Here’s my semifinals speech from the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in DC back in August. Feels like a lifetime ago.
The problem with a two-party system (or even a 10-party system) is you have to make choices. Candidate A might say he wants to put an end to the death penalty and institute a complicated economic policy that is DAMN NEAR GUARANTEED to give everybody a million dollars. But he/she also hates people from Kansas and says he plans to nuke the state once elected. Candidate B wants to give away free cars to everyone in the electorate, but in order to do that you have to give all your money to the government, and 1/5 of all people in the United States will be sent to work camps three months out of the year.
If you vote for Candidate A, you will be called a Kansas-hater and all your friends will say the blood of the midwest is on your hands. If you vote for Candidate B, everyone will say you support the next, great American concentration camps. You will also be compared to Hitler at every turn. People will photoshop mustaches on your facebook photos. It will not be pretty.
Those are your choices. Pick one.
Sure, there are some third party candidates (and there is always the option of voting for baseball players like that one idiot you know), but the sad reality is either the Kansas-masher or the New Hitler will be your next President no matter what you do. You can choose the lesser of two evils or throw your vote away on a third party.
What do you do?
You think back to past elections, like the one in 2000 where Candidate Q promised to give everyone free healthcare but we had to change our middle name to “Feldspar.” Also, people named Bob had to break their pinky fingers over and over on months with more than four Fridays in them. He won. And what’s the world like today? Nobody is named Feldspar, and only a few people followed through on the pinky breaking thing. Everyone wonders whether they were stupid for doing that (hint: they were).
Then there was the candidate in 2004 who promised to really take the fight to the BadEvilDoers from OverThere-i-Stan, who everyone was afraid of for some damn reason. All he required was the right to run a porn website out of the White House and a cadre of people with red hair who followed him around all day telling him how awesome they thought he was. People didn’t like him all that much for that. Well … some people did, but those people are weird. Anyway, he fought the BadEvilDoers for a while, then gave up and focused on Education, which was nicer than the porn website, which never really took off in the end. And thank God for that!
So you realize that every time there has been a presidential election in this country, all the major candidates are painted as THE WORST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD by the opposition and the media and people with blogs and bad youtube channels. And yeah, this time around, Candidate A says he likes to grab women by their genitals and that he wants to deport people who worship the wrong God. And sure, some people say Candidate B sold our national secrets to our enemies and ruined the lives of those people who accused her husband of sexual assault when HE was in the White House, but are these things REALLY true? All the BadThings from past presidential cycles turned out to be not as bad as we might have thought. And, gosh, it sure would be nice to have that million dollars Candidate A keeps talking about. He probably won’t bomb Kansas, right? Who would do that? That’s crazy! If he does, maybe he’ll let people leave first BEFORE he bombs it. Why would anyone want to live in Kansas anyway? It’s so … flat!
Granted, both LOOK bad, and the supporters on both sides are RABID in their hatred of you for having made your choice, even though you REALLY don’t want to bomb Kasnas OR open up concentration camps so people can get a car. Nobody wants that. Not really. But that’s what everyone SAYS everyone else wants.
Because people are crazy in election seasons. Stark raving mad. Completely insane. Like that guy who votes for baseball players. Only with malicious intent.
So you walk into the voting booth and you vote for someone despite their many failings and hope for the best. Maybe it will be like last time. Maybe those BadThings won’t really happen. And, if they do, you plan to stand up to THE MAN even Your Candidate wins. Because you have some friends that live in Kansas. And you don’t like the idea of work camps. You vote for one of the two Candidates and you promise to work with the people on the other side as best you can. It would be nice if there was a Candidate out there who was AllGood and a Candidate who was Allbad. But, like Ben Stiller said in that one movie your college roommate kept watching all the time instead of working (or paying bills), “There aren’t any good guys. There aren’t any bad guys. It’s just a bunch of guys.” It would be nice if you could ignore the failings of one in support of the other. But you can’t. In the real world, you have to choose some things. People don’t always understand WHY you choose as you do, and they might call you names for having done it. But you still have to do it. Because this is real life and real living means making hard choices. Plus, you’d have to be an idiot to vote for a baseball player instead. Right?
Choosing things is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes these things just suck. The important thing to remember is that just because THINGS suck and CHOICES suck, it doesn’t mean YOU suck. And it doesn’t mean your friends suck, either. They did the best they could. God forgive us. We all did.
Except for that one guy who votes for baseball players. Man, that guy is an idiot.
