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Sick Bed | 2010 | Bloom Where You Are

02.28.10 5:34 p.m.

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience... Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country. That's our problem.  

-Howard Zinn


Are You Mark?

Trudging through three feet of snow that used to be my driveway, loaded down with a sleeping bag, backpack, and air mattress, some woman I have never met yells her accusation to me, "Are you Mark?!" She, it will soon become apparent, means, "Are you my mark?"

Mark, I know from recent experience, is the rental agent for my apartment complex. He is the one my landlord, living in Japan, sent to photograph the tree limb that shot through my living room last night, when the blizzard was reaching a crescendo, so he could file an insurance claim. Mark is not someone who I would wish to be right now, beholden to thirty irritated and cold people, and I tell her as much.

"Are you gonna help us dig out this car?" she then shouts. She, along with six other people, use their hands alone to free a car, though escaping out of the driveway will be next to impossible. I motion at the burdens around my neck and shoulders and assure her I am headed toward my brother's van, twenty feet away, so he can rescue me from having to deal with this for the remains of the weekend. Perhaps, when I return Sunday evening, there won't be pine bark and shattered pottery all over my apartment.

"Do you have electricity down there?" she shouts.

"Yes, we do," I say, continuing my trudge for fear that losing momentum will trap me in the snow when I am so close to being free of this place.

"You're really fucking anti-social, you know that?"

I laugh. "Somehow, I am okay with that," I reply and make for the before she can decide to redirect her troops in harassing me. They have accepted her authority and I have no cause to. Of course, I am not antisocial. What she means is, "You are not complying with something to which you have no social obligation and which, given the camping gear on your back, it is ridiculous to ask of you. I will try to intimidate you because others have relented when I did."

Most people tend to be a bit more subtle about their compliance techniques than this woman. For one thing, they shape their requests for their audience. As frustrated as this woman is by her situation, insulting me is the last thing that would get me to help her and laughing at her insult deprived her of all power. What she should have done is tried to play upon any similarities between us, which wouldn't have worked (I was set upon my escape and my ride was within my sights), but it at least would have made me sympathetic to her plight.

I tend to react negatively to anything I perceive as an attempt to exploit my sympathies against me, having taken several classes in social psychology and group dynamics. I have, in the past, been too much of a dupe against these con-men and hated myself for it. Once, so he could vent his authority over me, the head of the communications department at my former college harassed me into breaking a date with my girlfriend at the time (Kate) because his machine would not print my horrid student movie to film. The fact that my grade was not dependent upon his approval or my ability to print to film were irrelevant, his insistence against my will is the only thing that mattered (this effect is best demonstrated in the Milgram Study, where the researchers managed to get people to believe they were shocking a man to death and persist in doing it simply because they were wearing lab coats and gently told them to continue administering shocks). The man who kept me in the editing booth for nine hours while the machine continued to cease to work gained nothing by my compliance, but did it anyway, threatening to find a way to fail me despite not being my professor, because it allowed him to push the "authority" button and soothe his ego. The technique was so persuasive then that, even when I escaped while he took a coffee break from harassing me, I paced the lawn in front of the building until I returned to against try a process that I knew would not work.

That night was a turning point for me. For one, I knew I had to drop from the communications major, which wasn't going to do me much good in the real world anyway. More importantly, I would not let myself get taken advantage of by one of these compliance agents again.

Occasionally, this can come off as rude to those who are trying to exploit one's inner program. I posit that this is a small price to pay for the integrity of one's soul and wallet. Walking through the mall a few Christmases ago, I was approached by a petite and attractive girl, who brightly greeted me. When I acknowledged her, thinking she was some girl I knew as a teenager, she started in on her script, "You look like you really like children! Would you like to buy some of the things I have on this table for children?"

I looked at the table, all of the items being of subpar quality at obscene prices. There was no indication of for what, if any, charity she was trying to abuse the tendency of men to stop to young, attractive women and then to fork over cash to impress her about their generosity. If I continued to play along with her script, my wallet would have been thirty dollars lighter so she could get some pittance of a commission. I had no need to impress some stranger.

"I don't much like children. I work with them, you see. I think they get enough of my time and money, don't you? Your employers are making you use your looks as bait. That isn't very respectful of them. Have a nice day."

She seemed flustered and perplexed, but could think of no way to retrieve her commission from me and stumbled back to her table, ready to accost the next man she took for a sucker.

It is rarely as obvious as these, often friends or acquaintances trying to obtain favors. There is nothing wrong with needing help, especially from those one cares about. However, within the realm of social contracts, there are those who are always using. They appear at the last moment for something that needs to be done right now, they ask to borrow vast sums with little chance of repayment, and then they do their best to make you feel guilty if you don't help them. They masquerade as friends, but they act like covert predators, taking chunks out of us when we make the mistake of letting them into our proximity. Once we close the door behind them after they have made their latest request (to which we reluctantly complied, in all likelihood), we ask aloud why we keep allowing them to abuse us. We are filled with resentment and anger at ourselves, but we will have to fight with ourselves to find good excuses to deny them next time.

The solution, as I see it, is not to obey. Whether unwitting or no, they try one technique after the other until they find someone who will put up with them. I would rather be seen as a little bit of a jerk by them than annoyed with myself by acceding yet again. Let them prey on someone else, because they will always find a new sucker. The woman trapped in the snow, enlisting a half dozen people in the fools-errand of digging out a car by hand, more than proves there will never be a lack of people who can be forced into service, a constant supply of marks.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Twin Peaks
reading: The Virgin Suicides
listening: Mark & James

Sick Bed | 2010 | Bloom Where You Are

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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