A small but glorious victory thanks to Charlie and Elysha

I'm on the beach with Charlie, watching him play in the sand when a man about my age approaches. My thought is always the same:

"Damn. He knows me, but I have no idea who he is. I hate this."

It happens all the time. 

But no. Instead, he reaches down and plucks one of our plastic shovels from the sand beside our wagon. 

"This is our shovel," he says.

I look around, hoping to see Elysha. I'm sure that the shovel is ours, but Elysha bought it. She can turn my 99% certainty into 100% certainty. But she's nowhere to be seen. I'm on my own.

"No," I say. "I think it's ours." I look at the other shovel in the wagon. Different colors but same design. "In fact I'm sure it's ours."

"No," he says, "It's mine, sir." 

Now I'm annoyed. The man isn't speaking in a voice to conveys a desire to discuss. This is not a negotiation. He's right, and I'm wrong. In fact, he might think we stole the damn thing. And he called me "sir." How annoying.

But Charlie is sitting at my feet, slowly becoming aware of the situation. I can't just lay into the guy while Charlie is listening. I can't just initiate my usual attack mode. Instead, I decide to respond with a bit of delicacy.

"Just because you're holding the shovel doesn't make it yours," I say. "And just because you think it's yours doesn't make it yours, either. But if you need the shovel that badly, take it. But it's ours."

"It's mine," he says forcefully. "It's my shovel."

"Yeah," I say flatly. "You said that already. Repeating yourself doesn't make it yours either, but go ahead. Take it."

The man starts to turn when Charlie reaches out and grabs the shovel. The man pulls on it, and I start to say, "No, Charlie!" when Charlie stops me.

"No," Charlie says, "Look." Charlie points to a sticker on the handle of the shovel. The sticker bears Charlie's name. His full name, in fact.

It turns out I wasn't alone after all. I had Charlie.  

"Is that your name?" I ask, pointing.

"Oh," the man says. "Well, it looks like mine."

"Maybe we shopped at the same store," I say. There's so much more I want to say. So much more I could say. But Charlie is here, and it's his moment. Instead, I smile. It's not a nice smile. 

Then the man steps away. I watch him circle the beach, continuing his search for his precious, plastic shovel. 

I'm ecstatic. A brilliant triple-teaming by my family. 

  1. Elysha has the foresight and wisdom to label our beach equipment.
  2. I avoid an angry confrontation on the beach by being direct, specific, but flexible in the face of arrogance. I keep my cool.   
  3. Charlie makes the man look very stupid. 

I had a wonderful weekend. A child's birthday party with lots of people who I like a lot. Dinner with the next-door neighbors. Swimming in the backyard pool. A trip to a new ice cream shop. A morning spent at the Coventry Farmer's market. A couple visits to the gym and an hour spent at the driving range. An afternoon at the beach, playing in the sand and water with the kids. Elysha in a bathing suit.

I even got some work done. Wrote some letters. Recorded and edited a podcast. Started the final revisions of my next novel. Worked on my musical. 

But those 90 seconds I spent on the beach with that man and Charlie constituted my favorite moment of the weekend. It's not even close. 

I like to win. I like to win verbal confrontations a lot. And I love decisive victories like the one we experienced today. A clear-cut victory.

Charlie said he liked it a lot, too. 

Crazy man in the airport

On the way to Michigan, my plane encountered a mechanical problem. After sitting on the runway for more than an hour, the pilot asked us to disembark while they attempted to find us another plane.

An hour later, another aircraft was located, and we were assigned a new gate. This gate was designed for a much smaller plane, so there was little room inside the space to sit or even stand. As a result, my fellow passengers and I were spilling out into the concourse. 

Then an announcement was made from the podium, and because I couldn't hear it in the noise of the concourse, I stepped into the space to listen. This placed me at the entrance to the Zone 2 line, where passengers were beginning to line up. 

I was in Zone 4. I would be one of the last to board the plane, which I usually prefer. I wasn't carrying a roller bag, so I wasn't concerned about overhead space, and like to get on the plane at the last possible second. 

As I listened to the announcement, a middle-aged man in a suit tapped me on the shoulder. "Excuse me," he barked. "What zone are you in?"

"Four," I said. 

"Excuse me then," he said, rather abruptly. He pointed up at the Zone 2 sign hanging over my head and then jerked his head to the left in a gesture meant to tell me to move away from the entrance to the Zone 2 lane so we could get a spot.

Shockingly, I complied. Despite his abruptness and rudeness, I was still listening to the announcement, and I wasn't fully cognizant about what was happening.I followed his order.

Then the man brushed past me with a huff, walked about eight feet, and assumed his spot in line. 

Then it hit me.

What zone am I in? Did he really just ask me that question?

The guy couldn't wait another ten seconds for this announcement to finish? He could see that there was no room in this waiting area for all of us. He could see that I wasn't actually in the Zone 2 line or trying to get into the Zone 2 line. He was on the plane with me less than an hour ago. He knew the deal. And yet he motions me aside like he has some kind of "Zone 2 authority" over me?

