But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

Just Words

Daisies

I was annoyed that some kind of message had popped up on my iPhone screen while I was attempting to play my turn in a Words with Friends game.  My annoyance turned to horror when I read the inconvenient little missive, warning me that the sexting app I was about to download contained graphic images.

Where the hell had this come from?

Sitting a few steps away from me, my wife could see that I was perturbed.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  “You tell me!” I blurted out in response.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a techno-idiot.  As my wife likes to remind me, I break computers.  If there is a way to mess up an electronic device, I will find it.  Those who create foolproof hardware and software never bargained for a fool the likes of me.

In this case, not only was I alarmed by the nature of the warning, but the message box covered most of the little screen and I had no idea how to make it go away without clicking “Download.”  This I most assuredly was not about to do.  I expressed my opinion that this was horrible stuff and that I had no idea how all manner of trash seems to download itself spontaneously onto my phone by some sort of electronic voodoo.

I brought the phone over to my wife, who pressed some buttons, swiped her finger, gave the phone the evil eye, and did a bippity-bop and an abracadabra, quickly returning the phone to its normal state and me to my Words with Friends game.

But she was clearly annoyed with my reaction.  “It’s not horrible, it’s just words!” she insisted.  Her remark returned me to a dilemma I’ve faced for years.

I believe that words are powerful.  I have always loved the aphorism that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”  I don’t think that I could be a writer, even of a lowly blog, if I believed otherwise.

I find that words can inspire, disgust, convince, perplex, soothe, and yes, even change the world.  However, I have also discovered that not everyone agrees.  When I was a kid, my father liked to recite “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.”  I, of course, knew otherwise, and not just because of some of the choice bits of vocabulary leveled at me by my schoolmates.  I witnessed the visceral reaction of my mother when my parents were arguing and my father used certain Yiddish invective against her.  And, as a bookworm from an early age, I knew how those black letters on the white page could toss me about on an emotional roller coaster.

Three or four jobs ago, I found myself engaged in a running argument on this topic with one of my coworkers.  The usual context of our debate was the appropriateness of profanity.  My position was that the use of certain words raise powerful reactions in the reader that are likely to derail the author’s intended message.  “Oh, they’re just words,” she’d roll her eyes and tell me, implying that I was some kind of prude or maybe just a big baby.

Just words??!!  Does that mean that the Bible is just words?  Does that mean that the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just words?  I’m sorry, but when I recite the ninety-first Psalm or the Pledge of Allegiance, these are not just words to me.  They mean something.  Granted, what they mean to me may be very different from what they mean to you.  But to utterly dismiss our means of expression, our innermost thoughts and our fondest desires as mere words is a nihilistic proposition that exceeds the bounds of even our most existential of philosophers.

Another pithy saying I learned as a child was “actions speak louder than words.”  I quickly came to understand that this meant that politicians, and almost everyone else as well, were liars and big talkers who would say one thing and do another.  Once again, words were discounted as worthless and devoid of meaning.

And then there was that other glib saying, “silence is golden.”  Apparently, words were so misleading and evil that they were not even worth uttering.  Even the solitude and separation imposed by silence was preferable.

As I grew up, I became amazed by the extent to which people feared words.  Eventually, I came to see that one way of dealing with fear was dismissal.  If you convinced yourself that words were nothing but a load of trash, then you could rob them of their power.

In junior high, when I first studied the Bill of Rights in detail, I learned that freedom of speech is not unlimited.  Because words do indeed carry the power to injure, they have to be reined in to some extent.  The example with which we were provided is that it is unlawful to precipitate a deadly panic by shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This was something of an “aha” moment for me.  So words do have meaning.  Actions may speak louder than words, but boy howdy, words sure can lead to action.  Action like a mad stampede out of the theater in which scores of people are crushed to death.  Just as surely, effective words can inspire people to perform good works and to engage in amazing acts of kindness and beauty.  Or they can rouse people to fits of anger, to die for a cause, or to commit crazed acts like the murder most of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo.

