Pay attention. I am not kidding. Really.

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!

Monitor your relationships to protect your self-worth.

painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on horse

Napoleon, The Arrogant, (aka, Bonaparte)

FYI: though a little like Magic Bullet #4 about relationships, this post takes off in a slightly different direction.

Lots of words have been written about the topic of self-worth. Here’s the deal: as I said when I began this blog, I’m not a psychiatrist, and I’m not a psychologist. I don’t even have an M.A. in counseling. Lacking all those credentials, this blog post will, of necessity, be short and to the point. (No intellectual crowbars needed.) I’m simply telling you what I’ve observed from 65-plus years of living among people.

Here’s more good news. If you’re reasonably well-adjusted, it isn’t as complicated as some would claim. In fact, it’s actually corner-of-the-eye stuff – stuff way out on those outer edges that you know and don’t realize you know.

The Point, in a Nutshell

Here’s the gist of my admittedly amateurish observations.

  • People who think too little of themselves (despite all their bravado and self-assertiveness), come across as arrogant – routinely belittling and tearing others down.
  • People who think too highly of themselves also come across as arrogant – routinely belittling and tearing others down.

Ironic, isn’t it? Two different problems, two very different reasons, resulting in the same Napoleonic behavior. Some mental health professionals might argue that almost all people who habitually tear down others really fit into the first group and that only a few, e.g., narcissists, can accurately fit into the second group.

Whatever.

I say we maintain good emotional health by observing emotionally healthy people – not the sick ones. The people I’ve known who are able to laud and acknowledge others and their accomplishments have a humble but healthy view of themselves and their own accomplishments. In fact, I think they’re able to appreciate others and others’ accomplishments precisely because they’re able to appreciate themselves and their own accomplishments.

So what’s
the pay-attention lesson here?
Hanging with
emotionally healthy people
helps you develop
your own healthy self-worth.

When you monitor your relationships, you’ll find you have some friends or family members who routinely tear you down. Regardless of how deftly they do it or how cleverly they disguise it, sit up and pay attention. If you know them well enough, you might be able to determine into which group they belong, but then what?

Trust me, I’ve spent hours trying to figure out why certain people in my life just could not give me credit for blowing my nose. Not until I was well into my fifties did it occur to me that this was not time well spent. That’s because even when I could pin down the most likely cause for their tearing-down tendencies, I couldn’t do much about it.

Regardless of the cause, this behavior is a character flaw that only the individual herself can work on. And have you noticed when we have in-your-face character flaws we don’t, as a rule, go ’round asking for help with our character flaws? Offering help when none is requested is usually a waste of perfectly good information, not to mention emotional energy. Those who will not help themselves cannot be helped by others. I’ve learned this little tidbit the hard way, too.

Besides, as I’ll keep saying, I’m not a trained mental health counselor. Even if a friend were to ask for help with an out-sized character flaw, I’m not sure I could be terribly helpful or effective. Unless you’re a trained mental health counselor, you probably can’t either. Just recognize you’re out of your depth and guide people like this to someone who can help them. Meanwhile, studiously avoid them whenever possible.*

Yikes. That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Some of life’s realities are harsh. How about this one? People who routinely tear you down are NOT your friends. So pay attention to your relationships: determine which people you should avoid and which people you should keep in your life – the ones who will make up the central core of your life. Choose those humble, yet emotionally healthy, people who can laud themselves and others. You’ll learn a ton about how to like yourself and others just from hanging with them. And guess what? It’s a process. (See Process Three.)

* Have you also noticed that most of us keep hanging in there with the tear-downers way longer than we should? Give it up. Let the pros handle the carpers and harpers in your life. That responsibility is most likely waaay above your pay grade. It’s for sure above mine.

© 2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “He who is humble is confident and wise. He who brags is insecure and lacking.” –Lisa Edmonson

Arrogance produces bragging and belittling.

Magic Bullet 4: Wouldn’t it be cool if all our relationships were healthy?

photo of silver magic bullet

Sleek. Shiny. Silver. And totally ineffective.

I used to think this was a do-able accomplishment – great, healthy relationships all ’round. I reasoned if I just played nice, everyone else would, too. I know, I know: trés naïve. But admit it: wouldn’t you like your relationships – all of them – to be comfy and comforting?

But you know that isn’t how life works. Our relationships – within families, among friends, with “romantic others,” with coworkers, with neighbors – can look alarmingly like The Soaps. What to do?

Get help.