And instead of just saying, "Excuse me," he asks me what zone I'm in?

Hell no.  

Maybe it was the hour spent on the runway or the hour spent in the terminal that had me a little edgier than usual, but a second later I stepped into the Zone 2 lane, walked up on the guy, and tapped him on the shoulder. 

"Excuse me," I said, aggressively. "What zone are you in?"

The man turned. He looked startled. "Zone 2," he said.

"Zone 2?" I asked, flatly. Staring him in the eye.

"Yes," he said. "What?"

"I just wanted to know what zone you were in today. Since you were so curious about my zone."

Then I just stared for another second. A long second. Finally I turned, left the Zone 2 line, and bought a pretzel. 

The man looked concerned about my behavior, and he gave me side-eye until we boarded the plane. Rightfully so. I was acting like a crazy person. Rather than engaging in simple, polite, verbal combat or expressing my displeasure over the way he spoke to me, I decided to out-crazy him. I stood close, stared, and sounded crazy. 

It wasn't nice.

Elysha hates when I do this. She worries that I'm going to run into someone someday who out-crazies my crazy. She's absolutely right. And to my credit, I have decreased these moments of public confrontation considerably. 

The mechanical failure of the plane, the time spent on the runway, the delays, and travel in general had me on edge. 

But if ever there was a place to out-crazy someone, it's probably an airport terminal. I knew the guy had undergone a thorough screening before entering the terminal and had no weapons on his person. Other than a possible punch in the face, I was as safe as I could be.

Still it wasn't nice.

There's a time and place in this world to call out people who aren't being kind, polite, civil, or decent, but there is also a way to do it. A better way. 

It was one of those moments when I was simultaneously thrilled with the way I handled the situation and disappointed with the way I handled the situation.     

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Name your sources or begone!

It wasn't a fight. More like a minor confrontation.

I was pouring myself a soda at my local McDonald's on Sunday when I heard a man telling a couple who I know fairly well that "President Trump is going to make a great Supreme Court pick."

The couple - McDonald's regulars who I see almost every day - were reading the newspaper. The man was standing besdie their table, shifting from one foot to another. Restless. Anxious. 

"You think so?" the husband asked.

"President Trump says he's going to make the best pick ever," the man said.

"You believe everything that man says?" the wife asked with a chuckle.

"I believe him," the man said, undeterred. "And you know what else? I hear that Justice Ginsburg doesn't even write her own briefs anymore. She has interns doing it. She needs to retire, too."

"Actually," the wife said, "all of the justices rely on law clerks for drafts of their opinions. It's a totally normal thing."

"Oh yeah?" the man asked. 

"Yeah," the husband replied. 

Stymied, the man returned to his coffee on the other side of the restaurant. 

I was so annoyed. I wanted in on this conversation. I wanted to debate. I was armed and ready. I was also angry that the couple hadn't told the man that justices wrote opinions. Not briefs. Also, justices have law clerks working for them. Not interns.

I hate missed opportunities.

After topping off my soda, I turned to the couple, who were both still smirking. I wished them a good day, and they wished me luck in the golf course.

"I've already played," I said. "Poorly as usual."

Then the man was back, reappearing without me even seeing him approach. "Another thing," he said. "I hear that Justice Ginsberg falls asleep on the bench. Can you believe that? Time for her to retire if you ask me."

I looked up. I stared. He was looking down at the couple, but all I needed was a little eye contact and I would be in. "C'mon. Look over here," I willed. "Please."

Then it happened. He glanced over at me. We locked eyes for a moment. He acknowledged my presence. It was on.

"You heard?" I asked. "Who did you hear this from?" 

"Huh?" the man asked. I think my entry into the conversation surprised him. He wasn't expecting me to speak. It was a sneak attack.

"I'm wondering who told you this?" I asked. "Did you know that every Supreme Court session has a gallery of court reporters and public observers? Did you know that RBG exercises every day. Pushups and planks and squats and bench presses. Cardio, too. It's well documented. And before Scalia died, she went hunting with him regularly. Hardly sounds like someone asleep at the bench."

"That's not what I heard."

"Who?" I asked. "Who did you hear this from? Name your source." 

"People," he said.

"Who?" I pressed, politely but insistently. "C'mon. Someone told you Ruth Bader Ginsberg sleeps at the bench. Who told you?"

"Whatever," the man said, slinking away.

Maybe not slinking, but I like to think that he was slinking. Either way, he beat a hasty retreat back to his coffee, perhaps to regroup.

The husband offered me a surreptitious thumbs up, and I nodded back and left.

Not a fight. Barely a confrontation. 

But so much fun. 

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The answer to "How dare you?"

I hate "How dare you?" I hate it so much.

How dare you is a meaningless bit of outrage. Argumentative spittle. A waste of three words. A ridiculous rhetorical question designed to express overdramatized personal outrage.

We must stop "How dare you?" in its tracks. Bring it to an end. Remove it from the lexicon.

When faced with, "How dare you?" your response must always be to answer this stupid question. 

