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. “Nobodys 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 dont have to read the viewpoint pages to realize there are an awful lot of folks out there whove managed to turn griping and nitpicking into a full-time hobby. Maybe its human nature to derive pleasure from pointing out everything thats wrong in the world, from errors of grammar to fashion mistakes. Or maybe its symptomatic of a clinically crabby culture. Either way, lately Ive 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 shouldnt 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, its just plain demoralizing.

Thats why Ive made it my mission to practice a new approach: I catch others doing something right, and then I tell them so. It really isnt as radical as it sounds, since paying a compliment neednt be such a big deal. Praise shouldnt 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, Im just as generous with my kudos as I am with my stylists tip. If my son takes extra care with his household chores, I tell him that his effort didnt 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 its a spiteful comment about a coworkers 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 youll write and tell me what you think.”

Someday, when Ive finished grumbling about my lack of free time, Im going to sit down and write that guy a nice letter.

This essay is excerpted from my story collection, Writing Home, available from 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

Why I love haunted houses

Home is a name, a word. It is a strong one; stronger than any magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”  ~Charles Dickens

With Halloween approaching, I’m reminded of an essay I wrote about my passion for old houses. It was first published in the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine in August 1992, and is reprinted in my book, Writing Home, now on Kindle with a new preface 

Does Lurch Live Here?

Most people have the common sense to buy houses that are younger than they are.

They sleep snugly under leak-free roofs, secure in the knowledge that if something goes bump in the night, it probably isn’t the heating system.  Their homes are airtight sanctuaries of Pella windows, state-of-the-art plumbing, and bubbling Jacuzzis.

To homeowners with such modern sensibilities, my family’s 1920s Tudor-style home looks like a gloomy architectural relic, all dark woodwork and creaky floorboards.  A place only the Addams family could love.

“I cant believe people really live in these old places,” gasped one visitor who recently toured the house.

Throughout our twelve married years together, my husband and I have always purchased houses built before 1947. Weve searched, begged, and borrowed to get them. We’ve tolerated cracked plaster, peeling paint, damp basements, and antique toilets. We’ve put up with steam pipes that clank and moan after midnight like Marley’s ghost.

Are we out of our minds?  Why would we choose to live in an old house, subjecting ourselves to outrageous repair bills and leaded-glass windows that rattle in the slightest breeze?

I’m never quite sure how to explain my own passion for houses with a past. But I can trace its beginnings to my childhood vacations, when my parents drove me to Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon.  While other kids rode roller coasters in Disneyland, I snooped around George Washington’s bedroom.  Early on, I discovered that buildings, like people, acquire nobility and character as they mature.

Old houses are survivors. They possess a mystique that seems to say, “Ive been here long enough to see some things that you havent.” And the best ones persevere despite the “improvements” inflicted upon them over the decades by various owners with questionable taste. Brick and stone prevail; solid architecture endures.

I’m also drawn to the history that comes with an older house; I’m intrigued by the everyday romance of the people and events that have become a part of its mortar and plaster. In fact, buying an older house usually has nothing to do with common sense — and everything to do with history and romance. In a way, choosing a house that someone else has lived in is a bit like choosing a marriage partner:  You grow to love the bumps and flaws, and accept the things you cannot change. (People who insist on having everything their own way should design new houses.)

My husband and I bought our first old house from Gertrude Morris, an endearing elderly woman who was reluctant at first to put her place on the market. She had years of memories tucked away in her kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets, and her late husband had left a legacy of wildflowers and wayward groundcover in the backyard.

Brick and stone prevail; solid architecture endures.”

After the closing, our real estate agent confided that Mrs. Morris “liked” us. So she graciously surrendered the keys to the door that had sheltered her family for so many years. She had agreed to a land contract with us, so she was, in a way, still keeper of those keys.

I remember sending her a monthly house report with each payment.  One time I told her about the red calico wallpaper I struggled to put up in our cramped kitchen; another time I wrote about the bright pink sweet peas I uncovered during my first spring in the garden.

Mrs. Morris couldn’t always respond. But one Christmas she answered, in a wavering hand, that she was pleased we were taking such good care of the house. After she died, I heard that she had looked forward to my letters in the nursing home. They were an important link to a place that mattered to both of us.

Its been several years since we sold “Mrs. Morris’s house,” but I drive by it sometimes, just to be sure its new owners are taking care of it.

We’ve lived in our 1920s Tudor for just over a year now — long enough to see the silver maples on the lawn change through a full cycle of seasons. But not long enough for the neighbors to think of this as our place. That will happen as our lives weave slowly into the fabric of the neighborhood, when our past becomes a longer chapter in the history of the house.

