Think You’re So Tough?

I give my empty plastic water bottles to the homeless instead of cashing them in for their five cent refund. “How nice of her,” you must be thinking.

Well, you can stop. There is nothing altruistic about my giving empty water bottles to the homeless. In fact, it’s pretty selfish. I don’t want the 5 cent refund because I am deathly afraid of the bottle return room. Ever been? If not, let me forewarn you: It’s brutal.

Last summer I hauled three garbage bags overflowing with empty bottles to my local grocery store’s bottle return room. When I entered, there was a man with a long, dingy stained beard and shopping cart full of bottles. We nodded a greeting to one another and I watched as he expertly fed his bottles into his machine. He moved in a rhythm that reminded me of an interpretive dance. It was almost … artistic.

Inspired, I fished out my first bottle and tossed it into the machine. Instead of creating my own fluid interpretive dance, however, I screamed and jumped back. The machine had sucked the bottle from my hand with intense force and an accompanying crunching sound.

I gingerly inserted my second bottle. The machine immediately spat it out. I retrieved the bottle and tried again. The machine spit it out a second time. I looked over at Dirty Beard for help. He came over, took my bottle and effortlessly tossed it into the machine.

“You have to use more force,” he said.

I shoved another bottle into the machine. It was accepted! I rammed in a fourth bottle, then a fifth. It was getting fun! Soon I had the same rhythm as Dirty Beard. As I slowly emptied my first bag, a public transportation bus parked outside. A stream of people entered. They took one look at my two garbage bags full of bottles and instantly became grumpy.

“Almost done?” one lady asked curtly.

I looked down at my bags, “Well, not really.”

The bottle return machine sensed I was nervous. It immediately began rejecting the bottles I tried to feed into its cavernous mouth.  I could hear people sighing behind me as I battled with the temperamental machine. Then, to my horror, the machine groaned and froze.

“Now look what you did!” someone said.

I stared at the machine – mentally begging it to start working again. I even reached into the machine (risking amputation) and tapped the trapped bottle with my finger. It didn’t move.

“I’ll go get help,” Dirty Beard offered.

I thanked him profusely and, like sharks to blood, the crowd behind me attacked the machine he had left. Most of them did the same bottle return dance as Dirty Beard, and within seconds several had finished returning their bottles.

Dirty Beard returned with a store employee . She marched up to the broken machine and peered inside.

“What animal did this?” she snapped.

Animal? Everyone exchanged smug looks. There was a moment of awkward silence until I slowly raised my hand.

“That would be me.”

The store employee’s eyebrows shot up. She looked me up and down.

“You? You did this?”

Swallowing, I nodded. Was I the first person to break a bottle return machine?

“You can’t be so rough,” she sighed, turning back to the machine, “You gotta be gentle with these things.”

I was confused because Dirty Beard had told me to use more force.

“I’m sorry,” I explained, “But this is my first time.”

First time? Well! That was the wrong thing to say. Everyone turned to look at me with their eyebrows raised. The store employee shook her head in disgust.

“Now I gotta call the vendor. This machine is broke.”

Audible groans were heard around the room. Fumbling with my bags, I leaned over and ripped the receipt from the machine.  I had returned a total of $1.35 cents worth of bottles.

“Here,” I said, handing my two remaining bags of bottles to Dirty Beard, “You can have these.”

I turned and fled. I ran to my car and climbed inside, grateful for its familiarity. There are a lot of things in life I know I’m not tough enough to handle.  Add returning bottles to that list.

I’m Sorry … And I Mean It!

Last week my husband was on a flight to Boston when the stewardess spilled a can of V8 all over the man sitting next to him. The man was drenched – V8 juice soaked into his lap, suit jacket, and white shirt. Some even got in his hair.

“I’d like to apologize,” the stewardess said, “But it wasn’t my fault. The can exploded. I can’t apologize for something that wasn’t my fault.”

Outrageously, the V8 can never apologized to the passenger. Perhaps because it was lacking lips and a brain.

A similar incident occurred several years ago. A teenage driver was speeding on our street while texting and lost control of her car. She deftly landed in our yard, though she had to crash through our picket fence to get there. When the girl’s mother arrived at the scene, she studied her daughter’s car and our fence before saying, “This isn’t so bad.” She then proceeded to ask us to not report it to our homeowners insurance.

Of course we were going to. This resulted in an exchange of some heated words.

