You Are Not Special

I was bombarded all week with warnings that if I told my children they were special, I’d be turning them into narcissistic adults. I saw it flash up in Google News. My friends shared it all over Facebook. NPR devoted air time to it.

Having interacted with some narcissistic individuals, I found the prospect alarming. I began to wonder if I fell into the “you are special” parenting camp. I didn’t think so, but… you know, that teenager does have a strong sense of entitlement and a frequent inability to empathize with others. Then again, she’s a teenager. That’s exactly how she’s supposed to be. So maybe that’s not a good indicator.

I wondered about it for several days. Yesterday, no one was going to work or school. A holiday, of sorts. We were not in a hurry to get up or get moving. Around 8:30 or so, Jane came wandering into our room.

“Have we ever told you that you are special?” I asked.

“No,” she said, as she reached down to retrieve her ipod cord she had left in there the day before when she, apparently, took over my bed space as hers.

“Never told you that you are better than anyone else?”

“No.”

“Never said you deserve special things?”

“No. But I do. I am special. I deserve special treatment.” She grinned and then crawled onto the bed.

“Right. You aren’t special, honey. Not at all.”

“Well, fine. I’m going to go back to my room and cry now.”

“Oh, we love you. I just don’t want you thinking you are anything special.”

About then, Hal came bounding onto the bed.

“Hal,” I said. “You aren’t special.”

“Yes I am!” he responded with way too much sunshine in his voice. “Because I’m just so cute!”

We laughed and messed around, enjoying each other’s company. At one point, in response to something ornery they had done, I said, “You kids are awful.”

“Wow,” my husband said. “In just a few short minutes you guys went from special to not special to awful!”

“No!” I said. “They were never special – remember?!”

“You guys are special to me,” he said.

“This,” Jane said, as she snuggled up to his arm (while stretched across me), “is why I’m a Daddy’s Girl.”

“Fine. You guys are special to me too. Just as long as you understand that you aren’t, like, special. You know.”

Probably not my most subtle parenting, but I think they got the drift. Guess I can check that parenting-panic-of-the-moment off my list. Done.

Oops. Except Daryl. He was still passed out in his bed. Guess I’ll have to give him the news bulletin sometime soon. Then again, he’s a Mama’s boy. He is kind of special. To me, anyway. Is that enough to turn him into a narcissist? I sure hope not. Maybe I’ll say something. Just to be safe.

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An Unfinished Treatise on… Something…

NPR reported a story recently on the evolution of the English language. I didn’t catch the story but it apparently focused on whether we should resist changes that come about from wrong usage. I suspect this has been an argument since the first person said “Hello” in response to the grunt of another. And the argument shall surely never cease.

While I failed to catch the original story, I heard the follow-up where they read listeners’ responses on the misuse that bothers them the most. Judging by the responses, the focus was on word misuse more than grammar mistakes (its/it’s, there/their/they’re, etc.). I agreed with some and rolled my eyes at others and was dismayed that no one mentioned the literally wrong use of “literally” by nearly everyone. As in, “I literally threw UP when I saw what dress she was wearing!” The speaker almost certainly meant that she figuratively threw up. She merely wanted to express what great distress the dress gave her. But if someone did actually throw up in response to something for which vomiting is not an expected response, how can they convey that? Saying they “literally threw up” will no longer work.

C.S. Lewis made a similar argument in his book The Four Loves with regard, first, to the word gentleman, and later, to Christian. The word gentleman originally referred to someone who owned land. Gentlemen tended to be refined, honorable, and polite, so over time, people began to use the word to refer to people who exhibited those traits instead of for those who own land. Before long, it no longer meant a land owner and we were left without a tidy word for that status.

He then went on to discuss the problem with calling a good person a Christian, as in, “That was very Christian of him”. Christian specifically doesn’t mean “good person”. It means “person who believes in Jesus Christ”. That person may very well be a good person and most Christians indeed strive to be good people (hence, likely, the use of the word as a synonym of sorts), but the two are not equivalent. And if we get in the habit of using Christian to mean good person, then we’ve lost the most natural word to use in describing a believer in Christ.

The guiding principle to many people with relaxed attitudes toward the English language is this: As long as the people you are addressing can understand what you are saying, it is fine.

While I will loosely agree with that, I have two objections and a comment. The comment is that it’s a shame when we lose some of the richness of our language out of linguistic laziness. We don’t need a bunch of words that all mean the same thing. It’s better if words keep their nuanced distinctions.

The first objection is that if you do not have a solid grasp on proper usage, then how can you judge whether or not what you are saying is clear? How do you know that you have been understood? The second is that whether you are understood or not, the listeners/readers are drawing conclusions about you based, in part, on how you communicated your information. If you spoke or wrote with many mistakes, the conclusion is likely not positive.

