Being Golden


Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.

For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.

In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.

All in the name of thoughtfulness.

From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.

I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.

As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.

In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.

Babies and Bath Water

Many years ago, when more and more corporations were putting PCs on people’s desks, opening up access to email, the internet, and (egads!) even instant messaging, multi-tasking became a hot topic in large corporations.

A group of managers in my then-organization were sent to a training class. The class proved to them that no one is more efficient multi-tasking than performing tasks in a single-threaded fashion. This has been demonstrated over and over again in many studies since.

Yet multitasking is only increasing. We wonder aloud how we got to a place where multitasking on a smartphone has now become part of our basic social interactions. Remember when it was considered the epitome of rudeness to have a cell phone in a restaurant?

For me, multi-tasking socialization started in the work place where I often carried on multiple instant message conversations, worked on an email response, and “listened” to a conference call all at the same time.

But the behavior has carried over to my personal life in rather frightening ways. A laptop, iPhone, or iPad is always handy and my face is often pointed at one of them–my attention hopping from messages, emails, posts and often forgetting completely why I picked up a “device” in the first place.

One of the things I have said I love about photography is that it is a form of meditation. I set aside my distracting devices and focus my attention as well as my lens. When I look through the viewfinder, even more distractions are removed, limiting the view of the world to just the portion I include in my frame. The mind quiets, the chatter stops, texts go unanswered. For those moments, there is only me observing something fascinating and working to capture it.

But how to carry this focused attention over to personal relationships?

I tried an accidental experiment this weekend. I put my phone on the sleep setting, meaning it would not notify me with events from the virtual world. Then, I spent some time with my spouse. Friday night, we even went to dinner without our phones. It was a scary moment, but we managed to entertain ourselves by talking to each other.

What was interesting was how awkward it felt to know we were going to have a conversation with no access to Google. No photos to look at. No funny posts on Facebook to share. Just us talking off the tops of our heads like the internet didn’t exist. But at the end of the evening, we felt like we’d actually spent time together vs spent time in the same room.

That said, I am not about to get rid of the technology in my life. But it begs the question: if technology has contributed to new detrimental behaviors negatively impacting my relationships, productivity, and enjoyment of life, how does one extract the baby from the bathwater? It is possible to use the power of technology only for good?

Attitude

I have been thinking a lot about attitude lately. Merriam-Webster defines attitude as:

          1: the way you think and feel about someone or something
2: a feeling or way of thinking that affects a person’s behavior

3: a way of thinking and behaving that people regard as unfriendly, rude, etc.

I don’t think the first and second definitions should be separate. The way we think and feel about someone or something necessarily affects the way we behave.

For example, if we are having a really bad day and are at our absolute worst and then run into an acquaintance at the grocery store, if we have not established trust with that person, we are likely to behave politely and pleasantly in spite of how we feel. Conversely, when we get home, because we trust those whom we love to forgive us, we may unleash a torrent of unpleasantness on them.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It was told by Maya Angelou as something her grandmother once said to her: “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.”

It begs the question: Why do we save our best behavior for people we don’t know?

Showing the worst of ourselves requires vulnerability. Being willing to be vulnerable comes from trust and intimacy. When we are intimate with someone, we show all of ourselves to them, for better or worse. We trust them to take us as we are. Or, to put it less positively: we believe we can get away with it.

But perhaps the damage we inflict on them and our relationship really isn’t worth the relief of not having to hold in all our anger and frustration?

When I was a child, my mother brought home a book called “TA for Tots”–a popular book in the 70’s. It talks about things like “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies” as a way of helping children and parents identify feelings and behaviors and make better choices. Essentially, giving us a way to choose our attitude.

As a teenager, my mother’s touchy-feely parenting became regarded as “uncool.” Later, as a woman in a male-dominated industry, I believed the worst thing anyone could say about me was that I was “emotional.” To talk about feelings became taboo.

Yet, the heart of our attitude, our behaviors, and, ultimately, all of our relationships and all that we accomplish comes down to our feelings.

If instead of snapping at my husband I could simply say, “Hi. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve had a really crappy day and need a hug,” wouldn’t that go a lot further a lot faster to restoring me to my better self? And wouldn’t it make my husband feel wonderful that he could be there to give me what I need? Once again, I should have listened to my mother.

