Admission is Free

Some very wise men once described anger as “the dubious luxury of normal men”. The statement goes on to indicate that, for a certain segment of society, anger is poison.

I’m one of those people for whom anger — or rather, the finer variety of “justified anger” — is poison. Anger in itself isn’t bad – as a God-given emotion, anger is useful in indicating when a boundary has been breached, and directs my attention to something I need to focus on.

But justified anger is rife with trouble for me, because it allows me to get self-righteous and judgmental. I get carried away with it, and by “carried away”, I mean I move farther away from my spritiual center. I lose the sense of peace and serenity that I find when I stay close to that center. And I become someone whose company I don’t enjoy.

My last post, Rant-O-Rama, was written mostly in jest, however, it was all the truth — those things really do bug me. And a few of them REALLY bug me. A friend of mine pointed out that the items I listed – the things I was ranting about – are no different from the long list of grievances that would normally be found in a person’s “moral inventory”.  And she was right.

I need to admit the truth about these resentments. “To admit” doesn’t mean “to confess”, it means “to let in”. (“Just like a movie ticket says ‘Admit One’ to let you in the theater”, my friend Rich points out – a helpful analogy for someone like me.) I need to let the truth in about these resentments. I need to look at my part in all this. What part can I own? The answer is clear: I can own my resentments.

Resentments choke the life out of me. I cannot thrive while I hold onto them. They’re like invasive weeds taking over a garden — if they’re not dealt with, they soon grow so big that their leaves and stalks block the sunlight from reaching what I actually planted. No growth can occur in a place like that.

How do I deal with resentments? By reducing my expectations. Resentments are born when expectations are unfulfilled. So what can I do about the things I ranted about last time?

Forgive. See a different way. Reduce my expectations of these people / places / things to the point that it becomes okay for them to do what they do. Because they are going to do what they do regardless of what I think, feel, or say, so the only person who will be troubled by my disapproval is me.

So to re-visit my rants from earlier in the week, I will make an effort to own my part in them, and to see them in a different way:

*The IRS – taxing is what they do. It is the price I pay to live in this country. I can own my attachment to money and admit that I could easily adjust my withholding, investments, and spending habits to reduce future tax owed.

*Inappropriate quotation marks use – that’s my inner perfectionist talking. I can own that my inner perfectionist likes to make me feel better by pointing out the mistakes of others. I admit this shortcoming and see it in the light of day for the hypocritical trait that it is, for I am far from perfect.

*People on the freeway who speed up to prevent me from moving into their lane – these people don’t know me, and I don’t know them, and the encounters with them last a matter of seconds – yet I make them last for hours or days with my resentment. I can own that I think these people shouldn’t do what they do, and that’s just what I think.

*Haters – I sit in judgment of them, and that is not my seat.

*My iPod displaying incorrect album covers – come on, now. This is what is called a “quality problem”. I can admit that I’m a whiny bitch sometimes.

*Messy people in the kitchen at work – I can own my sometimes obsessive need for cleanliness, and admit that I don’t have to clean up after them, but by doing so, I’m being of service.

*Facebook friends asking me to post things in my status – this is just more of me saying “I wouldn’t do that, therefore you shouldn’t either.” It’s grandiose to think the rest of the world should be like me. And it’s perfectly okay for people to raise awareness of causes dear to them. I can be grateful for these people and their presence in my life, even if it’s virtual through a social network site.

*The state of political discourse – people can talk; I can choose what I let in. The shouters and the swayers and the mad-as-hell proclaimers have the right to shout and sway and proclaim if they want to. I can own my tendency to want to avoid conflict and negative energy, and admit that nothing is “negative” until I put that label on it.

*The Westboro Baptist Church – I can pity these people who are so consumed by fear and hate. I can find gratitude that my spirit is free, and own that my judgment of them stems from my own fear.

*Bullies / child abusers / animal abusers – these people were hurt themselves, and are walking through life with untended wounds. I can own my potential to be as abusive and hurtful as they are, and admit that I am just as capable of harm as anyone. Love is the answer, every time.

*My local donut shop –  I own my judgment that they don’t do what I think they should do. Big deal. I need to stop going there anyway. I’m getting fat.

*E-mailers lamenting the loss of the “good old days” – again, judging that they shouldn’t do what they do. I own that I read these e-mails by choice, and admit that sometimes there are points in those “good old days” e-mails that I actually agree with.

*Jackholes who litter the beach with their cigarette butts – I can own that they do what I think they shouldn’t do, and admit that I used to be a smoker and thus I’m sure I left my share of cigarette butts in places other than ashtrays.

That’s the list. I think I owned my part in each of those resentments, and admitted the truth about them. At least, I did the best I could today.

I’m happy to post this follow-up to the Rant-O-Rama – as good as it felt at the time to get that out, I admit that afterward it didn’t feel so great. Something about putting that negativity out there –however humorous it may have been– was incongruent with the theme of this blog. When I’m ranting, I’m not watching the blinking lights. It’s more like I’m cursing the darkness.

