Life and the Kobayashi Maru

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  • By KEVIN J. RAINERI

    Some situations in life are simply unwinnable.

    Alanis Morissette gives a list of them in an inappropriately titled song “Ironic.”  You see, children, irony is the use of words to convey the opposite of its literal meaning. Unfortunately, most of us are familiar with this tune and let me set the facts straight: There are no ironies listed in that song. (In fact, there is only one line of true irony in the song and it is not a part of her lists of ironic things: “And as the plane crashed down he thought ‘Well isn’t this nice…’”) The song, however, IS a decent list of unwinnable situations.

    I have too often found myself in unwinnable situations as my life has progressed. It is not a matter of perspective or figuring that my glass is half-full. My glass needs a refill and there is nothing to fill it with it. Ironic? No. Unwinnable? Yes. Let me digress.

    Most of my unwinnable situations come through my own doing – I have found myself at the mercy of my own mouth and on the wrong end of many uncomfortable situations. Social faux pas have become an increasingly normal way of life for me. If I could buy stock in them, I would invest heavily and happily, knowing I can retire easy… and soon.

    Recently, I was shopping with my wife at Stop & Shop. We had bought our nephew a little chalkboard and needed to get him some chalk. My wife picks up a box of colored chalk and shows it to me.

    Me: “I like the colored ones.”

    About 7 feet away an African American woman, horrified, stares me down.

    “No! I mean colored chalk not bl… I mean, not that I don’t like…listen: I’m not a racist.”

    She walks away shaking her head, not amused. My wife is staring at me, mortified. I should have just let it be, but I opened my mouth and found myself in an unwinnable situation.

    And like I said, it wasn’t the first time.

    Let me give you a hard rule: never comment on the looks of a small child if you are a male, alone and shopping in the middle of the day.

    I was shopping in Macy’s to purchase my wife another pair of winter gloves. I could have just gotten a gift card for them but I decided to put in the effort and make the actual glove purchase. While waiting in the never-ending line, a woman waited with her adorable and surprisingly well-behaved child in hand. The kid was probably around three to four years old and had the cutest cheeks you could imagine.

    Me: “Your son is absolutely adorable! I wish I had cheeks like that.”

    The woman uncomfortably looked at me, down at her child and back up at me. She was visibly shaken and squeezed her hand tighter around the tyke’s hand. I felt a recovery was necessary.

    Me: “I didn’t mean anything weird by that, he just reminds me of my nephew.”

    The woman, now with eyes welled up, began to openly sob.

    Me: “I am so sorry if I upset you or your son, I was just tryin-”

    Woman, interrupting: “Stop! HER name is Brittany.”

    While relieved she didn’t think I was a pederast, I was remorseful for my confusion, yet baffled by the tears it generated. I was determined to make this right.

    Me: “I am so, so sorry. That cute short hair just made me assume. I really meant no offense or to disrespect you or Brittany in any way.”

    Woman, now speaking with a teary intensity: “Brittany has leukemia. Her hair is finally growing back and that’s the best we can do with it right now. Asshole.”

    She left the line, threw her sweater-to-be in a random rack and left the store. My brain was flooded with questions: Did I just ruin her day? What could I have done differently? Would my wife like the “winter sand” color of these gloves? I decided to go with a gift card and ended my unnecessary and seemingly unwinnable trip to Macy’s.

    A few months back there was a tragic accident on Hamburg Turnpike at Berdan Avenue in Wayne, NJ right in front of the Cumberland Farms gas station. A pick-up truck gunned through the light and slammed into a turning sedan injuring all parties and killing one passenger. The next evening I stopped to buy gas at the same Cumberland Farms station, which is where I always buy my gas. I usually try to chat with my gas attendants under the firm belief that they will remember me, my Mazda, its drink of choice and come to me first in the face of a station filled with thirsty vehicles.

    Me: “Ten dollars, cash, regular please. Holy shit man, were you working when that accident happened?”

    Attendant, quickly and firmly: “No.”

    Me: “Unbelievable! Stupid carelessness ruining a family’s life. Some people should just not be allowed on the road.”

    Attendant, quickly, firmly and with much chagrin peppered with anger: “It was my father driving the truck.”

    He then just stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. Still not fully believing in an unwinnable situation and inspired by Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru victory, I attempted a feeble recovery of my misstep.

    Me: “So sorry dude. Is your dad doing ok? What kind of asshole still makes you come into work after something like that?”

    Attendant, quickly again, fuming with impatience and hostility: “Me. I picked up the shift because we don’t have any money for medical bills and attorneys. Anything else?”

    I handed him a twenty and told him to keep the change. I then sped off, angry with myself for not knowing when the battle is lost.

    Unwinnable situations, like rain on your wedding day or a traffic jam when you’re already late, are a reality of life sometimes. More and more I am realizing that it may be time to find a way to sell short on my faux pas stock and invest in a muzzle.

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