Category Archives: Philosophy

Quote of the Day

A PDF for your office wall.

Better to be lost in space…

-wf

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Saul’s Laws:* #12. Housekeeping

Sunday, November 22, 2009
*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

Let’s not forget Mom. She had her laws, too. This is one of them. Saul’s law #12 is really Minnie’s law of housekeeping: Straighten up as you go.

When I was a little kid, while my father was at work and my sister in school, I would follow my mother around the house while she did the cleaning. She was always talking to me, about everything, explaining in often meticulous detail precisely what she was doing. And she would give me little things to do to help her. Get this, put away that. No, she wasn’t training me to be the family housekeeper or cook. My mother just thought that you should learn as much as you could, every chance you got, that the more you learned, the better you’d be, not just at what you were learning, but at everything you did.

She was very efficient. Following her around our house – a single story ranch with a full basement – I would find myself hustling to keep up, almost running sometimes until a grew into a longer, more fluid stride. That’s how I learned her secret. From room to room, whenever she passed something that she could straighten up “on the fly,” so to speak, she did. Little things, here and there, and, before you knew it, the whole house was clean. In fact, it was this technique of hers that prevented the place from getting all that messing in the first place.

Mom taught me that big messes are much harder to clean up. Turns out, it’s a concept that applies to life, as well as housekeeping.

Most people thought my father was the smarter of my two parents. Thinking back to what I learned growing up, and which one of them taught me what have turned out to be the most valuable lessons… Thinking back, I’m not so sure. Pretty much of a tossup, if you ask me.

(My mother also taught me how to pick out fruit, and other things maybe I’ll write about later.)

-wf


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Saul’s Laws:* #11. Expectations

Sunday, September 13, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

As you know from Saul’s Law #10, “Life is short,” my father paid a lot of attention to time. What else is there, after all, but time. The universe may be infinite in its scope and history, but we’re not. We’re not.

Thinking about time and how little we have of it, he began to realize that we – particularly the more motivated among us – tend to chronically overestimate how much we can accomplish on a given day and in our lifetimes. It was, we concluded, quite possibly what made us special, as individuals and as a nation: a natural tendency to underestimate the difficulty of doing things, but with the determination to accomplish them anyway.

Unfortunately, while biting off more than we can chew may be an admiral trait historically, on a day to day basis, it can be very stressful – but that wasn’t my father’s primary concern. The real problem was that having too much to do would diminish the quality of the work we did. Bright man, wasn’t he, particularly given that he came to this conclusion decades before the term “multi-tasking” was originated, before personal computers, the Internet, cell phones and 24 hour 300+ channel cable TV. It’s not an illusion. Today’s world is more time consuming, more distracting than it was when I grew up, and in my father’s time before me.

To not do something well, not so much perfectly although that would be nice, but to not do it as well as you could was wasteful – part and parcel of failing to live up to one’s potential. Why was that so important, living up to one’s potential? Because that initiative was how we, personally and as a society, and as a species, moved forward. (Yes, my father and I had some weighty conversations on our way to Baltimore on Sundays when the Colts were playing at home, and when we were building stuff in the basement or trolling for rockfish off Thomas Point.)

And so, to minimize the stress in our lives and protect the quality of our work – personal relationships included – my father created Saul’s Law #11 on expectations: “On a daily basis,” he advised me, “focus on accomplishing only a relatively few, perhaps only two or three significant tasks. You’ll be lucky to get those done, but if you do, you’ll feel good about it. …and make sure,” he added, hearing her doing stuff in the kitchen upstairs, “that one of them has something do with your mother.”

Take this post, for example. What are we talking about? Six paragraphs, 500 or so words. Between the season premiers of “Bones” and “Fringe,” the e-mail I just had to answer, the deli thin sliced honey roasted turkey and Swiss sandwich and the mayonnaise I had to wipe off my keys – two hours later, and I’m done. Perfct. Not so much as a typo. Pretty good, ay Dad? (Maybe I’ll read it over during the Today Show and post it in the morning.)

My father also taught me that Hersey’s Kisses taste better when they’ve been in the refrigerator.

-wf


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Saul’s Laws:* #10. Time

Sunday, September 13, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

Saul’s Law on “Time” was appropriately brief: “Life is short.”

