Thursday, April 03, 2008

Surprise Surprise

(News-Herald, April 3) Everywhere you look, you can find people who are surprised.

I notice it, for instance, in the grocery store. Frequently, while moving through an aisle, I find myself behind someone who parks in the middle of the aisle and slows to a speed that I would describe as glacial, except that these days we are told that glaciers are melting a few feet per year, which makes them much faster than my shopping roadblock.

Eventually the puzzled shopper registers the collective death stare of the half-dozen shoppers he has trapped, looks up, and is surprised to discover that other people are shopping in the store! Imagine. And many of them want to use the very same aisle!!

I can actually sympathize a bit. Many’s the time I have found myself transfixed by a particularly lovely piece of packaging (fruit and pasta are both delightfully arty). Since my son began his side-career in late-night grocery stocking, I have learned a certain professional appreciation for a good facing job (Facers are like little grocery store elves who toddle into the store in the dead of night to make sure that each shelf presents a full and lined-up front that hides gappage behind it; facing is a sort of consumer-based sculpture that captures the battle between chaos and order, human accomplishment and existential angst, oreos and fig newtons. When you decide you won’t buy the cheesy puffs after all, and stick them in between packages of soap, you’re making work for some facer).

At any rate, I can see how grocery displays might lead one to absently forget about the traffic around. But then I meet the surprised people in the check-out line. These are the folks who are, apparently, surprised that food costs money! They unload their food, watch the checker ring it up, and then, only after the checker has announced that the customer will, in fact, be asked to pay for the food, does the customer begin to consider how the transaction might be completed. Does she have money in her purse? Might she write a check, or could this be a plastic kind of evening?

It’s a suspenseful moment, best appreciated by people in line who had no hopes of going anywhere soon. I pass it by imagining the conversation later at home. “Yes, dear, I got groceries. I thought I might not have to get out money this time, but it turned out they charged me for the food again!”

Probably the biggest class of surprised people are the folks who are constantly surprised to discover that they are not the only human beings in the world.

Grocery stores, the mall, the highway—you can find them everywhere, acting as if it had never occurred to them that they might be sharing space with other slices of humanity.

You can find a full herd of them in just about any school parking lot at the end of a sports event or other post-scholastic activities, bobbing and weaving and honking and being rather surprised that they are not the only person there to pick up Junior. Other people want to drive past the school entrance? I should park my limited edition custom land cruiser athwart the traffic lane? That’s just crazy!

Some people manage to be surprised by the events that unfold in front of them. The best way to experience this sort of surprise is to simply ignore history. It took a real willful ignorance of history (both Iraq’s and our own) to be surprised by the hash of events in the Persian Gulf and the failure of USA style democracy to quickly take root and bloom.

Likewise, one would think that local leaders, trying to accomplish anything quickly and quietly, could hardly be surprised that people A) catch on, B) jump to conclusions and C) become cranky. Nor could any of us be surprised any more than the result of some local crankiness is that some folks will hit the speed-dial code for their lawyer faster than a junk yard owner can yank his bad-mannered attack dog out of its shed.

I think we’ve all caught on to most of that. And yet, I can already smell the preamble to that inevitable moment when folks are shocked and surprised that Two Mile Run County Park & Cage Match ends up costing county taxpayers money. Surprise!

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