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The Thunderbolt Kid and Random Acts of Conversation

I’ve just finished a bargain-table paperback, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, the memoir of a fellow Baby Boomer, born in 1951 in a town very much like my Lancaster-PA hometown.

Like me, the author’s mother made nearly every meal with Jello, breadcrumbs, Campbell's-cream-of-something soup and mayonnaise. He cherished his coonskin cap, spent 25 cents and long Saturdays watching serialized movies at a 1,600-seat, Egyptian-esque movie palace; and was trained at home and by "the good sisters" that any thought or deed other than blind obedience and social conformity would land you either in jail or hell, not necessarily in that order. Everyone was unfailingly polite or, as the author puts it, they would be “executed summarily.”

As I read it, I found myself longing for those good old days, when aggrieved pitchers and chagrined umpires shaking hands on the mound would not have been front page news, political candidates questioned one another's ideas, not their haircuts and every once in a while we’d assume that maybe, just maybe, the other guy has good intentions. Are you not weary, too, that our public discourse (gads, even that expression sounds quaint) has become so raw, so mean-spirited, so angry? I do not entertain the fantasy that this situation will change, sadly. It’s become systemic in our institutions and our media.

But I have been carrying out a small, guerilla action of my own that gives me ongoing hope for the human condition: engaging in random acts of conversation with strangers. The interactions are un-dramatic — I like your hat, you’ll love that book, your kid is adorable, I bought that peanut butter and loved it, let me help you with that. People respond with thanks, smiles and usually a little more conversation about the hat, the kid or their food choices. So much from the “mid-century” seems to be returning to fashion these days. My mother had advice that I hope will be among the vestiges of that era that will regain some purchase in our lives: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I know it sounds simplistic. But I’m finding that it is still a surprisingly powerful prescription.

A few days after writing this blog, my Aunt Kitty sent me this video about the Hugs Campaign. Made me cry.

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