Pay attention. I am not kidding. Really.

Category: Pay attention to the “little” things.

THE Lamps, Part 1

artwork of three version of a Spanish conquistador

It’s true: sometimes, these guys escape history.

Have you ever found yourself in a sticky situation, which dictated that you say something tactfully uplifting, yet the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face truth was that there was just no good way to put credible lipstick on that pig?

This blog post and the next five are a sad saga of my trying to do just that and the unintended consequences that followed. What thanks did I get for gamely trying to put the best face on an awkward situation? NONE. What I received instead was years’ worth of harassment for my good deed – harassment that slowly spread through my husband’s family, eventually engulfing the lot of us.

The Story Begins:
Christmas, 1984

(Pay attention: just so you know, this saga starts out serious but – good news – ends not so serious.)

Husband’s Little Sister and her family suffered a house fire December 6, 1984, that burned their home to its foundation and everything in it – in one short hour. A wicked combination of a furnace problem combined with a wicked Nor’wester wind, it was devastating, as you can imagine.

They were well-insured, so the long-term prognosis was as good as it could be in situations like that. In the short term, though, they needed everything – pronto. On Christmas break, we visited them to do what we could to encourage them. By our arrival, they’d been thoroughly encouraged by their friends and the entire community in one of those quintessentially American, feel-good stories. They’d been quickly settled into an empty rent house, and their little community had poured out its wallets and donated home furnishings, household supplies, clothes, even Christmas-gift replacements.

Now, pay attention, because right about here is where it gets messy. It’s something you already know: some people’s idea of what is beneficial to people in this situation can be slightly out of kilter. One might be tempted to say they were looking for a way to offload their junk, but we won’t go so far as to say with certainty that’s what happened to Little Sister and her family. We’ll let you be the judge.

While we there, Brother-in-Law showed me an enclosed porch, stuffed with donated household furnishings. Some items were in good shape and could be useful. Others? Not so much. The pièce de résistance in the “others” category was a pair of the absolutely ugliest lamps I had ever seen or I ever expected to see. (With hindsight, that was most assuredly misguided optimism.)

A good four feet tall, they were banged-up gaudy-gold, Spanish conquistadors who had escaped their era, much like Time Bandits, and come to live right on the edge of The Deep South, of all places. Complete with crested shields and swords, they were even wearing the pointy helmets those fellas liked to wear. It was hard to imagine sane people saying to each other forty or fifty years prior, “Oh dearest, won’t these just make our new Colonial Spanish decorating scheme?” – and sincerely meaning it.

But there they sat, conspicuously adrift in time, amongst the other donated detritus. My brother-in-law, with what I now know to be his perverted sense of humor, pointed them out and said ever so gratefully and seriously, “What do you think of our new lamps?”

Ooo. Land mine ahead. Remember, they’d just lost everything and had been overwhelmed by the community’s generosity. Losing everything is very, very serious business. Being flooded with good will is humbling. Lots of emotions flying around that little rent house. He did seem truly grateful, and it didn’t seem the moment for raucous humor about how U-G-L-Y Ugly those lamps truly were.

So I took the high road. Skirting the entire Ugly Issue, I allowed they were a trifle large, and perhaps he could salvage the sockets, harps, and electrical cords. Having rewired a few lamps myself, I secretly gave myself an A- for a vague, yet helpful, answer to such a loaded question at such an emotionally charged time. In an uncharacteristic fit of tactfulness, I was desperately trying to be NICE.

The next morning, we packed our van and took off on the next leg of our journey, a six-hour drive to my in-laws. Barely half a mile down the road, we stopped so I could rearrange items making annoying squeaks. As I climbed past my captain’s chair to the open area in the middle of our converted van, there sat The Conquistadors right behind my seat, all settled in and excitedly looking forward to their new home.

So much for the high road.

What’s the pay-attention tip in this saga, at this point?

No good deed
goes unpunished

as nearly as I can figure. (I stole that, BTW; see below.) I really was trying SO hard to be upbeat and positive and tactful, and look what it got me: a PAIR of U-G-L-Y Ugly! I decided I was done with nice and would henceforth become all about revenge. In Part 2, you’ll see how well that turned out.

red box with white text: “No good deed goes unpunished.” – Clare Booth Luce

A famous US Ambassador, author, & politician

© 2016, Teresa Bennett

Odd #17: The Gene Pool, Part 3

artsy photo of the iconic Marlboro Cowbow

Strictly Hollywood, right? Wrong. SO wrong.

If you haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2 of this Odd #17 blog trilogy, best go back and do so, else a good portion of the humor in this Part 3 will be lost on you.

You know how – more often than not – what goes around comes around? Some time after the Kenneth-Genevieve unpleasantness my new husband endured, it was my turn to be blind-sided by blatant, gene-pool oddities. Yes, I neglected to ask the important question I advocated in Part 2. See? I wasn’t kidding when I said simply reading this blog means you’re getting the benefit of painfully learned lessons, minus the pain. My excuse? I was young and too naive to know I needed to ask that main pay-attention-point question in Part 2.

The Pay-Backs Story

In the early months of our marriage, we traveled several hours to my in-laws’ home in Oklahoma. Not long after we arrived, a visitor quietly arrived. Someone answered the door. Hushed greetings were exchanged. The visitor walked up the stairs of my in-laws’ split-level house and turned the corner to enter the living room door.

I, the unsuspecting newest member of the family, was sitting on the hearth, soaking up the fire, when he made his entrance. Unlike Hubby’s plunge into my gene pool, I received NO warning – not even the three-minute warning he received – of who had just entered my new in-laws’ home.

Taking up the entire doorway with his wide stance, stood a tall cowboy-ish drink of somethin’ who looked vaguely familiar, though I was certain I couldn’t possibly know him. (Did I mention my new husband was the buttoned-down-collar, penny-loafer sort?) As I checked off his cowboy-wardrobe, my mouth increasingly dropped open until I’d worked my way to an undignified, trout-mouth expression. 

