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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Change, Change, Change of Fools (Or, If You Don’t Hear, You’ll Feel)

Happy New Year. I meant to write this several days ago, but fighting a cold and nursing a weak voice that has waxed and waned throughout the holiday season has kept me sidelined until now. (Sports metaphor!) A few more dozen cups of sage tea should fix me right up, though. (Sage works—really.)

I finally gave up this year. I slept through the New Year instead of straining to stay awake as I have almost my entire adult life. I didn’t have Champagne. Instead I toasted in the New Year at 11 a.m. on January 1 with a glass of eight year old Virgin Islands rum, which, by my lights, is a much better drink than even expensive Champagne. For the first time, I did not watch the Times Square ball drop, either in person or on television because, whether in person or on television, I never found it that much fun (sacrilege!). On New Year’s morning I did not watch the Rose Parade or even think about it for the first time since my early childhood in Los Angeles, where my late mother Marie (not her real name, but for many reasons, it's what we called her all of her life. So, I guess it was her "real" name... ), bless her soul, thought that the New Year simply would not arrive if one did not watch the Rose Parade. Past viewing of the Rose Parade has induced within me such a level of ennui that in some years it took me days to recover. In one fell swoop I seem to have abandoned a lifetime of New Year’s Day customs. (I did eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck—there’s no need to tempt fate.) It’s all because, like the song says, I am changing. But I am changing into myself. (Dream Girls, eat your hearts out.)

Change is in the air. Just ask the people who voted for Barack Obama. Or, for the flip side of the joy of change, ask the people who invested with Bernard Madoff. My changing means getting in sync with who I really am and who I really want to be, as opposed to what I think someone else thinks I am or ought to be. I’ve spent years trying to craft a workable public persona. Quiet, cooperative team-player? (Sports metaphor!) That seemed to be a good way to go early on in my career. Combative shrew? That comes in handy when years of team play get you nowhere but still on the bench. (Another sports metaphor! Really, they’re much too present in the language and culture. And what do they really add? That’s for another blog, maybe.) It’s hard to know how to behave when neither persona seems to get consistent good results. (Actually, I’ve never quite reached my full shrew state—it takes so much energy, and one tries to reserve that level of outrage for truly pressing problems.) The truth of a person’s identity is much more complex than binary good/bad behavior.

What I now know for sure that I only suspected before is that the goal is to be respected, and maybe liked and admired (icing on the cake, but nice nonetheless), for yourself, your real self. Not a self constructed solely for public consumption. To achieve that, somebody has to be willing to listen to you. I mean, really listen. Not grudgingly lending half an ear then parsing your words and turning them into what you didn’t say. Not involuntarily flinching when you open your mouth then inartfully changing the subject to something that hopefully you won’t join in on. To really listen to someone else is probably one of the most revolutionary acts that any of us can engage in. This is because listening to others means risking the possibility that the listener will himself be changed by what he hears.

A favorite expression of my late grandmother-in-law Nen (Nen was her nickname; her real name was actually Marie but nobody called her that; how the Maries have shaped my life!) was “If you don’t hear, you’ll feel.” It was in its simplest terms an admonition to children to heed their parents’ words or risk physical punishment for failing to do so. But she also uttered these words as a continual reminder that failure to listen to others could bring on all sorts of untoward conditions. These few words actually summarized Nen’s political philosophy. To Nen, hearing the words of others was a necessary first step to understanding your own role in the world, even if ultimately you did not act in accord with what you heard. Indeed, you might even do the exact *opposite*. But before choosing to go left, it’s useful to know why the people going before you went right.

If you don’t hear, you’ll feel; moreover, you risk engaging in the change of fools.

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