If you had to pick the single most demoralizing word in the English language, what would it be? I've had a variety of single words hurled at me over the years, but the one word that can most effectively take the wind out of my sails comes in the form of a question. That word is: "What?"
Let me explain. During the day, my job is to motivate and enable a diverse group of people to achieve a complex set of challenging goals, in limited time, under considerable pressure, and with scarce resources. I am the man in charge, or, as the French might say, "Le Reçeveur du Merde."
This involves a lot of listening and, quite often, making someone unhappy. It's the nature of the game, and it's good training, don't get me wrong.
But then I come home, where I also hold the title of President, as well as Chief of Maintenance, Head Security Officer, IT guru, and sometime Love Doctor (just checking to see if you're reading, honey). This, too, involves a lot of listening. I walk in the door to be greeted by a wife desperate for uninterrupted conversation with a rational adult, two little boys who soak up my attention like thirsty plants, and one baby who actually takes offense if you don't engage him in gurgle-talk. There's no doubt about it, I'm a popular guy.
Given all the competing demands on my attention, the opportunities I have to speak and be heeded are like open holes in a good defensive line -- you don't get them that often, and when you see one you'd best charge into it before someone closes the gap. Sometimes I spot an opening and race up the field, only to turn around and see that everyone has packed up and gone home. Usually this happens when I have a brief and rare flash of wisdom that I feel I should impart to the boys. I think of these as my Clark Griswold moments.
"See kids, some children don't have many toys or clothes or even food, but we have been blessed with all kinds of good things. That's why it's important to be thankful, and to take care of our belongings, and to give some of what we have to people who need it."
Sigh. "Caleb, didn't you hear anything I just said?"
"Yes. And what else?"
"No, I said . . ."
"I thankful for my blankie, and airplanes, and my ship . . ."
"No, no, no, Eli, Daddy said be thankful for the children."
"No, I didn't. I said some children don't have . . ."
"I thankful for the children, and my blankie, and airplanes, and my ship . . ."
"No, Eli, it's my ship. He thinks it's his ship, Daddy."
"Listen, boys. Listen. You both need to get in the habit of being quiet when Mommy or Daddy is talking, and listening to our words. No more interrupting. Listen to what we say."
This boy is a highly effective stealer of wind from sails. Monday we stood at the check-out counter in the grocery store, tended by a cashier wearing a shirt that said "WORD" in big bold letters, under which was stenciled a revolutionary fight-the-power diatribe of the sort that inspires skateboarders and the judges who hand out Nobel Prizes for literature. Ever the sociable type, Caleb asked, "What's your shirt say?"
The cashier saw this as his opportunity to hit us with some knowledge. No kidding, he pulled the shirt away from his chest so he could look at it more clearly, and began to read it to us. It was weird and awkward, because he could barely read it (I suspect the fact that he was looking at it upside-down is only partially to blame), and there were people behind us, and I just wanted to get home with my beer and chips to watch Carolina jump all over Illinois like a hobo on a ham sandwich.
I was trying to think of a diplomatic way to cut the lecture short when Caleb set him straight. "No, no, no, I don't want to hear all that." He pointed a little finger toward the top of the shirt. "What's that big word say?"
"Well, uh, 'word'."
"Oh. That's nice."
And that was the end of the speech. The cashier finished ringing us up, mumbled "have a nice day," and we went about our business. My son. World-class bud-nipper.
The very first order given to us by the Almighty was: Don't touch. Are you listening to me? Hands to yourselves. Don't. Touch. Very, very bad things will happen if you touch that tree. See here, I've given you all these other trees, covered with yummy fruit. Mmmmm. Go enjoy the garden. Ride an elephant. Build a tree fort. Discover Velcro. Just don't touch that one tree.
So, being human, Adam and Eve touched it. As punishment, God gave them boys to raise.
And the sinful impulse continues to this day, in my own sons. It's like their eyes don't work correctly, and so they have to put their grubby little hands on something to actually see it (except for Isaac, who gets acquainted with an object by covering it in slobber and then whacking himself in the forehead with it).
Caleb has discovered that touching is an effective way to insert himself into a conversation. He doesn't use a gentle hand on the arm, like how my wife signals that I'm working up too frothy a conversational lather with dinner guests, or offering a Scotch to the wrong in-law.
No, Caleb's new method of interruption is a really hard poke, right in the stomach. The first time he did it I actually yelped. It's a stealthy, unnerving little attack on the senses. And then, once you know it could be coming at any time, it kind of puts you on edge. So now Caleb is learning that it's a bad idea, especially at the dinner table, to poke the bear.
Eli, meanwhile, has become fond of giving me a little open-palmed whack as he walks bye, punctuated by "Hi Dad!" Sure, it sounds sweet enough, until the first time he catches you square in the groin.
Women don't understand how so much pain can be generated by such a small gesture. They think they've got the corner on the pain market because of that whole childbirth thing. Well, we hurt too, ladies. So quit your snickering.
You know who you are.
It's interesting how so many ills in the world can be traced back to this inability of man to keep his hands to himself. War, taxes, Michael Jackson -- all these things could have been avoided had only we listened back in the Garden. Such a pity.