For starters, don’t even think about reaching for a magic bullet to fire off at your broken or almost-broken relationships. Do think about reaching for plain ole ordinary bullets which can help you slog through the fixing-up of broken relationships.

  1. Bullet number one: books. Entire sections of bookstores and libraries are devoted to this one topic of making relationships work. Ninety-nine percent are written by qualified people. Well, maybe more like 85 percent; exercise caution. Regardless, check them out. Ask friends for their opinions on these kinds of books.
  2. Bullet number two: other people’s relationship experience. While books help, other people’s real-life experiences are just as helpful. Chat up older people with healthy, long-term relationships. Even people your own age, who seem to have a large number of healthy relationships, can help.
  3. Get counseling from a judiciously vetted counselor who shares your world view.

By using all of these bullets, I’m gradually doing better at learning how to keep and nurture the relationships I should and how to let go of the relationships that are unproductive and, in some cases, pure poison. It is a process, though. About the time I think I’ve mastered the letting-go of poisonous relationships and the keeping of healthy relationships, I goof up again.

Here’s a little aside: if you like cleaning in general, you may find you quite enjoy the therapeutic effects of tidying up the relational messes of your life. If you don’t like cleaning, do you like successful living? Thought so.

Why? Why?? Why????

Relationship conflicts, as you well know, are caused by a myriad of reasons. That said, my personal experience tells me that more often than any of us would like to admit, they’re caused by someone who has chosen a behavior or lifestyle that’s several degrees – maybe as much as 180 degrees – from how the other party lives and what they believe. One or both of them are simply too uncomfortable to keep up the relationship. 

Somebody has to go. But few of us enjoy hacking people out of our lives. So we make wimpy efforts, using kindergarten, blunt-nosed scissors in our clumsy and feeble attempts to cut out people who really shouldn’t be part of our lives. Seldom have I seen this work, as wimpishness almost always begets more wimpishness. On and on the sick relationship goes, with neither party happy.

At this point, I’ve found I have to ask for divine help. It’s time to ask God to help me cut out a relationship that’s abusive or dragging me down emotionally, morally, or physically. Sometimes it’s a relationship that has become a caustic eating away at all that I believe and am. It has to go, but I seem incapable of making it go away. The good news? When we invite God into the equation, he usually uses a no-nonsense, whopping pair of tin snips. When He pulls out those puppies, He cuts us free – as in FREE.

The pay-attention point:
a healthy relationship
requires that both parties
WANT a healthy relationship.

Does someone in your life persist in behaving in a way that you cannot condone or makes you disturbingly uncomfortable? Do they refuse to change their behavior? Do they keep holding out the promise that they’ll do better, and then don’t? Then they don’t want a healthy relationship with you, and your relationship with them is doomed, for now.

Should you snip that relationship from your databank of relationships? Yes, you should. Should you forgive them, even though they show no remorse and obviously don’t want a healthy relationship? Of course! Forgiving is necessary for our well-being.

“But it’s so hard.” Yes, it is. Here’s a tip to make it easier to forgive in those sticky relationships: forgiveness and reconciliation are not synonymous. While reconciliation cannot occur without forgiveness, forgiveness can occur without reconciliation.

My easy-to-remember,
three-point, pay-attention list:

  • forgive,
  • ask God to help you cut out unhealthy relationships, and
  • move on.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

Reconciliation takes two, period.

Translation: reconciliation takes two, always.

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?

Looking Back

photo of sculpture by Sir William Thorncraft (1877) of Lot's Wife

Lot’s Wife, William Thorncraft

You’ve heard about Lot’s wife. She gets the dubious honor of being the person whose name we call up when we want to remind ourselves of the futility of looking back.

Her story comes from Genesis, the very first book in the Bible. Lot and his whole family had been warned to get out of Dodge (Sodom) – by an angel straight from God, no less – before it was ferociously wiped off the face of the earth. Furthermore, they were told NOT TO LOOK BACK at the very unsavory place where they’d been living. But Lot’s wife just couldn’t resist one, last, longing look at the city she’d called home for a few years.

I have no doubt her thought processes sounded like this: “Where’s the harm in one last look? I raised my kids there. I’ve just left everything I own there.” (Or some equally squishy variant.) I’m pretty sure of this because Lot’s wife and I are kindred spirits. I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life looking back and – what’s even more dimwitted – rigorously justifying my mental looking-back exercises. Though my exercises haven’t been as unproductive as her last look (turning into a pillar of salt*), they’ve been almost as debilitating at times.

Can you relate?

Of course you can. We all do this, some more than others. We all look back and second-guess our behavior and our decisions. It’s human nature. The smart thing is to nip that very human tendency in the bud.

