Pay attention. I am not kidding. Really.

Tag: paying attention

Success is sure when….

photo of man digging basement under existing house

Digging a basement under an existing house.

Pay-attention whiz that you are, you’ve noticed from previous blog posts that, being married to the guy that I am, my marriage runs pretty much on the fuel of humor. I wasn’t altogether clear about this detail when we married, but I’ve acclimated admirably to my habitat, I think.

As a matter of fact, I even learned to beat Mr. Good Humor at his own game. Would you like to hear how? Not too many years into our marriage, I was surprised to learn that I could bring Hubby to his knees – laughing as he went down – in a half-second with just three words. (If you think I’m giving away those three magic words so early in the story, think again.)

By the time he told me about my to-the-knees power, he thought it was hysterical that I could accomplish so much with so little in just under one second. But Hubby is nothing if not honest. He also confided that for the first few years of marriage (when I wasn’t paying attention,) those three words did not make him laugh. Rather, they produced a deep and angst-filled pain in the pit of his stomach. (I suspect he was being tactful and that, in the beginning, those three words had pretty much the same effect as a falling guillotine blade.) But given his nature, Hubby gradually began to see the humor and, by the time he shared all this with me, all was well. Every time I say those three words, he laughs (between the groans) – on the way to his knees.

The three magic words?
“I’ve been thinking.”

You’ll be further impressed with his good nature when I tell you that these three words always – and I do mean ALWAYS – signal the birthing of A MAJOR PROJECT. Our projects are the kind that most couples (without our idiosyncrasies) would never even consider – not for a second.

My imagination knows no bounds. I can conjure up some pretty outlandish projects (like digging a basement under an existing house; see photo above). The idea that it might not be a good idea never enters my head. And Hubby, bless his soul, has the confidence and innate willingness to try just about anything – more so before I wore him out. (Almost fifty years of this I’ve-been-thinking business has taken its toll.)

For instance, after the basement digging came the I’ve-been-thinking, patio-deck MAJOR PROJECT that just wouldn’t go away.

  • First, prepare our minuscule back yard for sandstone. Lay sandstone. Level sandstone. Fill in with concrete.
  • Five years later, take up sandstone. Stack elsewhere. Gather and dispose of concrete rubble. Design and construct wooden deck over same area. Paint.
  • Load up sandstone and take to friends in mountain home.
  • Five years later, take up deck wood and yank out all supports. After extending house out into former deck area, replant supports and reconstruct deck around new addition. Repaint. Cart off excess wood.
  • Five years later, take up all deck wood and supports. Replace supports in new concrete. Lay new deck wood. Paint. Cart off all old wood.

See? I was NOT kidding when I said those three words ALWAYS trigger a back-breaking MAJOR PROJECT.

But, good sport that he is, Hubby is always willing to man up. He tells himself it’ll be “fun.” Or a challenge. Or a learning experience. Or an extended workout (instead of that bothersome YMCA routine). Or a _____ – whatever he can think of to prove to us both that we can succeed at yet another MAJOR PROJECT.

When you combine these two traits – ignorance of what my latest I’ve-been-thinking MAJOR PROJECT really means and his confidence that the two of us can do just about anything, what do you suppose you get? You get two people who will tackle any project they can think up.

Pay attention: here’s the really important bit. These two people don’t necessarily care if their new project is a wise idea or if they have the necessary know-how to accomplish it. Details. The merest of details.

I perfected my three-word bombshell back when we young, and maybe that’s why it worked so well in the beginning. We were young and, as the young are wont to be, overly confident. When I threw out my I’ve-been-thinking hook, young Hubby just couldn’t bring himself to say, “I don’t know how” or some equally lame excuse. He asked older friends pertinent questions, researched, thought, planned, and jumped – feet first – into our newest MAJOR PROJECT. Now, though he should know better, he still takes the hook – from force of habit, I guess.

Is there a pay-attention point
to this memory-lane nattering?

Of course. The Great Pithy One, Mark Twain, beat me to it, as usual. But I’m an ethical writer, and I try very hard not to consciously plagiarize. That forces me to compose my own version, which is considerably less pithy.

What you aren’t supposed
to be able to do
is nothing you need
to concern
your pretty little head about.

Or something to that effect.

When we take stock of some of my I’ve-been-thinking projects, we look at each other and ask incredulously, “Did we really DO that? What were we thinking??!” See? Sometimes it’s best we don’t know our limitations. That’s when we do stuff we would never have thought possible, had we given the whole mess more thoughtful appraisal.

Thinking of your own MAJOR PROJECT? Go for it! You won’t know till you try, and success may very well be waiting at the end of your MAJOR PROJECT. Good luck to you – and I mean that!

