How Embarrassing!

My friend, Becky, says she told her kids today about the embarrassing things that happened to her when she was a kid.  I read her humorous description and jokingly rebuked her for giving them ideas.  Without question, from my perspective, most of the embarrassing moments in which I have found myself entangled in the past were webs of my own weaving.  As I thought about what her conversation might have entailed (she did give a hint or two), my mind was flooded by my own jumbled memories of childhood.  Any of you who regularly read my run-on, rambling writings know, I have shared quite a few of my early memories in the course of the last few months, but there are some stories which should probably be left in the dust-bins of the past, lids tightly affixed, to insure that the embarrassment does not once more overwhelm.

And, although I’m sure that some of you would prefer that a revealing look at my socially backwards past be forthcoming, for tonight, suffice it to say that there is enough material for a very long series of articles.  We’ll leave all of that material intact, so if you had expectations of a tantalizing expose’ of what makes Paul tick, you may want to go back to work for the duration, since that probably won’t be in the offing.  At this juncture, I also should admit that I’m not much of a believer in repressed memories.  My clear recall of so many disturbing events must be the proof against such fanciful theories.  Surely there can’t be any other, more humiliating memories still to be recalled in future moments of emotional distress or flashes of epiphany.  So, the storehouse of historical material is propitiously, for the reader at least, limited in volume.
What I am deliberating tonight is the way in which these events shape who we become, or more precisely, who we are becoming.  As I contemplated the profusion of samples of mortification in my history, I realize that each of them still impacts me in a very real way.  Most of them are filed away, thankfully for me, in the “what not to do to your kids, grand-kids, or friends” category.  There are others which fall under the category of “stupid is as stupid does”.  I’m guessing there are also one or two which might fall under the “I’m still a little bitter about this” heading, but I am grateful that, as my life experiences catch up to those of the adults who were involved so many years ago, I understand them and their actions so much better.  I’m still a little mad, but just a little sympathetic too.  My guess is that I’ve participated as an “embarrasser” on occasion, too.

I know folks for whom the embarrassing moments were overwhelming, progressively causing character changes which ensured even more embarrassing moments.  Eventually, introverted, painfully shy, and withdrawn from social contact, although many of these people are incredibly gifted, they live out their lives privately, the boundaries drawn ever closer to guarantee that they will never be abashed publicly again.  For some, a growing number it seems, one particularly embarrassing moment can be the proverbial “straw” which overloads the already demoralized emotional system, leading to a catastrophic event, like suicide or even murder-suicide. In these cases, the results are devastating to those left behind to deal with the chaos.  The sorrow (and anger) I feel when lives are ended for incredibly stupid reasons is beyond what I can put into words.  Suffice it to say that each one of us who has lived through these humiliations and recovered, owes a debt of support and love to those within our influence who suffer the same stress and confusion.  Look for them; Seek them out.  They will almost certainly not seek you out, but they’re in front of us on a daily basis.  One life repaired may mean hundreds, even thousands salvaged later. Is that an exaggeration?   I don’t think so.  History is rife with examples of “failures” who rose from the ashes of public humiliation, only to overcome and surmount their circumstances, influencing untold numbers of individuals in the process.

Whew!  What is it about supposedly light-hearted subjects that makes them so rebellious?  I started writing this with the intention of having you rolling on the floor by this point, only to realize that embarrassment isn’t quite as funny as we’ve been led to believe.  By now, I’ve figured out how to laugh at my own and put it in perspective, and I think that’s the correct personal response, but I suggest that we treat our fellow human beings’ mortifying moments with a little more class and a lot more respect.

Okay, since you suffered through the entire monologue with me, one piece of embarrassing ammo for you to use against me…When I was in second grade, I awaited the opening of Christmas presents at the class party with incredible impatience because there was an extra present, beautifully wrapped, under the tree with my name on it.  The eyes of the entire class were upon me expectantly, as I unwrapped the package.  What beautiful gift awaited me?  Was it the ubiquitous book of Life-savers or maybe a new volume of the “Land of Oz” series (I loved reading)?  Imagine my chagrin when there was nothing in the package but all my trash, taken from my messy desk while I wasn’t around and wrapped in a stunning package, I’m guessing as a moral lesson against the dangers of slovenliness.  I still don’t know whose idea it was, but it sits in my mental file today, a lifelong reminder of how negative lessons seldom yield the result we expect.  Well, as I’ve admitted before, all you have to do is look at my desk today to realize that.

“Humility is the only certain defense against humiliation.”

