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Ode to Erma ... 'Oops! I blew it!'

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Wednesday, June 15th, 2005 — Two words: "I'm sorry."

"It starts as two little words a child puts together when he has broken a toy or wet his pants." That's how Erma Bombeck began her column, published in the erstwhile Peninsula Times Tribune on Jan. 17, 1985.
I loved her column, and saved it. Erma did not live in Palo Alto, but in those days she lived in my Palo Alto kitchen as surely as I did. Her advice to families was right on the mark. I read her column, along with other young parents around town, right after I poured a cup of coffee, and before I made the day's peanut-butter sandwiches and hustled the kids out the door.

She wrote with just the right blend of humor and seriousness to keep us coming back for more.

This particular column, entitled, "Two words that still work," has been taped to the back of my pantry door since I first read it 20 years ago. The kids are gone, but I still read it regularly.

Erma's message is too important to forget. Sometimes, as she says, the only thing that children (and we adults) can do is, "ask for forgiveness armed only with, 'I'm sorry.'"

Apologies, she says, often sound feeble compared with the offense. The real challenge, according to Erma, is to forgive.

Granted, it is hard to forgive, even "divine" we are told, especially if we have been burned one time too often. But my friends, also long-time Erma fans, and I are unanimous: Apologizing is the hard part, at least in our everyday experience.

Denial and blaming are so much easier. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we have been looking for someone to blame ever since. Flip Wilson's line, "The Devil made me do it!" makes us laugh because we recognize ourselves in this effort to be let off the hook.

We know what it means to deflect blame onto someone or something else. Saving face becomes the most important value, even at the expense of getting along with other people or our own peace of mind.

Yet sincerity is essential. In Erma's words, after Mama has heard a string of apologies ranging from, "I'm sorry I wrecked the car," to "I'm sorry I lied to you," she has had it. An apology is not a substitute for remorse or a way of cutting off a discussion.

The words must be real or they lose their magic.

And here is where Erma's simple "family" lesson goes international.

Barbara Kingsolver takes the idea of saving face a step further. In her essay, "Saying Grace," she talks about a national pride that prohibits us from seeing our country's faults.

It is, she says, "the Rich Uncle" who is usually hung up on stubborn pride. The rest of the family sees him as "being all high and mighty," too good for the family get-together. Everybody knows he is wrong except him.

If others experience us as, "the Rich Uncle," too comfortable to see our faults, nobody will be very excited about having us show up for the party. So much depends on saying those "two little words" when we have blown it.

In Larry McMurtry's famous novel, Lonesome Dove, the two seasoned, old cowboys are arguing, as usual. Augustus accuses Call of "being so sure you're right it doesn't matter to you whether people talk to you at all. I'm glad I've been wrong enough to keep in practice. ...You can't avoid it, you've got to learn to handle it ... If you come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it's bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day -- that way they ain't usually much worse than a dry shave."

Even a dry shave is not much fun (I can only imagine), but isn't it better than carrying around the reputation for "being all high and mighty"?

We can do better. Just as we do with our kids, we can give ourselves the pep talk about 'fessing up and moving on. It does not need to be fancy. My bad. Sorry. I blew it. Even, "The Devil made me do it!" is fine.

As Augustus says, we "can't avoid it."

My friend, Carol, told me about a birthday card she gave to her husband. On the front it said: "Happy Birthday to Mr. Right." On the inside, the card read: "From Mrs. Never Wrong." So the beat goes on. No wonder I keep being drawn back this simple old column: Learning to apologize is not something we do once and for all.

Erma Bombeck died in 1996. Throughout her long career as a journalist, she shared her humor and simple wisdom. But her messages are as important for us now as they were then.

Growing up happens at every age, and in the midst of changing life circumstances.

Besides, there is a ripple effect to our growing up. How well we and our children learn these lessons shapes not only ourselves, but who we are as a city, as a nation and as a world.