In praise of praise

More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need gentleness and kindness.” — Charlie Chaplin

smilefacePlacing my order in the drive-thru line of a fast-food restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised by the woman who responded on the speaker. Upbeat and professional, her Diane Sawyer-like delivery changed my perception of the restaurant — so much so, in fact, that I mentioned it when I pulled up to the window for my onion rings.

“Wow, thanks for the compliment!” she answered, as stunned as she was pleased. “Nobody’s ever said that before.”

I shared this little episode with an editor who agreed that few of us are used to hearing praise or applause these days. (Journalists, after all, endure more public scolding on a daily basis than any other profession.)

And you don’t have to read the viewpoint pages to realize there are an awful lot of folks out there who’ve managed to turn griping and nitpicking into a full-time hobby. Maybe it’s human nature to derive pleasure from pointing out everything that’s wrong in the world, from errors of grammar to fashion mistakes. Or maybe it’s symptomatic of a clinically crabby culture. Either way, lately I’ve noticed that people would just as soon flip you the bird from behind a car window as say something nice to you in person. How sad is that?

Not that we shouldn’t be held accountable for errors or asked to repair what we’ve damaged. Criticism often paves the road to improvement. But if negative criticism is all we hear, well, it’s just plain demoralizing.

That’s why I’ve made it my mission to practice a new approach: I catch others doing something right, and then I tell them so. It really isn’t as radical as it sounds, since paying a compliment needn’t be such a big deal. Praise shouldn’t be confused with flattery, nor should it be saved for special occasions like award banquets, retirement parties, and funerals.

If the dinner special is outstanding, for example, I ask the waiter to share my review with the chef. If my new haircut is especially flattering, I’m just as generous with my kudos as I am with my stylist’s tip. If my son takes extra care with his household chores, I tell him that his effort didn’t go unnoticed. And if a girlfriend shows up in a sharp new outfit, I tell her how terrific she looks.

As corny as it sounds, I really do feel better when I make others feel good. Even Mark Twain, our greatest American cynic, once admitted that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.” I also believe that every piece of mean-spirited criticism we hurl, whether it’s a spiteful comment about a coworker’s promotion or a lethal letter to the editor, will eventually fly back in our faces like a pie in a Three Stooges film.

Karma can be a bitch, after all.

An impressive body of medical research indicates that chronic complainers and negative thinkers are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, including cancer. Negativity is highly contagious, which is why nobody likes to hang around people who make a habit of it.

This summer, I finished two books by an author whose elegant prose lifted me higher and made me feel like a better person for having read his work. At the end of each book, he extended this invitation: “I always enjoy hearing from readers and fellow pilgrims, and sincerely hope you’ll write and tell me what you think.”

Someday, when I’ve finished grumbling about my lack of free time, I’m going to sit down and write that guy a nice letter.

This essay is excerpted from my story collection, Writing Home, available from Amazon.com in print and Kindle editions. Ordering info is included at the top of this Web site. 

Artwork at top is a mixed-media assemblage in progress, by Cindy La Ferle

Vintage style comeback

Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” — Coco Chanel

Fashion trends are as fickle as Michigan’s four seasons — which is partly why I’m weary of women’s magazines that make me feel old, outdated, or uncool if I’m not wearing what they’re promoting.

IMG_2431But I love clothing and accessories, and have always appreciated beautifully crafted or unusual pieces, new and old.

For years I’ve haunted thrift shops in search of one-of-a-kind treasures to mix with my own wardrobe basics. What I enjoy most about vintage pieces is how they make an outfit totally personal — especially when combined with something new.

Among my favorites: a vintage Christian Dior tux jacket; a 1970s double-breasted blazer with huge tortoise-shell buttons; and a statement necklace refashioned from 1950s costume jewelry. I also own several vintage scarves, belts, and evening bags — always handy for jazzing up the ubiquitous little black dress. While some of my evening dresses from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are collectibles and not entirely suitable for wearing out, I wear most of my vintage clothing and jewelry.

If you’re as interested in this topic as I am, you’ll want to check out the the September 2013 issue of Traditional Home, which includes a fascinating piece on vintage couture and jewelry collectors. Detroit’s own Sandy Schreier, whose museum-quality clothing collection is respected by world-class curators and fashion designers, is featured in the article.

My own collection of isn’t nearly as chic or noteworthy, of course, but it brings me endless pleasure and often comes in handy when I work as a background extra in films.

