Thursday, August 23, 2012

Everything I Ever Learned, I Learned in Kindergarten

Setting a good example for children has been a core theme of this column for over four years. How nice to be able to switch the roles and allow our children to take the lead occasionally. They do this by reminding us how pure, good and simple life can be when viewed through innocent eyes.

My friend Dave Veale described some experiences he had when reminiscing about his son’s first year in school. I think this bears sharing. He outlined five basic lessons he recalled from his own life experiences when he was just a lad.

Learning can be fun. Although this seems to be most efficiently accomplished when we are young sponges, learning accompanies us throughout our lives. The nice thing about learning when we are older is the choice of what we study is often our own. Nonetheless, we need to have compassion for ourselves, as it does take longer for certain kinds of information to sink in. Learning in a positive environment makes the process much more fun!

Community is important. Making friends and helping one another learn various skills in a collaborative way lays a good foundation for the future of our sustainability as a society. The simple skills of making introductions, shaking hands, saying please and thank you, and sharing are all important as we grow and find our way independently in social and business arenas.

Remember to play on a daily basis. Life is all about balance. We know we can’t play all the time, but the more balance we can introduce and maintain in our lives, the happier we will be, the better our relationships will be, and the more energy we will have. If only we could work, play, and nap the way we did in kindergarten! Why not?

Seek out positive teachers and mentors. When we are young, there are those who influence us in positive and negative ways. We have little idea of who will leave the  most lasting impressions. We certainly do remember those who taught us good things and as a result hone our abilities to find others like them as we move along our path. It is also worth remembering as we grow, we too become mentors and teachers to all whom we meet, especially our children.

It’s okay to be scared of new unknown experiences, but don’t let fear get the better of you. We are born with a flight or fight instinct. To be cautious of the unknown is only natural. Through time, we begin to discern safe situations from dangerous ones. We are also born with a need to connect with other people. So great is this need to be connected that our judgment of what is safe and what is not can become clouded if faced with the possibility of abandonment or being alone.

Growing up can be fraught with bumps in the road, the full range of emotions, which are all new to us, and the usual learning about boundaries and the effect we have on other people. We are in fact introduced to most of these experiences in kindergarten. A supportive home environment allows parents to have conversations about the many confusing situations children encounter as they grow into adolescence. But we need this support system throughout our lives. We will continue to develop as we age and experience the many wonders life has in store for us.

Just as in school where we learn who we prefer to spend out time with, so too in the world outside of school can we make these choices. Looking back on the many “first times” we did things in our lives, we are often transported back to our childhood experiences and remember the best of times along with the worst of times. This is how we gain our sense of self. Developing self-esteem and self-respect is the quickest way to learn the value in respecting other people and all living creatures.

Take a few moments to reflect on your experience as a child during the early school years and be amazed at how much you really do recall from those exciting days when learning was what we did. On balance, we still learn things in much the same way. Hopefully we will never stop!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Through the Eyes of the Dining Room Table

Sliding open the barn door, the antiques dealer ushered my newlywed parents into his workshop filled with cobwebs and piles of ‘old wood furniture’. A table caught my mother’s eye as it was covered in half-used paint cans, but had gorgeous legs. My father was more interested in a fall-front desk, which they bought and will have its own tales to tell one day. The over-spilled paint cans on the rather large table fascinated my mother though and she asked if she might buy it. The dealer explained that it would need ‘some work’. But the proportions were just perfect for the dining room in their new house, and being a somewhat determined woman, she persuaded the man to restore the table to its former glory.

Over the years the table hosted many dinner parties. It also was where my sister and I learned to eat once we outgrew entirely eating with our hands. The beautiful dark mahogany surface was never covered with a cloth. Placemats were preferred although not always used. The sound of the knives and forks and spoons being set every day has left an indelible mark. There was never any noisy clanking, but rather a measured purposeful sound, much the way the conversation usually flowed.

And like the conversation, which remained civil and uninteresting much of the time, so too the table rarely expanded to its full size. When the large leaves were added and the table was fully set for a formal dinner, oddly the conversations developed into more meaningful exchanges of ideas and real lessons were learned. We learned about different foods and how to eat them properly, where they came from, who grew them, even how they were cultivated. Animal husbandry was introduced, as were discussions on hunting and shooting. We learned that food originated in the wild, in natural settings and not on grocery store shelves.

Politics and economics were introduced at an early age as our family was heavily involved in both. We learned to appreciate the strengths of all people in office and spent far less time discussing weaknesses. Leading politicians, great athletes, and a few entertainers became our mentors. In these formative years, one could trust those around one. Fear of punishment was also something we learned to trust never reared its ugly head at the dining room table. Unpleasantness was never discussed. Shortcomings in the classroom or poor performances at sports were brought up at other times. The dining table was a safe haven from a world fraught with the challenges of growing up in a privileged but nonetheless highly dysfunctional family.

