Friday, February 27, 2009

No, Honestly

Dear Children:

We teach others how to treat us.

Make no mistake. Most people look to us for guidance about how they should interact with us. Put another way: people seek hints about their own interest in relationships from the object of that relationship. Such is the curious fact of the matter. Pretty goofy.

Of course there are bullies and other clueless nincompoops who operate independent of the rule. But, bullies and the oblivious form a tiny school of odd fish swimming in a great swarm of wrigglers busily looking outside themselves for tips on how to act.

It’s you I care about, so we should stay in the specific: We teach others how to treat us.

That hang-dog expression we use when we want a little sympathy communicates that we are weak. The snarl that plays across our faces when we’re angry tells others to stay away. That goofy grin when we are unsure is often taken for an unserious nature. Flinching in the face of conflict tells just the opposite story from when we get our game faces on.

Is our head in the clouds? Do we care about our neighbor? Is our language combative or passive? Are we way too cool to bother with another’s problems?

All these things and much more are communicated in our facial expression, our language and how we hold ourselves in three-dimensional space.

The question is: Are those expressions true?

Remember we are teaching people how to treat us. What is gained when we are nonchalant when our interest is keen, for instance? We are teaching that we don’t care in the face of truth 180 degrees off true north. What is taught when we gush over trifles and mock the weighty? Is our shyness real or is our purpose to dodge something unpleasant?

None of this is as difficult as it sounds. I certainly don’t want you to phony-up your countenance or dissemble your language. We should cultivate honesty. We should practice making our faces match the facts.

Try this little exercise: Next time you’re called to answer in the affirmative, say “yes”. At the same time wag your head from side to side in the typical “no” manner. Observe the other person. Does she respond to the spoken word or to the gesture? You will discover that most of the time she will register “no”, some of the time she will register confusion and a small fraction of the time she will register “yes”

More importantly, what have you taught that person about how to treat you? Are you to be trusted? Do you care enough to communicate with clarity? Or, worse of all, are you weaseling to quote yourself later as having been truthful while encouraging a false impression for now?

This is important stuff. Be honest in your words. Be honest in your actions. Be honest in your inactions. Teach others to treat you honestly.

Much Love,


Monday, February 9, 2009

Technicolor Burp 35 Thousand Style

Dear Children:

Consider this tableau from the Orlando airport: A family submitting to the bureaucratic horrors wrought by thirty years of hijackers and terrorists. The tallest among them was a lean and acned dad, eyes focused on the middle distance. Below him was a twirling, bouncy nine-year-old filled with the spirit of one of the princesses that abound in the Magic Kingdom. Looking up at her was a squalling, mulish two-year-old lashed in a stroller. Surveying him was a laconic infant of uncertain gender about the size of a Shitzu, swaddled across a pair of ample breasts belonging to a mom – bedraggled – with a belly full of child number four.

One should think this is an occasion for all those who had been in similar boats to rush in with aid for an obviously distressed group. Not on your life. Rather, the folks who did not look away were abuzz in the line with murmurings of condemnation. Within earshot of the family were questions about why they were there at all and hopes they would not be seated where personal repose might be disturbed. One supposes that these disapproving ninnies could not imagine a planeload of such families wrung out, amped up, rundown and done-in returning from Mickey’s paradise.

Yet, such was the case. There were diapers and screeching, shouts of unfairness, reports of bladder condition, aisle escapes and all the squawking vocalizations of family life. I heard no fewer than six different words for poop. There were entreaties of all hue and level, most of which fell on deaf ears.

Buster, who occupied a small portion of Mom’s lap, was of a mind to puke away his time in the air. At first, Mom didn’t want to hand him over; insisting she was equal to Buster as well as Roxanne’s sullen presence smoldering in the window seat. She was convinced at a second effortless coaxing.

True to his promise, Buster up-chucked strained beets and belched Enfamil clouds all the way to LaGuardia.

This story is about human needs – the ones we all share -- the little things. We do not refer to the self-satisfied pronouncements on family values of politicians and divines. We refer to universal, commonplace, everyday, unrewarded, golden-ruley decency.

We most certainly do not refer to sacrifice. We mean the easy, part-of-our-day, utterly costless decency that oils the gears of human interaction.

Much Love,


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Missed Boats: Regrets

Dear Children:

There has been no shortage of opportunities recently to speak of regret. Maybe it’s the advancing age of my circle. Who knows?

Regret can be recognition that we did something wrong or could have done something better. That sort of regret is healthy and recommended. When we backtrack over our day as its ending, we can assess what went right, what went wrong, what we could have done; what we should have done. Wrongs, after a fashion, can be righted the next day. Right actions are a source of comfort and cheer. Are you with me so far? Just to be clear: there will never come a time when the acknowledgement of the weight of our actions cannot be expressed for the betterment of ourselves and the ease of others.

