Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Curious Properties of Plate Glass

I was looking for old stories to post, and I found a snatch of a rant I wrote about war about five years ago. I decided to turn it into a twisted little short story. Enjoy.

The Curious Properties of Plate Glass

"Just one?"

"Yes." I said. It was the same thing every night. They knew me here, the night crew. It was the only place halfway good to get a meal at 3 am. I followed Jamie the waitress to my booth in the back corner.

"I'll be back with some coffee hun. I brewed a fresh pot just for you." Jamie bustled off. Why do waitress always call you hun? I settled into the vinyl booth and stared at the closed menu. Why bother opening it? I always got the same thing. I closed my eyes briefly. Sometimes I don't like to be served by Jamie, she tends to be on the talkative side. Luckily, she doesn't mind being the only one talking. I just hope some other customers come in and she doesn't launch into her rant about Thai prostitution. I hate listening to that crap when I'm trying to eat.

"What would you like?" Jamie was back, setting the coffee down as her words brought me back to the booth.

"Same I guess."

"Not going to mix it up?"

"I'm too tired to decided."

"Alright hun, that'll be one meatloaf special with a side of fries with ranch dressing instead of ketchup. It'll be a couple of minutes. We need to make a new batch of fries. The cook dropped a whole peach cobbler in the fryer, cardboard box and everything. Took forever to get it cooled down and cleaned out."


"Yeah. Okay, I'll be back in a few." Jamie swept up the menu and left. I creamed and sugared my coffee, then watched it steam lazily as the spoon swirl died out. It was fresh. I waited for the coffee to cool to a non-lawsuit temperature. Jamie returned before I had a chance to take my first sip. She leaned her hip against the side of the booth. Evidently, with nothing else to do, she was prepared to bunker down and yak.

"Peace has always been something that has bugged me, and war was always fascinating." she said. "I grew up on military bases, and played on tanks when just a toddler. I was steeped in militarism, but not in war. Soldiering is about defending ideas, not about butchering people - though obviously, that is what tends to happen. So if war is about ideas, couldn’t there be a better way to deal with conflict?"

"Mmm-hmmm." I sipped my coffee. She continued.

"The most optimistic would say yes - but it is not an easy yes. Ghandi proved that yes, but his legacy is nearly in tatters now, as India and Pakistan live out their own MAD plan." She fiddled with the pockets on her apron. "It is difficult, twisted, complex yes. Handling that yes is different than handling any past issue. There are no simple answers, no simple solutions. It will take work, it will take time, and it will take tremendous effort by everyone. Nearly impossible ... be back in a sec hun."

I closed my eyes again, waiting for the caffeine to kick in. In a minute Jamie was back with the plate of meatloaf.

"Here we go." She slid it in front of me, moving my coffee cup out of the way. She resumed her post by the side of the booth.

"Thanks." I said, unrolling my knife and fork from the curl of napkin.

"If I could summarize why all the wars in the world took place, reducing all the maddening details to a phenomenon - I would say that they started because someone needed to be listened to. They may not have had anything to say, but they needed someone to actually listen to them. They needed their collective ego to be acknowledged. Don’t agree? Apply the following sentence to the cause of any war you can think of: 'I’m or we are taking this food/territory/people/etc because it is mine/ours.'

"Fits doesn’t it? And there is a tone of indignation about it. 'If you get in my way, I’ll hurt you.' This brings me back to my days in elementary school being bullied around. The similarity is not coincidental. Being active about the integrity of one’s ego is a nearly universal characteristic of being human (and even mammalian). Essentially, it manifests itself as selfishness. One can be selfish about oneself, one’s family, one’s tribe or identifying group, one’s nation, race, religion or species. Those fries should be ready by now."

She left again. I chewed on a bit of meatloafy gristle. Why was there always a bit of gristle in ground beef? Couldn't the meat processors work it out so that never happened? When did they last bother to upgrade their equipment? In my head I began to see a meat packing plant - animals conveyed on hooks, dripping cold grayish blood on cement floors, being released whole into hoppers, being jerkily ground by gnawing blades, large bones splintering and spraying toothpick size bits against rusted metal. I started to gag. I took the bit of gristle out of my mouth and hid it behind the mound of mashed potatoes sopped with dark gravy.

Jamie was back and placed a red basket of glistening hot fries next to my plate. The little bowl of ranch was nestled in the middle.

"Thanks." I said.

"Sure hun. You know, I always say to myself that selfishness is often important when it comes to survival, 'do I/we have enough resources?', but cooperation and altruism is also very important for social species. Social insects have turned altruism into a fine art. Unfortnately, we can’t be cooperative and altruistic all the time. We’d probably die a slow boring death if we never took time for ourselves (we have a high need for amusement and navel gazing). Anyway, think of the following situation: you are in your car at a stoplight in a city. A homeless person approaches your vehicle and asks for money. He is bedraggled, and looks like he can definitely use some help. You can certainly afford to spare a buck. You have a choice, help him or not?"

"Mmmm." I mumbled as I munched on a ranch-drenched fry.

"Most people would probably choose not to help. This doesn’t mean that most people are cold and callous. Nor does it mean that they are entirely selfish. There are just a lot more factors invovled than is apparent. One common reason to say no is that you don’t know how the dollar may be spent. It could go to drugs and alcohol for all you know, so you are really doing the homeless person a favor by not helping them to sustain bad habits. You might say no so they are encouraged to get a ‘respectable’ job, where they are self-sufficient. It is a complex situation, and most people naturally weigh their options by switching between selfish, cooperative, and altruistic thought. This is a normal, peaceful mode."