My son, now six, is learning to appreciate older houses, too.  He can call some of them by their proper names:  Cape Cod, Tudor, Dutch Colonial. He is just beginning to understand the inevitable progression of time, and how buildings connect us to the people who lived before us.

And my boy has become quite the preservationist, putting old things to clever new uses. When he and his friends come inside after playing in the snow, he shows them how to dry their soggy gloves on a cast-iron radiator in the hallway. During one of these winter rituals, I overheard him lecturing another child on the virtues of radiators and steam heat.

“Steam heat is the greatest heat there is, and you won’t find these big old radiators in new houses,” he boasted.  “That’s because old houses are better than new ones.”

A mother with more common sense would have tactfully interrupted the conversation, and assured both children that old houses are not necessarily better than new ones. I didn’t say a word. — Cindy La Ferle

–Top photo of Cindy La Ferle at home in Royal Oak (by Rick Smith); middle and bottom photos are details from an architecture tour in Chicago (by Cindy La Ferle). —

Moving Mom

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Yesterday, while labeling my mother’s clothing and underwear, I had a surreal moment in which I felt as if I were moving another kid to college. In reality, we’re getting ready to transfer Mom to an assisted living residence, where she’ll soon have her own studio apartment.

Doug and I spent the past week moving pieces of Mom’s furniture (her apartment comes with some basics) along with decorative accessories, photos, clothing, TV, microwave, and toiletries. We also shopped for a bedspread and items for her kitchenette.

The new apartment looks traditional and beautiful — the style my mother is accustomed to — yet we know, deep down, that all the elegant things in the world won’t fool my mother into thinking this other place is superior to the condo she’s grown to love so much.

When Doug and I aren’t consumed by the moving process, I’m usually on the phone with a social worker or a physical therapist at the nursing center where my mother is undergoing rehab now. The social worker is concerned about my mother’s delusional behavior this week. Mom doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with her health — nor does she remember last month’s visit to the ER at Beaumont Hospital, which ultimately led to all of this. Sounding like Dorothy on a broken record, she just keeps asking to go home. To her real home.

While I know this move is inevitable and right, I still feel twinges of guilt for uprooting my mother from everything that matters to her.

And I don’t know how I’d survive the stress without Doug, the world’s absolute-best husband. It breaks my heart a little, too, when I remember that Doug plowed through a similar scenario less than two years ago when his late father (who had Alzheimer’s) had to be moved several times until he and his mother found the right nursing home. (Ain’t midlife grand?) Doug’s experience with lease agreements and medical/legal paperwork alone has been invaluable, not to mention his willingness to sit with me and write my mother’s name on dishtowels and socks with a permanent marker.

The big move from the nursing center to assisted living is scheduled for Sunday. What a long and winding road it’s been. While I’ll be relieved to get my mother in a safe place, finally, I know there’s a boatload of emotional work ahead of me. Mom will need time and patience to adjust. And so will I. –– Cindy La Ferle

— Top: Our family with my mom on Christmas night, at Woodward Hills nursing center cafeteria. My mother has been recovering at Woodward Hills following a week at Beaumont Hospital last month. Bottom photo: A detail from Mom’s new apartment at a local assisted living residence. —




Refeathering our nest

Field notes on an empty nest

Last week I found a birds nest on the brick walk leading to our backyard.  Im guessing the nest fell from a nearby silver maple; or maybe a neighbor found it while jogging and left it by the garden gate for us to admire.

Not much larger than a cereal bowl, the nest now perches indoors on a shelf near my desk.  Crafted from hundreds of delicate twigs, strands of grass, and patches of moss, its truly a work of art — and a timely reminder to prepare for my sons return to college after the long summer break.

Children of baby boomers are heading off to college in greater numbers than children of previous generations.  At the same time, the age-old ritual of “letting go” is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.

Ive been discussing this tender rite of passage with other middle-aged parents. And we all agree there has to be a better term to describe our next season of parenting – something that doesnt sound as final or forlorn as “The Empty Nest.”  Our nests, after all, are not completely empty. Not yet.  My only child, for example, still has a bedroom here at home in addition to a loft in a crowded dormitory four hours away in South Bend, Indiana.

Whatever you want to call it, this to-and-from college phase is a thorny adjustment for parents and their almost-adult kids. College students are bound to ignore house rules when they return home for summer and holiday breaks. (“Curfew? What curfew?”) Even the most agreeable families discover that this can be a volatile time – a time when teen-aged tempers ignite and middle-aged feelings get scorched. All said and done, were all learning how to grow up and move on.

