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Color Me Cherry

                                               COLOR ME CHERRY

                                                     by Ruth Minshull

            A while ago I was looking at an elegant raincoat in a mail order catalog.  It was available in Natural and Mallard.  Mallard?

            This was a new one to me.  There was no accompanying picture, no further description, just the name Mallard.

            Now, all the mallards I know have several colors.  The moms are mottled brown with a small band of blue on the edge of the wing.  The dads, of course, are more colorful.  They have a deep green head, a white neckband, a rusty breast, brown back and a white tummy and the same band of blue on the wing.  So what color is mallard?  Pretty sloppy merchandising, I thought.

            Some time later I received another catalog from the same company.  Again it had the ambiguous mallard-colored coat.  This time, however, my curiosity kept me hunting for the answer.  Finally I found a dress that came in mallard.  According to the picture it was teal green.  Some bored copywriter got tired of that color description and decided to switch ducks.

            Actually, it’s just as inappropriate, since the teal has only a bit of green on the wings and the rest is brown and white and speckled and such.

            But, the thing is, we’ve agreed that a certain color is teal blue or teal green.

            We’ve also agreed that lime green is a soft color not quite aqua, but nothing like the rather sharp yellow green of the fruit.

            Dove gray is another example of the sheltered lives these writers live.  Real doves are kind of brownish, not the pale gray that bears their name.

            We’ve all agreed that the color violet is light purple, but the flower comes in dozens of colors.

            There’s a certain shade we call wine and yet the drink comes in myriad varieties.

            There are dozens of colors, old and new, that have no relationship to their namesakes.

            But we’re good sports and go along with it.  We buy almond washers, nutmeg dresses, persimmon pillows and mushroom rugs. 

            Maybe we should feel sorry for those poor writers locked up in their fluorescent-lighted, air-conditioned prisons, probably on the 30th floor office of some NY ad agency.

            They may have never seen a dove, or a mallard or a persimmon.

            No doubt, they are often hungry, as suggested by the abundance of food names they use:  we have nutmeg and cinnamon and sage, pomegranate, apple green, peach, avocado, chocolate brown, pumpkin, watermelon and just plain melon.  Then there’s lemon and ginger, champagne and brandy, cherry, blueberry, raspberry and on and on.

            Wow!  There’s almost enough for a meal here.

©  Ruth Minshull 2014

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Pudding

THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING

By Ruth Minshull

 

My mother-in-law (who came over from England as a teenager) prepared many delicious family dishes that had been handed down for generations–but the recipes were not written down; they were all in her head.

Such was the case with the wonderful plum pudding–a rich, moist dessert that she served with every Christmas dinner.

One year, I decided I should learn how to make it, so I followed her around the kitchen as she prepared the pudding.  Unfortunately, she was a handfuls-and-pinches cook.  “I don’t really have a recipe,” she explained.  “I just make enough for the pan that fits into my steamer.”

“Oh,” I murmured, as she grabbed a handful of flour–and then another, and another.  How many handfuls are in a cup? I wondered.  Of course, her hands were much smaller than mine.  My head reeled.

“The spicing is important,” she advised, adding a pinch (or two or three) from several different containers.  Was that cloves?  Ginger?  How many pinches make a teaspoon?

“It’s a good idea to plump the raisins and currents,” she said dumping part of a boxful of each into a bowl of warm water.  Would that be a cup?  A half-cup?

I gave up the whole idea when she produced a bowl from the refrigerator.  “I usually grind up the suet the day before.  It saves time.”

“Suet?”  Do people really eat that stuff?

“Yes, of course,” she said, mixing it in with the indeterminate amount of flour, sugar and the unknown spices.  “In fact, they called this ‘suet pudding’ at home.  It was the poor people’s version of plum pudding.  Well-to-do people made theirs with dried fruit,nuts and brandy.”

Whatever they called the concoction, I knew I wouldn’t be making it.  This was long before fat had acquired the bad name it suffers today, so that didn’t worry me so much, but I was intimidated by the prospect of plumping and grinding–not to mention the blur of pinches and handfuls.

Some years later, after his parents were gone, my husband confessed that, as the holidays neared, he had a longing for his mother’s pudding.

