Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 14, 2010

Transforming Power

The United States, where most of us are living, is the most violent culture that has ever existed, I believe. Yes, I don’t know how to prove it, but in all of history I know of no other society where violence was such a part of daily life for so many people. I was struck especially hard by this one Saturday morning, July 16, 2005. As I read the newspaper I started making notes about violent stories reported on that day:

  • A T-Ball coach (an adult) pays a player (a child) $25 to hit an eight-year-old, mentally disabled player in the head so he can’t play.
  • People in a car stop to chase 12-year-old boys shooting bottle rockets. They catch and beat one of the kids to death.
  • Police in Fresno treat an 11-year-old girl like a dangerous criminal as they arrest her for throwing a rock to defend herself and her six-year-old brother from a menacing group of older boys.
  • A mother injects human feces into her 22-month-old son.
Vietnam Memorial

This is the inevitable culmination of violence. When we stop the daily violence in our own lives, our society doesn't end up with family members standing in tears at a dark memorial in Washington, DC.

While all that was just what got into one newspaper on one day in this country I believe much of the same sort of thing goes on every single day. There were days when I worked with prison inmates when I thought domestic violence had surely become the new national pastime. So, the old question, what is to be done?

Working for social justice is nice, and will help curb violence. Much more effective is each of us taking personal responsibility and doing something proven to be effective. The Alternatives to Violence Project has programs that are proven effective in defusing human anger and thereby reducing violence. I facilitated such programs with prison inmates with outstanding results. The program is also available in schools, churches and other community groups. Simply contact them for information in your area.

At the core of the AVP program is something called “Transforming Power.” Very simply, the idea is that the anger leading us to violence has great power. If we are able to stop for a second and touch the spirit of our humanity we can transform how we choose to use that power. So instead of beating a kid who’s shooting bottle rockets, maybe we can talk calmly with him while we wait for police to arrive.

One of the things we have program participants do is tell a story where they avoided violence by using this “transforming power” concept. By doing this, they see they already have this capability to avoid violence within themselves. I’ve heard so many astonishing stories I’ve always wished there was a way to record them. I’ve written my story, as much to remember it as anything. I call my story


On a warm and sunny spring day, a middle-aged woman starts a new job. Margie is excited but nervous. It’s only part-time at the supermarket, but it could lead to steady and reliable employment, a real blessing. After an hour or so of new employee paperwork, meeting the bosses, time clock procedures, etc., she is assigned to a veteran grocery checker who will provide on-the-job training. Margie puts on the store’s little uniform smock with the “trainee” nametag and follows her trainer to the checkout lanes.

Super Market

Typical super market. Do you think violence can flare up here? This is not the store where my story takes place!

It’s late morning, but the large suburban supermarket is busy, unusually so. The veteran cashier opens a checkout lane. Quickly she starts showing Margie the ropes – scanning processes, produce-weighing, coupons, electronic card processing, check policies, bagging, cash handling, etc. She learns quickly but feels overwhelmed trying to remember it all. By 1 PM the store is even more crowded, and the veteran decides to open another lane and leave Margie to run this one on her own until the rush is over. Now her anchor is six checkout lanes away, and Margie is feeling pretty stressed. Nervous and unsure, she greets the next customer and starts sliding grocery items over the scanner. That’s when I show up.

I’ve been working all morning at the prison, and I’m making a quick stop for a few lunch items at the store near home. Breakfast was coffee and a granola bar at 5 AM, so by now I’m hungry. My taste buds are tingling at the thought of a grilled cheese sandwich – and not just any grilled cheese! I pick up a just-out-of-the-oven loaf of cracked-peppercorn garlic bread, a block of Italian Gorgonzola blue cheese and a small bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. As I walk toward checkout, a pint of Haagen-Daz vanilla swiss almond ice cream mysteriously leaps out of the freezer into my arms. Just four simple items, I’m ravenously hungry and I already have visions of my bread knife slicing smartly through the fresh bread as my cast iron skillet warms under a medium flame.

Emerging from the shopping aisles I scan the checkout lanes. How can there be five people with carts lined up for the express lane? The only other good option is a regular lane with two people – one is finishing up and the other has only a few items. Hastily I put my four items on the black conveyor belt and resume my grilled cheese reverie.

