Thursday, December 1, 2011

Just Say Thanks

Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks.

So when my wife’s aunt and uncle invited us to their home for Thanksgiving a second year in a row, we should’ve said thanks but no thanks. Instead, my wife agreed to go.

Then I felt guilty.

“But they had us over last year,” I said. “We should be inviting them over this year.”

I believe that if a friend treats you to coffee, you should treat him to coffee next time. I can’t see abusing another person’s giving nature. A gift must be returned.

“We’re in no position to host Thanksgiving this year,” my wife said. “And my aunt and uncle aren’t like that. A return gift isn’t necessary. Our thankfulness is plenty.”

Maybe my wife was right. Maybe the gift doesn’t have to be returned. Maybe saying thanks is enough.

As a result of that revelation, I spent the month of November saying thanks and not feeling in debt to anyone who gave me something or did something for me. If people performed such a kind gesture, I thanked them. That was it.

My mom, who writes thank-you letters for thank-you letters, thought I was nuts. Typically, we’d be spending Thanksgiving with her this year at her home in Northern California since we spent last year with my wife’s family in Southern California -- we alternate from year to year. But my mom made plans to be out of town this Thanksgiving, so we’ll be in the southland for 2011.

“You’re going over to her aunt and uncle’s again?” my mom said. “Michael, you should be having them over this year. You have to return the gift.”

“A return gift isn’t necessary, Mom,” I said with my new outlook on life. “Our thankfulness is plenty.”

I went on behaving with that mentality.

Last month, when my wife and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary, a friend from work bought us a present. This month, that same friend celebrated his wedding anniversary. I felt no obligation to return the gift. I just congratulated him on five years. (I never thought outsiders should give gifts to those celebrating their anniversary anyway.)

Then, last week, when I was running late for work one morning, my neighbor helped me out by taking my son to school. I thanked her, and I didn’t feel obligated to give her son a ride to school the next morning when she was running late for work. I just waved to her as I drove away.

A dinner out, thanks to my sister-in-law, went unreturned. All compliments went unreturned, though I sincerely thanked anyone with nice words.

The same behavior applied to casual greetings. If someone said to me, “Hi, how are you?” I didn’t feel obligated to say, “I’m well, how are you?” back. Not anymore. Now when anyone asked how I was, I’d say, “I’m well. Thanks.” And I’d move on.

“Thanks.” That was it. I felt no guilt to return the gift.

But then I felt guilty for not feeling guilty about returning the gift. Worse, my wife was getting complaints from friends and family saying I was ungrateful.

“But I said thanks.”

Everyone who had done something for me this month had cut me off. I was dead to them.

I thought maybe I could give return gifts to redeem myself. But either it was too late or I couldn’t financially afford to return the gifts.

“I told you,” my mom said when I called for advice. “You can’t accept anything else.”

That was it -- I wouldn’t accept anything else.

But no one was offering anything else.

So I say here and now, thanks to all my friends and family for just being there. I don’t need anything else. I’m thankful for what I have. I’m thankful for the people in my life, for my community, for the roof over my head, for the food on my table.

Wow, that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about, isn’t it? It’s about giving thanks for what we already have.


Now who’s gonna give the thanks back?

-November 2011

I Suck!

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.
We’ve all heard that saying a million times, yet people say the darnedest things.

I’ve hated my curly hair since I was a kid. It’s nappy and grows all over the place. There’s not much I can do with it. I try to keep it short. But it grows fast -- and big.

When it’s long, people like to remind me to cut it. “Your hair’s getting nappy,” they say. When I cut it, other people tell me to let it grow.

“Yo gangsta,” they say mockingly in bad imitation. “Where’re yo Dickies pants and black Nike Cortez shoes to go along with that gangsta haircut?”

I can’t win. How about I just become another person?

The other day, a co-worker asked me about the film school I spent so much money on and what it was like to be a failed director. Who says that kind of thing to your face? And how do you respond to that? Do you strike back? Or do you follow your conscience: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.

I wasn’t going to ignore this guy like I usually do when people say rude things. But I wasn’t going to attack him either. Instead, I decided to turn his negative comment into a positive.

“Okay,” I said, “so I’m a failed movie director -- true. But you have to fail early in life before you can succeed later. That’s what I’m doing right now.” My co-worker was quick to shoot that down with a quote from author F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald said it, which can only mean one thing: It must be true -- I’m doomed to be a failure.

But, thanks to an instant Internet search on my smart phone, I discovered that Raymond Chandler turned writer at age 45, Paul Gauguin was 43 when he became a painter, Martha Stewart was originally a caterer before becoming -- much later in life -- the superstar business magnate she is today, and Ray Croc was 52 years old, selling milkshake machines when he set out to build the McDonald’s brand.

My co-worker’s not-so-nice comments actually led me to something inspiring. I wondered where I could get more painful criticisms.

I turned to my good friends. We met at a coffee shop for some sandwiches and hard truths. I got a healthy serving of both.

Right away my friends told me to get a haircut. Then came the juicy stuff: At 35 years old, I’m not making enough money, my house is a shack, and I’m a terrible parent because I’m leaving my 8-year-old son an only child.

Well, my wife and I physically can’t have another kid. But that’s beside the point. Thanks to another quick Internet search on my smart phone, I discovered that my wife and I are really good parents for only having one child. The world has shown us many incredible only-children, including Franklin Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Cary Grant and John Lennon. Those are just a few recognizable names.

“How else do I suck?” I asked my friends as I wolfed down my BLT. With my smart phone nearby, I was hungry for more truth. My friends dished it out. But they served more than I could chew. Even my phone choked.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that I just suck. I suck at my job. I suck as a dad. I suck as a husband. Sure, I’m lucky to have a great wife and a great kid. I live in a great area. But my friends convinced me that those great things are there to help me see how much I truly suck.

As the awareness of my suckiness sank in, I came to realize something cool. Without digging, I unearthed a positive aspect of sucking: If I suck at everything, then I don’t have to be good at anything.

So I took advantage of my suckiness. When the bill for our sandwiches arrived, I informed my good friends that they’d have to pay my portion. “Sorry,” I said. “I have no money. I know -- I suck.”

A few days later, my wife nagged me about my sucky driving. I pulled over and let her drive. My son said I wasn’t being fair. I told him, “I suck, don’t I? When we get home, you can clean your room.”

That brings me to a recent piece of sucky writing I shoved in front of my wife for an honest opinion. I wrote the piece, so I knew it sucked. And I knew I couldn’t fix it. Because I suck. But I showed my wife anyway, maybe just as one last proof to confirm that I do, in fact, suck.

“It’s really good,” she said. She didn’t say she was confused. She didn’t say it wasn’t funny. She didn’t even say I needed a haircut. She just said she really liked it.

Finally, someone had something good to say about me, something nice, which, really, could only mean one thing: My wife was lying.

-November 2011