Routine Isn’t Necessarily Routine

Things change.  On Wednesday, we enjoyed seventy degree temperatures with the sun shining, but late tonight the severe thunderstorms have rolled through, a precursor of the wintry mix and high in the thirties predicted for Thanksgiving day.  I want yesterday back!  I’ve heard numerous meteorologists talk about the departure of the beautiful weather, and seen countless deprecatory posts about it via the online social networks, but I’m fairly certain that no one I know will be rewinding the film, unraining the rain, unflashing the lightning, and uncovering the sun for today’s weather.  We’ll endure the cold and whatever precipitation comes from sky, simply because the change in the weather is inexorable, asking no one’s permission and concerned about no one’s opinion.  Change happens in spite of our wishes or hopes and we learn to live with it.

I admit, I’m a creature of habits, from my bedtime, to my work routine, to the type of toothpaste that I brush with.  We are comfortable with routine.  We find a solace in sameness, which shifts in the pattern disturb.  We equate routine with normalcy and change with upheaval.  When presented with a choice, invariably, I will choose the former.

But the fact is, all of life is about change.  From the cradle to the grave, our existence is marked with revisions and transformations.  And all of our life, we resist it.  The little baby would be perfectly content to lie in bed and be changed, and fed, and pampered, but we urge him on.  We hold the bottle just out of reach so the child will begin the radical undertaking of moving his hands toward the bottle to bring it closer.  When the baby is ready to walk, we move away from him to encourage him to put one foot in front of the other.  And, he follows, complaining all the way, whimpering for us to put things back like they were.  Oh, once the steps are taken and the pain of the transformation from crawler to walker is passed, he embraces the new routine and can’t be stopped, but he has to be pushed and prodded every step of the way right out of the cradle and into the great, big world.  And the process never stops.  Some of us embrace change more than others, but there still must be a strong motivation.  Thrill seekers choose the path they take because, at some step of the way, they became accustomed to the rush, the jolt of adrenalin, and they are pushed to bigger and better activities simply because the addiction demands it.  All through our lives, we move only because some strong force give us the impetus to do so.

The first of Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Law of Inertia, plays a big part…“Things at rest tend to stay at rest.  Thing in motion tend to stay in motion.”  We’re not all that different from all other things in nature.  We want to sit still!  Fan motors require a capacitor (simplistically, a power boost) to get started, even if they can run for hours without needing any stimulus beyond the regular motor turning.  It takes much more torque and therefore, more fuel to get a car moving than to keep it cruising at a constant speed.  We humans are a lot like that, maybe not quite as simplistic, since our motivators aren’t always physical.  But once we get moving and are kept properly motivated, we’ll keep moving for as long as the motivation is appropriate.  Of course, we also know from science that there is no such thing as perpetual motion.  Everything eventually slows to a complete stop once the energy source has been removed. 

What’s the point of this science lesson?  You might well inquire.  Today is Thanksgiving, a day of both feverish activity and, later on, of an almost universal comatose state (for most adults anyway).  In the morning, we rush around in preparation, moving tables, cleaning the special dishes, cooking, and tasting (I like that part!) and setting the table until it seems that it will buckle under the burden.  The motivation is the anticipation, the expectation of the feast to come, shared with family and friends, mixed with the expressions of gratitude and the companionship of kindred spirits who understand that the bounty we enjoy comes from above.  One of my favorite quotations from the Bible comes from the book of James 1:17…“Every good gift and every perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”  Together at the meal we enjoy collectively, we celebrate His bounty in every way.

Of course, what follows is also proof of the science lesson, since most of us will find a place to settle, some in the den with the television, some in various seating (or reclining) arrangements throughout the rest of the house, but all of us settle in.  The motivation has faded, the contentment of being stuffed (much like the turkey was earlier) ensues, and the juggernaut comes to rest, having expended its energy, and is satisfied to remain stationary for the time being.

Yes, change is inevitable, but today, I wish to speak for the ebb and flow of traditions, the joyous celebrations of gratitude, of family, friends and of rest after labor.  May your commemoration of thanks be blessed with His presence!

“There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse!  As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.”
(Washington Irving, American author, 1783-1859)

When I Grow Up…

I’ve said for years that I’m not still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  When I was a teenager, my Grandmother asked me the question and I answered, “I want to be a bum.”  As I contemplate that, now years older and having attained the bare minimum of wisdom that comes with my advancing age, I’m astounded at the arrogance of youth.  What I thought I said was that I wanted to have an easy life.  What she heard was that I had no work ethic and would be happy to live on handouts and welfare.

My grandparents had struggled to make ends meet in a dying town in southern Kansas at the end of the dust bowl days, until they decided to try their luck in California.  Packing up their three kids, my mom and her brother and sister, they made the trek out to San Diego and put down roots there, working hard to make a good life for their family.  After that hardship and years of struggling to provide for a better way of life, I imagine that years later, it was a blow to hear one of their grandsons declare that all of it was less than nothing to him.  When I really call my childhood to remembrance, I don’t recall my mom talking much about her roots, so I probably wasn’t aware of the slight to Grandma, but it might not have changed anything.  I was young and no one could tell me anything.

