Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Hacking Together a Speech

Hello Reader,
Got to make a speech?

Hack, definition: At the beginning of last week’s essay I explained the term hack, meaning “crazy, inelegant, but it works.” Like duct tape.

What if you had to do a speech? For a bald white haired person like me, for example, what if you had to speak to a group about the good old days? How can you organize and choose what to put into your talk? Within your allotted time? Especially if you want to speak without being tied to reading your notes word for word, without being tied behind a lectern like a human telephone pole. 

You might chew your pencil in agony as you try to write out your speech from beginning to end, and then rehearse in agony too. Or, you can just stick with me, and I’ll tell you a hack.

The road to my good hack is quite the journey, and, as travellers know, you would be wise to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Today my road takes us past teenage boys and young college graduates

Forget public speaking for now, just enjoy teenage boys wanting to learn more about basketball. At home they would have a hoop at their garage driveway to practise with. Thump-thump-thump. Abruptly, with fanfare, their school puts on a “basketball clinic,” running each night of the week. On Monday night, a coach from a winning provincial team advises them to forget their ego-glory. Instead, take joy in guarding their man very well, even if no one else ever notices the fine job they are doing. 

In truth, back at their garage, the boys are unlikely to practise the boxer shuffle with their arms outstretched: Boys prefer the glory of visibly sinking baskets, but OK, at least Monday night is educational.

On Tuesday night their social studies teacher, who once won a Most Valuable Player award for the whole province, teaches them to do dribbling drills around chairs and orange cones. Back at home the boys are unlikely to drag chairs out to their garage driveway, but OK, at least Tuesday night is educational.

For now, forget those boys, and enjoy college graduates on the road to “excellence”: the Greek word is “arete,” and believe me, Arete Physical Comedy troupe, “based in Calgary and known around the world,” put the E in excellence. Arete was three men. 

The government of the day had a program to give theatre graduates a summer job: They would be trained by Arete, and put on a play at the end of summer. 

On Monday the kids would come up with a comedy sketch such as meeting a dog—shake a paw? 
On Tuesday a sketch such as meeting a duck—shake a web foot? Yes, I am making up these examples. And then they would excellently develop and practise these sketches. 

I can say “kids,” as did the Arete fellow talking with me one day, because, besides being older and having my own excellence ethic, I had a previous history with Arete. We talked near the end of summer, and he chuckled to tell me the kids were beginning to panic. “What about the play? Oh my God! Shouldn’t we have a script all written, and be practising by now?” …What the kids didn’t realize was that they had been practising; it wouldn’t be hard to put together their various sketches. Like snapping together lego blocks. And they did. How educational. 

Their summer performance was good, world class in fact, so good it came back for the olympic arts festival for the winter games of Calgary 1988.

Now, forget about boys and college graduates. Think of your own private “clinic” for public speaking. 

On Monday you could look up sane, sensible advice in the library. 
On Tuesday you could get prim, proper advice from Toastmasters International. 
But today is Wednesday, time for a hack that sounds as crazy as putting chairs in your driveway—but educational.

 It’s time to write your speech, maybe a speech on dog training, because nobody trains a duck. Take an 11 by 81/2 inch paper, maybe write your speech title and goal. Maybe. Then fold the paper into four squares—and put it in your pocket. 

Then walk out to a big pasture. 

Or traipse along the river path. Or sidewalk. Or find space in your kitchen. Or sit in a chair. 

My bar tender used to know when I was preparing another presentation: I would sitting there talking to myself, like any self-respecting drunk, then go pace along the floor-to-wall windows. I would do so in a very brightly lit private club for graduate students. Ah, the club was heaven for nerds! Not like some dim, brown bar-cave meant for mundane people. You will probably prefer your kitchen.

Develop your various “talking points” through telling your stories again and again, enjoying the telling. Now, just as you can imagine how, in the good old days, you would “fight and never lose” you may freely imagine your audience smiling and happily benefitting from whatever you have to say. For dog training, besides explaining how would you teach a dog to “shake a paw,” and sit and stay, you might relish telling the story of how your dog was trained to be a ninja! With a mask like the ninja turtles!

