It seemed like a twofer.
The girls wanted their ears pierced. I wanted somebody to play chess with me. In the convoluted maelstrom that is my imagination, I saw a great opportunity.
Learn to play chess, I said. If you can beat me, you can get your ears pierced.
Pure genius. The girls would learn to love the game, I’d gain chess buddies for life, they would have the opportunity to earn a privilege, I would show a willingness to accede to their barbaric fetish of self-mutilation, and we’d all have a fun story to tell our friends and family. Win-win-win-win-win, or so I thought.
So each girl, at her appropriate age, took up the challenge of beating dad at chess. And each girl required far less time than I anticipated to win one game. “Checkmate, dad. Let’s go to the mall.”
Neither ever won a second game against me. That’s the sorta good news. The bad news is that neither ever played with me again. The whole plan turned into more of a win-win for them and a lose-lose for me.
Each of them explained it the same way. I made chess into a chore, a labor, a burden they were required to bear in order to achieve their goal. They didn’t learn to enjoy the game; rather, they learned to endure it. They dug in and focused and kept their eyes on the prize and they succeeded. Hooray for them.
Along the way, maybe, they developed some added discipline and commitment to achievement. Or, more likely, they already had that discipline, which they applied in overrunning my defenses. What they didn’t have, and still don’t have, is an enjoyment of the game.
And so, another lesson learned. Kids like fun. If you want them to like something, make it fun. And if you make it the opposite of fun, don’t expect them to like it. Add this to the list of items that are so obvious they shouldn’t require a learning curve.
I might have a chance at redemption, though. My oldest grandchild, who is four, wants to learn how to play chess. Even better, she isn’t looking to get her ears pierced. Yet.
Who says there are no do-overs in life?
The waiter at the breakfast place learned to read about 15 years ago, at roughly the same time he stopped drinking. There was no need to learn reading when he was growing up with 19 brothers and sisters in Mexico. As far back as he can remember, life was a continuous pattern of work, eat, sleep, repeat. What use was reading in his world?
Today, two of his kids are in college and the third is thriving at a selective charter school. He’s hoping for a better life for them, and it looks like he has found a way to provide it. I can’t imagine he’s making a ton of money at the restaurant, or that he has a seriously plush second job, but somehow he has figured out how to make progress.
He has also figured out how to be satisfied, even happy, with far less than many people would consider to be the basics. I don’t know all the details of his existence, of course, or how much money he has, but it’s a good bet he has less than most people I know. He also appears to feel luckier than many of them, as well. I’ve seen this quite a bit with people who have started with nothing. Every bit of progress is more significant for them, building on a smaller base.
There might be an inspirational book in this guy’s story. At a minimum, I find his tale to be a reality check whenever a sense of self-made achievement comes over me. Sure, I’ve worked hard and achieved a few things in life, but I can’t help wondering where I’d be if I had been born in the same circumstances as my waiter.
I know a lot of people who talk about their humble beginnings, although humble is a relative term. I was born into a family with two parents who knew how to read and encouraged me to do well in school, go to college, etc. My dad's business went under and he ended up in bankruptcy court shortly before I was born, but he found another line of work and I was none the wiser, or poorer, for his misfortune. I grew up in a mostly safe neighborhood, although I did get beaten by some kids from St. Tim's because I was a Jew. No knives or guns involved, so even my victim-hood wasn't as severe as in other neighborhoods. I don't know if we were middle class or lower middle, but I had a head start over about 90% of the world.
Later, I met people who grew up in the suburbs, in (relatively) big homes on (relatively) big lots, people who went to overnight camp when they were kids and had been to Disneyland. They seemed really lucky to me, although they probably think of their childhoods as modest, too. You gotta love the United States, where 90% of the people think they are middle class and 99% think they grew up poor.
How far we go in life depends on both what we do and where we started, a reality that’s brought home to me in almost every conversation I have with an immigrant. Even people who are living very modest lives are likely to have come further from their starting points than I have from mine.
That doesn’t make me feel less positive about myself, but it does add important perspective to my worldview. It colors my thinking when I pass a beggar and I think about what it would take for him to get a job, an apartment, clothes or credit. It tempers my schadenfreude when an arrogant SOB falls on hard times.
Life is too complicated for simple conclusions about where a person is going or how they got to where they are. The combination of opportunities and challenges is too complex for facile judgments and simple phrases. Quite often, the biggest challenges are hidden in home life and family, beyond the veneer of visible assets. Still, some people clearly started out at the bottom and, just as clearly, I had more of a head start.
Of course, I started on third base because my grandparents took the risk to emigrate here and take a seat in the last row. Like the waiter from Mexico, they dug in and took the hits to pave the way for the next generation. It's no shame for his kids, or for me, to acknowledge we're riding on someone else's shoulders.
When I was a kid, I would look around every so often to spot the people with the cameras. You know, the same people who traipsed across Mayfield all day to film Theodore Cleaver’s interactions with Wally, Eddie, Ward and June. If there were people following the Beav all day, there must be someone doing the same with me.
Okay, clearly I was a weird kid. (Insert weird adult joke here.) Still, there was something that just seemed natural about the camera crews who were memorializing the wacky shenanigans in the Cleaver household and, most certainly, mine.
My kids benefited from this fascination as I recorded pretty much everything they did from birth, both in photos and video. When they were newborns, I even propped them up on a pillow every Sunday and shot five seconds of their faces, creating a lima bean series for each one’s first year. For three years in the 1980s, my daughters were photographed more than the Royal Corgis.
I’ve been thinking about our video memories lately as I play with my grandchildren. All are under five and they won’t remember any of the things we are doing today. At this point, our interactions add to the richness of our lives, but not to memories, because brain development creates a kind of amnesia about early experiences. Most of us can’t remember much, if anything, from our first five or six years. My daughters’ memories from those years come mostly from watching the videos, and my memories are mostly non-existent.
