Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving - A User's Manual"

Written the morning after Thanksgiving…

In the past, I have mentioned our bodywork specialist whom I call “The Horse Doctor” because he works three days a week on horses.  In his less reputable days, Dean, formerly an L.A. police officer who still teaches self-defense to LAPD “SWAT” teams, was an active gang member in whatever “mean streets” exist in New Jersey.

When I once asked him how, with no formal training whatsoever, he had learned his restorative bodywork techniques, Dean explained that his process is simply the opposite of the strategy he practiced during his gangbanging days.  Now it’s “How can I fix that?”  Then it was, “How can I cause that?”   

Thanksgiving morning during my meditation, I decided to be as helpful as I possibly could in preparation for the upcoming festivities.   Since, you know, nobody believes they are deliberately unhelpful – the way no one admits to deliberately evil –  

“Am I deliberately evil?  I would say ‘No.’  I am good, with inadvertently evil consequences.”

I thought I was always helpful at Thanksgiving.  I served as the genial host entertaining the company, while other people (primarily Dr. M and daughter Anna) did everything else.  It seemed like an equitable division of labor.  I am a really good host.

Just in case, however, I decided to do more.  And, in order to be helpful – which I believed I already was and had therefore no distinct understanding as to what to do differently – I decided, ala Dean, to deconstruct my previous behavior and do exactly the opposite. 

What results is a list entitled, “How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving.”  Although I sincerely believe… never mind.  I am trying to be constructive.  (Along Those Lines:  This list was prepared to alert me to doing the opposite.  If you think, however, that you may have in the past been overly helpful on Thanksgiving, this list can be a useful directive, offering practical suggestions for doing less.  A list with two purposes – That’s quite a list.)
Okay, here we go.

How Not To Be Helpful On Thanksgiving:

When asked to assist with some preparatory chore, always respond in a tone suggesting that you would much rather watch football.  Cooperation, I believe, requires total honesty.  It is essential to know exactly who you’re working with.

Take your time before beginning that assignment, in hopes they will eventually forget they asked you and either do it themselves or find somebody else to do it, anyone, Lord knows, being more capable handling virtually kitchen-related activity than I am.  I say, if you want something done right, ask the best person available, not someone who just happens to be lying around, watching football.  Not being lazy.  It’s just simple, common sense.

When nosing around the “Command Center”, offer a superior alternative for accomplishing whatever task they are engaged in.  Then casually wander away, knowing you have saved precious time, upgrading their efficiency.

Express genuine concern about why everything’s taking so long.  And if you discover that a mistake has been made – like the cranberries had to be redone because the original batch was inedible – call them unmercifully on it, thus providing them the opportunity to purge themselves of their guilt, allowing them, their consciences now clear, to proceed unburdened to their other responsibilities.

Staving off subsequent embarrassment, wonder out loud if they have prepared enough food.  If they are particularly low on, say, stuffing, scoop up a big handful of it before heading away, thus requiring them, against their wishes, to prepare more.

Check out the carefully planned seating arrangement, enabling a salvaging “Heads Up” to an impending catastrophe.  (Wait.  How could anyone say that’s unhelpful?)

If numerous children are invited, bring up, as a cautionary reminder, that one of them is believed to have head lice.

When asked to slip out to the supermarket for some forgotten ingredient, always ask, “Do we really need that?”  They will thank you when your services are suddenly needed at home and you’re not off on some ridiculous wild goose chase.

Never be proactive in any way.  Resist the impulse to spontaneously jump in, for fear of throwing a monkey wrench into a highly functioning, well-oiled machine.

Monitor food smells emanating from the kitchen, averting the telltale inclusion of cumin, which a lot of people don’t like.

When you see somebody struggling with a gigantic pot of boiling water, go up and give that person a hug.  Do not be deterred by their resistance.  Some people are embarrassed by overt displays of public affection.

At the “Toast of Appreciation”, begin the acknowledgements by announcing that you yourself peeled two potatoes, adding facetiously that “Other people helped too.”  Your co-co-workers will love it, playing along with the hilarity by pretending they don’t.

During after-dinner “cleanup”, stay completely out of the way.  Even moderate alcohol consumption can be imperiling to delicate stemware.

If you turn out the lights in the kitchen while someone is still doing the dishes, explain that you neglected to see them them because your primary consideration was saving electricity.

Expect no thanks for your participation.  Though, to spare their embarrassment concerning that oversight – they’re exhausted and they forget things – casually remind them of your essential contribution.

And there you have it.  Now all that’s required is to take this “List of Unhelpfulness” and simply turn it on its head.  Try it.  Even if you believe you have been helpful all along.

I did.

… And nobody noticed.

But you know what?  That’s fine.

