Wednesday, April 2, 2014

He Who Walks on the Wrong Side of Someone Else's Fence Shouldn't Throw Stones and Eat Them Too

Growing up in the Dallas area, my childhood was filled with idioms and platitudes the adults around me rattled off in response to my mood, the weather, something I should be doing, or even a general state of being.  I don't know whether or not it's a southern thing, but relatives, from my parents to distant great aunts, were fond of sayings such as, a stitch in time saves nine, or,  too many cooks spoil the broth.  Some I took to heart, like Rome wasn't built in a day.  I was always impatient to make progress with a new skill.  I wanted to be an ace at softball the minute I hit the field.  Over time, I learned to relax and let expertise come in it's own time.  Some I misinterpreted.  When my grandmother said, Many hands make little work, I thought she was talking about little people with "mini" hands (dwarves? gnomes? garden-variety children??) building tiny buildings or washing mini dishes with itty-bitty sponges.  While my grandmother was trying to motivate us all to pitch in and clean up after dinner, I was off in my own head imagining lilliputians dusting and vacuuming with infinitesimal tools.  In my child brain it was irrelevant this interpretation didn't make sense in context.  Some quips I simply did not get.  Most of these were my dad's, like  let the hammer do the work.  What, does this thing have batteries you didn't tell me about?  Why am I sitting here banging my heart out if this thing can do the work itself??  My most common reaction to the idioms of my younger years was an eye-rolling groan, followed by dramatic exasperation anyone could be so stupid as to say something like that, let alone believe it.  Here are some of my favorites:

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. - This one always garnered the biggest sigh from my teenage self, and while I've come around on some of them, I still to this day maintain somethings are worth doing, but only half-assed.  Cleaning the house is a good example, as are most household chores, like doing the laundry when you manage to get it all the way to the dryer and then leave it there for a week and a half.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with grabbing a clean towel out of the dryer when you need it, and it saves the trouble of folding it and putting it away.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. - This was one of my mom's.  You can always tell, because her platitudes are always the darkest, with the worst take on humanity.  Whenever I heard this one, I thought, "as if I didn't already feel bad enough about screwing up, now I'm going to hell as well."  I do think she meant this in a life lesson-type way, as in, "take responsibility for your actions."  Maybe I'd have taken it better if she'd stuck with something less gruesome like, you made your bed, now lie in it, or learn from your mistakes.  Bottom line, though, I didn't really think I was going to hell, and I got her point, which was short and required no rambling lecture.

Everything happens for a reason. This one's a little heavy,  because it's an indicator, to some extent, of religious beliefs.  I know some people really think when you step in gum on the way out to your car in the grocery store parking lot, there's a divine plan involving day-old pavement hubba bubba, but I don't.  And for reasons I can't quite conjure, it has always irritated me when someone explains away some misfortune of mine by indicating it has some mysterious purpose.  It feels like they're discounting my pain.  I know that may be just my own chip on my shoulder, but it's there, and it won't budge.

You choose what kind of day to have, makes me grit my teeth only slightly less than the one about how many muscles it takes to smile versus frown.  No one wants to be in a bad mood or have a crappy day, but they happen.  It's worthwhile to try to turn that around.  I mean when life gives you lemons… and all that.  BUT some days are unsalvageable.  Sometimes no matter what I do, all the little things that go wrong get me down.  Sometimes nothing goes wrong, but the chemicals in my brain and the hormones in my body won't allow happiness that day.  So, whilst one can do one's level best to make it a great day, sometimes it's okay to throw in the towel, wallow in your bad mood, scream a little, stomp around and slam doors, cry and know tomorrow will probably be better.

Who said life was fair?  You may recognize this as one of my mom's downer gems.  I have to admit, I actually don't hate this one.  It was frustrating as a child to hear after having declared, "It's not fair!" but she made her point.  Life is not fair.  You don't get everything everyone else does anymore than they get everything you do.  Life is what you make it, and really that's not even all that depressing if you think about it.