Part 1: The Friendly Stop
Jim Thompson spent the final moments of the second-to-last day of his life on a stool at The Friendly Stop Bar & Grille. He was drunk, and he spoke loud to no one in particular. “The last thing I need,” he said, “is another woman.”
Sean Hinken, The Friendly Stop’s bartender, had already locked the door, wiped down the tables, and put up the chairs for the night. He looked at Jim and checked his watch. With anyone else, he’d have gone to his “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” routine, but this was different. Jim was different.
Sean and Jim went way back. They grew up down the street from each other, had played on the same little league baseball teams, and were roommates for a while in college. Jim had recently divorced Janice Thompson, his wife of 10 years and, while he made a habit of telling everyone how VERY HAPPY he was, the truth was Jim was miserable. In fact, he had spent nearly every night since the divorce right here on this stool, staring into his beer, hoping to forget, bit by bit, the woman who meant the world to him.
That’s exactly what he was doing when the Friendly Stop’s door swung, and in stepped a man Jim had never met before. He was an older gentleman with a bushy grey beard and a slick, white suit, like Colonel Sanders if he sold pharmaceuticals instead of fried chicken.
“Anyone know if you can get a good mint julep here?” the main said. “I’ve been dying for a mint julep and no one around here seems to know what they are.”
Jim was alone with the new visitor. Sean had retreated to the back to handle a delivery.
“’Fraid you’re outta luck,” Jim said. “All they got here is watered down beer, and fancy liquor bottles that sit on the shelves and make pretty colors when the light hits ‘em right.”
“Ah,” the man in the white suit said as he stepped fully inside. “The search will have to continue, then. Mind if I join you?”
“I think they’re about to close.” He glanced at the door. “In fact, I could have sworn Sean already locked up.”
The man in white approached the bar and smiled. “Actually, Jim, I was hoping to meet YOU here.”
“Do I … know you?”
“Where are my manners?” The man stood up straight and stuck out his left hand. “Pleased to meet you, Jim. Name’s Lucifer.”
“Sometimes I go by Beelzebub or ‘Old Scratch.’ But you might know me as Satan.” He paused. “The devil?”
Jim laughed slowly and shook his hand. He knew a joker when he met one. He couldn’t quite see the punchline yet, but it was out there in the ether, waiting for him. He was sure of it. “Pleased to meet you, too” he said. Then, somewhat sarcastically: “Lucifer. What can I do you for?”
“I’ve got a business proposition for you.”
“A Business proposition, you say? Okay … shoot”
“I have three people running around out there – three bad, evil people – and I need you to kill them.”
“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Jim said. “Do you want me to shoot them or should I sneak up from behind and attack? Like a ninja!”
“Whatever works best for you,” The man said. “As long as they’re dead.”
“Great! And what about compensation?”
“That’s the best part! You, good sir, will get none other than your heart’s deepest desire!”
“Sounds intriguing. I’ve always wanted a Mustang. Is that what I get? A Mustang? And maybe some donuts. I like donuts, too.”
“You’ll have to get to the end to find out.”
“Excellent,” the man said, smiling. “So do we have a deal.”
“Absolutely,” Jim said, a little too loudly. He could hear Sean coming out from the back. “Why don’t we drink to seal the deal?”
“I’ve had enough. You go ahead.”
“Suit Yourself.” Jim turned, and was about to yell out for more drinks from Sean as he came up from the back.
“This will be good for you, Jim,” the man said “I’m sure Janice would be proud.”
What did you say?!” Jim yelled. But, when he turned around, there was no one there.
PART 2: The Garage
Jim Thompson pulled into the bottom floor of his garage at work early the next morning He wore a pair of sunglasses, and he had a headache the size of Montana.
“What happened last night?” he thought. “And why do I feel like eating fried chicken?”
He shook off the headache as best he could. “No matter. Today, I turn over a new leaf. Today, I start new.”
Jim glanced at the picture of Janice he kept on his dashboard. The one from their honeymoon where she was laughing and trying to hide behind a beer bottle. Blue Moon was her favorite. She’d thumb little pieces of the label off so, by the time she was done with her beer, the label was in tatters. That’s how it looked in the picture. She looked happy. They both looked happy.
He sighed and stepped out.
“HELP!” A woman’s voice nearby. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
Jim ran over to see a large man attacking a woman next to a minivan. Jim grabbed the guy from behind, and they struggled. The guy was big, much bigger than Jim, and strong, too. But Jim caught him with a lucky elbow, and the guy fell backward, tripped, and cracked his head on the pavement. He stopped moving immediately. The woman had passed out. Blood pooled around the man’s head.