  • Ten-gallon Stetson hat (removed, so he could fit through the door). White, of course. CHECK.
  • Manly, two-day beard. CHECK.
  • Cigarette (a Marlboro, perhaps?) dangling from his mouth. CHECK.
  • Rolled red bandana handkerchief peeking out from his shirt collar. CHECK.
  • Bolo tie (with what looked to be realsilver tips) around the shirt collar. CHECK.
  • Plaid western shirt, complete with definitely fake pearl snaps. CHECK.
  • Hubcap-sized belt buckle, emblazoned with Texas star. CHECK.
  • Tooled leather belt with all the appropriate insignia. CHECK.
  • Well-worn leather gloves. CHECK. 
  • Levi jeans, worn and faded. Blue, of course. CHECK.
  • Pointy-toed, bull-hide, cowboy boots with the prerequisite decorative stitching. CHECK. 

I’m not talkin’ texan Texan, y’all. I’m talking TEXAN Texan! The Marlboro Cowboy, incarnate!

Now, I knew how Texans looked. I’d seen plenty. I had, after all, watched the cowboy-and-Indian shows and movies that all American kids watched in the ’50s and ’60s. But this was the first time I’d seen one out of its natural habitat. Wow! Apparently, they look larger-than-life when they show up outside of Texas or even outside a Hollywood Texas set.

While I was preoccupied with the cowboy wardrobe checklist, my in-laws were occupied in greeting The Marlboro Cowboy. After checking out his wardrobe authenticity and while they were still meeting and greeting, I slunk over to the window. The Marlboro Cowboy drives an old, mud-encrusted pickup? WHAT??? He’s supposed to ride a horse. Where’s his HORSE??  

Puzzled and disappointed, I sneaked back to join the in-laws and soon realized I couldn’t understand a word The Marlboro Cowboy was saying. I was pretty sure we hadn’t crossed any national boundaries on our way to my new in-laws. However, we had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Though it isn’t technically a national boundary, you can never be certain what might happen once you cross that line. Things are different down there. I always pray diligently each time I cross it that I’ll be able to sprint back across should they decide to close it. Don’t laugh; stranger things have happened. As I said, they do things differently down there.

But I digress.

WHAT is The Marlboro Cowboy saying? I wondered. Better yet, Why is he HERE?? And I continued to chew on those questions during his entire visit, sitting in solitude, since the conversation swirling around me was largely unintelligible.

After he left, I learned he’s Great Uncle Jesse, of course – one of my husband’s grandmother’s four brothers. “You could’ve warned me,” I hissed to Hubby, when I could do so discreetly.

Warned you about what?”

See? This pay-backs story just proves what I’ve been saying in this Odd #17 trilogy. We each become comfortably accustomed to the more eccentric bits of our gene pool. In fact, they seem fairly normal to us, and we seldom stop to consider their effects on the uninitiated.

Hubby hadn’t meant to hide his genes, either. He simply never thought to mention, like my clan didn’t, some of the more eccentric members of his extended family. He also didn’t give a thought to the fact that his wife had grown up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and that she would be very, very, very caught off guard by such a character. Furthermore, it never occurred to him that she wouldn’t know the secret handshake or the dialect.

I know. I know. This harmless swish into my husband’s gene pool can’t compare to his abrupt Kenneth-Genevieve shove into the shallow end of my gene pool. I can’t whine, really, especially since The Marlboro Cowboy’s visit was mercifully short, compared to the endless Kenneth-Genevieve bit of theater that Hubby endured. (Texan cowboys, it turns out, don’t have a lot to say.) I tell this story only to reinforce what I stated in Part 2 of Odd #17.

Again, in case you missed it,
here’s the pay-attention point.
ASK AS MANY QUESTIONS
AS YOU CAN
to uncover any oddballs
in your intended’s family.

Having done that, do remember they all share the same gene pool. Now, ask yourself, Do you want to jump into that pool or not, Little Missy? FYI: “till death do us part” can turn out to be an interminably long time. Think about it. I certainly have, but after the I-do part. More’s the pity. 

Damage-control time: some facts have been changed –no, not to protect the innocent – to embellish the story, silly. For instance, it might have been Skoal snuff, rather than a Marlboro ciggy. Okay, maybe I tweaked a few other minor details, too. But I promise, the embellishments are just that: mere lipstick on an otherwise true-to-life story that’s meant to serve as a clear warning to all young lovers considering matrimony. Ask. Ask. Ask!

©2016, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'” – George W. Bush

Yep. There’s just somethin’ about those Texans.

Odd #18: The Not-Quite-Right Amongst Us

photo of blackened electrical outlet

I promise it will all be made clear. Trust me.

You know how some kids get labeled early on? They’re either so obviously brilliant, they’re hailed as the next discoverer of something, maybe even something as amazing as penicillin. Or it’s the opposite; family members resign themselves to the unpleasant fact that this one might be an embarrassment to the whole clan, not to mention a drag on all of society.

But, of course, sometimes kids get labeled incorrectly. Einstein comes to mind. In fact, you’ve probably heard of or personally know someone who didn’t walk or talk on schedule who still turned out to be successful. Everything was pretty much okay their first few years and when it wasn’t, they decided to speak out about it: THEN they started talking. Or they were born uber-efficient; If others will bring me things, why should I crawl or walk to get them? They didn’t start walking till they wanted something no one would bring them.

An Unfortunate
Labeling Story

This is a true story, just so you know. And for once, I’m not the one learning the lesson the hard way. It’s about a dear friend, who shall remain nameless (his initials are B.O.B.), who did indeed learn a very jolting lesson in the hardest of ways.

When my friend was all of seven, his grandfather decided his grandson was old enough for his own knife and gave his grandson a penknife. Did I mention Grandpa did this without consulting Grandma or the parents of his grandchild to ensure they all agreed he was old enough to do only marginal damage with a small knife? Furthermore, Grandpa’s only instruction was: “Now don’t go sticking this in an electrical socket.”

The next day, after having had 24 hours to recover from his mysterious propulsion across his grandparents’ living room, my friend studied the blackened outlet he’d created. Paying attention to the rest of the room, he discovered there were four more! Would they all produce the same effect, or was it just THAT one, I wonder? Only one way to find out.

After regaining consciousness from his second propulsion across his grandparents’ living room, he overheard Grandpa say to Grandma, “Ruby, that boy AIN’T RIGHT!”