At last, before you get bored, it’s time to sit down at table, unfold your paper, and start writing out all your one-word story titles, such as “sit,” “stay” and “ninja.” Number the words in order of importance. Set your clock on the table and start timing. You might only have time for explaining sit and stay, but not ninja. Oh well. Take what you do have time for, and snap it together like lego blocks.

Flip the page over. Write out a beginning and an ending. Or not. Then, when you finally plunk in your speech word-bites, there is almost no time needed to practise. Because you had already practised. Suddenly you look up from your page, with no need to chew your pencil—You’re done.

Concept: You had practised, with slightly different wording each time, as you worked things out, as all the while you were smiling to imagine it going well. No need, then, to worry about word-for-word perfection. Which means, when you deliver the speech in real life, you have less stage fright, and fewer recriminations after unfortunately, just like happened sometimes while practising in the pasture, you would forget your best line. Oops! It happens.

I admit that, in theory, I could practise out my whole speech precisely, perfectly, with primly planned punctuation, word for exact word. (That way the best line would surely be included) The problem? The audience might not be bored, but I sure would be!

Hence my hack.

… In conclusion, to restate my opening in slightly different words… —wait a minute, this isn’t a speech: You can always scroll up to re-read the opening for yourself. But why would you bother?… 

Sean Crawford
In the exciting land of the 1988 olympics,
In a sensible land where people decided against re-hosting the games for 2026,

You might ask: What about the Zen practise of doing the exact same speech a score of times without ever getting bored? Yes, I could do that, because I’m a calm Zen journeyman, but today’s essay is a hack for people who chew pencils.

Citizenship thought: 
Zen? It’s nice to like your cult. 

Yes, it’s fine to like your Zen, or your communism—OK, not communism—but don’t expect everybody else to join your cult. 
Last week at the “Chinese Oscars” (link) a lady who had lived all her life in Taiwan did not want her country to join China. The communists were shocked, shocked I say, to hear that. 

You might ask: Yes, but what if the mainland Chinese ever converted to democracy, then would she want Taiwan to merge? 

Easily answered: NO. Because then she would still feel love for her own beloved country. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hacks for Being On Time

Hello Dear Reader,
Got being on time?

I knew I had to write this essay when a friend told me she was having trouble lately getting to places on time. “Lately,” because just lately her life has become rough. “I had to write,” because textbooks and society are innocent about these things—and this offends me.

The physical skills are straightforward, and you know them: Use a calendar, a day-timer, plan the route, plan what time to leave, et cetera, et cetera. But my friend’s struggle is not physical, and not covered in Business Management 101. I know this about her because I too once struggled, and then found success, but only because the “hacks” I used were “from the street,” not from society’s wisdom.

Hack: such a useful concept. It comes from the computer world. A programmer might write you a letter that begins, “Forgive me for writing you such a long letter, I did not have time to write a short one.” The long letter, un-polished, un-concise, would be a “hack.” Computer code is supposed to be as short, clean and elegant as possible, but a long ugly passage of code, just to get the job done, would be a hack. 

If a computer printer cover breaks in half, and instead of waiting for a spare part you use duct tape, then that is a hack. When your polished pretty coat hook falls off the wall, and you merely hammer in a spike—that’s a hack. A hack, then, is something crude, even ugly, which has a virtue: It works. At the same time, if your mother-in-law comes over, you might want to stand in front of the duct taped thingy to hide it. 

My favorite hack for getting up in the morning, which I have never tried myself, was told to me by a guy who put a mechanical alarm clock in a tin basin… and then put the basin in front of his brother’s door.

In my own rough family, growing up, being on time was elusive for all of us. My dad had a 15-minute commute to work: I’m not saying he charged out the door every morning like Dagwood Bumstead, but… I once heard family members say that the folks at work must have had no-money bets each day on whether he would be on time. 

Years later, when Dad was a senior citizen, I went to see him, intending to later drive him somewhere. I realized: he hadn’t changed a bit! He still couldn’t pick a time to leave, announce it, and commit to it. Therefore other people could not synchronize their preparations to all leave at the same time. Sounds spineless, I know.

