Month: May 2014

Don’t “no butter” yourself.

Just a minute ago, a friend said some kind things to me about my writing. It made me recall the phrase in the title.

In high school, I took the advanced English classes, a college English class, and the available humanities and creative writing courses. I also helped just a little with the school’s literary magazine. So of course I wrote a lot during high school, both for school and not for school, and I read a lot of other students’ essays, poems, and even songs. Peers and teachers also critiqued my writing.

It’s hard for a person to share his creation, for the most part. It can be hard to receive criticism, and so we have various ways of defending ourselves against it. For a variety of reasons, it can also be hard to receive compliments though, and that’s where the “no butter” story comes in.

In all of those classes with all of those papers, so many people would say things like, “I couldn’t think of the right word,” or “I was so tired when I wrote that,” or simply, “Sorry, it’s not very good.”

One of my teachers, with whom I still occasionally speak because he has had a great impact on my life, told a story that I will now paraphrase:

     A man and his wife prepared dinner for their friends one evening. The meal was delicious, and the company was even better. But when one friend complimented the man on a dish he had made, the man replied: “Oh, it’s not good. I’m sorry. There was no butter, and I didn’t have time to go to the store to buy some. I had to use margarine, but even that margarine has been in the back of the fridge for a long time…”

By the time the man had finished rattling off the circumstances which had prevented him from preparing the dish just perfectly — and responding to his friend’s compliment as though it had been a negative criticism, the genial mood was ruined and the rest of the food had gotten cold.

The story could alternatively go:

     A man and his wife prepared dinner for their friends one evening… When the man brought out the dishes to be served, before anyone had tasted them, he apologized, “I’m sorry this dish won’t be quite right. See, I was caught up at work, and got home late. I got home to see there was no butter, but of course I had no time to go buy some. I had to use margarine instead, but even that tub of margarine has been sitting in the back of the fridge forever…”

By the time the man finished explaining what was wrong with the meal he was serving, his friends were decidedly less interested in tasting it.

So you see that no buttering yourself is taking compliment as criticism, which is rude to your friends. Or it can be preempting criticism by giving it of yourself, which gives your friends a bad impression before they even “taste” what you are serving. It applies to music, art, writing, food, anything. Do you see? I find this story profound.

My parents and my uncle, all of whom play or played musical instruments with exceptional skill, also taught me — a terrible musician — to receive compliments well. My uncle, who played professionally, told me about giving bad performances. He told me that sometimes an audience will applaud, or an individual will give a compliment, not out of flattery or politeness, but from genuinely having enjoyed the show, even when the musician himself knows that this part was off tempo, that chord was struck wrong, or something else hadn’t been played perfectly. The proper response is never to say, “Oh no, the second movement started off wrong,” or anything like that! No. The proper response is always, “Thank you.” And you should mean it when you say it, too, because as a musician, a writer, a cook, whatever, although you may know you are no Johnny Winter, no J.R.R. Tolkien, no Jacques Pépin, to the person complimenting you… maybe you are!

Think about it like this. Would a rich person be happy with a gift of dirty, used sneakers? Probably not, but someone who’s never been able to afford shoes would be. Would Anthony Bourdain be pleased with a breakfast from Denny’s? Maybe not, but someone who hasn’t had a square meal in a couple of days would be thankful. (I would be thankful, too. I love Denny’s.) We all have different standards. Don’t argue with people when they are more generous to you than you are to yourself.

So don’t “no butter” yourself. Say “thank you,” and mean it.

And Thomas, if you read this, you know, I wanted to no butter myself in response to your comment on my last entry. I thought better of it though, and I thought it might be a good time to write down the no butter story. I hope you understand. And thank you again for your kind words.

Starting the blog over.

If I were able to cancel my WordPress account, I’m not sure I’d be doing this. Years ago (when I was a sheltered teenager), I started blogging because I wanted to connect with people, and I thought I had something to say. But this is now. Experience has changed me, or at least changed the way I operate. In those days, when I started writing on the Internet (we didn’t call it blogging), no one had an iPhone because the iPhone didn’t exist yet. You could still go out somewhere and be totally unreachable. You could disappear.

Once, when I was 15 years old, I went out with a boy named Aaron. We went out walking on a private coastal area that he said was owned by the Veterans Administration. It was desolate, but interesting, exciting, and beautiful. I distinctly remember the emerald color of the ocean there. We slipped over sharp barnacles and super saturated sand, and climbed through dense mangroves. I don’t remember if one of us had a cell phone or not, but if we did, we didn’t really know where we were even if we did need to call for help. 