Well, I experimented with making one.  It was a dismal culinary failure.  Even the dog wouldn’t eat it.  For several holidays I tried different variations, and produced more flops.  Then one year, with the yuletide season approaching, I was browsing through my pressure cooker book, when I found a recipe for steamed cherry pudding.  What if I omit the cherries, add in raisins and currents (plumped, of course) and suet.  I tried these substitutions, and was thrilled to find that I had produced the desired spongy texture, but the flavor wasn’t right.  Back to the drawing board (well, the spice cabinet).  After several more unsuccessful trials, finally with a bit of tweaking here and there I was satisfied that I had duplicated the essence of the original pudding.

My husband proclaimed it “just as good as Mother’s pudding–maybe even better.”

(Since there was none left to offer the dog, I knew I had a hit.)  This became our holiday dessert:  my very own version of the plum pudding.

Years went by, and the tradition continued.  Eventually, my husband and I divorced, the children grew up and moved across the country.  I continued to make the puddings, which were eaten when the family gathered for the holiday, or mailed when we did not.  (I even sent one to my ex-husband every year.)

Then the no-fat phase began to dominate the American diet.  One-by-one, we all conceded that we wouldn’t, couldn’t (or shouldn’t!) continue to eat that suet-laden dessert any more.

Holidays came and went, celebrated with pumpkin pies, mincemeat pies and cookies.  That old rich, fat thing (what was its name?) was forgotten.

That is, I thought it was.

Then one year, my sons and their families came to spend Thanksgiving weekend with me in Florida where I was spending the winter.  As the twelve of us sat around the table enjoying pumpkin pie, my oldest son said, “Mother, there’s only one thing I want from you for Christmas.”

“Yes?”

“A plum pudding.  For years, I’ve been ordering bread pudding in restaurants all over the country–looking for something that tastes like that pudding.  But I can’t find it anywhere.  Nothing comes close.  Will you make one for me?”

“Well, OK” I said.

My other son said, “Hey!  I want one too.”

“All right.”

My daughter-in-law gasped, “I can’t believe you agreed to that–so much fat!”

“I know, I know, but it’s just one day of the year.”

Little did I realize how hard this assignment would be.  First, I couldn’t find the recipe.  I thought they were all on my computer, but the pudding recipe simply wasn’t there.  I must have erased it!  After so many years, there was no way I could remember all the details.

I fretted for several days until I finally had an inspiration.  The recipe might still be in my old card file back in Michigan.  I called some friends at home and asked for their help.  I told them where to get a house key and what to look for.

To my great relief they found the recipe.  They e-mailed it to me and I went to work.

First I needed containers that would fit into my pressure cooker (which was tall but had a narrow opening).  Finally, after searching department stores, kitchen stores and grocery stores, I bought several one-pound cans of coffee.  The empty cans fit perfectly.

With time running short, I went in search of the ingredients.  That was not easy either.  I could no longer walk into any butcher shop or supermarket and buy a package of suet.  People didn’t use the stuff any more.  Eventually I was able to persuade a butcher to save some for me the next time he was cutting up a side of beef.

Meanwhile I was searching in vain for currents.  I worried that there might be none left in the state of Florida.  Are they fattening too? I wondered.  Or were they on some endangered list?  I was almost ready to give up when I discovered a couple of boxes in a little grocery store.  Although I suspected that they might be left over from the Civil War days, I grabbed them up.

I made the puddings and some sauce to go with them and, with time running out, I sent them off by Fed-X.

They were happily received, but I knew they would now be expected annually, and (comfort food or not) I didn’t feel that I should continue to commit this dietary sin against my sons.

Perhaps I could devise a new version of the recipe, I mused.  But what could I use in place of the suet?  It was vital to the consistency, if not the flavor.  There had to be another way.  I’d seen applesauce recommended in some cookbooks (as a substitute for fat) so I tried it.  Yuk!  (I no longer had a dog, but I knew no self-respecting dog would have gone near this unsavory concoction.)

Now what?  I needed something that would retain the flavor, but would give me the moist density that was the basic characteristic of the pudding.  Well, I thought, there’s a similar density in carrot cake.  What if I used carrots?

It seemed like a rather bizarre idea, but I tried it.  To my amazement, it worked.

The fatless version was joyously accepted–and a new tradition was born.  For several years now I have continued to send puddings to both of my sons and to my former husband as well.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a “health food”.  I probably can’t call it a plum pudding (which never did have any plums, by the way).  And it’s certainly no longer the old suet pudding.

I guess you could call this thing–that was imported, lost, recreated, abandoned, lost again, found, recreated, modified, Americanized and reincarnated–My Christmas Pudding Lite.