©2016, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then Success is sure.” – Mark Twain

(an 1887 entry in one of Twain’s notebooks)

One Bite at a Time

top photo of ice cream in ice cream freezer

Stick with me. This post is NOT all about eating.

You may be tempted to think this blog post is all about eating, but it isn’t. We’ll get to the non-food, pay-attention points at the right juncture, so please hear me out as I tell you two seemingly unimportant stories from my childhood.

My parents weren’t much for pontificating, thank goodness. Rarely ever did they sit me down for a long and boring lecture. They opted for the easier way of teaching children: they modeled what they believed. I know; it’s a startling concept, isn’t it? But it’s quite effective. Trust me.

First Story:
Ice Cream!

I must’ve been ten or eleven when my ice-cream-loving father decided it was time to take advantage of the fact that we had a cow who produced A LOT of cream. I’m talking unpasteurized, unprocessed, unadulterated, un-homogenized, un-everything. If you’re a Millennial or a city kid of any age, you have absolutely NO frame of reference. You’ve probably never even seen such thick, faintly yellow, wickedly rich, fresh cream just minutes from a cow’s innards, let alone tasted it.

Once the ice-cream maker was ensconced under our roof one summer, Mother’s Saturday afternoon routine involved loading it up with the cream mixture, packing the whole mess in ice and rock salt, plugging it in, and letting that electric marvel work its magic on our luscious cream. If you’re an ice-cream lover, you’re already salivating, aren’t you? Even I thought the ice cream resulting from this incredibly rich stuff was to die for, and I didn’t even like ice cream all that much.

Each Saturday night, my father was in heaven.

But not for long. You’re way ahead of me, aren’t you? NO ONE, not even my slenderly built, very active, six-foot father, could keep up that kind of ice-cream bacchanalia. After about a month of this ice-cream revelry, my father quietly asked my mother to forego the ice-cream making ritual. Happy to oblige, since it meant less prep time in the dreaded kitchen, she asked why. His short response? “Maybe every so often – when we’re having guests – would be wiser.”

That’s it. Did I mention my father loved, loved, loved ice-cream and that, as a child of The Great Depression, he seldom got it? Can you think of a more powerful modeling lesson in self-discipline?

I can.

Second Story:
Green Beans

This story happened shortly after my father’s ice-cream adventure, and it’s a pretty short one. Again, you Millennials will have a hard time believing this but, once upon a time, there were no microwave ovens. Yes! Really. Just ask yourself how you would use leftovers if you couldn’t quickly nuke them in your microwave.

Effectively using leftovers was devilishly hard back in those Dark Ages. Most households (less frugal than ours, I’d like to point out) parked them in small, lidded glass containers in the fridge. As they were moved back and back and back, they became easier and easier to forget (translation: ignore). Naturally, once they were discovered with mold and who-knows-what growing in them, they could be discarded without guilt.

Not in our house. No sir. We ATE leftovers because, of course, of all those starving children in China. My father was our official, “last-dab,” cleaner-upper. Whenever there was a spoonful of green beans or a quarter-cup of mashed potatoes, Mother would say, “Oh, Bill, just eat that last dab.” And he would. End of problem. No bothersome containers of leftovers in our fridge.

But that came to a halt when he scooted back from table one day and said, “No thanks. I had to move my belt buckle prong over one notch this morning.”

This left my mother in a true quandary: “So what do I do with them?”

Throw them out.”

At this show-stopper response, I stopped playing in the mashed potatoes, jerked up my head, and starting paying very close attention. Did I hear what I think I just heard? Did my frugal father just tell my almost-as-frugal mother to THROW OUT PERFECTLY EDIBLE FOOD?? My mother, just as trout-mouthed as I, stood there in shock. But when he left the table without another word, we knew he wasn’t kidding.

Apparently, I reasoned, throwing away food is preferable to weight creep. Being a kid, I quickly recovered from the initial shock of that unbelievable bit of table drama. In fact, I never gave it another thought until I, too, reached that time of life when the old metabolism just wasn’t what it used to be and began to notice the same weight creep.

Okay, enough of the food stories. What’s the REAL point to this blog post? Oh, wow, there are so many. But I’ve chosen three of what I think are the most obvious pay-attention points from these two non-events from my childhood. Here they are, in no particular order.

Pay attention!
Life happens
in little bites.

Of course, as the title implies, this is the main point of this blog. Though I’ve harped on it in plenty of other blog posts, specifically in Process, Part 1, I’m harping again because it’s such a terribly important life lesson.