But do I do what’s smart? Do I do what I know to do? Nooooo, because, as I’ve said before, knowing and doing are two separate things. Nope. I just keep asking my well-worn what-if questions.

What if I’d known ____________?

What if I’d been more _____________?

What if I hadn’t ____________?

What if “they” had ____________?

What if “they” hadn’t ______________?

What if there had been _________________?

Asking these what-if questions would be time well spent IF I could get in a time capsule, travel back in time, and be guaranteed a do-over. But we don’t usually get do-overs: we usually get to soldier on from where we are now. Wallowing in what-if scenarios very definitely is time not well spent.

Paying attention
to lessons learned, however,
is time well spent.

You knew I’d get to this eventually, since it’s the whole point of this blog.

  • Pay attention to the lessons we can learn from our life experiences – pleasant or unpleasant – and move on.
  • Pay attention to those around us, learn from their life experiences, and move on.
  • Pay attention to what’s happening in the world at large, and move on.

We have two – and only two (making them easy to remember) – operative principles here:

  • Pay attention.
  • Move on.

As Lot’s wife’s representative in the 21st century, I could use a few pointers. I’m getting better at the pay-attention part – sort of. The moving-on stage? Not so much. Any tips?

©2015, Teresa Bennett

*There are some interesting theories about this salt business, if you’re interested. Whatever it means, we know she was absent from that point on in the story. We also know an absentee wife and mother is pretty much an ineffectual wife and mother.

red box with white text: "...one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on...." Philippians 3:13, NIV Bible

Christian-Persecutor Paul’s plan: move on.

Conformity and Pop Culture

photo of Julie Andrews with the Von Trapp kiddos, belting out

Famous Julie belting out “My Favorite Things”

Like it or not, pop culture oozes into our thinking, almost always changing us – and not necessarily for the better. Most us know this, yet we like to pretend we’re above the fray and are the only independent thinkers for miles. (Self deception knows no bounds.)

Even relatively harmless pop culture songs, myths, etc., can insinuate themselves into our brains with astonishing ease. Even though we know they don’t match up with what we truly believe or are just goofy-silly, we find ourselves so embarrassed at being the outlier that we go along.

Sometimes, our sheepish compliance is a relatively harmless deal. But remember that whole process thing? Sometimes our compliance turns into a very big deal because of where it eventually leads us. Conforming to ideas and beliefs that don’t line up with our moral values and world view is a process. We get better and better at just giving in, convincing ourselves all the while that “no harm’s done,” as we give up who we are and what we believe.

You know where I’m headed with this, don’t you? An embarrassing real-life example.

My Favorite Things
– Or Not

A few weeks ago, we passed the fiftieth anniversary of the sappiest of all musicals, The Sound of Music. I was a high school junior when it debuted. Didn’t know myself very well then. Ate up that sugary music and plot as any giddy teenage girl would, blithely belting out the saccharine lyrics as if I truly believed them. Even convinced myself I liked cats and, get this, foods I’d never tasted.

Now? I know myself better and have spent a lifetime assessing pop culture and deciding if I want to keep certain of its items or not. Mostly, I decide not to participate. I’m not so easily convinced to go along just to make life easier or please those around me who desperately want me to believe as they do.

*Scroll to the bottom of this post for a refresher if you, pagan that you are, have forgotten the immortal words to this favorite of all favorite songs, made favorite by Julie Andrews. You’ll see what I mean about the syrupy silliness. Now, fifty years out, I can finally speak my mind with no worries about conforming. Here are my stand-up-and-be-counted, Ebert-and-Siskel thumbs-up-thumbs-down assessments.

Raindrops On Roses

Are you kidding? Rain on any growing thing is a favorite thing when you live in the arid West, as I do. In our more droughty years, I’ve grown rapturous about rain on dandelions.

But “raindrops on roses”? That’s just icing on the cake. We used to have a house with a yard and garden. We used to try to grow roses. And then we gave up. Out here in the West, apparently, our extremely hot and dry summers and all-over-the-map winters make roses ridiculously easy prey to insects and fungus. Having tried to raise roses and having failed miserably, I know how to appreciate a healthy rose when I see one. And one with delicate dew drops all over it? Let her rip, Julie; you’re on a roll.

Whiskers On Kittens

Or not…. I’m going to say this right out: some of us abhor kittens, and dogs, and horses – basically anything with fur that sheds. Kitten whiskers are just, well, annoying, mainly because they’re attached to something furry.