Whether I’m shopping for a costume or my personal wardrobe, I carefully examine thrift-shop clothing for damage before I make a purchase. I’m not an accomplished seamstress, but I’m handy with minor repairs and stain removal — and always willing to change buttons. If a piece isn’t hand- or machine washable, that’s usually a deal-breaker for me, unless we’re talking about a couture piece offered at an exceptional price.

An added bonus: Some of the best thrift shops in my community support local charities, or are run by charitable organizations. It feels good to know that my purchases support others in need. Fashion is fleeting, after all, and I’m glad I don’t have to break the bank for it. 

 

The not-so-empty nest

It’s not only children who grow.  Parents do too.  As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.  I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun.  All I can do is reach for it, myself.”  ~Joyce Maynard

birdbellDid you hear all the school bells ringing last week? Though autumn isn’t officially here yet, the start of the new school year never fails to begin the season for me. Change is in the air — and I’m ready for it!

For many who’ve launched their kids to college for the first time, it’s also the beginning of the empty nest transition.

If you’re having a tough time letting go of your student, you might find some comfort in my new column for Michigan Prime. The September issue — which also features great back-to-school tips for middle-aged and “senior” students — will be delivered this Sunday with The Detroit News and Free Press, or you can click here to read it online.

What I did on summer vacation

When summer gathers up her robes of glory,
And, like a dream, glides away.”
~ Sarah Helen Whitman

LeBear2Summer is on its way out, school has started, and you can almost hear the screen doors slamming shut all across town. Still, September is off to a beautiful start this year. I love how the humidity left suddenly this week; how the gold splashes of black-eyed susans in the garden are hinting at the richer autumn hues to come.

While I’m usually sorry to see summer fade, this year I’m almost glad to say good-bye. Since mid-June, I’ve undergone two painful surgeries in addition to managing my mother’s ongoing health crises, which included, among other calamities, two hospital stays to treat an infection on the ankle she broke at the nursing home in April.

But I’m happy to report that things started brightening up in August — better late than never, right?

Once we got my mother settled — and my own surgical wounds semi-healed — Doug and I decided it was time to plan something more exciting than munching the salad bar for dinner at the Beaumont Hospital cafeteria. For starters, I dusted off the patio furniture and invited a few old friends for an outdoor pizza party on the first night of the Woodward Dream Cruise. (Doesn’t every gardener like to show off?)

Best of all, Doug and I made a couple of trips north to the little slice of heaven known as LeBear in Glen Arbor. No matter what’s going on in my life, I can’t help but relax when I lean back in a deck chair and stare at the teal-blue waters of Lake Michigan from our porch at LeBear.

LeBear3

The week before Labor Day, Nate and his wife, Andrea, flew up to LeBear for a long weekend with their friends. Andrea had to fly back to Chicago for work, but Nate was able to stay the rest of the week with Doug and me. Though he spent his afternoons working on his computer, we ate meals together and enjoyed hanging out as a family in the evenings. And while we all missed Andrea, I have to admit it felt nostalgic to be ‘just the three of us’ on vacation — something we hadn’t done since Nate was in high school.

On our last night in Glen Arbor, I was able to snare a family dinner reservation at Blu. Annexed to LeBear — with a gorgeous view of Lake Michigan — Blu consistently earns top culinary reviews and five stars. More than anything, it was a treat to watch our last Lake Michigan sunset of the season with my two favorite guys in the world, a bottle of Conundrum, and, finally, a rich chocolate dessert. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Sunset1With summer ending on a happier note than it began, I’m ready to rev up for a new season. There are so many things to look forward to, and I’ve recommitted myself to optimism.

There’s so much to be enthused about now. For starters, Michigan Prime went monthly this summer — and I’m totally enjoying the rhythm of writing a regular column again. Cloth, Paper, Scissors magazine purchased one of my essays for their January 2014 issue. This back-page essay will also include a photo of “The Importance of Ancestors,” a mixed-media piece I crafted last year. Topping it off, in August I rejoined an inspiring group of professional women writer-friends — a monthly commitment that I’d put aside because I was too busy caring for my mother.

If I’ve learned anything this summer, it’s that life doesn’t stand still and wait for you while you sit in the hospital or book doctors’ appointments. You have to make time for everything you want to do and for all the people you care about — before the sun sets on your best opportunities.