* * *

CONFESSIONS OF A COMPULSIVE BIBLIOPHILE

by Ruth Minshull

 

There’s an old joke about the guy who went to a psychiatrist and when the doctor asked him “What’s the problem?” the man said, “Well, I’m very fond of pancakes.”

“That’s not so bad,” the psychiatrist replied, “I’m fond of pancakes myself.”

“Oh really?” said the man, “I keep mine in a trunk.  Where do you keep yours?”

Well, I like books.  I don’t keep them in a trunk, but you’ll find then just about everywhere else in my house.  If people scanned over all the volumes in my collection they might assume that I’m an authority on several subjects, if not a complete genius.  But then, they’d be assuming that I had read every one of the books.  I haven’t.

I have a strange affliction:  I must own books.  They’re irresistible to me.  But I don’t always finish reading them.  At this very moment I have seven half-read books beside my bed.  I want to finish them all–at least I think I do–but I don’t know if I will.  Such books usually get moved away to make room for new arrivals.  This starts them on a slow migration to the living room book shelves where they join the dozens of brethren who met the same fate.

I have diet books, probably six or seven, and countless health books.  If I finished reading them all I’d probably qualify for an MD.  At the very least I should learn the secret to eternal youth.

There’s no doubt I would have been a master jeweler if I had absorbed the information in all of the jewelry-making books I used to own.

I have books on writing and marketing of everything from fillers to romances.  I own 4 dictionaries, 2 slang dictionaries, two thesauri, 3 usage dictionaries, 3 spelling dictionaries and several books of quotations.

There are a number of tomes that promise the secret of making a fortune.  Now, you can tell that I haven’t finished those–or else someone was lying.

There are business books.  There’s one for inventors and one that tells how to obtain a patent.  I have a book containing nothing but letterheads.  Why I’m no longer sure.

There are at least a dozen art books–many are third and 4th generation.  Other art books have come and gone before as my interest in the subject waxed and waned.  There are books on art treasures, the works of various painters, how to do oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, cartoons and graphic arts.  Even an art clip book and one full of decorative borders.  There’s a book of African masks, another of symbols.

At least I’ve cut down on the gardening books, although I still have a few.  This makes sense, since I have no place to grow a garden.  Actually I’ve never had a place to grow a garden.

I have a complete set of craft books which I’ve never opened at all.  There’s half a set of encyclopedia of home repair.  There are books on birds, animals, plants, flowers, cats and much more.

I’d like to get rid of some of them (surely Letterheads could go?) but I’m afraid my interest may loop around and come back to a given subject and I’ll desperately need them.

The whole thing–this collection of unread books–is not logical.  It’s not practical and it’s certainly not economical.

But I think I have one of those diseases–you know–like the druggies and alcoholics have.  Or maybe my mother spanked me with a book when I was a child.

Obviously it’s not my fault.

Anyway, I don’t have a single pancake stashed away.

©  Ruth Minshull  2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filling the Holes

 FILLING THE HOLES

By

Ruth Minshull

A few years ago I was working an acrostic puzzle when I was stumped.  Only after I had filled in all the surrounding words did I discover that the one I needed was “piñata.”  “Well, who on earth would know that?” I asked of the world at large.

“I do,” my friend Ed said.

“I do,” my older son said.

“I do,” my younger son said.

I was stupefied.  How could I have lived all those years without encountering the word?  How could everyone else around me know the word when I didn’t?

This wasn’t the first time I discovered a word that was totally new to me.  Even more often I had found that a word had a different meaning than I thought it did.

A friend of mine, a college professor (of linguistics), used the word “debacle” to describe the serious situation a mutual friend was in.  I pondered that for a time.  To me, “debacle” meant a fiasco.  The word seemed far too lightweight to use about a person who was facing prosecution and prison (as was our friend).  When I had a chance to look it up, I found that the primary meaning was downfall or disaster.  Fiasco was a secondary meaning.

Amazing.  Another word I hadn’t fully understood.

I had another learning experience with the word “enormity” which I thought always referred to size.  It turns out that old man Webster considers size as a poor second use of the word.  The primary meaning is “great wickedness.”

Once again I was astonished to find that I didn’t know.

Many times in my life I have discovered these strange holes in my knowledge.  They’re missing files in my data bank.

The most befuddling aspect is that I not only didn’t know, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

I understand very little about the field of astronomy, so it would be no surprise to me if I encountered a whole passel of unknown words in that field.  This would never bother me.  I wouldn’t expect anything else.