“Shit,” Jim said as he called 9-1-1.
When he hung up, he heard footsteps from behind. Jim turned, and there he was. The man in white. Evil Colonel Saunders. The Devil.
“Hello, Jim,” The Devil said. “That was your first. You’ve got two more.”
“What? You mean last night was real? You’re … you’re real?”
“Of course I’m real,” he said, lifting his feet in disgust. “And so is all this blood … UGH!”
“I can’t believe this!”
“Neither can I! Do you know how hard it is to get blood stains out of a white suit?” He spit into a rag and wiped at a spot on his suit.
“What do you mean two more? I didn’t kill anyone.”
The Devil glanced at the body, then back up. “He looks pretty dead to me, Jim.”
“But Murder? I didn’t want…”
“Woah! Wait just a minute there, Jimmy. You didn’t think I wanted you to murder anyone, did you?”
“Until a moment ago, I thought you were just a bad dream. Now, I don’t know what to think. “
“Well, That’s not how it works. Listen.” The Devil sat down next to Jim on the hood of an old Toyota. It dented beneath him. “All these stories you’ve heard about me, with God as the good guy and me as this malevolent evil force? Those are nice kid stories, Jim. But that’s now how it works in the real world. God and me? We’re on the same team! He gets all the good people singing hymns in church and making casseroles.
“And me?” The Devil looked down at the body again. “I handle the rougher crowd. Like Mr Wanna-Be-Rapist here.”
“Where do I fit in?”
“A happy accident! I’ve been watching you, Jim. You’ve had a rough go of things lately, I know. I figured I’d let you in on some of my work and, as a token of my thanks, you get your heart’s deepest desire. Pretty good deal, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look. It’ll all make sense once this is finished. Trust me. Everything will be fine. ”
Police sirens in the distance.
“I have to get going. Buck up, kiddo. You saved this woman’s life. You’re a hero! Enjoy it. Catch you later!”
PART 3: The Drive
Jim Thompson left work early that day. A news van showed up with the police in the garage, and Jim’s face had been thoroughly plastered on televisions, newspapers, the Internet, everywhere. He was an immediate celebrity. A big-time hero, just like The Devil said.
“If I have to tell the story one more time, I’ll shoot myself and get this over with early,” he thought. And he still didn’t know what to make of the man in the white. WAS he real? Or was Jim merely hallucinating?
“I’ll have to ask Janice when I get home,” he thought. “She’ll probably think it’s funny!” Then he remembered. They were divorced now. Janice wouldn’t be there. Nobody would.
Jim turned onto his street and the sun blinded him. He raised his hand to block the light but, before he could, there was a flash of color and a scream. Jim slammed on his brakes and the car shook violently before coming to a stop. He leapt out of the car to see a mangled bicycle lying in the street. Next to it was a small child, no more than five or six years old. The kid wasn’t moving.
“Hello Jim,” the devil spoke from behind. “One more to go. You’re really on your way.”
“Oh my God!” Jim nearly jumped out of his skin
“No. The other one.”
“This is my second one? THIS? You said these people were evil. You didn’t say anything about killing kids!”
“I didn’t say you wouldn’t kill kids, did I?”
“What you have to understand about me and The Big Guy Upstairs, Jim, is we’re Gods! We have an eternal perspective. We see events and their consequences played out in the fullness of time.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means when you look at this kid, all you see is a kid. I look at him and I see what this kid will become. He has the potential to be a mass murderer, a military leader who will slaughter millions, or worse … a politician. You didn’t kill a kid, Jim. You saved millions of lives.”
“He just looks like a kid to me,” Jim said.
“Looks can be deceiving,” The Devil said. “Just ask my second wife.”
“It’s all complicated, I know. But trust me. You did a good thing. Trust me. This kind of thing is a science and I’m very precise.”
“You said he has the potential to become evil. You didn’t say he WAS evil.”
“Hey. With Free Will even Science ain’t an exact science. You know what I mean? But why worry about all this? You’ve got one more to go and, trust me, this next one’s a doozy. I’ve got something special for you, Jim, and – OH!. You’re gonna love it!”
Jim looked at the kid. Five years old. Probably just learned to ride that bike of his. He and Janice had always wanted kids, but it never happened. Was this really a mass murdering psychopath? Or just a kid on a bike?
