the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Makes You Stronger

The last time you heard from me I went face to face against a serial litterer outside a Starbucks, and won, inspired to action after hearing Kelly Clarkson’s popular hit, “What Doesn’t Kill You” on my car radio.

The story does not end there.

A day after my moral victory, I went to my friend’s house near Pasadena to hole up and focus on meeting a writing deadline.   To help me accomplish this, I deleted all twenty of my Twitter apps from my iPhone.   I worked and worked, my white beard growing each day.   I know understand the prevalence of beards on both wise powerful wizards AND learned rabbis.   The beard brings wisdom.

After a week and a half of living like a hermit, my friend suggested we go to Norm’s for pancakes.

“Fine,” I said.

As we drove down a busy street en route to our breakfast, we noticed a little black dog scrambling down the street, against traffic. We drove past him, leaving him to his fate.

“That dog is going to get killed,” I said.

“Maybe we should save him,” my friend suggested.

“Like how?”

“We can catch him and bring him to his owners.”

“How do we know the dog doesn’t have rabies.   We should just call the ASPCA.”

“He’ll be dead by then,” said my friend.

Please notice that at this point, my friend is acting very caring to the dog and I’m like a wimpy little jerk who doesn’t want to get involved.  But before you attack me, and call me an animal hater, remember that I have never had a dog before. Also be reminded that there is a long tradition of reluctant heroes, from Luke Skywalker to Moses to Rick in Casablanca.  Do we hate them because of their initial reluctance to help others, or admire them for stepping up to the plate when necessary?

I had no interest in helping this black dog.  It was an ugly pug.  If it was run over on the street by a Hyundai SUV, no one would care. The world would continue on, as usual. People would continue to make love, kill each other, and pimp their blog posts on Facebook.

But then, a song came on the radio. It was Kelly Clarkson singing.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I”

It was at that moment that I spoke up, the lyrics energizing my very soul.

“We need to save that dog!  He deserves to live!”

My friend, who was driving, did a quick u-turn, and we raced in pursuit.

I’m not going to lie.  It was my friend who grabbed the dog and delivered him to safety.  I mean, I WOULD say I did it all during the dramatic rescue, but that’s not the type of man I want to be.  I do believe my cry to “let’s do it!” started the ball rolling.  And even though my friend did the heavy lifting, I did my best to distract the dog, jumping up and down and coaxing him,  while by friend captured him.

After we placed the frightened (and frankly stupid dog) in the car, I entertained him with impressions while my friend drove to the address we found on the dog tag.

We ended up at the address of a very wealthy woman, who barely noticed the dog missing, and who didn’t even offer us a dog biscuit as a thank you.

But it didn’t matter. The reward was the rescue.  The ugly black dog made it home alive.

End of story?  No.  Kelly Clarkson, like a muse from a Greek myth, continued to push me to greatness.

After my two weeks away, I returned to Redondo Beach.   Sophia and I are still waiting for our divorce to be final, and we have done everything in our power to avoid the issue of me moving out my stuff.   The inertia has taken a toll on both of us.

There are some days that I don’t want to get up in the morning.  Please, no lectures. I know what I have to do.

On Wednesday, I was at my nadir.  So, I did what any intelligent person does when depressed — go on Facebook and ask for advice.

“What do you do when you are feeling low?” I asked my Facebook friends.

One woman said she is a big fan of retail therapy. She buys herself a pair of shoes and she immediately feels better.

I’m not a big consumer, but I decided to try this approach.   But shoes would not do it for me.

For a long time now, I’ve wanted a Kindle.   Do I need it?  Probably not.   But just like I don’t need an iPhone or a flatscreen TV, a man of the 21st Century should own a Kindle.

But which Kindle?  The Kindle Touch? The Kindle Fire?  That’s when, by sheer accident, I saw the front page of the Walmart circular shoved into the Sunday Los Angeles Times. For Mother’s Day, they were offering the least expensive Kindle (with the buttons) for $79, but it included a $30 Walmart gift card.  That meant the Kindle ended up being only $49, and I could use the other $30 to buy a whole lot of toilet paper.

I decided to drive over to the Walmart and go for the deal.

Walmart is not that convenient from where I live, and I rarely go to the mega-chain store. In my whole life, I have only been to Walmart a handful of times. I read a lot of jokes and negative comments online about Walmart, and I usually find them sexist, racist, and snooty.  How much worse can Walmart be than Kmart or Target?

