Friday, March 5, 2010


“Mommeeee. Jeffrey’s using big words again.”

She couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, but she definitely did not like her older brother, probably around twelve years old, using words she didn’t understand. Jeffrey, on the other hand, seemed to revel in poking his little sister with verbal jabs.

“Oh Lucy,” Jeffrey said. “Don’t be such a pillock.”

“Momeee,” Lucy implored of her mom.

“Now Jeffrey,” his mom said. “You know that bothers your sister. Please don’t do it.”

“But mom,” he said. “I’m just trying to help Lucy mature.”

Lucy shot back, “Mommy, I don’t want to manure.”

“Mature, honey, not manure. You don’t want to mature. And you don’t have to for a long time yet. Jeffrey, you need to apologize to your sister for upsetting her.”

“Okay,” Jeffrey said. He looked at his sister and offered this apology. “Lucy, I’m sorry you’re such a pillock and you don’t have to be manure until you’re older.”

“Mommeeee!” Lucy screamed.

“Jeffrey! Stop it! Now!” his mom said with finality. “Now apologize the right way.”

He looked at Lucy and said simply, “I’m sorry.” Then he turned aside and half-whispered to himself, “I’m sorry you’re such a pillock.”

Thankfully, his sister didn’t hear him.

I thought a lot about that scene today. I knew it was more than a cute story. It says as much about relationships and conflict as it does about messages given and messages received.

It illustrates a number of age-old axioms and anti-axioms. For example, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. What I said is not necessarily what you heard. If momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy. Nothing cuts as deep as a sharp tongue. When in doubt, call your mom. Blood is not always thicker than water.

I was telling my wife the story and asked her what she thought the moral was.

“That’s easy,” she said, almost immediately. “If you want to confound your adversary, use words he or she does not understand.”

Wow, I thought. That’s profound. I like it. I like it a lot. It is insightful and, at least for me, it really provokes thought. And sometimes, the best advice is that which indeed provokes us to think.

See you Monday.

(And for those who are as unfamiliar as I was with the word pillock, it is British slang for a stupid or annoying person.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010


“Hi,” I said, introducing myself to the gentleman sitting next to me. “I'm Ed.”
“Hi Ed, I'm Nate.”
“What brings you to this workshop?” I asked.
“New job,” Nate said. “My manager thought it would be good for me to help develop and expand our customer base. I think he was more impressed by all the big words in the brochure. Most of this stuff I already know but a few days at a nice hotel instead of being stuck in a stuffy office is welcome. So what brings you here?”
“Me? I guess a combination of keeping the old skillset current and a little bit of story-mining.”
“Story-mining?” Nate asked.
“Yeah. I'm a writer so I'm always looking for story ideas and as it turns out workshops are always good for at least a handful or so that I can take back with me.”
We were sitting toward the back of the conference room attending a seminar on “Understanding Personal and Professional Interdynamics for the Management and Customization of Business-to-Customer Relationships.”
Say what?
Right. The seminar marketing department should have taken a workshop in “How to Name your Seminars”.
Anyway, we were trying valiantly to stay awake since the presenter was about as interesting as the title of the seminar. There didn't seem to be a lot of new information for either of us but then we weren't exactly paying close attention. We'd make a comment or two, here and there, as we tried to at least be professionally polite to young woman leading the seminar. But it felt like it was going to be a long morning.
Thankfully, there were a couple of ten minute breaks built into the schedule.
After the first break, I returned to my seat. Nate was just opening his briefcase. For some reason it reminded me of that scene in the 1994 movie “Pulp Fiction” when the Travolta character opens the briefcase. Perhaps it was the way the streak of sunlight reflected off the five boxes of Crayola® crayons he had inside.
That's right. Five boxes of crayons inside his briefcase. Of course he had the usual executive stuff as well, but he had … five boxes of crayons inside his briefcase.
Like the Travolta character, I couldn't help but stare inside the case.
“I know,” Nate said. “Not the kind of stuff you expect to see in a briefcase.”
“I gotta admit,” I said. “You're right. Not the kind of stuff I tend to see in briefcases. So, what's the story behind it? Gifts from your kids?”
“Actually no,” he said. “I don't have any kids. These I bought myself and always carry with me.”
Okay, I thought to myself. Either this is a story about to reveal itself or this guy's a little off-center.
Gratefully, he was not off-center. He told me it started when he was a kid. When he began elementary school, his mother always told him to bring some crayons along wherever he went so he would always have something to play with, and if necessary, to share with others. Shortly after his mom gave him that advice, she died. It was his way of always carrying a piece of her with him, even as he grew up and otherwise outgrew the usual season for crayons.
But a funny thing happened as he went to college and eventually into the professional job market. He actually found that coloring was a very relaxing and often creative outlet. And more surprising than one might think, he quite often found himself sharing his crayons with fellow students and eventually with business colleagues.
I didn't let him down. As the seminar droned on, he shared his crayons with me as we sat in the back of the room, coloring. And he was right, I found it relaxing and creative. In fact, I would say I probably gained more out of the time spent coloring than I did from the seminar.
And I carry on the tradition. Whenever I travel, I usually do so with about five boxes of Crayola® crayons. And yes, I continue to be surprised by how many adults are willing to surrender some of their “all-grown-up-ness” for the warm satisfaction found in coloring.
So, is it time for you to surrender?
I think so. Make it a point this week to buy I box of crayons. My personal preference is for the Crayola® brand in the 24-pack.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Living in Chicago, I’ve seen hundreds of “homeless” decorating the streets, doorways and sidewalks of this Second City and many of the suburbs as well. In some areas they are so common as to seem almost invisible, blending into the background like so many camouflaged pieces of humanity. They are usually dirty and unkempt. Most have eyes that are as vacant as the lots and buildings they often use for shelter.