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Jim said
The Devil sighed. “It’s up to you, of course. Like I said. Free will is free will.” The devil stepped closer, put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “But you should know. This next person is on my list. This person will die whether you do the job or someone else. There are a lot of other people who would help me if I asked.” The Devil smiled wide. “A lot.”
“I told you. I’m a scientist. I’ve been doing this a long time. But I like you, Jim. I WANT you to make it to the end. And I’m serious. You’re really gonna like this next one.”
“Here.” The Devil reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow Post-It note and handed it to Jim. It read: “Blue Fern Restaurant. Downtown. 11:30. Look for the person in Red. Hugs N Kisses, Satan.”
“What if I say no?” Jim started to say, but The Devil was gone again.
“I hate it when he does that,” Jim thought.
PART 4: Two More
Jim Thompson stood in the parking lot behind the Blue Fern Restaurant. It was 11:20 P.M. and it was cold. In his hand, he held the pistol his father had given him when he turned 18. “Only for protection,” his father told him. “Never to hurt. You hear me, son? NEVER.”
“Never,” Jim said, but he didn’t put the gun away. Not yet.
The man in the garage. The kid. He couldn’t get the images out of his head. He hadn’t really killed anyone yet. Not really. Both of those were just … accidents. … Right?”
I’m a scientist, the Devil said. I’m very precise.
Jim still wasn’t sure. What would happen at 11:30? Would some strange-looking guy step out of the restaurant? Maybe a drug dealer or a closeted pedophile or something? Would Jim just shoot him and run away? Is that how it worked?
Could his heart’s deepest desire really be worth all this? What would Janice say?
“Janice!” he thought. So THAT’S what it is. And suddenly the kid ,the man in the garage, the grim task before him, ALL of it swept out of Jim’s mind, replaced by pictures of Janice on their wedding day, walking toward him with that sly smile on her face. Janice asleep on the couch with her hand rested against her cheek in that way that, for some reason, always made him smile. Janice, looking into his eyes and saying she loved him again. That all was forgiven. That they could rebuild their lives together, forever and always. Janice.
“SHE’S my heart’s deepest desire,” Jim thought. “She’s the answer. She has to be!” And suddenly Jim realized … yes, he could kill someone – a very bad someone like the devil said – if it meant he could have Janice back.
Jim stood up, gun in hand, and walked to the restaurant. The doors opened at 11:27 and people streamed out into the street.
“Man in red,” Jim said, scanning the crowd. “Man in Red.”
That’s when Jim saw her. Those eyes. Those lips. That face he could never forget, not in a million years. It was his heart’s deepest desire. His love. His Janice, coming down the steps. And she was wearing red.
“No!” Jim said, realizing now, almost too late, that it was all a lie. “Oh God, no!” He turned and started to run away. But the Devils’ words came back to haunt him.
This person is on my list. This person will die, whether you do the job or someone else. I’m a scientist. I’m very precise.
“I have to warn her,” Jim thought. “I have to try.”
Jim took off running, following Janice down the alleyway that lead to a nearby garage. “Janice!” he screamed. “Janice, wait!” Jim ran full throttle now, not aware that he still had his gun in his hand. He reached her, grabbed her by the shoulder. She turned.
BANG! The gun went off.
“Jim? Oh my God, Jim? What are you doing?”
Jim stumbled back and looked down. There was blood on his shirt. Janice stood in front of him, holding a gun of her own. She had pulled the trigger, not him.
“Jim!” Janice screamed.
His watch started beeping. 11:30. If he didn’t act now, Janice would soon be dead. He tried to scream, tried to tell her to run, but all that came out was a guttural “Ahhhh!”
Janice saw the gun in Jim’s hand. “What’s going on? Were you trying to kill me?” she asked, the pain in her voice almost too much for him to bear.
NOW he understood. This had been the Devil’s plan all along. It certainly LOOKED like he was trying to kill her, didn’t it? But looks can be deceiving. Suddenly Jim wondered if that man in the garage had REALLY been attacking the woman, or if something else was going on. Jim fell to the ground.
“Oh my God, Jim!”
He heard the clicking of heels coming down the alley behind him. The Devil himself had come to finish the job, and all Jim could do was watch.
I’m a scientist, The Devil had said. I’m very precise. The person in red will die at 11:30. And here Jim was, his formerly white shirt stained a dark, deep red from the blood that pooled around him just like in the garage that morning.
The clicking got closer and slowed to a stop. Old Scratch, Beelzebub, The Devil stepped over the soon to be deceased Jim Thompson, made a show of brushing a spot of blood off of his white pants, and stopped.