When I was in eleventh grade, I had a little backbone: I was practising the bagpipes daily for one hour, plus a further half hour. Not something I ever did in earlier grades, and not something that anybody else in my family ever did—not ever. In contrast, I know a man who beat an African drum for just five minutes every day, right when he came home from work. At the end of a year, he could play the drum. Only now, as an adult, do I look back and realize something about my family: No one ever spent five minutes a day regularly on any art or craft or hobby or textbook. (At least, not that I can recall) Weird: This means I grew up in a family of drifting, spineless jellyfish.

As I have blogged before, it was not until my mid-thirties that someone clued me in that I had “abuse issues.” I didn’t realize this when I first moved away, I only knew I had “low self esteem or something,” and that I was “stupid or something.” How rough. Hence my big problem with getting to places on time, with catching busses on time, and with leaving my house on time. What I needed? A hack!

Here’s what I promised myself: I would walk out my door, walk along the sidewalk, and not run to catch the bus, not even if I was nearly close enough to touch it as it rolled away. I walked right to the bus door as if I was merely out for fresh air. So I missed several busses, until my subconscious learned I was not bluffing.

From the bus line I would then walk down to my destination or activity, such a community centre show, even if I had missed my earlier intended bus. I’d walk to the destination… and if I was even a minute late, then, you guessed it: Turn on my heel, and walk back up to the bus stop. I missed out on a few things, until my subconscious got the message to shape up—for I surely wasn’t going to run. The hack worked. 

I am the only one in my eight-person family to finish a university degree. I guess I succeeded because I didn’t register to start classes until I had all my hacks lined up in a row. 

I know Canadian universities are all tough because nobody up there needs to put the adjective “good” in front of “university.” All of them are good. 

Meanwhile, it’s been documented: Canadian immigrant and visionary Jane Jacobs, author of Death and Life of American Cities, said that society was organized, with student loans and so forth, so that Human Resources departments, for job applicants, would use “having a degree” as an initial screening device. Not to show an applicant’s knowledge, (Unless for a specialty career degree) but to show they could handle the demands of a degree.

Have you heard of “writer’s block?” I think, unknown to society, there must be such a thing as “term paper block.” This would be when you fearfully look at blank paper and cry “I can’t do this! My other term papers must have been a fluke! I can’t do university! I’ll just have to quit in shame and despair, and then, as Pooh’s embarrassed friend Piglet would say, “run away to sea and be a sailor.”” 

So guess what I did about my term papers? Not what normal students did, when their nerve failed them. The student newspaper once did an “advice to freshmen” article about how nearly every professor would grant an extension, which nearly every normal student would ask for, at one time or another. But not me. I didn’t dare.

If I came from a pond of spineless jellyfish, then asking for an extension was asking for trouble. Not just because an extension would be merely punting my problem down the road, but because a lifestyle choice to be a jellyfish was just too despairing. My hack: To look at my blank term paper and promise: “On the day it is due, I am handing it in, no matter what.” Even if I only had two paragraphs written. Or even just the title and my name. Seriously? Yes. You can’t bluff yourself with these things, you have to mean it. That’s the only way this hack works. The subconscious gets the message. 

You are probably wondering if I ever handed in a two-paragraph term paper… No, I may have gotten a C minus-minus, but I always passed. (In fact, I was in the top half of my classes)

Too crazy? Too rough? You might be suspecting I had low self esteem, self hatred, self sabotage or something like that. If so, then… of-course-I-could incorporate these negative qualities into my hack, right? My friend, hearing my examples of how to be on time, liked the idea of incorporating qualities that society doesn’t like to talk about. I mean, unless for a textbook on managing salesmen, I haven’t seen any business books that talk about self esteem, have you?… 

Lastly, unlike my dad, it helped me when I dared to have clarity to face up to announcing to myself, even unto writing it down, what normal people call “a time to leave.” For me? Make that a “go no-go” time. 

Dear reader, I sure hope you won’t need the same hacks as I did, but if you do try to improvise hacks (besides mine) then you would have to come up with some on your own: You just can’t count on society for these things.

Sean Crawford,
More thoughts:
~A mental reason for being late to a community centre: You subconsciously fear the judgement of yourself or others that might arise when you there, so you somehow fritter around at home, without knowing why. 

~If you say, “I really ought to jog” then your problem is apt to be mental, not physical.