What’s your first memory and how old were you when the experience occurred? Mine is from an event at a home, probably when I was under five, walking up steps into a room filled with adults. There was a stairway to the second floor in front of me, a living room on the left and what I suppose to have been a dining room on the right. There was a woman in a wheel chair that I met, or maybe she was just seated, but I have no idea who she might have been or what the event was. Was I visiting my great grandmother in a nursing home? Was it a house of mourning and my parents couldn’t find a sitter? There’s no way to know, because my camera crew was focused on the Cleaver family that day.
So, what do you want to remember, and how do you want to be remembered? We make sure to record the big events, like that kale salad that was to-die-for, but the everyday activities hold more of a special place for me.
I’d love to replay my dad walking down the street from the bus stop, whistling to us from a block away, or the conversations I had with my mom’s dad, who picked me up from school for lunch every once in a while. I wanted the camera crew following me when we played horse after Hebrew School, although not the time I fell off and cracked my head open, and when we trudged through the snow with our sled to get food at the Jewel after the blizzard of 1967.
I’d love to revisit the time Samantha and I made up our first stories or Morgan’s laughter when I pretended to burn my finger on her plastic egg. I want to replay the time Dylan played a head-bobbing game with a daycare classmate at another table in the restaurant, and I want to savor the first time Hailey reached for me to pick her up. Or, maybe, I want to be sure they can revisit these moments after I am gone.
The challenge with magic moments is that they come and go sporadically, usually without warning. We know when everyone is going to sing Happy Birthday, so the camera is rolling, but we can’t anticipate when Agnes is going to stand up and walk for the first time or the first time Aiden will hug you back.
What I really need is a bodycam that I can turn on when the magic moments happen, but a bodycam will only capture what I see, not me, and I’m already the invisible man in our home movies. What I really, really, need is to convert my whole world into a movie studio with 3-D capability and Dolby sound, but that would be ridiculously expensive.
What I really, really, really need is my own reality TV show. Does anyone know a producer?
When I told my nephew that Jill and I were looking into leasing an Acura, he commented:
“That’s a good car. It’s a Honda.”
When I told the Audi dealer we were also looking at Acuras, he commented:
“That’s a good car. It’s a Honda.”
It might not be clear from reading these identical quotes that the two comments meant very different things. From my nephew, it was an affirmation. From the car dealer, it was a putdown.
On the screen or on a sheet of paper, you could read those quotes a hundred times and never see the difference. Unless you were physically present, listening to the tone of voice and watching the face of the speaker, it would not be obvious that these statements were different at all.
Herein lies the challenge of communication in a digital age. We see text, a thought registers, and we never wonder if that thought was framed accurately. We hear what we hear, we understand it the way we understand it, and we move on. It simply doesn't occur to us that we should/could/might interpret it differently. Even without translation, much gets lost.
I know this has never happened to anyone else in the world, but I have tried to make a joke once or twice in an email or text, only to have my humor misunderstood, misconstrued, misinterpreted, and misapprehended. And they missed the joke, as well. Suddenly, we’re into a string of emails about how I was trying to be clever and every explanation makes it worse until I have to pick up the phone and actually speak with the person who is now furious with me.
Of course, that’s exactly what I should have done in the first place. If I had simply called, the other person would have understood my tone or inflection or that place our voices go when we transform a statement into a question. It turns out that you can tell a person, “I know this is really too difficult for you to understand,” in a way that makes it clear you don’t think they are stupid. But when you write it, it’s absolutely clear to them that, yes, you do think they’re stupid.
No matter how many emojis we add to an email—and I never understand any of them except the smiley face and the poop—the written word is incomplete. Face to face, we have tone, body language, pauses, volume, eye contact and other organically integrated cues for what we mean, how adamant we are, what we want, and whether we are finished with the conversation.
On the screen, all we have are letters and punctuation. And those inscrutable emojis.
It’s a safe bet that every one of us has offended somebody, possibly at some cost to ourselves or an important relationship, through a misinterpreted email or text. We might not be aware of who or when or how, but that’s really the point. We dash off 100 notes a day of one sort or another, almost invariably without re-reading them before we hit send…and voila. Strained and pained relationships ensue.
We see the damage from all of this when there’s some investigation or leak and we get to read someone else’s emails. “I will kill you,” or “I’ll do whatever it takes,” or “Of course, I’m guilty as charged,” shows up in text format and we know all we need to know about the writer.
By the time the author gets out the standard, “that-doesn’t-mean-what-it-looks-like-it-means,” disclaimer, pretty much everyone in the world has concluded that it absolutely means what it looks like and all that’s left is the sentencing.
Most of us can assume our emails won’t become social media fodder, either because we aren’t violating any rules or because we aren’t very important. You can never be sure, though, so it’s generally a good idea to adopt some protective rules for electronic communication.
First, never put anything negative, demeaning, incriminating or snarky into an email or text. This is impossible to guarantee in real life, but we can absolutely minimize the stuff that will be very embarrassing in hindsight. Even when discussing politics or a performance review or a disastrous date, the right wording can limit the need for future denials.
Second, if a conversation is going back and forth without a resolution, pick up the phone and call. Continuing an email string that isn’t coming to a conclusion reminds me of people who go to a foreign country and yell loudly and slowly in English to people who DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. If no resolution is reached via email, the problem might be email itself.
I know this is an unexpected argument from a guy who earned his living putting words on paper, but facts are facts. The written word is a powerful tool, but it's not a complete workshop. As with any tool, it's important to know how it can be used and when it's a third-rate substitute for something else.
Remember that old saying that the medium IS the message? Finally, I think I am getting the idea.