Knives and Hearts


When two people decide to commit themselves to one another and spend the rest of their lives together, it introduces the interesting challenge of living together under the same roof. Every couple I know has a list of things they regularly disagree about, but have adopted different coping strategies. A popular approach is to ignore anything that seems trivial rather than deal with it. These are frequently the things that blow up when least expected.

The big, horrible blowouts that end relationships often happen only after a long accumulation of tiny steps of emotional separation–and it’s as often that “trivial” annoyances result in these tiny steps. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The trick is to recognize when we’re disconnecting.

The other day, I was emptying the dishwasher. When I pulled out the silverware, I found amongst it my Zwilling J.H. Henckels top-of-the-line paring knife that I purchased at a time in my life when I had very little money. I chose to buy one really good knife instead of an entire set of cheap knives because I wanted something that would last a lifetime.

When my husband and I first started living together, we discovered we had two distinct beliefs about how to wash knives. I had been hand washing them for years. My husband flat out didn’t believe the dishwasher would damage a knife.

As such, for 18 years, I have been periodically annoyed that he puts good knives in the dishwasher. Our debate had always hinged on whether it is damaging to the knives or not. Eventually, I would decide I was being petty given that my husband not only puts dishes in the dishwasher, but he also cooks, does laundry, takes care of the cars, fixes things, etc. Who am I to complain that he puts my good knives in the dishwasher? Until it would suddenly annoy me again.

The other day was one of those days. But this time, for the first time in 18 years, it dawned on me that what annoyed me had nothing to do with whether the dishwasher damaged the knives or not. Rather, the annoyance came from feeling that the action was equivalent to my husband telling me I didn’t matter.

This time, when I asked him not to put my good knives in the dishwasher and he replied “What does it hurt?” my answer was, “Me. It hurts me.” The bottom line is that it’s important to me, petty or not, and it hurts my feelings that respecting something important to me isn’t worth the effort of hand washing a knife.

For the first time in 18 years, there was no debate about who was right. For the first time in 18 years, my husband understood why he shouldn’t put the knives in the dishwasher.

Seeing the look on his face the moment he realized he’d hurt my feelings made me fall in love all over again. It turns out talking about annoyance can be romantic.

Human Fireworks

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The theme of fireworks made me think of the chemical fireworks that sometimes ignite between two people. This thought reminded me of a story from my teenage years. It was about someone I didn’t know well, I just knew of her. She was a mother and wife and she went to her high school reunion, reunited with a high school sweetheart and KABOOM! Fireworks.

Fireworks so powerful that she left her husband of over 20 years to marry this man from her past. It was an incident that shocked and dismayed many of the woman’s friends. I believe it was the notion that someone could be so overpowered by a chemical response that they could lose all sense of direction and suddenly wind up on a new course that they found terrifying.

In contrast to this story, my own father was reunited with a woman he went to school with about a year after my mother died. They never dated in school, although she and her husband and my father and mother double-dated in college. The four of them maintained a long distance relationship over the years, exchanging hand-me-downs for each others’ children (I got the daughter’s clothes; her brother got my brother’s clothes), and even visiting a few times when we were children in spite of living many hundreds of miles apart.

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When both her husband and my mother died within 6 months of each other, my father and his friend found support in exchanging emails about the experience, which eventually led to a first date. I never asked if there were fireworks, but I tend to think there were. After all, they saw each other in person for the first time in 20(?) years at the end of May that year, then she came out to visit Dad for their 2nd in-person date in early July. Her second day in town, they showed up on my porch excited to announce their engagement

While I was not prepared at the time to accept that while I was still struggling emotionally with my mother’s death my father was ready to move on, I have come to really love this story. I find it incredibly romantic that two kids who grew up together in the country came together and fell in love 40 years later. I’m happy to report that my father and his wife seem to still have the fireworks going strong 13 years later.

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Gilbert’s Sour Grape

In spite of our non-compatible species issues, Gilbert always makes me smile

In spite of our non-compatible species issues, Gilbert always makes me smile

Gilbert is a special boy.  He’s an American Kestrel who was “rescued” by some well-meaning people when he didn’t need to be rescued.  He became a “human imprint.” Perhaps you’ve heard stories about ducks following around a person after seeing them immediately after hatching, but imprinting behavior applies to all birds and isn’t limited to the first thing a newly hatched bird sees–a young bird can imprint on whoever its caretaker is after it hatches.

Besides not being able to survive in the wild, there are some other problems associated with human imprints.  Gilbert is experiencing one of those right now–he has biological urges.  But, as a bird who thinks he’s a person, this is rather complicated.