And he wasn’t. He was SO not-right. He was so far above not-right that he is now an eminent immunotoxicologist – one of handful in our nation. Yep. Definitely not your average kiddo. The makings of a beady-eyed, experimenting scientist were already in place at the ripe age of seven.

You’ve been paying attention; it sounds a bit like I’m bragging, doesn’t it? I am. Having no impressive credits of my own, I like to brag about my impressive friends, and I absolutely love throwing out long words like immunotoxicologist just to watch people’s faces. I especially like knowing his humble beginnings.

Is there a pay-attention point
to this bald-faced bragging?

Of course: it’s hard to predict where sticking a knife into an electrical socket or any number of other, not-right behaviors will propel a child. Could be just an embarrassing toss across a room and a lifetime of similarly self-defeating behaviors – OR a preview of the child’s propulsion into an exciting profession that benefits thousands.

You just never know.

So spend a little more time and effort paying attention to and encouraging the young ones around you, ESPECIALLY the not-quite-right ones. If they end up like my friend you, too, could have some fairly impressive bragging rights. Then you can do what I do: exercise your bragging rights to liven things up a bit at dull parties. (This one is one of my best stories, always getting plenty of laughs. Sometimes I reveal my friend’s identity, and sometimes I practice discretion. It’s a judgment call, you know.) 

©2016, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: ”As he was a late talker, his [Albert Einstein’s] parents were worried. At last, at the supper table one night, he broke his silence to say, 'The soup is too hot.' Greatly relieved, his parents asked why he had never said a word before. Albert replied, 'Because up to now everything was in order.'" – Otto Neugebauer

(Neugebauer is a mathematics historian.)

Odd #17, Part 2: The Gene Pool

photo of indoor pool with "shallow end" clearly marked

Should be, “Danger! Danger! Danger! Danger!

(If you haven’t read
Odd #17, Part 1, do it.
Otherwise, this Part 2 post
won’t make much sense.)

You know how it is. Families get used to the not-quite-right characters in their midst. They doggedly resign themselves to hunkering down and soldiering on through each embarrassing episode. People who marry into said families, though, are seldom forewarned and, thus, totally unprepared for such unflappable hunkering.

In our case, it wasn’t premeditated, as in “Let’s not tell her fiancé about Great Uncle Kenneth.” Really, no one even thought of it, until it was too late. And my unsuspecting fiancé didn’t think to ask as we were dating, “Now, there are no blatant eccentricities in your family, are there?”

Hubby’s
Heartbreaking Plunge

It was our first spring break as newlyweds. My new husband and I had driven 500 miles so that he could get to know my family a little better. Oh my. Neither of us had any idea just how much better he would know us all by the end of that fateful spring break. In fact, even now, after 46-plus years of marriage, he can still get a little peevish when retelling it.

We arrived Saturday night. Sunday dawned, a day for morning worship and then a deliciously long afternoon with no homework, no library research – just a well-earned, delightfully long nap and whatever else we felt like doing. Well, not exactly. The Kenneth-Genevieve Act was about to debut. (See, I said if you skipped Part 1, not much would make sense. You’re already lost, aren’t you? Go read Part 1!)

Now just try to imagine yourself plunked down into the middle of this drama with absolutely no warning.

You hear a car a little distance away on the limestone gravel road, which sounds like it’s slowing down. You watch your new father-in-law propel himself out of his recliner, roaring, “Uncle Kenneth!!!!” You watch, slack-jawed, as this normally soft-spoken and dignified man dashes out the front door, shoving on his slippers, stumbling as he goes.

Your new mother-in-law sprints to the kitchen, sticks her head deep into the freezer, and begins feverishly pawing through frozen packages of who-knows-what.

Your sweet, 11-year-old sister-in-law jerks the toss pillows out from behind your back and plumps them furiously. “Up!” she commands, suddenly becoming very bossy and very intent. The steely look in her eyes convinces you to do as you’re told, even if it is just a little 11-year-old barking the orders; you get up off that couch.

As she moves on to straightening the magazines and newspapers and you stand there in the middle of this flurry, you realize your new wife has raced to the bathroom. Is she ill? You follow. Nope; she’s furiously cleaning, as if The Queen herself is about to make an appearance.

Well, well, you might be prone to think. You lucky bloke! You’ve married into money and didn’t even know it. By now, you’ve decided to join your frenzied in-laws, and you race out to stand beside your new father-in-law and greet the filthy-rich relatives that everyone in the family is working so hard to impress. Hmm. They don’t look rich. Ah, well, most of her relatives who are well off don’t want anyone to know, so maybe these people are cut from the same cloth.

You’re introduced to Great Uncle Kenneth and Great Aunt Genevieve. Something doesn’t seem quite right. You listen. You laugh. You participate in painfully polite conversation, mainly because visions of dollar signs are dancing in your head. You try to figure out what the heck is going on.

As if on cue, your mother-in-law, wife, and little sister-in-law pop up from the sofa and excuse themselves to prepare “a little something” in the kitchen. That leaves you, your father-in-law, and Great Aunt Genevieve as the entire audience for Great Uncle Kenneth’s monologue.

Right before you in the living room is being played out the strangest scene you could’ve imagined. This relative you’ve never heard of is telling the most pitiful jokes which were, no doubt, hilarious – during the vaudeville era. He’s slapping his knee and saying “D’ya see?” after each “joke.” He’s choking on his own laughter just prior to each ancient punch line. And – here’s the really weird part – your very intelligent father-in-law is politely laughing at this demented old man’s excuses for joke-telling. These people must be way more than filthy rich! you might think.

But then your eye is caught by lots of action in the kitchen where (just out of sight of the rest of the theater audience) your new wife, her mother, and sister are all sitting on the kitchen floor. They’re leaning back against the cabinets, holding their sides, and laughing violently – albeit silently. Hey now. Something’s not quite right with all this. Still, it’s conceivable you might continue to think this strange couple is very wealthy, and that’s why they’re being given such royal treatment.

You could.
But you’d be wrong.