“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth…. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” — Erma Bombeck

A lot has changed since my son started college. Im still adjusting to the hollow echo of his (oddly) clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind.  The family calendar in our kitchen has some blank spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. At first, this was not cause for celebration.  Id become what our high school mothers club affectionately refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”

While I suddenly found myself with unlimited bolts of time to devote to my marriage and writing career, I mourned what I perceived to be the loss of my role as a hands-on parent. Despite the fact that I had a cleaner, quieter house, I missed all the athletic shoes and flip-flops piled near the back door. I missed the boisterous teenagers gathered around the kitchen counter, or in front of the television downstairs. I missed bumping into other parents at school functions, and wondered if life would ever be the same.

Life isnt the same, but Im OK with that now. Ive come to realize that a mom is always a mom, even though her parenting role changes over time.

Not long ago, I stayed at my own mothers place for a few weeks while I recovered from major surgery. When I apologized for disrupting her normal routine, she said, “My home will always be your home, too.”  I found comfort in knowing that. Yet at the same time, I missed my own house. And I felt grateful that Mom had encouraged me, years ago, to craft a life — and a home — of my own.

Its hard to believe my son is packing for another year of college this week. The hall outside his bedroom is now an obstacle course of boxes, crates, and suitcases stuffed with everything he needs for the months ahead. Im still not very good at saying good-bye when his dad and I leave him at the dorm and steer our emptied SUV back to the expressway. I manage to compose myself until I notice the tearful parents of college freshmen going through this ritual for the first time. But it does get easier each term.

So, is the nest half-full or half empty?

Reflecting on the small birds nest perched near my desk, Ive come to believe that every family is a labor of love and a work in progress. Its a bittersweet adjustment, but Im at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our sons way to his future.  Hell be flying back and forth over the next couple of years or so. And hopefully, patience and love will be the threads that weave our family together, no matter how far he travels. Cindy La Ferle, September 2006

— Top photo: Detail from “Nature,” a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo (nest) by Cindy La Ferle —

Father’s Day

Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.”  ~Gloria Naylor

This short essay first appeared in the Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) on Father’s Day, 1994, and is included in my story collection, Writing Home. If you’re lucky enough to have your dad around this Father’s Day, please give him a big hug from me. –CL

Dad’s last photograph

It’s my favorite photograph of Dad and me — one of those priceless family icons I’d rescue if the house caught fire. Taken on Father’s Day in 1992, it reveals the totally uncomplicated relationship we’d enjoyed right up to the moment the shutter clicked.

I use the word uncomplicated because I cant think of a more lyrical way to describe my father or the way he lived. Even when pop psychologists urged us to scrutinize our parents and find them suspect, I saw my dad as a patient man whose agenda was rarely hidden. He was the kind of guy who appreciated most people just as they were, and I think that’s what we all loved best about him.

But let me explain the photograph.

Dad and I were standing on my back porch, having just finished the surprise Father’s Day dinner I’d hosted for him and my father-in-law.

Dad wore a pale blue windbreaker and an outdated pair of glasses that somehow looked right on him. My hair was orange, thanks to a failed experiment with a drugstore highlighting kit. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the maples in our yard, and my mother was anxious to finish the film left in her camera.

Dad and I hugged tightly for the shot.

He was sixty-five and grinning — despite the grim diagnosis of degenerative heart disease he’d been given a few months earlier. At thirty-seven, I was newly unemployed and unsure of my career path. The travel magazine I edited for nearly six years had folded abruptly, dropping me off at midlife without a new map. Still, summer had arrived and we were optimistic. Dad’s diabetes was under control, or as he put it, he’d been “feeling pretty darned good lately.”

Better yet, the ball games were in full swing. It wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar season for the Tigers, but Cecil Fielder and Lou Whitaker were giving it their best. (While I never shared my dad’s religious devotion to baseball, I still can’t hear the crack of a bat against a ball without remembering the old transistor radio he kept tuned to his games.)

But theres something else about the photo. Looking at it today, youd never imagine the two of us had a major-league concern beyond what we’d be eating for dessert that evening. Nor would you guess that this 35mm print chronicled one of our last days together.

The inevitable phone call came two weeks later on a Monday morning: “Your dad collapsed in the driveway. The ambulance is coming.”

So this week I’m very grateful for that luminous Father’s Day afternoon ten years ago — grateful I hadn’t waited another day to throw my dad a surprise party. I usually postpone my good intentions, adding them to a long list of things I plan to do later.  Later, when theres more time…

“Today is the only time we can possibly live,” wrote Dale Carnegie, whose work my father read often and admired. I see now that Carnegie’s philosophy is gleefully captured in my father’s grin, which my mother wisely captured on film. — Cindy La Ferle