Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why? Or Rather, Why Not?

One of my surly pre-teen daughters and I had a bit of a “come to Jesus” meeting this weekend. Or as my father would put it, “an eyeball gathering.” I had made a list of chores that needed to be done, and then my daughters and I took turns choosing items to do from the list. We each ended up with three items ranging from taking the trash out to folding the laundry to doing the dishes.

To try to keep the kids from getting overwhelmed, I broke garbage detail into two steps – taking all the trash from the house out to the big green can was one step, and then taking the can out to the curb was the other. I did the same on laundry, only I broke it into even more steps (take the dirty laundry to the laundry room was one, sorting it was two, move things from the washer to the dryer, etc., was three, and four was haul it back upstairs, and finally, five was fold it/put it away). I thought I would be more likely to get voluntary compliance if each chore was divided into manageable pieces – rather like eating the elephant one bite at a time.

One child – who shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty, in case she ever reads this – selected “moving things between the washer and dryer” as one of her chores. However, silly me! I forgot to add “load the washer” on the chore list, and this delightful (is the sarcasm coming through?) youngster was quick to point out my error. I tried to explain that you can hardly move clothes out of the washer, over to the dryer, if you don’t put anything in the washer first, can you? I apologized for not putting it on the list, but honestly – did I really have to? If I have to do that, then why don’t I just go ahead and put “put detergent in washer” and “push start button” on the list, too?!?

We were going back and forth like that and I was getting more and more frustrated (funny how kids can do that to you!). I finally just explained that there are certain universal rules that apply to every group, whether you are talking about a pack of wolves, a colony of bees, a company, or a family unit.

Rule 1 is that all members of the group have to pull their share of the load for the betterment of the group as a whole. Not all wolves hunt, but the ones who don’t, help care for the young, or keep watch over the pack. All bees collect pollen for the use of the whole hive, and any who don’t, are caring for the colony’s larvae and the hive itself. Employees work to make a profit for their company, so that it can stay in business and will be able to keep paying them, so that they can pay for their homes, groceries, etc., and so on.

Rule 2 is that there is always a leader, whether it’s the alpha wolf, the queen bee, the boss, or the parent. And Rule 3, if you don’t pull your fair share of the weight, the entire group suffers and you are punished as a result. The wolves don’t eat, the drones are driven from the hive, poor-performing employees are fired, kids get grounded or put on restriction or parents get reported to DCFS, etc., etc. It’s just the way the world works, and there is no escaping it.

I was feeling kind of proud of myself for explaining things so logically, and tying household chores into life lessons that would, hopefully, serve my girl for the rest of her life. I was quickly deflated, however, when she said, “Yes, but why do I have to do it? Why me?”

Which brings me to my real point: why me? Why any of us? There are a lot of mysteries in life that I have not resolved, and a lot of questions for which I have no answers. But this question of “why me” is one I actually think I might have figured out. The answer is: why not me? Everybody has something. If you ever meet anyone who looks like they don’t, it’s just because you haven’t figured out what their “something” is yet. Because trust me – everybody has something.

So when I feel myself succumbing to a bit of a Pity Party and I start thinking, “Why do I have to have a kid with autism?” or “Why do I have to get a divorce?” or “Why did my sewer have to back up and flood the basement?” or even “Why do I have to weigh 35 lbs. more than I want to?” I just remind myself, “Why not me?” What makes me so special that I should be exempt from any problem in particular, or from problems in general? There is always someone else who has it worse, so shouldn’t I be willing to shoulder my share of the load -- out of gratitude that I am not that someone having it worse, if nothing else? Shouldn’t we all be willing to step up when it’s our turn?

My explanation for “why her” didn’t convince my Little Miss that she should just put the laundry in the washing machine and start it, unfortunately. There was w – a – y more drama after that (heavy sigh!). It was just another day in my house, that's all. Why not? ;)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Life Lessons: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

I may have told this story before, so if this is familiar to you already, I apologize. I guess that’s how you know you’re getting old – you start re-telling the same old stories, thinking they are new!