But, my parents did a few things right (maybe even more than a few) and one of those things was to instill in each of their children the desire to work, to be productive.  We all worked from an early age, not necessarily to get things, although that was part of the drive, but mostly to achieve the satisfaction of doing something constructive.  Funny, I’ve always thought of myself as a bit lazy, but all my life from age 12 on, I’ve been working.  It was nothing more than delivering papers at first, but this was in an age when most of the other kids were going to club meetings and watching Batman after school, or at least that’s how it seemed to me.  From then on, whether part-time or full-time, I’ve been employed.  From pharmacy delivery-boy, fire & safety installations and repairs, washing pots and pans, and making donuts,  I worked.  It was only after we had owned our music store for several years that I realized that there was not only the reward of the paycheck, the financial gain, but there was another reward for the work ethic.

Emotionally, we are fashioned to accomplish tasks and reach goals!  We observe this all our lives, starting with the little physical things; rolling over, holding up our heads, crawling, walking, etc.  The reward is a new-found freedom, but also the praise from the adults in our lives, urging us on to bigger and better tasks, swimming, riding bikes, reading, writing, sports, music, and on and on.  The list is endless, but always, we are driven by the emotional need to achieve and also to be rewarded.  While we say things like “virtue is its own reward” and in our heads we might believe it, in our hearts, we know that we need more.  We all work better if we get an “atta boy!” or “atta girl!”  The pats on the back don’t put food on the table, but they sure put a cache in the storehouse for a rainy day.  The monetary reward is soon spent, it soon dwindles into an empty memory, but the praise of another stays with us, to be taken out, sometimes many years later, and to brighten a dark day in the light of the brilliant blaze with which encouragement and acclaim shine.

I’m aware that our society is rife with false praise.  I see our children being given awards just for showing up, and every team, not just the victors, being given trophies and I realize that excellence is being cheapened.  When the reward is the same for all, there is no longer any motivation to achieve and excel.  But I also know that the more genuine praise is heaped on, the harder we work.  I love it when a customer takes the time to email me with a word of thanks, or telephones just to say, “Good job!”  It drives me to do even better, to raise the bar to greater heights, and that’s how I think it should be.  So, don’t be afraid to offer praise where it’s due.  Tell your waitress or waiter “thank you” and leave them a bigger tip if their service has exceeded your expectations.  If your pastor, or teacher, or even the janitor has over-achieved in your book, tell them!  They’ll appreciate the pat on the back and you’ll reap the future benefit even more. 

Do I think that we should only labor for the praise of others?  No, it’s a fringe benefit, secondary to actually accomplishing what we set out to do.  In addition, if we labor as if the work is for our Maker, we’ll toil on without any praise at all.  But, the aptly spoken word, offered at the proper time, will give encouragement and provide fuel in the tank for future accomplishments.  As our God encourages, why wouldn’t we?

And the bum thing?  I’m having too much fun now, so it’s not going to happen.  I think maybe even Grandma would be pleased…

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
(Matthew 25:21)

“A little praise is not only merest justice, but it is beyond the purse of no one.”
(Emily Post, American authority on social behavior)

It’s Not Rocket Science!

Innovation.  What is it about doing things in a new way that scares us to death?  For all of the history of mankind, the only way our lifestyle has improved is by finding new ways of accomplishing old tasks.  For instance, the introduction of the wheel into the enterprises of humans altered history with implements of war, to say nothing of the improvement in diet, in personal transportation, and in countless machines that improve the lot of mankind, but that wouldn’t function at all without wheels and gears in them.  Even today, as we sit at our ultra-sophisticated, technologically-advanced lap-top and desk-top computers, there are wheels inside which allow them to function, to be cooled, to open and close mechanisms.  The use of fire and subsequently, flame-less sources of heat allow us to live comfortably, to eat cooked food which offers less health risks, even to build mammoth machines with huge welders or minuscule circuit boards with the tiniest of soldering irons.  But to achieve any of these historical transformations, along with countless others, someone, or more accurately, a lot of someones, had to be willing to think creatively, to imagine what was possible, instead of only seeing the current reality.

I’m not such a thinker.  Many times, when I’m presented with a new, innovative apparatus, I look at how it works (I’m fascinated by mechanics) and say, “That’s so simple!  I could have invented that!”  But I never have invented anything.  My brain doesn’t work that way.  A case in point–I have complained for years that the digital tuners used for adjusting the pitch of guitars and similar instruments are useless in a room full of musicians, simply because they pick up each and every note being played in the room and cannot be made to focus on the instrument which is being tuned.  All this time, I’ve known about and used, piezo or contact microphones, which pick up sound transmitted through a solid instrument, for amplification.  In recent years, some visionary had the insight to see that the two could be married into a digital tuner with a piezo microphone built into it, which could then be clipped onto any instrument you wish, thus tuning only that instrument.  In a room full of ear-shattering music, the tuner is impervious to any sound but that of the guitar or banjo or bass to which it is affixed.