~A hack for getting up early on weekends to join the crowd at the jogging club: Don’t, in despair, start setting your alarm early, earlier and still earlier. Instead, set the alarm for only 59 seconds before you absolutely have to get up. Make that your launch window for “go no-go.” Then you can’t kid yourself. And if you choose to sleep in, then you have at most 59 seconds of indecisive recrimination. Enjoy your life.

~Any businessman who tries to tell you “self esteem” cannot be raised, doesn’t exist, or that it’s a ‘woo woo Southern California thing,’ shouldn’t be allowed to manage the sales department. Maybe he could be a marketing manager—No, that wouldn’t work either, for a lot of advertising begins with a smack to people’s “self esteem” (Parrot: “Squawk!-You’ve got ring around the collar.” Deep voiced announcer: “But don’t be afraid! You need new exciting Brand X, now in a new improved zip top box…” 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Learning from 2006

Hello Reader,
Got a queer view of the world?

Sometimes I am reminded this world is queerer than the painted-over flattened version I normally imagine…

I try not to get too offended at that May 2006 copy of The Atlantic magazine I wrote about back in October. It’s like how I get offended when I see photographs from our old western frontier days: complicated, messy, not like the simplified Hollywood narrative I am accustomed to. 

I even wince at modern Europe being complicated: Did you know there are six “micro states” that don’t show on political maps of Europe, or that the city of Vienna has three languages?

Here in Calgary I surprised a friend by teaching him that, contrary to popular belief, you can be Jewish and still be an atheist. (And he taught me things) Back west here, Jews are like homosexuals used to be: present in theory, but normally assumed to be off stage and out of mind. Out east, in contrast, from my reading of columnist Dear Abby, I think folks rattle off “church-or-temple” as easily as we say “parent-or-guardian.” Jewish holidays out there are public holidays, as documented in their University calendars, available at my local campus. A college teacher told me the traffic noises even change on those days—she said her friend had missed their long distance phone call because the friend had been using morning traffic as her alarm clock, and slept in. 

Yeah, sometimes we make our lives too complicated—Better to just set two clocks for getting up. Why two? Because for mine you have to set the time and set the alarm, pull out the pin, wind the main clock and wind the alarm bell: that’s five separate variables—at least I don’t need any snooze button, not if I put the time-delayed second clock over by the door.

From May of 2006 I see the U.S. is not, despite the American’s wishful gloss, a melting pot from sea to shining sea.

QUOTE (page 130, by Marc Cooper)
…The historic migration we are witnessing is radically remaking American culture, producing what some call, in a new twist on on old term, a “Los Angelization” of the country. More and more neighborhoods, even some entire towns, are now predominantly Spanish-speaking. Other areas are officially bilingual.

I am so offended from feeling, once again, “always the last to know.” To think I could have known back in May, years ago.

Getting heavy: What truly offends me? That all the shocked amputations and blasted guts of the Vietnam conflict did not inspire anyone to turn over a new leaf. You may recall the conspiracy by several U.S. government agencies to meet together to agree on a number, to tell the public and politicians, for Viet Cong troop strength. This after a lone C.I.A. operative, Samuel Adams, (yes, a descendant of the patriot, but not a brewery owner) “blew the whistle” internally to say that, scientifically, based on desertions alone, the Viet Cong should have already ceased to exist. I tell you, “conspiracy” is not too strong a word.

As writer Michael Crichton once said, “Science is not done by consensus.”

In Iraq, for the war on terror, the U.S. government was again trying to trick the public, this time by steadily refusing to count enemy dead. Call it War Without Windows. (book title) So two good citizens, O’Hanlon and Cordesman, had to glean their own count, and then they published enemy casualties covering a two year period.

Page 36 has a graph: O’Hanlon’s red line of the "cumulatively killed and imprisoned" goes up at a 45 degree angle, over a bar graph for the insurgent membership, month by month.
Despite steady progress in the killing or detention of Iraqi insurgents, the size of the insurgency seems not to have diminished, as new recruits have joined. 