Something like this:

"How dare I? I'd hardly call what I said daring. I'd characterize it more as a valid argument contain vast amounts of truth and wisdom. How dare I? Who even says that? Who relies upon rhetorical questions of such little meaning to make their point? How dare I? I dare with the strength and conviction of a person who knows he is right and is fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. That is how I dare. Now perhaps you could say something of substance and meaning rather than spitting rhetorical drivel."

Maybe not exactly that, because it's a lot, but something like it.

In the case of Kellyanne Conway, a simple, "How dare I? I dare because children are at stake, and I am a journalists whose job it is to ask hard questions and point out bigotry, intolerance, and cruelty wherever I see it. I dare because it's my job to be daring." 

I would've loved that so much. 

So practice. Prepare yourself for verbal combat. Be ready to fire off a response when faced with this stupid bit of rhetoric. I've had the great pleasure of pulling off a "How dare you" rant more than once (including a college classroom once in the midst of a debate), and it is truly a glorious thing.  

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Verbal sparring: Don't allow your opponent (Trump) prescribe beliefs to you

A bit of advice to all of the journalists and news anchors who are interviewing Donald Trump (or any other politician):

When Trump says makes a wildly false assertion and then adds, "I know it. You know it. Everyone knows it," it's perfectly acceptable and even advisable to say something like:

"Actually, Mr. President, I don't know it. And I know a lot of people who also don't know it."

Trump uses this amateurish tactic with journalists constantly, and I have yet to hear a single one challenge his assertion. I assume that it's because they don't want to derail their interview by provoking Trump to anger or placing themselves at the center of the conversation, but you can't simply allow the subject of your interview to push his beliefs onto you and then use those supposedly shared beliefs to defend himself.  

Please, journalists. Push back. Most of the time, you don't "know it." No one except Trump knows it. Don't allow him to normalize his lies by allowing him to pin them upon you as well. 

I made an old woman cry. Was I wrong?

I'm standing in line at McDonald's, waiting patiently to order my daily Egg McMuffin.

The woman in front of me is having a problem. She's an old lady in the truest sense of the word. She's as crooked as a question mark and is holding a cane. She's ordered a "Big Breakfast Egg McMuffin" and received a Big Breakfast and an Egg McMuffin.

She's not happy.

She only wants the Egg McMuffin. She's added the words "big breakfast" to her order for reasons I cannot glean, but somehow, I know what has happened. Years of managing McDonald's restaurants makes the problem immediately clear to me.

I stand behind her and remain silent. I know that I inject myself into too many of these kinds of situations. Elysha has asked me to stand back and avoid conflict like this whenever possible. She worries about how people will react to my mouth. So I'm going to leave this to Janet, the employee who I see every day and know well.

Except that Janet is struggling to figure out the problem because the woman is yelling at her. Flailing her hands. Janet is frazzled by the sudden outburst of anger. She's unable to put two and two together.

I remain silent. I'm not going to involve myself. The woman is angry and treating my friend poorly, but my involvement will probably not go well.

The manager, who I also know, arrives and quickly identifies the problem. She explains the source of the confusion to the woman. She says that she will remove the Big Breakfast and refund the money. She grabs a scrap of paper to subtract the price of the Big Breakfast from the bill.

The woman shakes her hands violently and shouts, "Just give me my money!"

At last the issue is settled. The order is correct and the refund is complete. The woman moves off to prepare her coffee. I step forward and smile at Janet, who is still flustered. I wink. She smiles. She enters my order without me saying a word. I take my cup over to the soda station to pour.

The old woman is still there, stirring her coffee. I add ice to my cup and take a step closer to her to pour my Diet Coke.

The old woman turns to me and says, "These people are so stupid. How do you get this far in life being this stupid?"

I have done my best to remain uninvolved, but now she is speaking to me directly. Not only am I vigorously opposed to behind-the-back cruelty, but she is insulting people who I think of as friends. These are women who I see every day and exchange pleasantries with quite often. I feel like I must now say something. The woman has all but demanded a response.

Without missing a beat or considering my words, I say, "I think it's despicable when a person talks behind the backs of others. Despicable and disgusting. For the rest of my day, I'm going to tell every person I see about the despicable and disgusting thing that you just did."

And then she begins to cry.

This event took place in September. I asked my students what they thought of my actions. Most believed that my behavior was perfectly acceptable until I added the last sentence beginning with "For the rest of the day..."

"Over the line, Mr. Dicks," one girl said.

Many of my friends felt that my entire interaction was inappropriate. They suggested that it was not my place to impose my morals on this woman.

I reminded them that I did not interject myself into the conversation. She spoke to me.

That didn't matter for most.

Others argued that I was caustic and cruel to an older woman, and that I should've tempered my words because of her age.

I argued that this was agism.

None agreed.

Others argued that my words made no difference in the future behavior of this woman, so I caused needless pain and suffering for no result.

I suggested that this woman might think twice the next time she wants to criticize someone behind her back to a stranger.

Most disagreed.

Looking back on the incident with the advantage of time and perspective, I still believe that my actions were just. That old woman involved me in the situation after my attempts to remain silent. I simply spoke from the heart and said what I believed. I didn't consider her age a handicap to decency or discourse, and I genuinely believed - and still do - that our encounter might temper this woman's future acts of behind-the-back cruelty.