It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that words themselves could be beautiful or ugly.  This is not because of the shapes of the letters of which they are composed on paper or the contortions of the mouth in which one must engage in order to pronounce them.  True, the very sound of a word may be mellifluous or grating.  But the inherent beauty of words lies in what they represent.  They are symbols that stand for real things, ideas, emotions.  Say “daisy” and I will likely picture the wildflowers that popped up unbidden on the lawn of my childhood home or the yellow lovelies that now sit in a vase on our kitchen table, courtesy of our generous niece.  Say “war” and I will conjure up images of blood and guts and deafening explosions and tanks and planes and smoke and fire and mortally wounded soldiers writhing in pain.

So no, it’s not “just words” when someone uses profanity and I feel an involuntary jerk in my gut.  And it’s not “just words” when a message pops up on my screen warning me that I am about to download porno.  Horror and disgust are valid reactions to words because words do have meaning, do have import, do have power.

What I have learned is that there are some who I will never be able to convince.  To them, all of my arguments on the subject are undoubtedly “just words.”

Share and Share Alike

I once worked in an establishment in which one of my fellow managers would sign off nearly every email with the cloying “Sharing is Caring!”  Right after I vomited all over my keyboard, I was always tempted to hit Reply to All and type “I’m diabetic and you’re making me ill!”

You have to wonder whether she was an abused child who grew up feeling the need to excuse herself for living or whether perhaps her toddler left her an unfortunate victim of BTPDO (Barney the Purple Dinosaur Overload).  Either way, someone desperately needed to tell her that communication with one’s fellow managers is an expected part of the job and that there’s no need to make excuses for doing so.  I’m sure others laughed about her behind her back, but no one, myself included, was willing to take her in a padded room and slap her upside the head.

Only years later did I come to understand that:  1. Communication (and the lack thereof) is a really huge issue in the corporate world, and 2. Sharing, whether of ideas or of possessions, is a visceral thing that has roots deep in childhood.

As I don’t have children of my own, I live in a fully adult world and generally think about kids as little as possible.  This started to change somewhat two years ago when my little grandniece was born, and even more so a year ago when my wife and I became one of her regular caregivers.  Now that she’s two years old, her mom decided that she needed to socialize with other kids her age and, after a whole lot of wrangling, managed to get her into a good day care program.  From all accounts, the little one loves it.  There are lots of toys to play with, the teachers actually do teach lessons, and there are plenty of girls and boys to get to know.  She’s even making progress on her potty training, much to the relief of all of us.

Now, I don’t really think that kids of that age need to be “taught” anything.  For one thing, they are natural born sponges who soak up everything they see and hear.  (Uh, watch it with a couple of those words you like to use, dear nephews o’ mine.)  For another, their job is to play and be kids.  There’s plenty of time to teach them academics later on.  Childhood is short enough as it is.

So just what do they teach kids at day care and nursery school anyway?  Mostly the Barney curriculum, from what I hear:  “ABCs and 1-2-3s and how to be a friend.”  Apparently, it’s all about socialization skills.  For example, you’re supposed to learn to say “please” and “thank you.”  Little One has already learned that one at home, and she even says “you’re welcome” regularly.  Not that I give a fig, to be honest.  While displaying the trappings of courtesy may make you well-liked by adults, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.  I don’t stand on ceremony and I no more care whether a kid thanks me when I give him a piece of candy than I do whether the bar mitzvah boy writes me a painfully stinted thank you note for his gift.

When I was growing up, I rarely if ever heard my parents say “please” or “thank you” to each other.  (In my mother’s case, I don’t think I ever heard her use those words with anyone.)  Looking back, I guess it makes sense.  Half the time they were too busy screaming at each other to bother with such pleasantries.  Nevertheless, my parents expected their kids to say “please” and “thank you” when we were out in public, and particularly among adults.  They regularly became upset with us when we didn’t, and never seemed to wonder why.

