Sunday, November 13, 2011

Decency




It started on the playground when I made fun of a kid named Eddie.

We were in fifth grade and playing my favorite recess game, Socko, a more manly form of Dodgeball. It involved throwing a soccer-sized rubber ball at the opposing team across the line. If you hit a guy with the ball he was out. But if he managed to catch and hold onto the ball, you were out. Speed and power were of the essence.

This day Eddie was on the opposing team. He was the tallest kid in class and a little slow afoot. To get in his head I started loping around my side of the line pretending to be Eddie. My teammates started to laugh. Never one to give up the stage when the going is good, I continued my pantomime.

Finally, Eddie had had enough. "You wanna fight?" he said.

This challenge was issued in the full hearing of everyone on the Socko court. Things suddenly got very quiet, like that old E. F. Hutton commercial. Activity ceased as the crowd awaited my answer. The code of the schoolyard dictated that I not back down. To refuse would have marked me a coward, especially since I'd started the whole thing.

So I said, "Yeah."

News of the fight spread like a Southern California wildfire. It was whispered in the bathrooms, shouted in the hallways, discussed over peanut butter sandwiches in the lunch area. By the end of the day it seemed like the entire student body of Serrania Avenue Elementary School had turned out to the regular fight venue, across the street on a grassy lot.

I was nervous. While I had a quickness advantage, Eddie had height and reach on me. Also, his fists also looked like canned hams.

And so the circle formed and the two ten-year-old adversaries put up their dukes.

I got in the first lick, a right to Eddie's mouth. He shook his head a couple of times and the next thing I knew my world went red. One of those canned hams smacked me square in the snout and I started bleeding like the Red Sea.

This ended the fight as everybody recoiled in horror. Including Eddie. He did not follow up or come in for the kill. Everything just fizzled.

I walked home with my hands over my nose. My mom just about had a heart attack when she saw me caked with blood. But ten-year-old boys are supposed to do that to their mothers every now and then. It's a story as old as mankind itself.

Later that evening Eddie's mom called my mom. My mom called me to the phone. Eddie came on.

"You okay?" Eddie said.

"You gave me a bloody nose," I said.

"Sorry," Eddie said. "You gave me a fat lip."

"Sorry," I said.

There was a slight pause, then Eddie said, "Wanna be friends?"

"Okay," I said.

"Okay," Eddie said. "Bye."

"Bye."

I'm sure what happened was this. Eddie's mom saw her son's ballooned lip and had the same reaction my mom did. And then she said to him something like, "You are going to call and apologize."

And Eddie did.

I never forgot that, because you don't forget acts of decency. They seem rarer and rarer these days. The idea that there is a certain code of behavior for a civilized society is now more of a quaint notion than a moral imperative. And that's just a shame.

Eddie moved away the next year so we weren't in the same school anymore. Life went on. I retired from schoolyard fighting. I didn't see the point. I preferred my nose just the way it was.

Then, in high school, my basketball team went to play a non-conference game in another county. We came out on the court for our warm ups and there on the other team's bench sat Eddie. He looked exactly the same, only now he was about 6'8" and his hands were the size of dining room tables.

I ran over and stood in front of him.

He looked up and took about two seconds to recognize me. Then he broke out into a big smile and said, "Jim!"

He stood up and put out his hand and I took it. No longer were we throwing fists with them.

Because we were friends.

I thought about Eddie this week. It was a bad one in our country, with news of horrific acts performed at a respected university on the watch of a beloved football coach. There was death and violence in tent cities, and continuing breakdown of civil discourse in our political realm. Sometimes it seems like the whole society has a collective nosebleed after a getting punched in the face. And there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it.

But we can. Be kind to somebody this week. It'll probably shock them. And don't be afraid to say you're sorry if you've messed up. We flat out need more decency around here. Let it start with us.

22 comments:

  1. There's a reason things like decency and sense are no longer called common. I'm with you, Jim.

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  2. Agreed. Not that there aren't already acts of kindness because there are. But we could sure use a lot more.

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  3. Very cool post, Jim.

    As a young wife I accompanied my husband to southeastern Ohio to meet his parents. On one of our outings we stopped at a park for a rest.

    I dropped my purse outside the car without realizing it, and we drove away. Two hours later, I realized it. We didn't have a lot of money - I think there was $40.00 in cash, and our credit cards, but I did have personal things in there - pictures I loved, my calendar, no cell phones back then.

    I cancelled the credit cards and we drove back to Georgia, without my purse.

    A box arrived about a week later at my home with a note that read: "Found this at the park and thought you'd want it back."

    Everything was there in the box, returned to me by a total stranger.

    Decency.

    That's the way it's supposed to be.

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  4. Another excellent post, Jim. We don't have to like everyone we encounter; however, I believe that our implied contract as a society requires that we at the very least be civil with each other in our daily dealings. This would include common acts of courtesy: holding doors for the person behind you, saying "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me,"things like that.
    One of the factors in the selection of our younger daughter's high school (Columbus Metro Early College) was that I observed the students holding doors for each other. It isn't a requirement; they just do it.

    Great story, Paula. I'd like to think that those incidents occur more often than we think.

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  5. Not much more needs to be said except, "Amen." Thanks, Jim. We all needed this.

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  6. Paula, I love stories like that. Thanks.