I tell this story today because of a response to a post on the ridiculous use of imperatives in argumentation. A friend on Facebook reminded me that "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing!"

I don't think that the woman was evil, but I also couldn't allow such condescension and cruelty to go unchecked when directly involved.

I wasn't happy that the woman began to cry, and it certainly made for an awkward pour of my Diet Coke and a hasty retreat, but I said what I thought needed to be said. It would've been easy to ignore the comment. Nod and move on. Even explain to the woman that I know the employees well and are always impressed by their professionalism and performance.

But after watching this woman shout and flail and condescend, I didn't think gentleness was in order. "If you're going to dish it out, you have to be able to take it" is an expression that has always rung true for me. I think it applied well in this situation, despite the tears.

Thoughts?

Verbal sparring: Never tell someone to do something that they can ignore

As a result of my outspoken opposition to Donald Trump, I am frequently attacked online by trolls who disagree with my positions.

When I say trolls, I don't mean the people who support Trump and respond to me in thoughtful, measured ways. I'm talking about the people whose emails, Facebook messages, and tweets are laced with insults, hate, and meaningless stupidity. 

For those folks, I'd like to offer a small bit of rhetorical advice:

When you respond to someone who you oppose or whose comments and opinions run counter to your own, don't fire off a command that can easily be ignored or even laughed at and mocked. You end up looking weak, stupid, and lacking any foresight.

For example, if you tell me to "Move to Canada!" or "Shut your mouth!" I can simply reply, "No." 

Or...

"No, thanks." 
"Who made you King?"
"Make me." 
"You've obviously mistaken me for a robot."
"Bite me."

Issuing a command absent any authority to enforce it is rhetorically ineffectual and almost always backs you into a corner. What do you say after I respond with, "No?"

Yes?
Please?
Pretty please?

You probably change course, at which point I highlight your change of course and hang onto it like a dog to a bone, continually reminding you of your weakness and stupidity.

If you haven't thought about the range of responses to your verbal assault, you're not even playing the game. You might as well be poking the dirt with a stick. 

Oh, and while you're at it, the name calling is just as stupid. Snowflake, libtard, and cuck are all popular amongst the trolling knuckle draggers these days, but every time someone calls me one of these names, I can't help but think, "Really? You called me a name? I stopped caring about names in middle school."

Why waste time and energy on something so meaningless and ineffective? You'd be better off blowing soap bubbles in my general direction. They would do more damage than your stupid names.

Of course, the best part of these verbal attacks is the way I ignore them. No response is so much better than any response for these pathetic trolls, and this is what I do today. There was a time when I enjoyed firing back at these cretins, but I quickly learned that I have much better ways to spend my time.

Besides, ignore the trolls, and they remain trapped under their pitiful little bridges, unable to glimpse even a bit of the sunlight that I enjoy. 

"Yeah, but..."

I despise these two words. 

It's not that I don't say them, but when I hear myself saying them, I despise myself. I remind myself of how stupid I sound. I'll even apologize for them if the moment is right. 

"Yeah, but.." is never good. It's a disingenuous agreement. An artificial attempt to move on. It's the language of those who cry over spilled milk. People who perseverate over past injustice. Individuals who are incapable of putting the unchangeable and implacable behind them and moving on.

It's also the language of the unaccountable. The complainers. The blamers. The finger pointers. Those who cannot give credit where credit is due. Those unable to acknowledge the wisdom or success of others. It's the blunted, ineffectual weapon of the jealous. The envious. The small minded.  

"Yeah, but..." is also often a leap into an illogical argument. An unreasoned appeal. An emotion-riddled mess of verbal detritus. 

No one likes a "yeah, but..." person. These people are the whiners of the world. They are the people who make bring moments of genuine productivity to a grinding halt.

Seek out the "yeah, buts..." in your own conversations and remove them whenever possible. Despise them as much as I do.

Make the world a better place. 

Verbal Sparring: If you don't like it, leave.

"If you don't like it, leave," in all its variations, is a coward's argument. It's an argument made by people who are afraid of debate, don't understand logic, and want to escape the fray as quickly as possible. 

"If you don't like, leave," implies that arguing for change is not permissible.

"If you don't like, leave," implies that dissent is unwarranted. 

"If you don't like, leave," implies that diversity of mind is out of bounds. 

There are many responses to this ridiculous argument and arguments like it.

Refuse: "No, I'm not going to leave. I'm going to fight."

Make the logical argument: "Telling me to leave implies that dissent and change are not permissible here. That is nonsense, of course. Change is constant, and it only comes through a diversity of opinions. This is not North Korea."

NOTE: This argument does not work in North Korea.

Attack: "It sounds like you're afraid of debate. Maybe your ideas suck and you know it. Maybe I intimidate you. Maybe you know that you're standing on shaky ground. Either way, I'm not taking my toys and going home because I'm not afraid of a good argument and a weak-willed sap like yourself."  