Obviously, the word “bites” is standing in for just about anything you can think of – not necessarily food. Wouldn’t it be great if “bites” happened in the TV-commercial-Hollywood-way – in one, great, stupendous action? But, as you know, they don’t. Just about everything in life is a slow process (the good and the bad), and we’d best get used to it. Even better, we’d best pay very close attention to it, in the same way that my father noticed he had to insert his belt buckle prong into a different hole.

red box with white text: “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” ­– Eleanor Roosevelt

Longest-serving USA First Lady (during Franklin’s 4 terms)

Here’s another vital
pay-attention lesson:
someone’s watching.

And they’re watching one little “bite” at a time. When my father explained why he was forfeiting his cleaner-upper role, I am absolutely certain – in that seconds-long interaction with my mother – that he wasn’t trying to teach my sister and me a lesson. We were not the focus of that decision-making process. He was simply acting on his conviction that whoever lives in the body is responsible for its care and feeding. He was being responsible by refusing extra food, knowing it would take awhile to undo the damage of performing his former role of family garbage disposal.

I’ve never forgotten that incontrovertible lesson that modeling – living – what you believe is usually far more effective than constantly telling others what you believe. You know this: I haven’t told you anything new. But though we all know this, it’s just too dang easy to forget that we’re each living life on a stage with an audience of one or two watching a few seconds of our lives or an audience of one or two hundred watching several minutes’ worth of our lives. Someone’s watching – in little sound bites. What are we teaching? What would we rather be teaching?

red box with white text: “If God has given you the world's goods in abundance, it is to help you gain those of Heaven and to be a good example of sound teaching to your sons, servants, and relatives.” – Ignatius

Tradition identifies Ignatius as the Apostle John’s disciple.

And the third
pay-attention point?
Too much of a good thing
is still too much.

When my father was functioning as the green-bean-and-potato disposal, he was eating good stuff in very small bites. But slowly, the little bites of good stuff piled up and became more than his aging metabolism could handle. They morphed into bad stuff in the guise of excess weight. When he finally noticed, he did what any reasonable person does, he started the process of saying, “No thank you” so that he could put a stop to the piling-up process.

The ice cream story makes this too-much-of-a-good-thing point even clearer. No matter how good something is, no matter how delicious, no matter how wholesome, no matter how right, no matter how healthy, no matter how _______ (fill in the blank with what you’re thinking), it is possible to get too much. When the little “bites” of good stuff pile up, they probably won’t still be good stuff. So I’ll just keep saying, as I did in the post titled, Moderation – Even in the Good Stuff, too much of anything, no matter how good, is still TOO MUCH.

One of the most outstanding figures of medical history

Clearly one of the most outstanding figures of medical history.

Your turn. Did I miss an in-your-face pay-attention point?

©2016, Teresa Bennett

Pride Before the Fall

white box of rows of apostrophes

You’ll get it – really. Promise.

Have you ever been faced with a new task that you had absolutely NO IDEA how to handle? That happens a lot when we’re in our twenties and thirties – less frequently as we age and acquire a lifetime of experiences (most of which can be transferred). Laugh along with me as I rat on myself and tell a story of my astounding and prideful cluelessness.

A Story
of Pitiful Pride

Back in the Dark Ages, when Hubby and I were living in Married Student Housing, we had the extremely good fortune of living just below a couple on the floor above us who were from New Orleans – seafood capital of the world, to have heard them tell it. My connoisseur husband, though he hadn’t a great deal of experience with seafood, had enough to know he loved it. The problem? We were college students on a small campus located on a land-locked northern fringe of The Deep South. Finances and location conspired against us where seafood was concerned.

Enter, our kindly upstairs neighbors, who thoughtfully brought a bag of shrimp back after a home visit and gifted it to us. Hubby was ecstatic. I was not. It wasn’t that I didn’t like shrimp. It was that I had NO idea what to do with it – except eat it. You’ll remember, I’d spent my first 18 years in the middle of Indiana farm country. Not much seafood activity going on there in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, if they’d given me a big ole hunk of pork or beef, I would’ve been marginally better equipped to deal with it. A bag of shrimp? Not so much.

On the night when Hubby had set his taste buds for shrimp, I whipped out my Joy of Cooking cookbook that some optimistic matron had given me at a wedding shower. (The joy of cooking?? Really? Says who?) With gritty determination, I skimmed the Table of Contents and read the 126 pages on seafood preparation. Well! It appeared there was a good deal to be done to shrimp: peeling, deveining, yanking off their little tails, boiling, etc. Whew. Better get started. I slaved over those smelly things for over an hour – after reading for a half hour as I tried to understand how to administer all this “joy.” When Hubby returned from his part-time job, the shrimp and I were ready. Yessss!

