Monday, March 25, 2013

Nobody Wants to Spill a Drink

Foreword:  While I pull the final chapters of The Book together, I'll re-post once again. This one drew more hits than any I've written to date. It still makes me think about how we view a child's missteps. See you soon.

I was talking with my oldest son about someone I know who spills a lot.
“Spills a lot?” He asked.
“Some people trip. She spills.”
It was meant to be a throwaway, a relatable comment to which most people would respond: 
"I lose stuff,” or, “I drop things,” etc. But my son was thoughtful. “When I’m a parent, I’m going to make sure the one thing I do when my kid spills a drink is say, ‘no big deal.’”

When teenagers tell you they’ll let their kids hang around with anyone they want, or stay out until they feel like coming home, you shrug. When an adult child starts a sentence with, “When I’m a parent…” you brace.   

Then you personalize.

I rummaged through my mental archives, trying to recall the incident(s) which led to my son's pledge to his future child.

I said, “How often were we that upset over a spilled drink?”
“You weren’t,” he said, “But parents do it all the time. Scold kids for doing things they didn’t want to do in the first place. Nobody wants to spill a drink. It isn’t in anyone’s nature to want to spill anything. When it happens to my kid, I’m not going to punish him or her. I’ll be sympathetic.”

First, I smiled in my heart at the thought of my son being that kind of parent. Then I rummaged through my shoebox again until the subject changed.

It was timely insight, because the following night, as he hurried to get to a baseball function, my younger son backed into my car. I saw the whole thing. Saw him leap from the car and run up the stairs to the house, where I waited. He was holding his head, his eyes were like quarters. 

“I hit your car,” he said, “I am so sorry.”
“Let me take a look,” I said.
My car looked like it had coughed up its insides through the headlight. 
"Holy (bad word here). You certainly did,” I said.
“I’ll pay for it,” said my financially dependent child.
“No, but thank you,” I said. “Go do your dinner thing. We’ll talk about it later.”
“I’ll give you my car,” he said.
I hugged him and said, “I wish I didn’t know how you feel right now, but I do.”

Nobody wants to spill a drink.

I made him leave, grateful that he wasn’t hurt, grateful that this had occurred in our driveway and not in a busy parking lot, and, of course, grateful that I wasn't standing in front of the fender when he backed up.

Someday my son will probably have a child who drives into something. He won’t remember the lecture or punishment I might have come up with when it happened to him. But he will remember how he felt when his mistake created a loss for someone else. And maybe when his child is standing there holding his head, with eyes like quarters, waiting for the reaction that still won’t be as bad as the way he already feels, my son will offer a hug instead of something less useful.

It was the day before my birthday, a day my children find tedious because I already have everything I can use. And yet, smashed fender and all, didn’t both Sam and I wind up with something we can both use, thanks to a little gift of insight from Drew:

Nobody wants to spill a drink.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mr. Everybody

Larry laughing at something

SPECIAL NOTICE:  For maximum enjoyment, this post will require you to know who Lucas McCain is.

Like everyone,  I've heard adages and expressions in my life that are hard to forget for a couple of reasons:  either they were told to me when I didn't know from it, or, they were told to me by a person in their late eighties with weathered skin  and piercing eyes who didn't get that far by being a nitwit.  

Here's one: 

For balance, every woman needs eight friends who are more or less than she is in each of these four categories: wealth, looks, brains and popularity.

False. I need loyal, supportive and honest friends no matter what they have in the bank or who thinks they are hilarious and I can get by with fewer than eight. 

Here's another:

Your first serious celebrity crush(es) will predict things about your most serious life relationship.

That one's true. 

I was always embarrassed to admit my crushes  - nobody got it. Danny over Keith? George over Paul?  Really? Why?  It all makes sense now. 

I'll start with the Rifleman.

While all the other  girls  thought Mark McCain was dreamy with those soulful eyes and the way he said "Paw," I developed a stubborn crush on Lucas, the squinty, tough, wise, gritty rifleman who solved problems with his rifle and asked questions later.

There was not a single thing about him that a real woman couldn't change, I thought. And he had been left to both mother and father Mark, even with a rattlesnake in his sleeping bag. I wanted to make it all better for the tough/tender Lucas.

I never went for the Davy Jones accent, I went for the Michael Nesmith eyes which I imagined smoldering with inspiration for a ballad called, simply, "Joanne" "Susan". I wanted to look into eyes like that forever.

Unlike everyone else at the bus stop, I never really liked Mick or Paul. I liked Gary Puckett because even if you saw less of him in magazines,  his songs were always about seducing women. Did no one ever teach me the facts of life? No. And there was so much I had to learn. I wanted Gary to answer a few questions.

I never liked dumbbell Keith Partridge, but the conniving Danny. I wanted someone too savvy to be outsmarted by the average Joe.   

I didn't like jaded John or puppy Paul, I liked serious George who traded profile for pride.

And even if he wore the same khakis and white shirt every day, year in and out on the island, I liked the professor with a soul - an everybody I would have to keep everybody away from. 

I never went for the Hugh Grant smirk but the David Letterman wit. I wanted that sharp take on the ridiculous.

I didn't know I was shopping for so many things or even when I found them, until one day in November, 1983, when I heard the sound of my future husband's voice, reached for the perfume, fluffed up my hair and skulked around until he noticed me.  

