I knew a fastidious guy who often commented on the need for proper attire, neatness, cleanliness, and decorum. One day, we were talking about something or other and he started picking his nose. When I made note of that transgression, he said quite simply and without affect, “It’s okay. Mine is different.”
I wish I could convey the tone of his voice when he said it. He was matter of fact, the expert, letting me know that I had no need to worry because his was different. Nothing to see here, citizen. Just move along.
In the greatest feat of self-control I have ever mastered in my life, I did not laugh, sneer, chuckle, snort or make any comments about his assertion. Perhaps I was floored so completely I couldn’t react at all, but the conversation continued as if nothing had happened.
I was thinking about that situation recently as I began contemplating the Ten Days of Awe, beginning this evening with Rosh Hashanah and continuing through Yom Kippur. I’m not the most observant of Jews, but I get fully engaged in the period of introspection, confession and atonement that comprise the High Holidays. And in my more self-aware moments, I am reminded how much I am like my (mostly) fastidious friend.
Mine is different, or so I will claim in one way or another. All too frequently, I write myself a permission slip to excuse the things I just did, or the things I know I’ll do again. It’s okay, though, because I’m a good person and I’m not really hurting anyone, or hurting them much, and it’s only fair because they do it, too, and it’s not like they’re apologizing for what they did, which is much worse than what I did, and, anyway, they pretty much deserved it. And I’m a good person, dammit!!!
I’m not alone, of course. I am bombarded daily with explanations, excuses, and the total lack of any self-awareness exhibited by people who know they are justified, permitted, forgiven, graced. Perhaps our most human failure is our willingness to forgive ourselves for the things we would not forgive in others, a willingness to assert that a wrong is not wrong if the right people do it. And, of course, it is absolutely true that WE are the right people and THEY are not.
We never add up all the lame excuses, and then the Days of Awe arrive. It’s not a surprise, but the arrival of the holidays brings a sudden awareness that, maybe, Someone with an infallible memory has been tallying up the damage. Perhaps, Someone with a really great sense of right and wrong has noted our willingness to pardon ourselves as if we were the true judge. Even if a person has no faith in a Higher Being, the process of introspection and repentance is truly awe-full.
For the past year, much like my friend with the itchy nose, I’ve made too many excuses, too many deflections, too many claims that mine is different. That probably makes me like everyone else in the universe, but I’m not responsible for all of them, just myself. And so, I’ll be spending the next ten days hoping for a second chance, or maybe a 67th chance, to get this thing right. Wish me luck.
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Not that I’m really needy and whiny and crave the attention of tiny young people who are blissfully unaware of all my flaws, but it’s worth noting that today is Grandparents Day across the United States.
While parents double-dip with Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June and then Parents’ Day in July, there’s only one day in the year for Grandparents, and it must be shared by both Gramps and Grammy. (Actually, I think I saw a National GILF day during my research, but this is a family blog and we’re not going there.)
Being a grandparent is one of the great joys in life, because it combines all the fun of having children with zero responsibility. Take them to the zoo, gorge them on cotton candy, buy them a puppy and then drop them off when they get cranky. If mom objects, remind her of that video with her singing on the toilet while she pooped.
(Disclaimer: I am supposed to note here that I do not actually have any videos of my daughters singing while they pooped. I do, however, have several that are even better.)
As grandparents go, I would describe myself as ridiculously greedy. I love spending time with the children and I make sure to file my requisition forms at least once a week. And why not? There are a ton of things that make grandchildren far, far superior to all other forms of people:
It’s important to reciprocate, of course. As a grandfather, I want my grandchildren to know there is always a person who is happy to see them, happy to play with them, happy to teach, happy to listen, and always, always, rooting for them. That’s not a tough investment on my part, and the returns are huge.
I know there will come a time when they're too cool for me, too engaged with their friends or their start-up businesses or their viral videos or whatever. Right now, though, we're still in the magic zone and it's time for me to fill out my requisition forms for next week’s visits.
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Writing a blog called Dad Writes, it’s natural for me to think about my own dad quite a bit. His approach to life shaped my journey and I learned a ton from his stories. Among them was a very old joke that he told me several times over the years, a joke whose meaning became much clearer as I matured.
Sign on a light pole:
One leg missing.
Right ear torn.
Blind in left eye.
Tail doesn’t wag.
Answers to the name of Lucky.
Okay, not the best joke in the world, but I’ve come to think of it as very meaningful.
Like other dogs, Lucky doesn’t mope around with resentments for the damage life inflicted on him. He doesn’t plot revenge for the torn ear and the broken tail. He doesn’t look at us with soulful eyes that seem to plead, “Why me?” Instead, he takes each day as a new opportunity to have fun and sniff out whatever life has to offer.
"Eat the same food every day? Sure."
"Poop in the snow? No problem."
"Sleep in a crate? Sounds swell."