My father believed that most ordinary events were over-talked, that we spent way too much time planning this and discussing that – time we should have been spending actually doing the things we were talking about and other stuff.

It was a law he evoked more often than most. Maybe he knew something. Having survived a Great Depression, World War, three heart attacks, one upon the next, and a life full of the usual stress and disappointments, my guess is he had a well developed sense of how quickly it all goes by and was doing his best to save me the trouble of figuring it out for myself.

Mostly, he was concerned that I would underestimate the time I had to fulfill my potential, whatever that would be, and to realize my dreams and ambitions. It’s one of those things parents understand and their children sometimes don’t fully get until it’s too late – until opportunities have been missed, and choices made that limit our options.

As it turned out, my father’s life was short, ended too early by a disease today’s medicine might have cured. Although it certainly wasn’t his intention, his dying certainly made the point, and energized his son in ways I am still, years later, continuing to appreciate.

Thanks, Dad. Back to work.

-wf


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Saul’s Laws:* #9. Selfish Behavior

Saturday, September 5, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

Saul was one of the good guys. Most people… No. Everyone, except me, who knew him assumed it was because he genuinely liked people, which was true. In fact, my father taught me to like and trust everyone I met – regardless of any superficial attributes, gender, race, style, whatever – until they gave me good reason not to. (It’s Saul’s Law #22: Relationships, which includes a corollary that, I discovered when I was in college, is really helpful for men wanting to meet women and visa versa.) Saul liked people alright, but what was interesting was his confessed reason behind everything he did which, he theorized, was the same for all of us.

“Everyone,” he told me, “does everything for selfish reasons.”

Whatever we do, it’s not because we want to improve the condition of the other person, it’s because helping the other person makes us feel better. Now, you say, “Of course.” “Being kind to others is its own reward,” so the adage goes. That’s all my father was trying to tell me. Well, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. If that was what he was talking about – that kindness is its own reward – that’s what he would have said. That would be Saul’s Law #9 on “Kindness,” but it isn’t.

My father’s point wasn’t about goodness as a goal in and of itself. He was talking about pure, raw self-indulgence, devoid of any virtue. Academically, I get it, but was he making a technical observation or was he trying to tell me that “the greater good” was a construct, a somewhat superficial belief, recently layered onto the history of our species, that glossed over the primitive motivation at the root of everything we do?

What difference does it make? The difference may have been that he didn’t trust “good.” Selfishness, greed, these were things he believed in, palpable emotions he considered fundamental to being human and, more broadly, to being a living thing of any kind – essential to our survival, and the reason for our tendency to socialize.

Far from being cruel, it was an innocent realization completely consistent with the intellectual honesty which was the subtext of every conversation we ever had.

Some of Saul’s laws were less straightforward, less obvious for their implications that others. Growing up – and, even as an adult, I’m still very much a work in progress – it’s been something I’ve had to deal with. (If my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Campbell, is reading this, “How are you? And yes, I know a dangling preposition when I see one. Sometimes, I just prefer the way they sound.)

-wf


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Saul’s Laws:* #8. Going it alone

Friday, September 4, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

Saul’s Law on going it alone was an admonition not to. “Don’t try,” my father advised me, “to do important things by yourself.”

At the time, I thought he was talking about himself and my mother, that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask them if ever there was something I was having trouble figuring out on my own. But then he could have just said that, and didn’t. One thing about my father, he seldom blurted. He was smart, no question about it, although it wasn’t so much that he was mentally quick, as it was that he was always thinking and seldom encountered a situation or topic he wasn’t prepared to discuss. The intelligence he demonstrated so casually was hard earned. I think he meant exactly what he said.

It makes sense. There’s a lot we go through growing up and as adults, personally and professionally, that’s more than we can handle well by ourselves. On the other hand, and here’s the rub, my parents brought me up to be independent, to be able to take care of myself, to figure out things on my own and be proud of it. Independence was equated with strength. Dependence, with weakness.

“Life’s full of contradictions” could have been one of Saul’s Laws, but wasn’t. I guess it was one of those things he expected me to figure out for myself.