I arrived in this new Walmart. It was enormous, and crowded.

I made a beeline straight to the electronics department.  At the counter, was a young Walmart employee. I hate to say this, because I wish it wasn’t true, but sometimes you can look at someone for one second, even before the person opens his mouth, and you know he’s not the brightest one in the room.

“I’m interested in this special you are running,” I said to the sales guy, picking up the weekly circular that was on the table in front of him and pointing at the splashy advertisement for the Mother’s Day Kindle special, which prominently showed a Kindle displaying the title page of the Hunger Games.

The salesguy looked at the circular.

“You want the Hunger Games? What’s that?”

“No, no. I want THIS. The Kindle.”

“The Kindle?”

“The Kindle. It is a e-book reader.”

Directly behind him is a display of the Kindles and the Nooks. I can see the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire both sitting in the glass cabinet, but not the Kindle that I want — the one on sale.

The salesguy looks into the display.

“We don’t have that one anymore.”

“The circular just came out two days ago. You’re already out of them?”

“I suppose so.”

I shrugged. I went on Facebook and wrote “Walmart sucks,” as if my status update was an effective act of revenge.  That will show them!

I took my walk of shame out of the superstore, empty handed, sans Kindle.

As I passed the McDonald’s that was inside the Walmart, I rationalized the experience to myself.

“I didn’t really need the Kindle. It’s better this way.” I said to myself.

“At least I got out of the house and got some fresh air,” I said to myself.

“What would I do with that $30 Walmart card anyway? I would have lost it,” I said to myself.

Near the front entrance was the customer service center. There was a long line of customers returning their purchases.   I was about to exit the store when my eye caught a glimpse of a large sign behind the customer service woman titled “Shopping Policies.”

It read:

Our firm intention is to have every advertised item in stock. Occasionally, however, an advertised item may not be available for purchase due to unforseen difficulties. If this happens, Walmart will:

Sell you a similar item for a comparable price (or reduction in price if the item is on sale). Or if you prefer, we will give you a Rain Check at your request so you may purchase the item (including One Time offer) at the advertised price when it becomes available.

Now THIS is why Walmart is famous!   It isn’t the cheap prices.  It is because the company does CARE about the customer.

I stood on line to ask for my rain check for my Kindle.  Who knows? — maybe Walmart customer service is so helpful they will even sell me the Kindle Fire for $79 as an apology for my wasted time!

I waited in line for twenty minutes. The couple in front of me took forever. They were returning a TV, a microwave, AND a toaster!  I wondered if they had just bought the items for the weekend to impress their visiting relatives.

I was next.

“Hello there,” I said, trying to win the customer service woman over with my cheerfulness. I showed her the Kindle ad on the front page of their circular.

“I really wanted to buy this for my mother for mother’s day…”

This was a lie, but I thought it presented me a decent guy.

“… but you seem to be already out of stock, just two days after the circular came out. Would I be able to get a rain check for the Kindle when you restock?”

“We don’t do any rain checks in this store,” she said.

“What about giving me a comparable discount on another e-reader?”

“We don’t do that in this store.  We don’t give comparable discounts or rain checks in this store.”

I smile politely.  Maybe she was new.

“There is a huge sign directly behind which says that Walmart with help a customer with an advertised special with a comparable discount or a rain check.”

“We don’t do that in THIS STORE.”

“But they do this in OTHER stores?”

“I don’t know about other stores.  We don’t do that in this store.”

“So why do you have the sign on the wall?”

“Because it is a Walmart policy.”

“It is a Walmart policy to have the sign on the wall?  Or to do what it says on the sign?”

“We don’t do it in this store.”

“And so isn’t this Walmart?”

“Yes, but THIS STORE does not give comparable discounts or rain checks.  I don’t know about other stores.”

“So, this store doesn’t follow Walmart’s own policy?”

“I don’t know what Walmart’s policy is.”

“If you turn around you will see it on the wall behind you.”

“I only know about THIS STORE.”

“Is there anyone else to talk to?”


I took out my iPhone and started taking photos of the sign. The customer behind me, a mother with two children, was impatient with my questions.

“Enough already! It’s my turn,” she screamed.  “Go shop somewhere else!”

I left.   I couldn’t find my car in the mega-parking lot.  Finally, I took refuge in my car, looking myself inside so I could finally breathe.

“I really didn’t need that Kindle,” I said to myself.