(There were think-tank meetings at the Pentagon)
At one such meeting, a participant noted the large number of insurgents being killed or detained ( on O’Hanlon’s Iraq Index) and asked Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld whether this showed that the insurgency faced clear annihilation. “I asked him, ‘Don’t the numbers look pretty good?’” the participant says, “But he declined to make that claim. He was acknowledging that things weren’t quite as they appeared.”
UNQUOTE (Page 36-37, by Joshua Green)

He declined? Perhaps the lessons of Nam didn’t teach “the establishment” to stop hiding the truth, but merely to stop actively lying, from fear the truth might somehow come out. In Nam, as you know, the government got “in trouble,” getting not a tiny bit pregnant, but a tiny bit dishonored, a little bit exposed, by a great big thing called The (expletive deleted) Tet Offensive.

Some philosophy: While secret negotiations in Washington on declaring communist troop strength may take only a day or two, international negotiations can be like watching paint dry—one gets mighty impatient. A comic once offered these words of comfort… when world negotiations seem unbelievably long, let’s remember that back in the day, when a cold war chess tournament between a Russian and an American had all the front page drama of a Canada-Russia hockey series, how it took so very, very long merely to arrange that innocent chess game. The two masters played on neutral ground, Iceland, and we patriots still remember the match: Because Bobby Fischer beat Boris. (Yes, and “Canada” beat Russia)

I try not to forget, or gloss over, the competitiveness of those cold years.

I was acquainted with a boy—he would be in the background when I visited his parents—who was killed in action with the Canadians in Afghanistan.

I see on page 17, back in the day, that Britain was taking over from the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the Afghan president “…Hamid Karzai, confronted his Pakistani counterpart, Perves Musharraf, in February with evidence that insurgents are being trained, equipped and deployed from Pakistan…Karzai said his hope is that Musharraf will crack down and mitigate the attacks.” This in 2006. 

As you know, Pakistan steadily, year by year… as fresh paint aged, faded, peeled and had to be repainted… has refused to admit they are helping the Taliban by using Pakistan’s intelligence service. I guess these discussions take time. 

Last month, President Trump responded by cutting aid—300 million dollars worth. Change is up to the Pakistanis themselves—I refuse to help by flying over there to teach them what every American Muslim schoolchild would already know: “Islam means peace.”

On a comical note: Back in America, on the domestic front, women were “negotiating” in 2006. Someone soberly edited a serious essay collection called Mommy Wars: Stay-at-home and Career Moms Face Off On Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. (Random House) 

The response in The Atlantic was an article (Page 110)by Sandra Tsing Loh called Rhymes With Rich subtitled one women’s conscientious objection to the “mommy wars”

Lying in bed the other night, cradling some seltzer water, my stomach gurgling, the word for my malaise suddenly came to me: “afflufemza,” wherein the problems of affluence are recast as the struggles of feminism, and you find yourself in a dreamlike state of reading first-person essays about it, over and over again.

What? Hey, I’m a feminist! And I’m an essayist! Oh man, I’m always the last to know if I’m being insulted. But I think I’m safe, in this case. Besides, I don’t mind being offended if someone is funny about it.

…Well, that’s all, dear reader, for 2006 when an issue of The Atlantic cost U.S. $5.95 …$6.95 in Newfoundland. Maybe I should go try a 2018 edition, but it would probably have a bigger price tag: I’m scared to go look. 

Sean Crawford
2018 Anno Domini
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

Footnotes… held back… maybe for another time 

Lastly, on a funny, happy note: From the city of the first Fringe Festival, here (link) are some fun artist-hacked street signs, reported by the BBC. Scroll on down.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Intention to be Nice

Hello Readers,
Got being nice? 

My first “life on the prairies” was in Griesbach Barracks, (a post war place, judging by the German name and the newness of the 1950’s buildings) where everything was far apart, under the prairie sun, so there would be room to slap up more buildings in case of another major war. Which never came, thank God.

Unlike the weather I was used to, the monsoons could come with little warning on a bright day. (Like Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley) I remember huddling in a little corner of a bus shelter as water rolled in. I remember knee high steam clouds on an asphalt road. And I remember a “dive” hotel off-base called The Roslyn. I could tell you stories of times there…

But today I’m thinking of another hotel, an historic one across the river cliffs from downtown, that folks called “the old Strathcona.” I had many good times there, but— Now the windows are all papered over, as I learned when I drove by on my recent rode trip. (archived in October) Seeing the rumpled paper, I thought, “It’s the end of an era.” So here’s a re-run for you, from April of 2013.