When we visit you, our favorite things don’t include looking like a pet on our backsides after we leave your home. Back at home, one of our favorite things isn’t attacking our pant legs with a lint brush because the fur in your carpets hitched a ride on static electricity – straight up in the air – and Velcro-ed itself to our pant legs.

Furthermore, we’re not fond of fur in our food. When Fluffy hops up on the counter and you look stunned and say, “Down, Fluffy!” we’re not fooled. Not even when you say, with just the appropriate amount of bewilderment, “I don’t know why she did that; she never gets on the kitchen counters.”

Right.

We all know cats do whatever they please. If yours has the run of the house, we know she walks around on anything she pleases when you’re gone – including your kitchen counters. We know we can expect to spit out cat fur all evening, as we delicately pick our way through food prepared on those same kitchen counters.

I decided to pass on the kitten whiskers – and fur – a long time ago.

Bright Copper Kettles

Yep, there’s something about a shiny copper kettle whistling on a stovetop that sings out “Welcome. Hang out awhile.” It takes me back to simpler times, slathered in good-old-days nostalgia.

But the trick word here is shiny. I’ve owned a fair amount of copper goods, including a copper kettle. They require serious elbow grease with copper polish to look the way you see them in house magazines, home furnishings stores, and open-to-the-public mansions. They’re work, in other words.

Kettles from other materials? Not so much. But “cheap aluminum kettles” just doesn’t have the same lyrical punch, does it? So I’m on the fence with this one. Maybe coppery aesthetics are worth the polishing.

Warm Woolen Mittens

Oh, yes. For someone whose hands are almost always cold, warm mittens are lovely. Wool ones are even better (unless you’re one of those unfortunates who’s allergic to wool). I’m not so I’m in.

Brown Paper Packages
Tied Up With String

Definitely a favorite thing, though not for the same reasons as that famous, having-second-thoughts nun. For me, it means some bright soul reversed a humble brown paper grocery bag, pressed it out, and recycled it into gift wrap. They’ve also found a secondary use for ordinary twine or string from who-knows-where, and pressed it into service as “ribbon.” Chances are, since tan on brown can be a little too understated, they’ve also found some clever tidbit to glue to the top – also recycled. Yep, my favorite things always include social responsibility, personal creativity, and a gift assembled just for me on the inside and outside.

Cream-Colored Ponies

Nope. Reread Whiskers on Kittens. There’s fur involved.

Crisp Apple Strudels

Oh, how I wish. But wild horses couldn’t make this celiac girl take a bite of apple strudel – or any other variant of strudel. There’s wheat involved.

Doorbells and Sleigh Bells

Now, I’m on board again. Doorbells usually mean guests, which usually signal better-than-usual fare on the dining table, except when the doorbell means USPS or UPS. But that’s usually an anticipated package – a favorite thing, too.

I’ve not had the pleasure of experiencing that sleigh-bell sound, but I’d sure like to. Doesn’t it just cry out old-fashioned romance?

Schnitzel With Noodles

Nah. Reread Crisp Apple Strudel. (Wheat – and more wheat.)

Wild Geese That Fly
With The Moon On Their Wings

Um. There are feathers involved, no? Too close to fur. Count me out.

Girls in White Dresses
with Blue Satin Sashes

NOW, we’re talking. I was a pigeon-toed runner all through my early childhood, as walking took SO LONG. I fell down a lot. My ever-so-practical mother never dressed me in white – ever. Smart woman. So you see why prissy little girls in pristine white frocks and dressy satin sashes (no matter the color) just turn my crank. It was the girlhood I never had – and didn’t deserve because I would not slow down.

Snowflakes That Stay
On My Nose And Eyelashes

Depends on how long we’re talking snow, here. Snowflakes are fun – for awhile. A short while. After a longer while, not so much: there’s backbreaking shoveling involved.

Silver-white Winters
That Melt Into Springs

Oh, yes. By the time Spring (all three weeks of it) appears, I’m so over Winter I don’t even think to say goodbye. Spring brings the promise of green, and green is one of my favorite colors.

Ta-da. Drum role, please.
Here’s the pay-attention point,
in case you missed it.

Not going along with pop culture won’t get you killed. As you can see, after skewering one of the most favorite songs from one of the most popular of all American musicals during the last fifty years, I’m still standing. No lightning. No unhappy voice from the heavens. No hate mail – yet.

Yes, I may be shunned by the uber-trendy when I buck the latest PC trend or (more likely) disinvited by my animal-loving friends, BUT NOT KILLED. I’m living proof that it’s okay to decide not to participate. It’s okay to decide you really don’t like ______ even though everyone else raves about it.

