Saturday, April 11, 2009

"What we have here is a failure to communicate..."

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate" is one of the most famous lines uttered in any movie, in any decade. It happens to come from "Cool Hand Luke", starring a young Paul Newman, in one of my favorite films. It's said, dripping with malice, by a vicious police officer to Paul Newman's character of Luke, a man determined not to be beaten down by anyone...not the prison staff, not the fellow inmates, and certainly not the local police, who overreact in sending him to prison in the first place. While this blog piece is actually not a review of the review and insight into the movie, I do suggest that readers rent this Academy Award winning film. My intent is to focus on the ideas, thoughts and semantics regarding communication.

Communication, more specifically, the art of conversation, has changed radically since the advent of the Internet and mobile phones. One of the positive side, we are able to connect with friends all over the world with ease. I have friends in Australia and Europe with whom I converse regularly, thanks to the Internet. When one of my friends lived in Japan, we were able to be a support network for her, while she was abroad. Through mediums like Facebook, I've been able to reconnect with friends from high school, college, and our own days abroad, right from home. I've had an easier time maintaining friendships with friends who once lived close by, and have moved away. I am able to talk to my mother and daughter every day, both of whom live far from me. And, yet, these useful, and helpful tools can, too often, fill the void we inherently need in our quest to 'be heard' and to 'hear others'.

I recently read that 78% of Americans use the Internet as their primary tool for conversations. I found this statistic very sad and unsettling. I certainly use and appreciate the internet's many gifts, but isn't there something truly wonderful about sitting down with a friend, in person, and enjoying a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a mug of tea? Isn't there something missing when we can't look at that friend's expressions, hear her laugh or see his smile? When we email, AIM chat or post on Facebook, we can't see that friend's twinkle, and really know her meaning. We can't place a hand on her shoulder, give her a real hug and say "I'm here for you. I understand.". We're unable to truly sense his meaning and intent. So much of our communication, as human beings, is non-verbal. Our body language is unreadable over the Internet. We can't see someone who is clearly hiding a heartbreak, or bursting with joy. We can only attempt to extrapolate meanings from their written words.

Recently, I met my friend, Molly, for coffee. Despite the fact that Molly and I live 5 minutes apart, we both seem to run the same ragged hockey mother lifestyle. For us, the Internet has been our way of still touching base and cheering each other on, whether from home, or various hotel rooms at hockey venues. However, meeting Molly for coffee made me realize how much I miss having face to face communication more often. Online, our conversations are to the point, even if we do get a little silly. However, sitting at the coffee house, we talked in a circular fashion, with multiple strands of thought weaving around us to create a spiderweb of thoughts and ideas and sharings. I realized how utterly human it is for our most meaningful conversations not to progress from Point A to Point Z. But, rather, to meander and redirect and to walk down both the path of seriousness and joviality at the same moment. It's healthy, and it's completely necessary, to allow our conversations to drift at take on lives of their own and to create new trains of thought based on these offshoots.

While I am not advocating the end of the Internet by any means, and while I don't wish to limit any one's thoughts on using this valuable resource to stay in touch, I do want to raise awareness about the need for 'real' conversation. Making eye contact, giving a warm hug and just seeing your friends face to face can truly give a lift, when you need one, and can make a difference to that friend, if she's hurting. My advice is not to allow the human element of our communications to be removed, simply because of the ease of the internet's communication tools.

Plus, it's just plain fun to laugh so loudly that people stare. Try it. It's good for the soul.

The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives. ~ Anthony Robbins

Thursday, April 9, 2009


There are a lot of buzz words around these days, containing the ending of "ism". Some are complimentary, such as altruism, many are derogatory. Some are said with a sense of humor, while others are just mean spirited. Globalism can be positive, or negative, based on one's perspective. There are political 'isms'; from the "Bushisms" to the "Obamisms", trying to push the reader into into cynicism or optimism, based on the writer's preference. As with any part of speech that's overused, "ism" is, sadly, one of the victims of ism-ization.

This is truly a shame, because one word that means a great deal to me is Volunteerism. The definition for volunteerism is "the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without being motivated by financial gain." In our current economy, many organizations that do great works in our communities, in our nation, and around the world, are feeling the financial pinch, even more than the average citizen. Why? Because people, even those who haven't lost their work, are not giving financially as they once did. People are saving for a rainy day, since this does appear to be just such a time. While many of us would love to be able to give as we once did, financially, it's simply not a possibility. And, yet, there are great works to be accomplished to benefit others. So, how can we feel we're still engaged members of society when we have so little to give, personally?

The answer is that we can give of our time, our gifts, our skills, our listening ears, our open hearts and our talents. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work, not worrying about the financial end. Writing a check can be far easier than working on a home for Habitat for Humanity, or walking a dog at the local animal shelter, or helping someone learn to read at a literacy program at your local library. Making a donation is a wonderful gift, but what about taking just an hour to read to someone whose sight has left them or volunteering at food pantry? What about just asking an elderly friend if you can pick up her groceries for her? What about mentoring a teenager who doesn't have the family support she should? Even if we can't write checks to fund organizations, we can quietly, humbly, and peacefully make a difference in our very own communities.