In the NPR story, they quoted a teacher who tells his class something along these lines: “You do not have to speak properly. You only have to speak in a way that allows others to understand what you say. That is communication. However, people from high socioeconomic backgrounds tend to speak more precisely and if you want to fit in with them, you will need to be able to do so as well.”

And now that I’ve spent over 600 words rambling about English, we get to the point I wanted to ponder. That teacher was right. If you want to fit in with any group, you need to be able to speak as they speak. In a foreign country, that means speaking their language. If you can’t do that, you may be treated politely but you won’t be fully embraced.

If you want to fit in with educated, moneyed people, you need to be able to use proper English. Otherwise, you’ll likely be dismissed as lower class, possibly of reduced intellect.

I wonder sometimes if this is part of why poor people have trouble climbing the ladder to success and why minorities, who may have telltale accents or idioms, have the same struggle.

I heard yet another NPR story about…

So… this draft was written on June 5, 2014.  I have no idea what the other NPR story was.  I was just looking through my untitled drafts to see if there was something I could polish up for this week.  I was impressed with how seemingly finished this “draft” was.  Until I got to that last line.

I’m not even sure whether I had gotten to the “point” yet.  Be that as it may, I like the earlier arguments for preciseness in speech, so we’ll just run with it.  If you’ve got any ideas what you think that other story might have been about, please share.  Maybe you’ll trigger my memory.  🙂

Made in China

One of my favorite skits at our Regional and State Destination Imagination (DI) competitions this year was by a team from our town. The characters in the skit were residents of an aquarium: a snail, a crab, some fish, some kelp, a plastic mermaid, and some other plastic object whose identity I don’t quite recall – just that it would express emotions and the others would remind her that she wasn’t real.

The plastic mermaid seemed to believe she was a Chinese philosopher and would make wise Confucious-like sayings. At one point, the other not-real object said, in an exasperated tone, “But you aren’t Chinese! We come from the same pet shop!” To which the mermaid replied, “Oh, yeah?! Tell that to my birth stamp!” She then thrust her arm out, clearly stamped “Made in China.” The audience loved it.

At Global Finals, I watched a Chinese team compete. The skit involved people in a submarine looking for something in the ocean. They finally found the treasure – a large vase, and brought it back on the sub. Someone noticed something written on the bottom. “Made in China!” they announced. Again, that audience died laughing.

I wondered as I laughed if this was the same group of Chinese teens I had encountered in the souvenir area earlier in the week. I was looking at DI-stamped USB bracelets and similar objects when the group walked up to the table. One of them picked up something from the table, showed it to the others, and then read “Made in China.” They all started laughing. I thought it was amusing at the time although I wonder now if it was indeed the submarine team, then perhaps they found it even funnier because of their skit.

And then shortly after I returned home, I listened to this story on NPR about a U.S. teacher held in a Chinese prison. He was being held on charges of theft. He was given a cup and a toothbrush and put in a racquetball court sized room with roughly thirty men. No beds, no chairs, no pillows, and most had no sheets. Most had to lay on their sides to fit in there. He stayed for 280 days, most if not all of that, before pleading guilty.

During the day, they sat in their underwear on the concrete floor and assembled Christmas lights. For upwards of 10 hours a day. One of the guards would sometimes use strands of lights to whip prisoners into working harder.

The story reminded us that while labor in prison is not unheard of, this was uncompensated forced labor for people who had not yet been convicted of anything. It made me sick.

We often joke about the prisoners or the young children who assembled some Made In China object we have. It’s become light-hearted and fun. A joke. As can be seen in the audience laughter at the two skits I mentioned above. I don’t know that I necessarily feel all that badly about laughing – the scenes were funny and well done. But the story coming so soon after those moments (I had already been thinking about blogging about them) sobered me considerably and changed the closing tone of this post.

I fear that when you are around something wrong enough and make light of it enough, it perhaps becomes too easy to brush aside its harsh reality. Unlike slavery and segregation in this country, which was easy to see, the problems of child labor and forced labor in places like China are so easy to ignore. They are far away. It’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t really happen. It’s just a story. Not real. It’s even easier to not think about it at all.

The Chinese people I met in Knoxville, TN that week were very nice and friendly. We stumbled through brief conversations in simple little phrases and hand gestures and smiles. I think such events are valuable and I cherished the opportunity. It troubles me though, to think we might get comfortable in those moments and then forget about what’s going on away from the spotlights.

I love Christmas lights. They are perhaps my favorite part of the decorations. But maybe this year, I’ll take the now freed prisoner’s advice and light candles instead. Assuming I haven’t shamefully forgotten by December.

How We Do Things In The Stone Age

Apparently I piqued the curiosity of my Renaissance Man coworker when I divulged that we do not enjoy any television reception, antenna nor cable. I don’t know how much time he has spent pondering how we do things in the Stone Age, but it was obviously on his mind when we passed in the hall today.

