The World of Karen and Ken

Watching that video was like watching a train wreck.  I knew it was going to be ugly, but I just couldn’t look away.  

In it, a self-entitled and obnoxious woman entering a restaurant yelled at a young, minimum-wage-earning high school kid who had simply asked her to put on a face mask.  Things deteriorated quickly to the “I want to talk to the manager” stage before, in tears, the young employee told her boss that she could not put up with such nonsense any longer, and that she was quitting. 

As the young worker fled out the door, the nasty but now somewhat-subdued woman said: “OK, I will put on a mask.”  Other customers, though, having seen and heard enough, began to “boo” her.  Deciding to leave, her departure was accompanied by a chorus of: “Goodbye, Karen!” 

But wait … Karen?  How did everyone in that place know her name was Karen?

In fact, it is unlikely “Karen” is her real name.  Instead, the nickname “Karen” has come to identify that group of “adult” women unable to control their emotions when even mildly inconvenienced by store clerks, other motorists or even random passersby.  And the male of the species has a moniker as well … “Ken.”  People of this ilk are easily identified in the wild by their propensity for screaming and gesticulating … loud and long … at random individuals who, they believe, have done them some wrong.

Sadly, YouTube is replete with videos of the crazed behaviors of “Karens” and “Kens” engaging in these sorts of unrestrained public outbursts of rage over things most rational people would consider minor inconveniences … soup too hot … french fries not hot enough … checkout line too slow.  After watching some of these antics, one is left to wonder: do these people go home, look in the mirror, and feel proud of their actions?  Do they experience any shame?   And, since many of these individuals are accompanied by children, do they ever consider the sort of examples they might be setting?

In the world of public education, it should come as no surprise that record numbers of school district superintendents are throwing in the towel and moving on.  Anyone interested in knowing why this might be so should attend the next school board meeting and listen to the bitter and abusive language rained upon those charged with educating our children.  One speaker recently concluded her vituperative remarks declaring: “I will be at school on Monday with guns fully loaded.”

The airline industry, of course, has experienced unprecedented numbers of violent and otherwise uncooperative passengers refusing to comply with health and safety guidelines.  In one recent case, an international flight from Miami to London had to return to Florida because a passenger in first class refused to wear a mask.  The flight was then cancelled and everyone had to rebook on another flight … all because a self-entitled woman decided that the rules do not apply to her.  In short, this is her world, and the rest of us just happen to be walking through it.

If you have had the misfortune to witness a “Karen” or “Ken” in a full-throated rage over their belief that some service worker has failed to genuflect before them, you know how bizarre and uncomfortable something like that can be.  But as long as there is no threat of physical violence involved, it is likely a waste of time trying to calm or reason with one of those unhinged individuals.  In fact, getting attention is their goal, and it doesn’t matter whether it is good or bad attention … just so long as someone is noticing.  Frankly, when a bystander cares enough to enter their convoluted world on their terms, it is something they enjoy.

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best:

I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. 

You get dirty and, besides, the pig likes it.

RIP, Michael Lang

In the satirical Netflix production titled “Death to 2021,” we meet a young and wildly enthusiastic participant in the January 6, assault on the US Capitol.  Some months later (and after her arrest), this now much-subdued woman is interviewed in her home where she must remain while awaiting trial.  Pointing, with some embarrassment, to her ankle monitor, she observes whimsically: “This was my Woodstock.”  She then admits quietly: “Of course, I don’t really know what a ‘Woodstock’ is.”

No argument here… she is clueless about Woodstock.

This snippet of televised dialogue came to mind when I learned that Michael Lang passed away on January 8, 2022.  The most visible face of the team responsible for mounting the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair held August 15-17, 1969, in Bethel, New York, Lang expressed his vision for this remarkable cultural event in an interview with Chronogram, on August 1, 2019:

“I just thought about how nice it was for someone to be sitting out under the stars in the summer, smoking a joint, and listening to music. I thought, ‘I wonder if something like this but bigger could work here.’”  

And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is not to suggest that Woodstock was devoid of controversy.  As a matter of fact, with protests against the Viet Nam war rocking the country, many of the musicians who performed espoused distinctly anti-government points of view … Jimmy Hendrix … Jefferson Airplane … Joan Baez … Richie Havens.  And, of course, Country Joe McDonald’s performance of his classic “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” rag left no doubt about his position on the war.

But despite the uproar elsewhere, there was something almost magical about Woodstock that distinguished it from similar gatherings during that era and since.  As an aside, could it possibly have had something to do with the whole “smoking a joint” thing mentioned by Michael?  Thinking back to the thick marijuana haze enveloping Yasgur’s Farm over those three days in August, 1969, there may be something to that theory.

Reading Michael’s obituary reminded me of something else: he and I were the same age … we were both 24 years old during the Woodstock event.  And though (as far as I know) we never crossed paths, we both had “boots on the ground” at the same time during that affair.

Clearly, our roles were different: he was one of the impresarios running the whole enterprise, while I was a mere Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff sent to assist with managing the crowd and all that went along with that.  And while I cannot speak to Michael’s views after everything was over, I know that the time I spent at Woodstock – and the lessons I learned there – served me well over the course of what became a forty year career in law enforcement.

The fact that I was assigned to work at Woodstock as a police officer was pure serendipity, but it was an experience that I cherish. And, yes, nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges, so I am not surprised that those incredibly long hours, sodden fields, gridlocked roads and throngs of people seem less overwhelming today than they did in 1969.  Instead, my mind is drawn to more pleasant memories and, most especially, of the youngsters in attendance … smiling faces …  acts of kindness … expressions of appreciation … and the sense that we were involved in something bigger than all of us. 

You left us with vivid and important memories, Michael, for as Irving Berlin wrote: 

 The song is ended but the melody lingers on.