But for the past week, I’ve driven past a very different homeless man. He was middle-aged, clean-shaven, cleanly dressed with a very pleasant demeanor. His cardboard sign, which he held chest-high, said, “Homeless. Need Work. Have Resume.”

Have Resume.

I was impressed. Not only did he make sure he was as presentable as he could be, given his dire circumstances, but he had a resume to pass out to anyone who would accept it. Of the hundreds of homeless I’d seen throughout the past five years, he was the first one who took some of the money he panhandled and put together a resume.

He lasted four days.

Either someone hired him and he no longer needed to seek help on the edge of the highway, or he was elsewhere looking for help. I prefer to think that he found a job and will soon be in a new home.

Life’s quick little lesson on this one?

Always put your best face forward.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It was about 4:00 pm when the doorbell rang. It took us somewhat by surprise because we had only been in the house for a few days and weren’t expecting any guests. After all we were still unpacking stacks of boxes into our new home and were not prepared for visitors, unless they were coming to help unpack.

They weren’t.

But there they stood. A happy-looking couple. Probably in their early 70s. Each was holding something in their hands.

He had a small green plant in a small green plastic container. It looked very healthy. He looked at me and smiled.

She had a basket full of vegetables. Seriously, vegetables. Tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, squash and some of the orangest carrots I’d ever seen. The basket looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. Each item looked almost fake they looked so good. She looked at me and smiled.

“Hi,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“Hi. I’m Hu,” he said, still smiling. “Short for Hubert, but everybody just calls me Hu.”

“And I’m Lu,” she said, also still smiling. “Short for LuAnne, but everybody just calls me Lu.”

“We’re your neighbors from a couple doors down and we just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.” Hu said, as he handed me the plant. “This is the Oxalis Deppei plant, or Iron Cross, for good luck. It’s from my garden.”

“And these,” said Lu, as she handed me the basket full of luscious vegetables, “are from our vegetable garden. The tomatoes are Brandywine heirlooms and they taste absolutely great on sandwiches. Everything is grown organically so you don’t have to worry.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This is so kind of you.”

“Well, we know you’ve got a lot of work to do yet, so we’ll be on our way,” said Hu. “I put my card in the vegetable basket, so if you need anything that you think I can help with, just drop by or give me a call.”

“And once again,” Lu said. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Both of them were still smiling as they left. I closed the front door and looked at my wife.

“That was Hu and Lu,” I said to her. “We’ve just been welcomed to the neighborhood with a good luck plant and a basket full of some of the best vegetables I’ve ever seen.”

That was more than five years ago.

Fast forward to last week. After the 4-1/2 ton snowfall that was dumped on our driveway (see Feb. 22 post). After we shoveled our driveway clean, we walked over to Hu and Lu’s home to give Hu a hand with his shoveling. He was giving it a valiant effort but it was obviously hard labor. Thank God their driveway was a lot shorter and narrower than ours. It took us about 40 minutes and he was, as always, grateful for our help and yes, still smiling.

He asked me if I could help him with something in the back yard.

My wife headed back home as Hu and I walked around to the back of his house.

There, in the middle of his back yard, were three balls of snow. Each, larger than the other.

“Can you help me finish making this snowman?” Hu asked, almost sheepishly.

“Ummm, sure,” I said, probably sounding confused.

“You see,” Hu said. “Lu really gets a kick out of snowmen, and whenever the snow is good for packing, I always come out and make one for her. Been doin’ since the first year we was married. But the snow is so heavy this time, and you may not have noticed, but I’m gettin’ a little older, and I just need some help before she gets home.”

“I’d be honored to help,” I told Hu.

