and brave Rick Petrione, has asked me to start an advice column that tells it like it is. Like you, he and I are sick and tired of all the idiots out there. We are angry that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, that liars win elections, and that people who cheat come out ahead.
I have begun this column to take all those people to task in your name. I’ll also try to give some helpful advice along the way, but mostly I want to call out those who make trouble for the rest of us. We all know who they are.
I promise you bullshit-free advice. No kid gloves, no bleeding hearts, no vague or fuzzy language. Some people are going to be offended. Tough shit. Many more people are going to say, “Right on!” There are some things that simply need to be said, and some people that need to be told off. Even if you disagree with me, take a moment to think about where my beef is coming from.
Please send me your letters about the slob-next-door or the relative you hate. I want to hear about your evil ex-husband and the bully who picked on you. If you let it hang out, so will I.
-- Etienne Shurdlow
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Dear Etienne: It’s been my bad luck that there is always a crying baby on every airplane flight I take. I can’t afford to fly first class so I am stuck in coach. I understand that the change in air pressure hurts their little ears and that the confinement makes them antsy. But a crying baby takes up the flight attendants’ time, is annoying and distracting, and just plain inconsiderate on the part of the parents. If an adult acted the way a crying baby does, air marshals would take him off in handcuffs as soon as the plane landed. Why can’t the airlines put all the families with babies in one section of the plane? Why can’t I sue parents who can’t keep their children quiet? Why should 200 people suffer because of one ill-behaved child and its selfish, inconsiderate parents? Put ‘em in baggage with the poodles. – Annoyed in Albuquerque
Dear Annoyed: Like you, I have been trapped on flights with noisy children. My first thought at the time was that they should be put into the baggage compartment with the poodles. Then I came to my senses and decided that it would be enough to jam them in the overhead compartments with their mouths taped, and every couple of hours have the flight attendant slip them a double Bourbon. We have all been in similar situations too often to think that these incidents are aberrations. It’s a systemic problem. While I accept that there are times when it’s necessary for parents to tote children along on trips involving air travel, they shouldn’t bring them unless they can behave. Wait till they’re older. (The same applies to movie theatres, churches, posh restaurants, and other public gathering places where those present have implicitly agreed to keep decorum.)
The problem – and the solution – rests with the airlines. Passengers are a captive audience, and not just when it comes to making them watch Adam Sandler movies. I have spoken with flight attendants who would rather slip the kid a mickey than field complaints from other passengers, or find themselves providing extra service to the child’s helpless (and sometimes unconcerned) parents. One trick I learned: if a baby is crying from the change in altitude, put a few drops of sugar syrup on his tongue so he’ll swallow and equalize the air pressure on his ears.
Airlines insist that they cannot corral baby-carrying families because they don’t know in advance that they’re coming, but this doesn’t wash. Infants under two travel free, must be held in arms, and the airline must be notified ahead of time. Children over two must travel on a regular ticket and have to sit in an approved safety seat.
Gate agents ought to be able to allow customers to switch seats before takeoff. Finally, parents traveling with children should be advised that they will be held responsible if their child causes a disturbance. Parents sometimes have the courtesy to remove their children from movies, weddings, and restaurants if they become. This isn’t possible in an airplane, of course, so plans and alternatives should be required. If theme parks can bar children from rides based on age or height, why can’t airlines look after the comfort and welfare of the majority of their passengers who aren’t babies?
This is an unpopular position. Given the innumerable offenses to passenger comfort that the airlines now inflict on their customers, it’s hardly near the top of the list. Privately, the airlines will admit that dealing it would be a public relations catastrophe. But it bears talking about.