"Stand still while other dogs smell your butt? Doesn’t everyone?"
After reconsidering my dad’s old joke, I’ve decided to live like a dog. I have a few scars and I’ve had parts removed and my psyche has suffered a few hundred slings and arrows, and every so often the weight of it all can wear on me. In spite of that, I want to wake up every day with a real gratitude for the life I have and the opportunity to have fun with whatever comes my way.
That doesn’t translate into treacly commentaries on the super-duper glee of mindless delight. Rather, it informs a philosophy of gratitude for what I have and confidence in my ability to deal with whatever comes next.
Lucky is undoubtedly dead by now, but a big chunk of my life is committed to following his example, his worldview, and his willingness to sniff absolutely anything. As he could teach us, everything in life is interesting and fun, in its own way.
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I used to think I was learning something when I found out how old a person is, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong end of the timeline.
Someone’s current age will reveal something about their health or whether they'll respond to a text with "LOL" or an emoji, but the real insight comes from considering the world of their births.
When Abraham Lincoln was born, Thomas Jefferson was president and Kentucky was the nation’s frontier. When Ronald Reagan was born, marijuana was legal under federal law, but banned in California, and the first radio station was nine years from launch. When Oprah Winfrey was born, she was legally prohibited from attending school with whites in her home state. These and other situations provided the backdrop for what they would read, whom they would meet, how they would perceive their communities and how they would live as adults.
In a way, we have several birth years, each related to a particular type of maturity. What year was it when we first became aware of world events? What was happening in the economy when we started to earn a living, or save for retirement? What were the parenting trends when we had children, or when our parents had us? The stories of our lives are written against a backdrop of social, political, and economic events that etch their own imprint into our worldviews.
I was born five weeks before Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and 11 months before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy opened his infamous hearings into Communists in our government. We held air raid drills at school, standing in front of our lockers to shield ourselves from the nuclear bombs the Soviets might drop on us. I am, in many ways, a product of the Cold War, and I have no doubt that my parents’ approach to childrearing reflected their own experiences with the Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.
I joined the workforce in the 1970s, when inflation was high, stock prices were low, and oil prices were skyrocketing. Those patterns have influenced my approach to our finances for more than 40 years. If I had begun working five years earlier, or five years later, my perceptions and discipline would be much different today.
Usually, we discuss age groups in wide swaths, like 18-34 or 40-65, but this generic approach hides a ton of detail that would help us understand each other better. Even our preoccupation with “generations” (Boomer, X, Y, Millennial, Zombie, Codger) mixes too many variables when it comes to understanding any specific person.
Clearly, we don’t learn much when we ask someone how old they are now. The more relevant question is, “How old were you when….?”
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I know a number of people who never want to be early for anything, and they drive me crazy. (Okay, it’s more a putt than a drive, but it pushes my buttons either way.)
The people I am talking about—and they know who they are—seem to view punctuality as a power struggle. They believe the person who arrives first has the most free time and, therefore, is least important. The person who is last to arrive finds everyone else waiting for him, which means HE is the most important. Everyone else has lost status while he was texting in the driveway.
This is actually a cultural protocol in some nations, especially in business meetings, so I see the point about status, but I’m happy to give the power to whomever needs it most. If someone feels special because I am waiting for them, that’s my no-cost gift to their egos. If they get off on the idea that I’m anxiously longing for their arrival, I’m happy to bring joy to their (terribly insecure) lives.
My own view of time is not quite so hierarchical, and I find it very helpful to arrive early.
When I get somewhere ahead of schedule, I can stop in at the men’s room to see if I’m having a bad hair day or if I’m suffering from booger droop. I can check my notes to remind myself why I am here, or I can find out whether Beyonce liked my like on Insta. If it’s a social event, I get to spend more time with friends, shoveling, um, wisdom on them from the moment the bar opens until they’re stacking the chairs.
Mostly, I like being early because it lets me finish early, which I think of as highly efficient and productive. If we can start 15 minutes ahead of schedule, we can finish early, as well, and I can free up more time to watch Jeopardy!. (I feel so much smarter now that James is gone.)
Yes, there are those unfortunate days when I arrive a half hour early and my interlocutor is 20 minutes late and I run out of posts to like or BREAKING NEWS!!! from CNN. By the time the meeting begins, I’m feeling like a real putz for cooling my heels for almost an hour, and I have no doubt that the person I am meeting feels the same way about me.
Of course, if I was really worried about other people’s disapproval, I’d never venture out of the apartment and I’d hide in the closet when the Grub Hub guy shows up with my donuts. But I am braver than that, ready to put myself out there and risk being thought of as less important than the alpha in the room.
If I’m ever an hour early, though, I think I’ll just spend some time loitering in the men’s room. As regular readers know, that’s always a source of mirth.
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Ransoming our privacy, big words, and the illusion of knowledge, among other deep thoughts for this week…
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Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.