But to find that there’s some common word that I don’t even have a nodding acquaintance with (which practically everyone else seems to know on a first name basis) —now that leaves me aghast, astounded, taken aback, confounded and discombobulated.

How could this happen?  This gaping hole?  It wouldn’t be so hard on me if I had merely learned that I didn’t know something, but when it is common knowledge to practically everyone else—that’s when it spins me for a loop.

Did I miss school the day that word was introduced?  Was that page missing from my dictionary?

The only consolation is that it happens to others.  A friend of mine knows practically everything.  He’s a walking encyclopedia who soaks up facts like a giant vacuum.  He’s our go-to guy for any information on any subject.  The other day he discovered that he had never known that “dairy” and “diary” were spelled differently.  He was mortified and chagrined.  He couldn’t believe that this fact had successfully eluded him all of his life.  It was obviously humbling to one so knowledgeable.

He and I are not the only ones, however.  I hear people giving speeches and interviews who mispronounce words or select the wrong word.  It’s no longer much of a surprise to me.

English is a complex language.  We spend out entire lives trying to learn it.  Even then we all encounter the occasional hole, one that appears to be filled.  But it’s waiting there—a sneaky trap—ready for us to fall into and emerge with our egos battered and bruised.

Humbled once again.

Believing

BELIEVING
by Ruth Minshull

My friends were visiting me at the Gulf front condo in Florida where I was spending my winter vacation.  We were standing on the deck admiring the glittering emerald green sea and the dazzling white sand, when I told them, “Sometimes we see groups of dolphins go by, right out here in front of the place.” “Really?” the husband responded with interest. “Yes.  They come quite close to the shore too.  There might be just a few of them, but occasionally I’ve seen as many as 40 or 50 spread out over a half-mile or so.” “Amazing.  I wish I could see that,” he said. “Maybe I should call them for you.  They might come by.”

They both laughed.  “It would be nice if we could do such things,” his wife said.

“Well, I try it now and then,” I said, “and I’ve had pretty good luck.  They don’t always show up, but they come just often enough to make me wonder if they could be responding to my thoughts.  I believe I heard somewhere that they might be telepathic.”

“Uh huh,” he murmured.  They were both looking at me as if they thought I had a serious gap in my personal ozone layer.  I could almost hear them thinking, We’d better humor her.  She could be dangerous.

I dropped the subject, which seemed to give them a great deal of relief.  We went in and dressed to go out to dinner and no one mentioned it again.

They left the following morning, and an hour later the dolphins came–a group of ten or fifteen.  I stood on the deck and admired them as they  undulated slowly along the shoreline.  As always, I was thrilled to see these delightful aquatic acrobats–although I was sorry my friends had missed the sight.

I started thinking about my visitors.  Quite religious people, they wouldn’t miss a Sunday service.  But faith is a peculiar business, I realized.  It’s quite selective.

My friends have no trouble believing that they can talk with God–and that He listens.  But they can’t conceive of the idea that I might be able to communicate with the dolphins.  I can’t say I blame them.

There are many notions that require our belief, rather than our acceptance of provable facts (math, science, etc.).  The older I get, the less inclined I am to embrace ideas that demand that I believe in them.  In most cases I simply don’t–notions such as angels, flying saucers, channeling,  honest politicians and diets that work.

But if I were going to believe in intangible, unprovable matters, I would embrace every religion, because we need the sense that there is a grand design, that someone is in charge.

I would believe in reincarnation because it comforts me, because it presumes that I am a spirit (not that I have a spirit), that I am immortal and that only this body is temporary.  And death would not be serious, but merely a pause to change costumes before the next scene begins.

And I would believe that dolphins are telepathic and would come because I called them.
* * *
©  Ruth Minshull 2013

The Blue Heron

THE BLUE HERON
By Ruth Minshull

Impatiently, I punched the OFF button and turned away from the television. Too much bad news, I thought. There must be some good things happening in the world.

I stepped out on the deck of the Florida condo where I was staying. The sun, low on the horizon, spread its gleaming, image across the surface of the Gulf. I decided to take a short walk on the beach before night moved in. It had been a gorgeous autumn day, with a soft breeze gentling the brilliance of the water. An artistic arrangement of wispy clouds promised a spectacular sunset.

Despite the fact that hundreds of people lived in nearby buildings, I was the only person on the beach. I suppose they’re all preparing for dinner, I concluded. Whatever the reason, I welcomed the uncommon solitude.

