Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Maybe It's True"

Mr. Rosen had two fingers missing on his right hand.

He covered it – “it” meaning the place you don’t want to look but your eyes are drawn to it anyway – with a black leather glove, which he always wore when he was driving us to school. Mr. Rosen was called a taxi driver, but what he was was a man who picked up little Jewish children from their suburban Toronto homes and shuttled them to and from the Toronto Hebrew Day School, which was downtown. (The school itself? That’s for another time.)

You knew Mr. Rosen was missing fingers because two fingers on his black glove just flopped around. And because my older brother said so.

Okay, so I’m six years old, and Mr. Rosen’s escorting me personally to my front door, which is not generally his habit. I’m holding Mr. Rosen’s hand. The other hand. Mr. Rosen delivers me to my mother, but not without comment, which is the reason for the personal delivery. Mr. Rosen’s comment is this:

“Your son is a chronic complainer.”

Six years old, and I’m a “chronic complainer.” Come on! I’ve been around for six years. Am I really old enough to be a chronic anything?

Where’s the line? I say, ten. Ten years, you can be a chronic something. But six years, especially your first six years of existence? That’s outrageous.

And what of the charge itself? Was I, indeed, a “chronic complainer” as Mr. Rosen had proclaimed? Let’s leave out “chronic”; I’ve expressed my position on the ten-year cut-off. “Chronic” aside, was the six year-old Early Raymond Pomerantz indisputably a complainer?


Although I wouldn’t call it a “complainer.” I’d call it a “noticer.” I’d notice things that other people apparently ignored, and then I’d say something about them. I wasn’t aware at the time that people’s ignoring certain realities – some might call it “taking things in stride” – was an encouraging sign of mental stability. I just thought they were lousy noticers.

I noticed things, and gave voice to those noticings. To Mr. Rosen, that made me a “chronic complainer.”

Here’s the thing, and I think you’ll agree. People who are labeled “complainers”, or even “chronic” complainers, never complain about nothing. They’re not idiots. A situation is awry, and they’re compelled to complain about it. People who never complain about anything, at least from my perspective, there’s something wrong with them. Those people are asleep!

The question is: Is the situation which I’m about to relate to you worth complaining about? If it isn’t, then yes, I’m a complainer. If, however, it is worth complaining about, then I’m not a complainer but am, instead, a person who noticed the unacceptable and spoke out boldly for its remedy, an action, which could seriously be described as heroic.

You see how I turned that around? Well, hold your judgment. There could be something to it.

The decision I will leave in your hands.

Here are the facts:

Mr. Rosen regularly chauffeured nine children in his “taxi.” Seven sat in the back seat, and two sat in the front, beside Mr. Rosen and his missing fingers. That was the trade-off. You could sit in the front seat with the fingers, or you could be penned up in the back. Most of us opted to be penned up.

No seat belts. Seven children, crammed in the back seat – two stacks of two kids, one stack of three. Not safe, but that’s how it was. The kid on the bottom was the safest, because the kids on top of them were holding them in place. If the car stopped abruptly, they’d be the least likely to go flying through the window. The kids on top would be flying out before them, and by then, the car would probably be stopped. On the “down-side”, with a child of indeterminate weight wedged in on top of you, if was very difficult to breathe.

Being one of the first “pick-ups” on the route, I was inevitably consigned to the bottom tier, where I stood a two-out-of three chance of having only one kid – invariably a larger kid, as I was small for my age – planted on top of me. There were comments, I admit, utterances of discomfort, but no actual complaints. And certainly, no “chronic” ones.

Then things got worse.

At the age of sixteen, a Canadian long-distance swimmer named Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario. After her heroic accomplishment, for reasons never explained to us children, Mr. Rosen started picking up Marilyn Bell and driving her to school, a private high school not far from the Toronto Hebrew Day School.

Marilyn Bell always sat in the front. Alone. If you don’t count Mr. Rosen.

What that meant, of course, was that, now, nine children had to somehow fit themselves in the back seat – the “somehow” being three piles of three. I was invariably be found at the bottom of one of these piles. The children weighing down my lap were heavy. And I could not breathe at all.

So I complained.

What was Marilyn Bell doing in our taxi? Why was I consistently designated to the bottom of the pile? And at the very least, could somebody please open a window so I could breathe?

You tell me. Was that unjustified?

Smothered under a pile of humanity and seriously lacking in oxygen, I speak out. And now, I’m a “chronic complainer.”

The question is, “Is that the label correct?” Frankly, there are signs that it might be. Writers, generically, are complainers. Take fiction writers. Their stories may be based on personal experience, but unhappy with the facts they lived them, they change things in their fictional depictions, altering events and outcomes, so they’re more to their liking, or at least more compelling.

What’s their complaint? Reality isn’t good enough.

Writers like me, honest chroniclers of actual experience, we change stuff all the time, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Finding the real truth, somehow, unsatisfying, we remember the truth as we choose to remember it, a truth which, not surprisingly, makes us look better.

It’s all complaining, in one way or another. The world is not how we want it to be. And in our writing, we’re fixing it. Other people smile and whistle, accepting life as it comes to them. Their writing output isn’t much, but the complaining, to the relief of the people around them, is at a minimum.

Last night, I watched a woman on C-SPAN lecture on a book she wrote called, Evil Genes. Her view is that many behaviors we think we control, we really don't. Instead, our behavior is largely the result or our individualized genetic programming.

If she’s right, then there could be something in our DNA that compels certain people to be complainers. (And, not coincidentally, to be writers.) If this predisposition is a permanent fixture of their make-up, the complaining can’t help but be chronic.

Okay, then. Confession:

I may be a chronic complainer.

And Mr. Rosen – wherever you are – who complained about my being a chronic complainer?

You may be one too.


rich schulman said...

I feel like complaining is a mild form of anger; much more acceptable
to some folks. probably nobody wants to reminded that they are angry.
On a side note I wish I was a better speller(I feel better I complained).

Keith said...

"So I complained.

What was Marilyn Bell doing in our taxi? Why was I consistently designated to the bottom of the pile? And at the very least, could somebody please open a window so I could breathe?"

Did you actually ask all three of these questions sequentially? Or even within a span of five minutes? If so, then I'd definitely label you a chronic complainer.

Make the first complaint and wait for support from the other kids. "Yeah, what is Marilyn Bell doing in our taxi?" Suddenly you're not a complainer, but a leader. A leader for change. And if the support doesn't come you can always fake a voice from the bottom of the pile: "That Earl sure makes a lot of sense"

impwork said...

I wouldn't have put that label on you but given it still bugs you all these years later maybe, just maybe, they had a point ;-)