Keep calm and carry on.  Okay, it's not from my childhood, but I'm tired of reading it and seeing the myriad of variations that have popped up on t-shirts and bumper stickers.  While I'm all for calm, and it's something I strive for in my life, this statement is kind of obvious.  It's like saying, "When walking down the sidewalk, don't freak out and kill someone.  Just keep walking." Also, it has a dull, Brave New World kind of feel to it.  "Keep calm, plod on with your menial lot in life, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."  I'm probably reading way too much into it, but I'm overly-analytical by nature, and try as I may, I can't seem to overcome that particular trait.

Here are a couple that are a laugh riot, not because of the expressions themselves but for grand, overly-complex misinterpretations:
The phrase, hair of the dog that bit you, entered my vocabulary in my college years, for obvious reasons.  My sister revealed one post-party morning (okay, it was noon) at a Denny's what she thought it meant.  To paraphrase, it was something like this: "So you drank a lot the night before, right?  And your hangover's so bad, you have to go down to Hades and get a hair from the dog, Cerberus, to make a potion to cure your headache."  I laughed so hard, I spit lukewarm crappy coffee all over the table.  I guess I'm not the only uber-analyser in the family.  I'd still be laughing at her had I not discovered my own stupidly complicated mistaken interpretation.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.  You may already know this, but said platitude refers to the practice of examining a horse's teeth to determine it's worth.  The point is to instruct graciousness upon receiving a present instead of criticism.  While I got the basic sentiment, I went the long way 'round to get there.  I went back to the Trojan horse, thinking you wouldn't want to look it in the mouth, because all those Greeks would come out of it and get you.  Maybe I was confusing it with, beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  And what is it with my sister and I injecting unnecessary literary references into simple metaphors?

What prompted this brief yet rambling essay is a mood I've been in lately.  I've found recently platitudes of my past are rattling around in my head, and, with a mixture of horror and amusement, I'm realizing some of them are true.  Most of them involve the word, "positive," and have wormed their way into corporate jargon over the past decade or two.   Things like, positive attitude changes everything.  Okay, so I still don't love that one, mostly because it's complete bullshit, along the lines of, If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.  Really??  You think if I put my mind to it, being a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two, I could be an NFL linebacker in two years?  Maybe I'm being too literal, but I come by it honestly.  It's in my blood.
Anyway, I digress.  What's sprouting in my mind is a seed I recently gathered from online somewhere:  Surround yourself with positive people, or something to that effect.  This is the kind of saying I'd have scoffed at several years ago.  Quotes like these that pop up on motivational posters are overly general and suggest the speaker is either a cheerleader or an aerobics instructor from the eighties - sugary sweet, overly peppy, and above all, fake and not to be trusted.  I have never considered myself a positive person, because I have some bad days, you know?  I am not the peppy, "Come on! You can do it!  Work it!  Feel the burn!"  type.  When I exercise, I feel strong.  I breathe purposefully in and back out.  I am focused.  I am not talkative, and I am certainly not bubbly, but….I feel great.  It turns out, I am actually a positive person.  I'm just quieter about it than some.  When I have a bad day, I try to fix it.  If I can't fix it, I accept it, but I know things will get better.  Why do I know this?  I guess because things always have.  It's always darkest before the dawn.  Sometimes it's darkest before the tornado, but the tornado always passes and it gets light again.  I realized just today that surrounding myself with positive people doesn't necessarily mean hanging out with people who routinely use four exclamation points at the ends of their sentences.  It means sticking with those who lead their lives in a way I admire.  It means having friends who love and support me no matter what kind of day I'm having.  It means being with people who don't tell me what kind of day to have.  It's unfortunate sayings like these have been so often reprinted, reposted and retweeted to the point they've become trite, no matter now deeply and honestly the original author may have discovered them within themselves.
I found the following quote by Karl Marx today:

Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.

I read it and thought, "Yeah, that's about right." The key, though, is identifying those people, because sometimes they're not obvious, and sometimes we trust the wrong people.  All in all, it's a good thing to keep in mind when deciding with whom you want to spend your time and energy.  It's too long of a quote to make a poster, though, and no one would bother to read the whole thing on the back of your car or t-shirt.   And just maybe folks, to quote one more trite phrase, that is a good thing.

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