I strolled west, hoping to see the blue heron. I had walked the beach many evenings around this time, and had often seen him (or her) standing in the same place. I didn’t know why he was always there, but I always felt a thrill at the sight of this majestic bird.

When I reached the location, I scanned the entire area, but failed to see him. Well, maybe the heron has changed his agenda, I thought. Disappointed, I started to turn back. Then I saw him. He was standing so still in the dusky twilight–his long pale legs blending in perfectly with the background of white sand and sea grass–that he was nearly invisible.

Thrilled at the encounter, I remained motionless as we gazed at each other–I with pleasure, he with guarded tolerance.

Our confrontation was interrupted by the sound of a sliding door. The heron turned expectantly as a man stepped out onto the second-floor deck of a nearby condo. With practiced care the man flung a small fish out over the railing. The heron caught it expertly and flapped off a short distance to gulp it down. Soon the bird returned; the man came out again and threw another fish. This time the heron grabbed it and flew off. The provider went inside and closed the door. Obviously this ended a nightly routine.

On my returning walk. I was bouyed by a sense of well-being. It was gratifying to know that here in this unremarkable place on the coast, an elegant feral creature had worked out an agreeable dinner arrangement with an alien life form.

I thought of my impatience with the newscaster earlier. Such diligent purveyors of bad news seldom tell us that between New York and Hawaii, Miami and Alaska, many millions of ordinary American people go about their lives, sharing smiles, sharing potlucks, trusting each other, lending a hand, kissing away a tear, helping a child launch a kite, giving hugs of comfort, holding doors open, cooking therapeutic chicken soup, loving one another.

Of course, the newscasters can’t tell us about these people because they’re not shocking; bleeding or dying.

But it helps to be reminded, now and then, that there are heartwarming events going on around us–if we look for them in the right places.

One such place is outside a certain condo on the Gulf coast, at dusk.

(c) Ruth Minshull 2013

* * *

BULLIES

BULLIES

By Ruth Minshull

We hear a lot about bullies these days.  But, as near as I can tell, despite all the hand-wringing, the situation isn’t getting any better.

Most of us have been plagued by bullies at one time or another—whether at school, at home, in the neighborhood, on the internet or at the workplace.

There’s no particular profile for the bully.  He or she may be the kid on the playground, the boardroom shark, the ruthless Hitler, the sneaky internet attacker or the quiet librarian (who belittles others with gossip and sly innuendos).  Sometimes we don’t recognize them right away.  But we will know them by how they make us feel—usually disturbed, off-balance or powerless.

What to do about bullies?

LEARN TO RECOGNIZE THEM

In his book, The No Asshole Rule:  Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton offers two tests for recognition of the “asshole” (his name for the bully):

  1.  After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  2.   Does the person target people who are less powerful than themself?

DIFFERENCES

I have noticed an interesting difference in bullies.  Many of them will openly ridicule, tease, insult or otherwise “pick on” their victims.  But the most difficult ones to identify are the honey-dripping, sweet-talkers.  They often slip under the radar because they appear to be “nice”, yet we wonder why we’re so uncomfortable around them.  Instead of attacking directly, they are underhanded.  They will blindside our self-confidence by coating every insult with a compliment.  “Oh, what a cozy little apartment you have.”  (Translation:  “Wow! This really is small!”) “You’ve always looked nice in that dress” (“…even though you’ve been wearing it for the last ten years”).

The sneak attack is often from a woman, but not always.  Consider the young woman who had a movie date with a young male acquaintance.  She appeared in a dress and heels; he was wearing blue jeans and sneakers.  He said, “My you look nice.  I feel so under-dressed.”  (You’re pretty over-dressed for a movie.)

MAIN CHARACTERISTICS

However they deliver their barbs, bullies will try to undermine our morale and self-confidence.  Openly or pussyfooting, they will bulldoze, buffalo, insult, intimidate, belittle or ridicule us.

He or she is often a controlling person, always seeking the upper hand.  He’ll be corrupt.  Perhaps he’s a scurrilous criminal (a street ruffian or the gentle bookkeeper who is embezzling tens of thousands from her employers).  He could also be perfectly “legal” (an attorney, a judge, a politician) while being quite unethical on a higher level (in the sense of doing the right thing by others).  His efforts will be misdirected; he’ll often attack the wrong people.