Interestingly, though — that post had the most views on the day it was published of any post I’ve made to date – and it’s the ONLY post I’ve published that prompted someone to click the “Like” star at the top of the blog window. Is this an indicator that people respond better to the angry, the negative, the disgruntled? Would I increase my subscribers if I started ranting on a regular basis?

Maybe. But I’d need to change the name of my blog. Something like “The Asshat Chronicles”, perhaps.

Rant-O-Rama

I mailed my taxes. My taxes included checks for payment of my tax owed. I owed a lot of money on these taxes. Well, any amount owed would be “a lot” to me because, frankly, I don’t have a lot of money in the first place.

It’s especially bitter this year because I am not accustomed to owing money to the tax man, but with my “new and improved” marital status and “higher-than-ever” taxable income amount, coupled with the “lack of write-offs” I used to claim as a “married homeowner”, well… I “got screwed” this year. And not in a “good way”.

So today I’m feeling pretty resentful and full of animosity and just plain bitchy. And since that’s not my normal state of mind these days, it’s feeling out of sorts and rather uncomfortable, to be honest. It’s an indicator of my current spiritual condition that I’m letting these tax payments color my mood so darkly. It is, after all, only money.

But still, I’m bitter today, and as a result, everything annoys me. So to take advantage of the situation, I’m going to use this opportunity to vent my frustrations about all the other things that piss me off today. If you’re looking for warm-and-fuzzy, you won’t find it below, so you might wanna just ignore this post and come back another day, I’m sure I’ll be back to my old self in no time.

Okay – on to my list of grievances. They are, in no particular order:

* The IRS. Okay, this one is, actually, in a particular order, cause they’re at the top of my grudge list today, no surprise there.

* The inappropriate and/or excessive use of quotation marks. If the second paragraph above looked weird to you, chances are you know what I’m talking about.

* People on the freeway who, when I signal my intent to change lanes, speed up to prevent me from pulling in front of them. These people are dicks.

* Haters. I hate them.

* Why my iPod is displaying  random album covers in association with the wrong song and artist. Case in point: Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time” displays the album cover for Queen’s Greatest Hits, and Natlie Merchant’s “Motherland” currently displays the album cover for NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”. The songs are right – just the album cover is off. And it’s annoying.

* People at work who spill their coffee / tea / creamer / sugar remnants all over the countertop and just leave it there. I’m willing to bet these people live like apes at home. Damned, dirty apes.

* Being asked by facebook friends to “post this as your status for just one hour” for their cause du jour. Look, I have as many “causes” as the next person. But I don’t harbor any delusions that my cause is going to be helped in any way by how many of my friends post it on their facebook walls. I see these as thinly veiled attempts to control me, and thus I shall resist.

* The state of American political discourse today, and how we have descended into a nation of opinionated jerks who don’t listen to a differing point of view and jump straight to the “shouting down” method of communication. Furthermore, the idea that –by posting a political “fact” on a website, bulletin board, or (hello!) facebook status update– someone is going to actually SWAY anyone’s opinion from left to right or right to left is ludicrous. Listen America: nobody — and I mean NOBODY — is as interested in your political opinions as you are. Chill out already.

* The Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t believe in hell, but if I did, I would delight in the idea that these fucktards are all going straight there when they die.

* People who abuse animals. They’re sitting on the bus to hell next to the aforementioned WBC fucktards.

* Bullies and child abusers and anyone who intentionally hurts a kid. We’re gonna need a bigger bus.

* My local donut shop that can’t seem to understand that donut holes do not — I repeat, DO NOT — need sprinkles on them.

* The jackhole who smokes cigarettes with plastic filters and leaves said filters littering the beach (if you read the last blog post, yes I’m still bitter about that).

* All those e-mails about “back in my day we didn’t have such-and-such and we turned out just fine.”  No, you didn’t. You’re just old and have selective memory, and you’re kind of an asshat. Stop forwarding that shit to me.

All right, I feel a little better having gotten that out. I’ll be back to my old self soon, but thanks for indulging my tantrum here.

If you agree with any of the above, leave a comment & let me know. And if there’s something I left off the list, feel free to leave a comment on that too.

And have a nice day!

Culture Wars

I recently had a few opportunities to expose my children to some life-enriching experiences that are outside their normal routine – one music-oriented, one athletic-oriented, and one service-oriented. Every parent wishes their kids to be well-rounded individuals and give them periodic glimpses of life’s rich and varied opportunities for new awareness, and so in the past week, there were three events that allowed me to share the awareness with my kids.

 If only they had any interest in them whatsoever.

 LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER ONE:  MUSIC

 The first event was a “Class Act” concert presented by their elementary school. It featured a brass quintet performing various musical selections on the stage of a local middle school auditorium. These concerts are held every year and feature the professional musician in residence who is working with the school that year as the students focus on a particular composer. This year it was a trombone player from the Orange County Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and the composer they studied was Beethoven. I questioned whether Beethoven would sound very good as performed by a brass quintet, but it was a free show, and it was also a chance for my children to listen to music outside of their normal playlists.

 Shortly after the performance began, I remembered why I swore last year I would never bring them to another one of these “Class Act” performances. My kids aren’t the most patient specimens as it is, but put them in a scenario where they have to (a) be quiet, (b) be still, and (c) be respectful, and I might as well be asking them to hold their breath for an hour straight – they just can’t do it.

 The trouble began before the show even started.

 “I can’t see,” Makena complained. The seats directly in front of us were full of adults – tall adults with large heads. After shuffling seats three times between the three of us, we ended up where we started and she repeated, “Dad, I still can’t see.”

 “Fine, you can sit on my lap when the performance starts. Now be quiet, the Principal is talking.” I whispered, aware that these metal folding chairs were placed practically on top of each other, and thus strange parents were barely inches away from us on either side, subject to every sound we made.

 “I want to go sit over there,” she pointed to the aisle, where kids were encouraged to sit on the floor so the limited chairs could go to the adults.

 “Go ahead then,” I replied, still trying to whisper quietly. It’s hard to whisper quietly when you’re annoyed and trying to hide it from gossipy parents on all sides. The Principal was on stage talking about what a fantastic evening of music we had ahead of us. I doubted it was going to be fantastic enough to be worth the headache I was getting.

 “I don’t wanna go unless Hayden goes,” she replied. This clearly wasn’t my problem, and I tried not to make it my problem, but I wasn’t liking how it was turning out. I turned to Hayden in hopes he would be feeling generous, but he cut me off before I could ask the question.

 “I’m not movin’”, he said, apparently channeling Rosa Parks.

 “Well I don’t wanna go alone,” she whined. “Dad, you come.”

 “Honey, I don’t want to sit on the floor,” I replied, realizing I probably sounded whiny myself. My head was pounding and I was losing my patience, and had pretty much kissed the “fantastic evening of music” goodbye.

 “Well I can’t SEE!” she declared in a not-even-trying-to-whisper way. The man in front of her turned and looked at us, guiltily, as if to say “Look, I’d leave if I could. I don’t wanna be here any more than you do”.

 “Sssshhhh!” I hissed. The Principal was instructing the children on the rules of proper concert behavior and my daughter was systematically breaking every one of them. My intended Evening of Culture was turning into just another battle of wills with my seven-year-old hell-raiser and my eleven-year-old surly- teenager-in-waiting.

 “But Dad,” she whispered, “I can’t see!”

 “Fine – sit on my lap when the concert begins!” I said. Then I remembered that last year we had the same arrangement — and by the end of that night my legs were so achy I could barely walk out of there under my own power. I wished I had kept my mouth shut.

 As soon as the show began, she climbed in my lap and I spent the next hour listening to various comments of the “I’m so bored!” variety, accompanied by heavy sighs, rolling eyes, and aching thighs.

 As God is my witness, we will not be attending “Class Act” next year.

 LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER TWO:  SPORTS

 Two nights later, I won four tickets and a parking pass to the Angel’s home opener in Anaheim. To have won anything was a thrill for me, since the only thing I’ve ever won in my life was in a radio call-in contest back in the 80’s: I won four tickets to see Warrant, a band I didn’t even like. (I still don’t know why I called in to the radio station –  bored at work, as I recall. The tickets went to waste; I couldn’t even give them away.) Anyway, flash forward twenty years and here I am, the recipient of tickets to an Angel game, which happily coincided with my kids’ first night of Spring Break. I thought, “Well, THIS will be a fun experience for them – who doesn’t love a ball game on a warm spring night?”

 The first flaw in my thinking was the whole ‘warm spring night’ business. It rained earlier in the day, and the afternoon was dry but chilly. It was not going to be a short-sleeved event. Still, not a problem, I thought – we’ll just bundle up.

 I announced the news to my kids. The reaction I got was, shall we say, mixed.

 “The Angel game? WOO-HOO!” Hayden cried, overjoyed, when I called him to tell him the news. “Awesome! I’m so excited!” I was surprised by his reaction, because he is not a sports enthusiast (neither is his Dad) and really doesn’t care to watch sporting events. His sister tends to be more into ball games, and has demonstrated remarkable hand-eye coordination and an athletic ability that is quite impressive. So the fact that Hayden was excited was great; I expected him to express disinterest and a “Do we have to go” type attitude. Happily, I was wrong.

 It was Makena who expressed that attitude.

 “Oh great. Baseball.” she said dully when her brother handed her the phone. “I don’t wanna go,”

 I smacked my forehead as my chin fell open. Unexpected, this was.