We passed with simple head nods and murmured hellos and were nearly twenty yards apart, at the far ends of a long hallway, when he turned to ask me a question.

“So. If you don’t have a TV, how do you get your news?”

I turned and studied him for a moment, a small hint of a smile dancing on my lips.

“NPR and Google News. Oh, and articles that people share on Facebook.”

He processed the information before addressing where he found my deficiencies.

“Well, I watch the news for weather and traffic.”

The laughter inside my head was threatening to overtake my exterior.

“I have a weather app on my phone,” I said. “And Google Maps reroutes me if there are traffic problems.”

And with that, I turned to resume my trip down the hall. Score one for the Cave Woman.

Taking the Time to Write

I caught the tail end of a story on NPR about an old Story Corps interview between a married couple, reflecting on their life together. I gathered the man had written a letter to his wife every day and was now reaching the end of his life, whether from old age, illness, or both, I do not know. That interview had aired on the radio the day he died seven years ago.

The story I was listening to was in response to numerous letters Story Corps had received asking how the woman was doing now, so they got in touch with her. What struck me, beyond the obvious love and affection between them and her response to his death, was her statement that she had received over 1400 letters of condolence. She had even received letters from China and France! And since her husband had written her a letter a day, she chose to read those letters one a day. That means those (mostly) anonymous well-wishers supported her for nearly four years.

I was impressed. What had inspired those people to take time to write to this woman they did not know? I can’t even find the discipline to write Thank You letters to people who have given me something or done something kind for me. And what a difference those letters made! Tears came to my eyes as I pondered it.

And then I thought of Jane. While cleaning her room a couple of months ago, she came across a card from one of my grandmothers. In it, Grandma had requested, as she always does, that Jane write to her. Now, this woman is very reliable with important events. She will never forget your birthday or anniversary and she will always send you a card. It is a priority for her and she expects the same from others.

And she is almost always disappointed. She has typically been a very unhappy woman. She has not been satisfied with the amount of contact she has with her family, both those of us far away and those living close to home. A phone call would typically involve complaints about how you don’t call more often and no one else talks to her either. Being reflexively resistant to guilt trips, this made me less interested in calling her. Writing seemed out of the question. Who has time for that? I wrote once, and that letter was typed, so that I could communicate more information more quickly.

So if I had seen the card that Jane found, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on. But that’s not what Jane did. She pulled out a pen and paper. I didn’t know what she was doing that day. I just saw that she was spending a tremendous amount of time curled up in the recliner writing. I assumed she was writing a story.

But then she asked me a question and when I prodded her on why she was asking, she told me she was writing to her great grandmother. I think the letter ended up being two sheets of paper, front and back. I called my mom for the address and we actually got it in the mail.

A response letter arrived about a week later. Jane smiled and laughed as she read it. And then she pulled out another piece of paper and began to write again. It probably took her a week or longer to get it finished and in the mail, but she did.

I learned from my mom that Grandma recently started taking a medication that appears to have improved her mood. She was so excited to get the letter from Jane. She expressed her hope that Jane would write back. My mom hesitated. She knows how impulsive teenagers can be. What are the odds of Jane continuing a pen pal relationship with her great grandmother? She cautioned Grandma about how busy we are and how kids really don’t write anymore. “I know,” Grandma said, “they text now.”

But Jane did write back. And if there is one thing I can depend on, it’s that Grandma will write back too. The article on the radio today made me see just how important it is. And not just for older people who remember letter writing as a primary form of communication. Young people enjoy getting mail too. I think she’s hooked. And I’m glad she’s forging this relationship with her great grandmother. And I think she just might be having an effect on me. Maybe I could take the time to write a hand-written letter to Grandma too.

No Comparison

Morning Edition ran a story this morning about a twelve year old girl who has composed hundreds of songs for piano and released six albums. She was matching pitch when lullabies were sung to her at the tender young age of one. She composed her first song at age three. By the time she was five, she had performed in a 45 minute solo concert, one third jazz & ragtime, one third classical, one third original composition.

They asked her if she could play one of her early compositions so she played a piece called Little Angels that she wrote for her sister. She said she was four when she wrote it. This song touched me in a way that only truly special music does. I became quiet and turned inward. The music washed over me and tears welled in my eyes. It was truly beautiful.

For perspective, I reminded myself that she is Jane’s age. When she spoke, she actually sounded even younger than Jane. And when she wrote that song that captured my heart, she was the same age Hal is now. Hal. I pondered my wonderful little boy with the cute smile and the budding personality and the stubborn streak so strong in all my children. My heart swelled with love. And I sincerely hoped that today he wouldn’t pull anyone’s pants down on the playground.