“I did my best,”  I said to myself.

“I’ll post the photos of the signs.  It will make a good blog post,” I said to myself.

I turned on the ignition, ready to return back to my bed, more depressed now then when arrived.

But then, a song came on the radio. It was Kelly Clarkson singing.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I”

I waited for the song to finish, left the car, and walked straight back into the fire — back into Walmart. I passed the useless customer service and returned to ground zero, the electronics department. My battle plan had changed; I would find someone who understood my language. The dopey electronic sales guy was still at the counter.

“Hello again,” I said. “Do you have a manager here?”

He pointed to Maria, a well-coiffed woman in a blue jacket.

I went to Maria, the infamous circular in my hand.

“Hi there,” I said to Maria. “I wanted to buy the $79 Kindle, but you seem to be out. Is there any way you can help me, like giving me a rain check for when you restock?”

I spoke clearly, confidently, and without any anger.

“Hmmm,” she said. “Let me see if we have any more in the back.”

A few minutes later, she came back with a Kindle.  I left Walmart with a Kindle.

I may never use it, but it will forever be a symbol of not giving up, of staying focused, and the power of Kelly Clarkson’s voice.

Next hurdle.   I want to finally move my stuff out of the house.  Tomorrow I want to find a storage center and start the process.   This will be painful.

Note to self:


  1. Julie

    Dude, that is so epic! Virtual fistbump!

    I actually have a similar resolution to overcome my not-taking-action-ness. And I was rewarded today by nabbing Mothers Day brunch reservations in a totally booked restaurant. 🙂 And I don’t even care that it might mean other people with reservations might have to wait because the restaurant is overbooking (yet). Oh crap, now I feel guilty.

  2. sweetsalty kate

    This is such an interesting mish-mash. I like interesting mish-mashes.

    Keep your scrubbly chin up.

  3. wendy

    It’s been a long time Neil. I’ve missed reading you. You are the c in craft.

    • Neil

      Hello, Wendy.

  4. erykah

    Good for you neil! Onward & upward..

  5. annettek

    I really liked this Neil. I don’t picture you as a Kelly Clarkson kind of guy but since it’s working for you I say go with it! (Btw, I think you mean Han Solo. Luke was an EAGER hero, while Han was reluctant.)

  6. Danny

    Oh my God, my blood pressure went through the roof just reading the story about the idiot customer service representative. Good for you for getting the Kindle after all but shame on you for giving one dime to that Emporium of Satan.

  7. Hil

    Ahhahahaha! This sounds so much like something I would do. My children know what is coming when I politely ask for a manager…TROUBLE! Well done. I hope you enjoy your hard won prize.

  8. Varda (SquashedMom)

    Another great one Neil. (And I’m not even going to comment on the fabulous photos because you know I love them.)

  9. Kim

    I cheered. Cheered! This is very unlike me.

  10. Jack@TheJackB

    Walmart makes me crazy. I try to avoid it because my experience seems to mirror the one you had, but every now and then I get stuck….

  11. Tracy

    I adore the stories you tell with your words….you tell stories in suxh a way that leaves your readers craving the next time you hit ‘publish’.

    And your photos…. God, those are beautiful glimpses that share your perspective on life, but also lets your readers’ imagination find the story in our own words. I can’t possibly be the only one who wonders where that woman in the bustling city crosswalk is off to next, or where that man on the bus just came from, or what the couple in the diner who appeared so deep in conversation were discussing.

    Thank you.

    And as a member of the soon-to-be-divorced society, {hugs}, my Internet friend. I hope moving your items out is more cathartic than it is painful, & most of all, that one day soon, you’re able to find some peace in what likely feels like utter chaos today.

    • Neil

      Thanks T. Hope you are managing yourself.

      • Tracy

        Like you, some days are better than others. Talking to my shrink definitely helps me sort through the lies I’ve believed were the basis of who I was & why I do what I do. And discovering my truth is both awesome, & a real fucker 😉

        I really need to start writing and/or blogging again…..there are so many thoughts in my head, & they just keep bouncing off of one another… in another direction, on another tangent, and invariably leading me down a spiraling rabbit hole of negative self-thought, or more unanswered questions.

        Something tells me I won’t be “graduating” from therapy….I think I’m more likely to help fund my shrink’s (hypothetical) time share in Hawaii 🙂

        Take care of yourself, Neil ~

  12. angela ( angfromthedock )

    that was the best thing i have read all week. i am all stressed out and hopeful for you at the same time. and now i have kelly clarkson in my head. thanks. i think.