Historical: "If that was an actual argument, then it would stand to reason that anytime someone was not happy with a policy or position, they should leave. Women don't like receiving 70 cents on the dollar? Leave. African Americans don't like separate but equal? Leave. A soldier doesn't like a general's decision? Leave. That's just stupid. It's not how the world actually works outside of your head."

I tend to favor the attack strategy, but that may just be my nature.

3 verbal tics that you must stop

These may not seem like big deals, but they are. The world is oftentimes far too uninteresting a place, thanks to the inability to communicate with verve and aplomb.

The wasted words. The lack of vigor. Verbal tics that cause conversations to be grating upon the soul.    

Stop these three things now.

1. Thesis followed by evidence

I heard the perfect example of this on a podcast recently. A woman was discussing cheeseburger preferences when she said, "I don't do any condiments at all on my burger. No catsup. No mustard. No relish. No mayonnaise."

In conversation, we do not require a person's thesis statement to be followed by the supporting evidence. We are not writing a scholarly paper. Either summarize the evidence ("I don't do any condiments") or present the evidence (list the condiments), but please don't do both unless listing them will provoke an emotional response (a laugh, tears, surprise). 

We understand what "no condiments" means. No need to list the condiments, even for emphasis. We get it.

I hear this verbal tic all the time. I hate it so much.  

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2. Laughing at your own statements.

If you are funny, other people will routinely laugh at the things you say. With rare exceptions, you are not supposed to laugh at the things you say. Yet this egregious and abrasive tic is surprisingly prevalent in the world. People make a statement and then laugh at that statement all the time. 

There are people who laugh at the end of almost everything they say.

I'm convinced that these people don't even realize that they're doing it, so please don't read this and assume it's not you. It might be. Pay attention to the way you speak. 

If this is you, stop it. We all hate you for it.   

3. Attempting to recall insignificant details at the expense of the momentum of a story.

How often have you been listening to a person tell a story, only to watch that story grind to a inexorable halt when the person telling the story begins to debate a meaningless detail?

Was the woman's name was Sally or Samantha?
Was the town was Bethesda or Barksdale?
Was it 1986 or 1987?

These are details that mean something to the storyteller but nothing to the audience, and when we tell stories, the audience's needs are the only ones that matter.

Stop fussing about details that won't ultimately change the story. Many, many things are required to tell a good story, and pacing is one of them. Making your audience (whether it's one person or one thousand people) feel like your story has energy and momentum is critical to maintaining their attention and ultimately entertaining them.

We don't care if her name was Sally or Samantha. We don't care if it happened in Bethesda or Barksdale. We don't care if it was '86 or '87. 

Just pick one and move on.  

A simple, secret strategy to handling rude people and achieving victory

Weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting. There were several people sitting at the table with me. As someone near the front of the room began speaking, more than half of the people at my table began speaking as well. They were loud enough to be distracting to me and everyone around them.

It was rude.  

One of the people sitting next to me turned around and flashed this disrespectful mob a look that was meant to say, "Shut the hell up."

The mob continued to talk. 

She turned and flashed a similarly dirty look.

The mob continued to talk.

She tried again. No response. This went on for some time, until finally she leaned close to me and said, "Can you believe these people?"

Here is what I explained to her:

There are only two ways to handle this kind of situation, and flashing them dirty looks is not one of them.

In fact, a dirty look is never a good solution. No one in the history of the planet has ever responded favorably to a dirty look. 

Give someone a dirty look, and you are instantly transformed into the bad guy, regardless of what the target of your dirty look may be doing, because dirty looks are passive aggressive - which is never good - easily ignored, and often dismissed.

They also make you look ridiculous. 

You have two choices in a situation like the one confronting my friend and me:

1. You can ask the disrespectful mob to be quiet in a direct and polite manner, which will shame them into silence and achieve the desired goal. And regardless of how they may feel about your request, there is nothing that they can complain about, since you were both direct and correct.  

2. Even better, I explained, do what I am doing. Move your chair (and therefore your body) a foot or two away from the unruly mob. Create physical distance between yourself and them. Then become hyper-focused on the speaker. Establish eye contact. Nod. Smile. Enhance the contrast between yourself and the people acting rudely, and the speaker will notice it and love you for it. You will be perceived as a serious-minded, highly attentive, generous listener."

I do this all the time. When I see people being rude or disrespectful in almost any context, I recognize it as an opportunity to present myself as the exact opposite of their unruly behavior with very little effort. Their rudeness is a contrasting example that I can use to win the hearts and minds of the people around me.

It's funny how so many people don't realize that we are in a constant state of warfare. We are all in an ongoing, ever-present battle for a set of finite resources. These resources vary in import and value, but they are precious nonetheless. They include money, fame, power, attention, affection, admiration, privilege, time, or in this case, a positive perception in the hearts and minds of others.

The people who understand that a war is constantly raging around them are able to take advantage of situations like this. They are able to turn a petty annoyance like disrespectful table mates into an asset that can be exploited.

This may sound cynical, but it's also true. 

