Saturday, September 29, 2007

On Common Courtesy

It seems that at least some people do not understand common courtesy. So, in the interest of smoothing the interaction online and in real world society, and as a paean to my idol, Miss Manners, I will attempt to define what I consider Common Courtesy.

There are many things that common courtesy is not: it is not being nice all the time; it does not preclude a touch of sarcasm, albeit such sarcasm should be couched in the most polite terms; it sadly is not all that common (like common sense, unlike the common man); it does not include using the word 'whom' when 'who' is actually grammatically correct;* it is not uncritical acceptance of anything another does or says; and it is most certainly not being so open-minded that one's brains fall out.

What is common courtesy? First and foremost, it means using those 'magic words' one learned as a child: please, thank you, you're welcome, I'm sorry. As for thank you, 'it's ok,' 'no problem,' 'np,' 'no worries,' and 'sure' are not synonymous with 'you're welcome.' I try to thank every person who interacts with me online, even those who have been role-playing or otherwise interacting with me regularly for upwards of two years. Even in a chat or scene or email that I felt was somewhat lackluster, I am still grateful for the time and effort the other person spent typing at, to, or for me. Those two little words, 'thank you,' take only a moment to type, and do not mean that you are less cool, or less independent, or in any way inferior to the person to whom you say them. If anything, it makes you look more gracious, and, like charm, should leave both of you feeling good about yourselves.

Typing 'excuse me for a (few, several) minutes' is another form of common courtesy online, particularly when interacting 'live' instead of posting to a BB or emailing. One doesn't need to go into intricate detail about one's bodily functions, needs, or real world intrusions. But saying, or better yet, asking, 'please excuse me' lets your partner(s) know that you will not be typing for a reasonable amount of time. They can then tend to their own needs, or pose around you, answer other chats or mail, or at least be spared just sitting there wondering if you've been bumped, or missed a pose or comment, or are composing the great American novel for your reply, or are coming back at all. Yes, it takes a few seconds to type, but it spares the other person concern, and that's what common courtesy is all about.

Apologizing prettily is another form of common courtesy. A quick 'sorry, I missed your pose/note/comment' is adequate when indeed that is what happened, especially if combined with a quick response to said missed interaction (which doesn't necessarily mean a short response, just one typed as rapidly as you can while still maintaining reasonable grammatical accuracy). If you have, however, truly offended your partner by springing an unwelcome surprise on him or her, or made some kind of racial or ethnic slur, or even lost your dignity because you had a bad day at work, your mom caught you looking at porn, or your lover poured dinner down the garbage disposal because you wouldn't get off the damn computer, insulted his or her intelligence, hurt his or her feelings, then a more detailed apology is in order. It is called 'begging forgiveness' for a reason. You don't demand forgiveness. You don't use the word 'but' in your apology. Saying, 'Hey, I was really out of line, *but* your response was so idiotic it *made* me respond offensively' is not an apology at all. It just adds insult to injury, as you make the offended party responsible for your offensive behavior (which is, by the way, a red-flag sign of an abuser; he or she blames the victim). A courteous response is something along the lines of, 'Please, could you find it in your heart to forgive me? I am so sorry I hurt/distressed/offended/mis-used you. I have no excuse except my own thoughtlessness. If you will give me the chance, I will try to make amends.' A little bonus to a pretty apology, especially a heart-felt one, is that it is very hard for the other person not to grant forgiveness, or at least depart in manner that leaves both of you with your dignity intact.

