Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ugly, Dirty Crap

Life may be beautiful, but school is a good place to start learning about ugly and dirty.

You begin the socialization process at around age six by being pushed together with twenty or thirty other kids, many of them with colds and coughs. Kids aren’t particularly decorous about their illnesses. Step into any primary school, and you’re bound to hear the sound of some kid snuffling back so hard on his snot that it sounds like a vacuum cleaner with convulsions.

Then there’s the kid who cuts farts on the school bus—with fifty other kids trapped around him. The smell never varies: rotten eggs that have just burst open, the close-to-the-ground stink that wraps itself around outhouse walls. Strangely, the school bus fart is usually dealt on the way to school, not from. Nothing smells more like early education than packed lunches of apples, cookies, and farts, inside an early morning chill.

Of course, there’s always the kid who pukes all over his desk. And stick around long enough, you’ll come into contact with the pants-shitter.

It’s interesting how we learn to get along with others when we’re little children. Perhaps the first and most important lesson we learn is that ugly dirty crap is part of humanity, and that somehow, other people always seem to stink worse than we do.

Donald Gallinger is the author of The Master Planets

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Strange, Weird People I Have Met

I’ll call him Maurice. He owned a restaurant in Maine, on the seacoast, and he hadn’t changed his menu for years, despite his shrewdness in business, and despite the fact that calling his combo sandwiches “Buicks,” and “Chevy’s” was no longer new or amusing.

I was a short order cook in Maurice’s place. I had graduated from college the year before and didn’t know what to do with myself. I had come to Maine with a girl after college and then the girl left and I still didn’t know what to do with myself.

But I learned quite a bit from Maurice.

First, I learned never to trust wholesalers, either in produce or meats. I came upon this information while I was scooping coleslaw out of a gigantic bucket and dumping it into pans near my supply of lettuce and tomatoes. Maurice was in the back of the kitchen, next to the service entrance door. His voice, always loud, began to rise in volume and sharpness of tone.

“Do you think I don’t know what grade of roast beef I’ve ordered?” Maurice was glaring at a youngish looking man going prematurely bald. “Do you think I am so stupid that I don’t know the difference?” I don’t remember how the wholesaler responded—apparently it didn’t soothe Maurice. He shouted, “I love you like a brother but I will not be screwed! Fair is fair, but I WILL NOT BE SCREWED!”

Over the course of several months, I heard Maurice profess his love and outrage to both produce and meat wholesalers. And he made it clear that no relatives, real or metaphorical, would ever screw him.

Once, I remember him giving me a short but instructive formula regarding overhead costs. It was early morning, before the restaurant opened for the day, and Maurice was checking receipts at the bar. I was wiping down the counter when Maurice suddenly glanced up.

“Fifteen percent,” he snapped.

I smiled at him—in an interested, polite way—and continued to wipe down the bar.

“Listen to me,” he commanded, and his forefinger rose to inspire rapt attention. “Fifteen percent,” he repeated ominously. “That is how much your employees will steal from you. No matter what you do, no matter how alert or cautious you are, they will always steal fifteen percent. You must figure that into your overhead.” He went back to checking his receipts.

Sometimes, when Maurice was in an expansive mood, he would walk unannounced into the kitchen and scream, “Hands!” That was the signal for us to line up, put our hands out, and turn them up and down for Maurice’s inspection. Maurice insisted upon absolute cleanliness from his kitchen staff. If he once found your fingernails dirty, you would be subject to one of his roaring tirades. If it happened twice, you were fired….

At nineteen, Maurice had come to this country from Brittany. He found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant in New York. In typical American success story fashion, the owner of the restaurant, who happened to be a mob boss, took a liking to Maurice, saw his potential as a chef, and sent him to culinary school, where Maurice excelled. Eventually, Maurice starred in his own television cooking show that was broadcast all over the Midwest. Soon, Maurice was patenting his own brand of steaks and pastries and selling them to restaurants all across the country. Maurice became very wealthy. He was no more than forty five, but he had already been retired for years. The restaurant he now owned and operated was something of a “hobby” for him.

Like many immigrants to America who had done well, Maurice was rigidly conservative in his politics. He despised “hippies,” or anyone he perceived as not properly reverential towards America. If your hair was long—or you wore a beard—he immediately placed you in the category of “enemy to the state.” His favorite description of such people was “little animals and Indians,” and he viewed them with utter contempt.

I suppose he made exceptions for the odd animal/Indian. He spoke to me, from time to time. My hair was long and I also had a beard.