He supports destructive solutions and attacks constructive ones.  He speaks in generalities.  He is not good at finishing things and he tries to prevent others from finishing; he will complicate, delay and prolong activities in which he’s involved.  If you invite him to a wedding or a party, he may say he’d love to come, but he’s not sure he can make it.  Then he’ll leave you on “hold” until the very end—never calling to confirm or decline.  (Note:  not every person who does this is a bully, some are just immature and inconsiderate.)

HOW THEY MAKE PEOPLE FEEL

An encounter with a bully is never benign.  We feel as if we should be careful around him.  We approach him with a sense of dread.  We end up being annoyed, worried, angered or beset upon.

We never feel better.

Bullies are energy-draining people, causing us to feel exhausted after coping with them.  After encountering one, we may even become cranky and mean to those close to us.  Unfortunately, continued exposure sometimes can turn us into troublesome bully-like people ourselves.

Don’t try to be “understanding” about the bully.  Recognize him.  He may look and walk and talk like a regular human being, but he isn’t one.  He or she is a monster—trying to do you in.  Consider the bully an alien in a human body.  (Think of “Men in Black”.)  He doesn’t have the same feelings that you and I have.  While you may try to negotiate with him, to placate him, he will continue to bedevil you relentlessly.

One eleven-year-old boy was so tormented by a bully in school that he took his father’s car and drove away.   He managed to get 200 miles from home before he ran out of gas and had to ask for help.  Although his escape was amazing, his motivation was not unusual.

Young people have committed suicide after being harassed by bullies.  Cyberbullying has become so bad that some states have passed laws making it a crime.  Of course, cyberbullying is usually easier to identify than playground, workplace, neighborhood or family bullying

Whether we’re seven or seventy, most of us have difficulty if we are being picked on by a bully.  Sometimes it seems that there is no way for us to deal with him (or her) and no way to avoid him.

Bullying causes an assortment of side effects:  we may have trouble sleeping, become forgetful, suffer headaches, misplace things, make mistakes, experience difficulty concentrating.  We may even become ill.

What is the defense against these low-down polecats?  Well, the biggest problem in dealing with skunks is that some of their stink could rub off on us.  Naturally we don’t want that; we don’t want to become like them.  So we need to take measures to avoid that.

COMPLAIN

Kids may complain to their parents or teachers about harassment, employees may speak to their bosses, but generally nothing much changes.  Too often everyone tiptoes around the subject of bullies, making ineffectual gestures and hoping the problem will go away by itself.

On a job, you may decide to lodge a complaint about the bully.  This could be risky, as you could come off looking like a weakling and a complainer who can’t get along with your fellow workers.  If you decide to complain, be sure to have several examples to mention, deliver your report without emotion, exaggeration or generalities.  Give only the exact facts, without embellishment.  If you are accompanied by a fellow employee with the same complaints, this will strengthen your position.

CONFRONT 

If you can detach yourself from the bully, by all means, do so.  I know, sometimes it isn’t possible (or advisable) to break off with the bully.  In such a case, for your own survival, you will need to have a face-to-face showdown.

When I was young, I knew a neighbor boy named Melvin.  He was about 12 years old, strong and good-natured.  Another neighbor boy, Richie, was a bully.  He was taller and meaner.  One summer he started picking on Mel relentlessly, teasing him, taunting him, hitting him and running away.  One day Mel came home crying because his tormentor had hit him on his head.  Mel’s mother (normally a peace-loving person) was tired of seeing her son pushed around.  Shaking a finger at him, she said, “I want you to go back over there and beat that kid up, or else I’ll beat you up.”

Armed with such an unusual threat from his own mother, Mel marched across the street to Richie who started jeering, “Hey, Mel, coming back for more?”

Without saying a word, Mel walked up to him and started pummeling him on the head, the neck, the chest.  Shocked and helpless at Mel’s uncharacteristic attack, Richie backed away, trying to cover himself against the blows.  Finally, he turned and fled, Mel chasing him, until he reached home and ran inside.

There were several witnesses to this confrontation, and word of the ferocity of Mel’s attack spread around.  As a result, no one ever leaned on Mel again.  And a much subdued Richie left Mel and the other kids alone.

This approach probably wouldn’t work today.  Richie’s parents would file a law suit against Mel’s parents and the good guys would all get punished.

A few states have passed laws making cyberbullying a crime, but as far as I know, there is no legal recourse against the personal intimidator—whether direct or sneaky.

