If I Knew Then


I didn’t know then that you’re not supposed to hold a baby over your head and bounce her around. Especially after she’s just sucked down six ounces of Similac and several cubic feet of air. You’re not supposed to do this, even though the child is giggling with delight. There are few things in this world that are more rank than a warm Similac shower. I didn’t know this then, but I certainly know it now.

Several years later, I learned that it is not wise to leave plastic LEGO blocks lying around on the ceramic-tile floor. Stepping on LEGO with bare feet in the dark of night whilst on the way to answer a child’s cry is exquisitely, almost inexpressibly, painful. The only thing that might top LEGO in the pain department is a Barbie high-heel shoe. Trust me.

Oh, and I know now that it is far easier to pick up these toys myself than it is to try to get the child to pick them up. In the battle of wills, the parent will ultimately lose. I think it has something to do with Darwin.

When I was younger than I am now, and quite a bit dumber, I also didn’t know that there are no safe answers to the questions, “Do you think I’m prettier than she is?” and “Does this make me look fat?” and “If I died, would you remarry?” Nowadays (and I can get away with this at my age), I just make believe I didn’t hear the question.

Which reminds me, I didn’t always know that the perfect marriage is one between a blind wife and a deaf husband – at least in the metaphorical sense. It took The Lovely Marianne and me many years to figure that out.

I also know now (and I didn’t know then) that the essential nature of people is to be selfish, and that you’ll never be truly happy in this world until you find a way to beat this characteristic out of yourself. I learned this by being a husband, a father to four daughters and a surrogate father to Missy, Marianne’s sister, who lives with us and who has Down Syndrome. Missy is forever a child and she is always selfish. And because she is, she has made me less so. For this, I bless her every day.

I also know now, but didn’t know then, that there’s not much in this world that’s worth worrying about. My father taught me this. He never went past the eighth grade but he did okay for himself and for his family. When I was a worried teenager (Will she go out with me? Will I pass the Regents exams?) he’d say, “What the hell do you have to worry about, kid? If she doesn’t go out with you, someone else probably will. After all, you ain’t that ugly and those pimples will probably clear up some day. And if you fail the test, you’ll just get a job like I did. If you get sick, you’re either gonna get better or you ain’t. If you get better, you got nothing to worry about, right? And if you don’t get better, you’ll probably die and then the worry is mine, not yours, because I’ll have to find the time to bury you.”

There, an Irishman’s philosophy. Comforting, don’t you think?

He’d also say, “Kid, most of what you worry about ain’t never gonna happen.” He said this to me all the time. If I had known this (I mean, really known this) when I started my business, I would have spent a lot less time lying awake and staring at the ceiling. Most of the scary stuff never happened.

You know what else? If I knew then what I know now I would not have tried so hard to please everyone in the early days. I now know that there will always be someone who doesn’t like what I have to say, or what I have to write.

Trying to please everyone can only make you miserable.

I’ve also learned that there are screwballs in this world, and that nothing I can do will ever change them into rational people. I’ve accepted this now, and I try my best to avoid them.

The trouble with screwballs, though, is that most of them start off looking so normal!

When I gave my first speech in public (it was at a steam seminar) I didn’t realize that the speaker is supposed to know more about his subject than the audience. In my case, the speaker knew less than the audience – a lot less. They let me know by pelting me with pizza crusts, insults and empty beer cans, for which I will always be grateful. Humiliation is a brilliant teacher.

I once had a good friend who was a contractor. He may still be, but I’m not sure. He got sick with cancer and he called me on the phone one day. He told me that he was in serious trouble. His wife (who was also his partner in business) hadn’t been paying their taxes and the I.R.S. was now on their backs and they were about to lose their business. If that happened, they would also lose their home. And could I help?

“What do you need?”

“We need nine thousand dollars.”

I looked at Marianne and she looked at me. We needed the money for our children’s college tuition, but that was still a few years off. Our friend was in trouble right now, so we gave him our money, which was most of what we had then. I didn’t ask him for any paperwork or collateral. We trusted him because he was our friend and we were sure he would do the right thing once he got back on his feet.

Which he did. His cancer went into remission and he went back to work and his business prospered. And then he decided to leave his wife and his kids and everyone else behind. His wife told me he said that he had come so close to dying that he thought it was high time for him to do some serious living. He took up with a young woman in town. He bought himself a brand-new Harley and I never saw a nickel of that nine thousand dollars that I had loaned him. He wouldn’t return phone calls or answer my letters, and had I gone to see him, it would not have been pretty.

I stewed over this for a couple of years. This guy robbed me of sleep and gave me knots in my stomach and there didn’t seem to be a thing I could do about it. He was selfish. And, as it turned out, he was also a screwball.

We were in church one Sunday morning and I looked at my daughters, and Missy, and Marianne. I realized how good we had it, how happy we were, in spite of the loss of the money. And then I realized that the money was a burden that I had been carrying. It was getting to be too heavy for me so I wrote my friend a letter and told him that he didn’t owe me a thing anymore. I also told him that I forgave him for what he had done, and that I hoped that he would someday find peace. And peace is not a Harley Davidson and a young woman in town.

And that was the last time I worried about that money. I put it out of my mind and our business flourished. Time passed and our daughters went to fine colleges, and to this day, I don’t regret loaning my friend that money. He needed it, and we did the right thing. What he did was wrong, but that’s his burden, not mine.

I didn’t know then, but I do know now, that we can only be responsible for our own actions, not those of others.

And I didn’t know then, but I do know now, the awesome power that comes with forgiveness.


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