There was more to it that came later: “When you reach out for someone to help you, Son,” he called me “Son” and almost never by my given name, “and they do, be sure to help that person back if you ever get the chance, or someone else if you don’t.” The fact was, he taught me by his example over the years I lived at home, sometimes you’ll find yourself helping other people just for the heck of it. He thought of it as making a deposit, of banking the goodwill until he or someone else needed it someday.

No doubt about it, my father was one of the good guys, but not entirely for the usual reasons you might be assuming. You’ll understand when you learn Saul’s 9th Law of Business and Life: “Selfish Behavior,” next up.

-wf


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Saul’s Laws:* #7. Timing

Thursday, September 3, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

I have a little voice, sort of. It doesn’t talk to me. It types, in Courier, in the air in front of my face so I can read what it says, each letter materializing, one at a time to the distinctive sound of the keys hitting the roller on an old manual typewriter. And then it pauses and hits the period very deliberately, as if to say the word “Period” out loud.

When I was a senior in college, I came back from a date with a girl who lived on the women’s campus across town. While I was waiting for her in the lobby of her dorm that morning, I had run into another girl who I had dated for almost two years. I’d been crazy about her, but we had broken up and I hadn’t seen her for some time. We talked briefly when she came out to pick up her copy of the Saturday paper. It was nice, but then she left to go back to her room.

Later that evening in my apartment, I was standing in front of the mirror over my bathroom sink, not thinking about anything in particular, when my little voice typed out the following message, one keystroke at a time: “Y o u ’ r e g o i n g t o m a r r y E l l e n” … “.” And because my little voice has never been wrong, never, I walked over to the phone in my bedroom and called her. I told her, straight away, that I was coming over the following morning to ask her to marry me. She told me she had a date, and I told her to break it. She did. I asked her, and we were married that summer.

Marrying Ellen turns out to be the smartest thing I’ve ever done, so you can understand how much I respect my little voice.

Mostly, I rely upon my little voice to help me resolve less life shaping issues. I’ll be thinking about something all day and late into the evening until I pass out on our bed. The next morning, I get up, fill up the sink with hot water, lather up and, more often than not a short sentence materializes, one Courier letter at a time in front of me. “Pricing won’t be affected,” or “A wet bird never flies at night,” whatever, and that turns out to be the key to figuring out what I couldn’t the day before.

Sometimes my little voice is very, very specific. I’ll have written something the day before. Could be 10, 20 pages which I’ve proofread two, three times. It’s perfect, but it’s too late. No one will be there on the other end to read it so, what the heck, I put off sending it until the morning. I get up, sit on the edge of my bed for a moment and, “At the bottom of page 4, you left out the ‘to’.” Unbelievable, isn’t it. All night, while I was sleeping, my brain was thinking, going over the text of what I wrote, word by word, remembering it in a way I could never do consciously, and then waiting patiently for me to get up before bringing me up to date. More likely, it was something I had noticed, but never thought about fixing. Either way, very impressive.

The other day I was writing a piece (“Congressional Dreaming: Doing Away With The Senate And Other Radical Changes We Need To Make Congress Work”) in which I advocated, among other things, reducing the House to only 100 Members so they can finally get something done. Fortunately, I slept on the idea, with the TV still on in the corner of our room, until I was awaken in the middle of the night by the unbelievably annoying “ehhh, ehhhh” of the emergency broadcast claxon. (If it were a nuclear attack, I’d probably assume it was a test and sleep through it.) Reaching over Ellen for the remote control on her nightstand, I froze for a moment while my little voice typed out suggestion, “1,000,000 people per Representative.” It was a much better idea which I wrote it down on the pad I keep beside my bed so I wouldn’t forget.

Time and time again, I’ve saved my tush from making costly or embarrassing errors just by giving myself the night to let my brain and its little voice do what they do best – proof positive of Saul’s Law #7 which says,

If it doesn’t make any difference whether or not something you’ve written, or need to tell someone, goes out at the end of the day, or the beginning of the next, always wait until the morning. Something may occur to you in the meantime.

By the way, I’m just finishing this up at 11:04 PM with plenty of energy left to watch at least the first half hour of Conan while I do the dishes… (You know who is already asleep on the couch.) …but no way am I posting it tonight.

“G o o d,” wait for it, “.” Hey? Who typed that?

-wf


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