How simple is that?  And how could I not have been the one who combined the two very common tools, thus making a fortune?  I want to have a “Eureka” moment, want to be able to say, “I knew it would work all along,” but that doesn’t seem to be one of my gifts.  In fact, I often find myself looking down on the dreamers, the visionaries, as simply goof-offs…nut-cases who don’t have anything better to do with their time than sit and play with Frankenstein-monster devices that will never work.

I was proud of myself today, though.  Little Addison was here again.  You remember…the little girl and the puzzle?  Well today she was marching around the store banging on a child’s drum we keep for just such occasions.  I always like to show the young prodigies how to hold the drum and the ideal way to grip the mallet and then encourage them to hammer away at the drum, but today, I let Addison go.  She used the mallet for awhile and then, knowing that a guitar pick was also a tool for making music, relinquished her grip on the mallet in favor of a pick, trying one shape and then another on the head of the drum.  It wasn’t nearly as loud as the mallet, but the varying sounds she achieved captivated her, encouraging her to continue her quest, trying all the shapes, then different materials, until she had exhausted the possibilities.  Now, I know that you don’t play a drum with a guitar pick, but she doesn’t.  This little explorer hasn’t yet been told that you should only use the “right tool for the right job” and I wasn’t about to be the one to tell her.  I live in hopes that some of the young brains that come in and out of my business will one day surprise everyone around them with some brilliant device which will revolutionize music.  And the way it starts is with experimentation; with sounds, with textures, with manipulation. 

My days of imagining and innovating are long since past.  I have been a black & white, linear thinker for too long to suppose that I will be able to break free of this path.  But, I fervently and passionately believe that we can encourage the dreamers among us, instead of making fun of them.  We must find ways to channel their imagination and help our children to see that there are better ways of doing things.  It’s not easy for me to do, but I am resolved not to be the one who says, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Long live the Addisons of this world!



“These are bagpipes. I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

(Alfred Hitchcock)

When Good Enough Isn’t (good enough, that is)

“More spot-putty…”  Those hated words came easily to my brother-in-law’s tongue, but fell on my ears like a school-days detention bell, signaling the beginning of an extended stretch in the miscreant’s study hall.  I knew we were in for more drudgery, more physical labor, and more delays.  And, to be quite honest, I wasn’t feeling up to the task.  I have said many times that I’m basically lazy and I constantly try to prove it, but it seems that someone is always holding my nose to the grindstone.  And so it was again.  We were reviving an old car, pulling it from the brink of annihilation, but we had been at the job for many evenings and weekends, hours and hours of labor, and I was tired.  To my eye, the body panels were straight.  Certainly when compared to their previous state, they were perfection incarnate.  At least, that was my take on the subject, but my brother-in-law didn’t see it that way.

Perfectionists are a pain.  They are never quite satisfied, never happy with the result, always looking for one more tiny imperfection with which to find fault.  I had had it with my persecutor’s nit-picking and the words burst out without my permission.  “As far as I can tell, it’s perfect.  It’s my car and I’m ready to get it painted.  It’s good enough!”  It was many years ago that the event took place, but I’ll never forget the reply.  “No.  It may be your car, but the bodywork and paint job are going to have my name on it.  It’s right when I say it’s right.”  As much as I hated to admit it, the man had a point.  We started mixing more spot putty to level the tiny imperfections only he could see.  As I look back, I’m still astounded at his patience and attention to detail and my own inability to see the importance of the minutiae when it came to the finished product.

 My Grandpa’s old car, a rust-bucket if ever there was one, became once more a beautiful piece of machinery, no thanks to me.  The automobile is not with us anymore, having succumbed to time and an era when cash was not readily available for making necessary mechanical repairs, but the memory of the years we enjoyed it lives on.

When I think of the car and my learning experience as we toiled on it, I realize that the precept I gleaned that day has stayed with me.  Most of the time now, I’m reluctant to allow repair jobs to leave my business without me being perfectly satisfied with them.  I no longer am quick to say, “That’s good enough.”  Instead, I find myself looking at the rest of the instrument, adjusting the string level, setting the harmonics, when all I’ve been hired to do is replace the strings.  “But, my name is going to be on it,” is my common response to the urging to hurry up and finish the job.  The owner may tell their friends that I worked on that instrument and I want it to reflect my principles.  There is no such thing as “good enough.”  There is only a finished job or an unfinished job.  It’s not true in all areas of my life, but I’m doing my best to make it that way.