But there are other ways to “beat up” on the bullies.

With words.

Most decent people prefer to avoid argumentative encounters.  This, of course, leaves an open field in which the intimidating person can operate.  But a strong, direct verbal confrontation is the best method I know to handle them.

I knew a young man, just a few months out of high school, who had taken a job with a small business.  One day his boss said something belittling to him.  The boy turned, looked the man straight in the eye and said very slowly, very deliberately, “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again.”

The boss never did.  They developed a workable relationship that lasted for many years after that.  I found it interesting that such a young boy had the courage to stand up to his first boss.  And it seemed even more amazing that the bullying boss backed off.

The best way to handle the bully is to state exactly what he is doing and tell him you will not tolerate it.  Don’t add an “or else….”  (That becomes a threat.)  In any case, it is better to let the threat be implied, to let the other person fill in the blank.  (He very likely will imagine worse consequences than you could ever dream of!)  Also, bear in mind that you are not firing the opening salvo in an argument; you are not initiating a negotiation.  You are making a final statement.  Make it and walk away.  Ignore any rejoinders he tries to interject.

You may be surprised at how easy it is to make the bully back off and leave you alone.  The reason is this:  beneath the swagger and bluff, the bully is a frightened weakling who gets a sense of power by feeding on the fear he can generate in others.

It isn’t always easy to stand up to a person who intimidates us—and if you don’t feel tough enough to do it, pretend you do.

To prepare yourself for the encounter you should first, be willing to experience any possible outcome.  Make a list of the worst things that could happen.  Now, go through them one by one.  In each case, ask yourself:  “If this happens, will I die?”  “Will anybody else die?”  “Will I be able to get through it?”  Could there be some conceivable way I might benefit from the encounter?”

The main purpose of this exercise is to discover that the outcome (although not welcome) would at least be endurable.

The next step before dealing with the bully is to look at our own destructive actions, past and present, and tell someone about them.  (Don’t forget the good acts we should have done, but failed to do.)  This step is extremely important.  Decent people feel remorseful after they have committed harmful acts against others (whether intentional or not).  Deep down they believe that they deserve to be punished for such behavior.  If we have no undisclosed harmful acts, we will have no need for self-punishment.  When we “need” punishment (in our own minds), every experience hurts more than the same incident would if we were “clean”.

Clearing up our own past actions won’t make us indifferent or joyful about the conduct of the bully, but it will make his behavior hurt a great deal less.  We’ll be able to confront the offensive person with less fear.  The experience will be more endurable, and we’ll get through it with less damage to ourselves.

Another way to strengthen your own responses is to take a karate class.  I’m not recommending that you beat up on anybody, but it will make you feel dangerous, less vulnerable.  Mentally, at least, you’ll walk taller, with a swagger, and you won’t take abuse from anybody.  This is an especially effective way to toughen up a child who is being physically intimidated by a bully.  I’ve seen it work very well.

If you go for the showdown, you will find that when you meet up with another bully (and eventually you will) you will feel much less intimidated.  In fact, very likely you will simply swat him down (with words or even a shrug) as you would an annoying mosquito.

Remember, bad guys don’t obey rules.  So don’t worry about hurting their feelings, interrupting them, ignoring them or walking away from them.  The bully is not really the big scary ogre we knew from children’s stories.  He’s just an annoying mosquito.

FLEE

If you simply can’t stand up to the bully in your life, do your best to get away from him or her.  If you are married to a bully, leave.  Get a divorce.  Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you.

If the bully is your boss, get another job.  This may seem drastic, but your job could be killing you.  Nothing is worth that risk.

If the bully is a “friend”, he is not a true friend.  He or she is a “toxic” acquaintance.  You need to rid your life of this venomous influence, just as you would rid your body of a poison.

The solution is more difficult if the bully is a child’s parent.  Sometimes the child must simply endure the situation until it’s possible to get away.  Make plans for your independence.  Get a job, earn money and put it in the bank.  Prepare to leave the house and don’t look back—ever.

If you are being physically abused in any way, you must leave sooner.  There are agencies that can help you get a legal separation and arrange foster care until you are of age.  Talk to a counselor at school

Any destructive, dysfunctional relationship will never get better by itself.  Quit the job, move out, sever your connection.  Do whatever it takes.

You have to fix it or escape it.  This takes courage.

But, always remember:  You are stronger than the bully.  He’s just a scared weakling.

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©2013 by Ruth Minshull