Next year,

I’m going to be helpful again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"File: ''The Creative Process' - Subsection: 'Surrender'"

Sometimes, a post I’ve just written sparks an idea about what I could write next.  An example of that occurred yesterday.  I am beginning to wish that it hadn’t.

What did I write yesterday?  I am not asking you; I am asking myself.  Oh, yeah.  An investigation examining the “Life Lesson” implications in a pair of shrunken bright orange ankle socks.  It would be unsurprising if you forgot, though it is somewhat disturbing when I do.  By the way, after an assiduous search for analogical implications, I came up substantially empty.

Still, we had fun along the way, didn’t we? 

Okay so sometime while considering how to write yesterday’s post – at a preliminary stage if you want specifics and who doesn’t? – I thought of including a relevant interlude on Archimedes who, while taking a bath, discovered the theory of… wait, I have to Google the precise nature of Archimedes’ Principle; I know it is generally about “Displacement”…  Just give me a moment.  This shouldn’t take long. 


Okay, I’m back. 

(Confession:  A majority of that time was spent Googling “Archimedes’ Principle.”  A surprising amount, however, went to determining exactly how many dots to include delineating the intervening “Waiting Interval.”  I am assiduously committed to getting things perfect.  Not for my sake, understand.  But for yours.)

Archimedes, who lived in the Third Century B.C., is considered the greatest mathematician of all time.  It seems unusual to me that they closed the door on “The Greatest Mathematician of All Time” competition twenty-three hundred or so years ago.  You would think somebody more recent would have beaten him out.  If I were a mathematician and I knew that the “Greatest Mathematician of All Time” title had been permanently retired, I’d have abandoned mathematical research and become an accountant.  I mean, what’s the point?

But, you know, maybe that’s just me.

As the story goes, Archimedes, relaxing in an apparently overfilled bathtub, discovered the method determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape.  He then ran naked into the streets screaming “Eureka!” meaning “I have found it!” choosing the pretentious “Eureka!” as he was unable to speak English.      

Analogizing – while pursuing an overarching analogy – I planned to link Archimedes’ discovery during the mundane process of taking a bath with my discovering an immutable “Life Lesson” in a pair of shrunken bright orange ankle socks.  In the end, the “Archimedes” material did not make the cut, partly because of “length” concerns, and partly because it was only a partially matching analogy, since Archimedes discovered a principle in his established “Area of Inquiry”, while I sought “Eternal Verities” beyond the limited purview of ankle socks.

Still, there appeared to be something there – a flicker of possibility for an impending blog post.

I once read a play about Socrates who, being honored because of his courage – he had fought gamely against an advancing army, sitting helplessly on the ground, because, unbeknownst to his compatriots, he had a giant thorn stuck in his foot and he was unable to retreat.  Later during the city state’s victory celebration, the giant thorn still embedded in his foot, when called upon to come up and receive his medal for courage, Socrates remained seated, inquiring sincerely of the assemblage,

“What exactly is ‘Courage’?” 

(Inadvertently creating the “Socratic Method.”)

I thought of structuring my blog post in a similar fashion. 

Except funnier.

Suppose Archimedes bursts out of the domestic “Bathing Area”, excitedly grabs Mrs. Archimedes by the arm, rushing her back to the scene of the “discovery” – the bathtub whose overflowing waters had been displaced in an amount proportional to his body volume – and her immediate reaction is,

“Get the mop.”

So you see where that’s going – the “Unappreciated Genius” and the long-suffering wife who’s had it “up to here” with his irresponsible shenanigans.  The question then is: 

How exactly do I handle it?

Following the above “Socrates” scenario, Archimedes could have fabricated the “discovery” story as an elaborate subterfuge, masking Archimedes’ oblivious carelessness while conducting the experiment.

“I may have dampened the “Bathing Area”, but I discovered ‘Displacement’!”

Punchline:  He later learns he was actually correct.

That’s kind of something, isn’t it?

An alternative direction is the “Battle of the Spouses”, the wife complaining he never helps around the house, Archimedes bewailing her dispiriting lack of interest in his work. 

ARCHIMEDES:  “It’s just water.  We can clean it up.”


ARCHIMEDES:  “Fine.  “The Greatest Mathematician of All Time” will clean it up.  After I run naked in the streets yelling, “Eureka!’”

MRS. ARCHIMEDES:  “First, clean it up.  Then, run naked in the streets.”

So there’s that – the “Bickersons”, of Mediterranean antiquity.

Finally, I considered a bisected “He Said, She Said” construction, where I repeat the debacle/slash/historical breakthrough from alternative perspectives.  But I decided against it.  The approach lacks the immediate fireworks of interpersonal confrontation.  And I would be unable to include the wife complaining, “You mildewed the bath mats, and you faded the floor frescos!” with Archimedes responding, “I bet you can’t say that fast – ‘You faded the floor frescos – You faded the floor frescos.’” 

