This week Jackie and I celebrate 24 years of marriage. That also means 24 years of trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Isn’t that what marriage really is? A continuous miniseries of “Let’s keep doing this,” or “Let’s never do that again.”
I admit, I’m the one with the short-term memory, so I usually cause the re-runs. I don’t know why I do it. For some reason when things get hard or stressful I tend to forget where we’re trying to go and point the finger in the wrong direction.
Know anyone else with that skill? I kind of hope I’m not the only one who’s got it mastered. I’m thinking of holding seminars. I mean, why spend time trying to work on myself when it’s so much easier to point out the faults in someone else?
Breaking the habit of finding fault, especially with the ones you love most, can be hard. So I’ve been working on a new approach. I call it It’s OK to Look for Faults. But it has just one rule, and that is to find only good faults. I haven’t mastered it yet, but here’s an example of the technique. (Sorry, Jackie. You weren’t in the room to ask permission.)
The next time tensions rise or you feel like turning on the fault factory, start looking for the good. So if I get upset because Jackie threw something away that I really wanted to keep around, I’m not allowed to leapfrog from missing my shirt to my car seat not being put back in the same spot to whatever else might bug me. Instead, I bust out a different list of faults until the urge to spiral out of control goes away. In my case, it might go something like this:
It’s your fault our family is always sending birthday cards and dropping off thank you notes.
It’s your fault I haven’t missed a belt loop in years.
It’s your fault I don’t walk out the door with smelly breath and contaminate the earth’s atmosphere. Gum freak.
It’s your fault I have a comfortable, peaceful home that smells nice.
It’s your fault we’ve got family pictures and photo books all over our house so we never forget what really matters.
It’s your fault our children’s school lunches are made and homework assignments get checked off. Wake up, honey!
It’s your fault I know the first name of the sweet mother trying to make ends meet that works at Chevron. And that she worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Talk about clueless.
It’s your fault our DVDs are in alphabetical order. Lazy.
It’s your fault I’ve gained nearly 40 pounds since 1989. You’re the one always making Sunday roast beef dinners, Café Rio burritos, french toast delight with kneaders syrup, dirty Diet Cokes, and burnt butter brownies. Not me.
Get the idea? Pointing out and focusing on the weakness in others is easy. It’s like hiking downhill. No resistance, and you can practically do it all day and tell yourself you’ve accomplished something.
Looking for and finding the good in others is a whole different kind of show. Up for the challenge? If not, well, it’s your fault.
Jackie and I went to Boston a few years back to see the all the history and enjoy a Luther Vandross concert. She loves that guy. (I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I gave a little sigh of relief when he went on to sing in the choirs of heaven.) Anyway, one of the many amazing historical sites we visited was a place called Buckman Tavern.
John Buckman was a member of the Lexington Training Band. In those years the tavern was a favorite gathering place for militiamen. On the morning of April 19, 1775, dozens of militiamen gathered in this tavern to await the British troops. Word of their arrival came just before sunrise, and the men left the tavern to assemble in ranks. Both armies gathered. A single shot was fired. To this day, no one knows for sure who fired it, but that shot began the American Revolutionary War.
The original tavern is very small; they’ve now added a store. When Jackie and I went inside, we saw a large fireplace and a few tables. I remember our tour guide pointing to a wall with knife scratches in it and saying, “Here’s where they kept track of their Ps and Qs.”
My mother used to use that phrase. “Mind your Ps and Qs,” she would say. I knew it meant to be good. I thought it meant I should remember to say please and thank you—there’s a P and a Q in that, right? Or maybe it meant that a lowercase p and a lowercase q mirror each other and you need to be careful to use the right one.
So I asked, “Ps and Qs?” She said, “Yes. Pints and quarts.” The knife marks helped patrons keep a running tally of their bills. If someone started to get out of hand, the bartender would shout, “Mind your Ps and Qs!” to keep them in check.
I’m not sure if the origin of minding your Ps & Qs really came from bars. Maybe it did. I guess it doesn’t matter. I still like it.
Minding your Ps & Qs is really just a way to keep us in check, whatever your own Ps and Qs are. Don’t buy more than you can afford or manage. Always be polite. Be careful with what you’re doing.
If there’s one thing this world needs a little more of, it’s kindness and self control. Just think what could happen if everyone in the world, right now, decided to mind their Ps and Qs.
Saying please and thank you wouldn’t be awkward. People would get out of debt. We would all be kinder to each other. We would work harder. Maybe spend less time in front of a screen.
Let’s start our own revolution and bring back Ps & Qs. We can start in our own families, with our own selves, spouses, and children. Then branch off into other weird places like school, church, ball games, and where we take our dry cleaning.
Even the biggest doors swing on small hinges.
I’m the youngest of five children. If you’re wondering if I was babied, the answer is heck yes. After all, I had up to six grown people looking after or at me at any given time.
Everyone knows the youngest child is indulged, pampered, and spoiled in ways that others are not. I once read that by experiencing so much attention from others, youngest children usually grow up expecting good things from life and therefore tend to be optimists rather than negative-thinking people. That is so me!