 “Whaddya mean you don’t wanna go? It’s an ANGEL game!” I said, incredulously.

 “Yeah, but I don’t like baseball” she replied casually. This, from a girl who, two weeks earlier, begged me for a baseball bat and a softball, and who demonstrated an ability to hit about nine out of every ten pitches later that day at the park. She’s a total natural. I found myself getting very annoyed and frustrated – this was supposed to be a good thing! A fun thing! And I was gonna make them have good fun, dammit!

 “We’ll talk about it when I get home” I said, checking my temper and forcing my voice to sound calmer than I felt. I felt a few hairs on my head go gray at the effort.

 “Okay,” she said, “but I’m not going.”

 I sighed and hung up, repeating the mantra “It’s not okay to hit a child; it’s not okay to hit a child, it’s not okay to hit a child…” Sometimes that mantra is the only thing standing between me and a Child Services intervention.

 I got home and centered myself before I walked in to the house, not wanting to be Angry Dad on the Friday night outset of Spring Break. I walked in the house and found Hayden in his pajamas. At 5:30 on a Friday. I took a deep breath and counted backward from ten.

 “Hey buddy, shouldn’t you be dressed?” I asked, wearing a smile that felt very forced.

 “I am dressed” he replied, not taking his eyes off the issue of Entertainment Weekly he held in his hands.

 “It’s going to be cold tonight, you need to dress warmer than that,” I said reasonably.

 He yanked down the waistband of his pajama bottoms and said, “Hey, I’ve got long underwear on under these!”

 “Go put on some pants,” I said, choosing not to debate his wardrobe. “Where’s Makena?”

 “Upstairs,” he replied. “I don’t have any pants.”

 “Yes you do”, I said.

 “No I don’t”, he responded. “I looked.”

 “If you looked,” I said, trying to keep my voice level, “you would have seen several pairs of jeans that I just put in your bottom drawer yesterday.”

 “Aww, jeans? I don’t wanna wear jeans, it’s Spring Break!” He gave me the look that I have recently discovered means “c’mon, Dad, be cool.”

 I had no idea why jeans appeared to be the enemy of Spring Break, but ignored it. “Just put some pants on. Makena!” I called up the stairs. “Come down here.”

 Angry footsteps thundered down the steps. She came downstairs sporting a pouting look of misery, as though I were taking her to the dentist – in a prison.

 “I. Don’t. Wanna. Go.” She folded her arms and sat on the couch.

 We went back and forth for a bit, me trying to get her to agree to come willingly so I didn’t have to make it An Order, and her responding in ever-increasing levels of distress. I came to realize that something was wrong. She was upset about something else, and the way she was dealing with it was to rain on the baseball game.

 At this point, she was lying on the couch, crying very deeply. I sat down on the floor next to her and put my hand on her heart. I breathed out the frustration and tension I’d been holding and cleared my head, remembering that this wailing tempest who was the object of my frustration at the moment was also my precious little girl who I loved unconditionally, and that clarity added a level of tenderness to my fingers as I brushed the hair out of her eyes and away from her forehead.

 “Did something happen at school today?” I asked her, gently.

 “Uh-h-huh,” she replied through the tears. She told me that she hugged a kid at school that she thought was someone else, and when she did, the kid pulled away from her and, I guess, freaked out. She said that her teacher made her apologize to the other student in front of everyone. Her face was red as she told me the story, the tears were soaking her face as she sobbed, “It was just a hug and – and — I was just so EMBARRASSED!” Then she sobbed into the couch cushion.

 Having just written a post on the embarrassment suffered in elementary school, I could completely empathize with her. “I understand,” I told her. And then I took the opportunity to share with her one of my many embarrassing stories from school, which not only took her away from her own unhappy tale, but also, eventually, made her smile.

 The smiling was a good sign. I decided to press further. “I’ll tell you what: we will go to the game tonight, and I’ll make you a bet: If the Angel’s pitcher scratches his butt ten times or more during the game, I’ll buy you guys ice cream afterward.”

 This received a giggle from my girl. “Okay,” she said.

 I can always count on one universal truth: butts are funny.

 We got to the game, and the evening changed. Makena was very interested in the rules of the sport, and I apparently impressed her with my knowledge. I explained what the various figures on the scoreboard meant, and what a double-play was, and why the crowd booed so often.

 Hayden’s attention was occupied all over the place. “Dad, where’s the popcorn guy?” Then, a minute later, “Ooo, a beach ball! Over here! Over here!” He would cheer when everyone else cheered, but I suspect he wasn’t actually watching the game as much as he watched everything else.

 Eventually, he reported “Dad – we got a butt scratch. That’s one.”

 Makena jumped in. “He did! He did! Dad, I saw it, the pitcher scratched his butt!”

 The woman in front of us turned to look at us, amused. I’ll say it again: butts are funny.