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Dear Etienne: I try to be polite to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ring my doorbell even though I post a sign saying “no solicitors or religious proselytizers please” in three languages. What gives them – or anyone – the right to force, flaunt, declare, or foist their religion on me? -- Private in Poughkeepsie
Dear Private: Nothing gives them the right, but arrogance makes them think that they can ignore the rights of others. Such people believe that their bible empowers them to spread the “good news.” Most people do not. As an atheist, I believe that, if I ever had an imaginary friend, the last thing I’d do would be to tell anybody else. On those occasions when proselytizers ignore my polite posted request to move on and they insist on ringing my doorbell anyway, I leave it up to my mood at the time. If I’m busy, I’ll say “no thank you” or “God told me he doesn’t exist.” If I’m in a playful mood, I will invite them in. I’ll tell them I am not of a mind to convert, but if they need to use my bathroom or if they want some bottled water I’ll be happy to provide them. This confuses these people, as they are trained to expect rejection (how sick is that?) because they have been brainwashed. My brief encounter is not going to change anything, but I am genuinely fascinated by their zeal. (I have a friend who says, as loudly as he possibly can so the neighbors can hear, “A motel?”)
It’s easy to see how the Religious Right gets the idea that Christians are being persecuted. It’s like criminals claiming that they are being persecuted by the police. No, they just cannot accept the fact that they are being rejected by strangers who are offended by their presumptuousness.
Here’s a trick that really shakes them up. If the missionaries look particularly young, I might ask them in a confidential and serious voice if they are being forced to go door-to-door or if they will get punished for failing to convert people, and that I am ready to call the police to rescue them. Then they go away. Fast.
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FROM: Rick Petrione, publisher
TO: Etienne Shurdlow
RE: First columns
We’re getting some nice responses to your first columns, Etienne, and also some flack. Seeing it in print is sure different from when we were tossing the idea back and forth over drinks at Barsanti’s. Do you think we’ve unleashed a monster? – Supportively, Rick
Dear Rick: As we said between our third and fourth scotches, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. We tell the truth on our news pages, why not tell them the truth on our features section? I appreciate your support. Fondly, Etienne
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Dear Etienne: I have a friend who always phones me when I’m sitting down to dinner. I tell her that I’ve got hot food on the table and ask if I can call her back, but then she says, “Oh, I only want to ask you one little thing” and I feel guilty begging off. I would love to simply hang up on her but she owes me money and I don’t want to give her an excuse to default on the loan. -- Hungry in Hartford
Dear Hungry: Nothing says that you have to answer the phone when you’re about to sit down to dinner. If you have Caller ID, make the decision. Let her go to voice mail. You can turn up the speaker to screen the call and if it turns out to be Publisher’s Clearing House telling you you’ve won, pick it up. Beyond that, you already have the solution: if the phone rings and it’s she, tell her, “I’m just about to sit down to dinner. Let me call you back.” If she insists, “it’ll be quick,” say, “thanks, I knew you’d understand” and hang up on her.
As for the money, kiss it goodbye. She knows a sucker when she phones one.
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Dear Etienne: My neighbor’s cat insists on visiting me. She (the cat, not the neighbor) scratches on my door at 6 in the morning until I wake up. I don’t let her in, but she won’t take “no” for an answer and starts meowing outside my window. I don’t hate cats, but this one isn’t mine and she’s a pain in the ass. Any suggestions? -- Cat-Neutral in Cleveland
Dear Cat-Neutral: You really expect a cat to listen? Try talking to your neighbor first. If the neighbor doesn’t listen either, the next time the cat wakes you up, phone your neighbor and tell her that her cat is there. If that isn’t passive-aggressive enough, get a water pistol, fill it with lemon juice, and let the cat have a dose right in the face. It will irritate her but not harm her, and she will get the message. If the cat doesn’t get the message, squirt your neighbor.