Common courtesy means overlooking typos and misspellings, not pointing them out. You can use the misspelled word in your next pose, spelling it correctly. That's a very non-offensive way of helping your partner become familiar with the word. If your partner asks, or includes a (sp?) after the word, you can gently tell him or her that the usage was incorrect. But everyone, particularly people so engrossed in online interaction that they are typing with speed and passion, makes mistakes. To interrupt scene the interaction to point out the mistakes is both churlish and disruptive. If the other person's use of English is so poor that you cannot relate to him or her, then find a point at which to break it off and excuse yourself. 'I don't think we are the best match here, I'm so sorry,' is far more polite than 'you can't write worth a damn, I can't believe anyone interacts with you.' I'm not talking about the times when someone posts to the wrong window, or board, or partner, or the mis-typed line is so funny you want to share the laugh. One of my partners recently removed his head; at a later date I had him removing his eyes. We both laughed over these typos, and took it as a sign that we should probably give up and go to bed. But to pinpoint a partner's mistakes, especially repeatedly, is not a kindness. If the other person asks for specifics because he or she wants to improve, then you are free to direct that person to a grammar primer (there are many online), or to suggest a client, blog editor and so on with a spell checker.

So, how does one deal with the real jerks, @ssholes, pissy-wankers and other unpleasant people one is bound to meet now and then both online and rl? First of all, in all likelihood you'll meet more of these kinds of people online. A big part of that reason is that they aren't afraid you'll punch them in their noses. Thus they think they can shed that oil of common courtesy which reduces the inevitable friction when people interact. Common courtesy doesn't not mean you must be 'nice' to these people, it only means that you must cloak yourself ever more tightly in the protective powers of politeness. Give him or her the last word, and then do that wonderful thing you cannot do real life...put the person on +ignore. Ah, if we could only do that to the unpleasant neighbors, over-bearing family, rude co-workers, indifferent customer service workers and others who set our teeth on edge. You can find a way to cleverly respond to rudeness, by using the person's statements in an amusing, but telling way. One of my favorite answers to inappropriate questions, I think Dear Abby said it, is 'I'll forgive you for asking, if you'll forgive me for not answering.' That's such a lovely little statement, it politely reminds the asker that you hold some issues privately, and has that little undertone of caution: if the other won't forgive you for not answering, then you are not obliged to forgive the asker for asking. In either case, you have politely refused to answer.

Common courtesy, at the last, means holding yourself with dignity and respect, and holding others in the same light until they convince you that they are undeserving of such treatment. At which point, you are free (and encouraged) to cease all interaction with this person, instead of starting a flame war in which no one wins. It is the original 'rule of the sandbox.' You don't have to play with anyone who makes you feel bad. The corollary is that you are charged with treating others the way you wish they'd treat you...the old Golden Rule. With common courtesy as your cloak and shield, you'll find navigating the treacherous routes of human interaction are much easier. And at the end of the day, you can look at yourself in the mirror with clear eyes and a peaceful heart.

*Side note, whom takes the preposition (of, to, for, with, under, over, around and through, etc.). Who doesn't. One way to remember is to substitute I or me for who or whom. If it is the word 'me' that sounds right, remember that it has an 'm' as does 'whom.' So it is 'who goes there' since it would be 'I go there,' not 'me go there' (unless you are playing Tonto, Tarzan, Frankenstein or a barbarian). Who is calling? Well I am (is) calling. It belongs to whom? It belongs to me. This grammatical tip is brought to you by Sesame Street and the words Please, Thank You, You're Welcome, and I am so very sorry.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My Son Kurt

(Note: I found writing about Katrina, and the second anniversary, much harder and more upsetting than I first thought. So, until I once more screw my courage to the sticking place, today I'm going to post an essay I wrote about my son for his college applications.)

Kurt has always been, and still is, a wonderful child. I could not have asked for a better son, and I'm very happy just to be a part of his life. He has what I consider to be the qualities of a truly gifted human being. Aside from his intelligence and good humor, he is also incredibly creative, deeply compassionate, and so empathetic that it seems almost impossible for him not to see some good, or at the very worst, the reasons for the bad, in people. Every day I look to him as an example, and hope to be more like him.

From the time he was a tiny boy, he's had the single-minded determination to be a director. The first TV he watched wasn't Sesame Street or cartoons, but That's Entertainment. He was fascinated by it, and was dancing his little bottom off in his playpen before he could walk. When he'd fall, he'd fling out his arms, as if he meant that to be the grand finale. When he was about two years old, he saw a Sesame Street bit where Kermit was directing a muppet production of Oklahoma, and of course his cast kept getting it wrong, singing Eklahoma, Aklahoma, and so on. Kurt asked me what Kermit was doing, and I explained a director's job to him. From that day forth, he wanted to be a director.