As the months crept by, I began to wonder why the menu (as I learned from the other employees) hadn’t changed in years. Surely Maurice was clever enough to realize that his restaurant, like all businesses from time to time, needed a certain “freshening” of its product line. I made this observation after suggesting to the manager a new sandwich that I had created. The manager laughed when I offered to glamorize the old sandwich board with a new entry.

“Where do you think you’re working?” he asked me.

I was a college graduate, but I had a degree in liberal arts. “In a restaurant?” I answered.

The manager smiled and shook his head. “You work in a laundry,” he replied softly. He winked at me. Then he told me to put a hamburger on the grille for his lunch.

I was proud, while at the restaurant, to have earned the reputation as the fastest and best short order cook in the restaurant’s history. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, of sorts. I was the fastest short order cook in a restaurant that was never allowed to become too successful—just moderately so, for reasons best known to the IRS and the mob boss who had befriended him when he first came to America.

After a year or so, I left the kitchen, and Maine, behind, and turned to teaching. I still didn’t know what to do with myself, but I knew I didn’t want to do it in a kitchen anymore.

I don’t know what became of Maurice. But I remembered his lessons. Work hard in America, keep your hair trimmed to a proper length, and be grateful when good friends offer you an opportunity to clean their money. And again, watch out for wholesalers.

Donald Gallinger is the author of The Master Planets

View Donald Gallinger's Official Website Blog at:

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Removed from History—An Individual’s Story

I am repeatedly told by the news media that we are living in times of upheaval. China looks to be the world’s next super power. An African-American has been declared the democratic nominee for President. Prices are skyrocketing, the result of an oil crunch that’s apparently here to stay. The list goes on and on, and if you wanted to examine the list with even a modicum of interest, you would marvel at the drama, danger, and possibilities of our era. As Charles Dickens once said, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” And, of course, he meant that every age is fraught with similar hopes and limitations.

I wish I cared more about the times in which I live. It’s not that I’m uninvolved. I simply don’t feel the continuity, the sense of cohesiveness about my relationship to society that I once did.

Incredibly (and I use that word after much thought), I felt more connected to society when I was younger. As I grew up during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, I had the sense that forces impacting upon American culture were palpable and real; there was a perception that events, no matter how slight, could be filtered and processed through an evolving cultural norm. Even the most weightless of societal phenomena, such as top forty songs and popular TV shows, resonated with the echo of earlier eras and a suggestion of future styles and interests.

Now, when I read the news, or listen to popular music, or watch television, I feel no particular sense of a larger zeitgeist. It’s just stuff. Sometimes it’s bad stuff and sometimes it’s interesting stuff, but in the end, it just feels like… stuff. I can’t identify the “happenings” in today’s society as guideposts along a cultural road. They just seem to be random events with no connection to anything else. The fact that a lot of rappers seem very fond of two specific words rhyming with “brother sucker” and “witch” does not immediately produce a series of culturally relevant connotations. I can’t make the emotional connections that have led to much of today’s popular entertainment, and I certainly have no idea where those popular diversions may be headed.

I do know that I have lost touch with the pulse of my world—if pulse is the right word for what makes a culture singular to its time and place.

I know there is danger in that sort of numbness.

I wish I could feel where I am in American society. I wish I had a better sense of society’s style and shape and density. But I don’t. My guess is that lots of other people feel that way, too. They just don’t have the words to describe that brand of loss.

Donald Gallinger is the author of The Master Planets

View Donald Gallinger's Official Website Blog at:

Monday, May 5, 2008

I Am Now the Old Speed Limit:

I turned 55 today. “Ain’t so bad!” as Rocky Balboa once said to Apollo Creed as Apollo kept punching Rocky into a near coma.

My blood tests reveal that my bad cholesterol is indeed bad, but everyone else in my physical domain has been behaving himself. What have I learned during this old speed limit life? Or, to put it another way, who are you, as the Caterpillar queried Alice from atop his mushroom? Let me put it yet another way: Who the hell cares what I’ve learned?

That’s a good question, Alice.

1. Work is terribly important—if you’re doing something that you really love. If not, then it’s important only insofar as it provides you with a place to sleep that’s not under a bridge and food to eat that’s not out of a garbage can.

2. Love is extremely important. You have to love someone enough to share nightly television habits that won’t drive both of you crazy. You have to love someone enough to worry that he/she doesn’t drive off to work on an empty gas tank. You have to love someone enough to care whether you shower regularly. You have to love someone enough to want to share with them the first cup of Joe in the morning.