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Dear Etienne: I have a male friend who criticizes his wife in front of guests. When I’m visiting them and he starts up, I don’t know where to look. I have spoken to him privately about it and he insists that she doesn’t mind, but I have seen her eyes well up with tears and I know she feels otherwise. When, if at all, do I have the right to intervene? – Uncomfortable in Utica
Dear Uncomfortable: Publicly berating someone is abuse. If your friend feels comfortable enough scolding his wife in front of you for whatever reason, it is your responsibility to tell him that you don’t think that this is appropriate behavior. If he says, “She’s my wife and I’ll treat her as I wish,” you need to assume that the wife is unable or unwilling to protect herself and it’s time for you to leave the house and call the police. If he shamelessly treats her like this when you’re there, how does he treat her when they’re alone?
If you can somehow speak to the wife privately, ask her if she wants help. She may say No or, worse, may say, “I deserve it.” Tell her, “no woman deserves it.” Advise her that if she ever wants help, call you and you’ll call the police. Let her know that there is a way out. Many women are so browbeaten that they are afraid to leave an abusive situation. Some genuinely think it’s their fault. Many abused women would love to leave a violent home environment but they have children, or have nowhere to go, or both. For my part, I have intervened in such a domestic dispute. It was unpleasant but, luckily, I defused it.
Tragically, some domestic disputes cannot be solved by this kind of intervention and the police must be summoned. This is the most dangerous kind of call a police officer can receive and they arrive armed and primed. All you can hope for in such a situation is that they shoot the husband because, frankly, this is likely to be the only solution that works.
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Dear Etienne: My eight-year-old has suddenly decided that he doesn’t want me coming into his elementary school class any more. I asked him if it was because he thought I was giving more attention to the other students than to him, but all he will say is, “you have more important things to do.” I’d like to respect his wishes, Etienne, but I happen to be his teacher. How can I do my job as a parent as well as be his teacher? – Baffled in Binghamton
Dear Baffled: Maybe this is his way of asking to be home schooled or, as most people call it, uneducated. But it’s why most large school systems don’t allow teachers to teach their own children. You need to assure your child that you love him without reservation but that it’s also your job to work with other children. The more secure he feels at home, the less he will feel conflicted at school. Do any of the children in his class complain that you are giving him special attention? Do they accept him as a peer? A lot of grade school children act as though their teacher is a celebrity so that, when they bump into one away from the school environment, they get nervous and giggly. (By the way, this problem also affects children of celebrities.) It is important for you to help your child understand the difference between home and school even if you are present in both places. It’s a good lesson.
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Dear Etienne: I live next to a drag strip. No, not Indianapolis, a suburban neighborhood whose main drag has become exactly that. It’s a stretch of street about two blocks long unencumbered by speed bumps, stop signs, or traffic lights. On any given night – and sometimes during the day – cars will rev their engine and race from one end to the other at high speed. I keep praying that one or more of them will die in a fiery crash because that might bring attention to the problem. So far the police haven’t been able to do anything because, duh, every time they stake out the road, the hotrodders see the cop cars and call off the races. My neighbors and I have discussed everything from using spike strips to firing rifles at their wheels. What do you think? – Cop-less in Chattsfield
Dear Cop-less: I favor spike strips, but a high-powered rifle also works as long as you’re a good shot. Otherwise you’re better off calling the police, as we know how good they are when it comes to dealing with races. If the police cannot do it for whatever reason, talk to your local City Counselor. If that’s fruitless, lobby your State Representative or Congressman. They have staffers who deal with this kind of neighborhood thing all the time. Post lookouts to copy license plates, shoot videos to establish a record, and, as a last resort, petition the local roads department to put in speed bumps. (Speed bumps seldom do what they’re intended to do except bend bumpers and trash exhaust systems, but it’s a start.) Bottom line: the community has to come together and stop relying on the police.
(Just between us, once you get the tag numbers, drive around the neighborhood looking for the racing cars parked in driveways. Don’t get noticed. Do what you need to do. The police are too busy, remember.)
