Meeting my non-obligations

About 6 months ago I was at a Catholic men’s conference.  The priest who was speaking happened to mention that whenever he is in line at Starbucks, he always pays for the person behind him.   As I am a long-time proponent of giving simply because you can, I decided to adopt this policy myself.  (I have since learned from friends at Starbucks that it is not uncommon for people to do this at the drive-thru.)  Whenever there is someone in line behind me, I will tell the baristperson that the next person’s drink is on me.  I don’t do this for any deeper reasons than 1) I can, and B) it makes other people happy, and I enjoy happiness.  It’s a good return on the investment of a few dollars.

The reactions I have gotten are varied and usually positive.  There’s usually a moment of “What?!” when the baristette tells them their drink is already paid for, followed by a look at me and the question, “Are you serious?”  (Disclaimer: That would be a really mean thing to do.)  Once they realize I am serious, then comes the smile.  Most people thank me two or three times, as if I had just rescued them from the Cybermen.  One woman did a little dance.  Once on a Saturday morning, a teenage girl beamed at me and said, “I’ve been up since 4AM, and everything has gone wrong today.  This is the only good thing that has happened!”  I floated through the entire weekend on that one.  That is why I do it, so someone can go through the rest of their day knowing that something good happened.

But every once in a while, someone will look at me apologetically and say, “Oh, you don’t have to do that!”  I never know quite how to respond to them, because that statement is both obvious and irrelevant.  And it puts me in a quandry, because it kind of defeats the purpose of making people happy to mock them while doing it.

Here are some of the things I want to say, but don’t:

  • “I don’t?!?!  Oh, thank God!  Now I can go buy that wooden hip for my grandmother!”  (Disclaimer: Yes, wooden hip.  As I was writing that line, the terms “wooden leg” and “artificial hip” collided in my mind like those chocolate and peanut butter addicts in the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials of my youth.  Coincidentally, a peanut butter/chocolate pileup on the interstate is why my grandmother needs a wooden hip.)
  • “Of course I do!  They’re watching!”

There was one woman who was so adamant about buying her own coffee that she tried to force $5 into my shirt pocket, even as I kept backing away from her.  No matter what I said, she insisted on reimbursing me for her drink.  She relented only when I finally told her, “If you give me back the money, I’m just going to pay for her drink instead!”, referring to the person in line behind her.  (I did end up paying for her drink as well, with far less brouhaha.)  But I really just wanted to stop her and say, “Seriously?  Are you so horrible a person that you’re not worthy of a free cup of coffee?  Do you really need to fight back this hard?”

So I’ve come up with a compromise, one that I hope balances my dual obligations to be kind to strangers and still mock them.  Whenever someone says to me, “You don’t have to do that,” I just turn to them, smile, and say, “I’m sorry, did I ask for your opinion?”

I haven’t been punched yet.  Yet.


It’s who you know

Fortune cookie wisdom from my drive home:

You should have at least two people in your life: one who sees you for who you are and likes you anyway, and one who sees you the way you wish you were and makes you want to be that way.

If you don’t have these two people in your life, you need to meet more people.

Just once

In discussing the bombings at the Boston Marathon, a friend of long standing made an interesting point.  I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I often say ‘I hate people’.  I don’t always mean it.  Sometimes I say it to be funny, or I say it about someone I disagree with.  But when I see people do good things, it gives me hope.”

I’ve been thinking about this all day.  It’s one of the main reasons I’ve largely disengaged from Facebook.  The guiding principle of Facebook seems to be, “Say mean things to be funny, or to gain the approval of like-minded friends.”  Maybe I read more into things than is really there.  I’ve made the comment before that communicating via social media or IMs is a lot like having Asperger’s.  There’s a ton of social clues that can’t be conveyed with the written word.  Emoticons are a poor substitute for facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture, etc.  I once had an online argument with a girl I was seeing because she typed the wrong emoticon, accidentally conveying anger instead of amusement.  Not my finest hour.

Nowadays, I use a different analogy for Facebook.  I liken it to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy is accidentally given telepathy, and can hear the dark thoughts of her friends, the ones no one ever speaks out loud.  The difference is that people now trumpet their dark thoughts to the world, expecting (and often receiving) approval for things they should be ashamed of. Continue reading

Giving, but not giving back

Thoughts for too early on a Sunday morning:

We make it too easy to outsource compassion.  This thought woke me up this morning, maybe because I still have to do my taxes today.  Every year, I pay the government thousands of dollars to provide me with “government”.  Some of it is good, like roads and border control.  Some of it is stupid, like cowboy poetry festivals and paying artists to put crucifixes in urine.

And some of it I have mixed emotions about.  Some of the money goes to provide people with food, and shelter, and medical care.  These are all good and necessary activities, and I’m not going to rant today about how the way governments do this creates a culture of dependency.  (Disclaimer: it does.)

But they take away something from people that’s just as important — the opportunity to give.

Not the obligation to give.  We have plenty of that.  We give because we’re told to.  We give because we received when it was our turn.  We give “back” because we feel guilty about having too much.  But I wonder if we’re losing the ability to give simply because the opportunity arises. Continue reading


For me, the most inspiring story of the Bible is the book of Jonah.  Most people know of this as the story of Jonah and the whale.  (This would be the scene in the trailer of the movie Jonah!)  Ask most people what they remember of the story, and they’ll tell you some variation of “Jonah blah blah blah whale something something 3 days yadda yadda lesson”.  The whole story is a lot more interesting to me.  It goes something like this:

(Disclaimer: I am about to take a lot of liberties with the wording and motivations here, because I’m a Catholic, and we don’t consider this to be a literal historical account.  Think of this as a “re-imagining” of the original inspirational story, based on the parts I remember without going and looking it up again.)

Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah, who was largely uninteresting, except for the fact that he was the first person in history to be named Jonah.  So one day, Jonah is hanging out doing whatever it was people did back in those days (after hunter-gathering, before mowing), when he hears God call out “Jonah!”

Jonah, being the only person named Jonah, assumes it’s him that’s being called and answers, “Yes, Lord”.  God says, “I want you to go to Nineveh.  The people there have decided to be wicked again, and I need you to tell them to knock it off and repent.  How about it?” Continue reading


PMI stands for Private Mortgage Insurance.  This blog entry has nothing to do with that.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad saying one time that he noticed that his kids (my brother, sister and I) seemed to be the only kids in the neighborhood who were happy most of the time.  It was true, and for me it still is.  (Actually, for all three of us, but this is about me.)  A big part of this is my sense of humor.  Every day is an opportunity to laugh at something, and whether I find it or not, I know it’s out there.

Another part of being happy is that I live in harmony with my surroundings.  Not nature.  Nature’s been out to get me since I was a little kid.  Between taking advantage of my having fair skin that burns easily and a conspiracy to put poison ivy all through the woods behind my house, Mother Nature has had it out for me for almost half a century, and the feeling is mutual, so we’ve learned to pretty much stay clear of each other.  (Disclaimer: Some people say they were born too late, that they were meant to live in the Old West or the Renaissance.  I never say that.  I was born too early.  I was born to live on a space colony, where no one asks you to go play outside, because its 200 degrees below zero and there’s no air.) Continue reading