Saturday, August 29, 2009

Do We Like Speaking in the First Person Plural? Do We?

Yesterday, MDH and I went to lunch at what I would like to call a "Suburbistro" [This is a new term I'm officially coining -- you heard it here first! It refers to all those chain restaurants that crop up near strip malls and try way too hard to be quaint, but are really just fatty, mediocre, mass-processed food.]

In this case, it was a place called "California Dreaming," and if I were writing a restaurant review, I'd say it would more appropriately be called "Iowa Waiting," just because there was nothing California-esque, dreamy or even interesting about it. I might also mention that it tasted just slightly better than Nacho Day at a public school cafeteria.

But this isn't a restaurant review. It's an opportunity to vent about one of my pet peeves. Call me a grammar geek, but I hate, hate, HATE it when a server in a restaurant refers to the dining party as "we." As in, "Do we want something to drink besides water?" or "Did we leave room for dessert?" I mean, if you're going to pull up a chair and join us, feel free -- but otherwise....

Yesterday's experience was beyond the pale because not only did the waitress use "we" to the point of complete absurdity [at one point she actually said, "Do we have any questions for me?" My head almost exploded], but she also ramped up the perkiness when she noticed that we weren't all that responsive to her cloying questions. Instead of a simple, courteous "How is everything?" she said, "Does everything look wonderful? And does it taste even better?" Considering that we hadn't even tasted our food at that point, it was hard to do anything but nod and mumble. And when I later mentioned that the nachos were just "okay," she looked at me like there was a festering sore growing out of my forehead and flitted away without another word.

That, I think is the problem. She didn't actually care if we were enjoying our food, or our experience -- she just wanted to keep the tone so artificially positive that we'd have to be real jerks to either complain about the food or (more importantly) skimp on the tip.

Okay, I know, I've been a waitress myself. I know what it's like to live and die by your tips, and I understand that anything you can do to improve the percentages is a definite plus. I remember learning that if you touch someone during the dining experience, they will leave on average a 40% higher tip. So I learned unobtrusive and (hopefully) inoffensive ways of casually touching my customers -- like placing a hand lightly on their shoulders when they would joke around with me. Hey, it can't hurt, right?

But when I waited tables, I really did enjoy the interaction with my customers. I liked the group of three couples who came in every Wednesday night for pitchers of amber beer and who always told me terrible jokes. I really did care (at least a little) if people liked the food I recommended. I like making people happy; that's my thing -- and while there are different levels of superficiality and depth to that, it was never total BS....

It's the sugary insincerity of this type of linguistic ass-kissing that bothers me, more so than the ridiculous grammar. To presume that "you," who don't know me from Adam's housecat, can become part of "we" just by saying the word... it feels not only false, but even a little intrusive.

My annoyance, however, has made me stop and think about how I talk to my clients -- as well as my colleagues, friends... even my little boy. [I caught myself saying that "we" had a dirty diaper the other day, and I'm pretty sure my pants were clean!]

The little polite phrases and niceties that make life easier and conversations smoother can become second-hand to us (me) over time; and maybe after a while we (I) stop noticing them and their effect on other people. Maybe what seems natural and comfortable to me sounds like nails on a chalkboard to someone else. Perhaps my quirky turns of phrase or conversation "fillers" are making other people feel like I felt at the restaurant yesterday. I guess it's worth paying closer attention.

I don't know. What do we think?

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's All About the Bounce

A childhood friend of mine, Kenneth, was in a terrible accident several years ago -- he slipped while rappelling off a bridge with a bunch of friends, and fell some 80 feet to the ground. He broke lots of important bones and was confined to a wheelchair for several months... All in all, he was really lucky to have survived. According to the word in our neighborhood (I don't know how true this is), one of the first things he said to friends when he awoke in the hospital was, "Did I bounce?"

I saw Kenneth recently at a memorial service for a mutual friend's father, and I was so glad to learn that he is not only up and about, but happily married and -- maybe somewhat astonishingly -- still rock-climbing. I'm sure that the wisdom of the mid-thirties (whatever that means) probably has him taking fewer blatant risks than he did a decade ago; but he still hasn't let that major setback keep him from doing what he loves.

Many of us spend our lives focused on making things happen: going to school, working, striving toward our goals. But I think an often-overlooked and absolutely critical quality of successful people is how they respond when things happen to them. It's how we respond in those moments when nothing is going as planned that reflects the flexibility and resiliency of our characters. And when those moments are high-stakes or very public, the pressure is even greater.

I'm thinking, for example, of professional ballplayers who blow a big game in front of millions of angry fans, or this unfortunate moment in the life of 2007 Miss Teen South Carolina. Of course that video leaves most educated folks shaking our heads (myself included!), but just think for a moment how nervous some of us get when we only have to make a short presentation to a conference room full of coworkers.

It's humiliating and scary moments like these that keep most of us away from the spotlight and from taking risks in general. But moments like these also define us. Big accidents, colossal failures, huge losses -- these are the stuff of life. They invite us to become stronger, smarter, braver, humbler, more gracious.... just generally better.

To bounce back well, we have to be flexible; and sometimes willing to let go of our old ideas and perspectives to adjust to a new reality. It's all about learning from failure, laughing after you fall down, allowing others to see you vulnerable and surviving it. Anyone can be a fortress, but it takes real courage to let others see you crumble and rebuild.

Miss Teen SC, incidentally, found the courage and good grace to poke fun at herself on another TV show not long after the "such as" fiasco, which in my mind is the best possible response after humiliating yourself on national television. She may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but at least she demonstrated the ability to bounce back smiling. Now somebody get that girl an atlas!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Good, toothless fun

My little guy is almost 2 months old now, growing like a weed, and - lately - smiling and laughing. The "social smile," as it is called in developmental terms, is just about the best thing ever. Better than chocolate, ice cream, or sex. Or even sex in chocolate ice cream!!

Just when I was pushed to the point of exhaustion, rolling with the chaos that is the newborn's world, ready to pay someone to come to my house and hold the little guy for about 3 days so that I could just SLEEP the whole time... he started giving us these big, gurgly grins. And suddenly the sun is shining again and somehow I can face another late-night feeding or half-hour "cry for no reason" fest. This must be an evolutionary protection babies have developed... just when you are so tired that you're about to consider leaving them with a pack of wolves to be raised, they become so intensely adorable that you decide to keep them for just a little longer.

But it gets more fun: the smile starts to develop its own little characteristics, which we watch in bemusement and amazement, wondering if they are clues to the person he'll become in the coming years. There's the Elvis smile, where one side of his lip curls up as he looks at you, like he's trying to decide if whatever you're doing or saying is really funny enough to merit a full smile. Then there's the shy smile, where he shrugs he shoulders and looks modestly to the side before hitting you with the big, toothless grin.

And the goofy laugh -- who knew someone 8 weeks old could have a goofy laugh? Well, my son DOES. He laughs at me once in a while, and MDH a little more often... but his favorite comedic inspiration is the hot air balloon mobile we bought for him at IKEA, which hangs high above his changing table. It has 3 little animals leaning over the side of the basket, looking down on him while his diaper's being changed, and apparently those 3 guys are the funniest characters ever to be sewn out of a polyester blend. Little man just looks up at them, transfixed, and if we bat the balloon a little so that they move for him, we are often rewarded with a series of smiles and then: "Heh, heh, heh."

The books don't say much about laughter at this age, so maybe he's not supposed to be able to laugh yet. "They" also say that babies can only see well to about 12 inches at this point, and the balloon is a good 3 feet above his head when he's on the table. But don't tell him that, because that goofy little laugh makes my whole damn day worthwhile.