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Dear Etienne: My husband and I live in an apartment building with our two children and a set of noisy neighbors. Not noisy. Sexually active. Several times a week the man and woman go at it and their bed pounds against my children’s bedroom wall. The boys – ages 7 and 8 – have asked my husband and me repeatedly what the sounds are and so far we have told them it’s some little kid bouncing on the bed. They can relate to that, except now they want to bounce on their beds, too, just like the little boy we have lied to them about upstairs. This straw that broke the camel’s back was when our youngest, over breakfast, said, “Please pass the Cheerios and what’s a love too?” How can my husband or me possibly discuss this with our neighbors since they aren’t doing anything wrong, just annoying? – Too Early in Tonawanda
Dear Too Early: You said you live in an apartment; ask your landlord. Many apartment rental agreements require tenants to cover a certain percentage of their floor space with carpeting. If this provision needs to be enforced for your lovebirds, lean on your landlord to do so. As for the sounds of love making, this becomes a matter of discretion (yours) and indiscretion (theirs). They might not be aware of their noises in the heat of passion. Then again, they might be exhibitionists. While their sex life is unquestionably a private matter, the fact that they are sharing it with you and your children makes it public. You might try leaving a restrained anonymous note on their door (in an envelope) letting them know that they can be heard several apartments away. If that fails to do the trick, the morning after it happens next time, hang a blue ribbon on their doorknob and a sign that says “First Prize Hide the Salami Contest.” Under the concept of disturbing the peace, you might also call your local police or Sheriff’s department for advice.
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Dear Etienne: I spend a lot of time keeping my front and back yards neat. Mine looks like a well-manicured golf course; my neighbor’s yard looks like the jungle ride at Disneyland. We live in a nice neighborhood but we have neither laws nor covenants governing cleanliness of property unless there is a clear and present health danger and, fortunately or unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s just a pig sty. What, if anything, can I do? – Grossed Out in Grosse Point
Dear GO in GP: Have you put up a “Winner, Filthiest Neighbor Contest” sign on his front lawn, or perhaps a “For Sale” sign? That always gets attention. It’s hard to force a messy neighbor to clean up his yard unless there is a clear and present health or fire danger. If there is garbage that may attract vermin, call your Board of Health; if there is scattered dry garden detritus or combustibles, you should contact your local fire inspector. Report the conditions and ask for an inspection (you can usually do so anonymously, which is the American way). Although your neighbor may have the right, under law, to refuse to admit an inspector, the advance notice often goads such people into cleaning up. Consider this, however: the resident may be too old or infirm to clean up his property by himself or be able to pay someone else to do so. Have you thought about asking him if he’d like a hand? It might be an activity that could pull the community together. (I’m ashamed I didn’t suggest that first.)
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Dear Etienne: My brother-in-law is a pack rat. Not only does his house look like the last scene from Raiders of the Los Ark, he has rented three storage lockers to hold the overflow: small household appliances, bicycle and engine parts, furniture, and boxes of old lamps, office supplies, and dishes. It’s a fire hazard. He can’t have people into his home any more. I have asked him time and again to clean up his act, but he tells me to mind my own business. I swear there are things living in the stacks of newspapers. I thought I had him ready to clean the place out a few months ago, but then his garage door broke and he just happened to have a spare spring in one of his storage lockers to fix it, and this validated his pack-rattiness. I have checked with the Board of Health, the Fire Department, and the Police, and none of them can do anything because he’s not a danger. – Cluttered in Cincinnati
Dear Cluttered: Hoarding is a disease (and we didn’t need a cheesy TV series to tell us that). The only thing that will work for such a person is an intervention, and this places stress on friends and family as well as creating rifts that may never heal. First you need to determine if your bother-in-law’s man-cave is genuinely a threat to himself or others. You didn’t say whether he was married to your sister or if he is your wife’s brother, but have you tried involving his spouse? Yeah, you probably did. But you’ll need her help to bring a legal challenge to his mental competency. This is pretty serious way to go to bring down on a guy who never learned to clean up his room. Just remember that he is sick, not evil, and if he is ruining only his own life, it’s none of your business.
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 This may not apply to Marine drill sergeants.
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