Shortly afterward, he started asking my husband and I what all the words at the end of movies said. We explained credits to him, that it was a list of the cast and crew, all the people who put together a movie. So after every movie he saw he asked us to read the credits to him, until he learned to read and could do it himself. When he played with his action figures and stuffed animals, he didn't pretend they were fighting or going on adventures, he pretended that he was making a film about a battle, or an adventure, a horror story or a romance. And he'd work for weeks on one film, every day giving us reports on how it was going, production problems (he even had an imaginary producer, Cindy West), and the difficulty of special effects or lighting or even the weather.

Three of his imaginary movies were particularly memorable. The first was Attack Pack, the Movie. He had figures that looked like cars and tanks and trucks, but if you manipulated certain levers, they'd change into wild beasts that were half-machine, half-animal. He was, and is, the most even-tempered human I've ever known. He never threw tantrums, he was always willing to negotiate, and it took a very extreme situation to really anger him. That's why one day I was so surprised to hear him in his room, yelling and throwing toys around. I think he was around four at the time, I know it was before he started school. So I went in, concerned, of course, and asked him what the problem was. He shouted, “I hate critics! Two thumbs down, the book rated it a bomb! Kids seem to like it, but everyone else said it was one of the worst movies ever made!” So, trying not to laugh at him, I left him to continue his rant about critics and the reviews of Attack Pack, the Movie. I was amazed at the depth of his involvement, not only that he did spend weeks talking his way through a movie, but that he even got bad reviews.

His next film was an attempt to redeem his reputation, one called Secrets of the Small Desert. In it, a young girl got separated from her parents and, while trying to find them, she stumbled upon a small, mysterious desert. A lion befriended her, and together they undertook a quest to find her way home. Along the way they met a wise old eagle who offered aid in the form of hints and adages. Kurt had many stuffed animals, but he had a few that were especial favorites. One was a goofy red stuffed bird named Chickie, with a fat, tailless oval body, two stuffed feet (but no legs) attached directly to her body, little stubby wings, a round neckless head with two black button eyes and a stuffed beak. When we watched the Academy Awards that year (a must-do tradition for Kurt and me), he frowned a bit at the end and said, “Oh, they forgot to include Secrets of the Small Desert.” The next day he told me the Academy had called, and were having a special luncheon to honor his movie. It was up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Chickie was up for Best Supporting Actress. I asked him about Chickie, and he said she played the wise old eagle. Before I could say a word about that silly bird ever passing as an eagle, he said, “she spent hours in make-up every day.” So he and his stuffed friends went to the banquet to receive their awards. Chickie, ever the one who kept him humble, said, “Well, you can forget about ever getting an Oscar for Attack Pack, the Movie.” However, he did come out with the director's cut of Attack Pack, the Movie, and took out all the romantic scenes. “They just didn't work,” he told me, “even the kids hated those parts, and no one could believe that animal machines would fall in love.” It was never a blockbuster, but the director's cut did improve the movie, and the bad reviews stopped.

The third really memorable imaginary film was entitled, The Monster King. He worked on this movie for most of kindergarten and first grade. It was very, very involved, and had several sequels, such as The Fire King and The Frost Monster. Many days as I met him at school, we'd sometimes decide to walk the long two miles home instead of waiting for the bus, just so he could tell me about the newest developments in his movie, and the classmates and teachers he was adding to the cast.