And yes, I know I’ve chosen a safe, wimpy example. I could’ve called out the words to some current pop-culture songs that are alarmingly toxic to the soul. Baby steps. Baby steps. It’s easier to start by taking a stand on the little things. Gain some momentum and get comfortable with how it feels to buck pop culture. Keep assessing it in light of your thoughtfully chosen values and carefully examined beliefs. Keep deciding not to conform. The soul-toxic stuff? You’ll be strong enough to smack it down sooner than you think.

Pay attention: not conforming to pop culture won’t get you killed. Au contraire: it just might save your life.

red box with white text from Romans 12:2:

Conforming to our culture is dangerous.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

*My Favorite Things

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens;

Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens;

Brown paper packages tied up with strings;

These are a few of my favorite things.

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels;

Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles; 

Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings;

These are a few of my favorite things.

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes;

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes;

Silver-white winters that melt into springs;

These are a few of my favorite things.

When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,

I simply remember my favorite things,

And then I don’t feel so bad.

Slackers

photo of 20-something guy with feet on desk playing with a yo-yo

A yo-yo-ing slacker doing what he does best.

Do you make a habit in your personal or business life of giving people a second chance? Good for you. Giving second chances makes the world a better place. And who of us isn’t in desperate need of a second chance now and then? Okay, a whole lot of nows and thens.

But you know too much of a good thing is too much, don’t you? In a spirit of tenacious good will, do you routinely offer second chances? How about 22nd chances? So how’s that working out for you?

I feel your pain: it hasn’t worked out well for me either. Now that I’m well past the last unfortunate episode that first prompted this rant, I’ve tried to edit this post so that it has a modicum of civility. You may disagree when we’re done. If so, post a tactful comment.

Here’s the
pay-attention point
right upfront.

Never knowingly ask people to do things who’ve proved repeatedly to be people who don’t follow through. When we persist in well-meaning 22nd chances, we “make work” for ourselves – and others. More often than not, that work has to be done at the last minute, in seat-of-the-pants style with disappointing outcomes. That’s because slackers typically wait till the last minute to ‘fess up that they haven’t done what you asked. The more slacker-ly among them don’t even tell you before they jump ship: they just go AWOL and leave you high and dry. They turn what could’ve been an easily doable project into a rip-off-the-Band-Aid kind of project. 

How do you recognize slackers
(so that you can spare
yourself and others
unnecessarily stressful and shoddy work)?

Ah, let me count the ways. And I’ll bet you can, too. Why not add a comment with your favorite slacker characteristic to supplement my deceptively short list of telltale slacker traits?

  • a never-ending supply of ridiculously flimsy excuses
  • the all-about-me misperception that their lives are busier than anyone else’s
  • ample time in which to complete projects AND ample excuses for not completing them – all predicated upon what happened “this morning,” “yesterday” or “this week”

Don’t feel guilty
for bypassing slackers.

Yes, you are depriving them of the work in question, with all its rewards, learning and earning potential, and benefits, but they marginalized themselves first. You’re merely assessing their past history of outstanding slacker performance. Therefore, they are depriving themselves.

No one’s paying you to make foolish decisions. Putting a habitual slacker in charge of anything which involves your own job (your ability to make a living) and work reputation (your ability to keep the job to make a living) is foolish. Putting the slothful in charge of anything important to your organization usually goes beyond foolish; it can be downright dangerous.

If your organization is a volunteer organization, it’s even more critical that you avoid foolish decisions involving slackers. You can ill afford to make work for your good-hearted volunteers: they might jump ship one by one – or worse – mutiny all ‘round. That’s a situation you can easily avoid; leave the slackers to their yo-yos while you and your team of worker-bee volunteers “get ‘er done.”

Disclaimer Time

Lest there be some misunderstanding, LET ME BE CLEAR: this is not a blog post about forgiveness. It’s a post about people who rarely, if ever, do what they promise to do for the good of the order. Continuing to give people tasks who routinely don’t complete those tasks is one thing. Continuing to forgive people who hurt you is something else.

Jesus commands us to practice perpetual, unending forgiveness – an attitude of the heart. You’d be hard-pressed, however, to find anything in the Bible that commands us to act foolishly, oh say, like relying on known slackers over and over and over. In fact, Proverbs is filled with all sorts of admonitions against such foolish behavior: check it out.

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “If you support slackers and goof-offs, don't be surprised when your actual WORKERS quit!” – someecards.com

I wish I’d said this. It’s soooo very spot on!

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