It appeared to be the end of the line.  Pondering the difficulty, I intuited an insuperable obstacle in the undertaking.  At its conceptual heart, “The Battle-Ax Wife and the Beleaguered Husband” scenario felt irretrievably clich├ęd. 

It was now down to this:

I had to abandon the post.    

Or find an imaginative way not to.

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Looking For Parallels"

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  Sigmund Freud (maybe)

We search for significant meaning in things.  Order.  Structure.  Metaphorical connection.  The alternative is chaos, and chaos gives you a stomachache.  (It gives me one and I can’t imagine I’m alone.  Although it may have possibly been a coincidence, my perception of chaos contemporaneous with eating some carelessly prepared halibut.) 

Something unfortunate happened.  No big deal, but I’d have preferred a more positive outcome.  Almost instinctively, to keep the misfortune from becoming an absolute “write-off”, I wondered if the troubling event might at least suggest some illuminating insight or heightened understanding.

Here’s what happened.  I know it’s small, but “small” does not preclude historic “breakthrough” reverberations.  It has happened before.  Don’t ask me where, but it definitely rings a bell.

Okay, here it is.

Accompanying the purchase of new sneakers, I bought a pair of bright orange ankle socks.   

Let’s pause here for a second.

For decades, from high school gym onwards, I was “Mr. Half-Calf Sports Socks”, and nothing else.  “Half-Calf” was the fashion in those days.  Ankle socks were not manly.  “Anklets”, they called them.  Hardly a masculine descriptive. 

Bonjour.  Je suis Maurice ’The Rocket’ Richard and I wear ‘anklets.’”

No.  Mon Dieu!  Impossible!

You want a fully extended sports sock.  It’s the same price.  Why not get the whole sock?

My daughter Anna turned me on to ankle socks.  Apparently, the prevailing fashion had changed and I had neglected to take notice.  Now, having been an “ankle socks” person for some time, I have taken the next sartorial leap and bought a pair of bright orange ones.    

And here’s what happened.

I wore my bright orange ankle socks.  I put them in the laundry.  And when they came back…

They had shrunken so much I could barely pull them over my heel. 

After a single washing, my bright orange ankle socks were now unusable “foot mittens.”

And I thought to myself, wistful for the pedal reliability of the past,

“This would never have happened if I had not abruptly abandoned my “Half-Calfs.”

I mean, all socks presumably shrink.  But a “Half-Calf” (as opposed to “half-caff”, which is a type of coffee I neither drink nor entirely understand; how do you take out half the caffeine?) 

A mid-calf sock shrinks – it is admittedly lower on the leg – but it remains wearable.  My pygmy bright orange ones were still wearable, just not by me.  My grandchildren, maybe, if they were open to grandparental hand-me-downs.  But to me, they were entirely useless.

Except, perhaps, as an analogy.

A valuable “Teaching Moment”, courtesy of diminuated footwear.

I thought hard about it.  What can I learn from this, and pass along to others and have them say “Thank you”?

The underlying lesson occuring to me involved “Margin For Error.”

That was the issue.  Inherently small socks, made smaller still in the laundry, slipping irretrievably beneath the “Line of Unability.”  That was their downfall.  The socks were conceptually “too close to the line.”

And they inevitably paid the price.

What, I considered, was that like? 

My original connection involved people who waited till the last minute to study for their exams, and failed, because they had waited till the last minute to study for their exams.  Choosing to study the minimum amount of time needed to satisfactorily “scrape by”, they had “cut it too close”, suffering the inexorable wrath of the educational grading system. 

Their “Margin For Error” had been dangerously precarious.  And now, like some unusable item of apparel, they were terminal “discards.”

That was pretty good.  But it lacked the distinguishing pizzazz.  Possibly because it was obvious.  

Then I recalled something else, a forgotten proposition, returned front and center to my consciousness.

I had been pondering the idea that people whom our culture adjudges “less attractive” were more preoccupied with their looks than models and movie stars.

Why?  Because they were considerably “closer to the line.”

Beyond which lay the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Being self-aggrandizing in nature, I imagine this counter-intuitive illumination earning me the Nobel Prize for “I Never Thought of That But You’re Right”, which they would, first, have to inaugurate and then bestow upon me.
I see myself being interviewed, asked again and again,

“When did it first come to you?”

And responding, “You know, there’s a funny story about that.  I was in this sporting goods store, buying a new pair of sneakers.  And the salesperson, Justin… or was it Jeremy? – asked, ‘Do you need any accessories?’….”

And then, because I am delusional but not crazy, I return finally back to earth.

And look “Reality” square in the face.

An immortalizing “Symbolic Representation”? 

Probably not.

More likely, they were exactly what they were:

A pair of shrunken bright orange ankle socks,

Destined for the trash.