Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'Wait for Father to get Home.'

Over the years I think parents, particularly wily, scheming, plotting parents, have learned that for a child, waiting for punishment is infinitely more effective than actual punishment. It's a tried and true old behavioral adjustment technique used the world over by parents who well might have trained with the CIA's Black Ops Division. It's also a trick used by millions of grade school teachers over the centuries.

It's a simple, yet singularly savage, approach to punishment: simply make the child wait for his or her consequences. For example, let's say a dish is broken by careless behavior at nine in the morning. Okay. Instead of punishing the child at that time, tell the child he's going to have to wait for 'his father to get home' at five in the afternoon to receive his or her punishment. It's worse than waterboarding.

Anyone in the recorded history of time who has had to wait for his or her 'father to get home' knows the anguish involved. It's utterly terrifying. Impossibly nerve-wracking. A long, seemingly endless walk up the gallow steps. Far, far worse than actual punishment. For the mind embellishes. Oh, yes it does. It conjures up ghastly images of a come-uppence so severe, so shockingly inhuman, as to incapacitate. An entire day of imagined horror to come. If the Spanish Inquisition had discovered this technique, the entire world might be Catholic right now. All they had to do was arrest a non-believer, a heathen, strap them to a table and lean down and whisper quietly in the religious renegade's ear, 'wait till your father gets home.'

This past weekend we had what came to be called 'Carmageddon' here in Los Angeles. The city was tearing down some old bridge that crossed the 405 (LA's most populous freeway) and the road was going to be shut down for some 60 hours or so. The local press and television channels (LA's local television news is like watching a high school assembly - it's just shockingly unprofessional) were predicting a catastrophe of epic proportions: cars backed up for 20 or 25 miles on the other freeways trying to get to where they were going. Our smarmy mayor, who would feel right at home on a used car lot, was all over the television warning of massive backups, half-day travel times, crazed commuters running naked and bleeding in the streets, car pool travelers throwing themselves off waterfalls, arrogant drivers, refusing to stay at home but instead out driving around for no reason at all, causing a system-wide breakdown of civilization itself. We, the sensible few left in the City of Angels, held our breath all week, making incredibly complicated plans as to how to get out of our driveway, hoarding water bottles for the long and dusty hike over the Hollywood Hills that we might have to make to get to the dentist.

It was the large-scale version of 'wait till your father gets home.'

Well, as everyone knows by now, it was a bust. Nothing happened. People traveled normally, without any fuss whatsoever. Streets were, if possible, even less crowded than usual. No one was disturbed in the least.

And that's the way it is. Waiting for the consequences has always been far worse than the actual consequences. It's the story of my life. And it usually takes years and years for someone to come to grips with this age-old truth; it certainly did me.

I have learned (I'd like to think, anyway) a valuable and stress-solving maxim as I morphed slowly, ever so slowly, into an adult: deal with problems as they come. Don't wait until they become so large, so impossibly gargantuan in my mind, that they are virtually overwhelming. My mind is my worst and most treacherous enemy a lot of the time. It's a dangerous place to go sashaying about alone. It has the ability to make monstrous mountains from the smallest, nearly invisible molehills. It lives forever in that childish terror of waiting for father to get home.

For people like me, the 'immediate apology technique' is not only helpful, it is sometimes life-saving. It has become my ace-in-the-hole for stressful situations. And it's so easy and simple that the logic flies in the face of reality. Try it. It costs absolutely nothing, and what's more, you don't even have to mean it. Sincerity is helpful but not necessary. "I'm sorry." That's it. That's the long and short of it. That's the secret to a sane life, possibly the first step to wisdom. "I'm sorry." Doesn't matter what it is. Some moron slams his cart into yours at the grocery store: "I'm sorry." Your boss, in a fit of unreasonable fear, yells at you in front of your co-workers: "I'm sorry." Your daughter or mother or best friend or colleague doesn't talk to you for several weeks because of some imagined slight: "I'm sorry."

It is the unwritten commandment. "I'm sorry." And here's the cool thing: it costs nothing. Nothing at all. An expulsion of breath. A quick muttering. A blip of honesty. And the truth is, we usually ARE sorry. Perhaps not for what we did but for what we caused, however minor, however insignificant.

And another added benefit is this: it makes you popular. People love to be apologized to. Makes their day. Gives them a lift.

Today I'm going to try and slip it into every conversation I have. "I'm sorry." No matter where I am, what I'm talking about, who I'm talking to..."I'm sorry." I'll let you know how it goes.

See you tomorrow.