About the time I became a teenager, however, I figured out that most adults were really rather shallow and would hold you in high esteem if you used those stupid words.  So I practiced the pleasantries until I became good at them.  You could have knocked over my junior high assistant principal with a feather when I addressed him as “sir.”  Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that half the ninth grade was standing out on the front lawn shouting “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive] war.”

These days, I say “please” and “thank you” about a hundred times a day, both at home and at work, without even thinking about it.  After all these decades, it comes automatically.  My wife and I use those words with each other dozens of times each day, and I must grudgingly admit that this probably does set a good example for the little pipsqueak.

All in all, I guess it’s good that early on my grandniece has learned the words required for entrée into polite society.  Unlike her quacked-up video pals Huey, Dewey and Louie, I doubt that she’ll ever need a copy of The Big Book of Manners.

But then there’s that old bugaboo, the S-word.  No, not the one that my renegade nephews like to use, the other one.  That’s right, “sharing.”

I don’t pretend to be up-to-date on modern theories of child rearing, but it is my understanding that teaching sharing consists primarily of conveying the idea that you can’t hog the toys because the other kids need a chance to play with them, too.  This is a true childhood classic that has been around forever, celebrated by everyone from Dr. Spock to Robert Fulghum.  And I don’t agree with it.

While I don’t particularly care whether or not kids use all those “polite” words (frankly, I think they’re kind of ridiculous), at least I can see how doing so can be a valuable skill in the adult world.  But sharing?  Oh, boy, don’t get me started.

I had to prowl around online a bit to discover what others are saying about sharing, kind of my way of licking my finger and holding it up to test the wind direction, before proceeding to shoot myself in the foot in this space.  What I found is that sentiment seems about evenly divided on the issue.  Some parents require their kids to share their toys, believing that childhood sharing is the gateway to adult generosity.  Others align more closely with my own views that a kid’s things belong to him or her and that he or she should not have to share them with anyone.

I have long believed that the rabid way in which many parents insist that their children share is not for the benefit of the child, but for the benefit of the parents themselves.  Most of us are not wealthy, and if we have two or three children, we may not be able to afford to buy two or three of every toy so that each kid can have his or her own.  After all, kids have short attention spans, so there should be no reason that they can’t take turns playing with their toys.  Kids, unfortunately, do not see things quite this way.  Well, that’s why they have parents, right?  Children are naturally self-absorbed and it is our job as parents to socialize the little brutes.

Yada, yada.  I wish that, just once, I would hear a parent admit that they require their kids to take turns because doing so tends to avoid The Three Plagues:  Temper tantrums, late night trips to the hospital, and social workers.  It would also be lovely to hear a parent admit that she forces her progeny to share because she can’t afford to buy three copies of this fifty dollar piece of dreck that the kid is whining for because it is advertised on TV a million times a day.

I endeavor to make kindness a major part of my life, and I attempt to incorporate that sentiment into everything I say and do.  Nevertheless, I believe that sharing is of very little value to success in adulthood, at least in our American society.  There have to be other ways to teach generosity and kindness (leading by example, for one).

I mean, come on… I am not going to let you share my car, my computer or my cell phone.  (I can hear it now:  “What?! You won’t let someone use your phone to make a call if their phone has gone dead?”  A friend of ours did this at the airport recently and promptly had her bank account cleaned out.)  If you would like to borrow a pair of my pants or one of my shirts, fine.  (If you can fit into them, I feel sorry for you.)  Just bring them back the way you found them, please, freshly washed and on their hangers.

As a child of the Dr. Spock era, I was raised to share.  Everything.  “Share with your sister!”  “Share with your friend!”  “Why don’t you give some to that little boy?”  And so, as an adult, I had to learn the hard way about lending out my things.  It took me a while to figure out that if I’d spot someone a twenty, I’d never see it again.  I lent out my car to Little One’s mom last year and she wrecked it.  My wife and I can’t afford to replace it and have had to learn to make do with one car between us.

