2013: The Year of the Mensch?

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Image courtesy of Grand.

In which University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik extols the benefits of rationalization…and recounts the Magical Popcorn story.

A couple nights before Christmas my son’s girlfriend threw a ball for the dog. It smashed a bottle of wine sitting on a counter in the kitchen. We all leapt up from our game of Masterpiece to sop up the scarlet liquid and green glass with paper towels.

The main room of my Baltimore rowhouse, which incorporates living room and kitchen, is too small for throwing balls for the dog. We learned this shortly after we moved here when we pulverized both of the Baccarat highball glasses I’d inherited from my mother. However, now that I think of it, there was a similar incident with a funerary urn and that was in my previous living room, which was a huge one. It’s not the house. The fact is, the dog is persistent and we are weak.

As for the bottle of wine, it was an organic Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, $13 retail, which I had just tracked down at Le Grand Cru after tasting it with a friend. I liked it so much I bought eight bottles to get us through the holidays and hopefully into the New Year. The clerk gave me a little holiday discount. The point being, while that bottle of Las Mulas was relatively special, it was no heirloom Baccarat glass.

As for the floor, it is slate, and thus impervious to the depredations of red wine. The puddle stopped spreading several inches before it hit the neighboring carpet.

As for me, I am nuts. Ask anyone who has watched me look for a peppercorn, a blueberry, or a grain of brown rice on the kitchen floor. Or finish other people’s abandoned drinks or scrape their leftovers back into the serving bowl. There are many spilled things I have tried to recapture and often I am successful. However, this pile of soggy purple towels would not be one of them. (Instead, it might be a tax deduction on my 2012 Schedule C as an expense of writing this article.)

Now you see how I think.

But this is not the only way I think. I also think a lot about kindness and forgiveness and generosity. I am fundamentally opposed to excessive blame. I believe most things, even serious things, happen in a gray area of responsibility and circumstance; of intention, influence and coincidence. I think the word “rationalization” has a bad rap. Why not try to explain things, to figure out why and how they happened, to unpack the suitcase of blame and see what strange, heavy things are inside?

Some say, the buck stops here. I say, get change for that buck and spread it around. We can all try to do better, except maybe the dog.

“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed when I heard the crash, but as we came together to slop and mop, I zipped my lip against further mournful commentary. I knew the only good thing I could do at that point was to make sure my son’s girlfriend did not feel undue guilt and remorse. In fact, I had earned an $11.75 opportunity to make progress in menschlichkeit. I told her about the Baccarat glasses and the funerary urn and the day 35 years ago Diana Borden borrowed my car to drive to the store. I never saw that car again. My son, apparently raised right in some ways, soothingly added that the holiday discount I’d been given meant that the broken bottle was actually almost free. Finally, I recounted the Magical Popcorn story, the central myth of my godless religion.

One day in about 1970, my grandparents took my sister and me to the movies — The Out of Towners, perhaps, or The Boatniks, playing at the Mayfair Theater in Asbury Park, NJ, an exquisite Moorish-style auditorium with pilasters and parapets and a twinkling sapphire firmament, torn down in 1974 in the first decade of that city’s unending mismanagement and misfortune.

During the previews, I spilled my entire tub of popcorn. Empty container in my lap, puffed kernels rolling down the slanted floor, my fingers slick with untasted butter, tears of shock and loss trembling on my cheeks. Suddenly, my grandmother bending over me smelling of Chesterfields and Jean Naté, her big brown eyes magnified by her thick glasses, her brightly lipsticked mouth murmuring words of consolation. “Don’t cry, dear,” she said, handing me another brimming vat of warm, fresh popcorn.

A few minutes later, I spilled that one as well. Unbelievable, I know. But the more unbelievable thing is this: they bought me a third. Maybe there were four. I was stunned, tear-stained, as humbled and electrified as Romans watching the resurrection of Jesus.

Perhaps that is the feeling I am trying to recapture when I look for the blueberry.

Some seek forgiveness from God; I believe we can only be forgiven by each other. In either case, all the best spiritual opportunities comes in the wake of things going wrong. How do you behave when you screw up, or when you are the victim of mistakes by others, or when you take a big hit from bad luck? There are serious, important stories to be told about this (lies, broken hearts, senseless deaths), but at least part of the point can be made with a ridiculous, scatological one. So what do you say we go with that?