 Two innings later:  “This is fun – I want to LIVE here!” Makena said, all smiles and joy.

 “See?” I replied. “I told you you’d like it. Trust your Dad. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.” I flagged down the popcorn vendor.

 “Dad – butt scratch, there’s three!” she yelled excitedly.

 “Wait, I thought that was two?” I said.

“No, you missed one,” she said, testing to see if I’d buy it. I did.

 The popcorn was delivered down the aisle, followed by cotton candy a short time later. Makena fed me chunks of cotton candy while asking what an inning was.

 “This is the best night ever!” she declared, her face sparkling with pink sugar.

 “I think you’re right,” I replied, kissing her sticky cheek.

 “Dad – nut scratch. Does that count?” Hayden asked. “That should count.”

 The night got very cold and we huddled together under a blanket. We stayed until the end, watching the Angels lose by one run. When it was over, the kids lamented that we didn’t get to ten butt scratches. I said I’d buy them ice cream anyway, since they behaved so well at the game. Fresh delight broke out on their faces.

 As we made our way up the stadium steps to the exit, Makena took my hand and turned to me and asked, “Do you know any other sports, Dad?”

 “Sure,” I said, being mostly truthful. I mean, she didn’t ask how WELL I knew them, right? “I know lots of them.” 

 Kids are so easy to impress.

 LIFE-ENRICHING EXPERIENCE NUMBER THREE:  SERVICE

 I belong to a men’s group that has a requirement to perform an act of community service once a month. It can be anything, but it has to be for service outside of our organization, and it has to be for a specified amount of time.

 This month, I decided that I would include my kids in the act of service, to expose them to the need for volunteerism and the good feeling one gets from being of service to others, for fun and for free.

 The Surfrider Foundation was holding a beach clean-up event in Long Beach the other day, and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to let the kids volunteer for service. In the spirit of teaching them to be non-conformists, however, I opted to not join the herd of folks cleaning in Long Beach, but instead, held our own “Indie-Cleanup” with just the three of us in Seal Beach. Service is great, but let’s try and retain our individuality if we can, shall we?

 The kids were less than pleased when I broke the news to them. Groans of “aaawwwwwwwww” were followed by, “Do we HAVE to? It’s Spring Break!”

 I was getting real tired of the “it’s Spring Break” excuse.

 We stopped at the donut shop on the way. I figured that donuts make everything better, so they would likely add a dose of sugar-laden goodness to the morning’s effort. The day was sunny and beautiful, though not terribly warm. We wore sweatshirts to brace against the chill in the air.

 Seal Beach was fairly empty when we got there, and the parking lot was full of vacant spaces. I pulled into one and got out of the car to feed some cash into the parking meter. The kids remained seated in the car.

 “Let’s go guys,” I said, pulling the trash bags and rubber gloves out of the back of the car.

 “How long do we have to do this?” one of them asked, sounding tired and put-out already. Apparently the donuts didn’t help much.

 “One hour,” I replied, and pulled out my cell phone. “That’s all. Just one hour. When the alarm on my phone goes off, it will be quitting time.” The alarm on the phone has helped us often when setting time limits on events – the kids take it as law. No one disputes the cell phone alarm.

 So I set it for an hour and ten minutes. Just cause I knew they’d loaf a bit.

 We put on our rubber gloves and opened up the trash bags, and set out across the sand. I told them that anything natural – leaves, sticks, shells – can stay on the ground. Everything else should go in the bags.

 I was invigorated by the sea air and the sense of doing good for the community, and I was a trash-collecting machine. My bag soon filled up with an astonishing array of refuse. I couldn’t walk more than a few steps without seeing something else that needed to be picked up. I saved the bigger stuff for the kids to get, to give them a sense of progress. Still, there was no shortage of large items – there was just so much trash there.

 Hayden got into the spirit, keeping pace with me and enthusiastically picking up items and tossing them in his bag. Makena lagged behind us, examining shells and picking up the occasional trash piece. Her heart really wasn’t in it.

 “Dad, how long has it been? Can you check your phone?” she asked.

 I checked my phone. “It’s been ten minutes, Mak. C’mon, let’s get busy.”

 Heavy sigh back at me. But she went on collecting.

 While there seemed to be no limit on the kinds of items found lying on the sand, the perennial favorites were in large supply: fast food condiment packets, plastic drinking straws, random scraps of candy wrappers and chip bags, screw-on plastic bottle caps – I alone found dozens of each of these items. Among the singular items found were one sock, one flip-flop sandal, one pair of women’s sunglasses, one plastic ball, and one used condom. Stay classy, Seal Beach.

 But the most common item, by far, was the cigarette butt. I alone picked up hundreds of them. I couldn’t walk more than five steps before encountering another. They were everywhere. I even found one spot where some jackhole who chose to smoke cigarettes using those plastic cigarette filters had left six of the plastic filters lying on the sand. This especially irked me, for some reason. The person went to all the trouble of using plastic filters, and yet couldn’t take the extra step of packing them out when they left. I tried to not wish a lip infection upon this person, but couldn’t help it – it sort of slipped out.