Not for another five hours do you learn just how not-right things really are and how very wrong you are. The Kenneth-Genevieve duo exit stage right, and you’re finally told what you should’ve been told long before your recent wedding ceremony. Your father-in-law simply wants to be respectful to his seriously odd uncle, and so he courteously plays the game. Your new wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law are courteous, too, but only up to a point. And that point clearly ends when they can watch you tiptoe through the minefield and give way to hilarious laughter, instead of participating in a very drab, very long, very boring theater experience.

  • The Queen did not come to visit.
  • You have not married into money.
  • Your wife will not inherit a bundle from Great Uncle Kenneth.

Instead, you have just wasted a perfectly good Sunday afternoon on your very short college spring break. In addition, you realize you’ve not only married a rather odd little woman; you now know she’s that way for good reason. She inherited it, and now you’re stuck with the whole lot of them and the inevitable musings about future children coming from this woman’s body and gene pool.

Well, we don’t have to imagine that’s what you might think, if pushed with no warning into this pool. We know, because my dear husband has told me so – many times, in fact. He did not take kindly to being so abruptly and cruelly plunged into my gene pool, even if it was at the shallow end.

The Pay-Attention Points
to This Lengthy Twaddle

One is painfully obvious. For those readers already married, it’s too late for you, as you well know. This pay-attention point is only for the unmarried. (If you know some unmarried young people dangerously close to forming permanent alliances, you might want to send them links to Part 1 and Part 2 of Odd #17. They might save your unsuspecting romantics a great deal of angst.)

Here’s the main pay-attention point: ALWAYS ask, as soon as feasible during a romantic relationship, “So now, there’s no craziness in your family, is there?”

If Hubby had thought to ask this vital fact-finding question, he could’ve got himself out of Dodge in just the nick of time, dodging a boatload of oddness. I would’ve learned that I needed to develop some fool-proof methods of sidestepping that awkward question if another guy I might want to marry should ask it.

Here’s the second pay-attention lesson to this melancholy tale.

  • YOU could be the one with a version of Great Uncle Kenneth lurking in your extended-family tribe. If so, BE VAGUE when asked about your gene pool.
  • Or, let’s just face facts, YOU could be the way-weird one in your family for the same reasons that I am: Great Uncle So-and-So’s cursed genetics. You, too, need to BE VAGUE when asked about your gene pool.

Okay, time
for a little seriousness.

It really is a very, very good idea to get to know your guy or gal and the entire family, asking as many questions as you dare, BEFORE you get very serious about him or her.

Don’t be shy. Be a persistent interrogator because your grandmother was right: we do, indeed, marry a family – not just one person. And that family may have produced a certain percent of weirdness in your beloved that can’t be mitigated by a lesser percent of lifestyle attempts to overcome the weirdness factor. I’m just sayin’.

As you’ll see in Part 3, I didn’t know enough to ask the “any craziness?” question, but you can learn from my mistake.

Addendum: None of the names in Odd #17, Parts 1 & 2, have been changed to protect the innocent – because they’re not innocent.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Every family has a weird relative. If you don't know who it is, then it's probably you.” – Anonymous

From a cartoon by Australian, Tim Whyatt

Odd #16: Teresa’s the name. Efficiency’s the game.

photo of handful of nails, all head up

Handful of nails, all head up. (It’ll make sense.)

Do you have childhood memories of regular and dreary daily chores that were your responsibility alone? I’m so sad for you. As I’ve already said, I wasn’t really expected to do much as a child. But when I was, ever the serious, conscientious, only-child-for-the-time-being, I was extremely efficient in the execution of my kid-size duties.

A “Good Old Days” Story

When I was about four, Mother sent me up a little lane on our farm to a spot where my father was working. It was one of those sticky, hot and humid, Indiana summer days, and she figured he could do with a little cooling off. I was sent packing with a bright red Thermos jug of freshly made lemonade, heavily banging against my very white knobby knees. (Colorful red-and-white picture, eh?)

As my father could no doubt see me long before those stubby four-year-old legs could get me to his work spot, he had plenty of time to think about the icy treat that would soon be flowing down his parched throat. (As in Odd #13, this is completely my father’s story. Since I have no remembrance of it, I suppose we have to take his word for it.)

I arrived and gladly handed over the cursedly heavy jug. He poured a full cupful from the whopping, six-ounce cap-cup and turned to survey his handiwork of rich, yellow, waving wheat all ’round. By the time he’d turned back around to pour himself another cup, I had already gathered up the jug and was trotting back down the lane. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” you know.

Yet Another
“Good Old Days” Story
(just in case you missed the point)

Probably about that same time frame is this story, again my father’s. One has to wonder…. No, surely he wouldn’t have made up this stuff. Odd is odd, and I was surely exhibiting unmistakable signs of it already, much to my parents’ consternation, I later learned.

Mother had sent me out to “help Daddy.” We all know what that was about: she figured it was his turn to deal with The Odd One for a while. My father was up to his neck in a carpentry project when I announced the posse of one had arrived to help. He played the game graciously and told me I could hand him nails. After one or two sloppy hand-offs, he carefully showed me the head of the nail and said, “Honey, if you could hand Daddy the nails head-up, that would be very helpful.”

No problem. One nail, head-up, comin’ up. Second nail, head-up, comin’ up. When he reached around for the third nail, I handed him an entire four-year-old’s fistful of nails – all head-up, please note, and disgustedly trudged back to the house. Honestly! Any fool could see this was not an efficient operation, and I had better things to do. One pitiful little nail at a time?? Please.

Now, as I’ve said, we have to take my father’s word for these disturbing accounts of The Odd One. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he didn’t make them up. In which case, experiences like these might account for why my parents waited nine years to bring my only sibling into the world. They had to think long and hard about the possibility that another one might be just like The Odd One they already had. An unnerving thought, to be sure.

Deliberate Deceit

Back to the story. I know I’ve called this aberrant behavior efficiency, but I lied – on purpose. The problem was really an extremely impatient personality in the making. There. I said it. (“They” say admitting the problem is half the battle. Who are “they,” BTW??) Impatience, it would seem, is warp and woof of who I am. Just so you know, I’m not proud of that. Here I am, approaching 70, still working on that character flaw that was so obvious when I was only four.

IS there a pay-attention point
to these stories about
an obnoxiously odd four-year-old?