Volunteering can make some people uncomfortable. We can see volunteering as a way of saying "I'm better than you. I can do this and then go home." We feel guilty by what 'what we have done, and what we have left undone'. The reality couldn't be more different. By sharing your time, in whatever way you feel led to, you are sharing a piece of yourself with another human being..or even an animal in need. This is far from superiority; it's a great equalizer. Some people are made uncomfortable by need, and I completely understand this feeling. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of areas of need. There is, quite honestly, something for everyone.

When I helped out at the animal shelter, I had an impossible time. I was unable to play with the pets, and not bring them home. I learned that this was not my gift...I couldn't bring myself to walk with, play with and feed these animals and not make them my own. It broke my heart. I was unable to continue volunteering there. And yet, when I mentioned my plight to a friend of my daughter's, a lovely girl who wasn't allowed to have a pet of her own, she was sold on taking over my position. It was not a good fit for me, but it was a perfect fit for this teenager. She was able to fill up her love for animals, for as many hours as she was able to donate, and she understood the path to the door. Even our own shortcomings may lead to conversations that may lead to another's perfect volunteer fit.

Thankfully, my family has long been involved with volunteering in many forums. We've felt as blessed by our contributions of time as we have in our donations to organizations we support. In many ways, my husband's pounding nails at Habitat homes have given him a far greater sense of helpfulness and connectedness to the direct impact for one family, than just signing a check ever could. My son's volunteering to teach younger children to skate at the community's "Learn to Skate" program have afforded him the opportunity to give back the guidance and mentoring he himself was given by older boys. My own efforts have left me immeasurably humbled and honored. Our family has learned the lesson that sounds trite but is true: you receive back a thousand times what you give.

There are far too many worthy organizations to name, and I would be remiss to mention some, but not others. It's my hope that, even in our current economic climate, you can reach out in ways you never imagined. Even one hour per week, in an area in which you believe, can change your life. You can help someone else, make new friends, and honestly, take your mind out of your own worries. Volunteerism is one of the ways in which, I believe with all my heart, our country will return to a great path. When we do any action, that's not for our own gain, we benefit all.

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else. ~ Booker T. Washington

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Manners matter

Not long ago I was dining in an elegant restaurant with my family, and our server had the most atrocious manners I could imagine. We were surrounded by beauty, luxury, style and a delightful menu of delectable selections. Yet, when our gum snapping waitress snubbed our table several times, and then barked at a subordinate to just 'get the damn order' from us, we were fairly close to leaving the establishment. We did stay, but carried on with the focus of soldiers in battle, just trying to make it over the next hill. Our drinks were wrong, and we were told *we* were incorrect in our order. Our meals were delicious, but smacked down with ferocity. No one seemed to care a whit if we were enjoying our overpriced-for-the-service evening. My husband even commented that we've had more conscientious service at a McDonald's drive thru. Regardless, the evening, despite wonderful food, was disappointing. This was not because of someone who was clearly overworked and was doing her best. The fiasco was a result of the de-apprecation of manners, common courtesy and even vague politeness in our society.

Ironically, the simple pleasantries of "please" and "thank you" are so underrused these days that I've met strangers who are amazed that my teenagers will use these terms. I have done no special parenting. The fact is, I've aspired to teach my children basic values of courtesy and respect, and but certainly have not enrolled them in finishing courses or charm school. I find it fascinating that what I consider to be the most basic of nursery school values have been reduced to the exception, and not the norm. But, why is this? Most people, if one asks, believe that good manners do matter. When I make eye contact, and ask for help, 'please', I'm regarded with appreciation and assistance. I know that we do live in a fast paced, quickly changing and unsettled society. But, can't the simplest acts of kindness bring a sense of civility to an otherwise angry world? If children can learn basic manners in preschool, or even from Sesame Street, can't they bring these skills forward as they near adulthood? Why do our expectations change?

In Yoga, it is customary to bow, and with prayer hands, wish one's teacher and one's classmates "Namaste". Roughly translated from the Sanscrit, this simple word means "I honor the light within you". It's a beautiful method of ending class, of showing respect and for 'seeing' your fellow yoga practitioners with open hearts. It's a way to say "until we meet again" that honors each other in a more heartfelt manner than "Later, dudes". Namaste imbues the close of class with civility, warmth and a wish of goodwill, as we all head out the door, to experience our lives beyond the yoga classroom. In short, it shows good manners.

What can we do, outside of the Yoga studio, to help forge good manners? I believe that we can set a good example in our own responses and in the way we treat others. If we create an atmosphere of superiority, anger or disdain around us, then it's not going to be surprising if that's the way in which we are treated in return. While we can't control another person's actions or reactions, we are far more likely to receive positive responses, if we ourselves are polite, respectful, helpful, understanding and agreeable. If we imbue our own sense of projected self with thoughtfulness, we will, most of the time, receive the same understanding. If not, we can only be responsible for our own behaviors. If we are met with truly rude people, does this mean we need to be rude in return? No, it doesn't. It means we can create a stop to the 'pay it forward' that often generates from another's mistreatment.

The woman who was so rude to my family at the elegant restaurant at the Bellagio may just have been treated abominably by a previous table. Perhaps she had a fight with an uncaring husband at home. While we'll never know what caused her hostility, we treated her politely. Who knows? Perhaps our lack of angry reaction to her poor service may have caused her to be kinder the next time.

To coin an old phrase, good manners cost nothing, but can repay you a thousand times over.