The few times my non-gourmet, farm-girl mother had ventured into seafood territory, it was some kind of frozen gunk that she plopped out of a box and into a few inches of hot oil. Having completed my grim work with the Joy of Cooking routine, I figured I could stop reading at that point, and just follow my mother’s example. Pouring a healthy glug-glug of cooking oil into a large pot, I set the burner on high.

While Hubby washed up in the bathroom, I dropped the shrimp into the hot oil, and busied myself setting the rest of the meal on the table, figuring I had plenty of time. By the time I returned to the shrimp, they looked considerably different than they appeared just minutes earlier. Oh well, maybe that’s how they’re supposed to look. Or not.

You remember how it feels when you’ve done everything you thought you were supposed to do, but you still have that queasy feeling something isn’t quite right? That’s the pit-of-the-stomach feeling I had about then. To make myself feel marginally better, I made a bed of paper towels, artistically laid the little dears in neat rows, and covered them with a cozy paper-towel blanket.

Hubby trounced in from the bathroom, saying he’d been waiting all day for this, and wasn’t it cool that we had such generous neighbors, and wouldn’t this be a meal to remember? He was right on all three counts – just not in the way he expected. As he reached out to lift up their paper-towel blanket and cast a drooling, covetous eye on his prey, I stayed his hand and suggested we pray first. I mean, really; that IS the first thing we do at the table (and I figured I’d be needing a little divine protection in a few seconds).

Warning: from here on, the story goes from warm-your-heart goodness to something-that-needs-forgetting. When Hubby pulled back the paper-towel blanket, he found a plateful of black apostrophes – a literary feast, as it were. Being an English major, this made perfect sense to me. While they possessed a certain high-brow, literary classiness, it turns out crispy black apostrophes aren’t all that tasty. Actually – and we know this as fact – they’re inedible.

Hubby was not amused. That old standby, the PBJ, was not what he had been salivating for all day. In fact, he carried a grudge about this unfortunate episode from our early-marriage days for a very long time. Now, he can laugh about it. For many years after The Shrimp Episode? Not so much.

Meanwhile, you’re thinking, “Is there a pay-attention point to this pathetic story?” Well, of course. Why else would I tell such an embarrassing story on myself?

Pay attention!
When you don’t know
how to do something
but you know someone who does,
GO ASK THEM HOW TO DO IT.

Don’t check out a book from the library. Don’t buy an e-book from Amazon. Don’t Google it. Don’t read a magazine how-to article. Don’t be proud: ask the person WHO KNOWS for some help – first! That might be all you have to do.

It would’ve been
for me.

If Id just left Joy on the shelf, swallowed my outsized pride, walked my little white legs up the stairs, and asked my neighbor how to prepare those expensive suckers, I would’ve learned there was nothing to prepare. Not only did cooking oil not belong in the picture, they’d already been boiled in the shell IN WATER. All we had to do was peel them, dip them in cocktail sauce by their tails, and chow down, tossing the tails to the wind. Who cares about the veins?!

I wasted time and effort and perfectly good shrimp whod given their lives that we might taste their succulence – all because I wouldn’t ASK for help. I also denied my neighbor the chance to show off her N’Orleans know-how and to feel exceedingly helpful to such an idiot neighbor. Now, is that not the silliest pride story you’ve heard in a long time?

Oh wait.
Let’s talk about you
for a minute.

‘Fess up. You just did this not very long ago, didn’t you? Your dad knows how to _______ but instead of asking for his advice, you went to the Internet instead. Granted, the project got a little messy and doesn’t actually function very well but, hey, you did it yourself.

Or maybe you wanted to make _______ like your BFF makes. But instead of calling and gratifying her with a request for her knowledge and recipe, you checked Pinterest for a recipe like hers, complete with step-by-step instructions. Dang. In spite of all that effort, yours didn’t turn out like hers – not at all like hers!

Or maybe you decided to get crafty a few Saturdays ago and create a mini quilt project. Instead of calling Aunt Dot (the family’s in-house quilting expert) for some concise pointers, you Googled “quilting projects.” And – big surprise – by the time you finished your Googling experience, Saturday was pretty much over, and you had no time left to actually DO some work on your project.

Sound familiar? We ALL do this. Most of us are just too self-sufficient for our own good. Pay attention and learn the lesson. ASK FOR HELP from people in the know. Almost always, you’ll:

  • get way more practical and useful advice,
  • save time,
  • be happier with your results, and
  • make someone feel better just because they were able to help someone else – you.

This is one of those hard-learned lessons whose scars I still bear to this day. Every time I eat shrimp, I’m reminded of my proud folly. Every time Hubby eats shrimp, well, you know what happens: it’s déjà vu all over again.* Learn from my mistakes!