There have been other examples, not so commendable, of this precept, which have also aided in the learning experience.  At one time, before I owned the store, we had an itinerant instrument repairman, who would come by the shop one afternoon every two weeks and take care of any jobs we needed to have done.  Doc didn’t have what you would call finesse, bending keys mercilessly to make adjustments, forcing screws into sockets with different thread patterns, and making some of the worst-looking solder joints I have ever seen.  Oh, the instruments played when he got through…they didn’t dare not play!  But, this method of making things work, sans craftsmanship, earned him a bad reputation, especially within the music repair business.  I remember being in a different repair shop with two of the technicians talking about a certain clarinet.  “Doc has been working on this one,” said the one.  “Oh, how can you tell?”  queried the other.  “Well, the chain saw marks are still on it!”  came the not-quite tongue-in-cheek reply.  Evidently, “That’s good enough” actually isn’t when it comes to a reputation for excellence.

I’ve got to admit that sometimes I feel like my old car, though.  I’m going along contentedly, confident that I’ve learned life’s lessons and am accomplishing things in the proper manner, but still I keep getting scraped and sanded, holes being filled with spot putty, and more sandpaper being used.  Somehow, I’m imagining that God is saying, “My Name’s on this one.  It’ll have to be better than this…”  The process isn’t always comfortable and I certainly would like for the paint to go on, but I have a feeling that the shiny, finished product is still quite some time off.  The old saying is certainly true in my case, “God’s not finished with me yet.” 

“If something is exceptionally well done it has embedded in it’s very existence the aim of lifting the common denominator rather than catering to it.”

(Edward Fischer)

Give me a chance to catch my breath

The problem started about three or four years ago.  Most people I know with this affliction have it when they are children and then it lessens in severity as they get older, but leave it to me to wait until my waning years to acquire an infirmity that I should have outgrown instead of grown into.  I have asthma.  Oh, not the full-blown, struggle to inhale, think you’re going to black out, wheezing asthma, but enough to cause shortness of breath and an annoying tight cough, which can’t be relieved by regular cough medicines.

I’ve got my father to thank for it…well really, his father…come to think of it, I shared it with my son too, so there’s enough paternal blame to go around on this one.  Heredity seems to have played its part here.  My father had to take an early retirement due to respiratory problems brought on by allergens in the workplace.  Long before that, his dad (my Grandpa Phillips) was stricken with emphysema, a lung disease far more serious than my touch of bronchial asthma. 

I thought about Grandpa today.  I had helped the Lovely Lady with a reception for a friend of ours and was carrying boxes out to the car.  The extreme change in temperature from inside the building to the frosty air outside, was enough to bring on another attack and before I knew it, I was straining to breathe.  I felt a kinship with Grandpa that I had never thought about before, as I saw him in my mind’s eye, struggling to breathe from the exertion of walking 10 feet across the room.  He would stop and lean against a table, or chair, or desk, with his chest heaving, the over-developed chest muscles forcing air in and out of the diseased lungs.  I must admit that as a child, I didn’t empathize well.  This was just how he had always been in my memory, and I assumed that it was his own fault.  Grandpa had been a heavy smoker, his brand of choice, filter-less Camels.  A he-man’s cigarette if ever there was one.  But for a person predisposed to breathing issues as seems likely, the habit was a slow killer.  I’m not a smoker and my problem doesn’t begin to approach the gravity of his, but just for a few moments this evening, I felt an empathy, a bond with my Grandpa that I never considered when he was living.  And, I missed him again.

Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street from me when I was a kid.  What a great blessing, to be able to grow up so close to your grandparents that you can run across the street and sit with them on the screened-in front porch, or maybe watch  an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” on television with them. Two channels on TV then, with the signal literally coming through the airwaves and being picked up by a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the tiny black & white set.  Every time an airplane would approach the local airport (we were in the flight path), the static and wavy lines across the screen would interrupt the program.  But the best thing was listening to Grandpa tell stories about people he knew.  He loved to talk–even talked about talking…“So, I says to him, says I, …”, was one of my favorite phrases I heard him use when describing a conversation with someone else.  If I weren’t such a language snob, I would incorporate that into my own speaking.  Maybe it’s best to keep that as a memory instead.  But I think I get my penchant for story-telling from him and, from where I’m standing, that’s not a bad legacy.  The reader is free to agree or not…

The asthma won’t go away, but I carry an inhaler with me when it flares up and a couple of puffs on it usually relieve the symptoms within a minute or two.  I’m not happy to have the problem, but tonight, I’m actually a little grateful for the walk down memory lane.  We’ve all got memories that live in our heads and hearts; some sad, like Grandpa’s ultimately fatal affliction, but also some happy ones too, like my memories of life with him so close.  There are times when I think it would be great if all our memories were like the latter, but I’m reminded of a song I heard as a teenager that reminded us that hardships make us value the good times more; just as we cherish coming home because we had to be away in the first place.  I think memories are often like that, the bittersweet giving way to the heartwarming, actually making the happy occasions seem more bright.