  13. grandemocha

    I turn that KC song up loud & sing along (badly) whenever I need a boost!

  14. Irish Gumbo

    I have a new hero, and his name is Neil.

  15. Summer

    I love your blog so much.

  16. Keely

    Great post, Neil. I found myself rooting for you and wishing I could have been there to face down that “Customer Service” employee. You deserve a huge apology and maybe even a free Kindle for the way they treated you.

  17. Marta

    Because I have to be thorough. Its just my nature:
    1. How do you have 20 twitter apps? Aren’t they really all the same?
    2. You cannot compare Target to Walmart/Kmart. That’s like comparing a Bergdorf’s to a JCPenneys. Okay, maybe not quite that different, but I love me some Target.
    3. That was such an epic story and hilarious that I read it aloud to my husband. He tried to read it himself, but I insisted on reading it out loud.

  18. denise

    I think you prematurely returned the dog Neil. The way I see it, if you sat on that puppy for a week or so, landed a $1,000 reward you could’ve bought yourself an ipad instead of a kindle.

    • Neil

      Denise. You are so right!

  19. Cathy in Missouri

    Neil, just read you on Honeysuckle (hOwL!) (bless Wendy Lou Who).
    I have this to say about that:

    Three kids in Missouri sat down to burritos on May 4, blind to impending glee.

    Out Of The Clear Blue…Stories!

    iPad. (Minor) modifications for tender ears. Clear up exactly what/where L.A. is, and we’re off:

    First, Starbucks Napkin.
    Next, Pug Rescue.
    Finally, Walmart Warrior.

    “And PICTURES!” Yes, pictures!

    Nary-a-dog-biscuit-Lady now has three small enemies in Missouri. And two larger ones.

    Next day, in the car. A song came on the radio. It was Kelly Clarkson singing.

    And, “NEILLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!” in shrieking chorus from the back seat. (Note: not Kelly. No. NEIL.)

    They could not believe it. They could not take it in. They were HEARING THE SAME SONG THAT NEIL HEARD.

    And they wanted to do something. “Who can we rescue, Mom? What can we do?”

    Seeing no pets in need of assistance, no Wal-mart on the horizon, and no Evil Suits, they had to settle with being nice to each other for the rest of the afternoon. Even if it killed them. Because it would make them stronger.

    You now have three small fans in Missouri. And two larger ones. The kids begged me to write and tell you: you are Their Favorite. And they want more stories.

    Tonight, Honeysuckle.

    If that ain’t real, I’ll skip real,

    Cathy in Missouri

  20. Megan

    I’m proud of you. And? I’m hoping to write stuff like this on my blog again soon.

  21. Salena of The Daily Rant

    Just finished reading this post and the Starbucks Napkin one to my boyfriend. We had a short discussion about the lack of customer service these days, and how often we come across incompetent employees like the two you described. Then he turned on the radio…Kelly Clarkson’s song was on! That’s got to be some sort of sign, right? Thanks for another great post.

  22. Alex

    I have a French Bulldog like the little one you rescued (look like a pug except those satellite dish ears are a giveaway) and just want you to know that you did good, Neil. Bully breeds are smart but physically, well, they aren’t Darwin’s finest. Can’t get over the fact the woman didn’t do more (anything) to show her appreciation. People never cease to amaze me. Dog owners, WalMart employees…what would Darwin think?

  23. di

    could really relate to yr not wanting to get out of bed , and wanting just to return when u do , its the same here for me, although i am not getting divorced or having any major life changes, all i can say is you are v funny, i like yr mind, i was surprised to hear you feeling flat, it just shows, me that, i am not doing so bad myself if ur feeling crap too, know that misery loves company, and , u have it, even if at a great distance, i enjoy yr blogs and posts on fb, although people seem to look up to you which could get quite lonely and annoying, take care and even though you seem alone, there are people around this world who also feel the same

  24. Alexandra

    Damn, that was a good post.

    Yes, you got the Kindle.

    I give up far too easily.

    Last night, I tried to go out for fondue with my sister. The hours on the door of the fondue place said “we serve until 10.” We were there at 9:20–they told us they were no longer serving.

    “Okay,” we said. And left.

    No more. Life Kelly Clarkson style from now on.

    LOVED this post. Thank you for the pleasant read of a post where you read every single word.

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