Original Essay:
She was one of those happily created beings who please without effort, make friends everywhere, and take life so gracefully and easily that less fortunate souls are tempted to believe that such are born under a lucky star.
Louisa May Alcott

Or is it luck?...

One of my joys in life, as a middle aged man, is going up to Edmonton, the city I first knew in my sunny youth back when I served with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. (At Griesbach Barracks) There I check into a well-known very-cheap hotel for a few days, one with the toilets and showers down the hall: The sort of place where you both pay a key deposit and drop off your key every time you leave the building; a place where some of your poor fellow guests find their lives challenging, and in turn they present challenges to the front desk staff. Of course, they present few problems to a former soldier. 

The last time I checked in and trudged up the stairs I overheard the staff going into the back and saying, “…comes up from Calgary, a nice guy.” Given some of the challenges the staff faced, “a nice guy” must have been a nice relief. No wonder the staff always remember me and sometimes tell me what shift they are working. 

I started pondering “being nice” a month ago, after my weekly toastmasters meeting. (For public speaking) At my club we always start with a brief “introduction question.” The chairman for the night was a man my age who likes to lead bike tours. He asked us each to think, “What are you known for?” In his case, he was known for biking everywhere, even to work. 

That night I answered, “Everyone knows I go to Tim Hortons,” (donut franchise) adding “At the place I go to before work on weekdays, they always brought me a cup one size larger than I pay for; at the place I go to before sunrise on weekends, they often start me off with a free coffee.” When someone said later she wanted to copy my donut shop success I realized that no, she couldn’t. Not unless she was known there for being nice. 

When once I ran into a couple of young servers at another town, away from their home, they were so pleased to see me, adding that “you are our favorite customer, we like how you leave magazines for us to read.” The magazine idea I learned from my brother Gord.

It was my brother Rob, an owner-operator of a delivery truck, who role modelled for me how a driver could be sociable with customers and loading dock crew. (I was co-driver) Come to think of it, everyone in my family is social: we’re Irish, besides being from all over the rest of the British Isles too.

It’s obvious, surely, that “being sociable” is good for anyone in the business world, not just salespersons. As for traveling salesmen, I am intrigued by how back in the days when they were numerous, known as drummers, they were known for socializing with each other during evenings in the saloon, evenings of rousing good cheer. There was a subtle reason: Being unable to obtain peer status from the size of their houses and possessions back home, drummers earned their group’s respect through their ability to tell jokes and stories, to sing and converse… In more recent times, in contrast, we have that sympathetic Norman Rockwell painting of the lone salesman on his hotel bed playing solitaire. 

In my brother’s case, I imagine being social could mean, say, one extra delivery trip per day because the various loading dock crews might be just a little quicker and more efficient for him. On the other hand, I don’t think he would get any free coffee at the docks: There is a broad difference between “sociable” and “nice.” The term “sociable,” makes me think narrowly of salespeople, pretty girls, playboys and partygoers. “Nice” is for everyone: something shy wallflowers could aspire to master. No doubt Simon Peter was loud and sociable—it was his quiet brother Andrew who was nice enough to find the boy with the loaves and fishes.

Can these traits be learned? I would hope so. Role modelling would work best, I think. As for specifically being social, there is lots of instruction available: I often see books and magazine articles such as “How to Talk to Anyone.” As for my concern of the week, “being nice,” I have only seen one book on this common sense trait, but one is all you need: I am thinking of a man who during the Great Depression ran a night school class on public speaking, back when no such book had ever been written: Dale Carnegie. From both his formal research and from his students came the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. If you haven’t read it yet—what are you waiting for? 

One scene in the book is instructive. Dale “made the day” of an elevator operator by complimenting the man on his fine head of hair. When Dale reported this to his night class one of Dale’s students asked, “What did you want to get out of him?” 

Dale exploded “What did I want to get—! … If your soul is so shriveled—!” …It’s hard to imagine any benefit the elevator operator could confer on Dale. Being nice is not for a clear and immediate gain—It is a lifestyle choice.