Recently, I walked over to a neighbor’s house for dinner. It was not the most leisurely stroll: I was carrying a pot of kasha varnishkes, a foil-wrapped hunk of London broil and a bottle of Prosecco. My scarf was getting tangled in my purse and the dog was pulling on his leash the whole way. Plus my stomach started to feel a little funny. As soon as I arrived, I put down my burdens and headed straight for their powder room, right off the kitchen. I would have preferred to use the upstairs bathroom but remembered hearing it was not working a few weeks before. This family had a bit of an ongoing argument about toilet paper abuse, which will make perfect sense to you soon.

I had been in there only about 15 seconds when Melissa shouted, “You’re not pooping, are you?”

“Um — why?”

“I think there might be a problem with flushing that toilet,” she said.

There are certain nightmares we all share. Naked at the bus stop. Late for the plane. Can’t find the room where they’re giving the test. Using a toilet somewhere other than the privacy of one’s home and having it go terribly, terribly wrong.

At that point, I saw no alternative but to take my chances with flushing. Bad decision. The toilet gurgled, choked, then virtually exploded, flooding the tiny bathroom with a tsunami of waste and water. With not a moment to spare for despair, I cracked the door, poked my head out, and asked for a plunger and cleaning supplies.

By the time I finished polishing the porcelain and emerged, hoping to return to our regular evening programming, my hosts had disappeared. I found them in their basement, wearing rubber gloves and boots, shoving piles of contaminated towels and linens into black plastic bags. It turned out there was a hole in the floor of the bathroom, leading to a secondary crime scene in the basement.

For the next half-hour, Melissa and Alvin marched up and down the stairs in their makeshift biohazard suits, ferrying the bags into the backyard. They went on to a wide-ranging swab-and-sterilize operation, including even the bathroom I had already cleaned. They said there was nothing more I could do, so I sat on the couch glumly watching.

As she filed by, staggering under the weight of the Hefty bag, Melissa struggled to find the Magical Popcorn words that would refill the empty tub of my dignity. “There is no one else, no one, that if this happened it would be okay!” she said. “Only you! That’s what close friends we are!”

Good try. Alvin, over the next few days, attempted a black humor approach but the use of phrases like “you sh*t all over my house” and “sh*tstorm” worked against its success. I think he has germ issues that parallel my food-wasting issues, so I am forgiving him for my incomplete experience of forgiveness. The main thing is, we were all trying. For Chanukah, I gave them a variety pack of Liquid Plumr formulations: Slow Flow Fighter, Full Clog Destroyer, and Urgent Clear. (Now these, too, have become a tax deduction! Yay!)

The next time something bad happens that really is no one’s fault, remember the wine, remember the popcorn, remember poor Melissa and Alvin and me. Remember you are being tested, surely as a character in the Old Testament, and see how lightly you can blame, how deeply you can understand, what kind of person you can try to become.


Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

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  1. Lovely! As I sit here with yet another broken bone in my foot, I remember I’m happy that at least the sewage in our basement was finally taken care of two weeks ago.

  2. I can so appreciate this. Growing up, when someone in my family or a visitor might accidentally break a glass, my mother responded only with “mazel tov”!

    Too bad our politicians aren’t more like this. Here’s to the Year of the Mensch!

  3. Thanks for that great article and very à propos new year’s motto. Menschlichkeit has been very much in my thoughts these days. Recently I’ve been committing my disposable time to assisting my fellow (wo)man in times of need, and there are certainly plenty of opportunities in New York in the wake of recent events. My volunteer work with folks hard hit by Hurricane Sandy has been a real perspective-restorer. It has reminded me to be grateful for the calm and safety I frequently take for granted, and about the dignity of doing simple tasks, showing up for others, and, as you say, being kind no matter what. I can’t say I bat a thousand, but I’m inching toward the light.
    May the new year be a healing one for all.
    Elizabeth Norment

  4. Love this!! I am so “blame happy” sometimes, especially towards my husband! Then the poor kids. Thank you Marion for putting life in perspective and helping me to remember deep understanding is what is most important. i guess another word for to say that would be compassion? Also, i sure wish I could have gone to the Mayfair Theatre in Asbury Park. I had the Lido in Fort St. John BC. Just plain ugly…..

  5. Yes indeed, though not in a while. I had forgotten about this until she reminded me when I saw her about ten years ago or something. Maybe the internet will bring her back to me now.

  6. “Forgiveness” is a moving subject, especially during this time of year. Thank you for writing about it. I’m a believer of the Marion dogma! I’m fortunate to live so close to you… please come over any time any how! Happy New Year, Cheers!

  7. a nice little reminder that life just happens….we can only try to be “civilized” beings…but nature gets in the way sometimes…of course while reading we all thought..thank goodness it wasn’t me…..maybe indoor plumbing is over-rated…..

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