 “Kids, this is another reason why smoking is a really, really bad idea,” I said, holding a handful of cigarette butts in my gloved hand. “Not only is it terrible for your health, but they end up as trash and wind up all over the ground. Look at all of these.”

 I waited for them to contemplate man’s insensitivity to the environment, expecting them to tear up like the Native American looking over the landfill in that old 70’s commercial.

 Instead:  “Dad, can you check your phone? How much longer?” 

 I glared at them from behind my sunglasses for a moment, not-saying the things that immediately popped into my head. After a few seconds, I pulled out my phone.

 “Thirty minutes. We’re halfway done” I said.

 Another groan. Again I fought the urge to respond. I debated whether to mention how many kids in the country would absolutely LOVE to be at the beach on a beautiful Saturday morning picking up trash, because many of them live thousands of miles from the nearest ocean – many of them have never even SEEN an ocean in person – and here they were taking it for granted. But I didn’t say it. It’s just not something in their awareness  yet, and these landlocked children I was thinking of would carry no significance for them. I was dealing with a seven and eleven year old. I had to reduce my expectations of them.

 Eventually, the alarm on my phone began to sound, and I held it up to them so they could hear it. Cries of “Yay!” went up, and they dropped their bags and stripped off their rubber gloves. I’d gotten a little over an hour of community service out of them, and so we sat down on the sand where we ended up and talked for a while, laughed and joked and sang songs and talked about school. We stayed another half hour there, in that little huddle, lying on the sand and letting the sun warm us. I felt good at having this experience with them.

 “Now, doesn’t it feel good to have spent the morning being of service to the community?” I asked. And then, realizing I was just feeding them a response I expected, I re-phrased my question. “How do you guys feel now, after doing this service?”

 Hayden:  “I’m tired.”

 Makena: “My feet hurt.”

 I sighed. The replies were honest. I settled for that.

Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few

I don’t like to make mistakes. This is a problem, considering that I’m human and thus making mistakes kinda goes with the territory. But I hate making them nonetheless. And I try not to as much as I can. And I usually deny making them when I do. 

The reason, I’ve come to realize, is that I don’t want to look “bad”. I don’t want others to see me as the flawed being that I am. I don’t want to be observed in making a mistake. It’s all part of my grandiosity – the idea that I’m supposed to be better than human, that I should be perfect enough to not make errors. 

Where does this fear of being seen making mistakes come from? It doesn’t matter, really. The solution doesn’t lie in the past, it lies in the present, so trying to analyze my history to pinpoint the exact moment where things went wrong is about as useful as trying to figure out why I didn’t pick the winning lotto numbers for last week’s draw. It won’t change what happened, or the fact that I still have to spend my days working for The Man.   

But sometimes the stories from childhood persist, and the old humiliations just won’t fade into the distance the way I’d like. Sometimes they linger, and haunt the present – usually in moments of quiet solitude, like the minutes before sleep, or in the reverie of an impromptu daydream. Sometimes those memories creep in and need to be acknowledged in the light of maturity. Maybe that’s the only way those old ghosts will finally get put to rest. Or maybe it’s just useful to share one’s embarrassing moments in the hopes that someone else will identify with it, and say “Hey, that happened to me too.” So today I share two moments where I made mistakes – memories that haven’t left me, even after thirty-some years. 

My first experience with humiliation was when I was in the first grade, and having just written that sentence, it occurs to me that a child doesn’t usually experience things like humiliation until their school years – until they are old enough to be aware of other kids like them. The first few years spent at home are –generally speaking—pretty safe, at least from the social requirements defined by an educational institution. But once a child is put in amongst the herds of other kids, it is open season on embarrassment opportunities. This season lasts for about a dozen years.    

It was my first day of school –my very first day—when I was called out by a teacher. My first foray into the world of the School Lunch had just ended, and we were lined up to go outside to this thing called Recess. I had no idea what it was or what we were doing, but everyone was lining up so I did too. I was excited – this was all new to me, this whole schooling thing, and I was very interested in what was to come next. We were led out of the building and into the corridor just outside the door, where we were stopped once more. I suddenly understood we were going to the playground across the street, and my anticipation grew. The slide! The swings! The merry-go-round! I waited for the line to start moving again, but something was delaying our departure. Finally I couldn’t contain the excitement anymore, and as we stood there waiting to go, I exuberantly exclaimed, “Let’s get this train rollin’!” 

A stilled hush descended upon the kids, as though a funeral service had begun. Heads turned to look at me, shocked faces with wide eyes and round mouths forming silent O’s of alarm. A cloud passed in front of the sun, and somewhere, off in the distance – the caw of a crow. 