3. Beauty. You have to love and appreciate beauty, the way you love and appreciate truth because, as Keats once said, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. You’ve got to approach beauty the way you would step on a scale at a Weight Watcher’s meeting. Gingerly. But with an anticipation of rapture and dread.

4. Never speed. You know damn well that you’ve got no particular place to go that’s all that important.

5. Be polite, when possible. In general, people are mean sons of bitches but they’re more likely to show common decency if you don’t immediately antagonize them.

6. Sit quietly at meetings at work. It doesn’t matter whether the new proposal is insane nonsense. There will be newer, and even more insane brands of nonsense next month, or next year. You’re not going to stop any of it. Relax. Think about your favorite hits from the 70s. That will keep your mind occupied and alert.

7. Don’t regret things you never did. Hell, you know you weren’t going to do them anyway.

8. Happiness is fleeting. Coffee is forever.

That’s what I’ve learned. If you don’t like it, well… okay, I’m not going to get upset about it. Life’s short, man.

Donald Gallinger is the author of The Master Planets

View Donald Gallinger's Official Website Blog at:

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Beatles—Five Hundred Years in the History Books?

Every age has its heroes. I suppose I never got over my hero worship of the Beatles.

I first saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was ten years old and, like so many other kids, I felt swept up in the excitement of their music and looks. To this day, if I am in a bookstore, I will reserve some time to scour the music section, hoping to discover another book on the Beatles that I haven’t already read. Why do I find their story so endlessly fascinating?

Of course, their music was transcendent. But what also made the Beatles special was their ability to create new cultural paradigms on a routine basis. Now that Paul is past 64, (and Ringo is headed for 70 in the year 2010), I think more and more people are beginning to look at the Beatles’ legacy in a new way.

Slowly, I think people are coming to realize that the Beatles—no less than Christopher Columbus or Albert Einstein—may represent a profound ripple in the human story.

Donald Gallinger is author of the novel The Master Planets

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Monday, April 21, 2008

A Classroom Full of Squares, Man

Is anyone truly hip anymore?

I asked myself this question recently, when I realized how long it’s been since anyone accused me of repressing his natural creativity or forcing him to adapt to a soulless society bent on conformity and consumerism. In fact, no one has accused me of stultifying his oneness with the universe in a long time, and I feel pretty bad about that.

For those of you who are wondering, I’m a high school teacher, so I’m supposed to belong to the oppressor class. How can I truly teach kids unless they feel that I’m violating their basic rights as human beings? Taking away their iPods and cell phones doesn’t count. Anything that can be bought in a Wal-Mart is not a major contributor to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

Which leads to my next question: Does anyone out there even want to be part of a counterculture? I’m not talking about cults; I’m referring to an old fashioned, grass roots movement dedicated to rejecting the norms of mainstream society—or, put another way, smugly dismissing the majority as hopeless fools and automatons while convincing yourself that only you and your friends really “get” what it’s all about. Remember Elvis? Beatniks? Hippies? Remember how angry some people used to get over long hair? Remember how incensed adults got whenever kids yelled “You Archie Bunker!” to belittle their parents’ values?

I miss those days.

Last week, a kid in my homeroom asked me what my house was like. I told him I didn’t live in a house; I lived in a condo. He stared at me. “You don’t live in a house?” he inquired, obviously baffled. “No,” I answered. “Houses take a lot of maintenance. I prefer to do other things with my time.” “But don’t you want a lawn, man?” the kid asked. We stared at each other.

This kid’s hair was purple and green and tufted into a Mohawk cut. His nose, lip, and eyebrows were pierced.

“I’m not interested in mowing and landscaping a yard,” I explained to him. He continued to stare. “You really don’t want a house,” he repeated. “You don’t want a lawn.” I might have just revealed that I ate babies on Thanksgiving.

What’s happened to all the hip people? The far-out dudes? (Pardon the antiquated jargon; that’s why I’m so very uncool. And therefore should be an oppressor. You see my point.)

Just once, for old time’s sake, I wish someone would cast a withering look upon me and say, “You can’t hold me down, man. My consciousness is too far above yours. That’s right, dude. You’ve got no soul. They’ve taken it away from you.”

Nah. Probably wouldn’t happen. Too many sales on right now.

Donald Gallinger is author of the novel The Master Planets

View Donald Gallinger's official website blog: