Pushing Back

I saw you. You didn’t think I did because I was busy putting grocery bags in my cart and talking with the young man at the register. I saw you glance down at the sign taped at the end of the conveyor belt that said “trainee.” I saw you turn away even though the belt was empty, and I was nearly finished. I suspect  you turned away because when you heard the cashier speaking, you thought it best not to choose this lane, even if it meant waiting longer somewhere else. Honestly, I hesitated for a moment, too.

The young man at the register had a significant speech impediment and some other physical challenges. In the time it took for him to expertly check out my groceries, we had a wonderful conversation. He was a student at Johnson and Wales University studying hospitality management and was in the area for a summer internship with Hershey enterprises. He told me he had just interviewed the new incoming coach of the Hershey Bears and that based on his presentation in a seminar, he was invited to meet with the CEO of Hershey. He said it took him a while to find his way through college as well as to be hired by this particular store chain, but he persevered and was obviously making a success of his life.

It’s so easy to pass by the opportunity to learn from someone different from us, to make assumptions and to judge based on what we see or think we see. I’ve been guilty of it many times in my life, but I can honestly say that is changing for me. I am looking for ways to get my head out of my white, privileged bubble and see the world from the perspective of those who are different from me.

At the same time, I am sickened by the constant barrage of cruelty directed at that with which we don’t agree or perhaps, don’t understand. Laughing emojis in response to legitimate information about the covid vaccine. The hurtful words and intentional deception coming from the mouths of politicians. The comments about Dr. Rachel Levine. A large sign displayed in someone’s front yard with President Biden pictured in the circle that used to end Bugs Bunny cartoons saying “Th- th- that-s all folks.”  And sometimes the cruelty is insidious and subtle –the knowing glance and the whispered aside at the cocktail party or the conference table that will determine who’s hired and who’s fired.

I’ve always been one to keep my mouth shut because it just fans the flames of divisiveness, especially online. We’re all picking our way along paths filled with social and political landmines.  But if I’m uncomfortable or offended by something expressed to me personally, I am now more likely to respond. There have been times when I deeply regret taking the safe road and not speaking up for what I believed to be right. Those experiences taught me it’s okay to push back, even at the risk of changing how I am perceived by others. And sometimes pushing back simply means choosing a different lane at the grocery store and listening to someone’s story.

Grocery Store Madness

Just came back from a trip to one of our local grocery stores and wanted to share a few tips about using the self-check-out lanes. I’m not talking about the ones for when you just have a gallon of milk and a bag of dog food. They’re convenient, and I’ve seldom had a problem with them.

But, my friends, beware of the I’m-now-a-store-employee ones with the moving belts and the multiple bagging stations. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

First of all, I totally understand that grocery store chains are trying to cut overhead costs and like so many other businesses, they can’t get enough help. But really? Only two full-service lanes open on a Friday morning?? They still have to employ people to help customers negotiate with the self-check scanners so why not just put them to work as cashiers?? Might want to see what your competition with stores in nearby towns is doing. I can honestly say I have never waited for more than one person ahead of me in their check-out lanes, even on a day before a holiday. And their cashiers graciously and efficiently bag your groceries all the while carrying on pleasant conversations about how to cook the items you’re purchasing.

But I digress. Today, I had what I would call a moderate number of items in my cart. Too many for the quick lanes but a glance at the two staffed registers showed long lines of people who would potentially write checks to pay for their groceries or argue about expired coupons. So I took a deep breath and headed for the varsity self-check lanes.

Do not attempt this method if you are by yourself. One person cannot unload the cart and get the items scanned and bagged to meet the standards of the dis-embodied voice inside the computer. It can’t be done. I felt like I was in that famous scene from the old Lucy show where she and Ethel were working in the candy factory, and they couldn’t keep up with the conveyor belt. Fortunately, I’m someone who always weighs and labels my produce, because I can’t imagine what trials await those who must “look up” an item.

The first prompt is “Please place your item in the bagging area.” Yes, I’m doing that, give me a minute for God’s sake. When I tried to put the filled bags back in the cart (which still wasn’t empty), the computer yelled at me. “Please do not remove items from the bagging area.” What? Where am I supposed to put all this stuff? And what about my twenty-five pound box of cat litter that doesn’t fit in the bag-holder space? What do I do with that? Then it’s “Are you ready to complete your order?” No, damn it, I’m trying to figure out where to put these bags I’m not allowed to remove from the bagging area. The teenager monitoring all of this came over numerous times to wave his badge in front of the computer which acts as a sort of sedative for the machine. It sighs, re-sets itself and allows you to continue scanning. On one of his trips, he leaned over and said, “I’ll tell you a secret. If you wait until you see the red light on the scanner, you can move your bags into the cart.”

WHAT??? Why don’t they freaking tell us that?? Nothing on the screen says that a red light means you’re in a neutral zone and you can move groceries wherever you want. I missed that during orientation. Oh, I forgot. There was no orientation. I’m just a customer trying to make it easier for the corporate bigwigs to buy another yacht. Sorry—didn’t mean to be snarky but there is some truth to that.

I finally completed the transaction with my groceries shoved haphazardly into bags—not my usual neat and efficient process which has prompted cashiers to ask, “Were you ever a bagger?” It probably took as long as if I had stood in line behind the check-writers. Here’s a thought. Maybe take that creepy robot who wanders around the store dodging carts and making a general nuisance of himself and teach him to run the registers.

Marking Words and Treats

We’re in the midst of puppy camp right now with Sophie, the Westie puppy who joined us in January. We spend an hour a week learning the basics of civilized behavior—sit, stay, down, and how to control yourself when approached by another creature. The class consists of fifteen dogs of various breeds and sizes, and the head instructor has the demeanor of a high school coach working with a team of new recruits. She keeps both the over-stimulated puppies and anxious owners well in line.

 “Ok, people, show me your poop clean-up bags. Hold ‘em high. There is no such thing as the poop fairy around here.”

One of the first things we learn is to use a marking word when our dog exhibits an appropriate and desired behavior. The word is “Yes!” spoken in a firm and exuberant manner. We practice saying it in unison as the instructor tosses a string cheese stick (highly prized treat) in the air and we all shout “Yes!” at the exact moment it hits the floor. Precise timing of the marking word is essential in teaching the puppy a new behavior. As each new command is taught, a correct response from the dog is followed immediately by “Yes!” and a food treat. The idea is for the owners to establish themselves as the leader of the pack but always through positive and encouraging praise, not by angry and punitive words.

I couldn’t help but think how we have all had to learn new commands in the last year. Stay home, mask up, quarantine, social distance, lock down. Behaviors for which we previously had no more understanding or context than a three-month old puppy being told to sit and stay. Maybe we needed a marking word to get us to do what we were supposed to or maybe we needed more high value treats to reward us when we complied, although the reward of not getting sick or dying is pretty high value. It seems like many of us were easily distracted—barking at others, pulling on our leashes, and trying to establish dominance in the pack.

At the end of the six-week session, dogs and their owners must demonstrate a number of basic skills in order for the dog to be designated an “American Kennel Club Star Puppy.” It requires cooperation and practice and working together as a team. Learning to be good human and canine citizens involves constant repetition of the marking word and lots of treats and lots of hugs. We could all take a lesson from the dog trainers.

A Very Special Orchestra

Right now more than a few graduates of a local high school are dusting off long-unused instruments. They’re checking for broken violin strings or dried out cakes of rosin. Brass instruments are being oiled and woodwind reeds purchased. Are those cello pegs going to move and if they do, will the strings stay in tune for longer than a few minutes? And, most importantly, can they remember how to play this thing that was such a huge part of their life so many years ago? I suspect there’s going to be a lot of practicing  in the next month or two, including in my own home. My once respectable flute playing has been dormant for too long, and I’m paying the price now to whip it back into shape.

In early June, all of us will gather together with that high school’s current orchestra and celebrate the life of our teacher, colleague, and friend who left us way too soon. We will play him home to Jesus in the warmth of a June morning the way we couldn’t during a dark pandemic November. Our grief may not be as raw as in those first terrible days, but it still clamors to be expressed, perhaps even more so now that months have passed.

We will sit in front of the young conductor who has taken his place and glance around at those who shared our musical lives. Who got in trouble on the orchestra trip. Who always cut class to hang out in the band room. Whose parents called the principal to complain about how mean this teacher was, and who now understands how that mean-ness changed his or her life for the better. Who played a solo they’ll remember forever because this teacher believed they could. Who started this individual on his musical career by handing him a cello to learn to play because there were no openings for a piano  accompanist in his high school orchestra. Who remembers the frustrations and the laughter and the satisfaction of working with someone whose strengths complemented your weaknesses and vice versa.

Some are traveling a great distance to play in this orchestra again, and there will be joyful reunions and sharing of memories. Several local music educators who were inspired and trained by this man are making it all happen—from organizing Facebook groups, to scanning pages of music to managing the logistics of the event.

The members of this very special orchestra may be a little grayer, a little wiser, and perhaps, a bit more jaded than when they were sixteen. But the music is still there. Muscle memory will bring it all back as fingers wrap around a bow, as a violin is tucked under a chin, as trumpet bells are raised. When we look up for a cue, someone different will be on the podium. But we will see our beloved maestro and play our best for him, one last time.