Well, it took us some grunting and groaning, pushing and moaning, but in the end we had a classic, albeit really heavy, snowman. What was surprising to me, was how much fun Hu seemed to be having through it all. Believe me, it was not an easy task to build that snowman, but Hu kept smiling through it all.

“Thank you, Ed,” he said. “I don’t know how many winters I’ll have left on this earth, but I don’t want to miss one where my Lu doesn’t get her snowmen. Thank you.”

I don’t know exactly how many years it had been since I’d built a snowman, but I was beginning to think it had been way too many. I’ve lost some of the youthful innocence of having simple fun. Hu had not. And as I thought about the years we had been neighbors of Hu and Lu, I began to realize some of the lessons I had learned without ever being aware that I was learning them.

From the first day we met at our front door, to helping him build a snowman for his wife last week, Hu and Lu have unwittingly taught me much about living life joyfully. But there are three things that stand out.

When you meet someone for the first time, give them some of your best. And it doesn’t matter whether you ever see them again or you become good friends, the act of giving your best will make you feel better time and time again.

Smile. Often. I know that some people might worry about “smile lines” showing up on their faces later, but I would rather be blessed with the creases of smiles than be cursed with the furrows of frowns.

No matter how old you get, never forsake the simple fun of your youth. Make snow angels. Jump in a pile of freshly raked autumn leaves. Make a dandelion necklace and wear it. Swing gently on a swing. Roast marshmallows on a stick. Carry your lunch to work in an old-school style lunch box. Remember the simple things you had fun doing as a kid, and continue doing them.

Monday, March 1, 2010


“Hey Larry, could you pass me some more cardboard?”
“Absolutely, Jim. This might be the best snack I think I’ve ever eaten.”
“You mean, even more than the congealed beach sand with recycled shredded newsprint we ate yesterday?”
“Yeah, that was real good. But this new cardboard seems to have just the right balance of slurry, coagulants and polymers. And I really like the Japanese maple leaf mulch seasoning. I mean how do they come up with delicacies like this?”
“Careful, Larry, you’ve got some crumbs on your khaki shirt and if you don’t brush it off right away it’ll blend right in.”
“You got any of that dust-bunny pudding your wife makes. Man, I really like that dessert.”
“Well, I don’t have any of her pudding but I do have a few of her organic red clay brownies if you want one.”
“Man, can you believe how well we eat since we’ve joined this company?”
“I know, and later today we're scheduled to taste something made with real stuff.”
“Sometimes I think we’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Later in the marketing department.
“Hey Phyllis, have you tasted the new chips they want us to write about?”
“Not yet Jack, but the taste testers are absolutely raving about it.”
“Well, I don’t see why we need to eat any since the paid taste professionals are giving it their all thumbs up.”
“Right Jack, besides I’m already on that new grapefruit pith diet. We’ll just go with their assessment.”

I can only imagine that these are the kinds of conversations that must go on with some of the people at a certain nameless snack company whose product I recently tried. It was a potato chip flavored “with real spinach, artichokes and olive oil.”
Now, I like artichoke and spinach dip, ever since my eldest daughter introduced it to me at the Fizz bar in Chicago. They call it Artichoke and Spinach Fondue and it is really, really good.
So when I picked up this bag of “all natural” potato chips and read the back of the bag blurb, I thought I’ve got to have some of this. What it said was, “…it is the most flavorful snack you will ever experience.”
So my first thought is, they’ve somehow managed to marry the flavor of Fizz’s fondue and a potato chip. But not only that, they’ve managed to taste all flavorful snacks from everywhere around the globe, determined what is the absolute best of the absolute best, and arrived at “the most flavorful snack you will ever experience.”
Plus they put it in a nice big, colorful bag with good fresh-looking depictions of an artichoke and spinach leaves.
How could I go wrong?
Before I tasted their “most flavorful snack [ I ] will ever experience”, I made some very wrong assumptions.
First, I assumed that the people who had developed the taste of their chip must have tasted real food that was actually tasty. After all, they used the words “flavorful snack.”
Second, that the individuals who had written the copy on the back of their bag had not only actually tasted the chips in question, but had also tasted other foods to provide them with real-world comparisons.
Third, that the copywriters were honest in their evaluation of the product
Fourth, that they understood when to, and when not to, use hyperbole. Of course, a sub-assumption here is that they understood what hyperbole is.
And finally, that just because “the most flavorful snack you will ever experience” was on the 50% clearance table, didn’t mean it didn’t taste good, it could mean that it was a promotional or introductory price. (Ignoring of course that it was on the “clearance” table.)

So what are we to learn from this?
When you see words like most or best, coupled with the word “ever”, it’s a fairly good bet that it’s not true. The exception of course can be found in the following sentence: “The Eclectic Chalkboard is the best blog on tips and tricks for living the greatest eclectic life ever.”
Thanks for reading and invite your family and friends to join in.