Poor Gilbert wants a girl, but he’s more interested in humans than he is in other Kestrels.  This seems to be true in spite of the fact that it’s not clear Gilbert can distinguish between a female human and a male human.  He talks continuously as soon as he hears a voice, clamoring for affection.

If Gilbert were a dog, we would say he was barking up the wrong tree.  Gilbert isn’t so different from humans in this respect.  While he may be suffering from species confusion, many of us humans suffer from equally self-destructive confusion when it comes to selecting a mate.  From what I remember, Gilbert could relate to human dating confusion such as:

Showing off Gilbert's wings and tail

Showing off Gilbert’s wings and tail

  1. Confusing being liked by someone with liking someone.  These are not the same thing.
  2. Trying to chase a potential love interest without appearing to chase.  This usually results in the kind of humiliating goofiness responsible for the creation of the movie genre called “romantic comedy.”  It’s much easier to maintain our dignity by just being direct about our interest.  Even if we get shot down, we don’t have to waste a lot of time delaying what was inevitably going to happen anyway.
  3. Becoming someone else.  If Gilbert could morph himself into someone much taller with longer legs, lose the beak, feathers, tail, wings, and, perhaps most importantly, trade his talons in for feet, he would have a better chance at landing himself a hot woman.  While we might laugh at the prospect of a tiny Kestrel transforming himself into a handsome, human prince, it’s amazing how often humans try to make similarly impossible transformations to win their love interest.  Really, the secret to happiness is to love someone who can love you back just as you are.
Small children were fascinated by Gilbert

Small children were fascinated by Gilbert

I wish I could explain to Gilbert why he needs to either figure out how to be attracted to female Kestrels or join the priesthood, but I don’t speak Kestrese.  In the meantime, Gilbert sings to me, telling me how handsome he is, how energetic he is.  He tries to convince me we will make a beautiful couple.  I don’t have the heart to tell him that he and I can never be together.

Instead, I make cooing noises and hope he finds it comforting.

Gilbert may have trouble getting a girl, but he sure is a crowd pleaser

Gilbert may have trouble getting a girl, but he sure is a crowd pleaser

 

*Note:  All photographs in today’s post taken by my husband; edited by me.

Yes, I Can Cook

After many days, weeks, or maybe even months of pleasantly letting trivial little disagreements slide by, suddenly some little nothing seems so important that we go to great lengths to prove we’re right.
Pat and I recently had a conversation that started when a new acquaintance offered to give me a recipe even though Pat was standing right next to me.

Later, when we chuckled about how often people erroneously assume I would be more interested in a recipe than Pat, I felt the need to remind my husband that I used to feed myself quite well. The conversation went like this:

“I can cook!” said I.
“Since when?” said he.
“I used to cook all the time.”
“Honey, what you did is called warming ingredients. You can’t really cook.”

I, who take great pride in my grilled cheese masterpieces as well as my incredibly fluffy scrambled eggs, decided I was going to have to dig deep to find photographic evidence that U have more than basic warming skills.

Thankfully, the first Thanksgiving after I got my trusty old PowerShot G3 was also the first (and last) Thanksgiving we invited Pat’s family to our house and I did the cooking.

Some may argue that having to go back 9 years might seem more like evidence that you can’t cook (especially since no one came back). However, I contend that everything in that meal was delicious, from the assorted cheeses and crudités for starters to the perfectly roasted turkey, to the freshly baked pumpkin pie. Oh, wait, Pat’s mom made the pie. And probably the stuffing. Pat made the mashed potatoes. But I, and I alone, made the turkey, the gravy, the green bean casserole, the vegetables, and the sweet potatoes.

Huh.

Funny thing . . . I just realized I really did just heat all the ingredients. Don’t tell Pat.

As I was looking at the photos, I recall seeing a show on photographing food. I believe it was actually a show on careers and the career was “food make up artist.”

The food make up artist demonstrated making a fast food burger look good. It was quite clever. She was required to use the same portion of food as is actually used to make the product we buy. However,she kept the burger looking huge by simply searing it just long enough to turn it brown, but not cooking away the fat, keeping it from shrinking. Then, she split it in the back so she could spread the burger out to fill out the front. By shooting at a low angle from the front, the burger not only looked bigger, but all the stuff she’d dome to make it look that way was completely out of sight.

Explains a lot about those fast food burgers.

I think my turkey might not look so appealing because it tasted good. To make it really beautiful, it would have had to have been raw inside.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.