Thought you’d never ask. There’s way more than one! This Odd post, unlike some of the other Odd posts, has slightly less obvious pay-attention points, but it makes up for that uncharacteristic subtlety by providing plenty of them. Pay attention.

  • If you’re a parent, remember that your children’s obvious character flaws need to be identified and addressed as best you can. No making excuses and calling them “cute,” since character flaws are definitely NOT cute. (These pitiful tales about “efficiency” should prove that.)
  • Character flaws – in all of us – are deeply entrenched, with tap roots reaching all the way down to China, as nearly as I can tell!
  • Don’t blame your parents if you exit their home at age 18 with character flaws still intact. Get over it: parents can do only so much in molding your character – only as much as you choose to let them.
  • Plan to work on your character flaws for the rest of your life. (It’s a process, like just about everything else.) Whittling character flaws down to manageable size is an endless, unpleasant, INSIDE JOB. It’s a bummer. Some things about life are, you know. Best get over that, too.

Yes, I know the current PC take on character flaws is to embrace your flaws, say that’s just who you are, and aren’t you special? Oh yes, that makes sense and wins kudos all ’round. Not.

Do you like your spouse’s flaws, your friends’ flaws, your family members’ flaws? No? They probably don’t care for yours, either. For the sake of those close to you, commit to working on your own character flaws. Instead of embracing your flaws, embrace each milestone in your steady and gradual taming of them. Makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it?

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: "Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands." – Anne Frank

Same thought from a far wiser woman than I.

Odd #15: Delighting in Pristine Paper

photo of child's foot traced on paper under him

(Should be brown paper. You’ll see why.)

You know how we sometimes have to take a break from stuff that’s disturbingly awkward, stock up on courage, and then hit the awkward stuff again?

After 14 blog posts about my extreme oddity, I gave Oddity a rest. (I’d gone way past the comfort zone on the Embarrass-O-Meter.) It’s been eight months – enough time for some vigorous hide-toughening – as I begin another round of blog posts exposing my heartbreaking oddity in order to reveal pay-attention lessons that even a “normal” person (like you) can use.

A “Good Old Days” Story

In the 1940s and 1950s, farmers – even ones who went to church regularly – didn’t need many suits. During my very early years, my farmer-father had four: two light-colored, summer-weight wool ones and two dark, heavy-weight wool ones for winter. (Wool, you’ll remember, can be aired out, not requiring dry-cleaning for long periods of time.)

He was tall and slender and when he donned a crisp, white shirt that my mother had painstakingly ironed (long before the days of permanent press and poly-cotton blends) and covered it with one of his suits, he was quite handsome. In fact, I always fancied he looked a lot like Gregory Peck, with Jimmie Stewart’s self-deprecating posture and mannerisms thrown in for good measure.

In the spring and fall, I waited for The Semi-Annual Suit Week. Since there were only two per year, there was plenty of time for the anticipation to build. Mother, knowing me to be impatient, as well as odd, usually didn’t tell me when the first of the week-long wait began. My father would simply return from running errands one day and, voila, The Special Day had arrived. He had just picked up the previous season’s suits – freshly dry-cleaned and pressed. Here’s the important part: each suit always arrived in a pristine, crisp, two-foot by four-foot, brown-paper bag. Ah, paper.

No, it isn’t your imagination. Yes, we are, indeed, back to the bizarre paper fetish mentioned in Odd #12.

This was just before the unfortunate time in advertising history when businesses uniformly decided to plaster their names all over anything that didn’t move and eons before their current practice of plastering their names all over everything that does move. When I say pristine, I mean PRISTINE. Those brown paper dry-cleaner bags were completely ink-free, without so much as a phone number on them.

Painfully aware of my paper fetish, my father knew better than to let those precious bags get mussed in transit from the cleaners to our farmhouse. His odd little girl would be most disappointed with a crinkled and wrinkled dry-cleaner bag. Those bags were taller than I and so, yielded more coloring real estate than I could ever get my hands on at any other time. (There were no craft stores with huge rolls of colored craft paper in unlimited footage in those days. At least, not in our little corner of rural Indiana.)

One year, I decided to blow my budget and use one entire side of a bag for having Mother trace around my body. I wanted to get a factual perspective on how big I was – or wasn’t, as it turned out. It was a painful, in-my-face way to learn why I’d been named Runt of the Sinclair Clan.

Awww. How sad.”

If you experienced childhood any time after the 1950s, you may well be thinking we were pitifully poor. We weren’t. My father didn’t have to save that paper bag for me to color. As Odd #8 makes abundantly clear, he could well afford to buy all kinds of paper – and a desk in which to store them! 

The wanton discarding of such virgin bounty was simply not in our genes. Even if they’d had no odd daughter with a paper fetish, my parents would’ve saved the paper. They were both descended from multiple lines of Scottish immigrants from the late 1600s and early 1700s, who became Yankee stock before moving west. You know – the folks who brought us the maxim, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”?

Incidentally, that maxim – regardless of the politically correct recycling craze – doesn’t play well in The Colonies these days. Oh, we cheerily give a cursory rinsing to stuff and pitch it in the city-provided and city-collected recycling bin. We pay abundant lip-service to reusing stuff, but if it involves our personal time and energy to deconstruct something and use it in a completely different way, well, we “don’t have time.” When it comes right down to it, we’re almost as profligate with resources as preceding generations.

But I digress. Back to the story. Even today, when I see a large and empty piece of paper, I remember those dry-cleaner bags and begin concocting – with practically no effort – a half-dozen ways to use it. And if anyone will listen, I’m happy to tell them all the magical ways it could be reused. Of course, few want to be seen listening to someone so odd. Don’t care. Neither should you.

Oh my goodness!
Will she EVER get
to the pay-attention point?

Patience. Patience. In time, grass becomes milk.

Obviously, there’s the recycling pay-attention point to this good-old-days story, but I’ve harped on that plenty in previous blogs. Nothing new there.

PAY ATTENTION! Here’s the deeper pay-attention point: cultivate your ability to find delight in the SIMPLEST of items, especially those others thoughtlessly and foolishly discard. Those crisp, pristine, brown paper bags (that any other father would’ve tossed) were:

  • free,
  • simple,
  • excellent practice for a lifetime of being grateful for simple things,
  • a child’s transport to Creativity Heaven for hours, and of course,
  • a poor Mother’s much-needed break while that odd little child was distracted in her little heaven.