It wasn’t until some weeks or months later that Aaron started to make me feel uncomfortable. I thought it hadn’t been smart to go out into remote areas alone with him. I also saw something in the news about a child who had been bitten by a coral snake. Apparently, coral snake bites are very dangerous, even when help arrives promptly. What if I’d been bitten out there? I thought. We had been literally climbing through mangrove branches; no stretcher would have gotten through to me.

My point is that doesn’t happen anymore unless one makes the conscious effort to disconnect. I discarded the old posts on this blog, and had intended to leave the site, because I wanted to disconnect. I do want to write too, which… I guess I am writing here right now because it is actually more convenient than writing in a romantic old leather bound journal. Writing in a word processor just seems unsuitable.

I hate smart phones, tablets, laptops, and online classes. I love being able to keep in touch with family and friends despite living thousands of miles from most of them; but if we were all reduced to writing letters and mailing each other printed photographs, would hell break loose? I love Google Maps–well, actually, I love the concept of Google Maps, but I hate that every update seems to make the app harder to use–; but I’m sure I could get around like my father or my father-in-law, using atlases, stopping places to ask directions, and generally paying more attention. Have men not been navigating the whole wide world for ages? Yet when I first started driving, I could not get from San Diego to… another part of San Diego without that Garmin voice telling me which way to turn in 500 feet.

But I’m not writing so I can rant about my relationship with technology. We’re not getting a divorce anyway, but we do like to vacation separately now. I’m writing about intentions.

First, years ago, I intended to connect. I intended to write great things.

Then, what, a year ago? I don’t know. I created instaculture. I was transitioning back to civilian life from being in the military–though I must say now that there is not transitioning back to civilian life; there is civilian life, then military life, then veteran life. I was meeting my relatives again after years apart. I was returning to the United States from Japan. I was able to marry.

There’s so much that people don’t understand. The worst part is when they claim to, and this is especially true of things related to the Navy. There’s a guy at my church who appears pretty physically fit, and keeps a short haircut that would be acceptable in the military. I guess that’s why I’ve heard it asked of him more than once, “Are you in the military?” to which he has responded (more than once!), “No, but I play rugby.”

Yeah, exactly the same! In my mind, I shake my head, and ask, “What the fuck?” I know such language is considered unladylike, but sometimes I think in it; so I am merely sharing my thoughts here. Anyway, yes, playing recreational rugby is just the same as… everything I went through on the ship that I don’t talk about. I can only imagine that my naval service seems as childish to combat veterans as this man’s rugby matches seem to me.

Anyway, I wanted to write about culture because I have been existing in so many cultures. I wanted to explore the ideas of individualism v. community-oriented thinking; long-term v. short-term planning (especially relating to economics and environmentalism); and the cliche “instant gratification.” I was also thinking about entering the Catholic Church, and I wanted to write about that….

I have been observing, forming ideas, discussing with people, reading, writing semi-related papers for school. I did enter the Catholic Church, actually. But I’ve failed to write much, and I’ve failed to write well. How can I engage people when I feel aloof? How can I articulate my ideas and feelings to a majority of people who won’t try very hard to understand? (And why should they?)

Am I trying to connect? Am I trying to disconnect? Maybe I am just trying to simplify. Maybe this is how many people felt at the end of the 18th Century, as the Western world was entering Modernity. What will this era or globalization, instantaneous communication, and extremely rapid technological progress be called someday?

All this time later, I am still stuck in Japan. I am still stuck in the Navy, on a ship. I am still a woman, and people still prefer to define me by my relation to a man. I am still too young for my experiences to mean anything, but old enough that most of the teenagers I talk to sound very silly to me. I am a student. I love learning, but hate school. I am a Christian–and a Catholic one too, now–but I am still caught between social groups because of my interest in science. This is a hard time for me, somehow, wondering if I am learning who I am, but at the same time, questioning the validity of the concept of “self.” This is an easy time for me, too. My physical circumstances are easy, that is, and things seem secure.

As I start over, maybe I will not try to do anything. I will just write as if in a journal, as I did on my first Xanga site, years ago. I was a better writer then. Maybe I will be able to recapture some of whatever it was I had. Maybe some of my experiences will enhance my writing–can you believe that’s part of the reason I joined the military? My favorite authors had been in the military, so… well, why explain my logic here?