The teacher at the head of the crowd – a leathery bat named Mrs. Van Fleet – turned to the two lines of kids (one line for boys, one line for girls) and strode down the middle of them like a ball-busting military commander inspecting the barracks. She saw that everyone was staring my way and approached me with a distinct purpose: to put me in my place. She came to a halt in front of me, staring down at me with the disdain usually shown to large insects discovered in the shower.

“What is your name, young man?” she asked me, her cheap green eye shadow resembling the decayed carcass of a dead chameleon (at least, that’s how I remember it).

I was bewildered, because it was my first day of school and all of a sudden I’ve got a teacher mad for some reason. I realized I’d done something wrong but didn’t know what it was. I was in trouble. And I didn’t know why.

 “Terry Parker” I said, wondering why she was asking my name. I briefly wondered if they could put six year old kids in jail. 

She spoke slowly and loudly – either to make sure all the other kids heard this lesson, or because she thought I might be retarded. “Mr. Parker”, she declared, with all the volume of a town crier, “we do not speak when we are in line. And we certainly do not shout when we are in line. When we are in line, we remain silent!” There was no kindness in her look or her tone, no sense of ‘okay, you’re new here so I’ll cut you some slack this once’. Nothing but cold, rigid rule enforcement. “Understand?” 

I nodded silently, eyes wide, terrified. She turned around and walked briskly back to the front of the line. Years later, when watching Darth Vader striding across the movie screen with his black cape flowing behind him and the brass tones of the Imperial March accompanying his footsteps, I would flash back to Mrs. Van Fleet stalking to the head of the lines on my first day of school.

I glanced about me and noticed all the kids were still looking at me – some were discrete about it, glancing from the corners of their eyes; others were gaping slack-jawed like they’d just been pulled from a car wreck. I felt my face burn and my eyes water – my first experience with humiliation was at hand. 

I walked forward listlessly, no longer caring about the slide or the swings or the merry-go-round. I just wanted to go home. And I wondered how all the other kids seemed to know about this line-up gag-order except me. It didn’t occur to me until years later that most of those kids probably learned the rules in Kindergarten. I didn’t go to Kindergarten, so I was a total novice at this whole “keep your mouth shut” business in first grade.

So my first day of school introduced me to public embarrassment. It was not the last time.

I continued to learn the Ways of School in first grade. In my classroom, our desks were arranged in columns – each one contained six desks. I sat in the column nearest the center, four rows back from the front of the classroom, with two students behind me. One day our teacher – a wizened old harpy named Mrs. Coonrod – instructed the first column of students nearest her desk to go to the blackboard, and told everyone else to take out a sheet of paper and a pencil. 

I got the sheet of paper – the kind used in elementary schools that is unrefined and kind of brownish, with little chunks of tree bark still embedded in them, with solid blue lines separated by a dotted line in between so little hands can learn to write their letters – and I got the pencil. I wondered what the kids at the blackboard were going to do. I wondered what we were going to do. 

Mrs. Coonrod told us she was going to say a word and everyone was to write the word down. Pretty simple instructions, I thought, and by God I was going to follow them – I was already a little afraid of Mrs. Coonrod, and was fairly convinced she was secretly a witch. It had something to do with the glaring shock of dyed red hair on top of the wrinkly head, and the small, crooked yellow teeth that she displayed when she opened her mouth (notice I didn’t say “when she smiled”, because ol’ Mrs. Coonrod never smiled). She seemed ancient, older than time, and mean as an icepick. I was sure she would turn me to stone if I looked her in the eye. 

“The first word is ‘dog’”, she said. The children at the front of the room picked up their chalk and each wrote d-o-g on the blackboard. The children at their desks took their pencils and wrote on their papers. I did the same, writing d-o-g as neatly as I possibly could.

The teacher looked at each of the words written on the board by each of the students, examining them to ensure they had all spelled it correctly and in proper form. “Okay,” she said. “Erase.” 

The kids at the blackboard picked up their erasers and erased the word they had written. I, wanting to follow the instructions that were given, turned my pencil over and erased the word I had written on my paper. When I was done, I brushed the eraser shavings from the sheet with my hand and returned the pencil to writing position. 

“The next word is ‘bat’”, she announced, and again the kids at the board commenced writing the word in chalk. I wrote b-a-t in the slightly smudged space on the paper that had previously shown the word “dog”. 

I knew how to spell these words – I started reading well before entering first grade and had no difficulty with words. But it was my first experience with spelling exercises in a classroom. I didn’t know how they were supposed to be done. Obviously. 

“Erase”, said the teacher. The kids erased the chalk. I erased the word on my paper. The space on the first line where I’d written the previous two words was now a darker smudge. I blew the shavings off the page. 

Mrs. Coonrod said, “The next word is ‘sun’”. Kids wrote on the blackboard, and I wrote on paper. The teacher reviewed the blackboard, and when she was satisfied with what she saw, she again said “Erase”. The children at the board erased their work. 