No, it isn’t your imagination. Yes, we are back to that recurring gratitude theme. It just won’t go away, as that’s what most religions and the aged among us recognize to be the platform of a life well lived.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “The happiest people don't have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything.” – Anonymous

(Say, like delighting in a dry-cleaner paper bag)

Our $12 Chair “Deal”

photo of channel-back, Rococo Revival chair

Deal or not? Read on, then you decide.

When you saw those quotes around deal, you knew something was amiss, didn’t you? That’s because you’ve already learned that – usually – when something looks like a “deal,” it probably isn’t. Nevertheless, most of us still succumb to that alluring, siren call of the word, deal.

Why would I be willing to tell an embarrassing story about our tumble into The Deal Pit? Because there are always plenty of pay-attention lessons to be learned from watching others fall headlong into The Deal Pit, that’s why. Since this blog is all about you, this is for you, dear reader. It’s too late for us.

(FYI: There’ll be a quiz at the end to see if you found all the pay-attention lessons.)

The Sad Seating Saga

Hubby bought our $12 chair at a thrift store where he volunteers. Risky business, that. It means he sees EVERYTHING that comes in the back door and, sometimes, just can’t resist, as in this case.

It was Rococo Revival from the very early 1900s, covered in dirty (and I do mean dirty) mauve upholstery (that 1990s, sickly, grayish-pink concoction). Hubby liked how he could really sink into it, with its curved back and cushy seat. Visions of himself reading a book while cozied up in it on a cold winter’s night danced through his head.

He made a convincing argument over the phone. But when I saw it, I realized (since I’m the person who deals with the upholsterer in our fam) that I was viewing a not-so-cleverly-disguised Money Pit. I explained it would take a small fortune to upholster it.

“Nah, it won’t take that much. Besides, we’ve been looking for a chair to go with our French Rococo couch for 42 years. This is as close as we’ll ever get,” said he. I had to agree. We had looked for 42 years, it did go nicely with our antique couch, and I did like the lines of the chair.

Get the picture? We’d just made an unspoken pact to pitch ALL reason overboard, as it would just prove a heavy encumbrance from this point on. (We tried to haul it back on-board from time to time, but never very successfully, as you’ll see.)

The Process

We took the chair to our upholsterer and came back with a stack of fabric samples. We chose one that would blend with our other upholstery and was about as cheap as we could comfortably choose (in fabric, as in most everything else, you get what you pay for), and returned the samples.

While we were there in her shop, she opened the seat cushion to show us the disintegrating foam. That would account for how “cushy” Hubby thought it felt, wouldn’t it? We chose new foam.

She showed us the tatty wrapping and cording she’d uncovered. We chose new Dacron wrapping and cording.

She showed us the webbing that was coming loose. We chose new webbing.

She showed us where the springs had come untied. We agreed to a re-tying fee.

She gave us the estimate. We choked. We plunked down our deposit.

A little later, she called. “You’ll need to do something to your chair before I upholster it. The frame’s broken in three places.” Hmm. That might account for the “cozy, sinking in” feeling Hubby got, don’t you think?

By now, we were in too deep to point fingers. She’d already purchased our fabric. We’d already paid our deposit. But that didn’t keep us from having many discussions about what was growing into THE Chair. In the end, Hubby gulped, retrieved THE Chair, spent a couple of weeks crafting special repair pieces and gluing them into place, and returned it to the upholsterer.

We picked up THE Chair a little later, and finished paying our $909.30 bill. Let’s see. Add that to the $12, and we’d just paid $921.30 for ONE chair.

WHY?

Now why would we, the epitome of Scottish frugality, be willing to plunk down $921 for ONE chair? I’m aware that plenty of you, my fair readers, pay this kind of money for furniture, but we do not. This was a real stretch. Did we abandon our principles? Is there a pay-attention part to our sad saga?

Of course! This saga is fairly teeming with pay-attention points – and none of them sad – for you, since you didn’t pay the $921!

The Promised Quiz

1. What does looking have to do with this story?
This is an easy one: keep looking and eventually, you’ll find what you’re looking for. It’s all about paying attention and keeping your eyes open. (See my previous post about your reticular activating system.)

Our answer? Forty-two years of looking is an awfully long time to look for something. Having found it, we should cough up the moolah and stop looking.

2. What does this story teach about the word deal?
Just hearing the term should send shivers up and down one’s spine. Seldom have I met a deal which didn’t turn into way more of something (money, time, energy, emotion) than I was expecting. When you learn the full cost of the deal, though, don’t throw it out automatically. Decide if it fits with what you’ve been trying to do or looking for. In other words, is it reasonable for YOU? It may not be a screaming deal, but is it reasonable?

Our answer? While most definitely not a deal by our standards, we have a knockout chair for our $921. The price charged by our excellent upholsterer was reasonable. Could we buy similar quality and style in a furniture store? Absolutely not. Okay then, it was as good a deal as we were ever likely to find for what we wanted. THE Chair was living up to its name.

3. Where does homework come into the equation?
It’s the very first thing you do, you know that! And you keep doing your homework until you’re satisfied you know what you need to know to make an informed decision.

Our answer? We’d looked for 42 years for inexpensive seating to go with our French Rococo couch, so we knew we couldn’t find a cheap chair. When you’ve done 42 years of homework, you know you’re paying a fair price. Heck, it was the only chair we’d found that even remotely resembled our 250 year-old couch!

4. Should quality be considered?
Say what you will about the desirability of cheap, disposable furniture, there’s something to be said for sinking into quality and feasting your eyes on it day after day. Quality lets you make a buying decision and not have to think about replacing that item for a very long time. 

Our answer? Quality wins, hands down. We’ve experienced quality upholstery on quality furniture and not-so-quality upholstery on not-so-quality furniture. Quality wears like iron and looks good its entire lifetime. Not-so-quality stuff? Not so much.