That’s how I turned out, at least. The world wasn’t any kinder to me as a kid than it is to anyone. I had some tough early years, and I wasn’t much of an optimist in my youth.
Confession time. This may gross you out, but it’s part of my story, so I need to share it. As a child I had a condition called enuresis. I was a bed-wetter. Actually I was a pants, shorts, bed, sleeping bag, whatever wetter. And I didn’t think it was a coincidence that enuresis was pronounced a lot like you’re-a-sissy, because that’s what I felt like. It was horrible. I could be anywhere at any time and all of the sudden realize that whatever I was wearing just turned into a swimsuit.
Those were shameful, embarrassing years. I kept to myself and stayed very quiet in school classrooms to avoid any attention for fear my classmates would notice. Some kids really were cruel.
Lucky for me, I had a best friend. Someone I could trust. Someone who knew the real person inside me. Her name was Darlene, but I just called her Mom. She was my angel on earth—the one who always loved me no matter how often my accidents would happen. Just being around her, I became special.
She did with me what she did with all the other kids. She developed and perfected three lines of code that, although not scientifically proven, I know for a fact were keys to helping me through some very difficult times. They probably even healed me. It’s pretty complicated, so you might want to write them down. Here they are:
Bless your heart.
I love you.
Oh, my mom might have seemed like your average 70s polyester-pants-wearing mother, but I think she secretly has a Ph.D in parenting.
Mom would take me into her arms and say, “I’m sorry.” This was always her first reaction when any of her kids felt sad. The word sorry comes from sore, meaning to suffer. I knew she could literally feel my pain.
Then she followed it up with, “Bless your heart.” A heart, the very organ that sustains life, the spot where we feel our emotions, really does need to be blessed when wounded or broken.
Finally, after I had been heard and healed, I was reassured that I was loved. She would look me in the eyes and tell me.
They say it’s impossible to be a perfect mother, but there’s a million ways to be a good one. To mine, I wish a blessed heart for all the good she continues to do. I wish her love from me. And I’m sorry about all the extra laundry.
And to all moms, I hope you know that your own unique code language is noticed. All those reassurances you give so automatically really do replace heartache with belonging. You are creating confidence.
Bless all your hearts.
Years ago on a Saturday morning I was sitting in front of the television, working my remote control while my six-year-old son was in the kitchen working on his oatmeal (which he called “eatmeal”). After a couple of minutes I caught him out of the corner of my eye hopping down from his seat and headed over to some cars on the floor.
Based on my years of experience as a parent, I knew he couldn’t have finished his breakfast that fast, even if he had used one of our big spoons.
“Hey, buddy,” I said, “make sure you eat all your oatmeal.”
There was no response. He just kept on with his two-handed, two-car drag race.
I took a moment to decide on a channel, then spoke again with clearer direction: “Make sure you eat all your oatmeal before you play with those cars, buddy.”
Still nothing from him but revving engine sounds.
Well, that was it. I had asked two times, and he was clearly ignoring me. Time to demand some respect. From my cockpit seat, remote in hand like a king’s staff, I hollered, “Did you hear what I said, son? Finish your oatmeal!”
He looked up at me as if he had never heard a single word and replied, “I don’t want any more eatmeal. Did you hear what I said?”
Are you serious? I thought. Did I just? You little. Did I just hear what I thought I heard?
I stood up and pointed to the stairs and said, “Head up to your room right now, son!”
He looked up at me, stood up, put his head down and went upstairs without another word. As he got close to the top step I added, “I want you to think about what you just said.” He turned the corner and vanished down the hallway.
What the heck just happened? I swore I’d taught him better than that.
I sat on my throne for a few more minutes, stewing over how kids these days watch too much TV, learning sarcasm and lack of respect for their parents. Eventually the thought of him being up there alone, wondering where he and I stood, got to me. I love him. He was only a little boy. I still had plenty of time to reprogram what some Disney show might have taught him.
I headed up the stairs. Slowly, I opened his door and found him sitting on the edge of his bed. I walked in and sat next him. His cheeks were still wet. He was staring down at his little hands.
My heart ached. I wanted to do this the right way, from ground zero. So I started with a simple question.
“Son, who taught you to talk like that to me?” Without hesitation he looked up at me and said with a soft voice, “You, Dad.”
My mind raced, searching for clues. Suddenly my own words echoed back at me: “Did you hear what I said?”
He was right. He was simply being a mirror of me.
I got down on my knees and hugged him while I tried to release the awful pain in my gut. I asked for his forgiveness and promised I would try to speak more kindly to him in the future. I also apologized for unfairly sending him to his room.
More than a decade has since gone by, but I’ve thought about that lesson more than a hundred times. I wish I could say I’ve been a perfect father ever since. I haven’t. Not even close. But since then I have stopped myself many times and asked, “Do you hear what you’re about to say?”
It’s a clue, a gift really, from a little boy sitting on the edge of his bed. I hope somehow, someday it comes in handy for you.
Have you ever been on a treasure hunt? Not a scavenger hunt—treasure. The thought is intriguing, isn’t it? My friend Bob Roundtree and his wife Pippy did one with their kids, and it was so memorable that it has maintained its place, decades later, as one of their favorite family memories.
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