When it comes to “trying too hard,” I think such error is more likely for “being sociable” than for “being nice.” A big difference between the two could be in how you set your intention: One is more ‘what do I want’, one is more ‘how can I help.’ Note the modifier “more.” Motives aren’t pure: We mortals will always have healthy measure of self-interest, more or less. None of us are saints—not me, no sir.

I guess my saintly friend Sue S. had previously thought she was doing the right thing: I first met Sue in a night class for people who already had jobs but were ready for a career change. (I was military) A few years later we reconnected when I joined the university newspaper volunteer staff. Seeing her name and phone number in the staff listing I innocently gave her a call. I got as far as saying, “…Uh…Let’s see, uh—” (“—Hi Sean!”) when she happily guessed who I was. Looking back, I suppose I was nice enough that she didn’t wonder if I was a stalker. Ah, those eager awkward student days. Sue’s “right thing” changed: One day Sue confided to me how a contrast to her previous behavior: No longer was she entering each class after first putting a little smile on her face. I was happy for her.

She said to me, as down the years I’ve had two other women also say, “I’m not nice.” I didn’t get it. I never explored what they meant by that—we weren’t quite nice and intimate enough —but I think now, feminist style, they were rejecting any silly sex-role thing, just like Sue did. 

For my part, it feels right to be a nice guy. On my good days, I like how my shyness is thereby reduced. As I said in another essay, (Man and Girl, October 2011) I try to remember my mantra, “Because I am afraid to love, you are alone…” When I’m being less shy, because my mind is on being more helpful, I feel straight and healthy: Living as God intended.

My childhood hero, General Sir Baden-Powell, encouraged his Boy Scouts to do a good turn every day. (What the Americans call a good deed, or daily task) He once wrote a note for someone as a take away at the end of an interview: (my version) “Some think the secret of happiness is to receive, others know the secret is to give.” That’s it. An old man once said his secret was he tried to live so that no one came away feeling worse for having met him. That’s it too. Dale Carnegie wrote, “I am talking about a new way of life.” Yes. 

It seems to me—Oh, how awful when I lapse into having a “dog in the manger” day! It seems to me, “learning to be nice” is a matter of setting my intention…  Everyone I meet during their working hours is, by definition, only there because they have to be—and I can help ease their path As for the ones who are not at work, well, everyone is fighting a silent battle, without flags or bands—and I can help. 

I can extend fellowship, commiserate along the trail, and rejoice with them in pointing out the wonders of the world. It’s too easy for tired hikers to just look down at their feet. I find a side benefit for myself: By having a little focus, a little wondering, about what would brighten someone else’s day… I have to become aware of other people’s concerns… while in turn becoming increasingly aware of what brightens my own day. And awareness steers action.

I’m sure awareness will not automatically seep in, not without intending it. I am reminded of a college assignment where we had to write a short piece with dialogue. Believe it or not, even though I had been reading for years, I had to reach under my bed for an old Louis L’Amour so that for the first time I could see how to write dialogue. A classmate, Joan, presumably had no fiction at home: She ended up inventing her own punctuation for dialogue! (Oh, it was crude!) 

Looking back, I wonder how many of us go through our years without ever setting an intention of seeing the concerns of others, without ever learning how to be nice. The golden rule can only take you as far as your knowledge goes. As Dale Carnegie said, “I am talking about a new way of life.” 

I suppose setting one’s intention daily would be matched by checking yourself daily to see how your intention turned out. Here’s what the Boy Scouts sing in the twilight: 
Softly falls the light of day,
as the campfire fades away
Silently each Scout should ask, 
‘have I done my daily task?’ 

In time, with concerted effort, a nice habit can become a new way of being… Such a soft, easy path to joy.

Sean Crawford
A civilian on the lone prairie
As robins nestle into shrubbery to escape the constant snowfall
April 2013

~In Calgary only the Burns building, by the open Olympic plaza, still has elevator operators

~The Boy Scout (and Wolf Cub) song continues:
Have I kept my honor bright?
Shall I guiltless sleep tonight?
Have I done, and have I dared,

In everything to Be Prepared?