A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker



I bumped into an old friend at the ball park last week. It has been years since I saw him. I smiled and waved and extended my hand.

"Don't talk to me!" he said, scowling. "I'm mad at you!"

This is not an unusual reaction when people see me. Usually, however, it comes from people who know me, or who have at least been around me during the past couple of decades. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I had done to Gary. Or when I had done it.

I fretted about it throughout the game. What had I done? Gary and I weren't what you'd call "close," but we never had any problems, as far as I could remember. That's because Gary was smarter, better looking and more talented. He knew it, and I knew it. So we got along.

Until now.

So what was the deal?

After the game there was a concert on the ball field featuring Three Dog Night (or what's left of them-they're down to one old Dog now, you know). The music was great, and it took me back to the early 70s when Gary and I were in high school. But it didn't help me remember anything that I had done that would explain Gary's reaction to me. Thankfully, I bumped into him yet again as the concert neared completion, and he solved the mystery right off the bat.

"I can't believe what you guys are doing!" he said, smiling.

You guys? I glanced at my 10-year-old daughter, with whom I had just been dancing. I have always been a sincere-if-unaccomplished dancer. In my mind I dance like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever"; in reality, it's probably a little more like Paul Reubens in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." Hey, maybe that was it-Gary was mad at me because I'm a lousy dancer!

"You know how it is," I said sheepishly. "They start playing 'Joy to the World,' and you just gotta dance!"

Gary gave me one of those what-the-heck-are-you-talking-about looks- sort of like he used to give me in high school, as I recall-and then he said: "I can't believe you guys are closing the freeway. That's my only access to and from work, man!"

Oh, so THAT'S what he was mad about-my real-world job (I'm not really a columnist -- I just play one in the newspaper; in the real world I work for a state government department that occasionally closes roads in order to repair or replace them). Suddenly, I felt relieved. This wasn't personal. This was business, and I could slip into my professional personality in order to deal with his concerns and his anger on a business-like level-with no personal pain attached.

I think most of us are that way. We handle complaints about what we do more readily than we handle criticism about who we are. Which is a good thing to remember in interacting with sales clerks, restaurant servers, newspaper carriers and others who serve us-particularly when we are displeased with their service. While it may be necessary and appropriate to comment on their performance, let's keep it professional. Don't let it get personal, because that's where the pain is.

"Oh, and one more thing, Walker," Gary said after our brief and relatively pain-free discussion during which he pointedly expressed his opinion that professionally, I was part of a collective group of idiots. "When are you going to learn how to dance?"

Now, THAT hurt.

--- © Joseph Walker

Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and