Unlike most children, Kurt never really pretended to be many different things when he grew up. He was always set on being a director. He was, and is, an avid watcher of movies, and from an early age admired directors' different styles. We had a Hitchcock summer, where we watched a different Hitchcock movie every week on the local PBS station. Kurt was amazed by the Master's ability to evoke such terror without really showing much gore. He greatly admired Steven Spielberg, and when he was tested for Talented in Theatre, told the testers that if he could be anyone in the world, he'd be Steven Spielberg. As he grew older, his list of favorite directors grew. Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Kubrick all joined his list. He took film courses whenever he had the opportunity, such as with Duke University's Talent Identification Program, which he attended for three weeks every year for four summers. He came home very excited about film noir and other genres, and still loves to discuss all aspects of movies we watch, from lighting to cinematography to directors' thumbprints.

While he was being tested for the Talented in Theatre program after his kindergarten year, they suggested he be tested for Gifted as well. I was with him for some of the tests. In the vocabulary portion, the tester asked him if he knew what the word “brave” meant. He answered quickly, “It means when you are really, really, scared,” and the tester's eyebrows shot up, because he'd done so well on the rest of the vocabulary words. But he continued, before she could say a word, with, “but you do it anyway.” He's always had that deep understanding of the human condition, our motives, and our actions.

I can clearly remember his loss of innocence as well. The summer before he started middle school, sixth grade here, I had a massive heart attack. A month later, during his first week of middle school (and just a couple of weeks before 9/11), I had a triple by-pass operation. I still remember the hurt, haunted look in his eyes, when he realized that life sometimes had very rough patches, and no one was immune. He is an only child, and has always been very, very precious to us. And we've always had a very close relationship. My husband and I sometimes talked about the time when he'd enter his teenage years, knowing it was a time of hormonal changes and unfocused anger, a time of rebellion. But that hasn't happened in our little family. We still, daily, talk about anything and everything. We've made ourselves practice letting go, first to family in Florida without us, then to the Duke TIP program in North Carolina, and finally, the summer after Katrina, a trip to Austria sponsored by kids there who wanted to help some Katrina kids. Every time I've said goodbye, I've felt my heart break. (Kurt says he and I have Jello hearts, so soft and tender they can be cut with a spoon.) The days without him have seemed so long, not as merry, not as fun. But we know as parents that a big part of our job is to let him go, and to do it gracefully.

Kurt told me after his first summer at Duke that while he really enjoyed it (he took a theatre course that year), and while he really liked meeting other bright kids, he realized that no one would every really understand him the way I did. I think that may be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. After my heart attack and surgery, I had heart failure for several years. Kurt has always uncomplainingly helped around the house, and helped me, in any way he can. He does chores with, if not exactly a cheerful heart, at least a willing one. He cooks, he does laundry, he sees to the pets (two cats and a dog who all adore him). The social worker at his middle school called me after the heart attack and asked if there was any way she could help. I asked her just to talk to him. I knew he was very upset, but sweet soul that he is, he didn't want to add to his father's, or my, burden. So she started a small group therapy session, including other children who were facing hard parental issues, divorce, death of a parent, and so on. He told me that he always felt lighter after he left her office, and recruited some kids who were facing difficult issues that hadn't been mentioned to the school. At the end of the year, the social worker called me. She said that she thought he was handing everything well. But she wanted to know if I'd mind if he continued the group sessions—not because Kurt needed them, but because he was so good at drawing out the other children. He never mocked them or made light of their troubles. If they cried, he didn't laugh, he cried with them. His suggestions, his compassion, his empathy made the group meetings better for everyone.

During his eighth grade year, his school nominated him as their representative for Cox Cable's Inspirational Student Hero Award. They told me they hadn't even considered anyone else, that Kurt was the unanimous, and only, choice for the award. We attended a breakfast award ceremony with him and his favorite teacher, and the other award winners. It was a wonderful day, and one I will always remember. He's always been my Inspirational Hero.