    Joe, you're so right. Those simple actions speak volumes. I drive around LA and if someone wants to change into my lane I always let them...it's my little revolution against the default setting here, which is to never let anyone get in front of you, ever, unless they're brandishing a weapon.

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  7. Very touching post, Jim. And thought-provoking as well.

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  8. Kathleen, if nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve...but I will hold the door open for whoever wins.

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  9. Love this story. It remind me that you can be modern, interesting, and kind. And I love your driving subversiveness.

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  10. well, that warmed the cockles of my heart [they're right next to the ventricles] growing up in the 50's and 60's in rural northern michigan, i wish we could have some of the simplicity of that time. because along with it came a more ladylike and gentlemanly demeanor. one where your mom would make you apologize...instead of calling the family lawyer!!

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  11. DEFER JUDGEMENT

    ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER

    CONSIDERATION FOR ALL

    ENJOY FRIENDSHIP

    NOBLE GESTURES

    CREATIVE SOLUTIONS

    YOU HOLD THE KEY

    Have an awesome day, Jim and all of you who frequent The Kill Zone.

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  12. kathy, yes, there was once a common, collective code of civility and just plain "manners."

    And Jillian, thanks for adding to the discussion.

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  13. Thank you so much for writing this. I sometimes wonder if I've done my kids a disservice by instilling in them the values of decency and ordinary kindness my parents insisted on. The world doesn't seem very accepting of kindness and decency any more. Then I read something like this and I take a deep breath. Yes. This is the way to be.

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  15. Paula, I had a similar thing happen to me in Dallas. I was touched.

    Jim, as always, you nail it. In my job, I have to do some really harsh things. Cross me too hard and you can end up with an arrest warrant. I still try to be decent. I call you by your name, I listen to your story, I make sure you have legal representation. If I have to get rough, if you have any common sense at all, you know it is because things have gone too far. Return that decency and I'll use every bit of discretion I have.

    I would like to add another component to this discussion - humility. If you don't agree with someone politically, call them out on the specific issue - don't tell them to "take a bath" and "get a job." Keep your opinions like that to yourself and your like-minded friends. If you are a writer who has experienced a big success, don't go around announcing how awesome and magic you are. I reminded one such writer accepted to a hotly competitive analogy that his first readers were going to be the writers he is now crowing over. Not smart.

    I've had some success in life. However, the last two years have also beat me almost flat. I don't look down on someone who is trying and who is expressing themself, unless they are being an ass. Anyone who does that doesn't understand that they are one catastrophe from being in the same boat.

    Decency, kindness, empathy, humility - now there's a winning combo.

    Terri

    PS: Not looking for sympathy. Just an acknowledgement that sometimes humility and empathy are lessons that have to be learned with a clue-by-4

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  16. I absolutely love this post. (Thank you Lara Schiffbauer @LASbauer for tweeting it). At 54 y.o., I sometimes wonder WTH is wrong with the world. Simply put, we can’t be nice to each other. We don’t hold doors, we don’t say please and thank and excuse me, we don’t help the ancient lady load her bags of groceries into her car, we don’t speak up when we see an injustice (though I tend to when I see one I just can’t stand). We have become a nation of “mind your own business” people. When I was pre-teen, I punched somebody out and ripped her blouse off because she was relentlessly teasing a friend of mine. And I warned her to knock it off. My mom backed me up when that wicked girl’s mom called. I can’t stand it when people are mistreated. Great post!! I’m sharing it all over the place. P.S. I don't punch people out any more, though sometimes I'd like to.

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  17. LJ, sometimes you do the right thing just because it's the right thing. Sink or swim.

    Terri, agreed. When was the last time humility was championed in a college classroom or TV talk show?

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  18. Karen, if it makes you feel any better I still hold doors for folks & teach my sons (one of whom was and the other two still are Boy Scouts) to do the same.They also say 'Sir" & "Ma'am" and show respect for elders and women and know it is best to walk away from most fights.

    In addition to that my younger two are black belts, and all of them are familiar with handling fire arms, the oldest pretty well. I have taught them that part, as I learned it myself from my dad, because there are also times that manners just don't seem to convey the sense of decency adequately.

    I've taught my son's one of the ultimate truths of my own experience:

    Be polite and show respect to everyone. But when it comes to protecting the innocent, be ready to stand up to anyone.

    the actual version I was taught started the same, but ended with "be ready to kill anyone".... I went a little softer on my kids...for now

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  19. I love your posts, but I may love this one most of all. I want to say because I have three boys, that this is an important lesson for me to teach. But with all the little girls getting mixed and screwed up messages from reality TV, I'm thinking gender doesn't matter and we could all take a page from you and Eddie.

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  20. Thanks for this great post. I think a lot of people use the excuse of the 'busyness' of life to ignore basic common courtesies, and if we treat people more like commodities than human beings it's counterintuitive to promoting old-fashioned and 'slow' values like respect, patience, and kindness. Everything's moving too fast to bother. I was working as a cashier, and when people have to wait in a line longer than 30 seconds, all pretense of civility is tossed out the door. My goal besides serving the customer quickly was to find something to help them feel good about like complementing them on a clothing item or asking them what project they were buying an item for. When you focused on the person AS A PERSON, amazingly enough, people returned the favor. But attitudes can only change one person at a time. Thanks for the reminder.

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