And it works. A little while later, the person running the meeting singled me out in front of everyone as a person who had been attentive and engaged throughout the entire meeting. She complimented me for my participation and engagement, when in truth, there were many, many moments in the meeting when I had mentally checked out. Turned to something more interesting to me. Disengaged completely from the learning. In fact, I was probably the least engaged person at my table. 

But I took advantage of a situation (and others like it throughout the day) to convince the speaker that I was on her side, and in the process, was publicly acknowledged as a person of value.

Victory. 

Verbal sparring: "A bad day" is not an excuse to behave badly.

You don't get to treat people poorly because you're having "a bad day."

A bad day may cause you to be more emotional or temperamental than normal, but it doesn't mean that you're allowed to be rude, disrespectful, deceitful, unprofessional, mean, or abusive.

That is not a thing.

In fact, one of the best ways to judge a person's character is to observe their behavior when they are having a bad day. Anyone can pretend to be a decent person when the sun is shining and the bird are signing. The true test of character is to continue to act like a decent human being when nothing seems to be going right.  

In short, "I'm sorry. I'm having a bad day," is not an excuse for acting like a jackass. If someone attempts to excuse their behavior for this reason, push back on this nonsense. 

Push back hard. 

Verbal Sparring: Flip and Own

This is a simple comeback that works in certain situations.

Last week, I was listing all of my petty grievances to a friend and how I planned on conquering each one. 

His response: "It must be exhausting being you."

My comeback: "No, it's exhausting not being me."

He laughed.

I followed up by ensuring him that I'm the least exhausted person I know, and that the only real solution to exhaustion is being me. 

I'm not sure if I really am the least exhausted person I know, but in verbal sparring, unassailable hyperbole is a legitimate tactic. 

The verbal strategy that I used here is what I call the "Flip and Own."

You simply take an accusation made by your opponent, flip it on its head in some way, and then fully own the flip.

If you imagine an opponent's attack as a river of potentially damaging words heading your way, the "Flip and Own "is your way of damming up the river, diverting the flow of water in a direction of your choice, and owning all the water as a result. 

In this case, I flipped an attempt to make me seem petty and obsessive into a compliment for myself and a insult of the rest of humanity. 

It was a good flip. One of my best. 

But "Flip and Own" can be as simple as this:

Opponent: "You're a terrible golfer."

Me: "No, I'm actually the worst golfer on the planet, and yet I'm still only two strokes behind you. You're barely beating the worst golfer who ever lived."

Or this:

Opponent: "I can't believe that you didn't finish that report yet."

Me: I can't believe you already finished that report. My life is so full of wonder and joy that all reports must be completed at the last second and perhaps late or maybe even never because there is simply too much of this world to see and do. How sad it must be for you to have the time to complete something as meaningless and stupid as that report with days or hours or even minutes to go. Should we schedule an intervention?

The Flip and Own.

Only applicable in very specific circumstances but so much fun when the opportunity arises.   

Verbal sparring 101: Comparing apples and oranges makes a whole lot of sense. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The next time someone attempts to counter your argument by claiming that you are making an “apples to oranges” comparison, say this:

Really? Apples and oranges are both similarly sized spherical fruits that grow on trees and weigh about the same. They have about the same number of calories per fruit. With the exception of vitamin E, they contain the same vitamins and minerals. They are two of the most cultivated and consumed fruits in the world. They can both be squeezed into a juice. 

Is it really so ridiculous to be comparing two things that have so much in common? 

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Whoever decided to first use apples and oranges in this idiom wasn’t thinking straight.

Interestingly enough, it’s an idiom repeated around the world but using different objects. In France, the idiom compares apples to pears, which is even more ridiculous since apples and pears are even more alike than apples and oranges.

In Latin America, the comparison is potatoes to sweet potatoes. Also ridiculous.

Other cultures seem to understand the concept much better. The Serbians, for example, compare toads to grandmothers. The Romanians compare grandmothers to machine guns. And the Polish compare gingerbread to windmills.

The next time someone accuses me of making an apples to oranges comparison, I think I’ll say, “Did you mean a grandmothers to machine guns comparison, because apples and oranges have a hell of a lot in common.”

I want to be asked more rhetorical questions

I was watching Homeland last night (season 2, episode 1), and someone asked Claire Danes’ character, “Who do you think you are?”

I was so jealous. I am so ready for this question. But no one ever asks me it. I hear it in movies and on television all the time, and I can recall hearing it once in real life, but never has that question been directed at me.

Unfortunately, Danes’ character failed to recognize it as a rhetorical question, as so many fictional characters do. Instead, she treated the question like an indictment. An attack on her decision to be at a certain place at a certain time. She went on the defensive and ultimately lost the verbal battle. 

What she should’ve said was something like this:

“Who do I think I am? Look, I may be bipolar and no longer privy to this country’s deepest, darkest secrets, but I know exactly who I am. I’m Carrie Matheson, damn it. Former CIA officer who has saved countless lives countless number of times, including the life of the Vice President and other high ranking United States officials, even though even I don’t know that I averted that potential disaster. I also happen to be the only person smart enough to know that Nicholas Brody is an al-Qaeda operative, and by the end of this season or maybe next, I’m probably going to kill him and save more lives. Who do I think I am? Is that really the best you can do?”