If that’s not enough, the creeping crud is going around at work, and I have had it for the past two weeks and am now just barely starting to get over it, thanks to two doctors and two sets of antibiotics.  Do you think I’m going to allow anyone to put his or her grubby, germy little hands all over my things?  I think not!  And neither should you, my dearest grandniece!

I have no control over what they teach you at day care or at home, dear one.  However, you will never see this uncle asking you to share anything of yours.  As for playing with others, no, you can’t take away a toy from another kid because you happen to feel like playing with it right now.  But neither can another kid take away a toy from you when you are playing with it.  And you don’t have to share your cookies with them, either.  They have their own parents (and uncles) to give them treats to take to day care.  What’s that you say?  They’re poor and don’t have any cookies at home?  Uh, well, dear one, I hate to break it to you, but your mommy is a single teenaged mother without two nickels to rub together who is trying to go to school while working the graveyard shift at a drugstore.

I know you’re too young to understand right now, but in our great American society, we have a little thing called “personal property.”  Not every culture embraces this paradigm, but it is very much a central ethos of ours.  If someone breaks into your house or steals your car, we call them a “criminal.”  You will work hard to buy most of your things.  Other things may be given to you in love by those who are close to you.  In either case, you are not required to share them with anyone.  And I, for one, refuse to require you to share as a child when you should not be sharing as an adult.

Now, dear one, if you want to learn the proper way to be generous, carefully observe the work we do here at the church, the homeless people we feed, the random acts of kindness we so enjoy engaging in.  None of that means that you are expected to share with someone just because they ask you to.

Oh, and please do me one favor, dear grandniece.  Never, ever sign your emails “sharing is caring.”  Barney and his sickening “I love you” song notwithstanding.

First Things First

first

Happy new year, friends!  In honor of the first of the year, a post about firsts.

It seems to be an immutable law of nature:  Before you can do anything, you will first have to do something else.

Most of us internalize this law as children and apply it throughout our lives.  It might start as something like this:  “Not until your homework is done and you’ve finished your chores!”  Or perhaps “No dessert until you’ve eaten all your broccoli!”

As kids, it was really hard to get to the fun stuff.  Even when we finally garnered that coveted green light called “permission,” there were always preliminaries to be addressed first.  I once read a memoir that described how anytime the author wished to try his hand at a woodworking project, his father would hand him a can of bent nails to straighten out first.  Talk about taking the wind out of your sails! Another memoir described how, while growing up, the author wanted to try her hand at painting.  However, she always lost interest by the time she spread a drop cloth on the garage floor, donned a smock and reconstituted a pallet full of dried-up paints.

It’s not much different as an adult.  If you wake up all excited to tackle a project at work, first you have to shower, then get dressed, then eat breakfast and pack your lunch, then first get in your car and drive to work.  Meanwhile, you’ve been cursing the traffic, trying to remember what you were supposed to do for your kid’s school project, composing a grocery list in your head and texting your mother.  By the time you arrive at work, you’ve forgotten what you were so excited about two hours ago.  Which may be for the best, considering that your boss has now asked you to do something completely different.

In the evening, you think about preparing a delicious dinner, and how wonderful the house will smell while your masterpiece is cooking in the oven.  However, you realize that first you have to marinate the meat, and that takes a while, but it gives you time to chop the onions.  Your eyes start tearing just thinking about that when you remember that first you have to stop at the store to buy veggies and French bread.  That means that first you have to stop at the ATM and get some cash.  If you’re going to drive into town, however, first you have to stop for gas.

You decide that you’re much too tired for all that, so you just go home and eat a bowl of cereal.  You did check to see whether the kids drank all the milk again, right?  Right?

I was in elementary school when I first began to understand the rule that before you do anything you will have to do something else, usually something far less appealing.  One day, I overheard some adults mention the word “calculus” in their conversation.  I asked my father what that was, and he patiently explained that it’s an advanced form of mathematics and that I could study it in college if I felt so inclined.

“But first you have to go to high school,” he added.  “But first you have to go to junior high.”