*Don’t you love Yogi Berra malapropisms?

©2016, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: "You like to be independent, but you will need to learn to ask for help. It doesn't make you weak.” – Taya Kyle

(Husband killed by fellow Marine with PTSD)

 

red box with white text:

Pride often precedes avoidable unpleasantness.

THE Lamps, Part 3

(If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2, you really should.)

The next Christmas, (see – you’re already lost if you haven’t read the first two episodes) my other sister-in-law, decided to jump in. Known to you as Middle Child, she decided The Ugly Lamp Gift Exchange looked like such jolly fun she’d like to participate, too. (A sad example that when we’re not truly paying attention, the grass does look greener on the other side of the fence.)

That Christmas at my in-laws, Middle Child lovingly offered me a small, beautiful gift bag. Since I’d successfully murdered The Conquistadors and sent their remains on to a better place (and the bag was smallish), I opened it with excited anticipation – the kind we reserve for real gifts. Here’s an early-in-the-story pay-attention point: when involved in the game of Revenge, it seldom pays to let down your guard. Talk about being blind-sided! That promising gift bag held the most unpromising “gift” – the MOTHER of all nursing home craft projects – run amok.

Glommed up with clumsily cut paper flowers from gaudy greeting cards and decoupaged indiscriminately on all four sides, it was a breathtaking, seven-inch-tall, bubbly-surfaced whiskey-bottle-turned lamp. The shade was a miniature, ridiculous upside-down version of the one in the photo below. And I might add that the one below is elegance personified compared to my decoupage disaster of a whiskey-bottle lamp.

photo of whiskey bottle made into a lamp

Unlike mine, sheer elegance!

If you’re younger than 50, you have no idea what decoupage fun you missed in the 1970s! While it was fun for women with absolutely no artistic ability who happily spent hours cutting out little cuties from greeting cards, there’s no denying it was a dark time in our nation’s history. These same wannabe-artists then pasted those cuties, in their non-art version of artsy, to anything not moving. Slapping a coat of shellac on the whole mess, they gave it to a dear one.

Wooden box purses were the preferred medium. But unfortunate whiskey bottles like mine, old milk cans, lunch boxes, furniture, and recipe boxes all gave their lives to this ill-advised, but thankfully, passing fad. Yes, you guessed right: there were awkward pauses and grim times around Christmas trees during the 1970s.

But I digress.

I wish I had a photo of my poor whisky-bottle lamp because I cannot begin to describe it adequately so that you fully appreciate its supremely TACKY ugliness. Up till this point, I had assumed that nothing could top The Conquistadors’ ugliness. Now, I realized they possessed a sizable amount of ugliness only because of their sizable real estate.

This petite gem made The Conquistadors look like amateurs in the Ugly Contest possessing, as it did, maximum ugliness per square inch. As I held that questionable beauty, I tried to laugh along with the rest of the fam; but honestly, I joined in the frivolity through clenched teeth. All this “fun” was wearing very, very, very thin. 

Gearing Up
for the Next Revenge Christmas

As Christmas became a distant memory, I recuperated from all that enforced “fun,” and the months marched on. Along about October, Hubby, gearing up for another blessed Revenge Christmas, asked excitedly, “Where’s that whiskey-bottle lamp Sis gave you?”

Lamp? What lamp?”

My feigned innocence didn’t work. “You threw it out, DIDN’T YOU???”

Um, well, I might’ve done. Can’t really remember….”

Oh great. Now we’ll have to find another ugly lamp to replace the one you threw out!”

WHY? Can’t we just stick a fork in this mess and call it ‘done’?”

Absolutely not! Where would the fun be in that? This is FUN!” (I would just like to point out right here that “fun” is most definitely a relative term.)

Grudgingly, I promised to see what I could find, but I was very nearly DONE with this silly game of Revenge. I never liked Monopoly either, for the same reason: it went on and on and on and on. Furthermore, I like to WIN a game and be done with it. This was a game that not only wouldn’t end, I couldn’t win it either. Confronted with a game like that, I typically gather up my marbles, cards, poker chips, whatever – and stomp off.

So is there
a usable pay-attention point
to my sour-grapes grumpiness?

Of course. Once embroiled in a non-productive “game,” WISE people fold and exit the game.

That’s not to say, you understand, that’s what we did. While I occasionally exhibit brief flashes of wisdom, I am not married to someone regularly displaying wisdom. I had to keep on playing this self-flagellating game of Revenge simply because my spouse wanted to, as you’ll see in Part 4 of THE Lamps

© 2016, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” – Confucius

Talk about revenge not working out so well!!

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.)

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!

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.