Next week, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, another of the memory-fraught times of the year for most of us.  I’m going to be remembering my Grandpa’s dinner prayer as we approach this holiday.  “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the many blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us…”  When I was a boy, it was only remarkable in that the language never changed.  As an aging man, now a grandfather myself, the message of those words has lasted well beyond his mortal years and still resonates today. 

“Many blessings” indeed.

“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die”
(Thomas Campbell, from his poem “Hallowed Ground”)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones…”

“…but words will never hurt me.”  We know the children’s rhyme well.  I’ve even discussed the fallacy in an earlier note, with regard to harmful language.  By that, I mean hurtful words, spoken in anger or with hateful intent.  Tonight, my objective is not to continue in that vein, but to explore the other side of how words can be hurtful (at least to people like me). 

I’ve turned into a language purist, a word cop, if you will.  And, I am hurt by words.  I obviously don’t have a huge working vocabulary, so quantity is not the issue.  The issue I speak of is the pain that is caused by the slow death of the English language as we know it.  Every day, I hear some usage of our shared mother tongue (at least for those of us who aren’t first generation Americans) that makes me cringe a little.  And my reference is not just to local idioms.  Those, I hear on a daily basis, since my vocation now encompasses a national clientele, rather than a local one. I do wish that the regional dialects weren’t spoken in such a variety of accents, since it makes information gathering more difficult, but I’m actually expressing my distaste for the abuse of the everyday words which should be our tools, one of our most valued assets. 

I’m constantly reminded of how my demeanor toward offenses against our language has changed through the years.  There was a day when I approached the English language with a cavalier attitude, intending that it should serve me and not the other way around.  I have come to realize, over my lifetime, that we are more the slave to cobbled-up speech, than we are its master.  The misunderstandings, the slights by those more educated, the flat-out errors which occur because of our abuse of the language, require more time and pain to repair and recover from than using the correct words would have in the first place.  Yes, English is a difficult language, but it is our language, and it doesn’t appear that we will see a change in that anytime soon.  We should probably make the effort to achieve mastery over it.

I now find myself concerned with words like “lay” and “lie”, one of the most common usage errors we hear and one which actually plagued me in earlier years.  If you are placing something down, you use the correct form of “lay”.  If you are reclining, “lie” is appropriate  A fairly simple concept, but one that is abused daily, even by some of the most educated folks I know.  And, when I speak, I can “imply” something.  When I listen, I can “infer”, but not vice versa.  “I couldn’t care less” means that I really am not concerned, while “I could care less” means nothing close to what you think it means. 

These are just a few of the examples I hear every day, and they hurt.  Making no comment whatsoever about his political views, I like a phrase that Rush Limbaugh has used in the past (I haven’t listened recently).  “Words mean things,” is his adamant statement and I find myself in total agreement.  Careless use of words diminishes their meaning.  When our method of communication is impaired and devalued, so is our society.  Is it the end of civilization as we know it?  Of course not!  But the lack of  concern for these common tools of every person’s trade demonstrates a carelessness which makes us less sophisticated and less enlightened than our fathers and forefathers, despite our advanced technology.

So, now that you know that I’m a speech Nazi, you may roll your eyes and shrug your shoulders.  Infer what you will from my rant.  I really couldn’t care less, since it’s about bedtime and I’m going to be lying down to rest (under my electric blanket) very soon. 

“Morals and manners will rise or decline with our attention to grammar.”
(Reverend Jason Chamberlain, professor of languages, University of Vermont, 1811)


We had an argument the other night.  I knew it would happen.  The Lovely Lady and I have been married for 32 years, and it was bound to come up sooner or later.  We are amazingly well-suited to be married to each other; She likes the same foods I do (mostly), we like the same kind of music–well, I like it louder than she does, but at least it’s the same music,  and she loves Monday Night Football too (How cool is that?).  Even so, we both knew the storm was coming, but it’s not within our power to avoid it.  Cold weather comes and our major incompatibility will become an item for discussion.  The first night that the bed is really cold when I get under the covers, we both know that the day of reckoning is at hand.

In the warmer months, I can overlook the annoyance. The sheet and coverlet are thrown on my side of the bed every morning, but no matter;  I don’t mind a little extra warmth.  I get into the car after she’s been driving and the vent is blasting cold air straight at my face, a problem remedied with just a flick of the finger.  If it’s too cold in the house during the evening, a walk outside will regulate the inner thermostat.  Fortunately, she tends to be the thrifty one in the family, so I don’t usually have to weather much of an icy environment, since powering the A/C is pricey.  Thus, for most of the year, our incompatibility doesn’t affect our relationship much.  A joke here, a gently barbed quip there, and the discussion is over, for the most part.