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Rhetorical questions are sneaky. They can trip up someone even as skilled and savvy as former CIA agent Carrie Mathison.

As I’ve written before, you need to train yourself to listen for them, and when asked, you must answer as quickly, as literally, and as aggressively as possible.

It won’t always win you an argument, but it’s a great way to blunt your opponent’s attack and have some fun in the process.

Verbal sparring 101: Acts of extreme self-flagellation are very useful

At the end of the previous school year, a colleague was upset with me for my failure to strictly comply to a policy related to her department. When she called to discuss this issue, one of my students answered the telephone, and because I was in the middle of a lesson, I told the student to take a message. The colleague insisted that she speak with me, so I instructed my student to hang up on her. Nothing comes between me and a good math lesson.

As you might expect, my colleague was exceptionally angry and with good reason. I knew that she would be calling back at some point, so I carefully planned my defense.

When she called back the next day at lunch time, I was ready. Before she could speak, I launched into an explanation about how I was entirely at fault in this situation and accepted full blame. I went on to describe myself as an awful, inappropriate, unprofessional, disrespectful  person who didn’t deserved to be treated with a even a modicum of respect. I said that I was a bad person, a bad teacher, and a terrible role model for my students. I went on and on for a full five minutes, finding new and creative means of self-flagellation, until my colleague was forced to interject and defend me against myself.

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“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You’re an amazing teacher. Your kids love you.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not. The way I treated you in this situation makes that obvious. I’m despicable.”

“This isn’t a big deal, Matt. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

We went back and forth for a while. I insisted that I was a rotten person. She insisted that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I offered enormous and outrageous concessions. She refused each one, insisting that no concessions were required.

In the end, my colleague never had the opportunity to lodge a single complaint about me. She never expressed a single negative emotion. She spent the entire phone call insisting that I was a good person and a great teacher.

When you can force your detractor into defend you against yourself, you have won the day.

Verbal sparring 101: The nuclear option is effective but will leave you radioactive

I was sitting at a table with three other people, including a man about 20 years older than me. We were discussing professional conduct and manners in today’s world, and the older gentleman was complaining about how “rude and uncivilized” people are today. “Kids, you mean?” I asked.

“Not just kids. People your age, too. You’ve all loss your sense of civility.”

He went to on talk about the way people from my generation drive aggressively, curse, mistreat the elderly, stare at their phones instead of each other, and think more about themselves than anyone else.

I wanted to say something in response to this man’s allegations. Something very specific. But I knew that what I wanted to say might provoke an unfortunate and potentially volatile reaction from the man, so I exercised restraint and said nothing.

For one whole minute.

Then I said it. I couldn’t help it.

After listening to him describe low voter turnout and the shameful decline in civic duty, I said, “At least we don’t spit on our servicemen and women when they return from war.”

“What?” he said. I don’t think he could believe what I’d just said.

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I couldn’t believe it either. I’m sure that the other two people at the table couldn’t believe what I’d said it, either. Both shrunk back into their chairs and attempted to become invisible.

Nevertheless, I pressed on. “We may stare at our phones too much and swear too much for your liking, but my generation doesn’t spit on soldiers returning from war like your generation did to Vietnam veterans like my father.”

It’s an argument I’ve come close to saying before to people older than me who seem to take pleasure in glamorizing the good old days and complaining about today’s generation while forgetting that no days are all good. But I’ve always held back, viewing it as the nuclear option.

This man caught me on a bad day.

As expected, he was angry with my response and denied ever doing such a thing. He also went on to argue to that not everyone from his generation treated Vietnam veterans poorly, and that it was “a different time in this country.”

“Of course,” I said. “Not everyone in my generation swears too much, either. We’re too busy ending the discrimination against gay people that your  generation continued for years and years.”

At this, the man stood up and moved to another table.

Neither person at my table engaged me in conversation after that, though one of them offered me a small but approving smile.

The nuclear option can often leave you as radioactive as the words that you said, as was the case here. No one at the table wanted anything to do with me.

This incident occurred about two weeks ago. At the time, I expected to reflect upon the incident and possibly regret my words.

But I don’t. At least not yet.

It wasn’t the best forum to drop a bomb like that, and I know that my response made the other people at the table uncomfortable, but I can only be told that my generation sucks for so long before I need to respond.

Maybe it’s true that my generation sucked, but what generation didn’t?

Besides, I grew up in the midst of the Cold War. The nuclear option is something I lived with for a long time. It only makes sense that I would use it from time to time.

Verbal sparring 101: Answer the rhetorical question

Whenever you find yourself in an argument, be on the alert for the rhetorical question. People love to use these questions as argumentative counterpoints, and they can quickly derail the unsuspecting opponent. But they are easily defended against by simply answering the question. image

For example:

My opponent: “How dare you question my parenting decisions?”

Me: “How dare I? I didn’t really think of stating my opinion as daring. I just think your parenting decisions suck, and I said so. Daring? Hardly.”