Woman: My daughter is a good kid. She was in church all day.

My husband: I was in church today too, but you don’t see me crashing through people’s fences. What if my daughter had been in the yard when this happened?!

Woman (looking around): I don’t see any kids.

A simple “I’m sorry” would have made all the difference. Had the woman apologized, perhaps we would have calmed down and not contacted our insurance. We may have taken the woman’s offer to give us money to repair the fence and left insurance out of the equation. But nothing in her attitude gave us the impression she would follow through with that offer. Responsibility was not taken. A much needed apology never given.

If the stewardess on my husband’s flight had apologized for dumping a can of tomato juice on a passenger, other passengers might have felt bad for her. They may have left the flight talking about how well the stewardess handled the situation. Instead they spoke of how rude she was, and encouraged the V8 drenched man to file a complaint with the airline. When she shifted the blame to the self-imploding can, it made her look callous and immature.

Research has shown that patients are less likely to sue a doctor over a medical error if the physician simply says, “I’m sorry” in a kind way.* Whether it is pride or fear of a lawsuit, many doctors don’t take the time to apologize, which only makes the patient more angry and wanting retaliation – usually in the form of suing the doctor who made the mistake. But if the doctor apologizes, anger is quelled and a lawsuit is less likely to happen.

In most circumstances, it seems that two little words can change the course of events in a very big way.

* sources: Apologies and Medical Errors and Physician Apologies

Jerks – Just To Make It Interesting

One of my favorite Far Sides is the one where God is creating the earth.  He’s in a heavenly kitchen, and the world is sitting on the counter. God is brandishing a salt shaker with the word “JERKS” written across it.  As he is about to shake the jerks onto earth, God is thinking, “Just to make it interesting.”

We can all relate to this. I often wonder if the cap to the Jerk salt shaker fell off and instead of a sprinkling, there was a dumping.  They’re on the roads, standing in line at the grocery store, at the DMV, and (oddly enough) employed in the curtain department of JC Penny.  Jerks are simply everywhere.  As Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently stated: “People. They’re the worst.”

Sometimes we have to deal with a certain jerk on a regular basis. This may be a co-worker or relative.  Or a friend of a friend, or someone who happens to stop at the same coffee shop – at the same exact time every morning – as you do.  While we may try our darnedest to evade these people, the fact is, often they are unavoidable.

There was a time in my life when I had to deal with a jerk on a fairly frequent basis.  My tolerance was wearing thin, and I sought advice from a friend who has a knack for dealing with difficult people.

One of her suggestions (I admit, I was never brave enough to do this) was to keep a notebook and pen with me at all times.  Then, when The Jerk said something irritating, I would simply open the notebook and start writing. After I was done, I was to snap the notebook closed and set it aside; until The Jerk said something maddening again, in which case I was to open the notebook back up and start jotting something down.

Let’s imagine this situation:  You’re talking to someone and suddenly they whip out a notebook and start writing, only to close the notebook and look back up at you as though nothing happened.  A few minutes later, out comes the notebook again.  When you ask what they’re writing, they answer all blase, “Oh, nothing.”

Wouldn’t that make you feel a little … unsettled?  Which is something all jerks need every now and then.

My friend also suggested that every time I come in contact with The Jerk, I should have a mental theme song. My friend found that the Wicked Witch’s these song from the Wizard of Oz worked well with the jerk in her life.  I chose circus music, and indeed it added a comical element to The Jerk. (Note: you don’t have to limit it to music per se. When I shared this advice with someone else, that person chose the mental sound of the Gestapo’s sirens whenever her mother-in-law’s car pulled up in front of her house.)

The last suggestion was the one my friend wanted me to use – and rightly so.  She reminded me that people are jerks for a reason. Perhaps the jerk was raised by fellow jerks.  Or perhaps the jerk used to be a great person but became soured by something devastating.  Maybe the jerk isn’t normally a jerk, but is simply having a really bad day and has run out of tolerance for others. (We’ve all been there.)  And maybe, just maybe, we’re the one who is being a bit jerky.

Basically, my friend was suggesting that we need to have patience, and we should try to practice grace with others.  Does this excuse jerky behavior? Absolutely not.  But it does serve as a good reminder that we don’t know what is going on in the life of the jerk.  And maybe if we did know, we wouldn’t consider that person a jerk.

Now.  If only I could use that frame of mind with the lady who just waltzed through the door and didn’t thank me for holding it open for her.