But, cold weather…that’s a different issue completely.  As the nights get cooler, we’ll add a blanket here and there for warmth, and the solution works for awhile.  But after a bit, the stack of blankets gets too heavy for the human body to comfortably lie under, and besides that, the bed is frigid when I get into it.  That suits her fine, but I don’t adapt well to cold, nor does my body warm up rapidly, so I shiver and groan with the chill for  some time after arriving in bed.  The antidote, perfectly simple in my estimation, is to pull off all the extra covers, replacing them with our electric blanket and a light thermal blanket.  It is, after all, a dual control blanket, with a control for my side (set to 5 most nights) and one for hers (often, no light to be seen in the dark room at all).  The argument against my obviously rational suggestion, is nothing more than the desire on her part to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible.  My guess is that the change from blankets, which can be thrown off one by one to regulate one’s temperature, to only a single cover which, if thrown off, leaves one completely bereft of any protection at all, is the problem.  You might say it’s an all or nothing situation, so she either suffers under the “stifling” (her term) heavy blanket or shivers without a cover at all.  I must admit that I’m not very sympathetic (and she really is a sweetheart), so the argument is short-lived as always.

I’ll leave here in a few moments, to slide luxuriously under the warm blanket, being careful to stop short of the halfway mark in the bed (Hey, it’s cold over there!).  What opulence, the warmth of a preheated bed, awaiting my entry!  No more quivering in the cold, awaiting the temperature rise that may or may not arrive.  I find in myself a self-indulgence I never suspected, but there is no shame.  Comfort, thy name is electric blanket!

Now, if we could just do something about the crispy bacon issue, I’d be in paradise! 

Choices, choices…

The days are full of frenetic activity–phones ringing with questions to be answered and orders to be entered, the door jangling every few moments as folks come and go, and in between, the bustle of regaining equilibrium.  There is no time to get ahead of the game, no leisure to take a quiet break with a cup of coffee, so I take quick sips between periods of communication on the phone and entries in the database.  Lunch is a farce, the odd sandwich eaten, inhaled seemingly, between tasks.  I can’t remember when I’ve had an uninterrupted period of time during the workday to sit and dine, ruminating lazily while discussing the day’s schedule or current events.

I’m still trying to decide if this is how I want it, or if it’s just the way things have to be.  A wise friend once reminded me that we do the things that are important to us.  The arguer in me immediately answers with the perpetual “but” and adds reason upon reason why our lives are filled with activity and then, I’m reminded that every one of the activities is the result of our choices.  In our business, choices in products to be sold result in a certain level of customer interaction…hours of operation distribute the customers differently throughout the day…media choices determine the scope of engagement, with one line for the telephone demanding a small amount of time, more lines adding to that, and national toll-free lines multiplying the attention needed exponentially…even the choice (or maybe especially the choice) to utilize the internet as a business medium adds innumerable hours of labor to the already crowded days.

This freedom to choose extends to our personal lives, as well as to our families and friends.  We choose to live in a certain neighborhood, enforcing on us the necessity of keeping a nice yard, trimming the shrubbery, and raking leaves.  Owning our own home, forces the expense of upkeep, paint, and taxes.  Having relationships with family and friends coerces us into social events, birthdays, anniversarys, and other scheduled activities, as well as a certain amount of financial obligation, to say nothing of the emotional commitment.  All of these requirements are the direct and indirect result of those choices.

The beauty of our lives is that we have the option of making these choices every day.  I hear of people who feel trapped by their lives and the regimen that seems to entangle them.  I’ve felt the sense of being cornered more than once myself.  But overarching those feelings and the despair that helplessness can leave in its wake, is the knowledge that we are here by choice.  We could opt, if we wished, to abandon it all, walking away from the whole package, but we’re held here by the fabric of who we are, the totality of what we choose to believe, and life choices we’ve made because of what we believe.  I would submit that this fabric is our integrity and is a blessing and not a burden.

The very word “integrity” comes from the Latin “integritatem”, meaning oneness or whole.  The essence is that of a piece of  fabric, woven together with threads which fit into the pattern, each adding to the strength and beauty of the whole, until you have the completed product, the cloth.  Each choice we make is a thread which adds to the complete fabric, good choice upon good choice, decisions made with our intellect and heart, daily adding to the integrity of a life well lived.

We could choose to tear up the fabric and start over.  It’s been done many times.  But the result is chaos and pandemonium, not only for the one tearing up, but for those who have chosen to be a part of his or her life.  Our life choices always affect more than just ourselves, it’s impossible to live in a sealed vacuum.  We almost certainly will never know how many people depend on us and our availability, our steadfastness.  I am hopeful that all of you who chance to read this understand that you are needed and important.  You contribute to the larger fabric, the integrity of your world.  If you decide to drop out, I guarantee you’ll leave a hole.  And, guess what?  Where you leave a hole, there’s no longer integrity and the fabric around will suffer, and strain, and tear.