Anyway, when I was in the 8th grade, I took algebra from a very funny man. I loved Mr. Larsen – he was hilarious! He’d write equations on the blackboard (we still had blackboards in those days – ha!), demonstrating various problems and their solutions, and then turn around and wink at the class and say, “See that? Smooth as a baby’s bottom!” Or another personal favorite, “Boy, that’s slicker than Vaseline on a doorknob!” Or sometimes, it was "slicker than snot!" He really made algebra fun and (relatively) easy.

For both my 7th and 8th grade years, Mr. Larsen was the only math teacher who taught the more advanced math classes, so I naturally assumed I would have him for geometry in the 9th grade, too. That’s just the way things went. So, I was quite surprised to receive my class schedule just before 9th grade started, and see that I was assigned to take geometry from a Mr. Daly instead of Mr. Larsen. I was devastated.

I complained to my parents, who said, “Give him a chance! You never know, he may be even better than Mr. Larsen!” I was skeptical, but saw their point. The first day of 9th grade dawned, and I (rather sullenly) went to my geometry class, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.

It turned out to be even worse than I had feared. Mr. Daly was a huge man, shaped like a mountain. Or, maybe that was just my perception. He only seemed like a mountain due to his partiality for wearing brown corduroy pants and green plaid, flannel shirts that made his lumpy, close-shaven skull look like the snowy peak of Mount Baldy as it sat on his wide, sloping shoulders. I craned my neck up to watch his face as he paced the front of the classroom. Like Mount Baldy, Mr. Daly seemed just as cold. He wore wire-rimmed glasses that slid down on his nose as he tipped his head back to survey the class, and his face was set in a permanent scowl.

Knowing that looks can be deceiving, I tried my best to be optimistic. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad…. That thought lasted just as long as it did for him to call the class to order, and hear him say, “That was once…” when no one complied. He called us to order a second time, and was met with only partial success. “That was twice,” he said. He tried one more time to gain the classes’ attention, and then BAM!!! Out of nowhere, a yardstick slammed down on Mr. Daly’s desk.

Everyone jumped! As we all turned in our seats to face him, we were shocked into silence. “That’s three,” Mr. Daly said, his grim smile showing small, neatly-spaced teeth. I already hated him.

Over the next few days, I would hear stories from my friends who were lucky enough to be in Mr. Larsen’s class, about how much fun they were having. They would tell me how funny Mr. Larsen was, and how he picked on this person or that person, and made this joke or that joke. Meanwhile, I dreaded going to Mount Baldy’s class.

After the first week, I begged – literally begged – my parents to transfer me out of Mr. Daly’s room. I couldn’t stand it! Please, please, please, please, please?!?!?!

Finally (probably out of sheer self-preservation) my parents agreed to go talk to the school counselor about getting me out of that awful class. I had high hopes that I would soon be back with my beloved Mr. Larsen.

We went into the counselor’s office and sat down. My parents explained that I was having difficulty with Mr. Daly and wanted to be in Mr. Larsen’s class, instead. The counselor asked me why. Well, because!! Mr. Daly was big and scary and stern and not nearly as nice or as funny as Mr. Larsen, and all of those other things that seem terribly important to a 9th grader.

I will never forget what that counselor said: “Well, a lot of times in life, we don’t get to choose our situation. We’re just handed what we’re handed, and we have to figure out how we’re going to deal with it. But even though we don’t get to choose our situation, we do get to choose how we’re going to handle it. You have to figure out how to make the best of what life hands you. When you grow up and get a job, you can’t just quit your job if you don’t like your boss. If you do, how will you pay your rent, or buy food to eat, or gas for your car? Nope – you have to figure out how to make the best of the situation. So, this is as good of a time as any to learn that the one thing that determines what kind of experience you’re going to have, is what kind of attitude you choose to have going in to it.”

At the time I was upset. I could see the counselor’s point, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. But my options had been exhausted. So I ended up staying in Mr. Daly’s class. I even managed to have an OK time, eventually – occasionally catching a glimpse of a rare smile from Mount Baldy when we did particularly well on any given geometery lesson.

I must admit, however, that the counselor’s lesson has stayed with me far longer than any of Mr. Daly's - and been infinitely more valuable.