Kurt's first year at his gifted high school was rough, as is everyone's first year. From the loving womb of his elementary and middle school into the stringent academic world of his high school was a big change for him. At first, he felt overwhelmed, but he knuckled down and did what he had to do to stay there. There was never any question of him attending a different, easier school. Katrina hit right at the beginning of his Sophomore year. We were evacuated thanks to some very good friends. After criss-crossing the south, we finally ended up in Tomball, Texas. There were a choice of high schools there, as the private schools were waiving their fees for Katrina refugees. But Kurt insisted upon going to the big public high school. He said he'd been a public school student all of his life (albeit charter schools), and he wanted to see what other public schools were like. He found the work very easy, which was good, since we were all terribly stressed about being relocated. But once again he was a trooper, and made good friends there. He's always had some Obsessive Compulsive Disorder problems, and gets it from both sides of the family. On his father's side they are thumb-suckers, his father's grandmother went to her grave still sucking her thumb. We did some research, and discovered that for about 25% of those who suck their thumbs there is no “cure” and it is a life-long practice. So we always gently encouraged him to try to keep it a private thing, but to also understand that it wasn't his fault.

The social worker at the school in Tomball called me about it. She was concerned that the other kids might tease or bully him because of it. I told her he hadn't mentioned anything like that to me, but I'd ask him about it. When I did, he told me that no, most of the kids didn't mention it all, and in fact everyone there went out of his or her way to be kind. And the kids who did ask him about it did so out of curiosity. To them he explained that it was a form of OCD, and then went on to explain the disorder to them. So I called the social worker back and told her all this. She was very surprised, but after several seconds of silence said, “Well, good for him.” And that school, as with every school he's ever attended, was sad to see him go when we moved back to New Orleans at the end of the semester.

He desperately wanted to come home, not because people weren't kind in Tomball, but because he is a born and raised New Orleanian. It was vitally important to him that he graduate from his gifted high school. His birthday is in early February, so he's a Mardi Gras baby. From the time he was a year old he's loved the parades, the beads, the fun. His fifteenth birthday fell on Carnival Day, and we were able to get him on one of the trucks in the Elks-Orleanians Truck Parade. The family that hosted that truck were as kind as could be, making his costume, putting on his make-up, and inviting him to their home after the parade. They had a birthday cake, and made it a very special day for him, and he returned their kindness with gratitude and grace. He had too many beads (we'd been saving them since he was a baby, knowing that one day we were going to try to get him in a parade). He called home and asked if he could give his left-over beads to the family with whom he rode, and of course we agreed. And it never made a bit of difference to them, or to him, that they were black and he and I are, as my father-in-law says, “fish-belly white.”

Kurt's always been very color-blind when it comes to racial heritage. Even now, he sometimes has a hard time determining someone's race, and will instead say something like, “her skin color is the same of (some common friend of ours).” One of the things that really bothered him about our suburban life in Tomball was that he missed seeing Indian and Asian faces. He saw a few black faces, more Latino, but really no others. It took him a little while to put his finger on what was wrong, until he realized it was the lack of diversity.

Our little family has always struggled financially. We felt strongly that it was important that I be a stay-at-home mom. It's hard to do in a city in this day and age. I've often worried that Kurt might feel cheated because he didn't have as many things, or fashionable clothes, or all the lessons and luxuries most of his friends have enjoyed by virtue of being from two-income families. But he told he that not only did he not miss those things, his friends envied him. He said his closeness to his parents isn't something that money could buy, and that no amount of things could make up for the relationship we have. That seemed to me just an amazing thing for an American teenager to say. And it is one of the reasons he wants to be a director, so that he can take time off to be with his children.

He has a solid group of friends, some of them going back as far as kindergarten. Finding them was a priority after Katrina. He has befriended those with autism, hyperactivity, and other problems, as well as those who are just smart and funny. He doesn't get along well with those who are prejudiced, or cruel, and has stood up to bullies often on the behalf of someone else. Everyday my greatest joy is seeing his beloved face. I cherish the time we have together, and our easy ability to talk about things silly and serious. I hope he manages to see his dream of changing the world through his movies, but his back-up plans to write or to teach will change the world as well. He is brave, respectful, funny and cute, intense, passionate about issues he considers important, a good and sympathetic friend, determined, kind, and just the sweetest soul I've ever known. Every day of my life I'm grateful just to be a part of his. Kurt is the most wonderful human being I have ever known, and the greatest blessing of my life.