Getting Over Functional Fixedness

photo of pickup cab converted to an elevated deer hunting stand on wheels

“Bubba” clearly has no functional-fixedness.

Is functional fixedness a familiar term to you? I’ll bet not. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it sounds kinda geeky, doesn’t it? I first heard about this functional fixedness concept over 35 years ago. Labeled object fixedness then, I learned about it on a PBS children’s science program, no less.

I still remember the city-block-sized light bulb that came on in my head: Whoa, I’ve got to stop thinking like this! And ever since, I’ve tried very hard to practice the opposite of functional fixedness. I do this mostly in very tangible, material ways, but also in more intangible, ethereal ways.

Functional fixedness means
just what it sounds like it means:

fixing something in our minds as functioning only in one way or for one purpose – the one which the maker intended. Getting over functional fixedness simply means redefining anything’s intended use. Stated like this, I’m quite sure you’re thinking, I already know this. But you’d be surprised how we all, even the very creative amongst us, get caught in this narrow, functional-fixedness mindset sometimes.

Real-life examples
run circles around definitions.

If you’re a visual learner, visit a well designed, upscale, antique store to see creative examples of how the experts get over functional fixedness. No time for that? Visit etsy.com or a similar site, instead. Observe how its Repurposing Mavens have taken an item, let’s say a heavy metal pair of ice tongs (manufactured for ice men to deliver blocks of ice for 1920s and ’30s household ice boxes), and turned it into something else – a paper towel holder, for example. Or maybe you’ll see just the metal part of an old garden rake, hung on a wall, and repurposed as a hat-and-coat rack, wineglass rack, kitchen utensils rack, or necklace holder. These are prime examples of getting over functional fixedness.

photo of metal rake head holding necklaces

photo of metal head of old rake holding kitchen utensils

These rakes won’t see soil again!

Junk stores, thrift stores, charity shops, second-hand shops (and most likely, your grandparents’ garage!) are awash in these very items – the kind found in trendy, up-market stores that have been manufactured to look like these old items and marketed to function as the very items I’ve listed above. When I first started practicing the opposite of functional fixedness, there was no etsy.com or any other similarly cool site. I had to hack out new ideas all by my lonesome. If you’re a wannabe Repurposing Maven today, lucky you: you have all kinds of websites to help you overcome functional fixedness.

Here are some
no-functional-fixedness examples
that have warmed my heart.

Let’s start with our opening photo of a Bubba deer hunting stand made from a pickup cab, elevated – and on wheels, no less. Those West Virginia boys don’t miss much, do they? And they obviously have a few tricks to teach the rest of us about getting over functional fixedness. Oh my, do they ever.

My own examples are a good deal, well, a good deal less “interesting.” I could use other words (silliness-on-stilts comes to mind), but I’ll be tactful, for once.)

We used to have a beautiful oak cabinet in our bedroom that held sweaters and socks, but it began life as a Victrola cabinet. You know – thick, chunky, 3/8-inch-thick phonograph records played on a unit which was hand cranked? At one time, our cabinet contained the guts for playing records in its top and a bottom section for storing records. Long before it was gifted to us by some garage-cleaning friends, someone had removed all the phonograph guts and the vertical dividers for records. Technically, it was still a Victrola cabinet, but we used it for clothes storage.

On our previous home’s breezeway, I once had a display of rather clunky, lidded, hinged boxes that were delivered to my father in the 1950s and 1960s, filled with guns that were broken down and packed in grease. With them I’d stacked old wooden drawers, salvaged in the 1960s from a hardware store opened in the mid-1800s. As I had them displayed, they looked as if they were all of a piece, even though they were only seven old drawers and packing crates placed on end or sideways to hold gardening books and supplies. They were no longer a motley collection of crates and drawers; they’d been repurposed into a single storage unit. (Not as colorful as Bubba’s deer stand, but every bit as practical and useful.)

A friend of ours was recently paying attention on Craigslist when she snagged a printer’s table from the mid-1800s, complete with its original three-inch-thick marble top and vertical slots below the table top for printers trays. Since she’s no printer (and printers haven’t used the antiquated technology which necessitated this table for a very long time), she’s repurposing it into a seriously sturdy foyer table that can withstand any amount of abuse from a household of teenagers.

Proud of yourself, aren’t you?

You’ve already, though perhaps unconsciously, begun your own process of overcoming functional fixedness and repurposing objects, haven’t you? In fact, we’re all probably way better at this than our grandparents or great-grandparents, possibly because we get more practice. Technology is changing our lives faster than our ancestors could’ve possibly imagined.

Things are outliving
their intended purposes
right before our eyes –
almost monthly.