5. When does someone have to step up and be the voice of reason?
Short answer: always.

If this scenario had happened earlier in our marriage, one – or both of us – would’ve said, “Are we nuts? Why are we even discussing this? The answer is an emphatic NO!” Spending close to a $1000 on one chair would not have been reasonable for us. Your circumstances AT THE TIME – not your friends’ or your parents’ or your co-workers’ – tell you what’s reasonable (as long as you’re willing to be reasonable).

Our answer? It was reasonable for this time of our lives, though we had many discussions, trust me, about THE Chair. Seldom has an item entered our home shrouded in as much angst as THE Chair. But in the end, we agreed; it was the right time for this purchase.

6. Can you find a workaround for a “deal” that turns out not to be a deal?
This is the ubiquitous trick question that must be part of every quiz. It’s a trick because I haven’t given you a single clue.

Our answer? Of course! There’s almost always a workaround. Some would call ours pure rationalization. But, as we’d successfully hauled Reason back on-board enough to use her at least a little, we much prefer to call it a “reasonable workaround.” We simply made THE Chair:

  • our upcoming anniversary gift,
  • Hubby’s birthday gift,
  • our Valentine’s gift to each other,
  • our St. Patrick’s gift to each other,
  • our Independence Day gift to each other,
  • my birthday gift,
  • our Friendship Day gift to each other,
  • our Halloween gift to each other, and
  • our Thanksgiving gift to each other

for TWO YEARS.

Problem solved. No worrying about what to buy each other for the next two years. No buying little tchotchkes, just to have something to give on a special day. See how this works? We both got what we’d wanted for a long time and didn’t get a bunch of unwanted tchotchkes.

So how about your deals? Do you have one that comes even close to ours? Tell it! Leave a comment, why don’t you?

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Knowing when an item will provide you with years of use or enjoyment and is, therefore, worth its purchase price – THAT is a skill worth cultivating.” – Teresa Bennett

Apparently, no sage has said this, so I said it!

Diplomacy

black and white sketch of shaking hands

Diplomacy is a lost art. Actually, you can’t lose something you never had so it’s a just a word in the dictionary for most of us. We never owned it and aren’t likely to if we don’t change our ways.

Yet, it’s a skill which can make such incredible differences for people, as well as nations. Most of us know this and would like to possess the skill of diplomacy. But we shrug our shoulders and proffer the excuse, “I’m not a diplomat. I just say it like it is,” and breeze through life as if our statement somehow makes sense.

The Suits
and the Rest of Us

I don’t know about you but when I hear the word diplomacy, I immediately think of “INTERNATIONAL Diplomacy.” Serious, high-powered stuff. Men in custom-tailored, pinstriped power suits; white, drycleaner-starched shirts; expensive and oh-so-discreet silk ties and scarves pop into my head. You know – the men and women who play their cards close to the vest and get everyone to play nice in the sandbox of international politics.

And I think, I’m not in that league and never have been, thank goodness.

It took me a very long time – longer than I’m going to admit (because I wasn’t paying attention) – to realize that sort of thinking is one of the things that’s wrong with our world. Thinking that the practice of diplomacy is limited to the version used at the skyscraper levels of international politics and that it’s necessary only when the stakes are at nuclear-war height is dangerously myopic.

In fact, we could put The Suits out of business if each of us down here on the lowly plains would practice diplomacy with our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and everyone else who crosses our paths. If people in each country learned how to practice diplomacy and get along, their countries would effortlessly practice diplomacy and get along. We’d put a whole profession out of business.

But we don’t, and we’re not. Rare is the person who consistently and regularly practices diplomacy. I’ve known quite a lot of people in my almost-70 years, and I’ve known less than half a dozen of your everyday, garden-variety diplomat. Why is that? Why are we so pitifully deficient in this lost art? Well, here’s what I’ve learned from watching that handful.

You thought I’d never get here, didn’t you? So pay attention: it’s all about…

Think Time

The down-here-on-the-plains diplomats that I know take advantage of every moment of quiet and isolation from the very people on whom they must practice their craft. In those quiet moments – drive time, mass commuting time, waiting-in-line time, true “downtime” – they think on the sticky wickets of life. They think:

  • on the players,
  • what they know about them,
  • why they’re acting the way they are,
  • what would make them more willing to comply, collaborate, and cooperate.

They think on how to say and do the things that will bring about that elusive win-win solution.

They think, and they think, and they think. They turn over an issue as if it were an object they could hold in their hands. They examine it from every direction, and then they hash out a productive scenario. Then they rehearse that scenario. I happen to have been quite close to a couple of these diplomats, and I’ve actually heard them rehearse – just as if they were rehearsing lines for a play – in their offices and private places.

Thinking what a lot of time this must take? You’re right. Thinking you don’t have time for that much thinking? Give me a break. We all have the same amount of time that these diplomats do. It’s all a matter of what’s important to us and how we decide to spend our time to include what’s important to us.

The Painful Part

Want to learn the art of diplomacy and decrease the friction in your life – and the lives of those around you? Look for those times when you can choose quiet and isolation over the blather of mindless movies, vacuous videos, chillingly vulgar CDs, cell-phone chatter, and radio waves that radiate ill will.

Yes, it will be painful at first (don’t I know it!), as we’re not big on “wasting” time just thinking in this country. Learning to do something we don’t normally do can be awkward and painful – at first. Do it anyway; the pain lasts for only a little while.

Trust me: you’ll come to love quiet and solitude as you park yourself away from people and mull over the issues that are causing such angst among the people in your life. And when you give yourself the necessary time to think it all through, you’ll love finding that you have a pretty decent plan in the works and some surprisingly tactful words coming to mind.

Pay attention: cultivating the art of diplomacy is done in quiet and isolation, then artfully practiced in the marketplace of life.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.” – Henry Ford

Don’t be one of the “few.” Think. THINK!

Judging a Book by the Cover, Part 2

photo of slob in office, dressed inappropriately and making paper airplances

Not very concerned about his cover, is he?

Have you ever noticed how it’s okay for you to do something that’s not quite fair, but not for others to do the exact same thing? When they do it, it’s “grossly unfair.” When you do it, not so much. That’s the another conundrum of life: the dual standards we often hold for ourselves and others.

You know where I’m headed with this. It’s where Mom probably went. It’s the part in the drama where you played the It’s Not Fair card.

Pay attention:
you were both right.