Jim closed his eyes, and the last thing he heard before passing from this world to whatever waited for him in the next, was this…
“Hello, Janice. That was your first. You’ve got two more.”
“Life is hard,” my Grandma would tell me. “Eventually someone will hurt you. When that happens, you get to decide: fight back, or forgive. It’s up to you. What will you do?”
As a kid, I played baseball in the field behind my Grandma’s house. We played every day, all day, and each day for lunch, my Grandma made us her world-famous peanut butter sandwiches. These were beautiful: a single piece of toast with a thin layer of peanut butter spread on top. That’s simple enough, but what made them special was she wrote your name into the peanut butter so you knew THIS one was yours.
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It was a simple field. The path to it ran past my grandmother’s house, through a set of bushes and into a circular clearing behind. First base was a tree stump. Second was a raised patch of earth that kicked up dust whenever someone ran over it with a lawnmower. We used an old glove, one we found lying underneath a rock next to a stream in the woods behind my house, for third. Home was ditch that had worn thin the first couple years we played there, and then gave up on growing anything thereafter, because when you played ball as often as we did – day after week after month after year – without ceasing, even in the cold months, it tends to leave a mark. Childhood is more powerful than Mother Nature in some ways, which is probably why it wears out so quickly leaves such a lasting impression.
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Every night, as a kid, I listened to the Reds on 700 WLW. Every night. Without fail.
Some nights, particularly those when the Reds played teams on the west coast, my parents would tell me to go to bed round about the sixth or seventh inning, just as things were getting good.
“Awww, Mom! Come on! Eric Davis is up first next inning. Can’t I just stay up till then?”
“No. Bedtime. Get upstairs.”
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This time of year is always tough. Football season is ramping up, the weather has hinted that it might start to cool off a bit here soon, and the kids have gone back to school. Even those of you who are not either a student or a parent have, at the very least, spent a long commute caught in the sloth-like wake of a school bus, wondering why we haven’t developed flying cars be now.
The answer: because your stupid teenagers would drive those flying cars, crashing into each other, killing thousands. Then where would we be?
There’s lots to distract us from our favorite pastime. Heck, I’ve even given up on Fantasy Baseball. My team, the Florida Dumpster Fire, has descended into last place, breaking decades-long records for ineptitude in our keeper league. It’s easy, in seasons like this, where the impossibility of a postseason was a foregone conclusion before the Findlay Market Parade took its first steps on Opening Day. Back then, we thought anything might happen. Now, we know that nothing has and nothing will. How do we keep things relevant?
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Not Person: I read your latest Elevator Conversations post.
Me: Yeah? Did you like it?
Not Person: No.
Me: Why not?
Not Person: You made it up, didn’t you? You make them all up!
Me: I make some of them up. Most are real. And others are a mix.
Not Person: You shouldn’t do that.
Me: Shouldn’t do what?
Not Person: Make those up.
Me: Why not?
Not Person: It’s like you’re lying!
Me: Lying has intent to deceive. This has intent to entertain.
Not Person: Well, I think you should stop.
Me: Okay, but you’re not gonna like it.
Not Person: …Why?
Me: Because I made YOU up, and…
Not Person: No, wait!
Me: …If I stop…
Not Person: …I take it back!
Me: … you stop.
Not Person: Nooooooooooooo!
Not Person disappears into a puff of existential smoke. Other Person steps into the elevator.
Other Person: Why are you talking to yourself?
Me: You wouldn’t understand. … Can you push floor 3?
Other Person pushes the button and steps to the side.
Other Person: Stupid, drunk, homeless people.
Me: Hey! I’m not homeless.
Other person: You sure smell like it.
The doors close. The elevator goes away.
Two men step into a crowded elevator.
Man #1: You should just give up and get contacts. They really are better than glasses.
Man #2: No way. I’d have to start washing my hands.
Man #1: …You mean more, right? You’d have to wash your hands … more?
Man #2: No.
Everyone in the elevator steps to the side opposite Man #2.
I stood next to the elevator, holding my hat in one hand; my cell phone in the other. A lady approaches, pushes the button. She sees my hat and her eyes go wide.
Lady: We’re not supposed to wear hats
Me: It’s okay. I’m not wearing it.
Lady: We’re not supposed to wear hats!
Me: It’s okay … I’m not wearing it.
Lady: I’m telling someone.
Me: But….I’m not …
Lady (angrily): We’re not supposed to wear hats.
She storms off, just as the elevator arrives.
Me: I don’t even work here, Lady….