Certainly yearly. Pay attention: now that your music lives in cyberspace and is accessed by your smartphone, iPod, etc., and you’ve hauled your CD collection to the thrift store, what will you do with that pricey, cherry wood box that once held your favorite CDs? If you find yourself relying more and more on the ether version of movies and shows, what will you do with that box of drawers housing your DVD collection (after you also cart them to the thrift store)?

And that nifty little piece of furniture – the one in your parents’ family room – complete with nicely paneled doors that was manufactured to store VHS tapes? Do you suppose they’ll ask you if you want it, since they’ve finally retired the VCR? And what do you suppose you could store in it, if not VHS tapes? Too shallow for books. Too narrow for the sections of your fly rod, so no-go on the fishing equipment. Hmm. Not to worry. You’ll think of something.

And that’s the point.
If you’re PAYING ATTENTION…

you’ll find that for almost every item originally created for a specific purpose, which it no longer needs to fill, you can think of a way to repurpose or reinvent it to serve another purpose. And as you can see, it’s easy. Actually, it’s a hoot to see what your clever noggin can devise. (I’ll just bet those West Virginia boys had a rip-roaring time converting their pickup to a deer stand.) The quirkier and more specialized the device, the more creative your solution will have to be. 

Next up: Pass it on: share your skills! (If you’re the queen of Repurposing Mavens, that’s a skill others would love for you to share.) 

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: "I don't think outside the box; I think of what I can DO with the box." – Anonymous

My artist-husband’s response: “There’s a box?”

Decision Making, Part 1

photo of outdoor garage sale

Debris exposing decisions that were NOT made

  • Bags and bags of costume-jewelry beads
  • Worn out workshop tools
  • Boxes and boxes of crochet thread
  • Sacks and sacks of knitting yarn
  • Leather worker’s lacing in every imaginable color
  • Multiple tubes of gaudy glitter
  • Men’s rubber – yes, rubber – rain boots
  • Dress pattern packets in jumbled piles.
  • Instruction booklets for what no one wants to know these days
  • A 1924 algebra textbook
  • Heavily battered pots and pans
  • Mismatched cracked and chipped pottery
  • Women’s undergarments no woman under 40 would recognize
  • Threadbare towels and sheets
  • Piles of faded postcards from travel-smart friends

All this was there – and much more – at an estate sale in an elderly neighbor’s house. It immediately made me unexpectedly and unexplainably sad. I said as much to the young woman helping with the sale and asked about the owner’s circumstances. “Oh, she isn’t dead. She just went into assisted living,” she chirped brightly and reassuringly.

This is your mother’s stand-in talking, now: Never, ever say that. (I’m quite sure I did when I was her age, and equally sure the more mature around me would’ve liked to smack me.) DO NOT make blithe statements about the last stages of life, about which you know nothing. FYI: moving into assisted living is dying-in-slow-motion for most elderly people, as they watch their peers up and down the hall die off and as they await their turn or – worse – the dreaded move to a nursing home.

Whew. That just slipped out. We’ve digressed, haven’t we? Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Ever been to a sale
like the one I’ve just described?

Then you know the drill. Some flea-market-type person agrees to handle the sale of all the house’s contents (after family members have fought over the good stuff). Enterprising flea-marketers figure this saves the family additional heartache and stress, while providing themselves with legitimate income.

The entrepreneurs set up shop at the front-door or garage-front with the ubiquitous card table, complete with a “sales clerk” like the chirpy young woman above. They’ve culled what’s left of the valuable stuff, priced it at antique-shop prices, and have it displayed safely under their noses on that card table. They’ve pulled the rest of the house’s contents from every drawer, cupboard, closet, and cubby, organized it, and laid it all out – room by room or table by table in the driveway – for prospective buyers to paw over.

In short, the entire detritus of a person’s life, as well as every room of their home, is there for total strangers to sift through. The plan is that visitors will offer a buck for the privilege of carting stuff from the estate-sale house to their house. Furthermore, the family is desperately hoping a yard-saler (or Realtor in disguise) will make an offer on the house, and they can be done with the whole miserable business.

In most of the cases I’ve seen, the homeowner has been on the slow, downhill slide of poor health. In fact, they left for the assisted living center or nursing home much later than they should have. The result is a grungy house (the ”fixer-upper” you’ve seen in Realtor ads), unpainted and unmaintained, filled with items like the ones listed above which should have been given away or disposed of a very long time ago.

They long ago reached a point where the physical activity of running a vacuum and the mental activity of sorting through a lifetime of material accumulations (for the grandkids, favorite charities, younger friends, etc.) were simply too much for them. I’ve often heard stories of elderly people who, having reached this point, would not permit family members to take over these chores. They could no longer perform them, but neither would they let anyone else perform them. They simply sat in their beloved homes, with those homes falling down around their ears, and decided not to decide.