Mom was right because other people are just as lazy as we are. They judge a book by the cover because they don’t want to take the time or make the effort to insure a more accurate first impression. They claim what you and I claim: “Looks are all I have to go on.”

You were right because if looks are all we routinely use to evaluate people and things, we’re being extremely unfair and supremely superficial.

Here’s what Mom was trying to say. A whole lot of life is unfair but – pay attention – sometimes we have the ability to make life a little more fair. When we have that chance, we should take it.

Oh, say, on job interviews,
for instance.

When that prospective employer looks you over in a 20-minute interview, he’s trying to cover a whole lot of ground. Maybe he’s an expert in culling details and clues. Maybe he’s like Malcolm Gladwell’s experts – an accomplished thin-slicer. Maybe not. Maybe he’s lazy. Maybe he’ll notice only that you’re dressed like a slob and figure your resumé and references are equally slobby, giving them only a cursory look. He won’t be fair.

If he calls you back for a second interview, you may get the chance to wow him with your expertise and rapier-like mind. But honestly, you know and I know that if he isn’t impressed by the “cover” in the first 20 minutes, he won’t be fair enough to give you a second 20 minutes to show him what’s inside your “book.”

It gets worse.

You do the same thing – to yourself. You judge you based on how your cover looks as you pass the mirror. When what you see in the mirror is hat-hair, makeup-less face, ragged t-shirt, and baggy PJ pants, how do you judge yourself? As a snappy, on-top-of-it professional?

I don’t think so. I rather think you see yourself as a slob and start berating yourself. When we slip into negative self-talking, seldom does good come of it. It seldom motivates us to start acting appropriately or professionally. Mostly, we just keep on acting the part of a slob – because we look like a slob.

Okay, the unfair reality is that we and others default to judging a book by the cover – even our own “books.” But there is something we can we do to stop others from forming erroneous first impressions of us.

Pay attention.
We can make
our “cover” match our “book.”
Now, there’s an idea.

  • If you care about getting that job or impressing the prospective in-laws, act and dress appropriately for the occasion. 
  • If you care about how people judge your thoughts and actions, BECOME a person of integrity.
  • If you really, really, really care about how people judge your thoughts and actions, be unafraid to let your integrity show through. Yes, yes, I know integrity is soooo uncool. Don’t care. You shouldn’t either. (It really is quite painless. You’d be surprised at how quickly you can become impervious to jabs from the rabble.)

If you want others to form fair first impressions of your “book,” think, act, and dress so that your “cover” accurately reflects what’s in your “book.” When that’s the case, it’s okay if others “unfairly” judge you on first impressions. For you, they’ll be fair and accurate first impressions.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “The way we dress affects the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act, AND THE WAY OTHERS REACT TO US.” – Judith Rasband

From “America’s Image Expert” (caps mine)

Judging a Book by the Cover, Part 1

photo of hands holding a book on someone's lap

What a novel idea: checking INSIDE the book.

You’ve heard this plenty of times, starting with your mother, no doubt. It’s an over-used metaphor, of course, for not forming first impressions of others – or anything – simply on looks.

I’m coming clean right up front. I form first impressions based on how a person, a situation, or a thing looks. There. I said it. I rationalize my behavior, as most of us do, by claiming it’s the only information I have available in today’s nano-second world.

Truthfully? Rationalizations aside? I do it because I’m lazy. Usually, when I don’t get beyond looks, it’s because I don’t want to, or I tell myself I don’t have time. Whether I want to admit it or not, whether I like the concept or not, whether I’m justified in doing it or not, I judge a book by looking at the cover. So do you, BTW.

Have you noticed some books with spectacularly designed jackets or covers that you couldn’t wait to read turned out to be poorly written or just plain trashy? And have you noticed that sometimes books you almost passed up because of their shabby, ho-hum book jackets or covers proved so riveting you could scarcely put them down?

I’m talking hold-in-your-hand, hard-copy books here. But the analogy to people comes through loud and clear, doesn’t it? It’s one of life’s most annoying conundrums: people – as well as things and events – are seldom what they appear to be. Or maybe they are. Who knows? Aargh! Drives me crazy.

The Pay-attention Points

The sooner we take a little more time and make a little more effort to get beyond superficial first impressions, the better. But how? How do you think? By paying attention, of course. Pay attention to all the:

  • obvious and the not-so-obvious clues lying around in plain sight, just waiting for you to notice them.
  • details people tell you – even the seemingly unimportant ones – and the details you can sniff out that they don’t tell you.
  • subtle body language that can belie a person’s words – or back them up.
  • ever-so-slight voice inflections that can dramatically change the dictionary definition of words.

Experts
at First Impressions

Do you know someone who’s considered an expert in his field? I do. Dozens. You know what’s really interesting about them? Sometimes they can’t tell you why or how they know what they immediately know about someone or something. They just know.

Now, how does that work? Well, Malcolm Gladwell’s proposal, in Blink, makes sense to me. Here’s my simple paraphrase of the explanation he gives with this story, “The Statue That Didn’t Look Right” in Blink. After absorbing tons of details for a very long time, experts in their field have such a body of knowledge in their heads, they can’t possibly search through it all consciously. Like Data on Star Trek, they search their databanks in nano-seconds (Gladwell calls it “thin-slicing”) and instantly and intuitively know when the “cover” doesn’t reflect what’s in the “book.”

Experts have so much information crammed into their heads, they understandably have a hard time pulling out and naming the exact details that brought them to their conclusion. Though they can’t give you an immediate list of reasons for their brisk assessment, inability to do so doesn’t change the accuracy of their assessment. They just know.

You and I can become experts, too, by paying attention to the list above so that we can make quick, intuitive, accurate judgments. Take a little more time. Make a little more effort. Pay a little more attention to the people, events, and things all around you to see if their innards match their out-ards*. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Next up, Part 2 of this judging-a-book-by-the-cover topic. It’s the part where I have to deal with the unpleasant reality that I get quite miffed when other people judge my book by my cover. How unfair!

*Yes, I made up out-ards. I’m a writer, licensed to do such things. I wouldn’t advise trying this at home.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” – Jesus in John 7:24, NIV Bible

Maybe the book-cover thing is an old problem?

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