I looked down at my watch. About fifteen minutes more. I just had to stick around long enough to make sure the job was done.

"Now imagine a more extreme situation. 20 homeless people are permanently camped out on your front lawn, banging on your front door day and night, demanding money. Let’s just say the police are unavailable to remove them. Would you be angry? Indignant? Unhappy? Threatened? Of course. Would you be motivated to some extreme action? Maybe, even probably. The situation has all the ingredients to start a little mini-war, and both parties would feel justified for their actions."

I set to work on the mashed potatoes, mixing in the gravy really good, but being careful to steer clear of the bit of gristle.

"Now let’s say you stay in your home all the time, passively resisting the homeless people on your lawn. You would probably starve prettly quickly. So that is not a very good option. What else could you do?

"You could tell them to camp out on your neighbors lawn, tell them he is wealthier and more generous. Essentially, this is redirecting the problem. If your neighbor is indeed wealthy and generous, it might resolve the problem, but nothing is guaranteed. If not, you have another problem - an angry neighbor!

"You could give them want they want. This is appeasement. But what if they come back, demanding more? You are not an infinite source of money, so this could either resolve the problem, or make it more protracted."

Jamie shifted her weight to her other foot. "You could spray them with the garden hose, get them soaked, maybe they’ll go away. This is a preemptive strike. This may work, but will usually move the problem somewhere else, and again, you’ve got angry neighbors. Also, you’ve attacked their way of life (living on your lawn), so this may be construed as an attack on their ego, and as a result, they’re angrier and more desperate.

"You could negotiate with them, tell them they can mow your lawn, and if they do a good job you will give them the money they want. This is diplomacy, a formal form of cooperation. This works if both parties are rational and the benefits are clear. However, the homeless people may feel that they deserve the money as is, and shouldn’t need to do anything to get it. Again, this could insult their ego, and the problem lingers. It could also reinforce their threatening behavior - they got rewarded the first time, so why not try it again? You want some more coffee hun?"


"I'll be right back." My thoughts trickled back to the package in the trunk. Did I set everything right? I should have bought more nails at the hardware store. It really wasn't in my budget though. I still have three more projects to go anyway.

Jamie was back with the coffee pot. "Here you go hun."

"Thanks." I dumped another sugar pack in, then watched a creamer do a reverse mushroom cloud in the browny murk.

"Okay, so you could also broadcast a self help tape through a loudspeaker. This is conversion. Sometimes this will work, but more often than not, it’s insulting and aggravates the problem.

"You could invite all your neighbors over to your house and threaten the group on your lawn. This is intimidation. If they flee, the problem moves somewhere else (and may come back later), if they stand up to you, you will probably be forced to fight, which you probably wanted to avoid.

"You could bring each homeless person into your house and teach them how to be self sufficient. This is the 'teach them to fish'", Jamie did airquotes, "divide and conquer method. This can tend to be effective, but takes time, and can be construed to be patronizing and insulting. C’est la vie. It can also be dangerous to your survival, as it requires contact with each individual. Who knows what they could do to you.

"So, for our solutions to avoiding war, we’ve got: redirection, appeasement, preemptive strike, diplomacy, conversion, intimidation, and the awkward 'teach to fish'. These all have a chance of succeeding or failing, based on the situation. In most cases, if all parties are rational, and are capable of offering and abiding trust - there is a good chance of success. So what if they are not rational or incapable of trust?"

The food was beginning to settle in me, and I was getting more impatient with Jamie's endless nattering. I fixed my gaze across the booth at a rip in the vinyl. Yellowed foamed peeked through the tear.

"This brings me to the most important life lesson I know of: you can't change anyone but yourself. You can convince, persuade, cajole, and trick, but you can’t change someone. Change has to be initiated by them, in their mind."

I noticed that the some kid had scrawled a zigzag of purple crayon next to the rip.

"If you’re doctor tells you to exercise for 30 minutes everyday, would you immediately schedule and follow such a regimen? You might say yes, but a lot would happen in your mind before you would start. You might ask yourself (or your doctor), why should I exercise for 30 minutes everyday? Do I have the time to spare? I don’t think I could put in the effort. This doctor just wants to torture me. Etcetera. You might eventually start exercising everyday, but you have to understand the risks and benefits first, then make the concious decision."

It should be anytime now. I hate being this close, but I needed to feel it. I needed to know. I pushed the plate away, and put my head down to the table, and my hands around my neck.

"Got a headache hun?"


"Oh, that's too bad. Sorry, I don't have any aspirin."


"Okay, so here’s another, familiar example: If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you? You might say that is an immediate no, but depending on what that cliff represents (usually some form of peer acceptance), you would still weigh the benefits and risks. This behavior is typical of mammals and birds, not just us. It’s a built in survival feature. It even operates at some level during insanity-"

The car lit up in a ball across the street. I could see the light even with my head down. The plate glass windows of the diner flexed inward, then gave way to the pressure. I couldn't hear anything. Dust and smoke billowed in, my nostrils twitched with the acrid smell. Jamie fell on top of me, her limp fingers cradled in what was left of the bowl of ranch. I pushed her off me. Apparently a piece of glass had sailed clear across the dining room and impaled her in the throat, blood was burbling all over the place. That was close - I had always thought I would be more protected in that back booth. My adrenaline shot up. A car alarm screeched in the distance. Only three more. I would miss this business.

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