Just so, there will never come a time when past actions can be changed. We never get a do-over on anything -- never ever. Even when you get to try again – golfers call it a mulligan – that first try is in the books forever and permanently established even if you are the only one who knows. Your future has been affected and your unconscious mind never forgets. That is the case for all actions whether for good or ill. We hear it every day. “If only I had done that thing differently, I wouldn’t be in this pickle.” “When I was nine I had a chance to take piano lessons. Something happened. Now I can barely play the radio.” “If only I hadn’t taken that dare, I wouldn’t be gimping up these stairs.”

I’m here to tell you cuties that those statements are true and serious. See? It’s not about one particular dare. Laser in on whether taking dares at all is a good idea. Accept that actions taken today will play out tomorrow with a certainty reserved for death and taxes.

Here’s the problem: Memories of our actions can morph into a corrosive effect called regret. We get so worked up over mistakes, the memory of them blocks positive action. We come to believe that we are somehow diminished or, worse yet, destined to repeat our errors. The differences are subtle. Please stick with me.

Never express an error by using “if only” as in “I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I wouldn’t be cooling my heels in detention”. While the statement is true on its face, it is more likely to produce an ugly regret. Instead, express it in a positive way: “I am here because I shot my mouth off”. Can you appreciate the difference? When we acknowledge that we did something and accept that the action is immutable, reform is possible. A wish is not useful. The “if only” statements are what’s known in the movie trade as a MacGuffin – a way to misdirect the viewer from the real action of the plot. A MacGuffin does not explain what is happening. Exposition of the plot swamps the MacGuffin to the point of nothingness.

That goes for the close calls as well. Sometimes rotten things happen around us. We get caught up in them and the consequences are painful. It is never constructive to focus on the negative. Something unfair may have happened. Yet we are still obliged to acknowledge our part in the incident. Yes, even if our part was trifling, we need to make positive concession to the facts. That way we can dwell less on unfairness and more on learning to be sensitive to our surroundings.

There is promise in this. I promise that if you learn to own up to your part in everything that goes on around you, regrets – especially the longstanding ones – become MacGuffin. Regrets lose their power to explain when the facts play out and the story unfolds naturally.

Much Love,


P.S. Mulligan and MacGuffin sound like they could be racial or ethnic slurs like the description of a hammer as an Irish screwdriver. They probably are. Irish screwdriver certainly is. The word handicap began its life to describe a beggar as one whose cap is handy to receive alms. The Shakers, the Quakers and the Puritans all accepted names that were, at first, meant to be unflattering. Our language is chock-a-block with such terminology. Don’t worry about it. The truly crude racial and ethnic smears are well known and should be avoided. Beyond that … you needn’t worry.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Carpenter Rant

Dear Children:

At a certain age, life invites a measure of predictability. Life is never predictable, of course. Life has its own agenda quite apart from individual aspiration. It’s just that the interior gets familiar.

You don’t have this problem. There is nothing especially settled among your emotions. There is little about which you’re confident. Most of your feelings are, at once, resolute and alien.

The golden years are different. Resolute must be summoned and alien is mostly shunned. Do not be in any hurry to reach that state. Hang on to the intensity you feel. Welcome the exotic and outlandish. These are gifts for you from a Providence that provides abundant hours to pay out in wonder and awe. In fact, the only real requirement of youth is to discover how much wonder you can handle and how awestruck you are prepared to be.

Open yourself up to idle curiosity. Fill yourself with silly questions that have no practical answers. Accept that our universe and her mechanisms will forever be beyond measuring. Appreciate the endless complications of conflict and cooperation. Know that every thing in creation is different from every other thing in creation. Constancy in change and changeless in openness obviates discontent.

I’ve taken up woodworking after a long hiatus. I’m attracted, in part, by its timelessness. Noah, Jesus and Geppetto come to mind. The tools we use – hammer, saw, ax and drill -- were invented so long ago we have no idea who contributed so profoundly to our lives. For millennia humankind has struggled to shape wood into things useful and beautiful.

Since then, the tools for shaping wood have changed only to make the struggle more precise and more forgiving. We now have very sharp, very exacting, very fast; very responsive tools that contribute in no way to the satisfaction one feels at completion. Epeius and Joseph of Nazareth felt exactly what all woodworkers feel.

The privilege of the child is joined with the need of the older adult. The wood in its stock form is freighted with potential. No amount of planning and no anal regard for the diagram produces a finished product identical to its conception. The wood completes no destiny as Michelangelo suggests. Instead, the wood is consequential along with the tools and the artisan. The process is breathtaking.

Clearly, it’s not predictable.

Much Love,