Recently I attended a self-assertiveness workshop called "Taking Charge of Your Life," which I really didn't want to go to, but my wife talked me into it.
There were 15 of us and we met in a classroom at a local community college. The room was very hot and I wanted to open a window.
But then I thought: What if the others don't want the window open? What if they look at me funny? What if I open the window and someone walks over and slams it shut and glares at me?
Suddenly a small, balding man with stooped shoulders entered the room and slammed his briefcase on the desk. Scowling, he said his name was Richard, and that he was our instructor.
"Let's get one thing straight," he said. "Don't anyone call me Dick. Anyone calls me Dick, I will slap that person silly."
As the first order of business, Richard passed out little cards and had us write down our goals, what we hoped to get out of the class.
I wrote down mine and added: "Room is very hot. Could we open a window, please?"
Then I underlined the word "please" three times, so Richard would know I meant business.
He read each card silently and shot a withering look in my direction but made no attempt to open a window.
A woman named Mary was the first to speak. Mary said she was having a problem getting through to her husband. She'd come home from work and start telling him about her day, and, without a word, her husband would turn on ESPN and start watching a bass fishing tournament. It was very disconcerting.
The other night she was sitting at the kitchen table and reading aloud from a letter her mother had sent them, only to discover that her husband had slipped out of the house and gone to the gym.
"Swat him over the head with a newspaper," Richard said.
"Beg your pardon?" Mary said.
"Crack 'im right here," Richard said, pointing to an area near his temple. "He'll start paying attention."
Mary said she wasn't sure she could do that, due to her Methodist upbringing and a general tendency toward non-violence.
"People like you make me want to puke!" Richard said.
I looked at Mary. She was twisting her Kleenex with both hands now and her lower lip was trembling badly.
A man named Chester spoke next. Chester said he was a bus mechanic and worked with a fellow who insisted on ending every sentence with the word "'kay?"
God, it was irritating! All day long, the man would say "Hand me that wrench over there, 'kay?" and "Almost time for lunch, 'kay?" and "Let's grab a beer after work, 'kay?"
It was driving Chester nuts. Chester wanted to tell him how annoying this was, but had yet to summon the nerve.
Richard said the solution was simple: "Grab him by the collar and tell him to knock it off, or you'll kick the stuffing out of him."
A moon-faced young man named Mario then began detailing a three-year relationship with a thoroughly overbearing girlfriend, a woman from Boston who insisted on making every decision for the couple.
Jason -- we later found out he was an elementary school teacher -- loudly announced that Mario sure sounded like a wuss.
"Who you calling a wuss?" said Mario, his jaw tightening.
I had made up my mind to open a window when suddenly Mario walked over to Jason and decked him with a punch.
Jason got up right away and started swinging, even though he was crying. The two went at it pretty good until Richard and a couple of guys broke it up.
Now Mary was sobbing: "He never listens . . . doesn't care if I live or die, really . . ."
I was finding it hard to concentrate.
Then Chester keeled over in his chair. It was probably the heat. One minute he looked fine, then the next minute his head slammed against the desk and he was out cold.
The class broke up 10 minutes later when the ambulance arrived.
Two policemen showed up, too; apparently someone had heard all the screaming and dialed 911.
I gave my statement to the cops and went home and everyone asked: "So how was the class?"
"Oh," I said, "about what you'd expect."