What have these people done?

They’ve abdicated their decision-making responsibilities, with rather unpleasant, awkward results – for all concerned.

Did they suddenly do this at age 82, just weeks before the long-term-care facility move? They did not. The elderly people I know about who ended up in the very situation I’ve just described had spent most of their adult lives avoiding decision-making whenever possible. What most of these people seemed to have in common was a deep-seated aversion to looking ahead, planning for the future, and making the necessary decisions, however disagreeable or uncomfortable they might be.

What happens if you don’t do something very often? You’re not very good at it. If you’re not good at something, what do you tend to do? You avoid it. Do we have a vicious circle going on here? You betcha.

Here’s the pay-attention lesson
for this post.

Make decisions. Now. Lots of ’em. Every day. All day.

  • Don’t live your life by proxy.
  • Don’t abdicate your right to decide.
  • Don’t let others keep doing your deciding for you.
  • And most importantly, don’t dump your decision-making onto others.

Part 2 of Decision Making is ready. Warning: if you thought this Part 1 was harsh, you haven’t seen anything yet. Sticking doggedly to my ever-so-endearing, in-your-face style, I’ll be asking some rather disagreeable questions. (Just thought you’d want to know.)

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.” – Edward de Bono

An English psychologist–creative-thinking fella

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. (Part 1)

photo of guy's legs sticking out from under a pickup

How can THIS be relevant?

Sorry. I know you’ve heard the above proverb lots, but hang with me.

Like you, I’ve recited it to myself a bazillion times and STILL, I find myself doing something simply because I can. I zoom right past should-I? and jump recklessly into can-do. Even though I know better, I don’t do better. Sound familiar? Okay, so we know this stuff, but we don’t do it.

What makes us persist
in such muzzy behavior?

Beats me. Maybe because knowing and doing are two entirely different kettles of fish? Or maybe we can chalk it up to our propensity for our smartphone-induced partial attention to life – never fully paying attention to much of anything? (I doubt this is the culprit, since the condition we’re discussing is The Human Condition, predating smartphones by thousands of years. But, hey, it’s a literary transition. It’s here for reasons that will become clear in Part 2 of this topic.)

I could keep on speculating but the wretched truth is this: I don’t know why we persist in this self-sabotage. All I know is that we do and, as a result, tons of things are broken in our society. One of the most broken, due to our knowing and not doing, is the concept of appropriate behavior. Because of that, I think it’s a concept which requires a whole lot of unabashed harping. And just so you know, I HAVE asked myself Should I? and the answer, as you can see, is an emphatic, harpy yes!

Can, Should, &
“Here I am – barely made it.”
Pant. Pant. Pant.

Just because a guy can go straight from tinkering with his car to a friend’s wedding doesn’t mean he should. (See, the photo does have relevance.)

I know what you’re thinking. “Who would do that?” Actually, lots of guys.

I’ve been to hundreds of weddings (really) and truly, I’ve seen guys who looked as if they’d just crawled out from under their pickup, jumped in, fired it up, and roared into the car park for a wedding ceremony they’d apparently almost forgotten. What these turkeys should have done – regardless of what they were doing – is shower and change into appropriate clothes for The Most Important Event of a friend’s life – his wedding day.

A guy can’t get into too much trouble with his friend if he shows up at his friend’s wedding dressed the way he knows his friends and relatives expect him to dress. Guys who claim they don’t know any better are shameless liars.

On the other hand, a guy can alienate his friend’s new bride, embarrass his friend in front of his new in-laws, and do damage to a friendship going back to junior high when he defaults to the jeans-and-T-shirt uniform. Guys who do this clearly think so little of their friends that they don’t stop to ask themselves, Should I?

But it’s our right!

Yes, our society does give us all license to behave as badly and as inappropriately as we like. Besides, who are we to tell someone else what’s appropriate? Why even worry about what’s appropriate and what isn’t? Isn’t that just being hypocritical, hypercritical, and superficial?

No, as it turns out, it is not. Here’s the pay-attention bit to the much-ignored can-versus-should dilemma that I intend to harp on till we’re all sick of if. Caring about how our actions affect others is a good thing because:

doing what’s appropriate
greases the wheels
of ALL our relationships.

(Check out this post if you care about dressing appropriately purely for self-serving reasons.)

Next up is another prime example of people not paying attention and forgetting to ask Should I? It’s one we’re all supremely familiar with – either as blatant perpetrators or as hapless victims. Warning: if you’re a perpetrator, I’ll be asking you to be honest enough to ‘fess up and start asking Should I?

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” – G K Chesterton

A 1900s English theologian’s can-and-should

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