And after all those crushes, I knew this was no somebody. This man, whose last name I was doodling next to my own on legal pads in meetings, was an everybody 

Mr. and Mrs. Everybody
Twenty-eight years and four children later, here we are,  still with the same last name, still making plans for the things we'll do years from now.

One of my favorite friends passed along this sentiment about marrying the love of her life: 

I think about what might never have been, and I cherish every single day.  

That one's true. 

There is no better way to describe the joy at having found, and remained with the most serious love of your life. I found and remained with all of them.   

Happy Anniversary, Mr. Everybody.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Becoming a community fish

We change as we get older, did you know that?

Every once in a while, I tell my children, "Don't be like me." I say it about things I've had to improve or change in my life: my driving, my attention span, my controlling tendencies but I also say it to be funny. Now, after seeing three of our four children operate in their independent  lives, I'm happy to report they are not like me in the ways they shouldn't be. And I am happy to report that I am now like them, and other twenty-somethings, in a way I needed to be.

I thought about this at Petco recently where I went to pick up extra rubber golf balls for Gus and found myself  drawn to the fish "department"-  the corner kept dark but for neon details and designs near the tanks. Here, in this fish nightclub, the predatory fish are separated  from the community type. I walked around looking at the piranhas and the angels, and thought about two things: how would we know if fish ever got depressed, and what the hell was wrong with all of us in the 1980's.

Soon after I left college in the 80's, I took my first serious job in the financial services industry. I entered the workplace like the rod-straight, silk and pearls Anne Wells in Valley of the Dolls, shocked  to observe a community so jaded  by self-interest that there was actually an acronym for it. In my first orientation session, the trainer wrote it on the board. 

"Whatever you do," she said, underlining it several times, "CYA."
"CYA?" I asked.
She looked at me for a few seconds. "Cover your ass," she said. "Don't think someone's going to accept blame for a mistake if they can blame you." She underlined it again.

Wasn't that helpful? I thought so.

Competition in the workplace was never, as it is today, a constructive force. And the word to describe the atmosphere was not "culture" as it is today, but "climate" - fitting for those cold, "me first" and "outta my way" places where hopeful twenties stalked up the corporate ladder, pretending to like you if you were useful, staring at their shoes in elevators if you weren't. If you did find anyone  in the workplace who was truly happy for you when you were promoted, or given a raise or awarded more responsibility, it was because you were on track to become their supervisor, or because they were a temp. Ideas weren't shared, mistakes weren't admitted unless they were someone else's, ropes weren't thrown and people were shameless in their attempts to endear themselves to superiors.

Despite the trainer's guidance, I was always the surprised , naive "Huh?" one who had to learn through  a "friend" that I'd been  thrown under the bus because I lacked the instinct to know it myself.  I saw examples of duplicity all the time, and yet, when it was hinted in a meeting by a co-worker that I hadn't done my job, or when a confidential remark shared with a co-worker was leaked, I was still surprised. "Huh?"

I learned.

It wasn't easy,  but I learned how to hide my satisfaction when someone else did poorly,  or hide my jealousy when someone else did well.  There were few hurt feelings. Nobody expected the support of their peers because nobody trusted their peers. We were angels and piranhas living in the same tank.

I didn't even want to be like me.

Change is good.

Today, the high-achieving twenty-somethings I know (including my children and their friends) are struggling  in an equally competitive employment climate  to find and keep their jobs. But while they are facing the same competitive factors that we did back in the hey day, they employ different strategies; they don't leave piles of screwed over co-workers in their wake as they navigate competitive waters, they stay late and take on more. They don't go out for drinks to find out incriminating stuff that they're not supposed to know, they go out to commiserate, share stories, and support each other. They don't compete with each other as much as they compete with themselves.

Bullpen floor plans allow co-workers proximity to one another and promote group think and camaraderie. Today, our twenties  in their more "cultured" workplace don't sabotage talent, they share it. And when a twenties describes  being shown up, singled out, or picked on, it's rarely by a  contemporary, but more likely a boss or co-worker who steeped in a CYA 80's workplace.

Because it was one fish eat fish world out there in those 80's.

Whether old competitive behaviors are conditioned or innate, they are worth shedding. But it's not easy. As counter-intuitive as it once was  to compete with my peers, it was tough to learn not to.  Tough not to feel jealous when others achieved what I wanted.  Tough to offer congratulations to those as deserving as I was.   

And then I started writing - a solitary art which requires heart and competitive spirit  in a way that can drive improvement, keep you current and advance your craft, or, make you resent those who pave the way while you stand in your own way, wondering "why not me?" 

I didn't need isolation. I needed community.

So I switched tanks, joining online writer sites and blogger communities, signing up for work shops, attending conferences, forming a writer's group. I began to read other writers - the published ones  - heartened to remember that they were once where I was.  And I bolstered the unpublished ones, cheering their successes and hoping to soften failures or missteps with words of "I've been there."

With a lot of remedial training, I have become a community fish again.

And now, I have one more thing in common with my very nice children, who are all more relaxed about letting someone else be in charge, who all drive safely, who are all excellent at paying attention, and who are all splashing happily about with the other angel fish.  

Thank you all twenty-somethings for showing me your tank. I like what you've done with it. I think I'll stay.