I remember my first sip of wine. I was about twelve years old and the wine was diluted with a splash of water. My mother took some pleasure in seeing the ominous uncharacteristic mildly twisted smile that spread across my face.  And at that age I learned how to serve and clear a table, making sure not drop anything, and but how to move silently around a table. This came surprisingly easily to me and I rather enjoyed participating in the process. I am grateful that the table witnessed and experienced my newly acquired abilities.

My sister and I usually ate early and alone at the large table where we would discuss our day at school, how we were going to avoid our mother’s idiosyncratic behavior and how much fun our father would be when he came home from work. We always loved it when he came home and the table was always watching our hundreds of hugs and kisses.

We grew up at that table. We became adolescents and then one day that table was gone. Through the ravages of life, divorces, new houses and blended families, the table needed to find a new home. A museum benefitted from its departure. It was sold as an original Duncan Phyfe, which it was, and is now gracing the dining room of another unknown family. It will always remember what it heard while in our care, much as it did in the care of countless previous families and even while resting under the paint cans and cobwebs.

I hope it retains the peace and comfort it afforded us as children. After all, dining room tables overhear some of the most meaningful conversations families have. 


Monday, August 6, 2012

Mobile Devices; Is There Any Hope?

Despite the fact that I have addressed this subject before, I have been asked several times recently to discuss the guidelines surrounding cell phone etiquette, their flexibility, and how to handle situations where such guidelines are ignored. Here are five basic areas where we are guilty of inappropriate use of our mobile devices.

1.     Turn mobile devices off before going to business meetings, movie theatre, restaurants, or any public place where silence is golden. There has been the suggestion that if you would turn your gadget to ‘vibrate’, you’re off the hook. Sorry, but this is simply not the case. If you’re expecting a real emergency or important business call, the ‘vibrate’ is an option. However, there is a difference between an important expected call and waiting for a friend’s text message. If there is no chance of distraction you will be far more focused on the matter at hand by turning off your phone. During a business meeting this may mean the difference between hearing a vital piece of information to seal a deal, and missing it because your attention was diverted, if even for a moment.

2.     Do not engage on your mobile device when in a face-to-face discussion with someone – disrespectful. This is akin to looking over someone’s shoulder to beam in on someone who has just entered the room. This draws attention away from the person you’re speaking with, sending them the message that they are ‘disposable’ or at the very least, less important than the new arrival. Although this may be true, keep your attention focused on the person you’re with, and make an appropriate exit to leave the conversation and connect with others.

3.     Don’t carry on personal conversations in a loud voice in public. I see this on sidewalks, in airports, waiting rooms, elevators and stores. People who do this are unbearable. I have been watching this behavior for decades now and am amazed how it seems to have really caught on. Airing your dirty laundry in public is simply not done, ever! How angry one must be to share private information with people, embarrassing both the subject and audience in one fell swoop. The public does not need or want to be privy to your latest triumph, no matter how self-aggrandizing it may be.

4.     Nothing should be placed on a dining table such as pocketbooks, keys, or mobile devices. They are in the way on a crowded table and carry germs, lots of them. Setting a table takes planning and care. Your ‘accessories’ should be placed in your lap or on the floor between your feet depending on the item. Furthermore no one wants red wine spilled on her silk evening purse - can be awkward.

5.     Do not use your mobile device while driving your car or truck. It’s the law almost everywhere now for good reason. No, you’re not that well coordinated, no one is. This has been repeated so many times that I wonder what motivates this egregious behavior. It kills people! Most of us have been guilty of breaking this guideline; hence this rule became law. I place this rule with equal importance to wearing a seat belt. That took a while to become adopted by most of us. It wasn’t until it became a law that virtually everyone now buckles up!

What do you do when these guidelines or ignored? The same way you would handle any other breach of appropriate etiquette is how! If this directly affects you, draw the person aside privately and explain what has been done and why it must stop. A sharp poke with the elbow can have an immediate result when needed. If one of your children is breaking a rule, they need to be taught right from wrong. It’s never too late to teach children; it’s also never too early. But this is not cause to unleash anger or criticize in a demeaning way. Educating anyone about respectful and good behavior is done with kindness, patience and compassion. Learning happens most successfully with positive reinforcement and good example.

If you feel you may be addicted to your mobile device, you probably are. By becoming more aware of how you are using your iPhone or Blackberry, you may readjust this habit. Who knows, you may just seal that next deal or save a life, maybe even your own!