The cashier scans the last few items of the big order, and I anticipate the customer will quickly pay and in no time I’ll be out of here. But my enthusiasm wilts when I see her hand over a stack of coupons the size of a playing card deck. This has to mean at least another three minutes of standing here, and I start to feel irritated. Geez, they ring up a $140 grocery tab and all of a sudden they want 25 cents back!! The cashier starts scanning coupons, and now the real trouble begins. Some coupons are out of date. Some aren’t recognized by the scanner so a search ensues through the bagged groceries to confirm the item was purchased. Some coupons have to be manually scanned, and this cashier doesn’t really seem to know what she’s doing. And that’s when I spot the “trainee” label on her nametag! Oh no, she really doesn’t know what she’s doing! It’s starting to feel like the whole world is conspiring to keep me from the glories of my gourmet grilled cheese sandwich! My blood pressure escalates as I watch the coupon fiasco unfold.

When I look back at the express lane it’s down to three, but there’s just this one person with a few items ahead of me here once the coupon circus ends. I stay put. How much longer could it be!

Super Market Workers

Be kind and gentle with your friendly super market workers. They're good people who work hard every day. This is not the store where my story takes place!

When the coupon episode ends the next customer steps up and her items are quickly scanned. Deliverance is upon me. But then, instead of just paying the $11.44, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a checkbook – what is wrong with these people?! “You don’t have $11 cash to pay for this?” I think. And my anger escalates another notch as I glare at her scratching out the check with the balky supermarket ballpoint pen. The trainee cashier takes the check and slides it through the processing machine. The machine spits it out. She turns the check around and slides it back in. The machine spits it out. She slides it in again, same result. I start to think about the Einstein definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Now I’m beginning to feel furious. I look over at the door. People who were at the end of long lines are now happily walking out with their paid-for groceries. I look longingly at the makings of my grilled cheese sandwich on the belt. The dewy frost on the ice cream container is melting, beads of water roll down the side matching my own emotional meltdown.

The flustered cashier inserts the check through the machine a few more times, and I want to scream. Why doesn’t she know how to do this? Why doesn’t she get some help? She finally turns to a cashier in the next aisle with a bewildered look. She can’t do anything until she finishes with her own customer. Suddenly another employee shows up and helps the troubled trainee resolve the check issue. At last, it’s my turn.

After what feels like half an afternoon of delay and utter aggravation, I watch the trainee cashier take my softening, wet ice cream package and drip it across the dancing red lights of the scanner. She looks up, uncertain, and feebly says, “How are you, sir?” Well, I’m enraged, that’s how I am. How do you think I am? I came here to pick up a few simple grocery items for lunch. Shouldn’t take more than five minutes. I did not plan on buying a ticket to the extended version of the incompetence matinee! I’m just about to open up and let her have the full fury of my venom when I look into her face and pause.

In my pause, I see myself. I see myself as I have been in her place – a new job, untrained, uncertain, facing the pressure of uncaring customers and a management that wants only good performance no matter what. And with that vision, my raging fury dissolves like a hard sugar cube in a cup of hot tea. And I hear a smile in my voice as I say, “Well, I think I’m probably having a better day then you are at the moment.” And just like that all the tension vanishes. Margie, the name on her trainee nametag, smiles gratefully and tells me, “Yes, I’ve only been working here three hours so far.” I tell her I understand, that I’ve been in the same situation, and I try to reassure her that all will be well.

Margie totals up my order, and I give her exact change. A gesture I hope makes her work a little easier.

At home, my sandwich tasted even better than I could have imagined!

Super Market

This is an especially awful picture that accentuates the clutter and chaos supermarket workers deal with every day.


  1. Thank you for your kindness, Bill. It’s little moments like that that can make one’s day.

  2. Worse, they are being replaced by self-check units! Here the power shifts – the customers cannot be rude to the machine AND they are being overseen by a lane minder whose job it is to push the cattle through as fast as possible. The Minder is implaccable and ruthless – you will be disciplined!

    Here is a guerilla shopping tip: If you have frozen foods and the line is long, put your stash in the nearest freezer unit until time to check out.

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