Another good example:

My opponent: “Who do you think you are?”

Me: "I’m Matthew Dicks. Teacher. Author. Father. Master of reason. But I thought you knew that already. What a ridiculous question to ask in the middle of a debate."

This strategy won’t win you any arguments, but it’s incredibly amusing, and it de-fangs the rhetorical questions.

Verbal Sparring 101: English proficiency is required

I was in Subway yesterday, waiting patiently in line to order my roast beef on wheat, when the customer in front of me decided that it was time to act like a jerk. Dissatisfied with the number of cucumbers that had been placed upon his sandwich, he said, “What? You can’t give me no more cucumbers?” “Sure, no problem,” the employee responded, more patient than I could have ever been. Not only were his choice of words offensive, but his tone and demeanor screamed condescension.

A few moments later, when the amount of Southwest sauce was also inadequate in the customer’s estimation, he spoke up again. “What’s your problem? You can’t give me no more sauce?”

Again, the employee responded with a polite and apologetic tone.

When the customer reached for a cup and began filling it with Coke, the employee moved over to the register and asked, “Did you want the meal, sir?”

“What’s it look like?” Mr. Meany Pants shot back, shoving the cash into the employee’s hand.

In a situation like this, I would normally come to the defense of the employee, launching some type of verbal assault against the offender in hopes that bystanders might join my cause.  They usually don’t, but I do manage to receive quite a few nods of appreciation in these types of situations, and that’s usually enough for me to press on.

I know that many might consider my potential involvement in this type of situation to be sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but I disagree. This type of behavior should never be tolerated. Unfortunately for the Subway employee, she was unable to defend herself without risking her job, so that is normally where we all must step in. Defending those who cannot defend themselves.

In this case, however, I restrained myself, adhering to one of my rules on verbal sparring:

Avoid verbal confrontations when your opponent lacks command of the English language.

Based upon his constant use of double-negatives, I doubted Mr. Meany Pants’s ability to converse effectively in English. In this type of situation, the nuances of my verbal sparring would be lost on the individual, resulting in an inarticulate, profanity-laced shouting match, with neither combatant gaining the upper hand.

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The same rules apply when playing poker. Don’t check-raise a novice player, for example, because he or she won’t understand the meaning of a check-raise. When dealing with an amateur, play it straight or don’t play at all.

So rather than entering into battle with this man, I waited until he had left and then praised the employee for her cool-headedness and patience in the face of such despicable rudeness.

She seemed pleased.

This afternoon was an entirely different story.

Upon pulling into a parking space at Stop and Shop, I noted an older gentleman pulling his Buick alongside my car into one of those spots reserved for customers who are saddled with infants. Noting that this man was without infant, I jumped out of my car quickened my pace until I was walking beside him.

“You really shouldn’t keep kids in the trunk,” I said to him as we approached the doors.

“Huh?”

“I said that you really shouldn’t keep kids in the trunk of your car.”

“What?” the man asked, genuinely confused.

“Well, I noticed that you parked in the spot reserved for people with infants, and since I didn’t see a baby in your arms or in the car, I’m assuming that you put the poor little thing in the trunk.”

“Go to hell,” the man shot back, realization washing across his face. “Just go to goddamn hell.”

‘Don’t be too long!” I warned the man as he entered the store a couple steps ahead of me. “I’m just making a deposit at the bank, and there’s no telling what I may do once I leave the store, especially if I see a mother walking halfway across the lot with her baby!”

I’m not sure if he heard everything I said (I’m deeply saddened if he didn’t), but I was pretty loud and the man seemed genuinely embarrassed by my comments as he turned the corner, heading toward the produce aisle.

I know there will be some who will say that my remarks were just as rude as the man’s decision to park in the reserved spot. But again, I disagree. I believe that we have an obligation to stand up against these inconsiderate people, particularly when the victims of their inconsideration cannot defend themselves. And in this case, it’s even more difficult for these victims to stand up and defend themselves.

First, a person with an infant is significantly less likely to engage anyone in a verbal battle. Even I adhere to this rule when I’m with my children.

Second, these parents or babysitters would have no idea that this man had infringed upon their rights. Unless they actually saw him entering or exiting his Buick, they would see his car and likely assume that the driver was also accompanying an infant. Therefore they would never have the opportunity to challenge him.

Admittedly, I’m not always thinking of the victim when engaging in these confrontations. In fact, more often than not, I’m not thinking about the victims at all. I enjoy these verbal battles. I can’t imagine you how much satisfaction I get from a well-timed quip or a stinging barb. This afternoon’s confrontation with the old man was the highlight of my day. The way that guy went from confusion to outrage to embarrassment in less than minute was priceless.

I’ve had a skip in my step ever since.

Regardless of the reason for my attack, I believe that my remarks may have made a difference in the world. Even the most hardened skeptic must admit that the likelihood of that man parking his Buick in those reserved spots again is significantly reduced because of my interference. He will certainly think twice before doing so.

And as a result, a mother with an infant is more likely to find that reserved spot available when they arrive.

Sometimes the ends do justify the means.