I’ll take the busyness, the frenetic pace, and the fatigue, thanks!  I look back on the choices, good and bad, the good ones showing as clean, solid lines in the fabric, the poor ones knotted and faded, but all of them making up the whole, the integrity of my life.  I’m not completely happy with it yet,  but I think I can see that it’s a worthwhile project.  And I believe I’ll keep heading the same direction.   My little patch seems to adjoin the patches of some very fine people as I stay the course I’m on.

“…Choose you this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24:15)

“To live is to choose.  But to choose well, you have to know who you are and what you stand for,where you want to go and why you want to get there.”
(Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN, 2001 Nobel Peace Prize winner)

The print’s just fine, thanks!

“I don’t read fine print,” were the words I read in the email, the second one from this customer that day.  It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and it seemed that it was going to be one of those Mondays.  I had arrived just before 9:00 a.m. to get the coffee made and pull the orders for the day, only to find an email from an irate customer waiting.  It seems that she had placed an order on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, requesting that the package be shipped to her by 3-day delivery.  Any idiot could count on their fingers and cipher out that three days from Tuesday would be Friday.  Yet, her package wasn’t scheduled to be delivered until Tuesday.  How is that possible?  “PLEASE REFUND MY MONEY!”, screamed the last line in the missive.

I politely replied to her email and after offering a solution which should have been acceptable, suggested that it might have been helpful, had she read the “policy page” as instructed, before selecting expedited shipping for her order.  The policy for the shipping company explained that there would be no deliveries on Thanksgiving or the Friday after, and those days would not count in the days-in-transit count.  It all made perfect sense to me, but the reply you see above was all that was forthcoming.  Don’t read fine print!?  How can you not read the fine print?  Life is precarious enough without encouraging problems.  Surely, there are no ignorant thrill-seekers left in this world who don’t read all the instructions before pushing the “make payment” key.  Don’t they know the tangled mess they make of the orderly systems we have in place to keep the wheels of commerce moving?  Fine print is the lubricant of the whole enterprise!  

Truth be told, the print wasn’t any smaller than that on the rest of the page, but let’s not argue about semantics.  She couldn’t be bothered.  And, it was obvious that the fault lay with us, not with her.  A phone conversation with her later in the day made clear that we were not going to ameliorate the problem to her satisfaction any time in this century.  We offered a full refund, including the purchase price of the product, as well as giving her the item to keep, but still she could not be mollified.  At wit’s end, I finally suggested that possibly we were not the organization with which she should be shopping for her music, since we obviously weren’t capable of performing up to her standards.  As you might imagine, my last suggestion wasn’t made without a fair amount of frustration (and maybe a little sarcasm) on my part, nor was it met with quiescence on her part.  Regardless, we went our separate ways, each certain of the merit of our own position, and each not having achieved our goal.

I hate unfinished business.  I want every customer to feel that she or he has gotten everything they have paid for and then some.  I also want everybody to like me, although by now, I’m convinced that this goal is impossible to meet.  Sometimes, our objectives are unattainable, our sights set just too high.  But still, it’s very difficult for me not to put this one in the loss column, hard not to say that I failed.  I look at the facts and know that I did all I could, but a bad result has to be tallied somehow, so I call it a loss.  Fortunately, as I count them up, the win column is still weighted heavily, but I wish that all of the occurrences which have made their mark in the loss column could be completely erased. 

“Hey, Paul!  This is John in Atlanta.  You know, I got a bad CD last week.”  The cheerful voice belies the words.  John isn’t angry, doesn’t want an apology.  He knows us by now and he’s confident that we’ll get a good product sent right out to him.  As a matter of fact, he wants to order five other items while he’s got me on the phone.  “You guys always treat me right.  Fast delivery and always there to help me when I need it.  Can’t ask for better than that!”  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could get him to call the earlier customer and help her to see what a nice guy I really am?  Oh well, that’s not the way it works, but man, do I appreciate customers who are such an encouragement!

It would be easy to get discouraged about the failures, but we constantly receive reassurance from customers.  A note here about the great service, a phone call there about how fast the product arrived, a new customer who tells me they contacted us because they received a glowing endorsement from a friend; all of these help to give the impetus to keep doing what we do.  The funny thing is, the bad experiences also help us to do that.  We keep plugging away, because we are convinced that we can do better.  We’ll adjust the fine print, maybe even insert great big red arrows to point the way to it, but we’ll try harder and keep as many marks in the win column as we can. 

It would be easy to focus on those marks in the loss column.  When we contemplate them, it does seem that they are written in much darker pencil than the others are.  The truth is, we just need to focus on the goal.  Looking back magnifies the failures, but moving ahead puts them in perspective and motivates us to transcend the past. I like what Tom Krause, a motivational speaker, has to say on the subject.  “There are no failures – just experiences and your reactions to them.”

“Success is falling nine times, and getting up ten.”
(Jon Bon Jovi, American rock musician)