I, too, erased the word from my paper. Three words written, three words erased. The paper now had a spot on it that looked like a bruise. I tried erasing a little more to clean it up, but it just smeared the spot into a bigger bruise. 

This went on for a few more minutes. 

“Cat. Erase.” 

“Fun. Erase.” 

“Sit. Erase” 

Each word was written down on my paper, and each word was erased upon the teacher’s command. At one point the paper was so worn down in that one spot, it tore a little bit, and I had to write lighter and erase more gently. That little space on the first line of the page ended up looking like a crime scene.

At no point do I remember thinking that what I was doing was odd or incorrect. I had never been in school before, so what did I have to compare it to? I simply did what I was told: I wrote the word, and I erased the word. I had no reason to question what I was doing. 

Finally, the teacher said to the kids at the blackboard, “You may take your seats”, and they all sat down. To the rest of us, she said, “Okay, please put your name at the top corner of your paper, and pass your papers to the front of the class.”  

It was not until the person sitting behind me handed me her paper, and the paper of the person behind her, that I realized my mistake. I looked at their papers, with a long list of words written on each of them, and compared them to my sheet of paper, with one word written on it in the middle of a large dark cloud. I froze, horrified. 

The girl sitting in front of me turned expectantly to me, waiting for me to pass the papers forward. In my mortified daze, I just handed her the papers, not thinking to bury mine beneath the other two. She looked at my sheet, with the one word and the failure cloud, and looked at me with an “are you kidding?” expression that brought about that new sensation, the burning face – embarrassment and humiliation. She added her paper to the stack and passed them forward – leaving mine on top for the next kid to see. 

That kid also turned to look at me. He saw my paper and apparently felt a need to turn and see who it was that could be so stupid. I pretended not to notice that he, too, passed the papers forward while leaving mine on top. I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide until it was over. 

Mrs. Coonrod was collecting each stack of papers from the students in front, and she was nearly to our row. The child who sat in the front of my row was a little sandy-haired girl named Shannon, and I’ll always remember Shannon for two reasons: one reason was because once Mrs. Coonrod pulled Shannon out of her chair by her hair because Shannon was not moving fast enough (pretty much solidifying Coonrod’s witch status). The other reason was because, on the day of that first spelling exercise, Shannon took one look at my Paper Fail, glanced behind her like the other kids did – and then kindly put her paper on top of mine before handing the stack to the teacher. Sometimes when I think of what angels look like, I picture Shannon in white robes with wings and a halo. 

Sadly, it wasn’t successfully hidden. Mrs. Curtainrod had apparently caught a glimpse of my paper before Shannon was able to conceal it, and so she paused at the front of my row, removed Shannon’s paper from the top of the stack, and looked at mine.

Then she held it up in the air, facing me – and the rest of the class. “Terry? What happened here?” she asked.

I will admit, I don’t believe she was purposely trying to humiliate me. But she also wasn’t trying not to, either. She just held the paper there, the other children looking at it and then looking at me. Some of them looked confused; others wore smiles – some of which were mean-spirited, and some of which were sympathetic. The heat in my face could have melted the plastic chair in which I sat. 

“I don’t know,” was all I could muster in reply. It was all I said. Now that I think of it, it was a perfectly appropriate answer, under the circumstances.

 Thankfully, she did not press further, and just moved to the next row. I think I left my body at that point.

These two moments of humiliation experienced in my first few weeks of schooling have clearly stayed with me for over three decades. Could they be the seeds from which grew my utter fear of being witnessed in making a mistake? Is it possible that these scenarios – and dozens of others like them over the years – helped form the belief that no one must see me make mistakes? I don’t know. Maybe. But it hardly matters what “caused” it. Now that I have awareness of it, what matters is what I do differently today. 

Writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard said, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” My own fear of making mistakes led me to a trap called perfectionism. And the only way out of that trap is to reduce my expectations of myself – to expect that I’m gonna screw up now and then, and that it is okay. And if I happen to be seen by others when I screw up, that too is okay – because everyone has screwed up at one time or another. And they will again. Everyone makes mistakes, and yet I judge my mistakes as worse than anyone else’s. That’s the grandiose part. That’s the part that needs to be let go. 

I survived first grade, just as I survived all the grades that followed. I made tons of mistakes that were observed by hundreds of people over those years. And as much as I like to think that all those witnesses still remember each and every failure of mine in spectacularly vivid detail, the truth is, they don’t. Nobody is as interested in me as I am. 

Today, I am becoming more comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know.” It really is a perfectly acceptable answer. I’m also working on “I was wrong.” That one is a little harder, but I’m getting better. It’s hard for me to admit at times. As I mentioned, I’m an extremely grandiose person, and that means I can believe I’m much better –and much worse– than everyone else on the planet. 

As the saying goes, “I ain’t much, but I’m all I think about.”